Fast-forward 45 years and prosthetics are giving way to digital pixels - for characters that require a complexity of movement and expression, performance capture technology gives a director the scope to execute their vision by marrying an actor's performance with visual effects. In its basic form, the actor will strap on a bodysuit that's wired up to a computer. All their movements (and facial expressions with the help of mini cameras and tracking dots) are recorded and translated to 0s and 1s to allow visual effects artists to build up a fully-rendered character for the final image.
Robert Zemeckis utilised the technique in three back-to-back productions, The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, while James Cameron brought Avatar's Na'vi to life with the technology. However, if anyone's the poster boy for the technology, then it's Andy Serkis. After CG-animating Gollum for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson turned to Serkis and performance capture to bring the character to life in The Two Towers and Return of the King.
Clad in an unflattering bodysuit, Serkis gave the cast an on-set performance to play off of - there were no tennis balls on sticks here, the interactions felt genuine. For Jackson and VFX team Weta, Serkis's performance could be fed into a computer in real-time and handed a rudimentary Gollum 'skin', which gave the filmmakers a grasp on how the completed scene would look on screen.
In the 15 years since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the technology has accelerated at lightning pace with Serkis the man behind King Kong's ape, Tintin's Captain Haddock and Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series. It's the latter that seems to represent a watershed moment for the technology.
During the promotional rounds for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there were calls for Serkis to get recognised at awards season for his contribution to the movie. That drum will beat loudly again with the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a terrific sequel that boasts another outstanding turn by Serkis and excellent work from Toby Kebbell as duplicitous ape Koba.
Both men delivered their performances with the aid of performance capture, but we're a long way from the uncanny valley effect that plagued the medium in its earlier years. Dawn starts and ends with a close-up on Caesar's face – for the first time it feels like there's a soul lurking behind a digital character's eyes. In the two hours between these bookends we're taken on an incredible and surprisingly emotional rollercoaster with Caesar and his apes forging a connection with the human cast, and in turn us the viewer. The film works because Serkis and the visual effects artists have reached a point where they can dovetail in perfect unison. There are moments watching Dawn when you can truly 'see' Serkis through his ape avatar.
"I think he's one of the best actors I've ever worked with," Dawn director Matt Reeves told Digital Spy when asked about Serkis. "I think he's amazing. If you're responding emotionally to Caesar, then you're responding emotionally to Andy because he's giving that performance."
Reeves isn't wrong. People are responding to the film, and pretty much every Dawn review you'll read is lavishing praise on Serkis.
An endorsement of Andy Serkis in the Best Supporting Actor category should in no way be seen as diminishing the work of the VFX artists – Serkis himself would probably be the first to acknowledge the importance of their contribution. However, there's a history of actors under heavy make-up regularly taking home Oscars (Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady) - where's the love for Serkis?
The Academy came under fire for ignoring makeup artist Christopher Tucker's work with John Hurt on The Elephant Man, which was ultimately the final straw in forcing through a Best Make-Up category permanently. Hurt himself won an Oscar nomination for playing John Merrick, and there's a probably a lively debate to be had about the merits of acting vs outside assistance for both Hurt and Serkis. It should be noted, however, that there's been a sole Oscar category for Best Visual Effects since 1963 - these behind-the-scenes magicians aren't getting ignored.
Serkis is pretty much the sole practitioner of the performance capture form, so any specific Oscar category (or 'assisted performance' strand) seems redundant right now. That may change in the future, but for now wouldn't it be something to see him recognised by his acting peers?