Andy Serkis: The Biggest Movie Star You Haven’t Seen

Matt McDaniel
Managing Editor
Movie Talk
Andy Serkis
Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis has had leading roles in mega-blockbusters that have earned over $2.5 billion worldwide.  He's the main character in a major movie opening this weekend, and this winter he'll appear in a new 3D adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg.  And yet, odds are good that if you bumped into him on the street you'd have no idea he was a movie star.  Because usually you never see his face.

Serkis is one of the preeminent actors in the field of "performance capture."  That's the process where an actor's movements are recorded in three dimensions and used to create the animation of a fully digital character.  Serkis broke new ground when he portrayed the computer-generated Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films, and he is taking the form to another level in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

A native of London, Andy Serkis started his acting career on the stage.  He appeared on British television throughout the 1990s, and scored the occasional film role like in Mike Leigh's Oscar-winning "Topsy-Turvy."  But his career took off in a new and unexpected direction when Peter Jackson cast him in his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.


Serkis was originally hired for just a three-week job providing the voice of the animated Gollum.  That turned into a five-year long endeavor, as Serkis actually created the character's movement and expressions.  To make it work, Serkis would be on set in costume to act out every scene with costars Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. Then the other actors would shoot the scene without Serkis to give a clean background where the animation could later be layered.  Later, Serkis would recreate his performance on a separate motion capture stage wearing a suit covered with reflective dots that infrared cameras would turn into a 3D "puppet" in the computer.

See Gollum in a scene from 'The Two Towers' >>

By using a talented actor as the basis for a digital creation, "The Lord of the Rings" revolutionized how CG characters could be used on film.  Serkis gave such a layered, moving performance many critics argued that Oscar rules should be amended to allow acting nominations for digital characters.  Serkis's face wasn't entirely absent from the trilogy, though.  He did appear on camera briefly in the opening of the third film as Smeagol, the same character before he was driven mad by the power of the ring.

Serkis reunited with Peter Jackson in 2005 to play another performance capture role, the 25-foot tall title character in "King Kong."  To prepare, Serkis studied gorillas in captivity at the London zoo, and then also visited Rwanda to see the animals up close in the wild.  For filming scenes between the giant gorilla and Naomi Watts, Serkis stood on scaffolding so that Watts would have eyes to connect with, and his voice was electronically altered so he could create Kong's booming sounds live on set.

Watch the trailer for 'King Kong' >>

Since his success in Peter Jackson's films, Serkis has been seen in several live-action films.  He played Tesla's assistant in Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige," and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for the HBO movie "Longford."  But this weekend he's back as the lead -- and entirely CG -- character as Caesar the chimpanzee in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."  Unlike the earlier "Planet of the Apes" movies, all the simians in this were all created in the computer, not with makeup.

With advancements in performance capture technology, Serkis no longer has to redo his performance on a bare soundstage away from the other actors.  For the first time, WETA Digital -- the same effects company that created Gollum, Kong, and the aliens of "Avatar" -- could record Serkis's work on an exterior location outside of a studio.  Serkis was able to film scenes with stars James Franco and Freida Pinto while wearing a suit that tracked his movements, and he wore special headgear with a camera pointed at his face to register every subtle twitch and map it onto the digital chimp.  Then in the computer, Serkis was erased from the shots and Caesar was put in his place.

Andy Serkis performing Caesar and the finished product.
Andy Serkis performing Caesar and the finished product.

Find tickets for 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' >>

Serkis isn't done with performance capture.  In December, he'll play Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg's all-CGI film "The Adventures of Tintin," based on the internationally popular comic books.  And his career will come around full circle as he reprises the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson's two-movie adaptation of "The Hobbit," coming in 2012 and '13.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" opens in theaters on Friday.  Watch an exclusive video showing how Serkis became Caesar the chimp below.

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