For more than 15 years, Andy Serkis has been Hollywood’s go-to performance-capture guy, playing such digitally enhanced characters as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films, and even King Kong himself. But the 53-year-old actor—whose directorial debut, Breathe, hit theaters earlier this month—believes there are still plenty of misconceptions about one of filmmaking’s most crucial innovations. “It’s not just about mimicking behavior,” Serkis says. “This is about creating a character.”
And if anyone could tell people a thing or two about performance-capture tech, it’s Serkis. In fact, he could teach a master class. In the video above he traces the history of the technology, from its early days as a videogame innovation to the glory days of Gollum to this summer’s stunning War for the Planet of the Apes, perhaps the most impressive merger yet between high-end technology and big-hearted performance. In the early motion-capture days, he says, playing a creature like Gollum—which required him to watch his virtual performance in real time on a monitor—was “like being a puppeteer and a marionette at the same time.” By the time of 2005’s King Kong, he had moved into the realm of performance-capture, allowing him to craft detailed facial expressions: “It’s almost like looking at a costume that you’re going to put on [or] choose as an actor,” he says. “And you find a relationship between yourself and the avatar.”
Later films like Tintin and the Planet of the Apes, made with the help of head-mounted cameras, gave him greater mobility—though they’d also require him to work in all sorts of challenging environments. (You think your job’s tough? Try wearing a full body suit in 100 percent Louisiana humidity, as Serkis did during 2015’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.) Ultimately, he says, working with the technology “[is] no different than any process you go through to create a role, whether you’re on a stage, or in front of a screen in a more conventional sense. The actor’s performance is the actor’s performance.” Sounds like he captured it perfectly.