With the recent release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis yet again proves that he is a master of motion capture or mo-cap performance and technology: his London-based company The Imaginarium is already slated to be a mo-cap consultant for Star Wars VII, with adaptations of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book in the works. And as if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Serkis is also part of the cast of the next Avengers and Star Wars movies; what roles he will play are still a secret.
Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy officially put mo-cap in the mainstream consciousness; now with the last installment of The Hobbit due out this December, the 14-year journey into Middle Earth has finally come to an end. This, the 50-year-old Serkis ruminated, “. . . is quite a sad thing . . . and at the same time, it is opening up doors to huge, great things.” Indeed.
Following the iconic Gollum, Serkis played King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin, all motion capture performances. “I’m very pleased that motion capture technology has become standard,” Serkis has recently said. “Every single nuance is now very closer [sic] to what I’m doing on set, which is very gratifying.” Mo-cap only enhances but cannot replace the actor’s job, as demonstrated by the extensive study and research Serkis still does before playing a character, whether it’s studying gorillas in Rwanda for King Kong or channeling a cat coughing up a furball for Gollum’s singular raspy voice.
Working with WETA, Peter Jackson’s FX company, Serkis has helped set the visual stage for more Planet of the Apes movies to come. What makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stand out is that the motion capture ape Caesar is the main character of the movie, and a highly complex and nuanced one at that. As most of Dawn was shot outdoors, the technology had to adapt to this challenge, which meant building mo-cap cameras that could handle outdoor lighting conditions then placing many of them around the chosen location. The actors had to adapt as well in their mo-cap suits to the varying temperatures of the locations: from freezing Vancouver to hot and humid New Orleans.
Now that Serkis has shown mo-cap to be a flexible tool with a wide range of expressivity, it can only enhance traditional animation techniques and potentially make the process more efficient overall: “[With mo-cap] the role of the actor is much more like a live-action situation. . . [The animators’] expertise goes into honoring the performance that was created on set.” For The Jungle Book, Serkis is currently doing tests of blending live-action with CG characters, mo-cap with key-frame animation, hoping perhaps to take the best from both worlds to create Mowgli’s jungle, a darker vision that is possibly closer to the original story than the 1968 Disney film. How it will compare to Jon Favreau’s version should be very interesting . . .
Serkis is currently in the midst of directing Animal Farm, which will apparently combine mo-cap with facial performance capture and puppeteering. In developing the script for Orwell’s classic fable, Serkis “. . . found a way to tell the story for a modern audience, and found a way of creating characters and the aesthetic and the whole thing . . .” Given his track record, it is safe to expect more groundbreaking work from the multi-talented Andy Serkis. Bravo!