The Games blog caught up with Mr Gollum himself to discuss the role of Monkey and his passion for performance capture
Since his breakthrough digital role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Andy Serkis has become the film industry’s go-to thespian on all things digital.
And after he won games critics’ hearts (if not, perhaps, consumers) with his contribution to last month’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, we thought we’d find out a bit more about what tempts a high-profile actor to spend hours wearing only a skintight black bodysuit covered in Pritt Stick and ping-pong balls.
What is performance capture, exactly?
There’s an important distinction between motion capture, which is the technology used to track body movement and was developed by the medical industry to assess injuries, and performance capture (PC) which has been developed by the film industry as a means of capturing on film an actor’s complete performance – their physical, facial and vocal performance.
What are the main differences, as an actor, between working with PC and traditional stage and film acting?
If you are playing an ape or a fantasy creature like Gollum, you need to learn to calibrate your movements to match these characters. But there is no difference in the way an actor approaches rehearsal and playing a character for a PC shoot than there is for any other theatre or film performance.
What would you say are the incentives for a high-profile actor to get involved with motion capture?
The incentive is that PC is increasingly becoming part of the storytelling culture for the new generation of cinema and theatregoers and video gamers.
It’s also a liberating tool, an exciting medium to work in, the ultimate transformational experience. Anyone interested in this would see what a powerful and innovative tool it is. It allows you to move into different areas such as video games, which will in future be part of our storytelling culture.
Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre. Over time, I think perceptions will change.
How has technology changed since your first digital role as Gollum as Lord of the Rings?
The technology has changed and the perceptions have changed. Originally, PC was shot away from the main set, treated as peripheral and separate, with computers that would regularly break down. It is now seen as central and core to the whole film, which is now shot in a dedicated PC studio.
The methods of recording give greater fidelity to an actor’s performance, and the technology can now capture multiple actors. It couldn’t be more different.
How did you prepare for the role of Monkey in Enslaved?
We looked at the original novel, Journey into the West, and decided to take elements of that character but – excuse the pun – not be slavish about it. We decided to make him less of a mischievous and chaotic figure and more of a gruff hobo; a loner not used to communicating with others and quite selfish.
It’s complex when playing the leading character in a first person game as you don’t want to lead the player too much in one way or another – after all, they are the character too. A character like Pigsy, on the other hand, can be whatever the actor brings to the role.
I prepared for it by observing a man who walked his dog regularly on Hampstead Heath. He talked to his dog a lot but was really talking to himself. Physically, I didn’t have to do too much – that’s the beauty of PC. Monkey is a well-built guy who can take care of himself, with a lot of upper body strength. But at the same time as filming this, I was preparing for the role of Ian Dury and losing two stone in body weight!
Video games don’t receive the critical attention of theatre or cinema. Was it frustrating to know that your performance as Monkey was unlikely to receive the same attention as your film projects?
Things are changing. In the past, Bafta wouldn’t have recognised video games, but now they have a range of awards for different aspects of video game making, directing etc.
So it is only a matter of time and attrition before video games will be recognised on a par with theatre and film.
Do you think PC performances will ever be held in as high a regard as other acting mediums?
Playing a character in a video game is different to other performances because your character can’t lead the audience of players in one direction.
If you look at the performance of Richard Ridings as Pigsy in Enslaved, I would put that up against any other character performance in film or stage, and think it deserves accolades.
Enslaved wasn’t your first project with Ninja Theory – how were you originally approached for Heavenly Sword?
It’s a strange tale. I was approached via my mortgage broker, who is the brother of one of the Heavenly Sword developers. He showed me a trailer after we’d discussed mortgage rates and I thought it was fantastic. So it was very much a chance encounter.
What were you most pleased with about Enslaved, looking back on it?
The way we worked hard to ensure that the cut scenes and the gameplay flow and are seamless so the dramatic tension is kept up throughout the game. Alex Garland wrote the screenplay for Enslaved, and he did a great job.
There is a huge transmigration from the film industry to video games, not just because people personally like the idea of making a video game but because they recognise that, with the advent of 3D, it is an incredible arena for storytelling.
Do you, or have you ever played video games as a hobby?
I wasn’t a huge gamer in the past, but I do play a lot now with my children. I’d like to think that we strive in film and theatre to tell great stories, and I believe in the power of storytelling in our culture.
But, until recently, this huge gaming force has been neglected when it should have been treated with respect and invested with as much artistry as possible.
Can you still see parts of yourself when you watch a finished digitally captured performance? Or is there a complete disconnect?
You can always see yourself, and people tell me they can see elements of my personality in the characters. It’s subtle – timing, eye movement and gestures – but it’s there if you look closely.
Tell me about the Imaginarium project – why is motion capture something you’re so passionate about?
The plan is for the Imaginarium to provide a dedicated PC studio in London with three main aims: to produce our own films using PC, to encourage a culture that encourages experimentation with this groundbreaking technology by making it affordable and available to aspiring film makers, and to create a melting pot for talented people to push this art form into new territory such as live performances, real time avatars as well as video games.
Why? Because we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what performance capture can achieve. There are so many applications still yet to be discovered, and we have the talent in the UK to be at the forefront.