You will have to forgive Andy Serkis for being a little evangelical about the art of performance capture. That is performance capture, not motion capture as so many have called it. For him, and perhaps eventually for everybody, it is about capturing a performance. The kind actors give.
Things are improving, though. Serkis is one of the top two billed in the coming Rise of the Planet of the Apes despite never appearing for an instant on screen. Some have dared to suggest that his turn as a chimpanzee could elevate the recognition of a digital performance to award-winning levels, but pre-conceived notions about performance-capture are difficult to dispell.
"It’s a long, long road. A long, hard lonely road," he told Movies.com during an exclusive chat in the midst of a busy Comic-Con. "People really still think there is a kind of a mystery attached to it but in actual fact as technology improves it only serves to prove that acting is acting and all it is is another way of recording an actor’s performance."
Lon Cheany faced similar attitudes when he put on his own makeup for some of the Universal monster movies that have since gone on to be some of Hollywood's most legendary films and performances.
Like Cheany, Serkis is something of the go-to guy when it comes to making creatures or monsters come to life on screen. His Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy was a landmark accomplishment by any standard, both technical and dramatic. He moved next to the titular character in King Kong and is coming soon to a theater near you with both Tintin (as Captain Haddock) and of course Rise of the Planet of the Apes's Caesar. And, in case anybody is confused, Kong and Caesar aren't remotely the same.
"Kong was a completely different beast in a completely different universe. He was a very lonely, psychotic hobo past his prime who is just living every day trying to survive. He has never had any kind of connective moment with any other being," he said.
"Caesar, in actual fact, starts off life being loved. He is rescued from the lab where has inherited this super-intelligence and he is nurtured and loved and attended to by this James Franco character who is like a surrogate father to him.
"He begins to display this intelligence which for him is very natural. It is like a gifted child who can play concertos at the age of four or can work out complicated algebra questions, you know just really very gifted."
Kong was a little bit one-note emotionally; he was an animal that changed for a single being but remained an animal up until his death. Caesar is much more complex with a difficult and more human arc.
"And he has his moment of self awareness and he realizes he isn’t one of these species, he is an outsider, he is a freak, he is Frankenstein’s monster."
To hear Serkis' voice relate this information about his character certainly is telling. Whatever happens on screen, this actor has a connection and deep awareness for the intelligent primate. But how does he communicate that to audiences? How does he project through the CGI special effects? How do you show intelligence on film?
"Caeser ... he is caught in this netherworld and the challenge for us was trying to reflect his intelligence without trying to over anthropomorphizing him. For instance, his hands, when he is thinking, its like when human’s think they often have a displacement activity, for instance, so we thought about things like that with Caeser."
Serkis, as always, has done his research.
"Chimpanzees are very dexterous with their fingernails and their fingers. Their fine motor skills are incredible. But there is just something about having him doing something as a displacement activity whilst thinking that is more human. All the time we just wanted to find his own language of displaying his intellect and his emotions."
Beyond Caesar, Serkis is opening a capture studio that will service games and film (as well as his own projects) and includes an academy to arm actors with the skills to embrace digital makeup. He is continuing his personal talent arsenal by taking on the challenge of Second Unit Director on Jackson's pair of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
The shoot for the two Hobbit films was even arranged to put most or all of Serkis' work on the front of the shoot, leaving him free to run the second unit without having to shift back and forth. This means perhaps the most famous chapter of the book Riddles in the Dark, where Bilbo and Gollum play a game of riddles, is already in the can.
"it’s a huge leap, a massive challenge and 3D and working on a huge film and crew but Peter Jackson is incredibly supportive. He has known I have wanted to direct for a long time so its wonderful that he has given me the opportunity to do so."
Rise of the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on August 5th.