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Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF

Andy Serkis On Performance Capture and Playing Apes

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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.