CAUGHT IN THE ACT

Britain’s Andy Serkis has become the go-to ac­tor for roles us­ing per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

There was a time, Andy Serkis says, when people didn’t understand per­for­mance cap­ture. How to talk about it, how to use it, what value to give it — whether, in­deed, it was re­ally act­ing at all. It’s a sub­ject he’s pas­sion­ate about. In his new film, War for the Planet of the Apes, he por­trays Cae­sar, the leader of the apes, a char­ac­ter he has fol­lowed over the course of three films, a fig­ure whose emo­tional de­vel­op­ment is as im­por­tant to him as any of the phys­i­cal chal­lenges of per­for­mance cap­ture.

In the early days, the term for the tech­nol­ogy was “mo­tion cap­ture”, but Serkis prefers “per­for­mance cap­ture”. It’s a more ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, he says. “If you ask any ac­tor who has played a role us­ing it if they be­lieve they are au­thor­ing a per­for­mance, they will say yes, en­tirely, be­cause there’s no dif­fer­ence be­tween act­ing in a live­ac­tion movie when your face is on screen and act­ing in a per­for­mance-cap­ture suit — it’s ba­si­cally a dif­fer­ent set of cam­eras that are cap­tur­ing your per­for­mance.”

Some ac­tors are able to em­brace the de­mands of per­for­mance cap­ture more read­ily, Serkis says. “You have to want to be a trans­for­ma­tive ac­tor in some re­spect, or see that as a chal­lenge. You have to want to ab­stract your­self, to go away from your­self. That’s why I ab­so­lutely adore it philo­soph­i­cally as an ac­tor, be­cause it means that you can play any­thing — you lit­er­ally can em­body and bring to life any crea­ture, any thing … an inan­i­mate ob­ject. You can make it a sen­tient thing.

“So I think you have to not be vain, for a start — you have to ac­cept the fact that you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to see your­self up on screen, but that’s cer­tainly not why I be­came an ac­tor. Even when I was do­ing the­atre, the fur­ther I could ab­stract my­self, the closer I got to an artis­tic truth — that was my ap­proach.

“So I sup­pose you have to have that in your mind, and be happy to do that.”

Per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy has come a long way since Serkis first ex­plored its pos­si­bil­i­ties for Peter Jack­son for Lord of the Rings: The Fel­low­ship of the Ring, at Weta Work­shop. Over the course of the tril­ogy, he brought a sin­gu­lar emo­tional in­ten­sity, a mixture of malev­o­lence and pain, to the role of Gol­lum, the crea­ture whose ex­is­tence was trans­formed by de­sire for the ring’s pow­ers.

The tech­nol­ogy has de­vel­oped apace, and so has Serkis’s use of it. In ad­di­tion to Gol­lum, he’s done a suc­ces­sion of high-pro­file roles us­ing per­for­mance cap­ture, in­clud­ing as King Kong in Peter Jack­son’s re­make, and now as Cae­sar. In the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse, he is the Avengers an­tag­o­nist Ulysses Klaue, and he’s ap­peared in Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens as the enig­matic fig­ure from the dark side, Supreme Leader Snoke; it’s not clear how much fur­ther his char­ac­ter will be de­vel­oped in the next film, The Last Jedi.

In the new Planet of the Apes se­ries, which be­gan in 2011, we saw Cae­sar grow­ing up among hu­man be­ings. He has become a leader among the apes as the world has started to col­lapse. Andy Serkis sees per­for­mance cap­ture as the way of the fu­ture for sto­ry­telling; Serkis as Gol­lum in 2012’s The Hob­bit: An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney Med­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion has en­hanced the in­tel­li­gence of apes, but the same de­vel­op­ment has cre­ated a virus that is dev­as­tat­ing the hu­man pop­u­la­tion.

Things were bleak in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, when Cae­sar con­fronted his great an­tag­o­nist, the bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell), as well as deal­ing with the hos­til­ity of the re­main­ing hu­man be­ings. Now, in War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s a bat­tle for sur­vival. The apes are be­ing hunted by an army led by a man known only as the Colonel (Woody Har­rel­son) who wants to de­stroy ev­ery last one of them.

When he signed on for the first film, Serkis says, there was no in­di­ca­tion there would be a se­quel. But the film did so well, crit­i­cally and com­mer­cially, that there was the ap­petite for more. Di­rec­tor Matt Reeves ( Clover­field, Let Me In) came on board for the next two.

“It’s been an in­cred­i­ble act­ing chal­lenge, and this one was very emo­tional and dark,” Serkis

IT MEANS THAT YOU CAN PLAY ANY­THING — YOU LIT­ER­ALLY CAN EM­BODY AND BRING TO LIFE ANY CREA­TURE, ANY THING ANDY SERKIS

says. “Cae­sar by de­fault is an em­pa­thetic char­ac­ter, brought up with hu­man be­ings, and there­fore un­der­stands and loves them.

“Cae­sar has evolved as a char­ac­ter, he’s much more lin­guis­ti­cally elo­quent, and you see his thoughts, you read him much more like a hu­man be­ing.”

While Cae­sar’s role has de­vel­oped, so too has the ca­pac­ity of the team at Weta, he says. Over the course of the three movies he’s been struck by “the abil­ity to hon­our the ac­tors’ per­for­mance and lit­er­ally the ren­der­ing and the tex­tur­ing and the artistry from the CG artists. The abil­ity to copy to the nth de­gree what the ac­tor is do­ing has im­proved over the course of the three movies.”

Weta an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Dan Bar­rett, who has worked on all three Planet of the Apes films, says he has been fas­ci­nated by the progress the team has made in bring­ing per­for­mance cap­ture to the screen.

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