Capture suits Serkis just fine

Fest Traveler: Whistler Film Festival - Variety Tech Pioneer Award

Andy Serkis has worked in performance capture acting as it grew from an obscure technical process to an accepted form. We spoke to him on his history with performance capture and how it’s changed from an actor’s point of view.

How did you get started with performance capture?
I was very much a regular actor working feature film and television. I got a call from my agent saying, “They’re doing ‘Lord of the Rings’ down in New Zealand, they want you to do this voice for a digital character. It’ll be about two weeks’ work.” And I said, “Now look man, there must be a dozen decent roles in that movie. Can you not give me up for something proper?” At that point, actually Gollum wasn’t going to be created using performance capture because performance capture didn’t exist. It was explained to me as a key frame animated creature that I was going to be lending a voice to. However when I met Peter Jackson, it was clear that he wanted to go beyond that.

How did you feel about that at the time?
I have to say it was quite a scary proposition. I began to sort of straddle this world beyond my knowledge, beyond the acting world and being involved with people in a completely different way on a film set. You’re used to, as an actor, either nailing a scene at that moment or not on the day. I had to begin to learn the process, that it was going to be a new way of working, and that I’d have to re-engage with the scenes in the future, which is what happened because I then went back and worked in a very rudimentary motion capture volume. I’ll never forget the first time of putting on a suit and markers, and I would literally only move about 3 feet of square. Putting on these goggles which, through the computers, allowed me to see through Gollum’s eyes. It was just an extraordinary kind of epiphany, really, and I felt wow, this has so much potential, and immediately fell in love with it.

Does performance capture have a big learning curve for actors?
Because the technology has evolved so much, it’s become much much more of a transparent process. In the early days, with “Lord of the Rings” I’d go and work with animators on each individual shot afterwards, and I was around to continue referencing with them. At that time, we weren’t using facial capture, so the facial expressions weren’t driven directly from what I was doing. My performance was filmed on 35 mm and then the animators would copy frame by frame, they did it literally side by side. That changed during “King Kong” when we started to use facial capture. I suppose that’s the transition from motion capture into performance capture from my point of view.

Why do you feel you’ve become so successful at performance capture and so identified with it?
I’ve enjoyed an incredibly rich relationship with Weta. Weta are, in my mind, the world’s leaders in translating actors’ performance using performance capture technology, because it comes from a place of wanting to tell a story and wanting to be honest to a character’s journey and having fidelity to the actor’s performance on the day with the director.

And I’ve worked with pretty much the same motion capture team, including on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” for the last 12 years, so I’ve had an incredible relationship with these guys. I think they probably understand the muscle structure of my face more than anyone in the world, so they know just how to interpret the emotions, thoughts, feelings of the character that I’m playing.

I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in that sense. I feel I’m the driver of a Formula 1 racing car.

Hollywood altitude | Warmest welcomes | Laurels rest here | Capture suits Serkis just fine