Interview | Andy Serkis talks Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Set 10 years after its predecessor Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sees Andy Serkis reprise his role as Caesar, leader of a genetically evolved ape colony that is threatened by a band of human survivors. We’re not monkeying around when we say Serkis delivers one of the finest performances of the year, and when combined with WETA’s phenomenal CGI effects the result is something truly special.
Along with a handful of other journalists I was fortunate enough to sit down with the actor ahead of the film’s UK release, and an enjoyably chatty Serkis talked about how far performance capture has come in addition to developing Caesar’s voice and where the series might be headed in future instalments. It’s all been transcribed for your reading pleasure below.
What state was the storyline in when Rupert [Wyatt] was developing it, and what did Matt [Reeves] inherit?
As you well know Rupert Wyatt who brilliantly directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes was going to helm this but because of scheduling and other projects he had to leave. But before he left he had started to work on a script with Rick and Amanda. Basically the story was landing a lot later on so the Apes had evolved further and had moved into the world of man a little more. When Matt took it over, one of the things that he absolutely adored about Rise was this delicious period of not moving too far down the line so that you’re missing out on the evolution. So that’s what he wanted to focus on, and he decided to drop anchor 10 years on rather than 30 or 40 years.
Rupert loved Caesar’s journey and the growth of Caesar’s character, and he really wanted to make a film that was not a post-apocalyptic Apes war movie. It wasn’t going to be about the Ape-Human conflict. It was just prior to that, and it allowed the Apes to breathe and develop as a community.
Without getting into any spoilers, can you tell us a little bit about the community of the apes themselves?
The reality of it is that Caesar was brought up in a lab and there are a number of lab chimps that have escaped. There are also chimps and gorillas and orang-utans from zoos, and there are also chimps and orang-utans from the entertainment industry. So there’s a whole eclectic mix of different apes who have been brought up in that community. Their experiences growing up and the way the humans have treated them is hugely varied. So it’s very much about Caesar galvanising them and actually trying to impress upon them that conflict is not the way forward.
You’ve said motion capture is just another tool to manifest that final on-screen performance. Is there any way you can work with the developers of the technology?
I’ve embraced it as a technology because it’s such a liberating tool. I’ve been lucky enough to have the roles to do it with and embrace the roles to do it with. But also in recent times with the formation of The Imaginarium, I’m actually working with them closely on a day-to-day basis. We have a studio and we’re furthering the art of performance capture in film, video game, television and also in the live action arena, and we’re building the tools and software to support that. We’re still like a digital creature workshop in a sense that we work with other people on their film projects as well as evolving our own. We bring together directors and writers and put together an art performance space and help them evolve their digital characters using all of our techniques. We consult and we have an academy for teaching other actors and also people behind the computers to evolve and build bridges to the industry. So we are building our own set of tools to have this creature development workshop.
So is that in some way going to lead to an industry standard for this, or do people just do things in different ways?
There are different approaches and different systems and there’s different proprietary software and technology of course, but the UK I think has needed a creatively-led solution to this particularly with the greater influx of movies which are using this technology. As you know the British film industry is actually in a pretty healthy state at the moment. There’s no studio space to be found, it’s on a roll at the moment.
You mentioned that the Imaginarium is helping to train other actors in motion capture. Did you yourself help out people like Toby and Kodi on this film?
The performance coach with this was Terry Notary who has worked on many movies – including The Hobbit – as a physical coach. I worked with Judy [Greer], coached her a little as an actor. Toby came and met us at the Imaginarium early on for his first audition so it was great to see him get the role and he’s turned in an amazing performance.
We heard that six actors could be on location motion captured at the same time. It looks incredible.
More than that actually. It really has moved on incredibly ever since I started using it 14 years ago. It’s taken the effect and given true performance to the effect. It’s moved from being an on-stage reference to actually authoring the performance. The technology has got to the point now where the fidelity is so strong to the on set performance. The performance can be used in different ways but the way that it’s used in this particular instance by a director like Matt Reeves…you won’t move on from shooting a scene until he’s gotten what he wants from his actors, and the animators and visual effects will just have to adhere to that. I’ve seen the technology evolve to enable that to happen.
And it was all shot on location?
Yeah, all shot on location. It was a huge task. It still felt like it was character-based and intimate and all about the acting and not worried too much about technology.
When it came to shooting on location, I’d imagine that because you’re wearing all this tech and big suits but it’s raining and damp all the time conditions aren’t most ideal for an actor, especially when you’re concentrating on how you’re moving rather than watching your footing if you’re climbing…
That’s absolutely true. Particularly in the early part of the shoot and towards the end with the Winter in Vancouver, it was very wet. We had to stand high on top of trees and logs and all sorts of things, it was quite precarious. I had to do a fair few jumps and quite big leaps. You could have easily rolled an ankle or twist and break something, so you have to train to do these things. We also had an amazing, well-prepared team of performers who were all so skilled in gymnastics and stunts and parkour and were brilliant at all that.
You hear all these stories of when actors have to go through quite heavy makeup to prepare for a film. Is it the same for when you’re donning the suit? Are you having to be heavily towelled? [laughs]
You go through a process of preparation every day which is called a range of motion. You then go onto the tech guys and they put on all the wiring which is quite a considerable operation with the strands that they attach to your body. You then put on a head mounted camera and go in to a volume and do a basic exercise to calibrate your suit to the cameras, and then you do the same for your head mounted camera. So that is the equivalent of putting on makeup.
Are there any downsides to it, because you sort of alluded to their being quite a heavy smell [laughs], which never even occurred to me at the time…
There are not really many downsides to it. I don’t really consider acting as a performance capture character any different on set to acting as a live action character. I love it as a way of working because it allows you to play anything and it does require huge cojones to get up there and do it. Sometimes when you’re in motion capture and you’re doing a film like Tintin for example, it’s a very dry environment. It’s more like the equivalent of working on a stage rehearsal space so you have to do a lot of work internally and rely on your imagination.
You spend more time in lycra perhaps than Andrew Garfield does as Spider-Man [laughs], but you mentioned training. What do you do to keep in shape?
Obviously the build-up to the shoot, a lot of running and I cycle quite a bit. But mainly it’s having children, they keep me very fit! [laughs]
Imaginarium Studios are working on Animal Farm at the moment. How do Caesar and his tribe of primates compare to the animals in Animal Farm?
That’s a very good question. It’s so much easier working on primates because they’re humanoid characters and the correlation is 1 to 1. We’ve been evolving methodology of how to create the characters for Animal Farm which has actually taken a year or so working with very talented actors and performers to make four-legged animals from chickens and beasts to pigs and cows. We work in real time so we have digital avatar puppets on screen that you can see. The actors are sometimes bonded together with various pieces of equipment to make spines so you can have two people playing one part. So it’s a very evolved and exciting digital character creation set up for Animal Farm. Jungle Book has also now come along, and that’s a project that we’re fully involved in.
We’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes and we’ve got Dawn coming. Is there an intention to go to the Planet of the Apes?
It’s very much intentional. There’s already a third film announced. We know what the end result is. We know that at some point we’re going to arrive back at the 1968 movie. We could land there or we could get halfway there or we could move on maybe two years because it’s not really about what happens, it’s about character and how you get there. If the appetite is there and people want to see the story of how that happens over the course of more than one film I expect it will become apparent.
The performance technology speaks for itself, and it’s very evolved at this stage. Is there any film that you’ve watched recently that performance capture would’ve made a big difference in?
It is used so much now in movies. When big-budget films are made there’s a period of pre-visualisation and that’s a visual storyboard of the entire movie and it’s a very good way of blocking out character and story. The great thing about performance capture is that you can play scenes out in their entirety and not have to move cameras around. When the actors have played out the scene, they can go and sit down and you can literally go into the virtual camera and cut together a scene using camera lenses and placing the camera wherever you like. It’s become part of the industry, regardless of the characters that are finally manifested on screen. It is used more and more in the big blockbuster, comic-book type films…
We heard you were working on the Avengers sequel…
Yeah, I was doing some performance capture consultancy for that. We’ve been working with Mark Ruffalo on The Hulk and James Spader with his character. Mark Ruffalo is really enjoying it, he’s enjoying the freedom of finally being able to play The Hulk and be on set and we’ve created an atmosphere for him that allows him to do that fully.
Thinking about your intent and Mr Reeves’ intent to match the performances 1 to 1, where’s the limit to that in this film? Is there any time that you want to change the performance slightly?
Absolutely, because you can go back in and do pick-ups. If we haven’t caught it on set we film it again in the motion capture volume. Randall Cook is a very good friend of mine – we worked on Lord of the Rings together – and the debate at the moment is to do with authorship of the performance. So there’s still a grey kind of area about where the performance is truly authored – is it the actor or is it animated? In this case it really is the authored performance by the actors. If you take a film like Tintin for instance, the underlying performance and all the physicality, the emotional content of the performance is exactly what the actor does. But because of that genre of filmmaking there’s a slightly more cartoon element. So it’s obviously a debate and people see it in different ways.
What’s the appeal of making it a 1 to 1?
In this case, the emotional content is paramount. The aspirations of this film were all about emotional content, and that comes from the actor’s performances. If you don’t get it on the day, if you don’t film that moment and if it doesn’t move you as a director, if you’re not getting that from your actors on set, it’s never going to be painted in later on. It’s not something that can be manufactured.
It’s clear that Caesar is talking a lot more in Dawn than he does in Rise. How did you go about finding and developing Caesar’s voice?
That was the hardest challenge. In Rise, a lot of Caesar’s expressions was through body language, connecting physically and emotionally through eye contact. For this one, when the script arrived and we started to work on it, the intentions were in the lines but it was never the way you were going to say it. So we went to find the linguistic vocabulary, and because Caesar was meant to be the most advanced of the apes, I knew that I’d have to be speaking more often than the others basically. It took a lot of finding and exploring to find the right tone so it wasn’t over-articulate, so that it wasn’t too smart and that it was a very prototype, basic language that can also express some quite philosophical arguments. There are moments where Caesar is called on to be more reflective and more philosophical. It’s much easier to speak or to make a noise as an ape if it’s fuelled by an emotion of anger, but if it’s an intellectual moment or a philosophical moment that’s harder to pull off.
Having been through it twice and knowing that you’re going to go through it for a third time, what do you think needs to be fixed about the process? What are you thinking about getting right next time?
Well it’s going to be even more difficult I imagine next time. Linguistically the apes become much more fluent. If you go back to the five original films and the TV series that came out of those films you have Rory McDowell chattering away. I would imagine that the next iteration won’t be that far down the line and I think that will be a huge challenge. Also, the physicality as well; how they hold themselves and how they discuss and I imagine there will be more council scenes.
Are there any more technical problems to be solved?
It is the best it’s ever been, this iteration. The facial likeness is just off the chain. There are further solutions to be had. Facial real time is something that’s being worked on, which is being able to puppeteer a digital character in real time. Once that happens for broadcast TV and so on and so forth you can imagine something like a spitting image being done using this technology with a rapid turnaround. The facial capture pipeline is what is going to change the most.
With the real time aspect of it, do you think that has a theatre application as well? How far away is that?
I don’t think it’s far away at all. We’re almost there and I give it about a year, maybe two years from being able to have a fully interactive performance.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in 3D, but Rise wasn’t. If you could see a scene from Rise in 3D, which one would it be?
That’s a good point. It would probably be some of the scenes with the Apes once they’ve broken out. 3D is fantastic for action and for lots of depth and layering and so on. When the Apes took over San Francisco bridge and so on, that would be pretty cool.
You obviously played Kong and you helped out with Godzilla. If they fought each other, who would win? [laughs]
Well, obviously Godzilla has atomic breath…I think King Kong would win actually.
This article was originally published at HeyUGuys.