Enter the Imaginarium
Actor-director Andy Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish discuss their partnership running British production company The Imaginarium, how technology can enhance storytelling and upcoming projects such as Madame Tussaud.
Andy Serkis is one of the biggest actors in the world – but you might not recognise him. After playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then reuniting with director Peter Jackson to become King Kong, he also starred in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy as Caesar, the leader of the apes.
Almost two decades ago, his interest in motion-capture performance led him to partner with producer Jonathan Cavendish to establish The Imaginarium Studios, a digital studio based in London. They later established The Imaginarium, a standalone production company that has been responsible for a slate of films and TV series including The Ritual, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, Fungus the Bogeyman, Death & Nightingales and The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself.
Speaking at Content London at the end of last year, co-founders Serkis and Cavendish discussed the origins of the company, their interest in technology and why they’re putting their faith in new writers.
The Imaginarium Studios emerged from an idea to create a place for writers, directors and producers to create new stories and new ways of telling them.
Serkis: Back in 2004, I was just coming back from working with Peter Jackson on King Kong and was directing a video game project. But when I came back in England, I realised there weren’t really the facilities here in the UK to be able to do performance capture – the technique of creating digital characters using live actor performances. I ended up taking the whole team back to New Zealand to be able to shoot it. Around that time I’d been introduced to Jonathan, who had been running a very prolific and powerful TV and film production company.
Cavendish: I have a marketing background and I was looking 10 years ago at what I thought the future was going to be. I’d made lots of films like the Bridget Jones’ Diary films and lots of TV, but I thought, ‘There’s got to be something more.’ Meeting Andy, who was the world’s living expert at performance-capture creative technology, we thought, ‘OK, we will create a production company and a performance-capture studio so that it’s genuine next-generation storytelling.’ That was the company we set up and, five years ago, we split the two companies off so we are the production company, The Imaginarium Studios are a sister company and Andy can use it creatively whenever he likes.
Serkis: The Imaginarium is a place where you can get together and create and imagine new forms of storytelling and new stories. Part of that journey was also my transition into directing and Jonathan producing films and TV projects for the company, alongside myself. The origin of the company is about nurturing skills and bringing on new and interesting writers and giving them a platform. It’s really about creating an environment for creative freedom.
The Imaginarium’s credits includes a mixture of features and series based on true stories such as Breathe, horror films The Ritual and No One Gets Out Alive, “world-building” projects like Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, period miniseries Death & Nightingales and “genre fantasy” such as The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself.
Cavendish: What we’ve done appears to be so varied that there doesn’t seem to be a pattern on it. We’ve just finished a film with Taika Waititi called Next Goal Wins. We’re doing a film with writer Jonny Sweet about a hideous HBOS banking scandal in this country that ends well. We are doing a TV series reimagining The Wicker Man with Urban Myth, written by Howard Overman, which is very exciting, with StudioCanal and other partners.
Then we have what we call our unique world-building movies like Mowgli, where Andy creates a world that is entirely new that nobody has ever seen before, using all our technologies and our imaginations. Now we are doing a movie that is an American-set version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which Andy is also directing, and that’s actually our first animated film. It has aspects of performance capture, but it’s fundamentally animated.
We’ve got a fantastic show called The Girlfriend, which we have Robin Wright [House of Cards] starring in and directing, which we’re doing [in 2023], and an adaptation of a book called The Taking of Annie Thorne, which was written by CJ Tudor and we’re doing with White Boar Films, starring Richard Armitage. Those are classic storytelling but, being us, with a bit of a twist, all with big talent.
We pretty much do anything. We probably wouldn’t do a flat police procedural. And we probably wouldn’t do sitcom, but everything we do has quite a lot of comedy in it because everybody in the world has quite a lot of comedy in them. And why take that out?
Having directed feature films, Serkis is now keen to take charge of a TV series – and will do that this year with Madame, a biopic about the founder of the famous Madame Tussauds waxwork museum.
Serkis: It’s such an incredible story, and what’s remarkable is it is literally one of the greatest stories never told. A lot of people don’t even know Madam Tussaud is a real person. The daughter of an executioner, she teamed up with her uncle, who was a doctor in Paris and was working on waxwork models. She gave him this incredible business perspective, which was the very early marriage of celebrity and gore, which then attracts lots of people.
Then she spends the next 89 years becoming a ferocious businesswoman who can’t really communicate with people on an emotional level. Waxworks, singing, an unreliable narrator, jumping forwards and backwards in time… it’s Fleabag in the 18th century, with a little bit of The Young Ones. It pretends to look like Bridgerton or The Crown but it’s not.
Netflix series The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself is based on Sally Green’s Half Bad books, telling the story of two warring witch clans and a young man trying to find his place in the world.
Cavendish: We’d done [writer] Joe Barton’s first film, The Ritual, and we thought he would be perfect for this. We developed it initially as a movie and then we thought the days of movies like that working were gone, so we adapted it into a TV format. We went to Netflix, they bought it there and then, and we developed it from there. We brought in four writers to work with Joe – including Ryan J Brown [Wreck] and Emer Kenny [Karen Pirie] – and we just set about making something that was unlike anything else. The violence is delicious, juicy and enjoyable, but it’s very funny.
The Imaginarium wants to partner with young or new talent and has worked with or has projects in development with David Bruckner (The Ritual), Naomi Sheldon (The Girlfriend), Ben Weatherill (The Keeper of Lost Things), Zara Symes (The Taking of Annie Thorne) and Milly Thomas (Madame).
Cavendish: They are remarkable young writers who we believe in and we know will do and have done an amazing job for us and will go on to extraordinary careers. Sometimes we do things with great big writers, like Animal Farm, written by Nicholas Stoller [Forgetting Sarah Marshall]. There is huge variety in the writers we work with, but we love working with young writers because they are fresh and excited and they haven’t been batted down by not-very-good meetings with people. They’re fresh and magnificent and full of wonderfulness.
Serkis: There is an element of gambling and taking a risk with people, but we are a very open company and we do listen. We are collaborators. We listen to the best idea in the room and we try to put our egos aside. Milly is a great example. She’s working with me on Madame and will be leading the writers room. She’ll write reams of stuff and then be prepared to bin it. You can’t ask more than that. We only work with people we really like and people who are very talented. It’s a good rule.
Built on the idea of using new technology in storytelling, The Imaginarium is now developing a project called Nevertars, a TV series featuring a mix of live action and animation that is based on unwanted digital animation characters who come to life.
Serkis: Part of the story is the server is about to be shut down, they’re all going to be destroyed, so they try and break out. We’re auditioning artists who have had their own CGI creations rejected, and creating characters that will then become characters in a TV show.
Our next-generation storytelling mission is the delivery. We all know the delivery platform for VR and AR isn’t quite there yet, but it will soon be there. What’s that world going to look like? There will be a time in the not-too-distant future where we are able to have live immersive shows that we can use devices to connect with.
Cavendish believes the most challenging aspect of the TV industry right now is the rising cost of production. But working with a tech-focused studio means he has a greater understanding of the price of visual effects.
Cavendish: Quite early on in the process of development, we will have a visual effects person in the room going, ‘By the way, if that animal is bald, you’re going to save $3m,’ or, ‘If you put that on a river but not on the sea, you’re going to save $1m.’ You don’t get to that horrible stage of going, ‘Shit, I’m 100% over budget,’ or, ‘Oh dear, I don’t know how to do this.’ So creativity and technology move hand in hand, side by side, and you’re not frightened of it.
It’s both a brilliant time for all of us, because more TV is being made and it’s better TV than it’s ever been, but it’s also a very congested marketplace. To be a commissioner, you’ve got to be a very brave person because everyone comes up to you every 30 seconds and pitches something that’s genuinely really good with genuinely interesting attachments. I’m glad I don’t commission.
Serkis actually had no intention of becoming an actor, preferring to draw and paint as he was growing up. But when he went to university, he had an “epiphany” when his plan to design posters for the theatre department ended up with him on stage instead.
Serkis: By the end of the first year, I played a character and understood about walking in someone else’s shoes, becoming someone else.
There were two big sliding-door moments for me. [The first was] the Lord of the Rings experience. I was in Prague shooting Alan Bleasdale’s version of Oliver Twist. I was playing Bill Sykes, and I got a phone call saying, ‘They’re making this film for Lord of the Rings down in New Zealand, and they want someone to do a voice for a digital character.’ And I was like, ‘A voice for digital character? I’m an actor. Can you not get me up for a decent role?’ Then it transpired that it was Gollum and they were at the beginning of this journey using motion-capture technology.
When I met Peter Jackson, that was another huge turning point and the beginning of a relationship that has lasted for the last 20 years. Not only was it a great role to play, but it opened up an entire world of experiences. He then asked me to direct the second unit on The Hobbit and then play King Kong. You think you can control the journey in your life, and perhaps you do to a certain extent, but there are always these moments that lead you off. It’s about being open and just taking the risks.