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Serkis to shoot Animal Farm in 2014

Performance capture pioneer Andy Serkis has revealed he plans to shoot his directorial debut, an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in the second half of 2014.

“We’ve started pre-vis which in the virtual world in many instances means you’ve already started shooting the film,” Serkis, told Screendaily on the fringes of the Cinematic Innovation Summit (CIS) in Dubai on Thursday. “Principal photography will take place in the middle to third quarter of next year.”

Serkis’ Animal Farm was first announced in October 2012, as the inaugural production of Imaginarium, the new performance capture studio co-founded by Serkis with producer Jonathan Cavendish, but there has been little news about the project since.

A speaker at the summit, Serkis told delegates that he had directed pre-vis work via Skype from his trailer on the set of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, in which he will reprise his role as rebel ape leader Caesar from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  

Talking afterwards, Serkis revealed Imaginarium is working with German concept artist Michael Kutsche, whose film credits include Alice in Wonderland, Thor, Maleficent and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, to create a heightened design aesthetic for Animal Farm.

“What we’re trying to do is fairly unique. It’s going to be entirely performance captured, so rather than photographing real animals and showing them with talking mouths, it will all be generated by the interaction between the actors playing those roles…the physicality and facial expressions of all the animals will come directly from actors’ performances,” said Serkis.

“The design for those has to work in a particular way and it’s a particular heightened design look we’re going for. We also have to find a balancing aesthetic for the environment in which we situate the characters. We’re experimenting shooting with live action plates but with a heightened design…it’s not just shooting in a field,” he added.

He said “a great cast” had been finalised but that Imaginarium would not announce anything until financing was completed in 2014. He put the budget at $50m.

“We’re producing this like an independent movie. The idea is to get as far down the road as we can but eventually we expect a studio to get involved,” said Serkis.

He said Imaginarium had recently secured an equity partner for the film, which he could not reveal at present, and that UK sales company Embankment had already achieved a handful of pre-sales after presenting the project at Berlin even though there had been no script at the time.  

Serkis said Imaginarium’s second announced project, an adaptation of Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, was still in very, early stages of development. The company recently announced it would be producing the film with Chernin Entertainment, backed by 20th Century Fox. The company also announced a first-look deal with Fox at the same time. 

Set in 2059, The Bone Season revolves around a young clairvoyant who is caught up in London’s murky underworld. One day she is kidnapped and taken to the mysterious city of Oxford. In a bid to escape, she attempts to enter her captor’s mind.

“At the moment we’re looking for writers and directors,” said Serkis.

The novel is the first in seven planned books by 22-year-old Shannon, who graduated from Oxford University last year.

“It’s an extraordinary story and an extraordinary range of books. One of our development team saw it at the Frankfurt book fair in 2011 and quickly went in and secured it,” said Serkis.

“We love the story and this open-ended world she has created…She was writing this all the time she was at Oxford. She is actually a very gregarious human being but she said she went out five times in the years she was writing,” he added.

Talking more generally to delegates at the summit, Serkis said the art of performance capture had changed enormously since he first started played the Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

“With Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes we were able to take performance capture outside and this was a significant move forward because up until that point it was pretty much contained within a virtual space. When we were shooting Lord Of The Rings from 1999 to 2003, I would act out my scenes on the real locations and then I would go back to the studio and play them again – there was a disconnect. I was having to look at scenes that had been shot six months before,” said Serkis.

By the time of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, special effects specialist Weta had designed a new suit enabling motion capture to take place on the set.

“It was terrifically liberating and brought a new reality into the game,” he added. “Before they decided to use performance capture, there was talk of using real apes or stunt guys in suits right up until quite late in pre-production.”

The latest development is new technology capturing facial expressions in detail, he noted. 

Other performance capture experts at Thursday’s conference included Stephen Lang.

“Andy’s path as an actor has been a fascinating one and an inspirational one and also I feel a personal debt to Andy, I believe it was when Jim saw Gollum that he felt the technology really did exist to realise Avatar,” said Lang after Serkis’ talk.

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