Andy Serkis came close to turning down the defining role of his career. When his agents offered him three weeks of voiceover work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was disappointed. "There must be a dozen good roles," he thought. "Can't they get me up for a decent part?" Still, the lure of Tolkien's Middle-earth was enough for him to meet the director, Peter Jackson. He is still working closely with him 12 years later.
Gollum wouldn't be a simple voiceover job, Jackson explained. For an actor whose film life had peaked working with Mike Leigh on Career Girls and Topsy-Turvy, Serkis was intrigued by what Jackson was proposing. "Pete said, 'I don't want actors reacting to a tennis ball on a stick,'?" he recalls. "He wanted to use 'performance capture' technology, which was really in its very early stages. He wasn't even sure it was going to work."
Three weeks became four years, as Serkis joined the other actors on set, giving them a performance to act against before re-creating his side of the scene on a performance-capture stage. This involved him wearing a grey Lycra bodysuit dotted with spherical tracking markers, placed strategically to form a skeleton. Picked up by cameras fixed around the space, the skeleton could be applied to a computer-generated "puppet" designed to take on Serkis's movements. Only in the final part of the process would the actor record Gollum's signature rasp in a sound studio.
When all this effort was finally revealed, Gollum came to define the extraordinary technical achievement of the production, and many critics recognised that it was Serkis who gave the character soul. This was a landmark creation, a marriage of cutting-edge technology and classically trained performance. The question was whether he would take home the Oscar many thought he richly deserved. Yet, while the creatives at Weta Digital, who had tackled the technical aspect of realising Gollum, were rewarded three times in a row for their work, Serkis failed to score a single nomination.