It’s easy now to take for granted the revolution of performance capture technology. It was once upon a time called motion capture, and the change in word might be small but it means a lot in terms of recognising the craft of acting. Performance capture is no different than wearing make-up, it just so happens that the make-up is digital. And no one has been more at the forefront of this revolution than Andy Serkis. The forefather to all of this might go to Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks but from his debut as the villainous Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers no one has done more with the form than Serkis.

The point at which people stopped thinking of it as just standing in and as actual acting fell in the summer of 2011 when Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released, not just rebooting the franchise that had died a death thanks to Tim Burton’s effort but put Serkis as a bona-fide performance capture genius to the fore. As the ultra-intelligent ape Caesar, Serkis managed to both bring humanity to the role and still retain the sense of an ape. It’s fair to point out that Serkis had form with this having played none other than Kong in Peter Jackson’s lavish and loving epic remake in 2005, but as Caesar it was down to Serkis to carry whole scenes, and the emotional heft of the film.

We see the world through the eyes of Caesar, not at home in the world of man, no longer welcome among his fellow apes. Serkis manages to bring emotion into the eyes of Caesar, which is key to the film. For a long time before performance capture was mired by criticisms of falling into the uncanny valley, weird mouths and most of all the issue of “dead eyes”, eyes that didn’t look real or emotive. Improved thanks to the hard work of Weta digital, Serkis’ eyes were able to be captured so that Caesar emoted through them as much as anything else.

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The eyes are a major part of the story, intelligent apes are signified by their green eyes, Caesar’s mother is called Bright Eyes, and many of the emotional beats speak to Caesar’s attachment to being almost human. Without the use of his actual eyes Serkis would not be able to properly convey the needed weight to the changes Caesar goes through.

20th Century Fox

Even so, what makes the journey of Caesar so compelling, and Serkis’ achievement so astounding is that even while the marketing hyped up Serkis as bringing this performance to life, his studying of apes and even a campaign to have him nominated for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, you never actually think about that while watching the film. Director Rupert Wyatt trusts in his actor’s performance and so as an audience we are able to suspend our disbelief as we are with the previous films. 

Throughout the narrative Caesar is constantly evolving and changing, coming to understand his environment and his place as singular. His creation is linked to Will Rodman (James Franco’s) desperate attempt to cure Alzheimer’s so that his father Charles (John Lithgow) can be helped. Thanks to Caesar it appears that’s the case, and so Will becomes a father to Caesar and Charles a grandfather. The melding of this science fiction element to a domestic drama is helped greatly by the nuance of the acting. As the effects of the drug stop helping the degeneration of Charles’ brain we see Caesar notice the change.

The most affecting scene sees the three main characters sat at the breakfast table when Charles is unable to properly use a knife, it’s Caesar who notices this and corrects him, solemnly looking at Will afterwards, knowing something is wrong. This scene is given the emotional weight it is by Serkis fully committing to playing both the ape and the intelligence. Caesar doesn’t speak, but his body language speaks volumes, as he slowly turns to face Will, you read that he is upset at the sight of his grandfather becoming ill again.

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As the film progresses and Caesar’s intelligence grows so does the performance of Serkis. A scene in which Caesar sits, furious at being abandoned to an ape sanctuary run by cruel and abusive humans is a silent scene where he sits watching his captors. The way in which Caesar looks, stern authority without ever breaking concentration is a testament to the subtle performance at work, we understand simply through body language that he is studying his environment to test for weaknesses. 

Despite occasional sign language and a few words, Caesar is much less articulate than the original apes of the series previously who spoke English fluently. Instead what we rely on his his gestures and actions to inform us of his emotions. To this end the actions of Serkis, including vocal inflections like grunting, give us a way into Caesar. Using the performance capture technology Serkis is able to appear like an ape all the while performing a character like anyone else, it just happens to be one who is unable to speak. As such his performance owes more to dance and movement than traditional acting. He uses his entire body to inhabit the role.

20th Century Fox

It’s no mistake that the film is devoted to the audience investing in Caesar over anyone else, and as such he is the most fulfilled character. He is the one with the narrative arc and all the humans – and the other apes – are there to service his character and progression from anomaly to leader. All of this would not be possible if it weren’t for a performance as committed as Serkis despite earlier ideas of using a stunt double. Instead the movement and performance of Serkis had a knock-on effect in the sequels – with Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes more of the apes were portrayed by actors also – Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer and Steven Zahn join in significant supporting roles in them instead of the usual stunt performers.

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But that wouldn’t have been possible if not for Serkis proving that a genuine full bodied performance can be delivered within the confines of the technology. Like John Hurt in The Elephant Man it’s entirely possible that years from now people will be studying Serkis’ work in this film as a landmark of an acting method under prosthetics. Without his work on this, and the campaign to recognise performance capture acting as actual acting we wouldn’t have characters like Thanos or Cyborg dominating our screens and convincing us of the possibilities of this technology. 

Like Caesar, Andy Serkis proved to be key in the evolution of something, the art of acting.

By Paul Klein

Paul Klein is a film graduate. His favourite film is The Lion King, he still holds a candle for Sarah Michelle Gellar and does a fantastic impression of Sir Patrick Stewart. Letterboxd: paulkleinyo

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