Performance capture, Serkis, movies, videogames and Apes

The James Clayton column: James explores the path to Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and where we might be heading next...

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a film about apes. The title isn’t misleading or a metaphor or anything. This is a movie about primates and though there are human protagonists sharing screentime and functioning as significant pieces in the plot, it’s very much an ape affair. Key characters – Caesar, Cornelia, Koba – are all chimpanzees.

Actually, that’s not completely true. In fact it’s a damn dirty ape lie for Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a work of great deception. This fresh bestial blockbuster employs the most state-of-art moviemaking technology to achieve its trickery, ironically bringing the primitive world to visceral life on screen by using the most advanced techniques available.

The truth about those convincing, hyper-real chimpanzees? Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, Cornelia is played by Judy Greer and it’s Toby Kebbell who’s taking on the role of the scarred bonobo chimp Koba. They are all human actors pretending to be highly-advanced apes in an artistic performance to be exhibited on cinema screens.

(You could say that these human actors are ‘monkeying around’ but then you’d be incorrect because apes are not monkeys. They’re two different orders of simian species so please don’t make an all-too-common biological boo-boo and upset a chimp by referring to her as a monkey or vice-versa. I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way. Now, back to the main monkey business which is not really monkey business…)

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Motion capture – or ‘performance capture’, as the team prefer – is the means through which Serkis and his gifted, committed co-stars become believable apes. If you’re not familiar with mo-cap, here’s how it basically works in layman’s/laywoman’s/laychimp’s terms – actors put on tight lycra suits festooned with bright little balls. Looking like an F-grade superhero or a ninja who’s crashed into both a glue factory and a table tennis tournament within the space of a few minutes – I’m sure there’s a brilliant Jackie Chan movie pitch in here somewhere – they then go to work and get physical.

They act and put in an expressive performance, their motions and body language captured by cameras. Subsequently said motions are carefully handled in post-production and digital special effects teams use that performance as the framework on which to render new computer-generated cosmetic features – the cosmetic features of an entity that is most likely not human or not what we’d recognise in reality as a conventional human being.

So it is with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes just as it was with its predecessor, the 2011 franchise reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. As a matter of fact, if we fly back all the way to the 1960s we can see that this series has always been a special effects pioneer, right from the groundbreaking prosthetics produced by John Chambers for the original Planet Of The Apes.

(Also renowned as the inventor of Spock’s signature ears, Chambers would go on to play a key role in ‘The Canadian Caper’ that facilitated the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. This operation – immortalised on screen in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo with John Goodman playing the legendary make-up artist – makes for a thrilling tale but I can’t help but feel the escape plot would have been improved with a few chimpanzee disguises.)

Alongside fellow simian-starring ’60s sci-fi masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes took audiences into a new age of visual effects and boldly went where no man had gone before (specifically, into apehood). Before Kubrick’s ‘The Dawn of Man’ sequence and Charlton Heston’s first encounter with the damned dirty apes of that disturbing, desolate planet, movie primates were either stop-motion models (King Kong and Mighty Joe Young) or bona fide ape actors (like the numerous chimps who played Cheeta in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films).

Now, however, the primates were portrayed by people like Roddy McDowall and it highlighted how filmmakers could draw even more profound, dramatically striking performances from animal characters while simultaneously exercising a greater degree of control. A human actor is easier to handle and direct than ‘less intelligent’ creatures. (Though I’m sure there are exceptions. Werner Herzog probably found it easier to manage 400 monkeys than Klaus Kinski when he was shooting Aguirre, Wrath Of God.)

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With impressive costumes and astounding make-up and prosthetics provided by artists like Chambers, beastly film figures could express more depth, nuance and actual personality. This is essential in a series like Planet Of The Apes with its highly-evolved race of simians. For a more ‘human’ performance from an animal – something beyond “me cute little Chimp, him Tarzan, me steal Jane’s lipstick” – you need a human to be the one delivering it. Puppets, stop-motion models and genuine apes are all wonderful, but none of them were able to deliver what McDowall and his ‘fake ape’ co-stars could.

The generation that followed saw the coming of geniuses like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Tom Savini, Chris Walas and Dick Smith to take prosthetics and practical effects even further, invigorating the sci-fi and horror genres in the process. With the advent – and rapid advancement – of Industrial Light & Magic and the arrival of CGI experiments in films such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, however, it soon became obvious that computerised effects could supersede old-school methods when it came to carrying out cosmetic trickery.

Soon enough we’re racing through the ’90s and into the new Millennium with Pixar leading the way and carrying the torch for CG-animation while live-action series like The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels (Jar Jar Binks, irritation and innovation) continued to raise the bar. Then Middle Earth manifested itself in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and the appearance of Gollum (Andy Serkis, the poster boy/gorilla/Sméagol of an exciting new movement) acted as a gamechanger moment. James Cameron’s Avatar would seal it and stand big, blue and beautiful as the major showcase for both the 21st century 3D cinema revival and, more importantly, for motion capture on a grand scale.

Now mo-cap is a well-established feature of mainstream blockbuster movie production and in the videogaming industry as well. This technique may still be in its relative infancy but, even so, the achievements of the past decade or so have been quite astounding. Consider, for instance, the string of sublime Serkis performances, from the full schizophrenic range of Sméagol/Gollum to the comic bluster of Captain Haddock (The Adventures Of Tintin) via a supremely sympathetic King Kong.

Motion-capture restored Ray Winstone’s youth in Beowulf and ensured that the tree-hugging, blue-skinned aliens of Avatar were believable and empathetic as opposed to being far-out and ridiculous. The titular dragon of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug has such dread majesty thanks to the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch provided a physical performance for Weta Digital in addition to the rich, viscous vocals. Seeing Hollywood stars like Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe and Kevin Spacey become realistic videogame characters – in Beyond: Two Souls and the next Call Of Duty release in Spacey’s case – is also an indication of how the tech is changing the entertainment industry and notions of what acting is or can involve.

That brings us up to Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and a point at which motion-capture is moving beyond the confines of the Volume (the motion-capture studio stage space) and into the environments of the wider world. For this sequel, director Matt Reeves and his cohorts at Weta Digital upped the ante and dragged their cutting edge gear and unitard-clad cast out into the wilderness.

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Opting to conduct exterior location shooting in the forests of British Columbia, Canada, the post-apocalyptic (post-ape-ocalyptic?) world of Dawn is one with natural lighting, genuine flora, real dirt and authentic weather conditions. The apes exist in and interact with this real world environment and it’s absolutely seamless. The movie’s greatest achievement is that, in spite of all the rigours of the challenging shoot and the fact most of the action involves special effects work, it all feels raw and absolutely real. The film is so immersive and the visual effects are so impressive that you’re never consciously dwelling on the marvels of mo-cap work.

The ape characters are as alive and strong as the flesh-and-blood humans. If anything, they have more dramatic weight and emotional resonance and that’s as much to do with actors like Kebbell and Serkis as it is to the VFX wizards. Here we have men playing apes, delivering performances with such heft, range and magnetic charisma that, had the film been released in December, they would surely have been contenders for Oscar nominations.

Looking ahead to the future, I reckon it won’t be too long before a motion capture acting performance does claim an Academy Award or a BAFTA. Indeed, coming away from Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes I’m excited to see where things go from here. We know that there will be further franchise instalments and that they’ll undoubtedly be looking to improve upon what is already the best special effects work in this field. We also know that Serkis is going to continue to forge the mo-cap future as he directs all-new adaptations of The Jungle Book and Animal Farm. Plus, we can expect James Cameron to break new ground and blow our minds all over again when his Avatar sequels finally surface and return Na’vi culture and the lush planet of Pandora to multiplexes.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes filled me with a sense of exhilaration, not just because it’s an excellent blockbuster movie but because it gives me a feeling that with motion capture, anything is possible. Having taken the technology out of the controlled confines of the studio and shown what can be achieved in terms of scale and visual end outcome, this picture marks a key milestone in the technique’s evolution.

For me personally, seeing the apes in action truly proves that an individual actor can become anything and the anything that they anthropomorphise can be rendered into something so realistic that no effort is required to rig up suspension of disbelief. There are potentially no limits to what a performer and production teams can create. Anything can be humanised and the ramifications on the building of worlds and the creation of dramatic narratives could be massive as we move into the future of film, TV and videogaming.

I’m particularly excited about what might be done in horror, sci-fi and fantasy cinema. Just think – possessed furniture in haunted house flicks; the ethereal ghosts of supernatural chillers; alien organisms from other galaxies; the creatures and gods of mythology. All of them could be made real and brought to visceral life on screen and all of them could embody more essential soul-depth thanks to mo-cap than had previously been possible with just make-up and CGI.

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We’re waking up to a new dawn in special effects cinema, and from where I’m crouched – like a primitive ape, eyes wide with wonder – it’s looking awesome.

James Clayton is going ape for mo-cap technology and is going to start rocking the unitard-and-ping-pong-balls look regardless of whether any performance capture cameras are actually filming him. Serkis-chic is so in this summer. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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