From Gollum and King Kong to great ape Caesar, Andy Serkis has blazed a new trail for actors with his motion capture performances in recent years. The pioneer talks us through his work on Matt Reeves’ sci-fi sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
NME: How much has motion capture technology advanced since you first donned your lycra suit to play Gollum?
“It’s really moved on since I first played Gollum 14 years ago. It’s gone from being a visual effect to a true performance – from an on stage reference to an authored performance. The technology now allows the fidelity to be so strong with the on set performance. On this film Matt Reeves gets the performance he wants and the animators and VFX artists have to adhere to it exactly.”
How tough was it shooting Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?
“We were filming outside towards the end of winter in Vancouver and it was very wet. Jumping around on logs and making big leaps off trees is quite precarious so you have to train for this. But we also had a team of performers skilled in stunts, gymnastics and parkour.”
You spend more time in lycra than Andrew Garfield does as Spiderman. What do you do to keep in shape?
“In the build up to the shoot I do a lot of running and cycling but mainly having three kids keeps me very fit!”
Some actors spend hours in make-up preparing to go on set. Is it the same when you’re donning the skintight mo-cap suit?
“You go through a process every day called ‘a range of motion’. You get into your suit and then you go down to the tech guys who put on all the wiring strands attached to your body. It’s a considerable operation. You then put on a head mounted camera, go into the volume and do a basic set of exercises which calibrate your suit to the cameras. Then you have to do the same again with the head cam and go through a set of facial expressions which calibrate your face to the head mounted camera. It’s a big process and the equivalent of putting on digital make up.”
What are the down sides?
“After a few hours on set in the suit it gets pretty sweaty so no one really wants to be standing next to me! But seriously, it’s liberating and I love it as a way of working because it allows you to play literally anything. And it does require huge kahunas to get up and do it actually because on a digital set you have to do a lot of your work internally and use your imagination.”
Would you say your motion capture work is defining your career?
“I’ve embraced it as a technology and incredible performance tool. I’ve been lucky enough to have the roles to do it with and also in recent times with the formation of the The Imaginarium (Serkis’ production company) I’m working with it on a daily basis. Our studio is based at Ealing Studios where we’re furthering the art and craft of performance capture working on films, television, video games and in the live theatrical arena. So I’m involved in the creation of tools and software to support our digital creature workshop so we can work on other people’s film projects while evolving our own (Animal Farm). We also bring directors and writers together in our performance capture space and help them evolve their digital characters using our techniques.”
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How does Dawn… compare to working on Animal Farm?
“It’s so much easier working on primates because they’re bipedal humanoid characters, the correlation is one to one. At The Imaginarium we’ve been evolving a methodology of how to play the characters in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which has taken a year of research into how to play quadrupeds – four legged animals. It’s been really exciting developing chickens, pigs, cows and geese derived from an actor’s performance. We work in real time so we have digital avatar puppets that you can see on screen on set.”
What else are you working on?
“Performance capture is used on lots of big budget movies in pre-vis to block out a story in ‘the volume’. You can play scenes out in their entirety and not have to move cameras around. Then when the actors have finished their work in a scene you can go in with a virtual camera and cut together a scene. The Imaginarium is involved in the performance capture consultancy for the next Avengers film working with Mark Ruffalo developing The Hulk and with James Spader.
How did you develop Caesar’s voice?
“It was the biggest challenge… In Rise… a lot of Caesar’s expression was through body language. The intentions were in the lines of the original script but we had to find a linguistic vocabulary to express that emotion. Caesar is the most advanced of the apes so finding the right tone and prototype language took some time because as the film progresses he becomes more contemplative and philosophical so expressing that is actually quite hard to pull off.”
With a third Apes film announced how far do you think you can take the franchise?
“We know the end result and at some point we’re going to arrive back at the events of the 1968 movie with Charlton Heston. We could get halfway there in the next film or move on only two years. It’s not really about what happens – it’s about the characters and how they get there. If the appetite is there and audiences want to see more after the third film then I’m sure we’ll go on that journey.”
What’s the next big advance for performance capture?
“A facial pipeline in real time – being able to puppeteer a digital character in real time. For broadcast TV it would be ground breaking and it’s probably only a coupe of years away… Facial performance will soon be fully interactive, it’s just off the chain.”
You’ve played Kong and helped out on the recent Godzilla movie. Once upon a time they fought each other… You know them both so who would win in the ultimate monster showdown?
“I’d quite like to see the movie where they get it together. I could fight myself! That would be an internal conflict… Obviously Godzilla’s got atomic breath but then Kong’s got a mean right hand… On balance I give it to Kong, on points.”
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas everywhere now.