Andy Serkis Smeagol Hobbit

New Line Cinema

When the biggest movie of the calendar year is a nearly three-hour festival of noise starring automotive robots, it’s easy to fear that the human element of filmmaking is slowly being lost to digital effects and bottom line corporate interests. But the career of Andy Serkis provides a powerful demonstration as to how the human capacity for imagination and feeling can work with, not against, the utilities of motion picture technology towards groundbreaking ends.

Serkis considers himself an actor first and foremost, but he occupies a unique and privileged place across so many film properties that could otherwise easily be bereft of inspiration, content to live in the uncanny valley of requisite CGI. Serkis’ work requires his presence during all levels of production, and in so doing he operates as a medium between a filmmaker’s vision and their collaboration with cast and crew both in front of and behind the camera. His body is, in summary, the place in which the material and immaterial aspects of 21st century filmmaking play out.

So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who only sometimes plays a human being.

The Performer’s Authorship of the Role is Essential

It’s wonderful how Serkis dodges Travers’ question here about whether or not he deserves an Oscar by instead offering something universal about the limits of otherwise impressive technologies against the centuries-long tradition of human performance: a person’s authorship of and embodiment in a performance makes all the difference.

Bill Nighy once said of his work on the 2nd and 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean movies that it was one of the most fun, freeing and rewarding experience he’s had as an actor, because he enjoyed the opportunity to explore the character in ways that he couldn’t by directly performing as a body onscreen. If you see performance capture as providing an opportunity for exploring a performance and finding a character, then the human element is unmistakable; otherwise, you’re robbing the  film of something essential, something for which digital effects (at least, for now) simply cannot compensate.

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Find the Voice (and Listen to Your Cat)

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Find a Place to Develop Your Art

Serkis’ Imaginarium (which I imagine looks like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie) is a sort of ongoing master class on the art and practice of motion capture performance, and an essential space in a studio system that regularly finds itself in need of putting humans in tight green suits. But despite the Big Hollywood demands for a space like this, it’s hard to picture the Imaginarium as different from any other conservatory dedicated to a certain approach towards mastering the craft of acting. Having both a space to perfect this craft and a community of like-minded people dedicated to it can only, in Serkis’ words, “further the art and craft of performance capture.”

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Understand What You’re Providing

This behind-the-scenes clip of The Two Towers (Serkis’ breakthrough motion capture role) finds the actor contending with the unique stresses of his performance as Gollum, namely the fact that his “finding” the character on set and articulating it as such during a given take is only part of the equation – he will more fully manifest the character, Serkis admits, when he performs the voice after shooting. But he also knows that he is needed for multiple purposes, one of which is to allow his costars to find their emotional register against a character they cannot perform with on set. Particularly for the shots in which Serkis is off-camera while Gollum will prospectively be on-camera, his “presence,” in whatever form it takes, is absolutely vital.

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Improvise for Hours

During the recent live stream Q&A after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at the Alamo Drafthouse, Serkis and director Matt Reeves discussed the importance of getting in a room and acting like apes for hours. It’s truly encouraging to know that, despite how big the studio machine is and how seemingly post-human so many filmmaking technologies are, the simple art of putting serious, skilled actors in a room to do silly things is essential to make a worthwhile film.

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Final Thoughts: Acting is Acting

Variety: Will we actually see your face [with your as-yet-unnamed character in The Avengers: Age of Ultron]?

Serkis: I’m not at liberty to mention. But it’s all the same to me. I’ve never drawn a distinction when playing a role, whether it be live action or performance capture. Acting is acting. It’s just basically what you wear to the set that’s different.

More so than any studio or director or even genre, Andy Serkis seems to be the element hiding in plain sight across almost all of contemporary tentpole Hollywood, embodying characters in the land of Tolkien, the Marvel Universe and a rapidly changing ape planet. Where a great deal of large–scale entertainment can seem thoughtless and derivative, Serkis’ work is dedicated and innovative. Where the effects that clutter so many big movies dance across the line between spectacle and visual noise, Serkis’ efforts are grounded attempts to explore what technology and human creativity can do together. Where “new” technologies like Peter Jackson’s escalated frame rates or 3D can signal a cheap gimmick, Serkis’ work is progressively minded.

He brings an essential human element to a practice of filmmaking that seems most at risk of losing it, and that’s because he uses the essential properties of established practices towards the new possibilities of future ones.

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