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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11 Screenwriters Who Hated Their Own Movies
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John Phillips, Getty Images

Even the most successful screenwriters don’t always get what they want after a film is completed. Here are 11 scribes who didn't hold back when it came to reviewing their own films.

1. QUENTIN TARANTINO // NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

During the early 1990s, Quentin Tarantino sold his screenplay for Natural Born Killers to Oliver Stone and used the money to fund his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, which was released in 1992. Two years later, Stone released the film with Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in starring roles.

While it was a box office hit, Tarantino despised the production because of the changes and alterations to much of his original content. "I hate that f*cking movie," Tarantino told The Telegraph in 2013. "If you like my stuff, don't watch that movie."

Years after its release, the producers of Natural Born Killers sued Tarantino when he tried to publish the original screenplay as a book, as he had done with his original script for True Romance. The producers believed that Tarantino forfeited his rights when he sold it to them, but a judge ruled in Tarantino's favor.

2. PAUL RUDNICK // SISTER ACT (1992)

During the late 1980s, playwright and novelist Paul Rudnick tried his hand at screenwriting between stage productions. He pitched Sister Act to Touchstone Pictures, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, with Bette Midler in mind for the lead role. Though Midler passed on it, Whoopi Goldberg signed on to play the lovable lounge singer pretending to be a nun.

After months of rewrites and tedious studio notes, Rudnick was not happy with the final screenplay because it was nothing like what he originally wrote or intended the film to be. In fact, he was so unhappy with the movie that he asked Disney to remove his name and use the pseudonym “Joseph Howard” instead.

“Good or bad, it was no longer my work, so I asked to have my name removed from the credits,” Rudnick wrote in The New Yorker in 2009. “The studio was unhappy with that, and I got a series of urgent calls offering me a videocassette of the final cut and asking me to watch it and reconsider. I refused, because, even if the movie was terrific, it wasn’t my script ... Disney agreed that I could use a pseudonym, pending its approval.” He continued, “I can’t vouch for the original film, for one reason. Sister Act may very well be just fine, but I’ve never been able to watch it."

3. KURT SUTTER // PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008)

Before Marvel’s The Punisher made a comeback as a TV series on Netflix in 2017, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter was hired to write a sequel to The Punisher starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta. In 2007, Sutter started writing a new script and wanted to ground the antihero in a grittier reality and move the character from Florida to New York City.

However, after Jane dropped out of the project, Marvel Studios wanted to start over with a new sequel that felt more like the comic book version of Frank Castle instead of the more realistic idea that Sutter envisioned. The end result was so far removed from what Sutter had written that he asked for his name to be removed from what would turn into Punisher: War Zone.

“I threw away the first draft written by Nick Santora and did a page one rewrite,” Sutter wrote of the project in 2008. “I changed the locations, the characters, the story. I dropped Frank in a real New York City with real villains, real cops, real relationships. To me, the Punisher deserved more than the usual comic book redress. It shouldn’t just follow the feature superhero formula. Apparently, I was the only one who shared that vision.”

4. AND 5. LANA AND LILLY WACHOWSKI // ASSASSINS (1995)

During the mid-1990s, Lana and Lilly Wachowski sold the screenplays for Assassins and The Matrix to producer Joel Silver for $1 million per film. Assassins was the first to go into production, and Richard Donner signed on to direct with Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas attached to co-star.

Although Assassins was one of the hottest unproduced screenplays at the time (you can read the Wachowskis' original version here), Donner didn’t like the darker tone and artsy symbolism, so he hired screenwriter Brian Helgeland to do a page-one rewrite to make it into a standard action thriller instead. The Wachowskis were not happy with the decision to tone down their screenplay, so the siblings wanted their names to be taken off the project, but the Writers Guild of America denied their request.

“The film was not really based on the screenplay,” Lana said in a 2003 interview. “The one thing that sort of bothered us is that people would blame us for the screenplay and it’s like Richard Donner is one of the few directors in Hollywood that can make whatever movie he wants exactly the way he wants it. No one will stop him and that’s essentially what happened. He brought in Brian Helgeland and they totally rewrote the script. We tried to take our names off of it but the WGA doesn’t let you. So our names are forever there.”

If there’s a silver lining to this story it’s that the experience with Assassins led the Wachowskis to want more control over their work—so they decided to become directors; they made their directorial debut with Bound in 1996.

6. BRET EASTON ELLIS // THE INFORMERS (2008)

Although Bret Easton Ellis co-wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation for The Informers, from his own novel, the final cut was not exactly how he envisioned it. Ellis was upset that the tone of the story went from dark humor to something more melodramatic. He blamed Australian director Gregor Jordan for The Informers's missteps.

“You need [a director] who grew up around here,” Ellis said. “You also need someone with an Altman-esque sense of humor, because the script is really funny. The movie is not funny at all, and there are scenes in the movie that should be funny that we wrote as funny, and they’re played as we wrote them, but they’re directed in a way that they're not funny. It was very distressing to see the cuts of this movie and realize that all the laughs were gone. I think Gregor was looking at it as something else. I think we had this miscommunication during pre-production that it’s not supposed to be played like an Australian soap opera.”

In 2010, Ellis again commented on the woes of The Informers during a Q&A at the Savannah College of Art and Design, saying: “That movie doesn't work for a lot of reasons but I don't think any of those reasons are my fault."

7. KELLY MARCEL // FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015)

In early 2013, Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to E.L. James's bestselling novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. The studio envisioned a new film franchise and hired Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel to adapt the book. While the movie studio promised Marcel creative freedom to explore the book’s characters and themes, the author had the final approval over the screenplay, director, and cast. James was unhappy with Marcel’s work and wanted the movie to be more like her novel.

“I very much wanted to do something different with the screenplay, and when I spoke to the studio and the producers and made that quite clear, they were very enthusiastic about that and kind of loved the things I wanted to do,” she explained on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast in 2015. “I wanted to remove a lot of the dialogue. I felt it could be a really sexy film if there wasn’t so much talking in it.”

Marcel didn’t return to write the film's sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, and never even bothered to watch the original. “My heart really was broken by that process, I really mean it,” Marcel said. “I just don’t feel like I can watch it without feeling some pain about how different it is to what I initially wrote.”

8. JOE ESZTERHAS // JADE (1995)

During the 1990s, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was the toast of Hollywood after Basic Instinct became a smash hit. His screenplays would sell for upwards of $4 million apiece, with Paramount Pictures acquiring the film rights to Jade for $1.5 million after Eszterhas turned in a mere two-page outline. However, after William Friedkin signed on to direct, the screenplay was completely changed with Friedkin doing an uncredited rewrite. Eszterhas was not happy that his work was butchered.

"I stared in disbelief," Eszterhas wrote in his autobiography, Hollywood Animal, about watching Jade for the first time. "I watched entire plot points and scenes and red herrings that weren't in my script. I heard dialogue that not only wasn't mine but was terrible to boot."

9. GORE VIDAL // CALIGULA (1979)

Although he was paid $200,000 for the screenplay for Caligula in 1979, novelist and screenwriter Gore Vidal was not happy with Penthouse Magazine founder and film producer Bob Guccione after he changed the film from a political satire to a $17 million piece of mainstream porn. Vidal was also very unhappy with the film’s director, Tinto Brass, with whom he had several clashes during production. Guccione sided with Brass and kicked Vidal off the set, while Vidal requested that his name be taken off the project altogether.

Eventually, Brass also walked off Caligula after butting heads with Guccione; Brass, too, asked for his name to be taken off the movie. The end result was Brass receiving a bizarre “Principal Photographer” credit, while Vidal got an even stranger “Based on an Original Screenplay by Gore Vidal” attribution.

“When I asked to see the first rushes, I was told by the Italian producer, ‘But, darling, you will hate them!,'" Vidal told Rolling Stone in 1980. "To which I said, ‘If Gore Vidal hates Gore Vidal's Caligula, who will like it?’ This was never answered. I quit the picture. Meanwhile, the director told the press that nothing of my script was left, except my name in the title.” Vidal later continued, “I threatened legal proceedings to remove the name. Finally, it was agreed that I would get no credit beyond a note that the screenplay was based upon a subject by Gore Vidal. But a fair amount of damage has been done.”

10. GUINEVERE TURNER // BLOODRAYNE (2005)

Screenwriter Guinevere Turner is mostly known for her thoughtful, character-driven movies like American Psycho, Go Fish, and The Notorious Bettie Page. She was even a staff writer and story editor on the hit Showtime TV series The L Word during the mid-2000s. With such an impressive resume, it was a little surprising that German director Uwe Boll, who is known as one of the worst directors of all time and the “schlock maestro” of movies like Alone in the Dark and Postal, commissioned Turner to write the film adaptation of the video game BloodRayne in 2005.

Turner wrote the screenplay in a few weeks and turned in a first draft to Boll, who was really excited about her work and decided to film it right away. However, he only ended up filming about 20 percent of the script and let the actors "take a crack at it" with improv and ad-lib work.

To no one’s surprise, BloodRayne turned out to be terrible, while Turner later said she was the only one “laughing out loud” during its premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. “It’s like a $25 million movie, and it blows! I mean, it’s like the worst movie ever made,” she admitted in the Tales From The Script documentary.

BloodRayne was later nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Director and Worst Picture.

11. J.D. SHAPIRO // BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000)

In 1997, John Travolta commissioned screenwriter J.D. Shapiro to adapt Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 for the big screen. Shapiro wrote a darker version of the novel, which resulted in him getting fired from the project altogether for refusing to change its tone.

However, much of what he wrote ended up in the final movie, so Shapiro ended up with a writer’s credit, much to his dismay. Battlefield Earth was released in the year 2000 and went on to be known as the worst movie of the decade. Shapiro even penned an open letter to apologize for his involvement.

"Let me start by apologizing to anyone who went to see Battlefield Earth,” he wrote in the New York Post in 2010. “It wasn’t as I intended—promise. No one sets out to make a train wreck. Actually, comparing it to a train wreck isn’t really fair to train wrecks, because people actually want to watch those."

Although Shapiro hated Battlefield Earth, he was a good sport about its failure. He even showed up to accept a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screenplay in 2001.

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David Lynch's Amazon T-Shirt Shop is as Surreal as His Movies
Dominique Faget, AFP/Getty Images
Dominique Faget, AFP/Getty Images

David Lynch, the celebrated director behind baffling-but-brilliant films like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Twin Peaks, is now selling his equally surreal T-shirts on Amazon.

As IndieWire reports, each shirt bears an image of one of Lynch’s paintings or photographs with an accompanying title. Some of his designs are more straightforward (the shirts labeled “House” and “Whale” feature, respectively, drawings of a house and a whale), while others are obscure (the shirt called “Chicken Head Tears” features a disturbing sculpture of a semi-human face).

This isn’t the first time Lynch has ventured into pursuits outside of filmmaking. Previously, he has sold coffee, designed furniture, produced music, hosted daily weather reports, and published a book about his experience with transcendental meditation. Art, in fact, falls a little closer to Lynch’s roots; the filmmaker trained for years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before making his mark in Hollywood.

Lynch’s Amazon store currently sells 57 T-shirts, ranging in size from small to triple XL, all for $26 each. As for our own feelings on the collection, we think they’re best reflected by this T-shirt named “Honestly, I’m Sort of Confused.”

Check out some of our favorites below:

T-shirt that says "Honestly, I'm Sort of Confused"
"Honestly, I'm Sort of Confused"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt with a drawing of a sleeping bird on it
"Sleeping Bird"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt that says Peace on Earth over and over again. The caption is pretty on the nose.
"Peace on Earth"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt with an image of a screaming face made out of turkey with ants in its mouth
"Turkey Cheese Head"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt with an odd sculpted clay face asking if you know who it is. You get the idea.
"I Was Wondering If You Know Who I Am?"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt with an image of a sculpted head that is not a chicken. It is blue, though.
"Chicken Head Blue"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt with a drawing of a lobster on it. Below the drawing, the lobster is labeled with the word lobster. Shocking, I know.
"Lobster"

Buy it on Amazon

T-shirt with an abstract drawing of what is by David Lynch's account, at least, a cowboy
"Cowboy"

Buy it on Amazon

[h/t IndieWire]

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