For Mark Rylance doing performance capture was both scary and familiar. The Oscar-winning actor told me that the mechanics of it - standing in an empty space and pretending - reminded him of not just his theater work but specifically the rehearsals for theater. “So much of it comes down to imagination,” he said. But still, playing the part of the Big Friendly Giant was unique for him. “I had never done anything like this before.”
The BFG is the second collaboration between Rylance and director Steven Spielberg; their last, Bridge of Spies, won Rylance that Oscar and catapulted him from a widely respected actor among other actors to a guy who suddenly was appearing on every director’s wish list. But he stuck with Spielberg, and the two shot The BFG and are now moving on to their third effort, Ready Player One. There is one bond that connects the two men, and that convinced Rylance to put on the performance capture pajamas for Spielberg.
“We trust each other,” he said in a phone interview last week. “It’s very collaborative. We don’t talk much about the character, but we do talk about the scene and the story. He trusts you to come prepared, just as he trusts Janusz Kaminski or the other technical people to come prepared. I think he enjoys that I try to make every scene different, not trying to do the same thing every time. Because he has this responsibility to the whole, he likes when you are so prepared, and he likes giving you his trust.”
And Rylance gave Spielberg his trust as well. Speaking during a group interview earlier that same day, Rylance said, “Normally as an actor, you see yourself in the mirror before you go on set. But I had no idea what this would look like. And I thought a lot about whether I should ask Steven to (give me) input. But I thought, ‘Well, no, he’ll know. He’ll know what’s right.’”
That trust extended to believing Spielberg knew how to keep the heart in the movie. We live in an era where many filmmakers seem to be chasing the next level of technology at the expense of story, character and emotion. When I asked him about that balance during a group interview, Spielberg returned to the topic that Rylance had broached - trust. This time it was Spielberg talking about trusting his actor.
“The whole nature of my approach to The BFG was to be able to do both; was to be able to use technology to advance the heart, and create a flawless transposition between the genius of Mark Rylance, to the genius of Weta, as they were able to digitally translate Mark’s soul onto film in the character of the BFG,” he explained. “And so all the work we did was to get back to basics - which was, I knew Mark was gonna really knock this out of the ballpark, but I didn’t want the ball to land at the end of a motion capture volume. I wanted the ball to land in the lap of the audience. And I think Weta paid more careful attention to how to preserve what Mark had given us on the day. Their artists did an amazing job translating Mark accurately. And there’s about 95% of what Mark gave me on the screen now. And that’s because technology today allowed us to do it. Five years ago, we could not have made BFG this way - the technology wasn’t there for it.”
Five years ago the technology was new, and there was one man Hollywood turned to for performance capture: Andy Serkis. I had to ask Rylance if he had sat down with the master of the art to get some hints on playing in the performance capture pajamas.
“I tried to get through to Andy Serkis,” Rylance said. “But it’s obviously such a big thing now, that he literally is so busy, even his friend, who was trying to get through to him for me, Bernard Hill said, ‘He never calls me back.’ So I - I couldn’t get through.”
The actor paused a beat and smiled. “That’s all right. It all made sense after a while.”