The rise of 'synthespians'

He's spent 2-1/2 years being filmed, but Andy Serkis won't get any face time on screen.

Or foot or hand or torso time, for that matter.

Yet he's being talked about as a possible Oscar nominee for his role in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," the second in the fantasy film trilogy, which opens Wednesday.

Mr. Serkis is the human actor behind the computer-generated (CG) character Gollum, a wizened Hobbit who's part manlike, part evil beast. More than just giving voice to the character, Serkis provided all its movements and facial expressions, which were later "painted over" by animators.

Gollum, who plays a large role in the story, is torn by inner conflict and must express a range of emotions as he interacts with humans.

He's "a major achievement by anyone's standards" among CG characters, says Don Shay, the publisher of Cinefex, a magazine for movie special-effects fans.

As the skills of computer animators sharpen, and the cost of animation software and hardware plummets, "Synthespians" are coming to the screen more often and in more prominent roles.

Already this year has seen Yoda of "Star Wars" fame become a high-flying, lightsaber-wielding CG character who some viewers thought was the most "alive" member of the cast of "Episode 11." And the second "Harry Potter" movie features "Dobby," the house elf, who was convincing enough that reviewers rarely singled him out for comment among the film's many special effects.

And coming movies such as "The Hulk" and "The Polar Express" may push the state of the art yet further. In "Polar Express," due out in 2004 or 2005, all the characters will be CG, though based on the work of real actors. Tom Hanks's character as a boy will combine elements of the adult Hanks morphed into how he might have looked as a child, according to published reports.

For years, Hollywood has debated the value of photo-realistic "synthespians," actors who wouldn't grow old, ask for a bigger trailer, or demand huge salaries. Last summer, the movie "Simone" took a mostly humorous look at the issue, with Al Pacino playing a producer trying to hide the fact that his beautiful new star exists only inside a computer.

Synthespian stars?

While some animators are excited about the prospect of creating "synthespians" who could pass for human actors, others are asking, "What's the point?" since real actors are already available. The spectacular failure of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" in 2001, whose cast was entirely made up of human-looking CG characters, seems to have cooled Hollywood's interest in large roles for synthespians for the moment.

"Everyone knows what a human being looks like. It's very, very difficult to take a computer-generated character and duplicate that," Shays says. Photos of characters from "Final Fantasy" looked "staggeringly" real, he says. But setting them in motion means their behavior, lip synch, skin texture, hair, and every other subtle element has to be just right. The human eye can detect even the slightest flaw.

"It's very difficult to pull off," Shays says. "I'm sure it'll happen someday. It's just a matter of now it's extremely time-consuming and expensive."

While it is unclear if that will ever happen, observers point out that the use of CG images are already proliferating on movie screens in more subtle ways. One growing use of CG characters is in crowd scenes.

For the battle scenes in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a digital effects program called "Massive" allows thousands of characters in the background to move about randomly based on a set of rules programmed into them (much like the characters in many video games), saving the need to hire and outfit thousands of extras.

"This is a medium still in its infancy," says Daniel Robichaud, the animation supervisor who designed the ill-fated digital extras in "Titanic," and "The Scorpion King." "You're going to see more and more ... digital animation in moviemaking."

While some animators will remain fascinated by the challenge of creating humanlike CG characters, Heather Kenyon, editor in chief of Animation World Network (www.awn.com), says the real potential of CG animation is to create new creatures, not imitate humans. "All these new digital films allow the artists, the directors, the writers, to tell the stories that they really want to tell."

Erasing memories of Jar Jar...

The character of Gollum is a far cry from the insipid CG character of Jar Jar Binks in the recent "Star Wars" films. Gollum's role has an almost Shakespearean complexity. The inner conflict between the innocent Hobbit named Sméagol that he once was, and the skeletal, unscrupulous fiend he has become through possession of a mystical and evil ring, infuses the performance with dramatic tension.

To create Gollum, each scene had to be shot three different ways. First Serkis played the role himself with the other live actors. Then the scene was shot again without him. Finally, he played the role alone, wearing a bodysuit covered with sensors. Twenty-five cameras recorded his movements from various angles, including his facial expressions, and fed them into a computer. His movements and expressions then became the basis for the digital Gollum, who was inserted into each scene.

Serkis says he'd be "extremely flattered" if he were nominated for an Oscar. The Academy Awards press office has confirmed that Serkis will be eligible for nomination, despite his physical absence from the screen.

"We kind of talk about it in terms of the performance John Hurt gave in 'Elephant Man,' " says Serkis. In the 1981 film, Hurt was nominated for Best Actor despite being unrecognizable beneath his makeup. "He gave [the character] a voice and a physicality but was completely disguised by the prosthetics. And this in many ways is similar."

Serkis, a respected British actor, will be seen in the third film of the series as Sméagol, the young Hobbit. "Sméagol looks like my 2-1/2-year-old son," Serkis says, "and Gollum looks like my dad, bless him."

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