In a few weeks, performance capture legend Andy Serkis will star as Caesar the chimp in the newest Planet of the Apes incarnation, but this weekend, he was at Comic-Con, where he took a few moments to chat with us. Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows Caesar from infancy as he becomes deeply involved in a scientific experiment to change the brain.
"I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes is going to be an exceptional piece," the actor beamed. "It's applying the current best visual technologies we have to tell a story that's both emotional and engaging. I think audiences will really respond to this."
By "best visual technologies," Serkis isn't exaggerating. In charge of making the CGI monkey is Weta digital, the visual effects company behind the eye-popping effects of Avatar. Weta wrote its own computer program specifically to simulate the way ape hairs intertwine during body movement.
"It's an excellent transformation, really. It's the perfect use of technology," he raved, "Now that we can make these creatures, the next step is to humanize them, and that's what we're doing. I'm really pleased by the way it all turned out."
Having to spend countless hours hunched over, hopping around like a monkey, took a toll on the popular star, who also did similar motion-capture performances for famous roles as King Kong and Gollum. "Quite excruciating, actually. It is even more demanding than most roles, because I have to play ... a creature and an animal, basically. It takes a lot of work, many weeks of preparation, to get ready for those." Serkis relies primarily on yoga techniques to get his body ready for the agonizing work of playing a hunched-over creature.
However, thanks to technology, he doesn't have to perform his role totally blind to what the final product will look like. "They actually come back pretty early with a low-resolution conversion of my performance. So I got to see the transformation, or at least a working version of it, pretty much right away. Then, as we go along, they give me these visual prompts of myself as an ape that get more and more detailed. It really helps the process to be able to review your performance after the transformation has taken place. Every part of Caesar has been rendered electronically. People ask me if those are my eyes in Caesar. They are not."
As the leading actor in motion-capture performance, Serkis has several insights into the field. "I play the role of Caesar as if I really were on set: act like a monkey while trying to convey human emotions so the audience can relate to the character. The real thing about it is, we're trying to make a connection between these creatures and human feelings. So a lot of the time I'm trying to play it how a human would play it. The CG takes care of most of the fantastic visual element, so it's my job to connect that creation with everyday emotions the audience can share."
However, it's not always strictly business for Serkis. Sometimes there's monkey business, too: Having to play roles that are far removed from their final look sometimes can send the actor into hysterics. "There are times when you just look around and think, 'These grown men are running around a set like monkeys,' and you just have to laugh. Plus, everyone else is so 150 percent serious, which only adds to the hilarity of the moment. You have to laugh about the whole thing, just to break the tension."
Although his genius at the craft is unparalleled, Serkis sometimes dreams about roles that don't find him getting a digital makeover. "As a child my favorite character was Spider-Man. I like how he doesn't have real superpowers like Superman. If he needs to get somewhere, he can't just fly there, he has to sling his webs and swing across the city. I always like that he had to work to make his superpowers work for him." It goes without saying that Serkis would like the latest Spidey films. "Those were excellent. Sam Raimi is a brilliant director, and his vision is the most thrilling part of that series. I've always enjoyed seeing how Raimi brings stories to life on the screen. They are all really excellent."
Rise of the Planet of the Apes hits theaters Aug. 5. "This iteration of the franchise is quite special," Serkis concluded, "and I think it's going to deliver what the audience is expecting."