Joy Batchelor and John Halas' 1954 adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm might look like a children's film at first glance, populated as it is with cartoon animals, but this bleak political allegory does not make for light-hearted Saturday morning viewing. Made during (and partially shaped by, thanks to financing from the CIA) the height of Cold War tension, the film is definitely worth watching as a product of its time.
The first live action version of the story was released in 1999 as a TV movie, featuring creature effects from Jim Henson's Creature Shop and a pretty impressive voice cast that included Kelsey Grammer, Patrick Stewart and the late Pete Postlethwaite. The next Animal Farm, however, will be a blend of animation and live action performances from the world's most prominent proponent of motion capture technology.
In 2011, actor and producer Andy Serkis opened his own performance capture studio, The Imaginarium, and shortly thereafter announced that one of its first major projects would be an adaptation of Animal Farm from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, with Serkis set to produce and star. Since then, however, Serkis has taken a turn at second unit directing on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and is now set to direct Animal Farm himself.
In an interview with Screendaily, Serkis has revealed that he has already started pre-vis work on Animal Farm from the comfort of his trailer (via Skype) on the set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, explaining that, "In the virtual world [pre-vis] in many instances means you've already started shooting the film." While both Serkis and The Imaginarium have experience transforming human performances into animal ones, the divide that Animal Farm will have to cross is a lot wider than the one between ape and human:
“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.
“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."
Serkis necessarily had to remain a little cagey about some of the details, but he was open about the fact that Animal Farm has not yet been picked up by a major studio, explaining that it will be produced as an independent movie until such time as another studio becomes involved. The budget has been set at $50 million and a "great cast" has already been finalized. An equity partner for the film has been secured and a handful of pre-sales were secured before there was even a script for it.
Last year Serkis stated his intention to begin shooting Animal Farm by the end of 2013, but due to the amount of pre-production required and Serkis' other commitments that schedule has been revised. Principal photography is now set to take place in the middle or third quarter of 2014, meaning that (barring any further delays) Serkis' Animal Farm will most likely arrive in theaters some time in 2016.
Since it will apparently reshape Orwell's story in a way that will satirize modern targets, this contemporary update of the tale is sure to be an intriguing feature directorial debut for Serkis.
We'll keep you updated on Animal Farm as the project develops.