If they handed out an Oscar for the best motion-capture performances, Andy Serkis would probably have quite a few trophies on his mantelpiece. The accomplished actor/director has provided the movements and voice for such memorable, CGI characters as Gollum in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong in King Kong, Supreme Leader Snoke in the Star Wars sequel trilogy and Caesar in The Planet of the Apes trilogy.
By contrast, Joe Letteri has been handsomely rewarded for his stellar work as a Visual Effects artist, having been nominated for an Academy Award nine times. He’s won four Oscars so far, for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; King Kong and Avatar. And he’s a shoo-in for at least another nomination for his latest offering, War for the Planet of the Apes.
Here, Andy and Joe discuss their seamless collaborating on the captivating saga which puts the perfect capstone on the scintillating simian trilogy!
Kam Williams: Hi Andy and Joe.I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you guys.
Joe Letteri: It’s great to talk to you, too.
Andy Serkis: Yeah, Kam.
KW: Let me start by asking where do your contributions to the film. as an actor and a visual effects specialist, intersect?
AS: I can tell you that, from my point of view as an actor, I work in a similar way as one would on any live action movie, apart from the fact that I’m not wearing any costume or makeup. Instead, I’m wearing a head-mounted camera and a suit with markers on it. Otherwise, the process of working with a director and other actors is exactly the same. Even though I was playing an ape in the scenes between Caesar and the the Colonel [played by Woody Harrelson], I was creating a character and delivering that character. And with the director [Matt Reeves], we were creating the drama for those scenes. You begin with research to build up the emotional inner life of the character and to explain the character, and then you shoot the scene. And that’s it. All of the performances are put into the cut that we put together with the editor before handing it to Joe. And he takes over from there.
JL: In the old days, like when we were doing Gollum, an overlay was involved. Peter [director Peter Jackson] would see a performance he liked, and we’d have to ask Andy to come over to another stage just for the purpose of recording that performance, because we couldn’t record it while the film cameras were rolling back then. By the time we got around to making Rise [of the Planet of the Apes], we really didn’t want to do that anymore. We wanted to see if we could capture THE performance as it was happening, the same as a film camera would be capturing it. Our big breakthrough was figuring out how to make that happen live on-set, and then how to take that out to remote and harsher locations. What that gives us is an authenticity of performance in the moment. The rest of what we do involves translating it all to the screen. There’s motion we have to be faithful to., but there’s also the likeness of the character that has to be created. We have to make Caesar look like a real chimpanzee. We have to make sure the light in his eyes reacts the same that the light on the set does. We have to make sure that his fur behaves properly. So, there’s an overlap between the performance and the creation of the images of that performance. But it’s always about making sure that the audience is believing the performance that they’re watching.
KW: How were you able to make the interaction between the humans and the apes appear seamless. Not once during the film did I ever think I was looking at computer-generated images.
JL: We not only capture the performance, but we capture the locations’ lighting as well as all the physical aspects of the terrain. We recreate all of that in the computer and add everything necessary, like the apes, set extensions and background mountains. In this case, we grew a whole forest up on the hillside behind the prison camp. We devote the same attention to every detail, taking into consideration how they behave physically in the real world. For instance, we studied how pine trees grow. And after we understood that, we could grow a forest that existed in the same world as the performances. And we treated everything as if it had been in front of the camera when it was rolling. We made no distinction. So, I’m glad you didn’t discern any differences, because we think of it as all the same world.
KW: All I kept thinking was, why didn’t they make sci-fi movies with these production values when I was a kid?
AS and JL: [LOL]
KW: Andy, how did you feel about being asked to play Caesar, and how did you originally prepare for the role?
AS: It’s been an extraordinary honor, really, and an extraordinary journey playing him over the course of three films. My approach to the character at the beginning of the first film was very different from my approach to him in War. I originally based him on a real chimpanzee who was brought up by human beings back in the 1970s. I wanted to cultivate a sense of Caesar’s being an outsider. So, in my mind, I imagined him as a human trapped inside an ape’s skin, because he’d received love from those humans who’d raised him until he reached a certain age and was transferred to an ape sanctuary where he saw his own skin for the first time. He was neither fully human, nor fully primate, but perhaps both. And that put him in the unique position of being able to galvanize all the various species of apes and to lead them to freedom. I approached him as this outsider who was uniquely positioned to empathize with both human beings and every species of ape which made him a natural leader.
KW: Has your approach to Caesar changed over the course of the trilogy?
PH: Of course, he’s been evolving through the three movies. Not only is he aging and getting older, becoming a leader and a father along the way, but he’s changed emotionally and cognitively. He’s become more intelligent. He’s changed the way he carries himself, physically. Linguistically, he’s become more articulate, more human-like. I have to say I’ve really, really enjoyed every single second of playing Caesar and every single turning point of the character’s arc. In this last episode, I get to enjoy this incredible journey where we witness this big change in him into a creature full of hatred and rage who wants to exact revenge on the Colonel. That’s an extraordinary twist for which I drew on personal experience, asking “What would I feel like, if I were in his position?” And I invited the audience to join me on that journey. So, the approach changed considerably over the course
KW: I found this film very thought-provoking. What message would you say it’s hoping to deliver?
AS: I think the core of the film, what Matt [director Matt Reeves] was an analysis of what happens if empathy is lost. Without being overly topical, we’re live in a world that has, in many ways, become desensitized and unable to empathize with other cultures and species. The dangerous part is that we objectify others and have somehow removed ourselves, mentally, from the very planet we inhabit. That loss of empathy is a central theme of this movie that Matt was keen to explore.
JL: Because Caesar grew up with a foot in both worlds, he’s always trying to reconcile the differences, to see the world from both sides, and to hold on to that ability to empathize. One of the great tragedies of War for the Planet of the Apes is that it comes to a point where even he can no longer empathize. And then we witness the consequences that he’s been trying to avoid all along. What’s he’s basically been predicting will happen, finally does, and that underscores the fact that there are no good guys and no bad guys, here. Each group is acting out of fear and a survival instinct. The question is: how do you work through that without destroying both sides?
KW: I know what you mean. A friend of mine said that he didn’t know which side to root for and that he kept changing his allegiance back and forth from the humans to the apes.
AS and JL: [Chuckle]
KW: Joe, your great visual effects work has been rewarded with four Oscars, and you’ll certainly get another nomination for this film. Andy, you’d have a bunch of your own if the Academy had a category for best motion capture performances.
AS: Thanks for the kind words, Kam. However, my belief about performance capture is that it’s a technology which allows actors to play extraordinary characters. But from an acting perspective, I’ve never drawn a distinction between playing a conventional, live action character and playing a role in a performance capture suit. And from a purely acting point-of-view, I don’t believe there should be a special Oscar category because I think it sort of muddies the waters in a way. There are two incredible crafts involved here. One is the creation of the performances. and the other is the manifesting of those performances onscreen. The issue has been been discussed for years, and it’s really up to the acting community to be willing to be educated about what performance capture is in order to fully appreciate it as acting. It’s not a type of acting, but rather the use of technology to harness an actor’s performance and translate it into an ape, another animal, or an avatar of some kind.
KW: Well, you certainly are among the very best at what you do. Thank you both for the interview, and best of luck with the film.
AS and JL: Thanks, Kam.
To see a trailer for War for the Planet of the Apes, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEP1Mk6Un98