SAN DIEGO — Andy Serkis left no doubt in the minds of Comic-Con fans that he's the king of the apes.
With footage from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Serkis also showed an audience at the fan convention Thursday why he's the king of performance-capture, in which an actor's dramatic essence makes up the foundation of a character that is layered over with digital effects.
The British actor pioneered the technique as the gnarled little fiend Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" films, a role he is reprising for "The Hobbit" prequels, and later as the towering ape in "King Kong," all for director Peter Jackson.
Now Serkis delivers the main simian role for the "Apes" prequel, playing a chimpanzee leading an ape revolution against oppressive humans. The film debuts around the world beginning the first week of August.
Though he's playing another being created through digital technology, Serkis said his "Planet of the Apes" role as chimpanzee Caesar is worlds away from Kong or Gollum.
"People said to me, 'Why are you choosing another ape character, why are you playing another monkey?'" Serkis said at a presentation to show off footage from the film. "With Kong, he was a huge technical challenge, because he was a 25-foot gorilla. Gollum's a three-and-a-half foot ring junkie. With Caesar, I actually believe it was even more of a formidable challenge."
Caesar has a sprawling, tragic emotional arc to his story, said Serkis, who is developing his own performance-capture production company for film and video games and has had live-action roles in such movies as "13 Going on 30" and "24 Hour Party People."
Inheriting high intelligence from his mother, a chimp treated with a test drug to cure Alzheimer's, Caesar is raised in a loving human home by a researcher (James Franco) and grows up feeling like part of the family.
"Then at a certain point, he realizes that he is not the same as the human beings that he's been brought up by. He feels like a freak. He's treated like a Frankenstein's monster. He's then taken away from the people, his parents, his family, and thrown into a sanctuary, which is full of apes, and it's kind of like a hard-core prison," Serkis said. "Then he brings this disparate group of apes together and then leads them to revolution. And then, oh, by the way, he's an ape. It's an amazing journey."
The Comic-Con footage included a scene in which Caesar rushes ferociously to defend Franco's ailing father (John Lithgow) and another in which he sets fellow captive apes on the path to higher intelligence.
The "Apes" prequel uses similar technology used to create Gollum, Kong and the towering blue aliens in James Cameron's "Avatar," with actors wearing skintight suits covered with dots as reference points for digital cameras to capture their motions and body language. As Cameron did with his "Avatar" actors, Serkis was fitted with a camera rig on his head to record his facial expressions, too.
The big evolution in the technology this time is that the performance-capture shoot was done on live-action sets, with Serkis interacting with Franco and the other human characters. Previous performance-capture shoots have been done on mostly bare soundstages, with sets and other details filled in later through elaborate computer animation.
The film's director, Rupert Wyatt, said that advancement helps demonstrate why Serkis is not only a great performance-capture actor, but also simply a great actor.
"People forget that. They always say, 'Oh, he's leading the forefront of performance-capture technology as a performer,' but the reason he does that is he's just a phenomenal actor," Wyatt said. "When you're dealing with jumping around in a gray leotard, and you've got your face-capture camera on your head, and you're trying to play and personify being a certain character, it's quite hard to push all the technology to one side. It's the mark of a true actor that you're able to do that."