An ode to Andy Serkis, king of the mocappers

With War For The Planet of the Apes now streaming on NEON, Dominic Corry looks at the pioneering performer using technology we now often take for granted – that’s when we’re not praising special effects boffins over the actor’s work.

In the build-up to last year’s Oscar nominations, there was a legitimate – if ultimately fruitless – groundswell of support for the notion that Andy Serkis deserved a Best Actor nomination for his motion-capture performance as Caesar in War For The Planet of the Apes, the stunning conclusion to the groundbreaking rebooted Planet of the Apes series.

A quieter version of the same call went out in early 2004 when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was garnering Oscar momentum. Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Gollum in that film had built upon a technique Serkis more-or-less pioneered in the previous entry, The Two Towers, which had first demonstrated the vast potential for computer-generated characters to be given personality by mapping their movement and expressions onto those of an actor playing the role.

So although it has yet to occur, this progression would seem to suggest that someone will at some point get an Oscar acting nomination for a performance in which you technically can’t see their face, and if there’s any justice in the world, it’ll go to Serkis. Fifteen years after he pretty much invented a new cinematic acting language, he remains its finest purveyor, and those skills have never been more apparent than in War For The Planet of the Apes, in which a digital monkey will make you cry.

Serkis’ first performance as Caesar, in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wasn’t the first time he’d pulled at the audience’s heart-strings playing an ape. He’d, of course, performed the motion capture for the title character in Peter Jackson’s (still) underrated 2005 version of King Kong.

Serkis’ intensive research and superlative physical commitment to the role made the 2005 Kong almost as much of a leap forward as Gollum was.

His status as the world’s premiere motion-capture performer is driving his next project as well, a big-budget, motion-capture-centric adaptation of The Jungle Book titled Mowgli to differentiate it from the recent Disney hit.

In addition to directing Mowgli, Serkis is performing the motion capture for Baloo the bear and is overseeing an all-star cast as the rest of the jungle creatures.

While Serkis is unquestionably the top motion-capture performer in the business, he’s not the only one. As the form he helped establish has become more widespread, it has necessitated the rise of other repeat mo-cap performers, and they’re pretty much all in War For The Planet of the Apes.

Toby Kebbell, probably best known for on-camera roles in the recent Fantastic Four and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, is magnificent in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as the nefarious Koba. He also mo-capped the most prominent Orc in Duncan Jones’ Warcraft: The Beginning, which for all its perceived faults, featured some pretty amazing mo-cap effects, especially in regards to Kebbell’s character Durotan.

Terry Notary – like Serkis, a longtime Peter Jackson collaborator – played Rocket in all three modern Apes movies and has been a movement choreographer on everything from Avatar to The BFG.

Both Notary and Kebbell are credited with performing motion-capture for the title character in Kong: Skull Island and both men would seem to bring different skill sets to the motion-capture arts.

Kebbell, like Serkis, comes from the world of traditional acting, while Notary was a gymnast and circus performer.

It’s worth noting in this context the stunning performance Notary gave in the recent art world satire The Square, in which he played a performance artist behaving like an ape to torment snooty art world patrons at a posh dinner. It’s probably the closest thing to an “on screen” motion-capture performance we’ll probably ever see.

While Notary and Kebbell are Serkis’ closest peers, Steve Zahn should also be cited for his stellar work as Bad Ape in War. It would be cool to see him do something else in this realm. If Serkis is busy.

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