Andy Serkis did not take the conventional path from acting into directing, writes Laura Harding.

The motion capture pioneer, who has embodied characters as diverse as Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings, Caesar in The Planet Of The Apes, Kong in King Kong and Supreme Leader Snoke in the new Star Wars films, cut his teeth as a filmmaker on the biggest stage possible.

"I didn't do a first auteur film with a few actors in two rooms, it was working on the biggest film set in the world for 200 days every day with a huge crew," he says with a rueful smile.

That set was for the blockbuster The Hobbit, and director Peter Jackson, who previously helmed the Lord Of The Rings films, had tasked Serkis with taking charge of the second unit of the film (which is responsible for shooting all the supplementary footage such as establishing shots and stunts, rather than the dialogue between the main characters).

"Peter has been hugely important to my education as a director," Serkis says. "He was a fantastic mentor and, apart from being a wonderful human being, he was always aware that I wanted to direct.

"He used to do weekly vlogs on King Kong and I directed some of those and so when it came to The Hobbit he said, 'I want you to direct the second unit because you will work on a huge scale.'

"I was shooting native 3D, all across New Zealand. I spent 10 weeks in a helicopter, I worked with all of the cast - it was a brilliant education."

And now he has put all that education to good use with his new film Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle.

The film is actually his directorial debut but some bumps along the way meant his second film, Breathe starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield, ended up being released first.

His dark telling of The Jungle Book story is much closer to Rudyard Kipling's book, and is a million miles away from the famous Disney animation from 1967.

Stars such as Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Serkis himself embody the famous animals using the motion capture technology the director made famous, while young star Rohan Chand steps into the role of Mowgli.

"It is much closer to the book and that is crucially the difference," he says, "and that is what excited me about doing it in the first place.

"Here was an opportunity to really get under the source material for the first time and focus much more on the journey of the central character, who I think often gets left out and forgotten.

"He's the glue that holds the whole story together but often he's masked by the great star turns by all of the animal performances and so we now finally have a version which really can connect with him emotionally.

"This film is intense but it feels grounded and real and emotional and that is what we were after."

But Serkis is very open about the fact it has been a long journey to get to this stage, when an audience will finally see his film.

"We started shooting and then because of all sorts of things and including a lengthy post-production period and the Disney version (directed by Jon Favreau in 2016), it's ended up being a long, protracted process.

"In that time, we shot Breathe and a number of other things too. I went off and did Planet Of The Apes and Star Wars whilst we were in post-production, but this feels now it's the right time for it to come out.

"We have managed to hold on to the story that we really wanted to tell in the beginning and it's survived all the way through so I'm happy."

The Disney version was a box office smash and featured a voice cast of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong'o, as well as some of the classic songs from the animated original but it put a spanner in the works for Serkis and his own project.

"It's never great being up against another film but the fact of the matter is this was always going to be such a different re-telling of the story.

"I knew that we didn't cross over, bar the bare bones of the story, which of course is a boy brought up with animals.

"This is such a different take and it is for a slightly older audience.

"I still think it's a family film. I perhaps wouldn't take little ones to see it, there is an intensity to this film, but really from about eight you will be fine.

"When we say it's darker, I think what we are really trying to say is it's meant, it's emotional, it's intense and therefore thematically it feels more real."

That realness goes as far as Serkis' own performance as the bear Baloo, who is much tougher than in other incarnations.

"I didn't really intend to play Baloo," he admits. "We cast all of the other characters and then the producers said, 'Andy, it seems a bit crazy that you are making a performance capture movie and you're not acting in it.'

"So then I thought, 'Oh perhaps I should.'

"The approach to Baloo was again going back to the book and making him a lot tougher and more like a drill sergeant and the teacher that is in the Kipling, who exemplifies tough love.

"There is no singing," he laughs. "Certainly not from the animals. No Bare Necessities!"

The movie also offered him the chance to share his formidable skills in performance capture, the innovative art form he has pioneered, where an actor wears markers to digitally record a performance which is then used to render the animated character.

"When we first sat down and started talking, I had to explain to them there is nothing mysterious about performance capture.

"It's just a tool - it's a different way of capturing a performance, as opposed to film cameras.

"So in terms of acting, it's just becoming that character. Yes of course you have to do the research into being whatever animal you're playing but ultimately it's more about the personality and the character and that is what we do as actors."

Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle is out in UK cinemas and streaming on Netflix now.