Mowgli: Mo-cap maestro Andy Serkis on his Jungle Book adaptation and the evolution of performance capture
Mowgli director Andy Serkis opens up on what makes his Jungle Book adaptation different from the others, how he brought together such a stellar cast and why performance capture is one of the greatest 21st century tools.
You may not see his face in the promotional posters. In fact, you may not even see his face in a single frame of the movies — even when he is the star. But his presence is discernible in each grunt, growl, grimace and gesture of his instantly identifiable characters.
Andy Serkis could possibly be the 21st century's most famous and least recognised actor.
Since his star-making turn as Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Serkis has remained the gold-standard for performance capture acting, having gone on to play equally memorable roles like King Kong, Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot series and Supreme Leader Snoke in the Star Wars sequels. Although, he doesn't have any gold or silverware to show for it.
The English mo-cap maestro now tries his luck with directing with the upcoming release of his second feature film, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Yes, it is another retelling of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book stories about an orphaned and abandoned “man-cub” raised by wolves, befriended by a bear and mentored by a black panther in the wild. But Serkis keeps his story closer to the source material, which is admittedly "more emotional" and "darker" than the Disney-fied versions. "This is a Mowgli-centric story. There is a big reason why it is called Mowgli. It is a young boy's personal journey...It's a rite of passage," he says.
The adventures of the man-cub Mowgli, as seen in Disney’s 1967 animated version and the 2016 live-action/CGI adaptation, have delighted both children and adults alike. But by stretching into the PG13 realm with his retelling, isn’t Serkis worried he’ll be preventing most of the intended audience — children — from watching the film?
"When I read the script for the first time, I knew it wasn't for four-year-olds and up in the full four-quadrant family way,” he says. “That is a formula that seems to be the Holy Grail for studios in order to be able to have that big opening weekend. It's important to be inclusive but that does mean that you have to sort of slightly tailor the darker end of a story, make it more palatable for a younger audience. But the story has always had slightly darker themes and it's a difficult journey. There is real consequence, jeopardy and threat to Mowgli."
Mowgli is a boy torn between two worlds, much like the young Kipling, who was born and raised in India under British Raj. So, Mowgli's alienation and his internal conflicts as to his identity reflect Kipling's own anxieties. "Hindi was Kipling's first language and then he was sent to England against his will. So, he understood from a personal space.”
And Serkis believes these universal themes of identity and otherness are why his retelling of The Jungle Book will resonate more with teenagers today. "It is a story of the search for identity, which is a very important topic at the moment. Knowing who you are and how you fit into society, especially for teenagers."
Serkis not only directs Mowgli but also plays Baloo in the film. And he has managed to rally together a hell of a cast — Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, Naomie Harris as Nisha, Peter Mullan as Akela, Eddie Marsan as Vihaan, Tom Hollander as Tabaqui, Freida Pinto as Messua, Matthew Rhys as Lockwood and Rohan Chand as Mowgli. “The cast came together because of the script," he says, adding, "They were also interested in examining another part of their acting and wanted to challenge themselves in the same way that I love the idea of becoming something else. They wanted to discover a character that was further away from themselves."
Mowgli blends live-action sequences with performance-capture acting. Serkis's extensive experience with the technology helped him easier direct the cast, many of whom were new to the technology. "Only Benedict (Cumberbatch) who had played Smaug (in The Hobbit films) was familiar with it. So, when we sat around and did the read-through on the very first day, there were a lot of questions about performance capture. 'What's the secret?' And I said: ‘Look. There is no secret. It's acting. There is no difference. You are creating a character. You’re not just creating the physical movements of a tiger or a snake. Although you are creating a physicality for these roles, it's more important that we understand who you are, what your take on the character is.’”
How did he guide young Rohan Chand — the sole live action figure in the jungle? "There were always other actors around him so that he could perform more organically. They were looking him in the eye because Mowgli's eye contact with the animals was crucial. Then, we shot the entire film again with the rest of the cast doing performance capture. So the film was actually shot in these two phases."
While the technology was previously called “motion capture”, Serkis believes the term “performance capture” more accurately reflects the acting process behind it. "Performance capture isn't about puppeteer-ing or overacting or pantomiming a character; it's really about the internal psychology and emotion of the character like in any live-action film. So, it's finding that link to the animal. And the way we design the animals, they really do reflect the facial expressions of our actors."
Performance capture has become a mainstay in Hollywood since the first Lord of the Rings film in 2001. Today, the technology is not only less inhibiting but also captures the most subtle facial details and the most intricate to large-scale body movements. It has hence become near-ubiquitous in plenty of big studio ventures. "When we started working with it on Lord of The Rings, the perception of it was unclear. People didn't really understand the potential for it but it really has become I think one of the greatest 21st century tools for an actor to become anything. Most films that have used performance capture — think of any of the Marvel movies or Star Wars or any of the big tent poles, they've all used performance capture because it's not just for creating extraordinary characters. We also use it for creating background characters for battle sequences."
Serkis even set up his own studio, The Imaginarium, in London in 2011 to help guide filmmakers in better applying the technology for "next-generation storytelling." The studio has been working with firms across various platforms — from video games to virtual reality to even stage productions.
However, serious thespians continue to overlook performance capture roles despite the array of A-list talent to have embraced the technology. It's interesting because it was prosthetic makeup that made John Hurt's performance all the more compelling in The Elephant Man. This year, Gary Oldman's Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill seemed most convincing because of the prosthetic makeup. But, despite Serkis's best efforts to convince them that performance capture too is nothing more than digital makeup, the Academy refuses to consider it to be a legitimate extension of acting.
But Serkis is still hopeful. "As performance capture is being used more and more, with an assembly of A-list actors playing motion capture roles in films like Mowgli, hopefully things will change. I think there's a fear among the actors about these performances but what they don't realise is that motion capture is just another way of recording an actor's performance."
For now, Serkis is focusing more on directing. He'll next be helming another Netflix venture featuring a fresh new group of anthropomorphic animals in his passion project — Animal Farm, based on George Orwell's classic novella. "It's been an extraordinary few years because at one point, I was editing Breathe (his debut feature), cutting Mowgli and shooting Black Panther all at the same time. But I do thrive under pressure."
After all, Serkis did learn from the very best, having worked with such renowned filmmakers and household names like Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams. "My big learning curve was when Peter Jackson asked me to join as second unit director on the Hobbit films. So I had this extraordinary experience of directing these three huge movies for my first."
Mowgli will hopefully give Serkis much-deserved recognition — and not just as the guy who played Gollum and Caesar. It could potentially be Netflix's first blockbuster. And Serkis is glad to have partnered with the streaming giant.
"In the last 2-3 years, the landscape has changed. It's very hard to get distribution for films if they don't satisfy that grand full quarter. But there is this middle area of filmmaking. So, Netflix has opened up that door to allow those stories with great writing, by allowing them to have a release both theatrically and online. Ultimately, you want your story to be seen," says Serkis. "Every film that's made now is going to go on a streaming service at some point. So, it's just at what point. Certainly for Mowgli, I'm really happy that it doesn't just live or die on its opening weekend."
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will be released globally on Netflix on 7 December.
(This interview was conducted in two parts — at Netflix's See What's Next Asia event in Singapore and ahead of Mowgli's world premiere in Mumbai)
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