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Digital actors will never replace humans, says Andy Serkis (and he would know)

andy serkis feat
20th Century Fox

Andy Serkis’ first love has always been acting. Serkis spent 14 years performing on the stage and British television before landing the coveted role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which took his career on a strange turn into the emerging art of motion and performance capture. Today, Serkis is known worldwide as the master of performance capture, having brought to life characters from Gollum to King Kong (in Jackson’s remake), to Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, and a leading role as Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

While Serkis continues to explore additional performance-capture roles like Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Baloo in his directorial turn for Jungle Book: Origins, he’s also spent time recently as a consultant on the first-ever Planet of the Apes video game, Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this fall.

Like the critically-acclaimed films, Serkis and his development team at The Imaginarium Studios have employed real actors to bring both the ape and human cast to life in the game. In an exclusive phone interview from his studio in London, Serkis discusses the new game, waxes nostalgic on his film role as Caesar, and explains how his career in performance capture enabled him to bring Jungle Book: Origins to life.

How have all of the digital assets that have been created for the Apes franchise on the big screen helped with creating the Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier video game?

They both exist in the same universe. They have the same feel. The artwork has been very faithfully honored in the game, so it has a real sensibility and tone. And the feeling of it is that it’s an extension of the world of the movie. Obviously, we shot live action in the movie and the game is a CG world, but it feels like it’s tonally linked in a big way.

What role does performance capture play in the game?

It’s entirely central to the way that we created this game. When the casting process happened for the game we searched for the best actors that we could get to play both apes and humans. There was a very rigorous casting process and then a rehearsal process, which was their version of what we used to do on set. It’s an ape camp where the actors have to do the same work in terms of observing apes and learning their behavior and working out the sign language and all of those things which we had created in the movies. They’ve gone through the same process.

I’ve never drawn a distinction if I’m making a movie or a game. For me, they are slightly different storytelling methods, but they are essentially linked by great performance, believable situations and great characters. All of the necessary things for making a movie flow and work well are the same for a video game.

Can you talk about your personal connection with Caesar having played this character for three Planet of the Apes films?

It’s been the most incredible role, and performance capture technology has allowed this to happen in the sense that I played him from infancy all the way through his life. He’s such an incredible character to play. And he’s gone through so many transitions … But being brought up with love by James Franco’s character in Rise, I played him very much as an outsider. I always thought of Caesar as a human being in an ape’s skin because he believed himself to be human through his formative years, like a very gifted child who could do complicated mathematical equations or play concertos … Then as he reaches his teenage years he gets thrown in with apes and suddenly discovers what it’s like to be an ape for the first time with gorillas and orangutans and the monkeys.

He’s going from a pure chimpanzee in the early movie through becoming more physically human, more emotionally human.

Because he’s an outsider he’s able to … galvanize them and lead them to freedom. In the second movie he becomes the founding father of a society and movement of apes and creates rules by which they can live. And in the third film he becomes this leader in a time of war.

And throughout all of this development he’s also evolving, so he’s changing into a more human-like being. He’s going from a pure chimpanzee in the early movie through becoming more physically human, more emotionally human. Even linguistically he starts to talk more and more and express himself in a more human like way. I feel a huge affection for the character because at his core he’s such an empathetic creature that he’s able to see both the human problem as the war has escalated and torn them to shreds as well as being mindful and protective of his own species … It’s been a remarkable acting challenge to evolve him over the course of three movies and I’ve loved every second of it. I’m quite sad now to have to say goodbye to him.

How has all the experience with your own performance capture career helped as a director in bringing Jungle Book: Origins to life?

Enormously. Just across the board having the experience of working with Peter Jackson, directing the second unit on The Hobbit where we shot for 200 days on that film. That was an extraordinary learning curve for me because just before that I was about to start to direct a small independent movie. … We were shooting in 3D native at 48 frames per second with huge crews and huge technological rigs and all sorts of cameras over a long period of time. So that was an amazing experience. Having had that experience with Ninja Theory directing the Heavenly Sword video game and then working on this other film that I’ve been directing, Breathe, which is a live-action movie, I felt perfectly poised to direct the Jungle Book. We have some great actors including Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christian Bale, Naomie Harris, and Eddie Marsan.

20th Century Fox

It was just an amazing cast, and when we sat around to do the read through they were all asking me: What’s the secret to performance capture acting? And I had to say to them, and to anyone who does it, that there’s no such thing. The greatest mystery about performance capture is there is no mystery. … Acting is acting. You go about creating a character in exactly the same way. Yes, if you’re playing an ape you have to observe apes, but you’re not doing generic ape movement after a while. Once you’ve learned that behavior, once you learn how an ape behaves or a panther or a wolf by watching endless amounts of footage or going to the zoo and watching them for a while, ultimately it’s about who is this particular character, what do they feel about life, how do they connect to the hierarchy for this ape group, or in this wolf pack, or whatever. Who is this individual?

How did your work on King Kong help prepare you for bringing apes to life and now snakes and panthers and bears in Jungle Book: Origins?

When I went to research King Kong out in Rwanda and watched a troop of mountain gorillas, you realize that going off to research apes is like saying I’m going off to research humans. They’re all totally individual characters, and that’s what you are. That’s what you do as an actor. You create characters and you believe in them, and you believe yourself to be that character. So it’s not different. You’re not mimicking … you’re not pantomiming anything. You’re being the character. And during the rehearsal process you get to look in what is essentially a magic mirror and you wear your motion capture suit and your head-mounted camera and you can see a simplified avatar version of the character on screen.

Andy Serkis planet of the apes
20th Century Fox

So if you lift your right hand up, Caesar would lift his right hand up. You become the puppeteer of your marionette, if you like. But that’s no different than standing in front of a mirror in a costume fitting and deciding what type of jacket your character would wear. It’s like putting on a costume for the first time, but after that it’s just all about what’s going on inside your head and how you relate to your fellow actors.

What’s it like for you to be able to step into the worlds off J.R.R. Tolkien, Planet of the Apes, Marvel, and Star Wars?

I feel so privileged that I can get to do that. It goes back to why you want to become an actor in the first place. I was lucky enough when I started out acting to work with a great director who really made me realize why I wanted to act. Actors take up this craft for so many different reasons. You can do it for fame. You can do it for vanity, for wanting to be out there in front because you’re a show off. You can do it to lose yourself into a role. But I was lucky enough to work with a director very early on who made me realize that what we do is provide a service. We are paid to go and research and bring back information about a character or a world. And as storytellers, we share it with an audience so that it has some connection to the audience …

That creation of a character isn’t the responsibility of a team of visual affects artists.

Now culturally, we’re seeing with all of these film franchises that are out there that they mean so much to the fan bases. You go to Comic Con and you meet people who are passionate about these characters and who’ve been changed hugely by what they’ve experienced in this storytelling realm. And these stories are equally as important as Shakespeare or pieces of classic literature. They mean just as much and are just as profound. Performance capture has really allowed me to act … For me, if the story is great, I would take a role whether it’s live action character or a performance capture role.

The Apes franchise is certainly up there in terms of Tolkien and Marvel and these others. And for me the power of the Apes franchise is its efficacy in looking at ourselves through these apes. It’s really strong and powerful, and that’s why I particularly loved this world.

Do you feel based on how performance capture has evolved as an art form that at some point the Oscars will look at these characters just like they would a regular actor?

I hope so … There’s been a huge shift in understanding as young filmmakers, actors, and directors become Academy voters. They’re much more in touch with what’s going on. I’m not being ageist, but the older members of the Academy voters just struggle to make that connection and really fully understand what performance capture is. It’s not a special type of acting. It’s understanding that that creation of a character isn’t the responsibility of a team of visual affects artists. What they’re doing is manifesting the choices that an actor has made on the screen finally.

Andy Serkis Gollum
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s no difference between the John Chambers make-up that was created in the 1968 Planet of the Apes and working with a team of artists and having your body covered in fur and your face covered in layers of rubber … You’re then acting the role. It’s no different for a performance capture actor to go on set wearing a head-mounted camera and a suit, and play the role and have a team of artists work on their presentation afterwards. The central thing of creating that role, the authoring of the role, is the same as it is if you were a conventional live action actor. It’s that education, which now thanks to behind-the-scenes footage of movie making, is out there. And actually through gaming and the idea of becoming an avatar, people understand that it’s a visceral experience. It’s strange to even think about awards as being a way of legitimizing performance capture as acting. It’s kind of crazy in a way, but it might well take that for people to fully ‘get it.’

When CG first came out everyone was afraid that computers were going to replace actors, and now it’s come completely the opposite direction where you’re stepping in and creating virtual characters through true performance capture.

Absolutely. It only increases the opportunities for actors. Performance capture is the greatest 21st Century tool for actors imaginable because you can play anything. You can embody any character, and it’s very egalitarian. It doesn’t matter what shape you are, what size you are, what height or what sex you are, the color of your skin, or your age. You can play anything, and that’s a really exciting prospect.

John Gaudiosi
John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for over 25 years, dating back to his work for The Washington Post while in…
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