Andy Serkis: Hollywood's Genius Shapeshifter

The Performance Capture Master on the Blurred Lines Between Games and Movies

Games Features Andy Serkis
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Andy Serkis: Hollywood's Genius Shapeshifter

Andy Serkis is living proof that the oft-spewed “jack of all trades, master of none” theory is complete and utter bullshit.

Since his seminal performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s, the classically trained stage performer has forged several thriving careers not just as a specialist actor, but as a director and producer of high-concept film and theater built around what he refers to as “next generation storytelling.” Instead of pushing back, he’s fully embraced and expanded on being relegated to the role of “the motion capture guy.”

It’s here, when you invoke the now-familiar term “motion capture,” that Serkis will gently correct you.

“We say ‘performance capture,’ not ‘motion capture’ anymore,” he tells me at the Chateau Marmont ahead of the November 21 release of the Planet of the Apes: The Last Frontier videogame, which he produced. Take notes—it’s performance capture, not motion capture—kind of like when a comedian stresses that it’s not a skit, it’s a sketch. “With performance capture, the whole performance is caught with the emotion and audio and facial expressions in real time.”

Sure, this is a relatively small clarification, but the better part of Serkis’s last twenty years have been spent making them to a general public that still hasn’t quite embraced performance capture for what it is—an incredible tool, not a vehicle for spectacle.

While producing The Last Frontier is his latest venture, the past ten years has demonstrated that Serkis has become a jack of many, many trades with a common vision. Consequently, he gets to ask the questions that no one in Hollywood is qualified to ask, my favorite of which is “How does a tiger really behave, Benedict Cumberbatch?”

That’s right—the artist formerly known as Sherlock is playing Bengal tiger Shere Khan in Serkis’s upcoming adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, slated for a 2018 release.

“Ours is not a spectacle,” he says of the film. “It’s a drama with actors as animals.”

It’s an ambitious creative vision to helm, but speaks to Serkis’s larger mission in the midst of what seems to be an endless stream of high-profile projects. The last half-year alone has found the English jack-of-all-trades in a leading (hopefully Oscar-recognized) role in War for the Planet of the Apes, directed his first narrative film Breathe starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, has upcoming appearances as Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and a major role as classic Marvel villain Klaw in next year’s Black Panther. This string of high-profile projects all leads up to Serkis’s Jungle Book, which he produced and directed with a fully performance captured A-list cast, appearing himself as Baloo. The only major role that Serkis hasn’t tackled yet is writing the source material itself, seeming to remain focused on adapting new technology to recognizable characters and themes.

It follows, then, that Serkis is the ideal candidate to adapt the world of Planet of the Apes from its filmic universe to a small-screen videogame—he’s built a whole career and philosophy built on the concept of thoughtful adaptation, whether it be adapting classic acting to work in performance capture or adapting a big-budget movie to a videogame that relies on individual experience.

It’s a lot, to say the least, but to talk to Andy Serkis about any of his projects is to talk to him about all of them—as the Serkis universe has expanded, its core values have remained firm.

“Just as we were going into the back end of The Return of the King, I really did think that my career would go back to normal as a conventional actor,” he says. “And it was at that point that Peter Jackson asked me if I wanted to play King Kong. That was such a huge epiphany. Suddenly it became, ‘there’s further to go here. There isn’t just this one character.’ I’d now realized that here was an opportunity for actors to play anything.”

Before Serkis could prove this theory from a directorial standpoint, he first mastered performance capture as an actor in roles that ranged from Gollum and Kong to Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise and Captain Haddock in 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin. Follwing 2005’s Kong, he began to work in short bursts as a second unit director focused on motion capture, first with videogames like 2007’s Heavenly Sword, then in addition to performing as Gollum in Jackson’s The Hobbit series of the early 2010s, then again as a performance capture consultant for 2014’s Godzilla. He’d dabbled in bringing the technology into live environments, consulting on a production of The Tempest with the Royal Shakespeare Company that was the first to feature a live performance captured actor play the shape-shifting Ariel in real time.

“It doesn’t matter who you are physically, or what sex you are, or what color of skin you have, or how old you are,” Serkis said of the performance capture. “You can actually play any character. That symbolized this sense of freedom, philosophically, and a whole new world opening up to me. I’ve really become very evangelical about it.”

The concept of being able to strip any performance of race, gender and age is a little heady, even in the age of identity, but Serkis believes it firmly. He demonstrates this in his work by making a concentrated effort to tell the story, like the last two Planet of the Apes films, with performance capture actors in close-up as much as possible. Where pop culture emphasized sprawling trailer shots and aerials of a technology-based landscape, the jack-of-all-trades elects to keep our eyes on where the action is. To Serkis, performance capture is the opposite of spectacle—rather, it’s the removal of all artifice and need for extensive makeup, and a route to raw performances that weren’t possible before.

It’s here where videogame projects like The Last Frontier come in handy in moving forward Serkis’s many ever-developing skillsets. The single or multiplayer game allows players to act with aggression against the humans or apes or find a peaceful solution based on their decisions, and allowed Serkis and The Imaginarium to experiment with different approaches to performance capture on a smaller scale, likely with the intention of applying lessons learned to larger projects. The videogame industry and film have become reliant on each other for progress, a long-fought battle that Serkis’s work was integral in.

“There was this sort of negative attitude toward the videogame industry in the past,” he said of the early Lord of the Rings years. “Now, videogame technology is what’s driving production for movies.”

In his case, becoming the jack of all trades is integral to being able to create work that the world has not seen before. Serkis speaks about his work as a series of “if that, then what” phrases because it’s critical to its existence—could we have a fully performance capture movie of Jungle Book’s scale be released by a more qualified candidate than one who had mastered the art himself, witnessed the development of technology in real time and spent the better part of ten years learning how to direct narrative that worked with performance capture and not in spite of it?

“It’s all in the eyes, actually, that’s what it always comes down to,” he said. “It comes down to the believability of looking into another being’s eyes, whether it’s a person or a panther.”

In a world that demands adaptation more than ever, Andy Serkis does not fight—he adapts, and his art evolves with him.


Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.

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