Andy Serkis: A Motion Capture Performance Pioneer
Industry Insight Best known for his portrayals of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and Kong in King Kong, legendary actor Andy Serkis lifts the lid on what it takes to forge a career in motion capture acting and animation.
Before he even considered being an actor, Serkis was determined to be a painter and graphic artist, and all the way through school that was his main focus. It wasn’t until he attended Lancaster University to study for a visual arts degree that he first got involved with theatre, but even then it was mainly on the arts side of things, designing posters, building props, and lighting sets.
“It was at the end of my first year when I realized that I wanted to be an actor, so I changed to an independent studies degree in performance, theatre design, and movement,” says Serkis. “It became very clear to me that it was what wanted to do, I felt incredibly connected to the work.”
The Big Break
Serkis got his first professional acting job at the Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster, doing 14 plays back to back, and since then there’s been no looking back, he’s enjoyed an acting career filled with a variety and intensity that any actor would relish.
“It was at the end of my first year when I realized that I wanted to be an actor, so I changed to an independent studies degree in performance, theatre design, and movement."
But what acting role has made Serkis most proud? “It’s hard because I’m attached to so many of my roles for so many different reasons,” he says. “But I do have a special affinity with the role of Gollum because, not only was it an amazing character to play, but it spawned a huge change in direction of where I was going as an actor: working in the digital realm.”
Having worked for 20 years in theatre, television and film, to be suddenly immersed into the creative world of motion capture acting and animation was so liberating for Serkis. In playing these digital characters, he was no longer restricted or typecast by his previous roles or physicality.
“Philosophically, as an actor, it was this incredible new challenge, and that was born out of working with Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings films,” says Serkis. “I was no longer just in front of the camera as an actor, I was straddling different worlds with visual effects artists on the filmmaking side. I was, bizarrely, coming back to where I was originally, as an artist and a performer.”
Moving Things Forward
Serkis has set up his own studio, The Imaginarium, a creative space where he can consult on other directors’ film projects and, primarily, direct and produce his own performance capture projects. His ambition was to create a centre in the northern hemisphere where people could further the art and craft of filmmaking in the digital realm. “We work closely with the National Film and Television School and have staff members who came from Bradford, Bournemouth, and Portsmouth universities; places that have started to offer motion capture modules in their animation degrees,” says Serkis. “We’re trying to build up the skills base here, because it’s one of the areas that’s yet to burgeon and we want to increase the talent pool.”
The future is looking bright for Serkis and The Imaginarium, but is he prepared to reveal what’s coming up next in the pipeline? “This year, we were performance capture consultants on Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII and, at the moment, I’m directing The Jungle Book for Warner Brothers,” says Serkis. “It’s been quite an extraordinary year for us.”