Andy Serkis says he’s “hanging by a thread” in the run-up to the release of his directorial debut Breathe. Starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield in the true story of a couple fighting polio, it’s a departure for Serkis, who’s won much critical acclaim acting in motion capture roles in such gems as Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and War for the Planet of the Apes. Serkis will follow Breathe by helming next year’s Jungle Book–a performance capture extravaganza in which he plays the role of Baloo.
But this Oscar season, Serkis’s reprised role as the ape Caesar in War really has voters buzzing. Having done much to legitimize performance capture as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings when the form was new, Serkis has now spent six years with Caesar over three Planet of the Apes films.
Performance capture follows every tiny subtle movement made by an actor, which are then expertly applied to digital imagery—a process Serkis describes as “enabling the actor to offer the role on set in exactly the same way if you were wearing a costume and makeup”.
He’s keen to point out that this description should not detract from the excellence of the technical work itself, but for him, he says, “There is no difference from an acting point of view. The approach is no different to a live-action role. It’s not standing in a voice booth for two hours every six months, it’s living with that character day-in and day-out on set for the entire duration of the shoot, living and breathing every single moment, making acting choices that you would do in the conventional sense. The performance is not augmented or changed by a committee of animators. It is honored, and the fidelity is sought to translate that performance. In the past, it’s almost felt like performance capture is kind of like a drug-assisted sport. Now that’s just not true. The performance is the performance.”
Serkis also found that playing Caesar allowed a unique take on the human condition. “If that character was a human being,” he says, “it would be an extraordinary journey. But as an ape and having that kind of filter, it’s that times 10 really; because we’re able to look at the human condition through the eyes of apes, it just elevates it into something else.”
Now, letting go of Caesar with this final movie in the series has been a wrench. “I really feel the loss of not being able to play that character anymore,” Serkis says. “It’s been thrilling at every turn, and a real challenge; a massive challenge with each movie. There are key points along the way where he shifts and they’ve all been incredibly fascinating to chart.”
Serkis is hopeful that performance capture will feature more in future filmmaking. “It’s absolutely about performance,” he says. “It’s opening up great avenues for next-generation storytelling. So, I think the acting community really needs to embrace it.”