Andy Serkis is your man if you want somebody to give lifelike expressions and movement to your CGI character. The English actor, who turned 54 today, is an actor but his best work is not ‘acting’ in the traditionally understood sense of the word – it is motion-capture acting. There is an ongoing debate as to whether motion-capture should be recognised as a legitimate form of acting. When The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the Oscars in 2004 (winning all the eleven categories in which it was nominated), many critics wondered if Andy Serkis should have been nominated in Best Actor or Best Supporting categories. They were of this opinion because his turn had been one of the most striking performances in the entire trilogy.
Serkis played the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, one of the most-loved characters in the classic epic fantasy novel. He was a hobbit before (albeit not of Shire) who was corrupted by his intense desire to possess and keep the One Ring. The character was fascinating and also provided much-needed humour when things got grim later in the trilogy. The humour was due to Gollum’s grammar (he keeps saying “We wants it” regarding the One Ring) and his two perpetually warring personalities – one childlike, innocent and helpful, and the other greedy, murderous and evil. Most of the arc of his character in the story is about these two personas vying for control. To say that Andy Serkis gave life to Gollum would be the understatement of the century. Andy Serkis BECAME Gollum. Even without the CGI trappings of the character, Serkis was hardly distinguishable from his character. He crafted a convincing voice for Gollum that did not need any artificial manipulation. This was a driven, committed performance by a supremely talented actor. He later reprised the role in The Hobbit trilogy.
So what is motion-capture acting? If I were to explain in a simple manner, motion-capture is when a living and breathing person acts whilst wearing a special suit with digital markers. Later computer-generated imagery is slapped on the suit using 3D rendering software, turning the person into a creature or an animal or a humanoid in the final cut. The digital markers assist the geeks in charge of the final rendering.
Since this technology captures movements, gestures and facial expressions, it is rather unimaginatively called motion-capture technology. Andy Serkis is, by far, the best-known name here. The Lord of the Rings was just the beginning. After that, Serkis might have wanted to do more regular sort of acting, but he was born (or shall we say, doomed?) to portray make-believe characters. Since LOTR trilogy, he has mimicked the movements of a giant ape, a regular in size but talking ape, a Star Wars villain, a Tintin character among others. It is not that Serkis has not done notable live-action roles. He recently played the role of Ulysses Klaue and gave him an enjoyably devilishly twist. But motion-capture acting is what he is best at.
Serkis himself is clear if he considers motion-capture acting akin to regular acting. In an interview with The Independent, he had said, “You work in the same way as you do on a traditional set, all that is different is that you’re dressed in a digital costume and the make-up happens after,” says the actor. “You are on set for six months and you are the guardian of the character. Performance capture is not fixing something in post-production, you have to get the performance on the day.”
I am a huge fan of this actor and it goes without saying that I heartily agree with him. Motion-capture is an absolute genuine form of acting. One must see behind-the-scenes videos of Serkis’ performances to understand what I am talking about. If Tom Hardy can be called an actor for playing the role of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises with most of his face covered with a mask, what Andy Serkis does is surely acting, and he is a wonderful actor.