American Film

HOBBIT-CHANGING: The Unexpected Journey of Andy Serkis

This month, audiences will return to Middle-earth with THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY – the first chapter of an all-new film trilogy adapting author J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary prequel to his own "The Lord Of The Rings" saga.

Andy Serkis may not be the first face one would recognize from the award-winning film series and its new prequel trilogy, but his role is nonetheless one of the franchise’s most distinctive – and one of the epic story’s most integral. The actor plays Gollum (née Smeagol), the one-time custodian of the One Ring and a deceitful influence on the events of the fantasy-cloaked land of Middle-earth. Cunning and covetous of the precious possession, he is a tragic figure corrupted by the magic of the Ring and driven mad by its power – a reluctant villain and a duplicitous guide for the story’s heroes. His is the cautionary tale, which threatens each of the Ring’s subsequent bearers, and yet it is he who leads the way to the Ring’s destruction – and the ultimate salvation of Middle-earth.

Making his first extended appearance in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002), the character ignited the cultural zeitgeist – not just for his haunting role in the beloved narrative, but because his on-screen incarnation represented such a prominent paradigm shift for the digital realization of photo-realistic phantasmagoria. Here was a character completely computer-generated (CG), and yet exhibiting the full range of emotion equal to its live-action counterparts.

Contrary to common audience preconceptions regarding CG-animated characters, Gollum is not simply the result of talented visual effects animators creating the character in post-production. No, the performance is all Serkis, captured on location with the rest of the cast – and even though his face and body are ostensibly overwritten with the digital version of the character, he is solely responsible for giving the character its life, its vitality and every bit of its tortured nuance. “Working in a performance-capture suit is no different than acting under heavy costuming and make-up,” said Serkis in an exclusive interview with American Film™. “The actor authors the role, same as any live-action performance. You just have to be willing to appear on screen not as yourself. It seems obvious for an actor, but not everyone is willing to do that. I thirsted for it; it allows me to lose myself in the role. It’s the essence of acting, an amplified truth about the human condition. At the end of the day, finding the character is the same, and you as an actor take full responsibility for it.”

No mere technician or visual effects intermediary, Serkis brings to the role a rich background in traditional acting. He boasts a storied performance history that began studying the work of Brecht and Stanislavski before cutting his teeth with “kitchen sink-type roles” in British repertory theater – “the same as stock theater in the U.S.,” he said. He went on to perform in live-action films – primarily in character-driven capacities – including roles for director Mike Leigh (TOPSY-TURVY, CAREER GIRLS). “I am first and foremost an actor; it’s all I’ve worked at professionally since I was 21,” he said. “At school, I studied visual arts. I wanted to be a painter. I did a theater studies course at Lancaster, though, and it was through designing sets that I gradually got into acting.

Eventually, I concocted my own degree: Theater Design and Movement.” It was a degree that, in retrospect, seems almost tailor-made for an artist who would become a pioneer for these new methods of capturing cinematic performance. Combining conventional acting sensibilities with an explicit attention to the body’s ability to express itself through movement, Serkis’ self-specified focus placed him in a perfect position to step into an entirely new kind of screen role. “This kind of performance lends itself to actors with more theatrical experience, who are generally able to better command their physicality than one who’s just been trained for the screen,” he said. “Where humans carry their anxiety and pain – that’s fascinating to me. It’s in the body.”

Hunched and cowering, but with a hidden physical reserve that makes him a threat in spite of his size, Gollum is the idealized realization of this full-bodied acting. Relying as much on his mannerisms and facial ticks as on his tortured voice, he is a character requiring full commitment from the man creating the performance. And because the role would ultimately become so distinct, director Peter Jackson could not leave anything to chance; he needed Gollum imbued with an immediacy appropriate to the on-site urgency shared by the rest of the cast.

“Though Gollum was ultimately computer-generated, Peter wanted an actor for the role,” Serkis explained. “It’s such an important part of the story; he couldn’t expect [the other actors] to act against a tennis ball on a stick. At the time, motion capture hadn’t really been used in this way in the film industry. The way we worked, I was shot with the other actors on location. We played the relationships exactly as you’d play the relationships. You are with the other actors, and you are the character, as much as they are theirs. We’d shoot a complete pass with me, then Peter would reshoot a blank pass. Then we’d go back and reshoot my parts on the motion capture stage. Having lived through the scenes – even though it was sometimes a year later – you still have the emotional and muscle memory. It’s encoded, so it wasn’t a challenge to revisit, and Peter could then have the animators match the physicality and the facial expressions to mine.”

He recalls his first time seeing the digital realization of his performance, after the animators had overlaid his work with the fully rendered version of the character. The synthesis and the synergy came as a surprise even to the actor who had authored the role. “It was a real moment for me, an extraordinary discovery that I really embodied the character,” he said. “It was my performance in every way.”

Since that time, of course, the practice has become far more common and the technology has evolved significantly – with Serkis himself having done much to push it forward with performance-capture roles such as the title beast in KING KONG (2005), Captain Haddock in THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) and Caesar in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011). Director James Cameron’s AVATAR, too, brought the notion into the public consciousness with high-visibility roles for actors such as Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington.

And much has changed, too, in the process itself. Facial markers can now be used to capture an actor’s full performance on set and in the moment, to be stored, interpreted and then animated at an altogether later date by post-production visual effects artists. “Suddenly, it’s a central part of production. It’s just another way of capturing performance, and it’s so much more evolved. Everything is captured in the moment, on set. It’s not only physical, but facial and voice, all right there. [In THE HOBBIT], Riddles in the Dark – which is the scene – is the first scene we shot,” he said, referring to the classic first encounter between cave-dwelling Gollum and the titular Hobbit. “Peter wanted it to play out like a piece of theater, and we were able to run the whole scene through again and again.”

With the cultural embrace of the character and the implicit acceptance of the technology by audiences – not to mention the advancements that have made the process even more organic – Gollum’s role has set the tonal precedent for the production of this new Middle-earth trilogy.

In addition to reprising his iconic role, Serkis has expanded his own part in the production, taking on the daunting responsibility of directing second unit photography for the film series. And once again, it is his acting background that won him the job. “I’ve wanted to direct since THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and then Peter asked me to take on the second unit – literally as we were beginning production,” said Serkis. “It’s a big responsibility. Fantastic – like driving a Maserati when you don’t even have your driver’s license yet. Second unit plays such a huge role in these films, and I’m there to be his eyes and ears. He wanted me there to support the actors.”

The first in the latest Hobbit-themed trilogy, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY will be released theatrically on December 14, 2012. The North American premiere of this highly anticipated film will benefit the education and preservation activities of the American Film Institute and will be held in New York City at the historic Ziegfeld Theatre on December 6. The concluding chapters – THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG and THE HOBBIT: THERE AND BACK AGAIN – are scheduled to be released on December 13, 2013 and July 18, 2014, respectively.