Andy Serkis, king of motion capture, on his Netflix movie ‘Mowgli’

"It is the performance that either moves the audience or it doesn't. Acting doesn't exist in isolation."

For the past 25 years Andy Serkis has dominated the big screen, both as the king of motion capture becoming a household name in roles like Gollum and Kong, and in his physical form in blockbusters like ‘Black Panther’. But now he’s hopped behind the camera as director and producer of ‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’. A retelling of the Rudyard Kipling classic, this has been somewhat of a passion project for Serkis. Having to push through a lengthy production process, and then contending with Disney’s live action adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’, which caused his film to be pushed back.

But even when original distributors Warner Bros. sold the rights to Netflix, Serkis persevered, and now five years on from the first talks about the film, it’s dropped globally onto small screens in 190 countries. A few days before the film’s release we meet Serkis in a fancy London hotel, where he remained optimistic about the film’s home on Netflix.

“At first [when he found out the film was being sold to Netflix], of course, there was a sense of readjustment and I was surprised because we had already started promoting it and we had a release date. But in actual fact, the more I thought about, the more it made total sense for this movie because I always thought that this film would always have a much better international audience”

The director chalks it down to the rapidly changing movie business: “The thing is the landscape of film is changing so drastically… Apart from the huge blockbuster movies – the Marvel’s, the Star Wars, all of those films seemed that cinema audiences were very much disappearing with the building of the streaming services that was coming along.”

We sat down with Serkis to discuss motion capture with the stars, and put to bed those Lord of the Rings rumours.

Do you think you would have directed the film in any way differently if you had known from the beginning that it would be shown on a smaller screen?

“No. In actual fact, the one thing I did want to do was to spend a lot of time focusing on the animals in close-up. So, actually I think it works really well on a smaller screen because 70% of this movie is getting right into the faces of these animals so you can read their emotions. There are lots of big wide shots but it doesn’t focus on the spectacle of the jungle, it focuses on the drama. It is a drama. It was always intended for it to be a drama with animals as actors, in fact there’s a lot of talking head scenes in this movie so, it doesn’t really lose anything at all.”

How is technology and CGI changing the role of director?

“The performance capture technology is something that I am at home with, for many years as an actor and director too. In terms of virtual production there’s a whole suite of tools that are available to directors when they’re building big projects like this. It just seems to get better and better. The technology of performance capture is becoming less invasive to the actor so that you’re not aware of it so much. I think that in the future the head-mounted cameras will go, all of that will go and it will basically be just a lot more cameras just capturing the face – which would be good because those things are a little bit invasive when filming close-up, personal scenes.”

There’s a lot said about the challenges of motion capture for an actor but what about as a director, is it difficult to pass on your vision?

“The thing is there isn’t really a mystery of performance capture. It’s not like you have to learn a whole new craft of acting – it’s pure acting. The technology is there to capture the performance in a different way rather than just the actual film cameras you’re shooting with. It’s capturing the entire performance in 360 degrees. I mean, obviously, if you’re playing an animal and not a human being then you’ll have to do a certain amount of research into behaviour, physicality, into the way they operate, the same way you would research what a banker would do but just studying a hyena instead. But then you kind of go, “I’m not just studying any hyena or any banker. Who is the character?” And that’s what actors do. They build character. I think what interested a lot of our cast was to be able to use technology that allowed them to play further away from themselves than what they’re used to playing.”

Do you think The Academy will start considering awards for actors who work with performance capture?

“I know The Academy this year that they are widening their remit with what is considered award-worthy performances, which includes performance capture and voice work in animation. Really, if you’re moved by a character it shouldn’t be about putting on make up or lots of layers of prosthetic make up, like Gary Oldman in ‘The Darkest Hour’, or if you’re wearing a performance capture suit with markers on your face. It is the performance that either moves the audience or it doesn’t. Acting doesn’t exist in isolation. As an actor you’re dependent on the costumes that are designed for you, the make up that is designed for you, (in terms of CG) the artist who is going to take your performance and put it on a CG character. It’s such a pure form of acting, performance capture, you don’t have the assistance on set of costume and makeup you’re drawing from yourself.”

Have you been approached at all to appear in the Lord of the Rings TV show and reprise the role of Gollum?

“No I haven’t.”

Would you ever be interested in doing that?

“I don’t think so. I feel like that chapter for me, I have very happily been part of, but it’s time for a new generation to take that.”

Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle is on Netflix on now.