Andy Serkis: from Gollum to studio boss

“My preciiiiooouuuuss … ” For more than a decade, two simple words have followed Andy Serkis wherever he goes. His interpretation of a tortured and torturing Gollum for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, inspired by the sound of his cat dealing with a hairball, spawned endless online spoofs, Saturday Night Live send-ups and impressions. Then came the day last year when Serkis had to resurrect the character on the set of The Hobbit: “There was a moment of wobble on the first day when I thought, ‘Am I just doing a fantastic impersonation of millions of people’s impersonations of a character I played 12 years ago?’”

The moment passed. But by then Gollum had already established Andy Serkis as something else: a commodity every bit as precious as Tolkien’s rings. His pioneering role – was it animated? Was it an actor? – made him both a trailblazer and an evangelist for performance capture: the technology that records an actor’s movement and expression to form the heart of a digital character. This alchemy of art and science has since driven movies from Avatar to Rise of The Planet of the Apes. Now Serkis is preparing for a new part: co-founder of The Imaginarium, a studio that hopes to place Britain at the forefront of this cinematic revolution as “a one-stop shop for digital characters”.

Ealing Studios does not look like the sort of place where cutting-edge technology is carving out a new niche for national film. Between the whitewashed buildings and the village green, you half-expect to find Alec Guinness out for a morning stroll. Instead, a back door leads you to an ultra-modern stage set, complete with the latest 16 mega-pixel motion capture cameras, a bank of computers and two men in form-fitting Lycra suits sitting nonchalantly on a sofa.

In the mill of people, it is momentarily hard to identify Serkis. For most actors, the face is all: the thing that defines you from screen to street. But when Serkis, a man who has starred in some of the biggest blockbusters of the past decade, detaches himself to say hello, there is no immediate blast of recognition. He is all smiles, with his often unruly mane pulled back in a ponytail, but it still takes a beat to register the face behind Gollum, King Kong, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Captain Haddock in last year’s The Adventures of Tintin.

Today the face is in charge of operations as The Imaginarium shows its stuff. The brainchild of Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish, producer of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the studio was founded in September 2011 and moved to Ealing in February. (Serkis dreamt up the name long before The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus came out – “which I can prove”, he firmly states.) Cavendish had a performance capture epiphany while watching King Kong: “To the embarrassment of my children, I cried … and it was only afterwards when I looked up the movie and found out about it that I discovered that inside all of that was little Andy.”

The entire Imaginarium venture has the air of a big experiment, a far cry from the more structured hierarchy of Hollywood. “What we really wanted to do was create this sense of a laboratory where you’re putting together people in a situation where they’re having to come out from behind their armour … and try new things out,” says Serkis. The team of about 25 are some of the best in the business, including transplants from Peter Jackson’s famous Weta Digital, which inspired Serkis during his stints in New Zealand. In one room, facial specialists are fine-tuning eyeballs: swivelling them around in a horribly lifelike way on a computer screen. There are animators dreaming up new projects and software developers attempting to make the existing technology even better. Actors are being trained by the master in performance capture while the London College of Fashion is interested in collaborating on digital costume design and better suits where the tracking markers don’t fall off.

All this buzz comes from operating on the edge of innovation. In the days before performance capture, characters were often tennis balls on sticks with voices added later. The only tennis balls in The Imaginarium are on top of sharp objects for health and safety purposes. The technique has rapidly evolved since Serkis first pulled on his “mo-cap” suit for Gollum. “I very much happened to be at the right place at the right time,” he says. Back then, his movements were shot on set but the facial expressions were filmed separately later on. Now technology allows all elements of a performance to be captured at once – although the head-mounted cameras can be tricky. “If you want an intimate moment, you normally headbutt each other.”

Cameras track the suit markers in 3D and transmit the data to computers where it drives simple electronic skeletons in realtime

Cavendish believes that performance capture’s huge strides are partly due to its prominent sponsors. “The great directors of our time – Cameron, Jackson, Spielberg – are the people who’ve picked it up and run with it. And the results are so spectacular, creatively and commercially.” Films such as Avatar, which smashed worldwide box office records, or Jackson’s King Kong, which pulled in $550m, have redefined how we think about actors sporting what Steven Spielberg labelled “digital make-up”. Serkis’s performance as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, on whose sequel The Imaginarium will again consult, led to an unsuccessful clamour for an Oscar nomination.

The besuited actors are still perched on the sofa, one brandishing a cigar with a marker attached. As the words, “mo-cap rolling” ring out, a Poirot-esque scene unfolds. On the set, you can see two slender men in Lycra running around a mostly empty space. But on the screen, an elderly fat detective chases a large American around a fully realised drawing room. The movements are simultaneous, data transmitted back to the computers from the cameras, then rigged on to electronic skeletons and into a low-resolution character design (further processing takes place later on). Serkis dodges in and out of the action with a virtual camera, essentially a games controller attached to a steering wheel, taking close-ups.

Marked men: (from left) Gavin Marshall and David Newman in their motion-capture suits at The Imaginarium

All this technology is the pass to a world where imagination rules, bolted on to performances as real as any by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The rotund detective’s body language is fully realised despite the slim actor having to attach a pad to his suit to ensure his fingers do not go through his digital frame. “Let’s throw some lighting up there, perhaps we can make it a little bit more like a disco,” says Serkis. “Relax” blares out and the lights dim in the animated drawing room. The next moment, the detective shrinks to the size of a mouse as the villain tries to kick him across the room. This ability to change scale is how King Kong was done. “It really does enable you to go where the imagination takes you,” says Serkis. “In terms of character development, you can get a long way very very quickly.”

During rehearsal, actors are able to see how they appear on screen so they can build up the character’s identity and movement, experimenting with weights as Serkis did in King Kong or the crutches that gave him Caesar’s lolloping gait. But then the screens are taken away. “For a Caesar or a Gollum, you’re not acting as a puppeteer, you’re playing the role and that’s really significant – it’s the actor playing the role. It is now viewed more as another way of recording an actor’s performance.” For Serkis, digital effects can do nothing if the acting isn’t there to begin with. “If you don’t get [it] on the day, then you’ll never get [it] in the computer. You’ll very rarely find that you can enhance a performance to give it a real emotional centre and truth … after the fact.”

As everything is shot with data rather than film, scenes can be worked through in their entirety. Gollum’s only scene in The Hobbit was shot on Martin Freeman’s first day on set as Bilbo Baggins. “Peter [Jackson] wanted to approach it like a chamber theatre piece … and it was great for Martin to be able to focus on one character rather than get chucked in with 13 dwarfs and a wizard.” They worked through different variations over two weeks. “There is no difference between shooting Martin delivering his performance and me delivering my performance and it’s happening at the same time,” says Serkis.

Serkis reprises his iconic performance of Gollum for 'The Hobbit', due for release this December

Part of the success of performance capture lies in the new generation of movie-goers for whom flinging body parts on to an electronic skeleton is as natural as hair and make-up. It is in this demographic of game-playing, music-streaming naturals that The Imaginarium hopes to find its future audiences – and talent pool. Serkis’s own children grew up on film sets, blurring the lines between avatars and actors. “When we were doing Kong, Sonny, who was then about five or six, said, ‘Dad, who’s playing the Tyrannosaurus Rex?’ ... And I thought, ‘Good boy.’” Pause. “Because they were animated.”

Such ease with the concept of self as avatar also extends to a new generation of film technicians and actors. When The Imaginarium’s operations manager Ben Lumsden worked on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, he wore night-vision goggles in broad daylight, to the amusement of other crew members. He was simply making sure that the infrared connection between the cameras and the apes’ suit markers didn’t drop. Serkis believes young actors are equally laid-back about medium: “I think there will always be a particular generation of actors who … think that they’re going to be replaced by robots,” he says. “But certainly the emerging actors… understand that that’s part of the craft.”

More juicy roles are emerging in places such as the video game industry. After The Lord of the Rings, Serkis was asked to direct a game by the company Ninja Theory and was stunned that they had to go abroad to shoot it. “The technology’s built in Oxford, the software’s built in Cambridge and we have this vast pool of acting and writing talent,” he recalls. It was at that point that the seeds of a studio that could bring all of this together began to take root, one that could maximise profits through a twofold approach: technical consultancy services on one side, development and production on the other. Today The Imaginarium can work on a top-secret video game for Crytek while simultaneously developing a faux nature documentary about pixies, in which a mock-David Attenborough intones: “On top of the rock, you can see what appears to be a pixie – he’s got a load of acorns in his hand.”

As Caesar in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', a role that prompted calls for Serkis to get an Oscar nomination

“This country has tended to be used as a talent repository for the American studio system,” says Cavendish, “but there’s a real opportunity now for a company like ours to take a bit more control.” All the money for the studio – a significant seven-figure sum – came from British investors. Upcoming projects are very British as well. A TV movie of Fungus the Bogeyman, Raymond Briggs’s classic story of dirt-loving creatures (essentially a nasty version of The Wombles) will be filmed next year. There are also plans for an Animal Farm movie, directed by Serkis. “All the animals will be performance capture, played by actors, and the look of the final film will be unlike anything anyone’s seen before,” says Cavendish.

Performance capture tends to gravitate towards certain genres: fantasy being the most obvious example. At Comic-Con, the huge comic book gathering in the States, Serkis is a hero. “I’ve never seen anything like Andy being mobbed at Comic-Con,” recalls Cavendish. “This was in his core zone – 350,000 people, Tolkien fanatics, King Kong fanatics, Tintin fanatics… To cross the road he required two bodyguards,” he says. “And that’s because all these guys utterly get every moment of the process and absolutely adore it.”

Capitalising on this, The Imaginarium has also optioned The Bone Season, a projected seven-volume franchise of fantasy books by 20-year-old Samantha Shannon who is, alarmingly, still doing her degree at Oxford. The first book, about a clairvoyant girl in a dystopian future Britain, is due out next year and is already being touted as the next Harry Potter. Shannon chose to work with The Imaginarium because she loved Serkis, and his team are already fleshing out how her world might look on screen.

A lot of these doors have opened because of Serkis’s growing prominence. In addition to his Gollum revival, Jackson made Serkis second unit director on The Hobbit. “It was a bit like being given a Ferrari when you’ve just passed your driving test,” Serkis says. As Peter Jackson goes, so go the rest of the world. An as yet unnamed Imaginarium project, which Serkis will star in and direct, was sold to a US studio “in the room” in July. “I hadn’t realised that my beloved partner had reached that point already. We were both rather astonished by that because this is a major, major huge movie,” says Cavendish.

But movies are not the only things afoot. The Imaginarium also hopes to apply performance capture to other art forms. There are rumours of a musical aimed at a video-game-playing audience and plans to attach the technology to live arts venues. “You’re not necessarily linked into humanoid characters so you can be driving pulses of light or sound,” explains Serkis. “You can be dancing and what you see on the screen is trails of light … or you can have a body made out of buildings à la Transformers.”

Does he believe that all this digital wizardry appeals to actors as the ultimate form of escapism? Not in his case. “I’ve always thought of acting as a tool to change society,” he says. “I watch a lot of actors and I see panic in their eyes because they don’t know why they act and I know why I act. Whether I’m a good or a bad actor, I know why I do it.” Put him in front of the camera and his plasticine features effortlessly run through his repertoire. Put him behind it and the man who’s worked with the best directors in the world blends into the team. “I love the ability to transform because that for me is a liberation,” he says.

Serkis is an ebullient man and when he gets excited, the art student he once was emerges (at one point, he describes a body oddly frozen on the screen as “a bit Francis Bacon”.) As a child, he loved painting model kits – Godzilla or the Hunchback of Notre Dame – and he studied visual arts at Lancaster University. He has toyed with the idea of becoming an artist and this passion shows in his work. “A lot of actors on film sets … very often they’re not paying attention to the physical world around them,” he says. “I think through studying art, I’ve always had that awareness and that’s something that I’ve wanted to bring in to go beyond acting … As a form of expression, they are intrinsically linked.” Ultimately Serkis decided that, though his pictures were unlikely to see the light of day, his film-making just might. The Imaginarium offers him his biggest canvas yet.

Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine

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