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