As an actor using the technique of performance capture, Andy Serkis has brought to life a complex King Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the comedic Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin, an emotive Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the iconic Gollum—a role he played in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and will reprise in Jackson’s upcoming The Hobbit trilogy.
Along the way, he grew his experience as a storyteller and director—Jackson asked him to serve as second unit director on The Hobbit (he spent roughly 200 days directing that production)—and gained a keen understanding of emerging performance capture tools and techniques.
Next, the multitalented Serkis plans to direct a performance capture-based retelling of George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm. The movie will be produced by The Imaginarium, a London-based performance capture studio that Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) formed in 2011. The studio brings together Serkis’ experience in the creative process from feature and TV to video games, as well as house a technical R&D unit and an educational component.
For its inaugural projects, The Imaginarium has secured the film rights to adapt Animal Farm, as well as the book series The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon.
First up is Animal Farm, which Cavendish will produce. Serkis is currently focused on development. “I think we found a rather fresh way of looking at it,” Serkis told The Hollywood Reporter. “It is definitely using performance capture but we are using an amalgamation of filming styles to create the environmments.
“We are in proof of concept stage at the moment, designing characters and experimenting on our stage with the designs,” he continued. “It is quite a wide canvas at the moment as to how much and how far we can take performance capture with quadrupeds and how much we will be using facial [capture]. We are not discounting the use of keyframe animation or puppeteering parts of animals. We are in an experimental phase; it’s terribly exciting.”
On the storytelling, Serkis said: “We’re keeping it fable-istic and [aimed at] a family audience. We are not going to handle the politics in a heavy-handed fashion. It is going to be emotionally centered in a way that I don’t think has been seen before. The point of view that we take will be slightly different to how it is normally portrayed and the characters—we are examining this in a new light.”
Asked if he might also perform in the film, Serkis responded, “It might well be that I do, but nothing is set in stone yet. At the moment I’m very fixed on the creation of the characters and world from a directorial point of view."
Noting that he worked with "an extraordinarily talented crew and an amazing array of talent" on The Hobbit, Serkis is now experimenting with some of of the tools and techniques used to bring Middle Earth to the screen, including 3D and high frame rate photography.
Frame rates are the number of images displayed by a projector within one second. Twenty-four frames per second (fps) has long been the standard in cinema, but some industry leaders including Jackson assert that high frame rates such as 48 can create a more lifelife image. But views vary on this topic.
“The wonderful thing about 48 fps is [how it handles] the intergration of live action and CG elements; that is something I learned from The Hobbit,” Serkis said. “We are so used to 24 fps and the romance of celluloid … But at 48 fps, you cannot deny the existence of these CG creations in the same time frame and space and environment as the live action. It works incredible well.”
Serkis plans to direct and/or act in additional movies that will be made at The Imaginarium, includes The Bone Season series and an additional not-yet-named property.
Cavendish said of The Bone Season: “These books have conjured up with extordinaly detail and delicacy of drama an imaginary future set in a dystopian world. We are just starting to develop that for a series of motion pictures.”
Bloombury will publish the first book in the series next August, after young author Shannon completes her studies at Oxford. According to the books' description, The Bone Season begins in 2059 and follows 19 year old Paige Mahoney who is working in the criminal underworld of London, employed as an envoy between secret cells: she drops in and out of people’s minds. Paige is a lucid dreamer, a clairvoyant, and in her world, the world of Scion, she commits high treason simply by breathing. Attacked, kidnapped, and transported to Oxford, a city that has been kept secret for two hundred years, she meets Warden, a Rephaite with dark honey skin and heavy-lidded yellow eyes. He is the single most beautiful and frightening thing she has ever laid eyes on—and he will become her keeper.
Said Cavendish: “A lot of what we are doing at The Imaginarium is pushing [performance capture] technology and finding ways to do things that haven’t been done before. Some of it is also about making it more efficiently and making it within reach of budget.”