And cut! Andy Serkis scrabbled around in the dirt to play Gollum and deserved an Oscar
The first part of Peter Jackson's «Lord of the Rings» trilogy was released in cinemas in 2001. Groundbreaking computer animation and epic battles transported the audience to an unprecedented, sensational fantasy world.
One character was particularly memorable: Gollum. Behind the hobbit with a schizoid personality disorder – as diagnosed by a group of US students – lies Andy Serkis. Despite initial scepticism, the English actor decided it wasn't beneath him to humiliate himself in front of the entire crew to portray a character that had reached cult status.
Serkis' story began in a onesie.
In the beginning, Gollum looked... different
The then-unknown Andy Serkis didn't actually want to play Gollum. He felt uneasy about the concept of just providing the voice for a digital character. «Then I met Peter Jackson,» recalls Serkis in an interview with Movieweb. He said «We want an actor to play the role, be on set and make decisions for that character.»
Filming for «The Fellowship of the Ring», the first part of the trilogy, began in October 1999. Andy Serkis was on board with being Gollum's voice, but he only started filming in New Zealand months later. Gollum's first major appearance is in «The two Towers», the second part of the trilogy.
Gollum can only be seen for a few seconds in the first film: he is quickly glimpsed in the shadows in the scene where Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) explains to Frodo (Elijah Wood) how Gollum has been warped by the ring's power. Gollum's skintone is dark grey and there’s a diabolical look in his eye.
«He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself,» adds Gandalf.
Gollum looks a little different to what you're used to at this point because Weta Workshop's art department had already determined his appearance during pre-production. In case you don't know, pre-production involves planning the visual effects that will be created in the post-production phase of making a film.
Gollum only fully came to life with the addition of Serkis in April 2000.
An Englishman in a white onesie enters the set
Andy Serkis took things seriously. In a onesie. This made it easier to retouch him later and replace him with a computer model. Serkis carried on regardless. Day after day, he acted his heart out, as if his performance depended on it. Crawling. Shuffling. Spitting. He exposed himself to ridicule. But he didn't care. He wanted to do his role justice and gave it his all.
He succeeded. Gollum is already a tragic figure in the books, but Serkis gave the character even more depth in the films. He portrayed him as a naive, likeable creature looking for his true self, which has been lost over the course of his corruption by the ring.
Director Peter Jackson realises: Serkis doesn't just play Gollum, he is Gollum. His expressive performance and Gollum's retching, croaky voice both form part of the same performance. This is exactly how it had to be for the film. In the middle of production, Jackson made a decision: Gollum had to be overhauled. The world of computer animation would never be the same again.
But no-one knew that at the time.
The foundation for motion and performance capture
The special effects artists at Weta Digitals came up with a new look for Gollum in record time. The creature was given much more similar features to the actor's own, especially around the corners of the mouth and nose. This made it easier for the computer model of Gollum to mimic Serkis.
That wasn't enough for Jackson. He wanted to take things even further. Two relatively new technologies were used: «motion capture» and «performance capture».
Serkis reshot all of his scenes in front of a green screen in Wellington, New Zealand. Sensors on his body – small dots – transferred Serkis’ movements to Gollum's computer model. That’s motion capture. Simultaneously, dozens of points were also drawn on his face to capture his performance. If Serkis lifted an eyebrow, so did Gollum. That’s performance capture.
It's a risky plan. Researching then-fledgling technologies in the middle of production takes time. Time that Jackson didn't have. The shooting schedule stipulated that the entire trilogy should be filmed in just over a year – before the release of the first part. But the Kiwi director knew how important Gollum was to his story. Too important. «The Two Towers» only works if the audience accepts Gollum as a living, breathing character.
Then came the unrecognised success
The plan worked. The programmers succeeded in transferring Andy Serkis' movements and performance to Gollum. Overnight, Gollum became one of the best-known characters in the entire Lord of the Rings saga.
Above, in perhaps Gollum's most famous and important scene, Sméagol – the original name of the former hobbit – argues with his malicious alter ego Gollum, who has been corrupted by the ring. Gollum wants to kill the ring-bearer, Frodo, and take the ring. Sméagol, however, wants to break free of the power of the ring. Forever.
It's scenes like these that make Gollum come alive. Many of them cried out for a Best Performance Oscar. For a computer-animated character, that is. This had never happened before.
And maybe it's a bit crazy.
Because it's the actor, Andy Serkis, and the talented programmers at Weta Digitals who deserve the recognition, with the latter actually being acknowledged with the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Serkis, however, was left empty handed. The Academy – it decides who gets nominated for and wins which Oscar – doesn't consider actors in motion and performance capture roles. Despite Peter Jackson's efforts to change the Academy's mind. Because, technically, it wouldn't be the actor nominated for the role, it would be the character. So, Gollum, not Serkis, according to the Academy.
It's a joke. By that logic, only the character that’s played by the actor should be nominated for an Oscar. But the Academy has put forward a further argument, which isn't easy to counter: where does Serkis' portrayal of Gollum end and the work of the special effects artists begin? When did the programmers make the corner of the mouth a little wider here and lift an eyebrow a little higher there?
It's impossible to say. Gollum isn't a person; he's computer-animated. He is the result of cooperation between actor, director and programmers. Nevertheless, it's unfair that the actor – the most important component of the three – will never win an award, because the Academy won't consider mocap performances or at least introduce a separate category for them.
What is Serkis up to now?
Serkis hasn't been discouraged. The opposite, in fact. In 2005, he played the famous ape in Peter Jackson's «King Kong», again using motion and performance capture. Then, in 2011, he appeared as Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. A year later, he reprised the role of Gollum in «The Hobbit». And in 2015, he played Supreme Leader Snoke in the new «Star Wars» films.
He finally received long-deserved recognition for his role as highly intelligent ape Caesar in the «Planet of the Apes» trilogy, which only reached its celebrated conclusion in 2017. Rarely before have magazines, YouTube channels and studio-released behind the scenes footage reported how Serkis brings his characters to life. Fox, the same studio behind the Planet of the Apes trilogy, started a range of campaigns to change the Academy's position. To no avail. However, it did achieve something.
For Serkis, the Planet of the Apes trilogy made one change: the audience finally started to see past the technological components of motion capture and focus on the humanity of the performance behind it.
«The expression, the emotion, the soul of the character, is authored by the actor,» Serkis told Vulture Magazine. «It’s not a committee of animators deciding what the character is doing. It’s one actor who is on set working with a director from page 1 to 120. Working on the character and becoming that emotional guiding point for and the facilitator and author of the role.»
Now Serkis is more in demand than ever. And it all started with a man in a white jumpsuit chasing a ring and scrabbling around in the dirt.