Andy Serkis is a renowned actor, but you may not recognize his face. The most famous of his roles include the "ring-junkie" Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and last summer's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis disappears completely into his characters, thanks to performance capture technology that films his face and body movements, and translates them to digitally created avatars. But his singular ability to instill humanity in all his characters — even the most complex and non-human — is what makes them linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
We wanted to get to know Serkis a little bit better. In this round of "Random Questions," find out which primate he most wants to emulate, what role he'd choose in a "Serkis Circus," and most importantly, what Hogwarts house he sees himself being assigned to. Don't miss his Ask Me Another Challenge, in which he schools everyone on British slang, and ever-so-slightly teases his upcoming role in the next Star Wars film, Episode VII.
On how performance capture technology works
Basically it's another bunch of cameras. So, you know, you have film cameras filming actors' performances, but performance capture cameras film in 360 degrees. And instead of wearing a costume and makeup, and going on set, and being filmed, you put on a unitard. ... Okay, it's not very flattering, and if you are in New Orleans in 100 percent humidity playing an ape, no one wants to stand near you. But, anyway, that's off-topic.
You wear these markers, reflective markers, and the infrared cameras pick up all this information. You wear a head-mounted camera, wearing markers all over your face, and every single muscle movement, every single part of your performance, is caught — which is why it's called performance capture — and is translated to a computer, and then it's added to a 'rig,' which is the avatar character that you're playing.
Is it pretty comfortable?
I wouldn't say it was comfortable, I would say there are moments where it's distinctly uncomfortable. But actually ... put it this way: If I had to go back to 1968 and wear the makeup that John Chambers made for the original Planet of the Apes series, I think I would rather wear a unitard.
On why he might be the go-to guy for performance capture roles
I think I happen to have stepped into a period of time where this technology was starting to be used. And I happened to play a character that really made it fairly well known. But then I think, after that, I realized what an amazing tool it was — what an amazing technology it was. Because, philosophically, from an acting point of view, what it does is it enables you to play absolutely anything. So I went from playing Gollum to King Kong. So, you know, going from a three-and-a-half foot ring junkie to a 25-foot gorilla meant, to me, that the world of typecasting was over. And suddenly there were these incredible opportunities and brilliantly written roles, and so I kind of embraced it. And so the fact is, I've ridden along on a very exciting wave.
Always the entertainer, Serkis chooses to be a lion-tamer in the Serkis Circus
Because I guess that would provide the most audience entertainment if something went really badly wrong.
This segment originally ran on July 24, 2014.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You are listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg. And hanging out with us is our one-man house band Jonathan Coulton and our puzzle guru Art Chung.
EISENBERG: Now, let's welcome our very important puzzler. He's a British actor and director who's played everything from the fool in "King Lear," to aberrant Einstein to our precious Gollum. Please welcome Andy Serkis.
ANDY SERKIS: Well, hello.
EISENBERG: Hello. I enjoyed "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes."
SERKIS: Did you?
EISENBERG: I routed for the apes the whole time.
SERKIS: Did you?
EISENBERG: Yeah. I really wanted them to win.
SERKIS: It's supposed to be, like, really balanced. And you're supposed to, like, not care for either, but...
EISENBERG: No, absolutely not. I was like, boo humans.
EISENBERG: You bring these nonhuman characters to life using a method called motion and performance capture.
SERKIS: It's just called performance capture actually.
EISENBERG: It's just called performance capture.
SERKIS: I mean, if we're really going to be kind of, like, straight down the line with it.
EISENBERG: Well, you are the best at it.
SERKIS: Well, I don't know about the best, but, I mean, I have a go.
EISENBERG: You do have a go.
EISENBERG: For people who don't know what that entails, can you explain what - how you have to dress and...
SERKIS: Yeah, yeah. So performance capture technology is - basically, it's another bunch of cameras. So, you know, you have film cameras filming actors performances. But performance capture cameras film catchers film in 360 degrees. And instead of wearing a costume and makeup and going on set and being filmed, you put on a unitard. OK. It's not very flattering. And if you are in New Orleans in 100 percent humidity playing an ape, no one wants to stand near you. But anyway, that's off topic.
SERKIS: The thing is, performance capture is - you wear these markers - reflective markers. And the infrared cameras pick up all this information. You wear a headmounted camera, wearing markers all over your face. And every single muscle movement, every single part of your performance is caught - which is why it's called performance capture - and is translated into a computer. And then it's added to a rig, which is the avatar character that you're playing, in this case, Cesar in "Dawn Of The Plane Of The Apes."
EISENBERG: Is it pretty comfortable?
SERKIS: I wouldn't say it was comfortable.
SERKIS: I would say there are moments where it's distinctly uncomfortable. But actually, as far as - you know, if I - put it this way, if I had to go back to 1968 and wear the makeup that John Chambers made for the original "Planet Of The Apes" series, I think I would rather wear a unitard.
EISENBERG: The Lycra unitard.
SERKIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: I said you were the best person in the world. You were like, I have a good go at it. But you are the go-to guy for these roles. I mean, people consider you one of the best at it. And I'm just wondering, you know, is it because...
EISENBERG: ...Is it 'cause of your super expressive face, or is it because you know how to do great voices. Like, what do you think it is that makes you the best?
SERKIS: I don't - well, for one, I don't think I'm the best. But that - and I'm not just being falsely modest. I think I happen to have stepped into a period of time where this technology was starting to be used and I happen to play character that really made it sort of fairly well-known. But then, I think, after that, I realized what an amazing tool it was, what an amazing kind of technology it was. Because kind of philosophically, from an acting point of view, what it does is it enables you to play absolutely anything. So I went from playing Gollum to King Kong. So, you know, going from a kind of three-and-a-half-foot ring junkie to a 25-foot gorilla meant...
SERKIS: ...To me that the world of type casting was over. And suddenly, there were these incredible opportunities and brilliantly written roles. And so I kind of embrace it really. And so I kind of embraced it really. And so I think the fact is I've ridden along on a very, very exciting wave of playing exciting, really interesting characters using this technology. But the fact of the matter is more and more actors are doing, and great actors. So I don't think it's a case of being better than anyone.
EISENBERG: I'm going to say you're the best.
SERKIS: Well, thank you. I went through all that so you would say that, of course.
EISENBERG: That was great. Andy, we're going to subject you to your own ASK ME ANOTHER challenge in just a little bit. But right now, you're going to help us out with a phoner game.
EISENBERG: All right. Hello, you're on ASK ME ANOTHER.
JOE SMITH: Hello. This is Joe Smith calling from Lincoln, Nebraska.
EISENBERG: Hello, Joe.
SERKIS: Hey, Joe.
EISENBERG: All right, Joe, this game is called Serkis Life because it's all about Andy Serkis. So we've asked Andy some random questions about what he likes. For example - this is an example - which band does he like better, The Kinks or The Who? Andy, how did you answer that question - how would you?
SERKIS: I answered The Who.
EISENBERG: The Who.
SMITH: All rights. That sounds...
SERKIS: So you've got a 50-50 chance of...
EISENBERG: Yeah. We'll start with an easy one. If we asked Andy - would you rather be a gorilla or a chimpanzee, what do you think he said?
SMITH: Well, based on his work in "The Planet Of The Apes," I would assume he'd rather be a chimp.
EISENBERG: What do you think, Andy?
SERKIS: I think you're wrong actually 'cause...
SERKIS: Well, no, actually I'd rather be a bonobo.
SERKIS: Because we all know what bonobos are capable of.
EISENBERG: Andy went to St. Benedicts School in Ealing. We asked him if he had attended Hogwarts, which house would he have been in - Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin?
SMITH: Oh, well this isn't a 50-50 so I don't know how I'm going to do on this.
EISENBERG: I know. We changed it up to 25/25/25/25.
SMITH: Well, I'd have to say probably Slytherin.
SERKIS: Ahhh. You're right.
EISENBERG: Joe, why did you pick Slytherin?
SMITH: I don't know. It seemed about the most appropriate for the facial work.
SERKIS: Thank you.
EISENBERG: I don't know that means.
SMITH: I don't know what that means either.
SERKIS: I don't know what that means either.
EISENBERG: If Andy had to join the circus - and by that I mean a Serkis Circus, which would be brilliant, this visit our new idea - anyways, which do you think he would like to be - a lion tamer, a ringleader or a clown?
SMITH: Oh, I would go with a clown.
SMITH: It's more fun.
EISENBERG: Oh, Andy is making a sad face.
SERKIS: Wrong. I think I'd like to be a lion tamer, actually.
SERKIS: You know why? 'Cause I guess that would be - provide the most audience entertainment if something went really badly for me.
SERKIS: I would love to be there when, you know...
EISENBERG: Right, if it goes poorly, you still get a huge...
SERKIS: That would just love you, right.
EISENBERG: ...They would love it. That's a fail-safe act.
EISENBERG: You're right. Joe, I have no idea how you did, but I'm going to consider that a win for you.
EISENBERG: So we're going to send you your very own ASK ME ANOTHER anagram T-shirt. Congratulations and thank you so much. Andy, we are going to get your game loaded up and bring you back in just a little while so get excited. Andy Serkis everybody.
EISENBERG: Do you wish you could use motion capture to appear on our stage as a contestant? Well, thanks to technology, we have found another way. It's called phoning in. If you would like to be a phone contestant on ASK ME ANOTHER, just send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll use the magic speech machine to talk to you soon.
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