How Andy Serkis changed the face of film-making

War for the Planet of the Apes star Andy Serkis might have become the master of motion-capture, but old-fashioned acting chops are still crucial to his success

Matt Reeves, the director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was blown away when, in 2011, he saw the film’s predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In the film, Andy Serkis plays Caesar, a chimpanzee with enhanced intelligence who is adopted as a baby by a scientist and, in later life, leads a rebellion against humans. Reeves couldn’t work out why Serkis’s performance had been so affecting. “The crazy thing about that story is that the most relatable character is not a human, but an ape,” says Reeves. “I’d never felt that level of emotional connection with a computer-generated character before.” Reeves had no experience of performance capture, the technology used in Rise of the Planet of the Apes to translate the performance of human actors into photo-realistic apes. So before meeting Serkis, Reeves asked Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based company responsible, to show him footage of the performance without computer-generated effects.

“I wanted to understand what he did to make Caesar such an emotional character,” he says. “There’s one scene where Caesar is being abandoned at the sanctuary and he’s pressing his face to the glass as his adopted father leaves him behind. In the pre-visual effects footage, you see Andy dressed in this strange grey unitard, with dots on his face, pressed against the glass. He doesn’t look like an ape at all. I realised that there was no visual-effects secret for that performance. It was just that Andy is such a great actor.”

This isn’t the first time that a Serkis performance has caused confusion: when The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released in 2002, he had to remind journalists that he didn’t just voice his character, Gollum: he had physically played the slimy ring-addicted former Hobbit. (Gollum’s voice was entirely Serkis’s – there was no computer enhancement.) During the shooting of a scene with James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a sound recordist asked Serkis to keep his “monkey noises” down because he was trying to record Franco’s dialogue. “I had to explain that this is how Caesar speaks,” says Serkis.

No actor has performed as many leading roles in a performance-capture suit as Serkis. Besides the roles of Gollum and Caesar, he has played King Kong, as well as Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. “What is needed is recognition for him now,” wrote Franco in a Deadline Hollywood article supporting an Oscar nomination for Serkis’s performance as Caesar. “Not later when this kind of acting is de rigueur, but now, when he has elevated this fresh mode of acting into an art form.” In essence, performance capture is no different to wearing a costume and make-up, except they’re made from pixels, not physical materials. The technology allows the actor’s transformation to be limitless, but the acting, with its associated emotion, is faithfully reproduced.

“People assume that playing an ape in performance capture involves lots of moving around and mimicking,” says Serkis. “But the most powerful moments that Caesar has are the moments where he’s at his stillest, as with Gollum. Most of the acting is in the eyes.” In the two weeks prior to shooting Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis and his fellow ape-playing actors spent most of their time inside a largely empty studio in Vancouver.

“When we first got together on that stage, Andy suddenly said we should just improvise,” says Terry Notary, who plays Rocket, Caesar’s right-hand ape. “As Caesar, he was the leader and we followed him. For 20 minutes, there wasn’t a word said. One guy would jump off, do a display, another would come down by Caesar, and someone would get jealous, go over and start groaning. We were finding our relationships.” During that period, they rehearsed every day. Reeves would sometimes be among them, just observing.

“Francis Ford Coppola told me once that when they rehearsed The Godfather they sat around the table in character to explore the dynamics between them,” says Reeves. “Everybody trying to impress [Marlon] Brando the way they had to impress Don Corleone. This was Caesar as Don Corleone.”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens in the UK on July 17, picks up a decade after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar is now a leader of a troop of apes living in a redwood forest north of San Francisco. With his wife, Cornelia, he has a teenage son and a baby. Humans are thought to be extinct, victims of a pandemic caused by a viral drug. But it turns out that they’re not, and this discovery causes Caesar to navigate the line between diplomacy and war.

The film was shot mostly on location, which involved taking expensive, cumbersome equipment to the middle of a forest near Alouette Lake in Vancouver. Part of the casting was conducted at The Imaginarium, a London-based studio and production company Serkis cofounded in 2012. Because of Reeves’s inexperience with the technique, Serkis and his Imaginarium team also acted as consultants.

“[In Vancouver] it was freezing cold,” says Serkis. “Then, in New Orleans, there was 100 per cent humidity and you’re nearly passing out every day because you’re carrying a lot of electric equipment, which heats up on your back.” The actors wore head-mounted cameras to record their facial expressions and live LED markers on their suits so that cameras hung on trees could track their movements. “We only added the visual effects after, so there’s a version of this movie that we’ve been watching for a long time that has no apes in it,” Reeves says. “It just has all the actors in their performance suits and the crazy thing is that it is still an incredibly emotional experience.”

Earlier this year, Serkis attended an event at Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus, London, with his Imaginarium cofounder Jonathan Cavendish, the producer responsible for the Bridget Jones films, and Samantha Shannon, the 22-year-old author of the The Bone Season, which has sold more than 270,000 copies and to which The Imaginarium has acquired the film rights.

Serkis, 50, who a few days earlier was cast for JJ Abrams’s upcoming Star Wars film, was introduced by Cavendish as the “great character creator of our generation”. Perched on a stool, he answered questions earnestly, with an affable smile, his voice serene and his humour gentle.

He talked about the intricacies of performance capture, calling it “digital make-up”, and invited the audience to suggest actors for The Bone Season movie. But he inevitably ended up fielding questions about Gollum, the role he is still best known for. The part was offered to him in 1999. His agent told him that they were making a movie called The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand and were looking for someone to do the voice of an animated character, which would involve about three weeks’ work. “I don’t want to play a voice,” Serkis replied. “Surely there must be a dozen other roles in that movie, can’t you get me a normal part?”

The character was Gollum. Serkis had never read The Lord of the Rings and it wasn’t the sort of role that enticed him; he was more attuned to realistic dramas. Nevertheless, he auditioned for it a few days later. Serkis wasn’t a voice actor: even if that was all he was expected to do, he still had to get into character. He conceived Gollum as an addict whose inner struggle translated into an out-of-control, convulsive physicality. In his audition, he climbed up on a chair, his face contorted, and delivered his lines in a thin voice interspersed with a gurgling cough (the inspiration for Gollum’s cough was Serkis watching his cat, Ditz, coughing up a fur ball). “Andy, how do you do that?” asked a shocked casting director.

Two months later, Serkis met Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Jackson’s wife and co-scriptwriter. Jackson explained that even though Gollum was going to be a computer-animated character, he needed an actor to play Gollum on set to avoid the disconnection between the actors and an animated character that would be added later. Jackson didn’t want Elijah Wood and Sean Austin, who were playing Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee respectively, to interact on set with a tennis ball on a stick, especially since Gollum was supposed to drive many of their scenes. He added that Weta Digital would also attempt to capture some of Serkis’s acting with a technology called motion capture. Serkis had no idea what motion capture was.

Serkis arrived in New Zealand on April 5, 2000. His first day on set wasn’t until April 13, so he spent the intervening time readying himself for the role: he shaved his head and spent hours in isolation, trying to find Gollum’s character. Serkis arrived on set, which was 1,800 metres up a mountain and featured a crew of 200 people, wearing a pale green spandex unitard. It wasn’t how he had planned his career.

The initial period of shooting was difficult for Serkis. For each scene, Jackson shot three passes, one with Serkis as a reference for the visual effects team, another where Serkis would step out of the frame and recite the dialogue and call the timing of Gollum’s movements, and a final scene without actors to provide a background plate for the animation.

“In the very early days I don’t think anybody knew exactly why I was there,” says Serkis. He recalls having an outburst on a take once because Wood and Austin weren’t taking their shots with him seriously enough. “They would save their performance for when I wasn’t in the take, because that wasn’t supposed to be the real take. It was ironic because inevitably they would use that take by painting me out and overlaying Gollum on top.”

The following month Serkis met the motion-capture team for the first time. He was fitted with a specially designed black suit, dotted with tiny Styrofoam balls covered in reflective tape. Those markers would be recorded on a stage surrounded by infrared cameras known as the Volume, and that image translated into an avatar. A motion-capture technician handed Serkis a pair of virtual goggles that would show him his avatar in real time. He saw a crudely rendered, greyscale version of Gollum. Serkis hunched his back, lowered his body and stretched his fingers. His avatar responded. The avatar had a predefined muscle-and-bone structure which amplified his moves, so he quickly realised that his best acting came with the least movement. “It was like a magic mirror, seeing this creature standing there,” says Serkis. “It was an epiphany. Suddenly, I wasn’t constrained to a human form.”

Serkis would sometimes act out his close-ups on the motion-capture stage up to a year after shooting on location. “He would do these incredibly emotional performances to just a dozen of us in this small room,” says Joe Letteri, the director of Weta Digital and four-times Academy Award winner for his visual-effects work on Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Avatar. “There were no props, just Andy. It would be silent and then everyone would just break out into applause.”

Peter Jackson’s initial thought was to make the creature an animated character, but the more he saw Serkis’s performance, the more he was forced to reconsider. “At some point, Jackson told us that we had to redesign Gollum’s facial structure to resemble Andy’s,” Letteri says. “The final version of Gollum ended up being fully inspired by Andy’s performance.”

During the last set of re-shoots for The Lord of the Rings, Jackson asked Serkis if he wanted to play the 7.5-metre-tall title role in his next movie, King Kong. He showed Serkis pictures of an albino gorilla called Snowflake that lived in a Barcelona Zoo. He would become the inspiration for Kong’s gnarled face. To prepare for the role, Serkis spent a year studying apes. After a few months visiting London Zoo, he told Jackson that he was going to Rwanda to observe mountain gorillas in the wild.

“He said, don’t do that, it’s a dangerous, really bad idea,” Serkis laughs. “So I got on the plane immediately.” For two weeks, he followed a group of wild mountain gorillas. He studied how they groomed each other and how they vocalized their emotions. “They chilled together, fed together, they all got up and walked together.”

Serkis thought of Kong as a lonely, retired, out-of-shape boxer – the last of his species. “The original 1933 version of Kong was a monster,” Serkis says. “We wanted to make this version much more like a huge silverback gorilla.” Serkis spent four months on the live-action set acting off-camera opposite Naomi Watts, who played Ann Darrow, dressed in a gorilla muscle suit on top of cherry pickers that were placed at the right height. He then did two months’ filming wearing a performance-capture suit. He used weighted bags on his arms, waist and legs to get the scale of movement right. Weta also created a system that could capture his facial expressions, consisting of 150 three-dimensional markers placed all over the actor’s face. “In Lord of the Rings, motion capture was so new we couldn’t attempt to capture his face,” says Letteri. “With King Kong, we got Andy’s body and face together.”

Serkis’s work was beginning to make others in the industry embrace performance capture. Director James Cameron had written an 80-page treatment for Avatar in 1995, but it was seeing a Serkis performance that convinced him he could make the movie that he wanted. “When we where doing Avatar, Serkis came in the early days just to talk to everybody about the process,” says Letteri. “He’s shown the way for actors and made them less fearful of the technology. You can see his legacy in a movie like Avatar, even though he didn’t perform in it. It was his performance as Gollum that really gave us a reason to believe that this technology could enable a new form of acting.”

The Imaginarium is based within Ealing Studios, a complex of whitewashed buildings in west London. Inside, there’s a large empty arena – The Imaginarium’s Volume – which is surrounded by 48 LED cameras attached to a metal framework. One morning in May this year, Cavendish and Tony Orsten, The Imaginarium’s CEO, are pitching to two executives from the Discovery Channel. “We combine technology, storytelling and the character-creating skills that Andy pioneered,” says Cavendish. “We not only do our own productions, but we’re servicing film companies on lots of big film franchises – that we can’t talk about.”

They play a trailer for a documentary about a retired particle physicist who discovers a parallel universe inhabited by pixies and fairies. “We can make a movie like this, from story to visual effects, for a TV-show budget,” says Cavendish. “Nobody else in the world can do that.”

Throughout the meeting, an intern walks around in the middle of the Volume, dressed in a Lycra suit spotted with markers. A bank of computers occupies one side of the stage. On the screens, his avatar – a Roman legionnaire – is shown in consecutive states of rendering, its movements reflecting the actor’s. “Traditionally, if you want to capture a scene – say two actors at a table – you would have to cover all angles and that would be a day’s work,” says Ants Farrell, a performance-capture technician who previously worked at Weta Digital. “With performance capture, actors can just play out the scene as they would in theatre. The cameras around the Volume capture everything. Then the director can just come into the Volume with his virtual camera and play it back over and over and cut it as he pleases.”

Farrell demonstrates the virtual camera, a contraption made from a screen, a battery and off-the-shelf components to hold it together. “It’s not really a camera,” he laughs. “We just make it look like a camera so people are comfortable with it.” “If you want to do a POV shot, you just put markers on your head and tell the computer to look at everything through your eyes,” says Orsten. “It’s a camera operator’s worse nightmare,” Farrell adds. Serkis conceived The Imaginarium after shooting King Kong. When he returned to the UK, he was approached by Tameem Antoniades, the head of a Cambridge-based videogame company called Ninja Theory. Antoniades had been working on a game called Heavenly Sword. He wanted Serkis to direct and act in the cinematic sequences using performance capture. “We had to go back to New Zealand to shoot it,” Serkis says. “I thought it was crazy. The software is made in Cambridge and the Vicon cameras are made in Oxford. Why do we have to go abroad to shoot movies?”

One of The Imaginarium’s big projects is Animal Farm, which Serkis is planning to start directing later this year. “We wanted to make it a film that didn’t lose any of its political punch but was very much a family film that would cause a debate between an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old.” Technicians are developing a way to create pigs and sheep using actors in performance-capture suits. During downtime while shooting Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in New Orleans last year, Serkis would direct rehearsals at The Imaginarium via Skype.

“We did seven-hour days on stage here while I was in my trailer waiting to go on as Caesar. Not being on set gives you incredible clarity–you really listen and your senses are alert,” Serkis says.

The Imaginarium is not only Serkis’s laboratory to explore new ways of telling stories, but also a school where he can teach acting with performance capture. “I recently had an actor here with me,” he says. “I can’t tell you who it is, but it’s a great role in a very high-profile movie. All the other actors had their costumes on and felt fantastic – he had a motion-capture suit on, which isn’t the most flattering.”

Serkis worked with the actor inside the Volume, exploring the many sides to his character. The actor was nervous when he came in, but by the time they were finished he was completely immersed in his character. “When you calibrate your avatar, you are kind of both marionette and puppeteer at the same time,” says Serkis. “You’re controlling it in that way. And you’re responsible for the relationship you have with your avatar, if you’re given that opportunity.”

They experimented with weights, and a sound system that made his voice louder. They would act out scenes, with Serkis directing the actor in close proximity, and they would then watch a playback on the screen, refining it in iterations.

“Most actors still fear that this isn’t proper acting and that their emotions, their physicality and their acting choices won’t come through,” says Serkis. “I know that’s not the case.”

João Medeiros is science editor at WIRED. He wrote about how we can train our brains in 05.14
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