Few in Hall H recognized Serkis because film fans don't know what the Brit actor looks like--the man who performed not only The Lord of the Rings' Gollum, but King Kong. Serkis is pivotal in the evolution of performance capture.
Next he stars as Caesar, the first CG chimp, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 5); then appears as Captain Haddock, the temperamental sea captain in The Adventures of Tintin (December 23), directed by Spielberg and produced by Lord of the Rings mate Peter Jackson, and then returns as the power-obsessed Gollum in Jackson's prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14, 2012).
"Caesar has such a huge emotional dynamic range," Serkis said by phone Saturday morning on his way to the San Diego Zoo, of all places, with his family. "He plays an infant chimp all the way through to a revolutionary leader, and when I talked to Rupert Wyatt, the director, he clearly had an understanding of what he wanted to get out of the performance capture technology."
Serkis conceded that Jackson's Weta Wizards in New Zealand have continued to make great strides with the digital technique since the Oscar-winning Avatar , further breaking down barriers between live action and CG moviemaking. The performance capture actors now appear in the live-action set or on location with the other actors, thanks to a new LED system that utilizes infrared lights to work in a variety of conditions. And Weta has completely revamped the animation rig along with new hair, muscle, tissue, and eye advancements.
"There is a positive side to performance capture," he added."It gives you the time to revisit the character and rework stuff. But there's nothing like the immediacy of playing off another actor and creating the scenes very intimately on the floor with the director. I suppose this interface is the most significant change in performance capture technology. At the end of the day, it's just a tool to enable actors and the director to work together."
Serkis pointed to his pantomime as Caesar -- tender, nuanced, and conflicted -- as his masterpiece to date. "Obviously, the challenge was to convey intelligence and emotion through visual exposition," he suggested.
Serkis said it's about stripping away the layers between actor and performance to convey the soul behind the eyes. Yes, it would be nice to get recognition, and Serkis won't discourage a best supporting actor Oscar campaign, but his goal is to continue educating his peers and the industry at large about the evolving craft, while at the same time perfecting it. To this end, Serkis has founded the Imaginarium performance capture studio in the UK.
As for Tintin , Serkis described it as a unique hybrid that combines the urgency, immediacy, and emotional connectivity of a live-action movie with photorealistic yet heightened animation. "It's the perfect use of performance capture because it allows you to bring an abstract cartoon character to life without losing the original energy and heart of the source material by Herge," he insisted. "You're still playing the truth of the character, whether it's rendered finally as a more animated visual style or photoreal."
He observed that Spielberg wanted to shoot Tintin more like a conventional movie, working with the actors on set and using the virtual camera to compose shots in low-res versions of the scene, and having the flexibility to dial up the performances without interfering with the underlying emotions.
And what's it been like revisiting Gollum, his breakthrough performance capture character from a decade ago? "Again, now the computers can handle large amounts of data and you can play scenes out in their entirety," Serkis offered. "That was one of the joys of going back to Gollum after all these years. It's 60 years before Lord of the Rings , and he's been living with himself in that craven, lustful, paranoid state for 540 years, so this is obviously a linchpin scene dramatically, with Gollum losing the ring."