Andy Serkis goes Ape
With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the actor continues to change the face of film-making through performance capture technology
Andy Serkis is the future of cinema.
This is no idle claim. For over a decade, Serkis has been a trailblazer for the art of performance capture (perf-cap).
From Gollum to King Kong and now, Caesar, Serkis made his name bringing iconic characters to life on the big screen while rarely showing his actual face.
The British actor is receiving huge praise for his role in the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
In the movie, opening tomorrow, the 50-year-old actor reprises Caesar, the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee wholed a rebellion against humans, and now - with mankind decimated by the "simian flu" - stands as the leader of an army of smart apes.
Serkis himself is taking on cinema with his army of perf-cap specialists.
While he has won acclaim for regular acting gigs, his biggest roles have been performed wearing Lycra covered in reflective markers, his face decorated in white dots.
While Dawn boasts an incredible cast led by Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, there is no debate that the show belongs to the apes.
Variety magazine called Serkis' performance "empathetic" and "emotional" while The Hollywood Reporter said Serkis "gives the most expressive, soulful, deeply felt performance of a non-human character the big screen has ever offered".
They are not alone in praising Serkis.
"People assume that playing an ape in performance capture involves lots of moving around and mimicking," Serkis told New York Daily News.
"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."
Before becoming the perf-cap maestro, Serkis studied visual arts at Lancaster University and picked up acting while working backstage at a local playhouse.
He honed his craft on stage and in bit parts in TV shows before moving into film making his debut in 1994's Royal Deceit opposite Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale.
His world changed in 1999 when he auditioned for Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings. Initially the gig was to simply voice an animated character.
MORE THAN A VOICE
But the way Serkis embodied the character beyond putting on a voice convinced director Peter Jackson to experiment with motion capture.
Later, Jackson also brought Serkis on board to give King Kong some depth; and it was after wrapping Kong that Serkis went on to spearhead the perf-cap revolution.
Serkis set up The Imaginarium Studios with his producing partner Jonathan Cavendish in 2011.
The company aimed to be the home of next-generation story-telling.
Serkis is seeking to train a new talent pool as "(performance capture) is still a burgeoning industry," he told Total Film.
Serkis and his Imaginarium team served as consultants on Dawn, which pushed the technology yet again. Instead of the clean enclosure of a green screen studio set, it was mostly shot on location in the middle of a Canadian forest.
Such is Serkis' cache, he is being entrusted with some huge properties.
Next up is Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Serkis has not only coached Mark Ruffalo on how to improve and "own" The Hulk, he also has an undisclosed role in the Avengers sequel.
Then he heads to JJ Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII. His company "is providing all of the performance characters, and I myself am playing a character in it", he told SciFiNow.
But it isn't all mega-budget franchises. Later this year, Serkis will direct a new version of George Orwell's Animal Farm.
He told Wired: "We want 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."
Keeping it literary, a new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is also in the works.
"There really is no limit because there's always a solution to creating a digital character," he told Total Film. "You're not tied down by your size, shape, sex, colour, whatever."
He is optimistic that this new form of film-making will one day be accepted by everyone, the Academy, in particular.
There was a campaign for a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2003 for Serkis' work as Gollum.
In 2011, he was again pushed for the same category following critical acclaim of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Even James Franco lobbied for his co-star.
"What is needed is recognition," wrote Franco in a Deadline Hollywood article supporting an Oscar nod. "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."
While Serkis has little yearning for awards or recognition, he hopes that performance capture - where character creation is limitless - will be fully embraced.
"What worries me is when people don't understand what it is (or) the nature of how these performances are played," Serkis told New York Daily News.
"Don't get me wrong, the visual effects work is extraordinary and off the chain in Dawn but you don't get a character by just pushing buttons or moving pixels around," he said.
"Awards would be lovely. But genuinely the reward for me is getting to transform into these characters."
Moral dilemma in new movie
Matt Reeves is best known as the director of Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010). With Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, he entered the reletively new territory of performance capture.
The sequel to 2011's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes takes place 10 years after Caesar (Andy Serkis) freed a colony of apes from captivity and created a safe haven for his kind in the forest. That is, until humans threaten to destroy their community.
The US director, 48, talks about directing the movie and his admiration for Serkis.
On choosing to direct Dawn
I was obsessed with the original Planet Of The Apes (1968) as a kid, and I love what they did on Rise. I realised that with Rise, you actually turn the audience into an ape, because emotionally, you become Caesar. I was blown away.
On collaborating with Serkis
He is a joy to work with.
He's as good an actor as I've ever worked with. I think he's a genius. I'm capturing a performance that is profound and emotional.
I remember we were doing a blocking rehearsal for a very emotional scene. We were just trying to find out where everyone should stand, as a start.
At the end of the rehearsal, I looked over at Andy's eyes, and he had been crying throughout the whole scene - in character. All we were doing is blocking. I thought: "This man is never not in it. Never not committed".
On what is at the heart of Dawn
Rise, because of the set-up, you're rooting for Caesar, and the humans are just a little more simply drawn.
They're not as complex as they could be.
We're trying to take that a step further to include a moral dilemma here. There's a real question that's not as simple as humans are bad, apes are good. This is about the nature of both of them, and their own struggle for survival.
And there is that question of violence. You're wondering, "Can they avoid this descending into violence? Can these two populations avoid turning against each other?"
The many faces of Andy Serkis
The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
The Hobbit trilogy (2012-now)
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)
13 Going On 30 (2004)
King Kong (2005)
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)
The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)