There really aren’t many actors more intimately familiar with the performance capture process than Andy Serkis who worked with Peter Jackson to develop the practical aspects of the technology, first playing Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and then in Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. Now, Serkis is back playing an ape, only this time he’s playing a significantly smaller, yet still quite deadly, chimpanzee named Caesar, whose involvement in the testing of a smart drug turns him into a rebel against the humans.
On our first day in Vancouver visiting the set, ComingSoon.net and a bunch of other journalists sat down with Serkis and his performance-capture partner Terry Notary to talk about the technology behind making the movie. Notary’s background was more with stunt choreography for movies that involve performance capture like James Cameron’s Avatar, The Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, so you could not find a better duo to talk about the motion capture aspects of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Q: Andy, how different is your work on this movie to “King Kong”? Serkis: It’s entirely different because Kong was a 25-foot baboon and this is the arc of basically, a chimpanzee who is reared by human beings and has also inherited a certain amount of genetic intelligence so it’s entirely different. In fact, Terry was working with a lot of the performers about a month beforehand, but I really didn’t know I was going to be on board this job until very late on in the day and I think everybody assumed that because I played a 25-foot gorilla it would just be like a breeze but obviously gorillas and chimps and orangutans they all move entirely differently and have different personalities and so on. So it’s like starting from scratch on a completely different role, it’s like saying King Lear or Hamlet, they’re entirely different.
Q: Can you talk about what kind of research you did with chimpanzees? Notary: A lot of videos. Videos, videos. That’s probably the best thing, we put videos up in the monitors in The Volume where we work and just try to emulate and just go home and watch videos at night and you see the little nuances and the little subtleties, I think that’s what’s really going to make a difference in this film with the authenticity of the movement into how these characters behave. The big stuff, the big jumps, big leaps, that’s all the easy stuff. It’s the little subtleties that are going to make a difference and make it really special I think. So we really kind of focus on watching the timing and the weight and the balance and the mindset and just the rhythm of the three apes: the gorillas, the orangutans and the chimps, because they’re all so different. Serkis: Also at the end of the day, of course, it’s not just about doing gorilla or chimp or orangutan movements, it’s about character and that’s what beautiful about this script is that it’s really highly intelligent script and treats all of the ape characters with as much reverence as human characters, there’s no kind of species separatism or species preference. They’re written with real integrity, with layer and depth and that’s certainly why I and Terry probably too responded to the script. It’s a brilliant script and a fantastic modern allegory about man’s abuse of nature. It’s written with such a lot of love, the script and I think that’s the point. When we’re going about researching apes and so on, you’re not just looking for movement. This isn’t motion capture, we’re not just capturing motion. You can put dots on an ape and let him run wild in a studio, you’d get some great motion but this is ABOUT performance. It’s about making acting choices about where your character is at any step of the journey. Personally speaking, Caesar is beautifully written character with a very, very big arc and I get to play him from the age of 3 years old until this very innocent chimp reared by human beings up to a kind of Che Guevara character who is leading a revolution basically, with lots of very, kind of, nuanced moments, written and crafted between us in between. And all of the characters, they all have layers and depths and we’re working very, very closely on each individual journey.
Q: One of the things we noticed watching playback was the hand extensions. Can you talk about using them and how it affects your character? Notary: Yeah well it’s obviously a lot easier to be quadruped with the arm extensions and Weta has figured out a way to make the arms look as though they are hitting the ground. All we need to do with our arm extensions is just fold our wrists and it looks as though we’re knuckle walking. So that was something we had to get used to was walking on these arm extensions and getting the weight and the balance and the nuance of walking with that anatomy. We were sore for a few weeks, I’ll tell ya, but it’s really turned out to be an asset in a lot of ways just because we can be quadruped and then we can stand up, we can lose the arm extensions in the shot and then use our hands and the model, the puppet still articulates perfectly so we can reach up and grab something and then put the arm extensions back on and be quadruped away. So they figured out a way to really make it work for this film and what we thought was going to be a big challenge has turned out to be one of our tools that we’re using.
Q: Andy, did you look at any of the original films at all in terms of personality of the character? Serkis: Not so much for the personality but for the mythology and to try and see where the writers were coming from in terms of fitting this as a prequel. There are lots of resonances, there are so many thing which pay off from the original film: character names, character references and just… actually what was really useful from watching those films, there’s an incredible documentary which Roddy McDowall narrates actually about the whole mythology of the five films and that was really useful just to see where we end up by the end of this, really. Which is why, again, the script, it landed on my desk and I was on another shoot and it was like, I knew it was going to be happening but I didn’t realize when the writers came up with that draft, they obviously love the franchise, they love the material and found a very clever way of bringing us into that story. So it was useful in terms of plugging into the overall sensibility of the movie
Q: Are there any movements from the original apes you can use? Serkis: Not really movements because they’re much more advanced, they’re much more bipedal, they speak, they talk, they are in effect human beings in many ways and so their physicality, it nods towards it in the films and we’re really the step before that. We’re literally going from quadrupedding apes or with Caesar, he’s a little bit more advanced, but he reaches a level of intelligence which is in tune with where they’re going to be heading.
Q: Andy you talked about some of the advancements from Gollum to Kong, can you talk some more about the advancements here, like with the stunts and Terry can you talk about preparing them for those stunts in the motion capture? Notary: Obviously, we’re stretching the boundaries here with some of the stuff we’re doing and what is nice about the crossover with the performance capture is we can accentuate some of the things in post, what we’re going to do. Like with our fight sequence, Rocket and Caesar have this amazing fight sequence that’s going to happen, we can block it out and really do the fight but when it comes to leaping into the trees and flipping and doing the major stuff, I think the animators are going to take over that part. So we will be pretty ground based doing the stunts, so I think the main thing we are focusing on because we don’t have dialogue is that the performance, the acting, the actual performance has to be so full. We have to be so… there with our performance so it reads because we’re telling an audience a story with very little dialogue and so expression and feeling and heart is our tool that we’re using to express how we feel. So the acting and the performance is really a key to this whole film.
Q: Andy you’ve been at the forefront of mocap technology since its inception, can you talk about some of the changes over the last decade? Serkis: Yeah sure. We’re at a point now where in this film we are pushing the boundaries, with the relationship to a live action shoot, more than ever before. Sixty, maybe 70% of the performance capture in the movie is literally graded on a live action set. That’s a first. I’m not aware of any other film that has used it as much and it’s a perfect, I think this film is a perfect example of the usage of performance capture for that reason. You are getting dramatic performances, they’re creatures that are slightly abstracted and so it allows the actor to drive a character rather than certain movies which have used performance capture recently that have tended to make the performance capture character look the same as the actor which to me seems a little bit misuse of performance capture, if you know what I mean. But going back to your question, when I started working on Gollum we had a very small tin shed basically with about 6 or 8 cameras, you couldn’t move out of a three-meter square, it kept breaking down. Then you had just moving from physical capture, with Kong we started to use the facial capture, wearing facial markers, because Gollum was shot on 35mm but was performance captured as well but facial performance was key for him animated over and rotoscoped over.
Q: What changes would you like to see? Serkis: I think we’re at a stage where we’re moving away from using… because we have head mounted camera rigs for capturing face and that can be a little bit conspicuous and get in the way. It’s not going to be long, maybe two years three years, where we’re just going to be filming the performances, moving away from markers.
Q: You’re both pioneers with this. How do you make actors you’re working with who are not in performance capture get into it? I assume it might be tough with some actors who have never worked with it before. Is there a trick to getting a scene going with them? Notary: You know what I think? When we go in The Volume and there’s an actor that has just put on a suit for the first time, I think when they see Andy and I work together and really getting into the characters and just performing and acting and being there that they’re like, “Wow, I don’t really have to think about this stuff. I’m a puppeteer.” Basically we’re puppeteers and if you’re there and you’re in the character, the puppet is going to look good. It’s going to breath life and I think once they find out how to trust this system, you just forget about it and just perform, then it’s just second nature, it just becomes, yeah it’s easy. Serkis: You’re talking about the other live actors. James Franco, Frieda Pinto, there’s no question. We’ve arrived at a stage where other actors who are playing live action characters and not phased by it in the slightest. They can just see a performance going on and say okay, so we don’t look the same but I think it would be equally as strange to act against someone in a chimp suit. We’re engaging and finding moments which are real and just happening as, you’re just acting with someone else basically and I think that’s the big realization across the board that the whole industry is responding to the performance capture. It’s no longer this kind of strange, freakish activity that happens somewhere else, it’s absolutely part of the parcel of moviemaking now and is being accepted in that regard.
Q: How much do you know about Caesar’s future? Does it go without saying that we see the “rise of the apes” or is his future not necessarily set? Serkis: There has been some talk of future scenarios but we’ve not talked directly about Caesar in that. It’s obviously set up for the next stage of the journey because there is a missing link, really, between this film and where the original “Planet of the Apes” starts off. You could expand on that, you could keep going really. I expect if it does go on then Caesar will play some kind of part in it, he’d have to I guess.
Q: What are the general misconceptions about ape movies? Serkis: We get called “monkeys” all the time, and there’s lots of banana jokes. Notary: No more banana jokes. Serkis: And we get treated very differently because, it’s very interesting, because we wear these suits people treat us… and funny enough, in the “Planet of the Apes” documentary they talked about the orangutans hung out with the orangutans, the chimps hung out with the chimps, and the gorillas hung out with the gorillas. And to a certain extent there’s a little bit of that. We tend to knock around together. We’re happy in our LED markers and grey suits. Notary: Also, to answer your question, people have a tendency, when they first get in the suit, to overact. To try to do something, to try to be something. I think when you just go back into yourself and you become, you just work on the subtleties and the little… if you look at apes they are relatively still most of the time. There’s a real groundedness to them. There’s a real beautiful stillness, and when you can capture that essence of just being still and present and aware and hyper-sensitive, all at the same time, you know, and then explode all of a sudden. That’s what I think is the biggest challenge, is just being still and learning how to just be present in that stillness and not over do it, not overact, try to be an ape and find the stillness in yourself and that’s what they have. They have this sort of hypersensitive peace and awareness and intelligence that is beautiful. Serkis: And also what we’re talking about here in this movie particularly is there are different levels of intelligence within the apes. Some apes have been brought up in zoos, some are ex-laboratory apes, some are still being tortured in laboratories, and some have had this drug which is part of the cure for Alzheimer’s that Will Rodman, played by James Franco, is experimenting with. Like Caesar has a kind of raised level where you’re looking very specifically at each different ape so that when you see them all come together last week we were peopling some of the other apes. The great thing about performance capture is you can go off and then, without changing costume, you can become another character. So we spent like the 3 days last week putting together a whole tapestry of other minor characters in the atrium. Just little vignettes, little snapshots of individual characters to people the world so they’re not a faceless mob of apes. When you start to do research into gorillas or any kind of apes, if you’re going to play them, that’s one of the biggest misconceptions. And when I did Kong, again, you’re not doing gorilla movements, you’re not doing ape movements, you’re looking for a personality. It’s like saying okay I’m going to do human movements. Notary: It’s all different, it’s all individual.
Q: In “King Kong,” Peter gave you a human role as well so we could see you on screen, is there anything like that in this movie? Serkis: I was offered a role. I turned it down because I didn’t particularly like the role, but in all honesty, Caesar is such a great character that I knew I’d have my hands full enough playing that role, and there’s no need to play some sort of on-screen character.
Q: Have you been doing the sign language yourself? Serkis: We have a sign language teacher.
Q: Are the hands going to be CG’d later on? Serkis: We’re doing it on set. It’s all captured. The great thing is it’s all captured on set. When you touch something, it’s there. We’re doing some stuff in The Volume but the majority is live action. Notary: There’s cameras capturing the movement that we’re doing, in the space. And we’re also on film. 35mm film, and there’s also reference cameras all throughout the room so everything that we do is recorded and stored away so that the animators can go back and look at the little things, the little twitches or whatever it is, to really capture.
Q: So is there a different rig for the hands? Because it seems like the hands are going to be more complicated. Serkis: Because they are using a lot of the witness cameras, we’re wearing finger markers while we’re shooting live action. We probably won’t have to go and repeat it.
Q: Have you researched any videos of the gorillas that use sign language? Notary: Yup, we watched a lot of gorilla videos with the signing and a lot of the just physical language of chimps that have been held in cages and sanctuaries basically, that have been experimented on for 20-30 years and then just cast away. They’re just basically prisoners. They’re messed up in the head, they’re like deranged people that have been tortured their whole lives. It’s like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it’s what you were talking about, it’s like we’ve got a bunch of really wacky individuals that are uniting in this film.
Q: The great thing about the original film is that it was an upside-down world where the humans were slaves and the apes were their overlords. You play the character that’s going to usher that world in, so how do you sort of keep the sympathy of the character whose destiny is subjugate every single person sitting in this tent? Serkis: That’s a really good question and I think the thing is we’re playing him… you do see his journey from being, how he responds to brutalization and witnessing brutalization and bullying and all these shocking things because he’s brought up as an innocent. He’s quite innocent and you see his journey from innocence into moments of realizing that actually it can be a cruel world out there. And he has been brought up because Will, James Franco’s character and John Lithgow’s character, they’re incredibly humanitarian. He’s been brought up in a loved family. In a way you’ve got to forget that he’s a chimp, you treat him as a child whose been brought up in a loving environment then suddenly being subjected to brutalization and seeing, when they go to the Ape Sanctuary, it could be any institution which has bullying and mistreatment and some kind of person who is dominating and subjugating other people. So you will feel sympathy because you will see how this young mind is witnessing brutalization I guess.
Q: Do you think that’s the key to this film, that each ape is really its own character and you are creating each one so its not just an obligatory group of apes? Notary: Absolutely nailed it, that’s it. That’s the strength of this film I think is that it’s a very intelligent script and each of the characters in the film, the apes, are individuals. They’re unique and they come from a different background. Some have been tortured for years and some are ex-circus chimps and they all have a personality, and a trait and a strength that comes together and makes this team that is led by Caesar and once they are genetically enhanced, it’s almost as if this bright eyed innocence is changed and they start to become thinking and more human and you see that the more human they become, the less innocent they are. And it’s sad but you’re rooting for them at the same time but they are loosing this innocence by becoming more human so there’s a lot of messages in there about humanity and where we’re going.