Whilst promoting his star turn as intelligent revolutionary ape Caesar in the damned fantastic Rise of the Planet of the Apes, versatile character actor Andy Serkis has talked up the future of video games as a mode of storytelling to rival the cinema.
Serkis’ involvement in games has been a revolution during this console generation, his work with Ninja Theory on the beautiful PS3 launch title Heavenly Sword and last year’s under-loved Enslaved: Odyssey to the West paving the way for more dramatic storytelling in a medium where character animations are often robotic. The motion capture enhanced success stories of L.A Noire, with its own impressive roster of established actors, and earnest drama-them-up Heavy Rain can be counted among the recent games which have taken the ball from Serkis and run with it. As a result we’re now a long way from Ryo Hazuki and closer to something with greater emotional power.
But how did the veteran of stage and screen, having made his name in blockbusters Lord of the Rings and King Kong, get involved with gaming in the first place? It all started with a reassuringly mundane chance encounter. “I was not a gamer but [Ninja Theory] approached me and it was quite amusing how they found me actually,” he remembered smiling to himself:
“I was going to get a mortgage and the mortgage advisor was showing me all these things, going “Cheltenham and Gloucester, 9.4%” or whatever it was, and then he said “and I just want to show you this” and he turned around his laptop and there was this promo for a video game. He said “look, I’m really sorry to have done this but my brother is in a company called Ninja Theory and they’ve been trying to get in touch with you. He wants to create totally three dimensional immersive characters for this video game and loves the work you’ve done with performance capture.” I said “that looks great”, so I went and met them and it started this whole trajectory into getting involved.”
At this point the animated and amiable star began to outline his problem with how storytelling has previously been handled in games before pausing and directing a question back my way: “are you a gamer?” I, of course, replied in the affirmative, at which point he began to provide the sort of considered and balanced take on the topic of interactive storytelling so lacking amongst many of his Hollywood colleagues. The movie industry is usually – and perhaps understandably – hostile towards the wide-eyed rival medium, but Serkis is refreshingly realist in his take:
“Gaming is fascinating. My kids are starting to play them so I think it’s really important to invest in storytelling in gaming because they’re going to be receiving stories from gaming from here on in, really. But game design was sort of completed and designed [on Heavenly Sword] but there was no script until the last minute: there was no story. So I was like “what do these characters mean to each other?” coming at it completely through the dramatic keyhole really. So I helped them evolve the characterisations and relationships with the characters and build and then rehearse and bring the other actors on board and rehearse the performance capture with them and then direct the shoot for all the cutscenes. Then the next game we did, Enslaved, we worked with [frequent Danny Boyle screenwriter] Alex Garland, who is a gamer, and was writing trying to blend gameplay and cutscene together so that one flowed into the other. And so it is really purely storytelling all the way through with an uninterrupted break over 12 hours.”
Completely unprovoked, it was Serkis who first dropped video gaming into the conversation when talking about the use of motion capture as “digital make-up” on the upcoming Apes prequel. He enthused about how the technology is breaking down boarders – not only between the sorts of roles actors can play, but also which mediums they feel free to make use of their craft within. On Heavenly Sword Serkis was able to coax the usually pretentious Steven Berkoff into the medium, where he was able to play a spindly, pale villain with metallic wings. Whilst Richard Ridings (also in Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a formidable, scene-stealing gorilla) has appeared in both Ninja Theory titles, in Enslaved taking the part of a comical cyborg hybrid of man and pig.
Serkis is adamant that, with skilful use of CGI and motion captured performance, the possibilities are now endless for actors – in games and movies. These days he says that, if you wanted to take an extreme route, an elderly actress could play Oliver Twist and, with a combination of animation, puppetry and motion capture, actors could even come to convincingly portray animals less anatomically similar to humans than primates (by the way, if anyone does that with a camel: he will be first in line to see it). It’s a future that would be embraced by the likes of animal rights organisation PETA, who have already heralded Fox’s decision not to use any real apes on the set of Rise. Indeed every single chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan in the movie is portrayed (and even voiced, with the help of pitch enhancement) by a human actor.
Serkis, who is maintaining his close relationship with Peter Jackson in the upcoming Tintin and Hobbit films (on which he also serving as 2nd unit director having already completed his Gollum scenes in April of this year), stopped short of telling us whether or not he got his mortgage approved. Though he’d clearly bet his house on the future of video games as a viable platform for mainstream entertainment as valid as anything else he’s worked on. “I find it a really fascinating arena and it’s something I’m keen to pursue in the future.”