Q&A: 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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July 12, 2014 - 6:30pm
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