The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents - By Kaleem Aftab

Andy Serkis switches gears from act­ing to di­rect­ing with his new movie

Breathe star­ring An­drew Garfield and Claire Foy

Andy Serkis is famed as the guy to go to when you need an ac­tor to play a crea­ture us­ing per­for­mance­cap­ture tech­nol­ogy. He wowed au­di­ences around the world when he played Gol­lum in the Lord of the Rings tril­ogy and again when mim­ick­ing simi­ans in King Kong, as well as in the role of Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens — and most re­cently as Cae­sar in War for the Planet of the Apes.

So it’s a bit of a turn up that the 53-year-old’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, Breathe, which opened in the­atres this week, star­ring An­drew Garfield and Claire Foy, is a char­ac­ter-driven film about a man paral­ysed by po­lio.

“Yes, I think peo­ple have been sur­prised that this is my di­rec­to­rial de­but, and there has been a lot made of that,” says Serkis of the film that opened at the Lon­don Film

Fes­ti­val. But he says that this is more a re­sult of the film-pro­duc­tion process than by de­sign: “Jun­gle Book we shot be­fore­hand but that will come out next year.”

His adap­ta­tion of Rud­yard Ki­pling’s novel, which stars Chris­tian

Bale (as Bagheera), Cate Blanchett (Kaa) and Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch (Shere Khan), mixes live­ac­tion se­quences with per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy; con­se­quently, the post-pro­duc­tion process is ex­traor­di­nar­ily long — and so when Dis­ney man­aged to re­lease their ver­sion first (in 2016), it was de­cided to de­lay Serkis’s ver­sion un­til 2018.

De­spite Breathe be­ing a pe­riod drama, it’s true to say that the film may never have been made if it wasn’t for Serkis’s en­thu­si­asm for per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy. Breathe is in­spired by the true story of the par­ents of the Brid­get Jones pro­ducer Jonathan Cavendish, who formed the com­pany Imag­i­nar­ium with Serkis in 2011.

Cavendish’s fa­ther, Robin, was paral­ysed from the neck down after con­tract­ing po­lio in Kenya in the late 1950s while his wife Diana was preg­nant. The film shows how Robin and his fam­ily coped with paral­y­sis and how he helped change the way that po­lio suf­fer­ers could live, by ask­ing his band of ec­cen­tric friends to come up with in­ven­tions to en­able him to leave hos­pi­tal and live life at home.

Serkis met Cavendish in 2009, just after he had com­pleted film­ing King Kong, by which time he had re­alised there was a gap in the mar­ket for a Uk-based per­for­mance­cap­ture stu­dio. In

2007, after the suc­cess of Lord of the Rings, Serkis was ap­proached by Cam­bridge-based video game de­sign­ers Ninja The­ory to direct per­for­mance-cap­ture se­quences for their flag­ship game Heav­enly Sword. “When it came to shoot­ing the se­quences that we re­hearsed, there was nowhere to shoot it, so rather ridicu­lously I had to take the whole team to New Zealand,” says Serkis. “I came out of this ex­pe­ri­ence think­ing, this is crazy, es­pe­cially as the tech­nol­ogy, soft­ware and cam­eras were all made in Ox­ford and Cam­bridge.”

A friend sug­gested that Serkis meet with Cavendish. “I had been look­ing at the mar­ket and it seemed to me that TV, film, games, vir­tual

re­al­ity and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence were mov­ing closer to­gether and vis­ual sto­ry­telling was go­ing to change,” says Cavendish. “And then of course Andy was a world leader in per­for­mance cap­ture.”

At first, most of the jobs came about be­cause peo­ple wanted Serkis to be the per­for­mance­cap­ture ac­tor in their films or wanted to ask his ad­vice on how it should be done. Serkis lent his ex­per­tise to Mark Ruf­falo when he was pre­par­ing to play Hulk in Avengers 2 by telling him to wear weights to get a sense of the bulk. Serkis also helped Ruf­falo change his voice and got him to play with his avatar so he knew what it looked like, as he was pranc­ing around in a dig­i­tal cos­tume. He also con­sulted on Godzilla.

The big ad­van­tage of shoot­ing crea­tures us­ing hu­mans is that it helps the other ac­tors on­set, says Serkis:

“Pe­ter Jack­son fully un­der­stood the no­tion of, how can you ex­pect an ac­tor to act and give a real per­for­mance? It’s im­pos­si­ble. In a way they then have to act two char­ac­ters, them­selves and what they are act­ing against.”

I ask Serkis if it is odd that he has be­come fa­mous for play­ing char­ac­ters masked by dig­i­tal ef­fects. He ar­gues that he doesn’t see a dif­fer­ence be­tween per­for­mance cap­ture and tra­di­tional act­ing. “You work in the same way as you do on a tra­di­tional set, all that is dif­fer­ent is that you’re dressed in a dig­i­tal cos­tume and the make-up hap­pens after,” says the ac­tor. “You are on set for six months and you are the guardian of the char­ac­ter. Per­for­mance cap­ture is not fix­ing some­thing in post-pro­duc­tion, you have to get the per­for­mance on the day.”

Born and raised in Ruis­lip, his mother was English and his fa­ther an Iraqi gy­nae­col­o­gist of Ar­me­nian de­scent. Serkis says in hind­sight that per­haps he was des­tined for a ca­reer where per­for­mance cap­ture would be a big com­po­nent, even if it was an un­con­scious de­ci­sion. “It can all sort of make sense now,” he says. “Be­cause I went to Lan­caster Univer­sity to study vis­ual arts and I ended up con­struct­ing a de­gree which is called The­atre De­sign and Move­ment. I did a pro­duc­tion of Ray­mond Brigg’s The Tin-pot For­eign Gen­eral and the Old Iron Woman, which was done with pup­petry and move­ment, and per­for­mance cap­ture seemed like an ex­ten­sion of what I was do­ing.”

Cavendish had wanted to tell the story of his par­ents for a long time. He com­mis­sioned Wil­liam Ni­chol­son (Shad­ow­lands, Glad­i­a­tor, Les Mis­er­ables) to write the screen­play of Breathe and then showed it to Serkis, hav­ing now worked to­gether for a num­ber of years and built not just a stu­dio for per­for­mance cap­ture but also a sep­a­rate pro­duc­tion com­pany. “I would have let many peo­ple direct it,” says Cavendish. “But I knew that Andy would direct it bril­liantly, and he has an ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­abil­ity with his sis­ter suf­fer­ing from mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, and his mother taught dis­abled chil­dren. And then when we were in post-pro­duc­tion on Jun­gle Book, both Garfield and Foy be­came avail­able and we had a small window of op­por­tu­nity.”

Serkis now wants to direct a per­for­mance­cap­ture ver­sion of

Ge­orge Or­well’s An­i­mal Farm and also turn The Beg­gar’s Opera into the first per­for­mance-cap­ture mu­si­cal. But he in­sists that Breathe will not be an anom­aly and that he will also make films that do not rely on the tech­nol­ogy he has be­come fa­mous for. “In the near fu­ture the con­cen­tra­tion will be more on the di­rect­ing. The wheels are oiled now.”

Serkis (left) on the set of Breathe.

The ac­tor-turned-director played Gol­lum (cen­tre) in the Lord of the Rings tril­ogy.

Andy Serkis.

Serkis in mo­tion-cap­tion mode as Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens.

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