Andy Serkis walks us through motion capture, shows us how it's done
This year’s 20th Century Fox blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, boasts the latest motion capture technology, with Andy Serkis, whose performance as Caesar, the ape who gains enough intelligence to lead other chimps to revolution, being tipped for a Critics’ Choice Award.
Pocket-lint was invited to Weta Digital in New Zealand to be motion captured, and talk exclusively to the man who immortalised Gollum and King Kong, amongst others, about the experience.
I’ve played animals before, since you ask: a seagull in a kids’ show called The Selfish Shellfish and an Ostrich and a feral wolf at the RSC. But they weren’t realistic – the RSC show was Peter Pan – so this would be different.
First, the mocap suit, shot in the special effects hall called the Volume. This wasn’t quite the full experience Andy Serkis and the stunt actors who played the other apes went through, but it was close. Each actor has around 50 dots painted on his or her face and a helmet-mounted camera pointing at every facial movement.
That said, much was the same. I was poured into a form-fitting suit (“The tighter the better,” Weta’s all-knowing wardrobe master laughed) and scores of tiny white tags were Velcroed to every extremity. Then I stood on a platform where infra-red cameras captured my every gesture, as I tried one uncomfortable posture after another. A quick look round at an animated me on the monitor and I looked pretty good – tall, buff and muscular. Sadly, that was the generic human shape they programme in, the suit wasn’t that unforgiving.
Then into the volume itself, an expansive room dotted with infra-red sensors ready to plot my movements. Look at the room and there are dull carpets, wooden slopes and rostra. Look at the screen and it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, with, get this, me as an ape.
To make up for the fact that human and aped physical shapes differ, pairs of small crutches lie waiting to be used. These are essential: you can touch the ground while still staying nearly upright.
Despite some coaching, the ape walk was a challenge. While the Weta actors on hand could saunter with their hips square, rolling their shoulders and even grunting evocatively, I rarely gathered enough courage to step out convincingly. More PG Tips than King Kong. And, boy, is it tiring? After ten minutes I was sweating and exhausted. Andy Serkis does this all day long.
The gift of the volume’s special effect is that on playback I looked miraculously like a chimp, although a rather clumsy one. Along with movement there was even room for acting, jumping on to a car, waving my simian arms and screaming in triumph. Playback revealed my ape was rather more, er, sedate and restrained than the movies required, but hey, it was my first go.
I asked Andy Serkis if motion capture meant the usual directorial tip that less is more just didn’t apply.
“I think what you were doing yesterday is good but it’s inaccurate. You’re only looking at the physical performance. You’re standing up there, you’d be trying to puppeteer yourself in a rather external way to see that what you’re doing is registering on the puppet rather than completely internalising what it is to feel something. As an experiment I can see the value, when I first did it as Gollum I thought wow you can move your arm and Gollum does the same, but really it’s just like playing Kinect or Nintendo Wii.”
Maybe not my best review, then, but what’s the benefit of performance capture? It felt as though it offered a great feeling of freedom.
“It does, it offers limitless possibilities in terms of playing characters and embodying that but actually the more I do the more I realise that the stillness is everything and actually Caesar is a case in point. What separates Caesar, the moments of Caesar that you really connect with are when he’s doing nothing. Well, not doing nothing, when I’m internalising everything as opposed to demonstrating. That’s why it goes back to the difference between researching and doing monkey movements or mimicking an ape which is what people think performance capture is. Because it’s all about the close-up at the end of the day, which is what it’s like to act on screen as a live action actor.
“Which is why I say it’s acting, not you know, you’re not an animator. Animators like to say that they’re actors but they’re not really. Cos they sit down at a computer and they do key frames and the computer joins up the dots. They may internalise something but they have time to explain their process because it’s not in real time. Acting is in real time.”
While you can't check out my efforts, the film’s just out on Blu-ray ready so you can see Serkis and the others strutting their virtual stuff.
Although the DVD and download editions found on iTunes and elsewhere look good, it’s the Blu-ray that justifies the purchase – the level of detail that informed the special effects stands out on the high-definition disc.
This, after all, is a film where the apes effects were built – virtually – from the skeleton upwards, with muscle added long before skin and fur effects were applied. The results are strikingly realistic – in the opening scenes of the movie, where apes are spied in their natural habit, it’s easy to presume that these pre-intelligence moments at least relied on real apes.
In fact, there’s not a single shot using a real ape in the entire film.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is out now on Blu-ray Triple Play. Special features include an in-depth look at the film’s performance capture.