Evolution of Art
By Sallie Baliunas
Tech Central Station – March 24, 2003
LOS ANGELES – One outstanding cinematic supporting acting performance not nominated for this year’s Academy Awards was Andy Serkis who played Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s story The Two Towers. Those that were nominated were brilliant portrayals. But there seems a confounding factor. It’s the story of human imagination and creativity combining with technology to outstrip the confines of the categories of the awards. It’s a nitrate-based film ribbon running back to the reel of Disney Studios’ cartoon Flowers and Trees, the first of the Silly Symphonies series to win the first Academy Award for Short Subject (Cartoon), a new category added in 1932 to allow for the genre of animation.
The evolution of performance art awards is impacted by evolution in technology of the medium. From cartoons drawn on cells to computer-generated imagery for digital “film”, the advance of technology shapes and affects what can appear on the screen. As a result, the classification of awards evolves.
The digital format allows special effects to be added by computational processes undreamed of when Flowers and Trees won its Award. With extraordinary efforts by computer-generated imagery pioneers like George Lucas and Steven Speilberg, digital backgrounds can create vividly grained alien worlds of Attack of the Clones.
Beyond digital scenery is the electrifying frontier of the digital character. Cartoon characters have evolved into digital implementation, hence an argument for Supporting Actor for a character that is partly computer-generated, retexturized in ways critical to the story but not possible for a human to perform.
The Two Towers is the middle part of a rich saga of good fighting evil in the mythical Middle Earth. One character essential to the story is Sméagol, who devolves into the pained Gollum. His genetic inheritance is that of a Hobbit-like being, one of the simple folk who live a happy agrarian existence. But Sméagol murders his cousin to possess a plain gold ring his cousin finds. The ring has strong evil powers, and in Sméagol’s possession, erodes his character further. Although Sméagol cannot die under the influence of the ring, he no longer lives, he merely continues as each dawn races to dusk and dusk tumbles downward to the next dawn. Gollum retreats to dank catacombs to fester in the dark with his “preciouss.” Centuries later the ring is lost, and found by a goodly Hobbit, Bilbo, who, decades later, transfers it to his nephew Frodo.
The ring’s power drives Gollum back to sunlight to reclaim it. But the ring’s evil creator, Sauron, is bringing the ring back in order to destroy and dominate the Middle Earth. Much of The Two Towers concerns the conflict between Frodo’s bearing the ring toward its destruction, while being beclouded by its evil powers, and Gollum’s helping him, partly because Frodo ignites the buried ash of goodness in Sméagol, and partly because Gollum lusts for the ring. (There is further conflict between Frodo’s companion Sam and Gollum.) After centuries of living with the ring, Gollum/ Sméagol permanently wars with his dual minds, knitted as closely and powerfully as the finest Elvish mail.
Tolkien emphasized the complexity of humans and our relation with moral choices. The good Frodo cannot avoid the ring’s dark power, and ultimately fails in his quest to destroy the ring and thus save Middle Earth from Sauron’s domination.
Resolution of the drama then falls to Gollum, the richest and most humanly complex character in the saga. The triumphant portrayal of Gollum/Sméagol is essential to the incredible unfolding of The Two Towers. Gollum builds on the performance of Andy Serkis, wired with physicality and full, disjointed humanity. There were three layers of filming to get the computer enhancement of Gollum correct: Serkis was filmed in the scenes with the other actors, then the actors re-filmed without Serkis, then Serkis refilmed without other actors. Then the computer gurus added Middle-earth fabric to Serkis’ performance, in work harder and smarter than a single sentence implies.
The result is a brilliant character in a movie appropriately nominated for Best Picture. I like to think that Serkis was not nominated for Supporting Actor because the category at present is a little too narrow to encompass Gollum/Sméagol, and that soon the classification of performances will catch up to where technology has taken humans.