Interview Dawn of The Planet of The Apes’ Andy Serkis: “It’s so much easier working on primates”

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes’ Andy Serkis: “It’s so much easier working on primates”

Caesar himself answers a few questions.

Back in June DIY was lucky enough to catch some early, unfinished footage of the stunning Dawn of The Planet of The Apes introduced by none other than Caesar himself, actor Andy Serkis. A small number then had an intimate audience with Andy whereby we quizzed him on the film and his performance capture studios The Imaginarium, based in Ealing in London.

What state was the storyline in when Rupert [Wyatt - Rise of The Planet of The Apes director] was developing it, and what did Matt 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 men 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 after the event rather than say 30 or 40 years.
Rupert loved Caesar’s journey and the growth of Caesar’s character, and he really wanted to make this 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  allowing them as a community to evolve.

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 it 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 theatrical arena, and we’re building the tools and software to support that. We’re sort of 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 them in 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 specific 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 you think different people will 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 left anywhere to be found, it’s on a roll at the moment.

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You mentioned that The Imaginarium is helping to train other actors in motion capture. Did you yourself help out people like Toby [Kebbell] and Judy [Greer] on this film?
The Imaginarium are credited on this movie as performance capture consultants, that’s the expertise we bring to it. 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, 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 visual 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…he 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 have to adhere to that exactly. 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 worrying 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 on rocks etc…  
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 or break something, so you have to train to do these things. We also had an amazing, well-prepared team of performers who were also skilled in gymnastics and stunts and parkour and were brilliant at all that kind of stuff.

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. I was just wondering how 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 the intention. 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, The Imaginarium is involved in 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 animators? 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.

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]
If only! [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 clinical, 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 using your imagination.

Without getting into any spoilers, can you tell us a little bit about the community of the apes themselves. The character Koba [Kebbell] for instance seems quite fiesty, is there a point where Caesar perhaps comes up against his own community?
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 orangutans from zoos, and there are also chimps and orangutans 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.

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 actually quite hard to pull off.

You’ve played King Kong and you helped out with Godzilla. If they fought each other once upon a time, who would win? [laughs]
Well, obviously Godzilla has atomic breath…I think King Kong would win actually.

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 Roddy McDowell chattering away about Proust. 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 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. 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 released in cinemas on Thursday July 17th from Twentieth Century Fox.