With his stunning work as lead chimp Caesar in Rupert Wyatt’s impressive Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Andy Serkis shows once again that, in the world of digital performance capture, he remains the expert of choice.
Currently on hiatus from his work as second unit director on Peter Jackson’s two Hobbit movies, we caught up with Serkis to talk about his work as Apes, the differences between playing King Kong and Caesar, and what to expect from the upcoming Tintin movie.
Are we reaching a point now where the performance capture work you’re known for is coming to be seen as a legitimate branch of the acting profession, rather than as an adjunct of the effects business?
I hope so. In my mind, I’ve never drawn the distinction between playing a live-action role or a performance capture role. One has to be clear: the acting part of the process is exactly the same. It’s just the way the characters are costumed and made up that’s different. For example, take John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man. Here’s an actor who goes into work in the morning, has a team of artists completely disguise him under that John Merrick make-up work, and then he goes on set and shoots the scene.
In performance capture, it’s exactly the same, except the effects guys are applying a digital make-up some months down the line. There really is no difference. Acting is acting, and hopefully the perception is changing.You’re described in the production notes as “The world’s foremost performance capture artist”. How does that make you feel?
I don’t even consider that to be true, to be honest. I consider myself an actor who uses a technology to act. I don’t even see it as a specialised form of acting. Any actor could do what I’m doing, although there are actors who would be terrified, because they feel it has to be their face on-screen. Proper actors like Willem Defoe and John Malkovich totally get it because they can see the liberation in it.
You’re playing a chimpanzee with progressively more human characteristics, how did you approach that?
I initially thought of Caesar as being this sort of prodigy child who could play piano concertos at the age of four, or work out complicated mathematical equations when he’s six. But it was tricky to get a handle on. And then there’s the physical change. When does Caesar become bipedal?
By the end of the film, he’s standing at roughly the same stature as James (Franco), but how do we portray that without over anthropomorphising him, so that he’s not too human and remains animal? Those were the things Rupert (Wyatt) and I had to work out in every single scene.
Why would I do that? One’s a twenty-five-foot gorilla and one’s a three-and-a-half-foot ring junkie! Saying that, Caesar’s a hybrid. He’s not a pure chimp. He’s been living with humans and can speak via sign language, but he also has huge emotional intelligence.
Personally, I think that’s the underlying theme of this film: empathy. The strange lesson that Will (Franco) learns is that he’s made more human by contact with Caesar, while Caesar has to find empathy with his own kind, who are a bunch of dysfunctional prison inmates, and lead them not by strength but by using his wit and intelligence.
Does that mean you didn’t do as much research for Caesar as compared to something like King Kong?
That’s right, because Kong was one hundred per cent gorilla. Every movement in that film was about a human connecting with this huge beast who was one hundred per cent ‘other’. Kong basically looks at Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) three times in that movie. It’s all about the disconnect and him being this lonely, psychotic hobo who can’t connect with other people. Caesar can. That’s not difficult for him. He’s loved and nurtured, and grows up being able to communicate. He has no language to communicate with his own species, but with humans he’s fine.
Oliver was the touchstone character for us. He had this extraordinary existence where people believed he was this missing link between man and ape. He was subjected to all these scientific experiments to check out his DNA, but at the same time became this weird media freak where he was flown around the world in the front of planes, given cigars to smoke and dressed up in dinner suits.
And then, when he was proved to not be a hybrid, he was thrown in a cage and psychologically destroyed by that.
Was part of the attraction of playing Caesar the ability to create and map the life of a character from infant to adult in a way that would be impossible in a live-action performance?
Yeah, most definitely. When you think about the arc of that role, it’s a huge ask, and a massive challenge. In many ways, I think it’s one of the most complicated roles I’ve played, because you haven’t got dialogue to explain your thought processes as you’re going along. It’s all done with body language and eye contact.
Yeah, I think you’re right.
How difficult was that to achieve?
Again, we had great actors playing the other roles. Karin Konoval, a great actress, played Maurice the orangutan. She was brilliant, and thoroughly researched orangutan behaviour to give that performance. Then there was Terry Notary – an ex Cirque du Soleil performer – who was the movement coach, and ended up teaching all the other ape actors how to move and behave.
But, yeah, basically the scenes inside the prison are nuanced, big storytelling moments with no dialogue, so you couldn’t have done them any other way. You had to have actors playing those roles.In the ten years or so of you working on performance-capture roles, what have been the biggest technical advances?
The biggest advances have come from being able to play these parts on live-action sets. The next big change will be getting rid of the head mounted cameras because they are quite invasive. But if you go back to Lord Of The Rings, yes, I would be on set, and my performance would be filmed on 35mm film, but I’d then go back separately on a small motion-capture stage and film it again, separately.
The big change with Kong was the use of facial capture technology, where you’re physically driving the digital mask of the character. Avatar then took all that on and developed the ability to work with multiple actors on a performance capture stage, whereas by the time you get to Apes, we’re shooting multiple actors on a live-action set. That’s the main progression.Has your exposure to this side of filmmaking helped you move into directing?
Absolutely. I was in a very unique position, straddling two worlds. Before I was an actor, I studied visual arts, so I’ve always had a visual perspective on things, and I’ve always been interested in film. I’ve wanted to direct for a long time, but having worked with the animators and the effects teams has undoubtedly helped me and Peter [Jackson] asking me to direct second unit on The Hobbit… well, that wouldn’t have been the case if I’d just been a regular actor.How’s your studio The Imaginarium coming along?
We’re fully invested now, and at the moment, we’re putting together the technology and the crew, and we should be up and running early next year. Part of our remit is that we’re a producing studio, so we’ve got two films, a TV series idea and a live theatre show that we’re developing. But then there’s also the academy side and the R&D element, where we’re trying to both further the technology, as well as teach the necessary techniques to young acting students.
Tintin is out at Christmas. What was it like making that?
That was brilliant. We had a great time on that with Peter and Steven [Spielberg] both bouncing off each other. They’re just so passionate about what they’re doing, and definitely found the right way to bring Herge’s world to life. Steven originally wanted to do it live-action, but you’d totally lose Herge’s style, the energy of his line drawings and that strange, absurdist humour of his.
And what about Captain Haddock being Scottish in the movie?
Well, it’s kind of worked out that he’s like a 1930s Rab C Nesbitt who discovers that he’s related to Prince Charles! Making him Scottish takes him even further away from his ancestry, which is quite fun and works in the film. And besides, Archibald Haddock sounds like a good, old-fashioned Scottish Presbyterian name to me!
Andy Serkis, thank you very much!