SAN DIEGO -- When the filmmakers behind "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" settled on virtual simians rather than people in monkey suits for their lower primates, their first casting task became obvious: get Andy.
British actor Andy Serkis has emerged as a master of the art of creating characters in the digital realm of performance capture. He's been the emotional backbone of the great ape in "King Kong" and Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings," creatures that are completed by visual-effects artists layering computer animation over his raw performance.
Serkis, a 20-year veteran of stage and live-action screen roles, has become best-known for his performance-capture characters, which now include a super-intelligent chimpanzee in the "Apes" prequel, opening Friday, along with a key part in this December's "The Adventures of Tintin," from Steven Spielberg and "Kong" and "Lord of the Rings" creator Peter Jackson.
He's playing Gollum again in Jackson's "The Hobbit," a two-part prequel to "The Lord of the Rings."
When he first did Gollum, the technology was called motion capture. The performance-capture tag came as the tools evolved and filmmakers sought to emphasize that their actors truly were creating characters, not simply occupying space as place-holders for digital beings painted in later.
Serkis does not see himself when he watches his performance-capture characters that were completed by Jackson's WETA effects outfit. But he does see what he created on the set, wearing a skin-tight suit covered with reference dots for digital cameras to record his body language.
"I totally see the intentions, the facial expressions, the timing, the acting choices. You know, the performance," Serkis, 47, said in an interview at July's Comic-Con fan convention, where he and director Rupert Wyatt showed off footage from the "Apes" prequel. "I know the manifestation of it is eventually not going to look like me, but when the director cuts the movie, they're cutting the footage of you in the suit, so they live for months and months and months with the performance.
"And a director like Rupert – who wants to retain that performance, because that's why it's there in the cut – will make sure that it doesn't veer off through the animation and rendering process. It doesn't veer away from the intention created by the actor. And fortunately, WETA is a genius visual-effects company, because for them, storytelling and character comes before showing off."
In the "Apes" prequel, Serkis plays Caesar, a chimp that inherited a deeper intellect from his mother, a test subject for a drug intended to cure Alzheimer's. Raised much like a human child by a researcher (James Franco), with help from a veterinarian (Freida Pinto), Caesar becomes a Che Guevara-style revolutionary, leading a rebellion of apes against their human oppressors.
Past "Planet of the Apes" flicks used actors in chimp, gorilla or orangutan costumes. The filmmakers this time needed photo-realistic simians that could evolve into smarter-than-average apes.
Once the filmmakers decided to use performance capture, Serkis was the first person senior visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri suggested to Wyatt.
"You had this chimp that needed to grow up and have this relationship, this bond, with a human family," said Letteri, who also worked with Serkis on "The Lord of the Rings," "King Kong" and "Tintin." "We needed someone who was going to be in there with James and Freida who's not afraid to interact with them and not afraid to have the personality play out as part of the performance.
"I can see a lot of Andy in it. It doesn't look at all like him, but there's an intensity, the way you can look into his eyes. You can just kind of see Andy's performance."
Wyatt wanted the best actor possible to play Caesar, and he was quickly convinced that Serkis was the primate he needed.
Letteri had told him that the visual-effects artists were not alchemists who could salvage a performance that lacked real human spirit at the core of the character, Wyatt said.
"So he said, `it's all about getting the best performance you can, and then after that, we take over and we echo that,'" Wyatt said. "If we hadn't gotten Andy, if we hadn't had the amazing privilege of working with him, then the movie would be a very different one. It wouldn't have such a great sense of humanity at its heart."
As a college freshman, Serkis studied visual arts but was required to take on a subsidiary subject. He chose theater, where he initially designed posters, then tried acting.
Serkis' life changed after he landed a stage role as a rebellious teenager holding a teacher hostage.
"The whole course of the play took place while I was chain-smoking cigarettes over the petrol tank of a motorbike in a chemistry store, and it was just like, wow," Serkis said. "I kind of totally went into the deep end of that character, and after that, that was it. I literally put down my paints and wanted to become an actor."
Serkis has appeared in dozens of British theater productions, while his film credits include Jennifer Garner's romance "13 Going on 30," Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" and the upcoming crime tale "Brighton Rock." For television, Serkis earned an Emmy nomination for the Charles Dickens miniseries "Little Dorrit" and a Golden Globe nomination for the prison drama "Longford."
Though he already has shot his scenes as Gollum for "The Hobbit," Serkis is not done with that world. Jackson hired him as second-unit director to oversee some action scenes and other sequences for the two-part epic.
That suits Serkis' career path, since he's been developing projects to direct himself and has started his own performance-capture studio to work on films and video games.
"I love working with the medium, and it is a medium that needs to be used appropriately. That's what worries me about motion-capture. It's not a genre. It's a tool," Serkis said. "The reason that some motion-capture films don't work is if the scripts are not good and the characters aren't engaging, then you don't believe in the journey, and you're not connected to it. It's not the technology's fault."