Andy Serkis: The Man Who Plays Computer Generated Parts You might not recognize actor Andy Serkis, but you've probably seen his characters on-screen. Serkis is Hollywood's go-to actor for computer-generated roles. His movies include Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Serkis: Playing Virtual Parts On The Big Screen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138930501/138930568" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our guest, actor Andy Serkis, has appeared in more than 30 films, but you wouldn't recognize him in some of his most celebrated roles. When he played King Kong in the 2005 remake and the tormented creature Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" series, he appeared not as himself but as a computer-generated image.

Those roles involved a technique known as performance capture, in which an actor performs in a skin-tight suit with special markers, allowing cameras to capture his body movements and facial expressions. Computer graphic images are then imposed on the movements to transform the actor into a 25-foot ape or some other creature on film.

Serkis stars in a performance capture role in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" with James Franco and John Lithgow. Serkis plays a chimp named Caesar who gets a drug that enhances his intelligence and is raised in a human home. He's eventually sent to an animal refuge, where he organizes an ape rebellion.

Andy Serkis spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Well, Andy Serkis, welcome to FRESH AIR. In this film, you take a leading role with no dialogue, and you play the ape as an infant, right?

Mr. ANDY SERKIS (Actor): I play Caesar all the way from a toddler. There's a couple of shots right at the beginning of the movie, which shows him literally just after he's been born, one or two days old. I play him from toddlerhood all the way through to this, you know, highly developed male who leads the revolution.

DAVIES: So tell us how you prepared.

Mr. SERKIS: Well, when you take on a role like this, obviously, you know, Caesar is a chimpanzee, and so there's - the first stage of the process is really working on the ape primate research and researching as much as you can and watching a lot of footage and spending time with apes and finding touchstone characters.

In all of the footage that you watch, there's the ones that kind of pop out. You know, there's certain ones that you kind of feel are going to inspire you more than others because of course there are so many different personalities in all of these apes. They're 97 percent genetically the same as us.

It's saying - it's like observing human beings and saying, well, I'm going to play Caesar kind of with an amalgamation of that person and that person.

So I actually came across a real chimpanzee called Oliver who in the 1970s became a bit of a phenomenon, and a documentary series was made about him. He was known as the humanzee, and Oliver was extraordinary in the sense that he walked bipedally and was brought up by human beings and treated very much like a member of the household and looked and behaved and had facial expressions that really, if one was to project, or you know, one could imagine that it was close to human behavior.

So he was a touchstone character. Of course, that's the first stage of building a character like this.

DAVIES: You know, what you see with this character, Caesar, is he grows up as a human kid and then at some point realizes that he isn't. There's a moment when he goes outside, they have to take him on a leash, and he suddenly realizes wait a minute, I'm a kid, but they've got me around with a leash like a dog. Do you want to talk a little bit about sort of some of the emotions you see Caesar going through there and how you got to them and portrayed them?

Mr. SERKIS: Yeah, it's a really significant moment in that piece, where Caesar begins to have this growing self-awareness. And the scene that happens after the one that you're describing really is the pivotal moment where, you know, he gets led back, and he has this encounter with a dog, and he then feels around his neck and realizes he has this choker around his neck.

And when he's taken back to the car, and he's being taken home, and normally he gets into the trunk of the car, he stops, and he looks at Will, and he freezes. And this something in him realizes this is no longer right. And he moves over and gets into the passenger seat of the car.

And it's a really significant silent moment of filmmaking where - which was completely improvised and in the moment. And that's - you know, that is a prime example of Caesar and his emotional development. And so I was just living through that moment as an actor and believing this is what was right and felt right for that moment.

DAVIES: So you're saying you were filming that scene. You're there covered in a Lycra suit, I guess, with these markers all over your face and a camera in front of you to capture this motion which will later be reproduced with the animation. And you're interacting with the actors, and you say ah, I'm not going to get in the back of the car.

Mr. SERKIS: Yeah absolutely, I mean, in the same way that I would if I was in a costume and doing the same thing. The process of performance capture really is transparent now. You know, we're not having to shoot in special areas where the performance capture cameras are all around.

Those performance cameras are brought out into the open, outside of the studio lot, you know, and you can shoot on any location. And while they're rolling, while the performance capture cameras are rolling, the live cameras are also rolling, and so everything is filmed in one hit.

And there's - that enables you to completely emotionally connect with your fellow actors and completely play the scene in entirety, and it will have an emotional resonance and a reality and a connectiveness that you couldn't possibly get if two actors were working in separate volumes.

DAVIES: You, of course, you had this role, and you also played King Kong in the 2005 remake there, where you had to, in effect, express this emotional relationship between a 25-foot ape and Naomi Watts. And what - you're known for very rigorous preparation for your roles. And I'm wondering kind of what it does to your head to be in the mentality of an ape for weeks or months at a time.

Mr. SERKIS: I mean, certainly physically, it takes its toll. After Kong, my knuckles have never really recovered because I had to wear, you know, every single day, I had wear very, very heavy weights on my forearms and around my hips and around my ankles to get the sense of size and scale of the movement of the character.

You know, Kong as a character is a very, very - obviously a completely different, you know, a challenge. He's lonely, very desperately lonely, kind of psychotic hobo, basically, who is past his prime. He's like a boxer who's taken that many hits. He's - every day is about survival, and the only beings he comes into contact with are ones that are trying to kill him and take him down.

He knows he's the last of his species, and so when he actually is confronted with this other warm and non-threatening being, he begins to feel a set of emotions that he probably hasn't ever felt since childhood.

And from then, this relationship develops, and he begins to - and then really the key turning point for Kong was a realization that he had a sense of humor because he begins to enjoy her.

There's a scene where Naomi Watts, which she played brilliantly, performs -basically, she's performing to so save her life. And Kong finds it amusing. And it's something that he's never encountered before.

So that was another very challenging, physical and, you know, emotionally connective role. But it does leave you - you know, there's always a decompression period after playing any - really any role that I get into because I take it very seriously, and emotionally, you're tricking your mind and body into these situations.

You know, you are telling your body that you are this thing and that you're feeling these thoughts and that you are experiencing these experiences. So it does always take time to kind of - to come out the other end.

DAVIES: You didn't go home and stand on the dining room table and beat your chest in front of your wife and children?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: I'm sure she'd say that I did, actually. She - you know, it's funny because my wife and my children, whenever they watch the roles that I've been involved with - and, you know, my children have witnessed me shooting all of these, from Gollum through Kong through, you know, Caesar to Captain Haddock in "Tintin." They - my children can see a direct correlation.

People ask me, you know, do you recognize yourself on the screen once these -when the digital makeup, in effect, is overlaid on top of your performance. And I say yes, of course, I recognize every single twitch, every single, you know, every single thought process and acting decision and choice. And my wife and children absolutely do. They look up on screen, and they see me in those roles. It's - yeah, it's quite extraordinary really.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Andy Serkis. He appears in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Andy Serkis. He stars with James Franco in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Well, we have to talk about Gollum, your portrayal of the creature in "The Lord of the Rings" films. This is really an amazing effect.

And since not everyone's seen it, and it's been a few years, why don't you just first of all describe Gollum physically and remind us of sort of how he became the creature he was in the story.

Mr. SERKIS: Gollum used to be a hobbit called Smeagol, and he was one of a clan that lived by a river. And he comes across the ring via his cousin, who discovers it when they're fishing one day. And he falls into the river trying to catch a big fish, and Deagol, his cousin, comes across this shining object at the bottom of a lake and brings it up.

And the moment that Smeagol, who is kind of known as a bit of a sneak in his village, I mean, he's not like a really terrible villain or anything, but he's a bit sneaky as a human - as a hobbit, rather. And he then - immediately he lays eyes on it becomes craven and lustful towards it and cannot - cannot -take his eyes off it and to the point where he fights his cousin and kills him and throttles him.

He then over a number of years is kind of cast out into the wilderness and begins to physically and mentally depreciate and become riddled and scarred mentally and physically and curl and twist and get knotted up, as if this virile and kind of physical disease was overtaking him. And it's the effect of the ring and the craven lustfulness of the ring overpowering him.

And he turns into Gollum, and he can't bear to be in view of the sunlight. It's too - it almost exposes him to the guilt of him killing his cousin. And he crawls into the Middle Earth, what's an area known as the Misty Mountains and hides himself underground for nearly 500 years and gradually turns mad.

And he begins to talk to himself, and, you know, the two sides of his personality are at war with each other, this Smeagol, the innocent sort of side of himself, and Gollum the more aggressive, and manipulative. And there's a constant sort of battle between them.

DAVIES: And describe him physically, what his face looks like, what his body looks like.

Mr. SERKIS: He's very gnarled and very thin. He's emaciated. He has a few strands of hair. He's got scars all down his back. He's got a handful of teeth and huge kind of luminous, bulbous eyes.

You know, he's a wreck. You know, he's absolutely - he looks - his skin is pallid, and his skin is almost scaly and chafed and worn, and, you know, he's pretty much a pretty ugly little gnomic-like character.

DAVIES: An amazing thing to behold. And now let's listen to the voice. This is a scene from the second "Lord of the Rings" film, and here Gollum is - the two sides of his personality are arguing with one another. They're obsessed with the ring that is of course at the center of the story, which he refers to as precious. And he's here arguing with his darker self about whether to turn against Frodo Baggins, who he refers to as his master. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The Two Towers")

Mr. SERKIS: (As Gollum/Smeagol) Yes, Precious, they will cheat you, hurt you, lie. Master's my friend. You don't have any friends. Nobody likes you. Not listening. I'm not listening. You're a liar, and a thief - no, murderer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SERKIS: (As Gollum/Smeagol) Go away. Go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And that's our guest Andy Serkis, playing Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." Tell us about getting the voice. Is your voice enhanced in any way, or is that just you?

Mr. SERKIS: No, no, that's just my voice.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. SERKIS: And the voice was created through trying to find - you know, I'm not like a voice actor, per se. I don't just do voices. It only comes through character and through acting. And for me, it's linked entirely to physicality and through, you know, centering an emotion around a voice.

So Gollum, you know, as I described earlier, he feels very guilty about murdering his cousin, and a lot of his guilt is trapped in his throat.

And he's called Gollum - Tolkien calls him Gollum because of the way he sounds. So I had to find a voice that sounded like someone golluming.

You know, this - the ring is overpowering him, and I wanted this sense that his body was controlled by it. So that it was an involuntary action that was making him sound like this.

And I looked to one of my cats, actually, Diz(ph), who sadly isn't around anymore, but he came in while I was kind of working on the character one day and coughed up a fur ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: And this became really interesting to me because, you know, you watch a cat throwing up a fur ball, and it's like the whole body sort of writhes from the tip of the neck to the tip of the tail and sort of, you know, convulses. And you see this ripple going down its spine. And then this sound kind of happens, where it kind of comes into the throat, and you see this fur about to be chucked up, and then they sort of go...

(Soundbite of choking)

Mr. SERKIS: ...which suddenly became...

(Soundbite of choking)

Mr. SERKIS: And that's how the sound happened.

DAVIES: Oh my heavens. It must have been fun living with you while you were getting that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: Absolutely. Yeah, my kids were - I mean, they're over it now, but I used to - for them to go to bed it was a great way of getting them to bed.

DAVIES: Now, maybe this would be a good moment to talk about, you know, performance capture technology and how it's changed because I gather when you did that role, Gollum, it's different than in the current film, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." It's more sophisticated. Kind of give us the basics and tell us how you did Gollum and how that was translated into the screen.

Mr. SERKIS: Well much the same way. I mean, Peter Jackson wanted an actor to play the role. I mean, traditionally, visual effects - you know, the alternative was to have an animated character of Gollum appear on the screen.

Now if that was the case, you would have had represented on the set a tennis ball on a stick, and the other actors, i.e., Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, would have had to pretend that Gollum was there, and they'd have to pretend that they knew what he was feeling or thinking or, you know, what he was saying to them, and someone would read the lines off, and that would be it. And then, you know, months down the line, you know, animators would key-frame animate, and that character would be placed into the scene.

Peter Jackson, one of the things he wanted to do, he said when I first met him, you know, it's insane, that Gollum drives all of these scenes. He's the protagonist in so many of these scenes. The thought of him not being there present on set is ridiculous. We need to have an actor who can play the role and act with the other actors and interact.

So there were two methods, really, that we shot Gollum. You know, I acted on set with the other actors, much like I did on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and then my performance was either rotoscoped, which means if there was close interaction, I was grabbing Frodo's cloak, for instance, they would paint frame by frame over my hand grabbing the cloak so you had that definite interaction.

But then I also was able to go and shoot on a motion capture stage with all the cameras and me wearing the motion capture suit with markers on, and I would be driving the digital image of Gollum, but it was entirely shot separately. So I had to kind of, having emotionally lived through the scenes with Sean and Elijah, I then had to re-create those scenes on my own and just remember what we did on the day filming. So there was a slight disconnect to what we were doing.

The facial capture of Gollum was created by - the design of the character was created around my muscle structure and my face so that the animators could then - my performance was filmed on 35 millimeter, and then the animators copied it frame by frame. So all of my twitches, my eye movements, my expressions, my mouth and so on were literally frame-by-frame matched and overlaid with pixels.

Now the development that has taken place over the last decade has enabled, for one, you know, on "King Kong" for instance, it then moved to facial performance capture, where I was literally - in the same ways that I'd worn markers on my suit, I'm now wearing markers on my face, like 132 tiny little markers, which go around my eyelids and track my eye movements, and each, you know, each facial expression that Kong pulls is driven directly from my muscles and my face.

DAVIES: And you're surrounded by cameras, which follow those markers and then integrate them.

Mr. SERKIS: Absolutely, absolutely. Now with - you know, performance capture then took a big leap and took center stage in films like obviously "Avatar" and now "Rise of the Apes" and "Tintin," where you've got virtual production, where the whole shoot is basically taking place in a motion capture studio, and you have multiple actors acting with each other using this technique.

With "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," this is the first time we're moving out of a motion capture studio and into the real world, where both the actor is being filmed using film camera, and the performance capture actor is being film using the performance capture camera so that, as I say, they're both intrinsically linked in the moment.

DAVIES: Now, in Gollum, you do the movements, and he has a very kind of pouncy, animalistic way of moving. And you scramble up hillsides, romp through marshes, get whacked around. You're doing all of that, and it's all being captured, right?

Mr. SERKIS: Absolutely, yeah. It's - on set, on the live-action sets, this is the difference. When I played Gollum in "Lord of the Rings," if I was climbing up the side of a mountain, which I physically did, you know, I was on every single occasion swimming through streams, all of that, that wasn't captured. That was filmed on 35 millimeter, and for certain of those shots, it was rotoscoped and painted over. But obviously I did all the movement for it.

Now this is the difference. If I was doing that now, in fact when we've been shooting on "The Hobbit," which is where I reprise my role of Gollum, we've just shot all of Gollum's scenes, and I was able to do exactly that, but it was performance captured on the live-action set.

DAVIES: Now, there was a debate about whether you should have gotten an Oscar nomination for Gollum. Modesty aside, what do you think about the arguments for recognizing a performance capture role like this and giving it kind of all of the recognition that other actors get with the Academy?

Mr. SERKIS: I mean, my take on it is, and having worked in it for some years now, is that acting is acting, that performance is a performance.

When we shoot these scenes, after they've been shot, the director, Rupert Wyatt, then cuts the film. He edits the film. And the actor's performance, my performance as Caesar, for instance, in this film, you know, you can see my face on film going through all the emotions.

He then cuts the entire story using my performance. And then eight or nine months down the line, the visual effects shots, the overlaying of the performance with the skin and the texturing and the coloring and the art, you know, the painting over my eye movements and so on, that's done later on. But the director's already edited the movie and told the story and wants to uphold the performance of that actor.

GROSS: We'll hear more of Andy Serkis's interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. With the help of computer-generated images, Serkis plays the leader of the ape rebellion in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." He was Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" opens this weekend. Let's get back to our interview with Andy Serkis, the actor who plays the chimp that leads the rebellion. He wasn't wearing an ape suit. His performance, his movements and facial expressions was the basis of the computer graphic images of the ape. That same technique, known as performance capture, was used in Serkis's role as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." Let's get back to the interview Serkis recorded with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVIES: I do sometimes wonder if you don't have an agent who's telling you Andy, you need to get some roles where people see you, dude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: I, you know, it's probably taken about, you know, five minutes to understand why I do it. But, I mean, nevertheless, I do go back and do live action roles. I mean last year or it was the year before now actually, I played a, you know, I played Ian Dury, you know, the punk rocker Ian Dury in "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and, you know, was accoladed for that and I had an amazing time playing that role. I do a lot of, you know, I want to go back and do theater and, you know, there are other live action roles that I want to play.

But I never really draw a distinction between the two. I don't see a difference between playing a performance capture role and a live action role, they're just characters to me at the end of the day and I'm an actor who wants to explore those characters in fantastically written scripts. The only caveat is a good story is a good character.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll," and I thought we should listen to one scene of this. This is early in the film. You're playing this punk rocker Ian Dury. This is early in the film after a pretty disastrous appearance at a club, a woman played by Naomi Harris approaches and he kind of romances her. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NAOMI HARRIS (Actor): (as Denise Roudette) I thought you were (bleep) great.

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) Really? Great as in celebrated, illustrious, famous? Or great as in large, fat, bloated, something you do to a nutmeg, perhaps?

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Great as in great. (Unintelligible). I'd put Jimi Hendrix before anyone.

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) Really?

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Mm-hmm.

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) (Unintelligible) with Jimi. Nice.

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Yeah. Youre extremely polite. Did you always wear those glasses?

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) For your protection, my dear. Oh, I am very, very good with women. I used to live with me mom and her two sisters. I like women so much I used to think I was a repressed homosexual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) But I'm not. For what you were to see who I am gorgeous to look at. God, you (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Maybe? I have to be extremely polite.

DAVIES: That's our guest Andy Serkis playing Ian Dury in "Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll."

Were particularly drawn to this character? He was a punk rocker, suffered from polio, an interesting character. Were you particularly drawn to him for some reason?

Mr. SERKIS: Oh, he was a huge hero of mine in the '80s and I will never forget, you know, seeing him on television. He wrote incredible songs like "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," and I mean just he was an amazing wordsmith, poet, you know, a kind of cabaret stroke vaudevillian performer with a very odd gait and an extraordinary personality. And he combined this with working with a songwriter and, you know, a music creator called Chaz Jankel who wrote, who came with a kind of jazz funk influence. So the combination of these two and the band that he formed called the Blockheads, which I actually got to record with the original band all the songs for the movie, and, you know, they were the most incredible stage band.

It was a cross between sort of weird cabaret and sort of kind of Brechtian, you know, out there sort of, you know, theater. And like I say, vaudeville, and his hero was Max Weil and he was an old British musical artist and he just had such an eclectic taste in jazz and he was an art student.

And in many ways - and I actually got to know Ian. He wrote, he was writing music for a play that I was working on back in the '80s. So he was a huge hero of mine. And in many ways, you know, his kind of eclectic taste reflected mine, which is I was responsible with the writer for bringing the project together and, you know, we found a producer and director to work with us. But it was -it came from a real desire to tell his story.

DAVIES: And there was a physical challenge here. He had polio. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you got that side of him physically?

Mr. SERKIS: Yeah. I mean he, you know, his left-hand side of his body was very, you know, it was deformed and shrunken and very thin. And so I spent, I mean I lost, you know, I lost, you know, 24 pounds, you know, to play the role and built up the right-hand side of my body. I mean Sophie, his widow, who we got to know his family very well and, you know, Baxter. So it's a father and son movie. His Baxter, his son and Sophie and Jemima, his daughter, you know, they gave us a lot of, lot of kind of personal inside information and they worked on the script with us.

But Sophie, his widow said, you know, Andy, when you're playing him you got to remember he's like - he had the energy of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a maimed Tyrannosaurus rex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: So when he was on stage he used to drag the left-hand side of his body around with the force of his right, so he had this huge throbbing muscle in the right-hand side of his neck and that - you know, he powered himself with the right-hand side. So, you know, things like that. And then he wore a caliper on, you know, and he literally lurched around. And in fact, Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols based his entire act on Ian Dury's gait.

DAVIES: Well, Andy Serkis, I wish we had more time. Thanks for spending some time with us.

Mr. SERKIS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Andy Serkis stars in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," with the help of computer graphics. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

Coming up, the special effects that created the most iconic movie ape, the 1933 "King Kong." This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.