CinemaCon: Honoree Andy Serkis on 'Finding the Essence of Performance' (Q&A)

The performance-capture trailblazer, who will receive CinemaCon's Vanguard Award, reveals the challenges of breaking new CG ground and what's next for "Planet of the Apes" chimpanzee Caesar.
Twentieth Century Fox

This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Ever-evolving visual effects techniques have allowed artists to deliver CG characters that would never have been possible mere years before. But few are as memorable as the chimpanzee Caesar in Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this summer's sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Kong in Peter Jackson's retelling of the classic King Kong; and the game-changing tragic creature Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

All three of those characters were infused with life by Andy Serkis. While the veteran actor is best known for his performance-capture-based roles, he has appeared as a regular flesh-and-blood actor in films (Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, 13 Going on 30), TV (Emmy-nominated for BBC miniseries Little Dorrit) and onstage (Othello, Cabaret and King Lear). He's also a director (including second unit director on The Hobbit) and is developing projects -- as well as filmmaking technology and techniques -- at his London-based performance-capture studio The Imaginarium. THR caught up with the 49-year-old multihyphenate on the eve of CinemaCon's annual awards ceremony, where he was set to receive the Vanguard Award, and before he was announced as the director of Warner Bros.' live-action remake of The Jungle Book.

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In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we saw Caesar grow from an infant chimp who is loved and nurtured to an adult fighting for his freedom. How will his character continue to evolve in Dawn?

At the end of the first film, it was indicated that a virus was going to sweep across the world. Our story picks up 10 years on; Caesar has led [the apes] to freedom and he is building a community. He is a strong leader, but not about dominating; it is very egalitarian. Then come the humans, who are desperately trying to survive the virus. In the search for resources, they run into the apes. This is the big turning point. Caesar is suddenly jerked back into the very difficult position of being torn between the surviving humans and his own kind. As you mentioned, he had an exceptional upbringing; he was loved and fathered by someone who had taken great care of him. He has great feelings for human beings even though he had to go away and find his own identity.

How did you prepare for the role?

When I originally played Caesar, it always felt like he was a human in ape's skin. He grows up believing he is human and then finds out he is not, in effect. I approached Caesar as an outsider within the apes group … someone who is neither one nor the other. That's the core of his character: He's a loner, an outsider, who now has found family -- a wife [played by Judy Greer] and a teenage son. He thinks he has finally found his identity. Then he encounters the humans and it all unravels.

Under your Imaginarium banner, you're directing a performance-capture version of George Orwell's Animal Farm. How are you bringing animals like the horse Boxer to life? I know you called on the artists who created the puppet-centric stage production of War Horse.

We literally took the horse puppet and put markers on it. The performance looked extraordinary [during shooting]. But then we looked at the digitized version, and we noticed that the spine wasn't working as well as it was to the naked eye. We had to rethink it and realized it needed a flexible spine. We actually took the puppeteers out of inside the puppet and attached a flexible spine [a foam noodle like those used in swimming pools] -- and it works rather well. You can see every subtle detail of movement. You need the physics to work. It was much more like a theater rehearsal, and the period of exploration is crucial.

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Overall, how do you view the process of performance capture?

Performance capture, for me, is finding the essence of a performance. However the final "product" is arrived at technically, it's more about process and feeling the enthusiasm of actors who come through our door. Performance-capture cameras capture a facial performance and body movement … but it's authoring the role that interests me. If you are not moved by the character, no amount of CGI will give you a performance that is emotionally engaging or devastating -- what a live-action performance does.