A computer-generated image that will eventually become a realistic model of a Neanderthal man.

A computer-generated image that will eventually become a realistic model of a Neanderthal man. Image: Jellyfish Pictures.

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Creating a computer-generated Neanderthal

Hollywood star Andy Serkis worked with Museum experts to create an animated Neanderthal.

Serkis is known for being a master of motion capture, famous for playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films.

His latest work is more scientifically accurate, however: he is now part of a team behind the animated avatar of a Neanderthal man for a new BBC Two series called Neanderthals: Meet your Ancestors.

Prof Chris Stringer, a Museum expert on human evolution, was a science consultant on the series. He collaborated with Serkis and other leading scientists from around the world to recreate the Neanderthal character.

Ella Al-Shamahi and Andy Serkis inside the Imaginarium studios.

Ella Al-Shamahi and Andy Serkis inside the Imaginarium studios. Image: VixPix Films/BBC


Neanderthals are close ancient relatives of Homo sapiens, our species. They were humans just like us, but a different species. They evolved in Europe and Asia at the time same that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.

Eventually, our species interbred with the Neanderthals, meaning most people alive today have some Neanderthal DNA.

Scientists are still learning how they lived and died, and new advancements in technology are allowing us to recreate these ancient humans like never before.

Prof Stringer says, 'I never thought it would be possible to bring a Neanderthal to life with so much scientific accuracy.

'It was a delight to see Andy Serkis conjure him with such skill, giving this authentic visualisation a personality through expression and movement that immediately conveys just how close to Neanderthals we are.'

The computer-generated image of a Neanderthal man that scientists came up with for the BBC documentary

The computer-generated image of a Neanderthal man that scientists came up with for the BBC documentary. Image: Jellyfish Pictures.


Neanderthals: Meet your Ancestors

The series is presented by Ella Al-Shamahi, a paleoanthropologist and former student at the Museum. She now works at University College London and when she's not on cave excavations in hostile territories, she moonlights as a stand-up comic.

In the documentary, she explores recent scientific breakthroughs that have changed the way we think about Neanderthals.

Rather than being slow and brutish, we now know that Neanderthals were able to use fire and tools, and had complex social lives. Contrary to the stereotype, they were actually intelligent and accomplished humans.

Chris Stringer shows Ella the Museum's Neanderthal model

Chris Stringer shows Ella the Museum's Neanderthal model, inside the Human Evolution gallery, which is free to visit. Image: VixPix Films/BBC.


Creating a CGI Neanderthal

The computer-generated Neanderthal is based on a skull that was found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq, one of the richest Neanderthal fossil sites ever discovered. His body is based on a near-complete skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum. 

With the help of a forensic expert, the series reconstructs the man's face - both how he would have looked as a fit and healthy young man, and as he would have looked at the time of his death.

Scientists know that the Neanderthal had suffered a major injury 20 years before he died, which fractured his skull, injured his brain and probably blinded him in one eye.

A cast of the Neanderthal head found in a cave in Iraq

A cast of the Neanderthal head found in a cave in Iraq. The CGI Neanderthal face is based on this specimen. Image: VixPix Films/BBC.


Using forensic detective work, fossil evidence and the expertise of a team of investigating scientists, an image of a Neanderthal man was pieced together. It's the most accurate CGI Neanderthal ever created.

His face was reconstructed over a period of six months by animation and visual effects experts at Jellyfish Pictures.

The team came up with a basic reconstruction based on a scan of the skull. Forensic artists then figured out where the muscles of the face would have been, and a layer of artistry was added by the Jellyfish Pictures animators.

Tom Brass, Jellyfish's Creative Director, says, 'We consulted with world leaders in Neanderthal reconstruction on how to make this a living, breathing creature.

'We took advice on aspects including the symmetry of the face, and how the outdoor Neanderthal lifestyle would have affected skin texture. Layer by layer, we built up something that looks like a real human face.'

Real human skin was scanned to create a lifelike texture for the Neanderthal, complete with weathering, scarring and wrinkles. Each layer was knitted together to build up an accurate image.

An actor was filmed moving his face in various ways, and eventually the digital Neanderthal head replaced the actor's on screen.

The process is digital sculpture, using the latest science and face replacement technology.

The magic of the bodily movement that happened in Serkis's London studio, The Imaginarium, designed for creating animated characters, or avatars, for film and TV. Serkis uses motion technology to track an actor's performance and map it onto a 3D digital character in real time.


The Neanderthal lifestyle

Neanderthals were shorter than most modern humans, but stronger and faster with a powerful upper body. Andy worked with the team to reconstruct a Neanderthal hunt, showing how they used their strength and speed to ambush and bring down large animals like woolly mammoths.

New evidence about Neanderthals is emerging all the time. For instance, archaeological research has been revealing intriguing details about the Neanderthal mind, and in the sea caves of Gibraltar there is evidence of something that could be Neanderthal art.

We also now know that this species had the ability to vocalise. They had the anatomy that makes speech possible, and they also had the same two mutations that modern humans have in the gene known as FoxP2, which governs the ability to use language.  

A computer screen showing Andy Serkis' face

Andy Serkis works on bringing the computer model to life. Image: VixPix Films/BBC.


Computer modelling of the Neanderthal vocal track features in the BBC programme, which allows us to hear what a Neanderthal may have sounded like 40,000 years after they became extinct.

Al-Shamahi says, 'We made the world's most scientifically accurate and functional Neanderthal avatar, then we asked the Hollywood king of motion capture, Andy Serkis, to help bring him to life.

'That makes for a pretty cool science show.'