Chameleon: Celebrated performance-capture artist Andy Serkis sees greater possibilities for groundbreaking technology

Movies Features

Until fairly recently, few people outside the film industry knew who Andy Serkis was, despite his having portrayed some of the best-known characters in cinema history. But now, thanks to an appearance at the Oscars and on award-show red carpets, this diminutive actor from a London suburb is finally being recognized as the leading pioneer in performance-capture technology.  

He is the man who created, among others, Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake; Supreme Leader Snoke in three Star Wars films, and Caesar, the dignified leader of the apes in the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Performance-capture technology entails an actor wearing a skintight suit with markers that allow his movements and expressions to be electronically tracked and translated into computer-generated imagery to bring a film character to life. It has helped 54-year-old Serkis rise from being a dependable though obscure British actor to one with a specific talent that has earned him industry-wide recognition and a dedicated fan following.

"When you think about it, an actor, regardless of their age, their height, their sex, the color of their skin, can now play any character as long they can imagine themselves to be that character," he says. "And so to play a chimpanzee like Caesar in the trilogy of the Apes movies is only an extension of the human connection to anthropomorphizing these animal creatures and characters.

"And it’s all about the actors; it’s about acting those roles. So I find it to be thrilling and will continue to act and direct movies using that technology to enable films to be made like that."

But the rapidly evolving performance-capture technique that he helped define has landed Serkis at the center of an ongoing debate among industry pundits who are divided over whether an actor who specializes in performance capture should be eligible for awards recognition due to the amount of CGI used to render his expressions.

Serkis has no doubt. “It’s all to do with performance,” he tells me during our interview at a London hotel. “Caesar and all the other computer-generated characters I have ever played are driven by one thing and that is acting. Audiences want to be moved by acting, not by a visual effect.

“The reason the audience feels what it does towards these characters is purely, I believe, because of performance. As far as awards are concerned, a performance is a performance and if it's engaging and moving and transforming and captures your imagination, it should be judged in exactly the same way as any live acting performance, because the process is no different and I can't stress that enough."

His outspoken views in the past have angered digital artists, who claim he minimizes the role of the animators who make his performances possible, something Serkis vehemently denies.

“I’ve been badly misquoted as saying horrendous things like ‘Andy Serkis does everything and the animators do nothing,’ which I would never say in a million years,” he insists. “I have an extraordinary relationship with animators and visual-effects artists. Two things have to be understood: The authorship of a performance happens on set with a director and other actors in a very conventional live-action sense. The animation process is what happens afterwards, and the skill and artistry and the brilliant work the animators do in interpolating that performance and manifesting it onscreen is an art form which is unparalleled.”

Then, almost defiantly, he adds: “Acting is acting and visual effects are visual effects and it’s a marriage, but the authorship of performance—everything you watch onscreen that you feel and think about a character—comes from the actor.”

Although the issue of whether performance-capture artists should be entitled to acting awards remains a contentious topic, Serkis himself has removed himself from the debate by branching out into producing, directing and taking performance-capture techniques into live stage productions.

One of the busiest people in the film industry, he has his own performance-capture and production company, Imaginarium. Last yearit produced a horror film, The Ritual, and he made his live-action directing debut with Breathe, set in the 1950s and starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. He also directed Mowgli, a new version of The Jungle Book due for release from Warner Bros. later this year. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett, it is said to be "more savage" than the Disney version. In it, Serkis once again dons a performance-capture suit to portray Baloo the bear.

Imaginarium has been working for six years on a version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, but it was put on the back burner because of the demand for Serkis' performance-capture talents in the Star Wars sagas and as villain Ulysses Klaue in the Avengers and Black Panther movies.

Now he is also looking to bring the technique to the stage and other outlets with ideas and plans he believes will revolutionize the entertainment industry. "We'reworking on virtual realityandaugmentedreality, so there are lots and lots of different areas where performance capture is now becoming a common tool for storytelling for the next generation," he observes.

"There is a decline in cinema-going, except for tentpole movies, so there's a need to find new ways that are part theatre and part film. Performance capture sits in the middle of this new technology."

The ebullient Serkis,the son of an Iraqi father and English mother, is cheery, outgoing and laughs a lot but is very serious when talking about his work and his career. He enthusiastically expounds on his vision for the future of entertainment.

"I reckon in about 10 or 15 years’ time we won't be watching things on big flat screens but we'll be watching events that we will be part of, with augmented-reality glasses, where part of it is real, part of it is performance capture, part of it is cinematic and partof it is like a theatre piece.

"These arethesortofthingsthatwe're involved in and trying to understand. What is storytelling?What is the next generation?What is this common experience that we want to have? It seems that we want a more visceral experience, and so it's how wemightbringthose things together."

He and his Imaginarium company worked for a year on making Ariel the sprite come to life in a tech-infused performance for the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Tempest for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, integrating the technology into the performance in a way that enhanced the live theatre and didn't overwhelm it."Using performance capture, we made Ariel shape-shift and change into all these apparitions," he says.

Although Serkis has made his name—and most of his money—by imitating the movements of creatures while wearing a performance-capture suit, he began his career as a stage actor in touring companies. His roles included the MC in Cabaret, the Fool in King Lear and parts in The Threepenny Opera and Steven Berkoff’s Decadence.

"I did 60 plays before I started doing film and television and before Lord of the Rings happened in 1999. But all the time in the back of my mind, I had started to write stories and make short films," he recalls.

He realized he was becoming known as a personality in his own right when people started approaching him, usually when he was on a bus or in the subway. “People would come up to me and try and be secretive and say, ‘Can you do the Gollum voice for me?’" he says. "And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? It’s 8:30 in the morning on the Victoria Line.’”

He did, however, do voicemail messages for friends in the croaking gurgle he adopted for the voice of Gollum, the piteous and treacherous creature he portrayed in Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy.

"I absolutely loved Gollum and he was a huge part of my life and transformed it in many, many ways. He opened me up to a fantastic array of interesting, wild, out-there characters.”

It was through collaborating with Jackson that he learned the craft of directing the hard way. "After working with him on King Kong, he asked me to direct second unit on The Hobbit, which was a big challenge because it wasn't the sort of stage where a first-time director is making a small auteur movie with maybe four or five weeks to shoot and a very small story with maybe two or three actors in a room and very personal," he recalls. “I went straight onto the Hobbit trilogy with a crew of 150 people shooting 48 frames a second and a huge cast of actors, shooting all over New Zealand for 200 days. That was my first experience of directing and it was monumental, and I can’t thank Peter Jackson enough for the film education that I got from doing that, because it was an extraordinary experience.

"I shot everything, from all of the aerials to the performance with every single cast member to pick-up shots and entire scenes. It was a huge, huge step for me, so when it came to helming Mowgli, the Jungle Book movie, I had a lot of confidence and I felt very comfortable. And then when it came to Breathe, again I felt like I had been on a long enough journey to be able to really tell the story in the way that I wanted to."

What tends to be forgotten now is that during his almost 30-year career Serkis has portrayed several real people in movies, including infamous English Moors murderer Ian Brady; Lord Longford in “Longford,” which earned him a Golden Globe nomination; the grave-robber William Hare in Burke and Hare; Manchester record producer Martin Hannett in 24 Hour Party People, Albert Einstein in the BBC movie Einstein and Eddington and the polio-afflicted rock singer Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Serkis’ performance-capture gallery also includes the drink-sodden Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin.

There is talk of two more Tintin movies and a possible fourth Planet of the Apes tale, and although Serkis will be a willing participant, his sights are now elsewhere.

“I love acting, but I haven’t been onstage for nearly 20 years and I would quite like to do a play," he says. "But apart from that, directing is very much where I’m heading.”