Could a monkey win an Oscar? Save your sarcastic remarks about the state of Hollywood -- this is a very pressing question.
The monkey at hand, of course, is not a real life primate, which is why it's a real debate in the first place. Unlike many summer blockbusters, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" delivered not only breathtaking special effects but a well-received and effective narrative as well. And while James Franco was the film's above-the-line star, the real emotional heart of the film was Caesar, the hyper-intelligent chimp played, with the help of groundbreaking digital technology, by Andy Serkis.
The British actor has become something of a test subject for Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, the special-effects house that has perfected motion capture technology. That's the process of digitally replacing an actor with stunningly real computer graphics -- think "Avatar" and "Lord of the Rings." Serkis had achieved modest success on British television in his merely human form, but it was a meeting with Jackson ahead of the first "LOTR" movie that would change his life, as well as revolutionize our expectations for what film can achieve.
"Apes" moved the ball further forward, placing new demands on both the technology and the performers. After all, even the biggest JRR Tolkien fan couldn't say precisely what a Gollum looked or acted like. Apes, on the other hand, would demand striking accuracy.
Visually, the film is unparalleled, with the apes' faces conveying subtle emotion and strands of fur dancing on wind while swinging from branch to branch. But ask those involved in the process about the technology it took to achieve such effects, and you're instantly pushed toward the conversation about the man beneath the stunning digital fur.
Sure, Weta Digital director Joe Letteri acknowledges, there are aspects of performance that needed to be adjusted, given the physical differences. But Letteri insists that, without the hard work and talent of his star, no amount of special effects could create such a convincing primate.
""It really comes down to, forget you're wearing a suit, forget you're in this situation where everything is trying to record your performance," Letteri recently told The Huffington Post. "Before the audience could believe that Caesar was real, James and [co-stars] Freida [Pinto] and John [Lithgow] and everyone in the scene had to believe that Andy was Caesar."
That, Serkis said, didn't require just studying chimpanzees, though he spent an extensive amount of time doing so. The true challenge was finding a way to be a super-smart monkey, not just some hairy beast swinging from a tree.
"Apart from the ape movements and behavior, chimpanzee behavior, for my journey in this movie, it was only a part of it," he said. "Because it was more about his emotional development, his physical, his kind of cognitive development, I was studying as well as apes, I was studying gifted children, children who played piano in church at the age of four, who were advanced beyond their years."
So, the question becomes, is studying chimp behavior that much different from studying human behavior? And if the answer is no, does that make Serkis, as the heart of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," worthy of Oscar consideration in a major acting category?
"I think a lot of people don't really understand how much that performance comes through," Letteri said, "and what the idea of performance really means, but it does cause you to start questioning it: what exactly is a performance? And to me, it's the physical and emotional force that drives the character, and at some point you just have to say, I'm moved by it, so that's a good performance."
There will soon be a large crop of stars hoping to make the similar argument with help from Weta's labs. Sam Worthington will reprise his blue alien role in two coming "Avatar" sequels, while Jackson and Spielberg are co-helming a two-part "Tintin" adaptation that sees major stars such as Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg climbing into digi-suits that render them a strange blend of life-like and cartoonish on screen.
As for Serkis himself, he's less concerned with the award for his past achievements than the brave new future that the technology -- his technology -- offers to filmmakers and actors.
"When I was a theater actor, when I started acting, that's what I loved about the art of acting, is that you could totally inhabit the mindset, the physicality of the human being or creature," he said. "So this enables you to do that to the nth degree."That's just about as technical as Serkis is willing to go in casual conversation; he's hoping the performance speaks for itself.