serkis-apes serkis-apes
Ideas/Commentarymotion capture

Andy Serkis Is Giving More Credit to the Animators Now

Actor Andy Serkis may have changed his tune somewhat from earlier this spring when he insisted that animators do nothing but add ‘digital makeup’ on top of his acting. In a recent interview with the industry publication International Cinematographer’s Guild Magazine, he presented a more accurate description of the process used in the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of Apes. His words acknowledge, to some extent, the creative choices that are made after his motion-captured performance as Caesar the chimpanzee:

[The technology] has progressed extraordinarily in terms of the fidelity to the authored performance. But it’s only partly to do with technology. It’s more to do with having a team of people who fully understand the interpolation of a performance that they are seeing onscreen. They’re taking the data and wrangling it in a way that honors the performance. The facial pipeline is now so refined by Weta and so understood by the artists that do that very delicate phase between taking the actor’s raw underlying emotional performance and translating it into the actual final rendered character. It’s fully understood, spectacularly so.

Serkis still used the term ‘digital makeup’ in a recent Access Hollywood interview, but notably, he applied it to the process of being outfitted with the reflective dots used to capture his acting data (which is a fair description) and not to describe the work of the animators who help author his performance afterward.

In the same ICG interview, Weta Digital senior vfx supervisor Joe Letteri and vfx supervisor Dan Lemmon discuss the use of facial motion capture on films like Lord of the Rings and King Kong, and their comments suggest that keyframe animation plays a huge role in Serkis’s performance. This is essentially the same perspective put forth by Lord of the Rings animation supervisor Randall William Cook.

Letteri describes further the diligent work of Ape’s animators in this interview:

Matt [Reeve]’s obviously directing it, he’s constructing the film, he’s constructing the narrative, and he’s working with the actors to bring out the moment – what’s the heart of the performance. But, yeah, we have to take that all on board and we have to do a lot of that behind the scenes to present it back to him in a finished fashion…Yeah, it’s a combination of the actors and the animators. The machine is only there as a tool to allow us to store information, amplify things that we do. None of that is machine generated; it’s all done by the artists, either actors or animators.

We did a lot of research and studied a lot of real apes… we videotaped them, we photographed them. You start to pick out their individual personalities. Then what we do is go in and the animators will do studies of these characters. They take little moments that they like and say ‘Oh, look what happened when the baby crawled on the mother’s back here.” And they try to reanimate that so they can understand for themselves how the physicality works and also, once you have that down, why you get that same sense of emotion from them when you see them.

Ib another part of the interview, Letteri says his favorite scene in the new film is the final fight scene, which “was pretty much all computer generated” because of its three dimensional staging.

Bottomline: Serkis’s acting may be at core of his performances, but what appears on screen is still a collaborative effort that is inspired by his performance and not an exact 1:1 replica of it. This much should be clear even from the before-and-after publicity stills that have been published by WETA Digital. Take, for example, the set of images below.

It is obvious in the image with Serkis’s face present that he is looking almost straight-ahead, while in the final frame, the animators have tilted Caesar’s head much farther downward. The animator’s choice is more powerful because it more accurately mimics the head position of the other actor in the scene. Most actors or animators who look at these images would say that there are two very distinct and different choices being made in the body language of the characters—one by Serkis and one by the animators who followed him. A fair acknowledgement of this contribution to the acting process—the animator’s contribution—is essential to the development of motion capture as an animation tool.

(h/t, Todd Vaziri)

  • William

    Honestly, I think that Andy should resign or retire after the damage he did to the people who turn him into these characters. This is an underpaid and overworked community, and him admitting guilt and stepping down from acting will send a clear message that you can’t margenalize our experiences and feelings and get away with it. Not anymore, not in this day and age with all the progress we’ve made towards animators’ rights.

  • Diego

    I’d bet they changed the position of the face because they didn’t want the monkey’s muzzle to look that near of kissing the human.

  • rob

    The amazing thing is, in the set of pictures, Andy Serkis realizes that he has to get close enough so that, when the digital editors remove his human nose, the digital chimp nose, after rendered, is close enough to allow for the proper head tilt, to make the scene emotionally effective. Andy Serkis is a genius.

    • David J Smith

      Is that sarcasm? :) I suggest the nose would translate at either head angle. Serkis’ choice, of higher head angle, looks like a prouder interpretation of the character’s attitude, and subsequent artistic choices by animation team and director were made to give the character more humility and gratitude.

      Check the jawline, the eye-to-ear line, the sphere of the cranium.

  • HalSolo

    Can we all agree that last time this was “INFLAMMATORY!!!” it was because a lot was made from a comment without full context, OR any actual dialogue about the process from everyone involved? Good. Now let’s all enjoy the damned dirty apes this Friday.

  • Toonio

    Ha! what a flip flop (tsk tsk tsk)

    He should have sticked to his guns, else why he said such belittling comment months ago?

    At least now I can say I lost all respect for him. I can disagree with somebody and at the end everybody is entitled to an opinion, no problem, but I won’t waste my time with spineless people, that’s for sure.

    And I won’t go to see his movie or any other where he is casted (even for free). I know a battalion of hard working and honest animators (who are being exploited left and right BTW) to support and perpetuate the stigma that animation can be done by cheap labor, and their work is trivial.

    • Copper

      I don’t get your reasoning. This seems to show a change of mind, and one for the better. People make mistakes, but if they show a change I don’t see any purpose in holding their former opinions against them. And boycotting any film he’s in hurts the battalion of hard working and honest animators, too. Just saying.

    • BlueBoomPony

      And that’s one if the reasons the world stinks- anyone changing their mind is called spineless. Changing your point of view based on new information or deeper reconsideration of a questionable or even hurtful attitude? Nope, you’re just a filthy flip flopper, dangnabbit!

      Way to go. You’re one of the reasons politicians never change their position no matter how much damage is done.

    • Ant G

      He didn’t flip flop, he articulated what he meant in a better way so he isnt taken out of context and accused of discrediting people we works with.

  • Strong Enough

    and we have you Amid to thank for this. All hail the guardian of the animators for shedding light on this catastrophic ordeal. the world is a safer place now because of you.

  • Carlos

    Please Cartoon Brew, you are better that this, stop blowing up a non-existent fight caused by a very bad written and misleading article out of context that was also published here. Let the man do his job, let animators do their jobs, , stop creating hate between them and let us enjoy the work done by all of them.

  • Paul N

    Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly have both recently run brief stories on Serkis. In both stories, the credit for the performances is more evenly divided between the actor and the animation team. While an acknowledgement in ICG is nice and all, I’m more pleased to see a clarification in the popular press.

  • Ant G

    At the end of the day, what I garnered from this article is we are referring to the actor by name, and the animators simply as “the animator”.

  • ReindeerFlotilla

    Web planet of the apes:
    1. Celebrity X says Y and is quoted on website.
    2. Outraged screeching and virtual poo flinging on website follows.
    3. Celebrity X presents backside to show submission to group.

  • David J Smith

    I believe the head angle was the point raised by this article, rather than the face.

  • David J Smith

    There is no technical need to have a mocap actor’s jawline align with a CG character’s mouth, so the change of head angle is probably an artistic choice, presumably approved by the director.

  • Pedro Nakama

    I see all of the “Planet of the Apes” posters all over town and on the sides of busses. I want to paint smiles over the frowns of the apes.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Andy Serkis gets a lot of publicity for the work he does. If this was the 1960’s he’d be in a costume on the Banana Splits.

  • David J Smith

    I disagree. The shape of the head is not different enough to override artistic choice. The head angle could have been technically matched, quite easily, if that was the desired artistic choice. Clearly, it was not desired.

  • Ted

    A few years back I thought the correct opinion was that mo-cap was not animation. I guess in those prehistoric days we’d be cheering Serkis instead of jeering him.

  • skywryter

    Too late Andy, we know what you think of us.

  • David J Smith

    Breaking news: WB announces auditions for performance-captured “Dawn of the Planet of the Tasmanian Devils.” Actors with skillz at playing growling, slavering maniacs descend by the busloads on Hollywood. Related news: Knuckle-dragging kid turns into tornado, destroys town, sets new record for YouTube views.

  • mick

    The lad used the phrase’Facial pipeline’… come on now, he’s just fluffing it all out, get some column inches. Does anyone not know how this works? You make a film then spend months on end talking nonsense to people not listening with the aim of having the film’s title bandied about.

    Carry on, nothing to see here

  • David J Smith

    It’s simple. The technical restriction you cited (head shape) is not a sufficient reason to govern the acting choice, as much as you claim. It’s not that big of a deal to manage a head and neck tilt, while maintaining forehead contact.
    It’s more probable that the actor’s first take, of higher head angle, was a “proud” interpretation of the character’s attitude; perhaps the director and the animation team tilted the head angle down, to give the character more humility and gratitude.

  • David J Smith

    Acting choices are interesting, whether they are made by actors, animators, or directors. I have no opinion as to whether it is “hype.”

  • BongoBongoLA

    Serkis’ eye line is about 30 degrees higher than the CGI character’s — completely different pose, completely different blocking.