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Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF
Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF

Andy Serkis On Performance Capture and Playing Apes

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF
Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF

In the 25 years since he made his on-screen debut (a two-episode gig on The New Statesman, a late ’80s British sitcom), cinematic Renaissance man Andy Serkis has gone on to play some of the world’s most famous thinkers, including Albert Einstein and Vincent Van Gogh. But not a day goes by where the London native isn’t approached by a Lord of the Rings fan, asking him to say “My precious!” in his best—and now-iconic—Gollum voice. Which comes with the territory of being the world’s most recognizable actor who dabbles in the still-evolving art of performance capture technology.

As Serkis readied to reprise his role as Caesar, the world’s smartest ape, in Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we spoke with the Golden Globe nominee about the misconceptions of performance capture, finding his inner ape, and what audiences can expect from his upcoming adaptation of The Jungle Book.

More than a decade has passed between The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which in many ways established performance capture as an art form, and the new Planet of the Apes. What have been the biggest advancements in the technology in that time, particularly for you as an actor?

Really, I suppose it’s the perception and understanding by the film crews at large and also the acting community. And when I say the perception, I mean the fact that performance capture really is just another bunch of cameras—it’s a bunch of technology. One doesn’t approach it differently as an actor; it’s just another method of recording an actor’s performance. So the biggest single advancement in the last few years is the understanding that that’s exactly what it is. Instead of putting on a costume and makeup and then going onto set and being directed by the director and working with the other actors, you have a digital costume and makeup that you’re putting on after the fact. But, in fact, you’re doing the same thing of walking onto a set, being directed by a director, and working with other actors.

The technology has obviously evolved, but it has become more transparent. When I first did The Lord of the Rings, I was acting on the set with the other actors, but then I had to go back and repeat the process on my own to do the physical capture on a motion capture stage. But that’s really a thing of the past. Now we can capture both live-action actors and the performance capture performances at exactly the same time, so there’s no longer any sort of disconnect. Another advancement is being able to shoot out on location. I think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the first film to use so many locations—not even sets, just shooting out on location—and that’s a huge advance. Performance capture has also moved from being a peripheral activity to use for maybe one or two characters to being central to production. And that advance—through Robert Zemeckis’ movies onto James Cameron’s Avatar and then onto Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—shows a real revolution of performance capture being absorbed into the main bulk of production and principal photography.

You mention that in terms of preparing for a role, there’s no difference between live-action and performance capture. But are there some characteristics you have to think about that are unique to performance capture? Like the size of a character—Gollum versus King Kong, for example?

There are two things that play into it: There’s the assimilation into the character, and the physical understanding and behavioral aspects of building a character. So if you’re playing an ape, obviously you need to do a lot of study into how apes move. But then, very quickly, it moves from the generic to the specific and it becomes about character. Which is why I say it’s not different to any other kind of acting, really. It’s how you embody a role as an actor; you need to understand the character psychologically and physically.

So, yes, Caesar in Planet of the Apes is a chimpanzee. And there was a certain amount of ape study in the early days of Rise of the Planet of the Apes—a lot of behavioral study and watching apes in zoos and then learning how to calibrate your movements and really embody that kind of behavior. But quickly it becomes specific, because I based Caesar on a very specific ape who was brought up with human beings and displayed some very human behaviors. Then, immediately it springs off into individual character.

So, yes, there’s a certain amount of choreography to learn if you’re playing a 25-foot silverback gorilla, like with King Kong. But then you ask: Well who is this gorilla? Why is this character so lonely? What are we saying with this character from a directorial and actor’s viewpoint? What is the metaphor for this character and how do we emotionally engage with him? And really Kong was about this lonely, psychotic hobo who spends every day trying to survive and any other creature that he faces on Skull Island is basically after his blood. So he’s trying to survive. Until the moment where he meets Ann Darrow and suddenly comes across a being who, for the first time, makes him feel a completely different set of emotions he never knew he had. So again, although you’re playing a 25-foot-gorilla, it’s about his emotional inner-workings.

Every actor has a different way of “finding” his or her character—for some people, it’s the clothing, others the hairstyle. Where do you start in connecting with any character you’re playing?

That’s a really good question. It varies from character to character, actually. Ultimately, you end up examining a certain part of yourself and putting that under the microscope. I suppose I do enter into characters from a physical standpoint, for sure, but understanding where emotion and physicality connect. So understand, for example, where a character might carry his level of aggression or where a character might carry his pain or where he buries his vulnerability. For me, that works as a root into a character … Transformation, for me, is quite important in finding a character and being able to say something truthful about the human condition. I am the sort of actor who reaches out to characters that are further away from me—or sources of inspiration that are quite a long way away—in order to bring me to a role. Not surprisingly I’m not one of those actors who very closely plays versions of themselves. [laughs] Which isn’t to say there aren’t huge parts of me in Kong and Gollum, because there are. That’s how you get there.

20th Century Fox

Do you think that having a career as a performance capture actor has helped you avoid being pigeonholed? Clearly you’ve shown that you can really play anything.

It’s certainly incredibly liberating from an acting point of view. I just think: Here’s a methodology to play absolutely anything, so therefore it liberates the mind as much as anything else. You are just not hemmed in by anything. So I suppose there are pros and cons. I’ve done a lot of films that are purely live-action roles, and even if I hadn’t come across performance capture as a technology, I think I’d always consider myself a sort of mercurial actor. As I say, transformation is very much what draws me to it. But performance capture is like having that ability to the nth degree.

On average, what percentage of the fans you meet ask you to say, “My precious?”

[laughs] Well, on a daily basis, someone will come up and talk to me about Gollum in some way. Or ask me for a photo or to do a Gollum impersonation. Yeah, it is a character that’s very much going to live with me for the rest of my life I think. And hey, I loved playing Gollum. It was an amazing role. And to think that a character has meant so much to people is really actually humbling.

What’s the strangest thing a fan has ever said or done to you?

Around the time of the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I was on holiday with my family and my kids were quite young. There was a girl who got very, very emotional and came and put her arms around my neck. It was all very sweet … and then she wouldn’t let go. And I mean, she just would not let go. [laughs] It ended up with about 11 of her family members trying to pull her off of me. It was quite extraordinary, really. She sort of dug her fingernails into the back of my neck and wouldn’t let go. My children were standing around wondering who the hell this person was. It was quite bizarre.

Your performance capture work has really ignited a debate surrounding CGI-assisted acting. There are many people who felt very strongly that you should have received an Oscar nomination for your work on The Lord of the Rings. What’s the biggest misconception people have about performance capture acting, specifically from a viewer standpoint?

It’s interesting. There’s still a certain amount of mystery that these characters are shrouded in, although studios like Fox have done exposés and Peter Jackson has obviously done a lot to promote the understanding of performance capture through behind-the-scenes pieces and DVD material … And then Fox ran a campaign, not just for Apes but for Avatar and Zoe Saldana, that just made people aware that these are actors authoring a performance on a stage in a very traditional filmmaking way. That is getting people to understand that this kind of acting is enhanced, yes, but it’s enhanced by a team of artists after the fact as opposed to a team of artists before the fact. And that’s the most difficult thing to explain. Because unless you see side-by-side images or footage of the original scene and the finished one, and you see, for example, how Zoe Saldana’s performance is driving Avatar, it is very hard for people to understand. Within the industry still. And even for actors, still. Although that is changing.

The younger generation of actors—not to be ageist—but the videogame-playing age of actors or actors who’ve grown up with technology of course do not find a problem with it at all. Great actors like Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page and Samuel L. Jackson will go and do a videogame, because they understand that storytelling isn’t just necessarily about filmmaking. But being able to play an avatar in a videogame is a very important thing to be able to do. Because so many stories are received through videogames now and why not invest in better writing and great performances in that world? So it is changing.

And back to your point: People have always said to me, “Gosh, there should be a special category for performance captured roles.” And I’ve always said no, really. Because every actor’s performance in a movie is enhanced to a certain degree by the choice of shot or the choice of edit. It’s not an actor’s medium as such.

Right, so there’s no “special” category needed. It’s the same category.

I think so. That’s just my opinion but I know that when I’m on the set, I don’t think the other actors are thinking, “Well, Andy’s doing a different type of acting!” That’s just not how it works. You’re still looking into another actor’s eyes. If James Franco’s wearing a costume and I’m wearing a motion capture suit, we don’t act any differently with each other because of what we’re wearing. We’re embodying our roles.

Can you talk, for a moment, about your upcoming directorial debut with The Jungle Book? I know there’s probably not a lot you can say about it at the moment, but where in the production process are you with that?

We are right at the beginning of a very exciting process. What I can tell you is that it’s going to be a performance capture-driven movie; all of the characters will be played by actors on the set. It’s a wonderful script by Callie Kloves, it’s being produced for Warner Bros., and at the moment we’re very busy coming up with the concepts for all of the characters and for the world creation. It’s really exciting. I’m very jazzed about it.

What attracted you most to the project as a director?

Two reasons, really: The script itself is really powerful. It’s quite dark and it’s very close to the source material, Rudyard Kipling’s book. It’s a beautifully crafted and very visceral script, so that was the main reason. And also because the characterizations absolutely lend themselves to the use of performance capture as a technology to create the interactivity between these characters. And to create the drama in this way seems like a perfect fit for us.

You’ve worked with some of the world’s most celebrated directors, Peter Jackson chief among them. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from the directors whom you’ve worked with that you’ll try to bring to your own debut with The Jungle Book?

Peter’s been such a huge influence on my life in so many ways. And the very fact that he asked me to direct second unit on The Hobbit was a huge vote of confidence. He really understood that I want to be a storyteller and a director as well as an actor and he has encouraged me. And I suppose the journey I went on with him with all of the characters I’ve played, there is a certain amount of having to understand a certain amount of the technological side of things, especially in the early days. But apart from that, these are great collaborators. Peter is an amazing collaborator and actually values what people have to offer and shares the filmmaking process with people, and I think that’s one of the greatest lessons for me personally.

As a director, you can be very singular and single-minded, and that works for some people; they want the movie for themselves and they want it to be their vision. Or you can very much collaborate and embrace and value what everyone has to offer. Ultimately, as a director, you’re making the decisions. But witnessing the way that works and why I’ve loved working in New Zealand so much is that it’s very collaborative. It’s not making film by committee, but it’s having your voice valued as an artist, in whatever department. And that’s one thing I certainly hope I’ll take on as an artist.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens’ maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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