It’s been said so many times in so many ways by so many different people that it hardly seems mentioning again. But when have I ever let that stop me. Those members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who create and alter the rules concerning what constitutes an acting performance that qualifies as one that qualifies for one of the four Best Acting categories of the Academy Awards need to radically rethink things. Once they have done that to include actors whose movements and facial expressions (all of which could be just as easily covered up with practical make-up, which would qualify them) are rendered using performance-capture technology, I think the nominations will more accurately reflect the best acting of any given year. Once the Academy does that, other groups that give out awards (including critics associations) will follow suit (some have actually made these exceptions, without the resulting rippling effect).
One man who should retroactively have been nominated for several great performances over the years is Andy Serkis, who is so masterful at performance capture that he’s been brought into films he’s not even in to help advise other actors doing performance capture for the first time. His groundbreaking work in THE LORD OF THE RINGS films (and the first HOBBIT movie) as Gollum led to the earliest discussions of what defined a pure acting performance. He continued raising the performance-capture bar higher in such films as Peter Jackson’s KING KONG and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. But it’s his work in the new PLANET OF THE APES trilogy (including the latest, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) that is the clearest evidence that performance-capture should be considered in the same realm as working in heavy make-up. His work as Caesar is extraordinary and shows a range I don’t think we’ve ever seen in any such digitally enhanced performance.
Serkis is also a very busy live-action actor, with recent and upcoming (performance-capture and otherwise) roles in such works as next year’s BLACK PANTHER (as Ulysses Klaue); a return to Snoke in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI; and as Baloo in next year’s alternate production of JUNGLE BOOK, which he also directed. And in October, we’ll see Serkis’ other directing effort, the special-effect-free BREATHE, starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.
I was fortunate enough to get to chat with Serkis recently via phone, during which he was accompanied by the legendary Joe Letteri, director of Weta Digital, and the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor on all three APES movies, as well as all of the LORD THE RINGS and HOBBIT films, KING KONG, MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, the upcoming VALARIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, Jon Favreau’s THE JUNGLE BOOK, PETE’S DRAGON, and AVATAR. Not surprisingly, he’s been hard at work for quite some time on the new set of AVATAR films that are set to start shooting later this year. Plus, he’s been working closely with Robert Rodriguez on his next film, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. So he’s been a little busy.
I’m fairly certain I could spend days talking with them about their work together and separately, but I think we cover a lot of ground in our time together. Please enjoy my talk with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri…
Andy Serkis: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi, Andy. Good talking to you again. Joe, happy to meet you.
Joe Letteri: Hi, Steve. How you doing?
Capone: Good, good. You’re both in Austin, right?
JL: We’re in Austin.
Capone: So lucky. I've noticed across these three films that the focus has shifted from primarily the human point of view in the first film, to about equal in the second film, and then definitely more the apes' perspective in the third film. Over the course of those three films, how has your approach changed from both the performance aspect as well as the effects?
JL: I'd probably have to say that the thing that both allowed it to happen and motivated it was really dialogue. In the first film, the chimps were just chimps as we know them, and the virus infecting them was just starting to manifest itself in intelligence. In the second film, that came out of necessity. You see them at the beginning of the film, they’re talking to each other. They're still using sign language. When the humans appear, dialogue becomes more necessary, and you see the apes struggle with it. By the third film, they're much more in command of it, as the humans are on the decline. It's manifested itself in a way that makes sense for the story, but also it allows you to have a film where you're spending most of the time with the apes, because you can actually participate more in their day to day life and discussions and understand what the motivations are.
Capone: Andy, what about you? I've noticed Caesar is upright for a lot of the film, which has got to be easier on your back at least.
AS: No kidding. What we created in RISE was this outsider character who was, yes, a chimpanzee, and a full-on chimpanzee, but the way I approached him always was that he felt like he was a human being in an ape's skin, almost a foreigner in his own body. Then when he is faced with his own kind and thrown into the sanctuary, it's this extraordinary sense of really seeing his color for the first time, but it also means that he is perfectly placed to bring those different species together. Of course, because he's grown up with this enormous amount of love from human beings, he feels an empathy towards them, too.
Really, the journey from this infant chimpanzee through to this leader in a time of war has always been about empathy and various attempts to pull that away from Caesar. The conflict he finds himself in in the second movie with one of his own kind, Koba, pulling away and not having that empathy, it really has always centered around the notion that Caesar is well placed as an outsider to somehow have perspective on both species and always be a broker for peace. In this third movie, obviously, he suffers this incredible loss at the beginning, and we see for the first time what it's like to lose himself to hatred and not be able to have that view of human beings anymore. Fortunately, of course, the journey with his motley crew and the events that happen along the journey enable him to find that again.
It's been this extraordinary journey, over three movies, of getting Caesar to a point where he's emotionally the most articulate, I suppose in this one, and linguistically articulate, and at the same time feeling the most animalistic in terms of…one could say his feelings are the most raw and most animalistic he’s ever been, and we explore that tension between hatred and rage, that tension between those two highly evolved states, and actually that animalism and hatred, which makes this certainly kind of interesting.
Capone: This is a very dark journey for Caesar. He's driven, like you said, by anger and guilt, which are very human emotions, and I think that troubles him. Was this the toughest acting challenge as an actor you’ve ever faced, in terms of the emotional range you explore?
AS: Yeah. I mean literally, my memory of shooting this movie was of a very intense, dark, brooding time. There was a lot going on. We were shooting in tough conditions. It was winter, a Canadian winter, freezing cold. The sets were very foreboding, especially the camp set. There was nothing easy physically or on a day-to-day basis. Also, the way I wanted to play Caesar in this was much closer to my own experience, to my life experience, putting myself in Caesar's shoes, therefore allowing the audience to put themselves in Caesar's shoes, in a very raw way. Yes, it was hugely challenging, and emotionally there wasn't a let up in any of it over the course of five months. It was pretty tough. It was pretty dark.
Capone: Speaking of the snow, Joe, the level of detail in each ape character is astonishing—looking at the detail in the matted hair covered in snow or blood or mud. Has there ever been on-set performance capture done in snow in a film before? That must have been a pain in the ass.
JL: Yes, it was. Technically speaking, yes [laughs].
Capone: Tell me about that.
JL: You capture the performance, right? That kind of snow detail gets added later, but the performance…you’ve got pretty delicate equipment and very sophisticated, nuanced performances, and you need this gear to work in, as Andy described, pretty brutal conditions—wet, smelly, cold and very remote. We were pretty happy with how the team was able to put the gear together and record all that and capture it all. But then when you're bringing the character to the screen, you're adding those kinds of details that really integrated with the environment.
Back on DAWN, there were a lot of shots in the rain, and we thought rain was hard because you've got all these water droplets hitting each individual hair and accumulating and running off. Snow is much more complicated, because snow builds these bridges between groups of hair that behave differently than the hair would do if it was unencumbered. It's a whole other level of simulation that has to happen on top of it, and you have to treat that almost like a makeup pass that you would do for any live-action film. You have to break down where each piece of snow is on each character's body and maintain continuity throughout the scene. It becomes fairly sophisticated to get that all looking right.
Capone: Assuming the snow on the ground is real, I started to think about the person in the motion-capture suit would leave a different set of footprints than an ape would, so you'd have to go back and fix that too.
JL: Oh, absolutely. We shot in real snow. Sometimes it was paper, but either way, after the performance is done, we have to go back and replace a lot of it, so that we can actually do the proper interaction.
Capone: One of the iconic images in this and the previous film is still Caesar on a horse. I'm wondering, is that a tougher thing to capture? In the world of these films, is there some sort of animal camaraderie between apes and horses?
AS: I can tell you absolutely, categorically there is no bonding between horses and actors pretending to be apes [laughs]. They really don't like that. They seriously don't like someone on their back going [makes ape sounds]. It freaks them out—actually more on DAWN than this. This time, we had a brilliant course wrangler on this, and his team were phenomenal on this one, so we fared better on this.
Because what is asked of the horses, it's quite extraordinary. We did work better with them this time. DAWN was much more challenging. I remember scenes where Caesar comes to say, for instance, "Apes do not want war." By the time you got the first apes out, he'd be halfway across the set, and the horse not wanting to come back, and that was not a good thing. They were definitely more simpatico this time around.
Capone: Steve Zahn has always been one of my favorite actors. Andy, what do you learn from working alongside somebody like him? Then the character itself, Bad Ape, what did he bring to this dynamic, outside of being another talking ape that Caesar could actually communicate with on that level?
AS: Steve is brilliant as Bad Ape. You could have gone so badly wrong with that character. He could have been a very superficial, comedic, just there for levity and to change the tone, but Steve played him with such pathos and truth. It's just basically Steve playing Steve. He was himself, and that was remarkable. He said when he read the role, "I didn't think this was a funny character. I thought it was really sad, a really deeply sad character and tragic character." That was his approach.
He did all the research into chimpanzees, but much like any actor who plays an ape character, after a while, when you've done that, you just immediately have to come back to “Who is this particular being? Who is this?” Steve plugged right into that. He was very nervous about the ape stuff, but he didn't need to be because he's a very physical actor already. Acting with him was just amazing and we totally vibed off each other and fed off each other's energy. As you say, it was a shift of energy for Caesar to come across an ape that could speak, and that was quite a challenge for me too to suddenly find myself having an ape conversation with someone, which was utterly unique to this film.
Capone: I realize this isn't entirely up to you gentlemen, but when this movie was over, I don't think I've ever watched a third film in a franchise and said, "This can't be the end." There are so many places this could go from here. How do we make that happen? Is there a chance that more of these could be made? What are the prospects here?
JL: We're with you, Steve, but we just finished this one, so we're just going to come down off of that for now [laughs].
Capone: Andy, I can't get away from films you're involved in. I know the BREATHE trailer just came out the other day, and the BLACK PANTHER trailer came out fairly recently. Joe, you're about to go into this AVATAR rabbit hole. You both seem very busy in the future. Can you talk a little bit about what you've got coming up?
AS: I'm really excited to have helmed my first film and have it finished, and it opened the London Film Festival. JUNGLE BOOK is still in the works, and that's exciting. It's really coming together. There's lots of very interesting stuff. This year has been a really incredible confluence of all these different things. You can't plan for these things. Sometimes there are busy periods, but this has just been a really ultra, ultra intense period of time. I'm loving all the different challenges, for sure.
JL: Well, I'm happy to be back here in Austin, because we've been here for most of the last year, working with Robert Rodriguez on BATTLE ANGEL. Looking forward to that, and yeah, just rolling into AVATAR, which we've been thinking about and planning and prepping for ever since we finished the last one. It's never gone out of our minds.
Capone: What do we have to do at this point to get performance-capture acting recognized in any award circumstance, especially the Academy Awards? This film has to be it. This is the best I've ever seen. What are the steps people can take, outside of rioting, to make this happen?
JL: Rioting’s good. [laughs]
AS: [laughs] Yeah, that works. It’s all about education, Steve. It's educating various branches to understand what it is, and that's the nub of it. We've both tried, over the course of the last 17 years, to be very clear about what this process is. Sometimes it falls on deaf ears, probably for reasons that we can't discuss. It is having clarity and making sure people understood that. Certainly from my point of view, I don't think that it should be any special category. There's nothing special about performance-capture acting, because there is no such thing as performance-capture acting. Acting is acting, and it's a technology that enables you to take that and translate that onto another character. It's about authorship of the role. In this case, in these sorts of films, it's specifically working with a director like Matt Reeves, the authorship of the role lies with the actor, and it's up to the acting branches to recognize that, I think.
Capone: Has there been any headway? Has there been a surge toward this being accepted, or is it still falling on deaf ears for the most part?
JL: It's a yearly decision. If you're talking about the Academy Awards, it's the actors who decide who's going to get nominated for that. On the visual effects side, it's the visual effects branch. It's a yearly decision, and it always comes down to what are the films and the roles being presented, and those are what get considered and voted on.
Capone: Gentlemen, thank you so much. Best of luck with this.