Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Interview
The Serkis comes to town.
Movie Nerd caught up with ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ star Andy Serkis and Director Rupert Wyatt this week, in a roundtable interview at Claridges in London.
The 2011 prequel to the 1968 original ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie swings into the number one spot on its opening weekend in the US, grossing over $54 million.
‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is an origin story set in present day San Francisco, where man's own experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy.
Andy Serkis,Director Rupert Wyatt and WETA visual effects advisor Dan Lennon talk about the advancements of performance capture and the message that the film portrays.
Question: Andy, in the Movie you are playing a chimpanzee with human characteristics. How challenging was that?
Andy Serkis: “Yeah it was not just in finding the physicality but the emotional and physiological development and how he (Caesar) charters his emotional intelligence plus he has his physical aggression to deal with. So you have this young innocent chimp that is unaware that he is the recipient of this intelligence enhancing drug. So when I was working on this character Caesar I was thinking of him as a prodigy child, one who can play piano concertos at the age of four or work out complicated mathematical equations. And then you see Caesar go through a physical change and eventually become more bipedal and how we start to see him become more physically human so by the end of the film he is the same height as James Franco’s character. We worked on keeping plenty of emotional development without over anthropomorphism and making him too human but keeping him animal at same time. With every scene we had to work out different ways to react and respond to what James Franco is doing and the core relationship is with Will (James Franco) and Caesar playing off each other.”
Q: With the anticipated success of the film and the obvious advancement in performance capture, do you think that Hollywood will take ‘mo-cap’performances more seriously?
Andy Serkis: “I hope so. In my mind I’ve never drawn a distinction between a live action role or performance capture. One has to be clear, the acting part of the process is exactly the same whichever way round. The character is still cloaked, costumed and made up in a similar way.
If you take for example John Hurts performance in the Elephant Man. He is an actor who goes to work in the morning and has a team of artists who completely disguise him and paint him with makeup. He shoots the scene and it’s in the can. With performance capture you do exactly the same, you go on and work with other actors and direct scenes, then months down the line visual effects experts do the same job but apply the digital make up.
So there is no difference. Acting is acting. I hope that there is an increased understanding that the perception is changing. If characters are engaging and moving and tell the story well, It’s the same as any character in any movie performance capture is not a genre or type of movie. When performance capture films have not worked people tend to blame the technology for non success. It may be other factors such as the script wasn’t great for example. The technology is just a tool which is just another way of recording an actor’s performance.”
Q: You are described as world’s foremost Performance Capture actor how does this sit?
Andy Serkis: “I don’t consider that to be true I just consider myself as an actor who uses technology to act. It’s not a specialised form of acting but any actor can do what I’m doing but not all actors may be comfortable with it. Other actors may be terrified as they may feel that it has to be their face up there on the screens, but I know many actors that would love to give it a go.”
Q: So do you think that it is just a matter of time before main stream actors follow in this method of performing, after all there are many who lend their voice talents to animation and are never seen on screen?
Andy Serkis: “I think its reaching a point where good actors will make that move. People such as Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, proper actors who really get it and can see the liberation of what this tool can do and open up a portal to playing many different characters and see in a technical way it is very truthful to what you are doing. There is no enchainment of your performance. If it’s not right on the day and the performance isn’t there, no matter how much you cloak it with pixels that won’t make it any better. If it’s not powerful and engaging the audience, then it won’t work.”
Q: With the technical advances of Performance Capture, it allowed you to play Caesar from a young chimp to fully grown male who matures and becomes more humanised. Is this attracted you to the role?
Andy Serkis: “Most definitely. When you think about the arc of that role it’s a huge challenge and to discover how Caesar becomes a leader. I think it was one of the most complicated roles I’ve played. In many ways because you have no dialogue to explain your thought processes it’s all done with body language and facial, eye contact. It’s become more transparent technology and allows live action to play opposite false capture roles on live action sets. The next phase is to get rid of head camera that can be quite evasive.
Q: The interaction wasn’t only with human actors but you interact with other digital apes which is a large part of the movie. How difficult was this?
Andy Serkis: “That’s true. I mean we had actors playing other primate roles and Maurice the orang-utan was played by a great actress Karin Konoval. She thoroughly researched orang-utans and Terry Notary an ape performance expert and ex Cirque Du Soleil choreographer coached the actors how to move. Terry also played Rocket the other chimp who becomes Caesars lieutenant. But they had a totally different agenda they worked on playing pure apes which was so separate from what I was doing. Chimps have particular way of moving and vocalising. Caesar has a hybrid level of humanity. He has been living with humans and learns sign language but he has this superior intelligence. When he is placed with his own kind he has to find a way to connect and empathise with his prison in-mates. Most of the pure apes in the film are dysfunctional in separate ways and Caesar has to find a way of communicating and leading not by force because he’s not strong but by wits and intelligence and bring them all together. My performance has to have that mix of chimpanzee and human.”
Question: Rupert, traditionally the Apes films have had a social narrative behind the story, is that what appealed to you?
Rupert Wyatt (Director): “I think so. In many ways I think that the great thing about the apes mythology is that it holds a mirror up to who we are, what we re present in many ways but just happens to be telling the story through apes.If you look at the first film and subsequent sequels, increasingly they became very satirical in many ways but also fundamental commentaries on that particular period in time and where we were. What we wanted to do in the shape of a summer Hollywood blockbuster was at least ask certain questions not necessarily identical to the original films but just in terms of where we are in the world.”
Q: Clearly Andy is the guy to go for in the performance of motion capture. Was there any question of casting him as Caesar?
Rupert Wyatt: “There wasn’t. When Dan got involved with WETA we made the decision to go with performance capture technology rather than using live apes. We wanted to assemble a team that understood it and for me being a first timer it was an obvious advantage to have Andy on-board.
Q: Was that a humane decision not to use live apes?
Rupert Wyatt: “It was because I felt that it would be wrong to tell a story about exploiting the oppressed and use performing apes to do that.Because there is a big difference between performing apes and other animals specifically as apes are our alpha dominated that’s how they work and so for us to get them to do anything for us we would have to dominate them. From a moral point of view that wouldn’t work for us and from a practical point the apes all look alike and would be difficult to tell them apart would be virtually impossible.”
Q: Do you think it is impossible to create a good digital character without performance capture?
Rupert Wyatt: “You can hold up any number of CGI characters that are not performance capture and ask that question and for me the answers lie in does it have a soul? The amazing thing about WETA wizardry is that the first shots we had received was a very simple shot of Caesar not moving but just looking out and for me I thought ‘ that’s Andy’ that’s Andy’s eyes.
Dan Lennon (WETA): That was a conscious decision to focus on the performance,and we wanted to make sure that that actor’s performance comes through in the digital version with the light behind the eyes which really worked for us.
Q: Was ‘Project Nim ’ an inspiration?
Rupert Wyatt: “We know of ‘Project Nim’ and Andy and I when rehearsing looked into all sorts of real life stories about chimpanzees becoming domesticated and the repercussions of that. There was one in particular, Oliver the Humanzee, a great channel 4 documentary. He was a wild chimp that was captured as a baby in the Congo and brought to the states as part of an entertainment family who had a number of chimps. When Oliver grew up he began to display very different behaviour patterns from other chimps. He began to walk on his hind legs and chimps have different hip joints to humans and generally don’t like being upright. And if you looked in his eyes you saw something very human and basically he became a freak and everyone thought he was this hybrid between a human and a chimpanzee and the missing link. He ended up on the Japanese chat show circuit which was a tragic tale and he was eventually thrown into a prison for 30 years. The documentary crew found him after all that time and managed to have him released to a sanctuary and gave him a happy ending. This was a great reference for Andy to play a part ape part human character.”