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Movie Answer Man (01/11/2004)

Q. Andy Serkis is brilliant as Gollum, the CGI character in "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Given the increasing overlap between technology and acting, when do you see an actor in such a role getting nominated for best supporting actor at the Oscars? (Chris Jillings, Cal Tech, Los Angeles)

A. A lot of his admirers are asking that question. Patrick Miller of Helene, Ala., writes: "After being amazed by the 'performance' of Gollum in 'The Two Towers,' I truly felt that Andy Serkis deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal. Do you think that now, thanks to all of the behind the scenes footage in the 'The Two Towers: Extended Edition' DVD, that details how much work and how much true acting he did, he has a shot at an award for 'Return of The King'?"

And Tony Hernandez of Chicago asks: "As we head into the Oscar season, I am wondering what your thoughts are regarding awards for CGI characters and voice actors. When Disney's 'Aladdin' was a huge hit in the '90s, there was brief talk of Robin Williams snagging a best supporting actor nomination for his voice work as the Genie. The Gollum character in the 'Lord of the Rings' movies is equally impressive and just as significant to the movie's success. In cases like this, should the Academy make a special award as it has done in the past for unique contributions?"

Serkis not only voiced Gollum, but did the physical acting that became the basis for the animated creature -- who was certainly one of the most fascinating and convincing characters in the movie. But animation and robot theorists talk about a strange phenomenon that happens when artificial characters begin to seem "too real." This is the Uncanny Valley Effect, named in 1978 by the Japanese robot scientist Masahiro Mori.

According to a New Yorker article by John Seabrook, "Mori tested people's emotional responses to a wide variety of robots, from non-humanoid to completely humanoid. He found that the human tendency to empathize with machines increases as the robot becomes more human. But at a certain point, when the robot becomes too human, the emotional sympathy abruptly ceases, and revulsion takes its place. People began to notice not the charmingly human characteristics of the robot but the creepy zombielike differences." A definition on the Word Spy Web site gives more examples.

It is possible that the rejection of the sci-fi movie "Final Fantasy," which used computer animation to create "real characters," was caused because it fell into the Uncanny Valley. The genius of Gollum is that it seems like a convincingly real creature -- but not one we have ever seen before, so that its realism does not seem creepy except in the ordinary way. If Serkis brought Gollum to life, other artists fine-tuned the balance with the Uncanny Valley. So this is something other than a conventional performance, and should not compete against characters of a different nature. Perhaps a new category is called for? Beyond the Oscar of the Uncanniest Valley?

Q. In your "Cheaper By The Dozen" review you wrote that you wanted 11 siblings. Which kid did you want to be; the trailblazing first born, the footloose and fancy free youngest, or a troubled middle child? (Troylene Ladner, Jersey City, N.J.)

A. Reading the original novel over and over, "I was an only child curled up at the end of the sofa, imagining what it would be like to have 11 brothers and sisters." Egotistical little monster that I was, however, I did not imagine myself as one of them but as the possessor of all of them. It would be my family, you see, and they would have all the walk-ons, as footloose, troubled, etc. One thing binding these siblings together would be their adoration for me, their older, smarter, better-looking brother with the neatest bike and the most Yo-Yo trophies. Our parents of course would consult with me for child-rearing tips and lists of recommended movies, etc.

Q. Regarding your recent interview with Robert Altman -- Mr. Altman seems to have forgotten he has directed at least two projects in Canada: one was "That Cold Day in the Park" (1969), shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, which had no film industry at all at the time. Either he considers Vancouver part of the United States or he decided to forget this little bit of his personal history. (Lawrence Crosthwaite, Campbell River, British Columbia)

A. Altman didn't say he was against shooting in Canada -- he said he was against shooting movies there that belonged elsewhere.

"I think it's obscene to have a runaway production just because some government passes a law that gives you tax breaks," he told me. "Why was 'Chicago' made in Toronto? To save a couple of million dollars -- which of course doesn't go to the artists. On moral grounds I won't do that." But he added: "If it's a film I want to make, and Canada's the best place to shoot it from my standpoint, then I don't have anything against Canada." That would account for his work there.

Clint Eastwood took a similar stand when he came under studio pressure to shoot "Mystic River" in Canada. "This story takes place in Boston," he said, "and Boston is not in Canada."

Q. My mouth fell agape when I heard you state that Charlize Theron's role in "Monster" was the greatest acting in cinema history. Did I hear you correctly? I have not been able to see the movie. I live in the deep south and we generally only get movies that are probably going to make a lot of money. We never get independent films and it is very disheartening to hear a great review only to have to wait until it comes out on video. I was only able to see "The Pianist" on my television and would have paid $100 a ticket to see it on the big screen. This happens quite often. So when I heard your statement about Ms. Theron I was shocked and now I am in a panic over the possibility of not seeing it until it comes out on video. So my question again is, did I hear you correctly? (Gerald R. Payne, Long Beach, Miss.)

A. I said, "This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema." And so it is. You may be able to see it in Mississippi, however, because Theron was recently honored as best actress by the National Society of Film Critics and seems to be a certain Oscar nominee and the most deserving winner. True, though, many southern markets are block-booked by computers in California that can't tell the difference between a backwater and a college town and lump all moviegoers into the same demographic.

The south also seems to suffer from an epidemic of cheap theater owners who refuse to project films at the correct light intensity. This is a national plague; movies that look crisp and bright in Manhattan and Westwood look dingy and browned-out in theaters where Steven Spielberg is unlikely to stroll in with a light meter. After a recent spate of Answer Man items about theaters that (1) install bulbs that are too small, or (2) turn down the wattage to save a few bucks on electricity, Chris Garcia, the film writer for the Austin American-Statesman, did some digging for a devastating article exposing the practices of many theaters in his area.

"Movie projection in Austin theaters," he writes, "made tough work of finding Nemo, let alone any other fish, during the incandescently vivid 'Finding Nemo.' "

"I knew something was wrong," says avid Austin moviegoer Kirby McDaniel, who caught "Nemo" at Cinemark Barton Creek. "There was no way the film was supposed to look that dark, especially in a Pixar animated feature for kids. They are supposed to be candy colors!" Another viewer told Garcia: "I was horrified by projection so dim it was like watching the movie through sunglasses."

The problem is not limited to Austin but is a national disgrace. Check out Garcia's long list of horror stories on the American-Statesman web site. The MPAA, which claims to be dedicated to the American moviegoer's experience, has studiously avoided this issue. Perhaps the American Society of Cinematographers could maintain a blacklist of offending exhibitors.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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