In Walt Disney’s Alice’s Day at Sea, an episode in a series of films combining animation and live-action, a young Virginia Davis is exposed to the unpredictable antics of animated characters, but escapes or overcomes them with her cleverness.

Fences feature prominently in Jurassic Park, where the division of spaces is crucial.

While Jurassic Park features more animatronic dinosaurs in close shots than digital dinosaurs in wide ones, it is arguably in the wide shots that the full presence of both the creature and the new technological creation (at the time) is realized.

Gollum’s spiderlike descent in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers situates him with the many digital creatures featured in the trilogy.

After being captured by Frodo and Sam, Gollum is kept on a leash. Frodo pities him, however, and decides to trust him, which begins the shift in his liminal status between creature and human, digital and photographic.

With the Uruk-hai we see actors in costume; with Gollum, as in cartoons, we see character, according to Mark Wolf – or some amorphous combination of (motion-capture) actor and character.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy features a range of effects and bodies for its characters and creatures, from the Orcs and Uruk-hai in makeup, to the disembodied Sauron and other purely digital creatures, to the implicitly human races (including elves, dwarves, and hobbits).

Gollum is situated between the digital (as an effect) and the performance (as a motion-captured actor), and between the creatures (the Ring has made him one) and the humans (which he once was).

In a series of shot-reverse shots with himself, Gollum defends his new ‘master,’ Frodo, and berates himself for trusting them and relinquishing the ring.


Frodo’s burden with the Ring is in part to resist its implicit effects in making things digital – to avoid Gollum’s fate.

The final film in the trilogy, The Return of the King, begins with a flashback to Sméagol’s acquisition of the ring, with Andy Serkis as Sméagol.

The transformation begins with paint make-up...

...followed by latex...

...and a seamless morph completing the final transition from the photographic Sméagol...

...to the digital Gollum. The sequence gives a hint of what the film may have been like without digital effects.

Gollum again ‘reflects’ on his divided condition, facing himself in the dark glass of a pond.

The trilogy ends with the destruction of the ring in the digital lava of Mordor, and Gollum, unable to transition to the photographic world, along with it.


Bodies colonized

The threat to the real resurfaces, however, with the prevalence of CG imagery in contemporary filmmaking – manifest specifically in the threat to the photographic image, which, relative to digital imaging technologies, has taken on a renewed consanguinity with the real. In the digital age it is the materiality or “body” of celluloid film that is imperiled. This body, which in a certain way stood in for human bodies as it imaged them, now faces an obsolescence of its own. Lamenting the replacement of photography by digital images (and reality television), Baudrillard opines,

“Maybe it is, in this symbolic murder of the image, an ironical revenge for the murder of the real by the image” (n.p.).

In the face of overwhelming digital imaging and manipulation, the photographic image finds deathbed redemption – a further irony, given Bazin’s association of photography with death (as that which embalms time), and the “living’ images of animation.

Animation has tended to remain in its own sphere, separate from photographic cinema, and even in those cases where they are combined, the novelty of this hybridity is highlighted – from Disney’s early experiments with the “Alice” series of shorts, in which young actress Virginia Davis appeared in an animated environment, to the films discussed above. CG, however, while coming to dominate animation, was quickly established as a key visual effects component of live-action filmmaking, which moved away from the experimental nature that characterized early attempts to blend photographic and non-photographic images into the forefront of Hollywood blockbuster entertainment. CG effects are now heavily used “invisibly” to produce backgrounds, remove unwanted elements, and enhance visual style. It is the capacity to integrate smoothly with photographic content that has made CG appealing to filmmakers. However, it is the spectacle of their visible presence that sells tickets and most saliently pertains to issues of contemporary representation. As with the prehistoric creatures on view in Jurassic Park, the appeal of the integration between animated and photographic content continues to rely at least in part on its (diminishing) novelty, as well as on displays of artistry and technological virtuosity. However, this is not the strangeness of seeing animated and photographic content together, but the fantasy of seeing animated content as if it were photographed.

CG animation is othered differently than traditional animation. Because of its capacity for realism and its frequent mimesis of photographic imaging, CG can much more easily pass as photographic; however, because of its more direct threat to a photographic reality, it must be kept subordinate to it. This tension plays out along familiar lines in Jurassic Park, where digital creatures are tantalizing in their spectacular realism, but ultimately shown to be a threat to the human world, and for the most part kept in their place. In many other films, CG figures fulfill the role of Harryhausen’s monstrous creations, as creatures to be destroyed by humans in a symbolic preservation of the photographic index and its connection to the material world. At other times, they serve as fantastic helpers, or simply as unreal wonders to behold – benign, but yet assigned a subordinate status to human protagonists.[7][open endnotes in new window] However, when CG figures assume the role of nuanced characters, conventional divisions become fuzzy. CG characters are exciting and problematic in their fusion of technology, character elements, actor contributions, and visual styling, as these figures in many ways embody the anxiety and fantasy surrounding our fascination and identification with imageness, so neatly reproducing the (human) body as an image within the (technological) body of the image.

In Gollum (Andy Serkis), from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), we find a palpable figure of the other, but one for whom otherness – both diegetic and technological – grows increasingly complicated. Multiple tensions and conflicts exist within his emaciated body. In addition to his troubled psyche and his existence on the margins, he is a hybrid figure existing between the photographic and digital worlds, a character who ties the two spheres of production together even as he is left divided against himself. It is the One Ring that holds him together, that forms his identity within the structure of his single-minded desire for it (a ring of power that has, ironically, rendered him powerless). And the influence of the Ring is strong: those upon whom it has exacted the greatest toll become CG figures (e.g. Gollum and the disembodied digital Sauron, as well as the effects-laden Ringwraiths), while those whom it begins to influence are implicitly threatened with the same fate. Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) attempts to resist the power of the Ring are, in a sense, attempts to keep the digital at bay, lest he himself be infected as well (as Wikus is in District 9, discussed below).[8]

Tom Gunning, in his insightful comparison of Gollum and the Golem, sees the runes on the Ring as a parallel to the combination of letters and numbers that bring the Golem into existence, and the equivalent of modern computer code in “an allegory for the ultimate in technological control … equating magic with previously unseen degrees of technological development” (340). It is the Ring that disembodied Sauron, and which he seeks for the formation of a new body. The flaming vaginal eye – all that is left of him – makes visually potent the look within his lack, the privileging of the eye (the spectacle of the digital) relative to the absence of the body (the non-indexical medium).

As CG imagery has become capable of producing photorealistic bodies, the “presence of an absence” dichotomy that characterizes the film image is inverted. Gollum, a fantasy creature produced using motion-capture technology, marks the presence of something that never was, hung on a body we can’t see. Rather than the conventional theoretical arrangement of a presence (of an actor before the camera) that became an absence (but present in the image), Gollum is an absence (an unreal creature, a missing actor) manifest in a presence (the photorealistic body that was never filmed). Presence and absence play out on the screen as a drama of competing image forms. CG is used to visually create diegetic transformations of a drastic sort – not only from one appearance to a very different one, but from one image state to another.

Ultimately these narratives are a dramatization of the transformative capacity of digital effects, to not only transform bodies, but also filmmaking or the film image as a whole. Gollum’s transformation from photographic to digital takes place in a flashback at the beginning of The Return of the King (2003). In an idyllic scene we find Andy Serkis (photographically) as Sméagol, who kills his cousin Déagol and retreats into seclusion, becoming increasingly malformed and greyish before finally turning into the digital figure of Gollum we have come to know. The sequence of transformation is accomplished mostly with make-up effects, which are distinctly unimpressive relative to the striking visual image of the CG Gollum. The final stage in the transformation is accomplished with a morph effect, in a close-up of his face, which transitions him into his final form. The close shot on the face makes the change that much more personal and intimate – both for Gollum in his becoming, and for us in our experience of this transformation. Dan North discusses the authenticity associated with the close-up, which conveys “real” information and emotion, as a defining aspect facilitated by “synthespians,” or digital characters, in comparison with the long shot, which is more often the domain of special effects in a CG-driven film. If close-ups are “dramatic revelations of what is really happening under the surface of appearances,” as Béla Balász describes them, then the close shot on the face of a CG character (Gollum has many throughout the films) has a very different depth to reveal (315).

The brevity of the transformation sequence (compared especially to the hundreds of years implied in the books) emphasizes visual alteration over character transformation, with the latter here reduced to a minimum. The gap between make-up and digital effects is also notably bridged by a morph effect, which was one of the most visible early manifestations of CG technology, and which itself visualized the transformative power of digital effects. For the few moments that Gollum is a product of latex and paint, he is part of a history of visual effects that echoes back through the annals of cinema, and which still constitutes the primary method for producing Orcs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (at least in close and medium shots; in the battle sequences they are mostly digital). Gollum's cadaverous body provides a point of comparison that makes the actors in make-up appear as, well, actors in make-up. As Mark Wolf writes:

“When we see the orc characters, we know that they are just actors in costume; but when we see Gollum, or the Balrog, it is just the character we are seeing, not an actor playing a character. The digital character exists on a separate plane, but it exists wholly on that plane, rather than being one kind of being attempting to be another, as in the case of the costumed actor. “(56-7)

There is a reflection here of the cartoon character, inseparable from its body, but we know that Gollum’s body is something more than the work of artists, for beneath the pallid digital flesh lie both the performance of an actor and a complex web of algorithms – there is indeed something “alive” in him. The difference between Gollum’s body and those of the Orcs and Uruk-hai engenders the threat of replacement in the particular way that his body is a point-for-point replacement of a human body, but at the same time sustains a particular fantasy of replacement in the superiority of CG over traditional make-up effects in its transformation of the body – in merging body and character, creating the body digital.

Cynthia Fuchs writes that “Gollum is Gollum,” without self-knowledge and with no place to be:

“Although other races are visibly marked, and certainly Gollum’s transformation is visible, he has passed into no known community, no point of comparison, no status except himself” (252, 259).

Cast out of the Shire, eschewing alliances, and, in his obsession with the Ring, incapable of forming relationships, Gollum is certainly isolated. However, as a (partially) animated figure and a digital body he is communal with other native images, not only within the Lord of the Rings universe, but also in the community of creatures and characters built up over many films that form our reading of native figures. His otherness is theirs, and this association with animation others him even before the racial qualities of speech, manner, and dress that Fuchs points out in her essay.

However, the trajectory of Gollum’s character seems as grounded in the question of how his image status will play out (will he ally with the photographic or animated worlds?) as much as what will befall his character – an allegory of the changing nature of the image that Jackson’s film version of the story provides. Gollum’s proximity to the human-like Hobbits, his sustained presence on the screen, the (ambiguously) sympathetic nature of his character, and his frequent appearance in close-ups position him as an animated figure potentially poised to enter the photographic – or at least to pass within it. This positioning, in large part due to the digital animation and motion-capture technologies that create him on the screen, is supported diegetically by the oscillatory, liminal, and unstable nature of his character.

Gollum straddles the two positions typically available to animated figures in live-action films, the monstrous other and fantastic helper, in his personas as the creature Gollum and the erstwhile hobbit Sméagol. In the scenes when he converses with himself (or his “un-self,” as Fuchs puts it) in watery reflection or in different shots separated by cuts, these two variations are closely juxtaposed, instantiating the bifurcation that defines his character into quarrelsome moments from which emerge a certain sense of humanity. As I argue above, the monstrous and the fantastic not only characterize the animated characters in live-action, but these designations make their existence permissible within the photographic. Gollum shifts between these two positions, further resisting easy classification, and this resistance seems to accentuate his forays into the photographic human world by problematizing his particular otherness. That is, if he cannot be easily classified as other, he moves toward the center, closer to the human protagonists that anchor the film.

Of course, Gollum is more than simply an animated character, for the motion-captured performance of Andy Serkis roots the figure of Gollum in both the profilmic “real,” where Serkis performed his movements, as well as in the photographic realm, in which the performance was captured by cameras on its way to being converted to performance data. This data was supplied to the digital artists that fashioned and animated the models and skins that produced the body of Gollum as we see it, linked to the voice track also provided by Serkis. Thus if we read Gollum’s more sympathetic moments in the film (in his Sméagol persona and the possibility that he will overcome the hold which the Ring has on him and become again hobbit-like) as the possibility of being inducted into the photographic world, we find an inversion of his transformation from (pre-)photographic human to digital creature in his implicit desire to leave the digital and enter the photographic – as if to return to his roots. His inability to become photographic – in the residue of the digital that accompanies his photorealistic appearance, the ambiguity of the quasi-indexical relation to the motion-captured performance, and in his appearance as a body impossible in the real world – is mirrored in his destruction at the end of the film. Failing to return to a photographically human state, he must bear the monster’s fate at last. Gollum the other, who masquerades as photographic, becomes strangely “fixed’ by the gaze of the camera (which does not actually see him) and the actors in the scene (who pretend they do, but don’t, seeing another). Gollum’s multiply raced status recalls a passage from Fanon:

“I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away a slice of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. (Why, it’s a Negro!)” (116)

Though Gollum doesn’t sense it the way Fanon does, he is caught up in spectatorial and technological gazes that converge upon his body, that produce this body that is not, in spaces where it was not. In addition to being a character, he is also a visual production, exuding an only-to-be-looked-at-ness, to appropriate Mulvey – never held or touched. He exists only within the pseudo-gazes of the camera, computer, and actors, which gives the audience a privileged gazing position, for we are the only ones to “see’ him, and he exists for our gaze. Gollum “belongs” to us, for he does not, cannot, belong to himself.

In one sense, then, he is fixed by our gaze; Fuchs offers a counterpoint, however, for she finds Gollum

“most strangely, unfixed . . . [which] has to do with his literal construction as hybrid human-CGI, and with his narrative and thematic uses, at once mythic and mundane, the repository for protagonists’ and viewers’ fears and judgments. Gollum is Gollum, but he is also, always, not. This conflict, which the filmmakers refer to as Gollum’s “schizophrenia,’ forms and unforms his race” (252).

Animated and CG characters thus also function as screens for viewer projection, and in the juxtaposition of photographic and animated bodies, the native figure is often called upon to bear the difference. Like the cartoon body, Gollum can absorb certain anxieties, such as those surrounding CG technology and its encroachment on the indexical image. Lisa Nakamura observes that in the disembodying places of cyberspace, racial images and stereotypes serve as a stabilizing force for white identity. Fuchs finds evidence of racial stereotyping in the character and appearance of Gollum, but we can also take a broader view and identify the CG character as part of a new sociality between a profilmic reality and the native figure, as they now frequently mix (in photographic worlds that are increasingly digital). At the points in the film in which Gollum becomes a nuanced, sympathetic character, he begins to transcend his “race” by sharing in the audience identification that allows Elijah Wood to be Frodo – that is, to be seen outside the discourses that other the animated figure. However, Gollum’s place in the photographic world remains troubled and ultimately untenable (later films, especially District 9 and Avatar, would tackle issues of hybridity, transformation, and transition head-on).

Gollum is Gollum, but he is also Andy Serkis and Weta Digital. The motion-captured movements and facial performances of Serkis that were converted to data, as well as rotoscoped scenes from which Serkis was “painted out,” imply a referential relation in which the “trace” of Serkis’ performance can be seen in the movement of Gollum. While this might comprise an indexical relation of a sort, it should be remembered that motion-capture is never purely or simply indexical. Dan North points out that motion-captured figures “are frequently pieced together from attributes gleaned from a variety of human referents – the motion capture data of one performer, the voice of another, facial features based on aggregates of beauty or anatomical studies, for example,” in addition to the ways in which the original motion-capture data is manipulated by the animators in the final digital “performance’ (156). The “stick figure” produced by motion-capture becomes the skeleton for the animated figure, but, following the digital aesthetic, this “trace” can be easily molded and reworked into altered performances, existing as it does as data no longer tied to the body that produced it or the images that captured it.

In any case the trace is hidden, masked by layers of digital frameworks and textural skin, and often augmented with key frame animation (as Gollum’s face was, drawing from facial reference material from Serkis). Serkis’ invisibility in a sense undermined the work of the studio to promote him as a performer, for Gollum was not only a hybrid of digital and performative techniques, but Serkis effectively disappears within Gollum through the ambiguity of the indexical connection – he is there somewhere, but where does he begin and end? North writes,

“What is more interesting [than how Serkis was taken out of the frame] is what remains of Serkis in the finished film, and the lengths taken to ensure that the horrors of a digital character are tempered by an injection of “humanity’” (175).

North identifies these remains in a list of Serkis’ contributions, but, interestingly, in a way that disarticulates Serkis in terms of his “input” into Gollum: “providing motion capture information, lending Gollum some of his motile inflections, leaving traces of some of his features” (175). Serkis himself becomes the input, the raw data then recombined into a new body, a new entity comprised partially of pieces of Serkis. The “humanity” which Serkis injects into Gollum is not a person or performance per se, but an abstract human element that is the product of the human as information. 

The “horrors” of the digital character are partly located in the consuming aspect of motion-capture, in the swallowing up of an actor into the character so that we get a hint that the actor was once there and might be vaguely discerned, but has been replaced to the extent that the actor disappears. We know that Serkis is the basis for Gollum, but this knowledge fails to fully account for either the body of Gollum or the character tied to this body (another way in which Gollum is Gollum). Gollum as a native figure is a body colonized, moved from the inside and outside by a now invisible body and its ambiguous, even ghostly, trace. On the one hand this is not so different from the hand of the animator in the creation and movement of any animated figure (especially in rotoscoping), but on the other hand, motion-capture more acutely typifies an anxiety of bodies replaced by images because of its closeness to the human body that animates it. Whereas the traditional animator keeps the native body at a distance, the body in motion-capture is subsumed – not simply “captured” after all (for only its motions are, its place on a grid), but extracted, processed, composited, manipulated, painted over, animated, degraded with film grain and blur, and finally presented as a photograph that isn’t one.

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