The current “Planet of the Apes” series reboot — or prequel or whatever you want to call it — may be the most impressive movie cycle of its ilk since the “Dark Knight” trilogy.
Rupert Wyatt's 2011 “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved to be a remarkably moving explanation of how the sentient simians Charlton Heston first encountered in the iconic 1968 “Planet of the Apes” got their start. That was in large part due to advances in motion-capture/computer-generated imagery technology, which gave “Rise's” central character Caesar, a chimp raised by humans and genetically geared toward rational thought, remarkable relatability.
Three years later, “Rise's” sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” benefits from even further advances in interpreting the expressions of Caesar player Andy Serkis and dozens more ape performers with striking verisimilitude.
Impressive as that is, it's not what makes “Dawn” such an advance over “Rise.” That rainy forest Caesar and his followers are living in 10 years after their escape from human clutches? That's the breakthrough amazing thing about this movie. Mainly because it's real.
“It was a breeze,” jokes “Dawn” director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”). “What blew me away about Wyatt's film was the way you had emotional identification with Caesar, which was about the leap in mo-cap (motion-capture) technology translating Andy so beautifully. I was really interested in pushing that forward, but also pushing the photo-reality to a place that had never been done before.
“The last movie was shot about 75 percent on the stage, and mo-cap is not very friendly to difficult environments. But I felt like, if we could do an ape civilization movie that really is in the woods and in the rain and in the mud, that would add to the photo-reality.”
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area a decade following “Rise's” events, “Dawn” finds a rustic ape village in Muir Woods where the residents communicate via sign language and, sometimes, outright speaking. They've watched the lights across the water dim out as the deadly virus unleashed at the end of “Rise” decimated the human species.
But then the apes discover that some men have survived, and they want something in Marin County. Attempts at accommodation are made, but they aren't enough to prevent interspecies combat in the collapsing city.
The cameras Reeves had hauled into the woods of British Columbia and Louisiana weren't only of the sensitive motion capture sort, which can now register the reference-dot-covered live performers against actual backdrops, as opposed to the empty, green-screen environments required just a few years ago. There were also big, heavy, tandem digital cameras to capture images in native 3-D.
“We had fiber-optic cable that was never meant to be buried under mud and sludge,” Reeves explains.
Nor were people meant to act like outdoor critters.
“In Vancouver, we were shooting in rain and freezing cold, and outside of New Orleans we were shooting in the rain and it was stifling hot last summer,” he notes. “You know, our ape performers wear what are, essentially, flannel bodysuits. They were in some of the most humid, hot, crazy conditions, doing some of the most physically challenging stuff you could imagine.
“It was not the way you would normally like to shoot a movie,” Reeves understates. “But that was also part of what the movie was supposed to be like. It was supposed to be out in the elements. So it added to the reality. But it was brutal.”
Moving like apes over irregular, sometimes mountainous ground was also a challenge for the ape actors. Toby Kebbell, who plays the traumatized, human-hating ape Koba who challenges Caesar's leadership of their 2,000-member colony, did serious damage to an arm on the crutches they used to approximate the animals' locomotion.
As for that temperamental, high-tech equipment, Reeves reports that the cameras worked “sometimes.”
“When you've got motion capture cameras, they have technical issues,” he says. “The ideal is to give them as clear a view as possible, and when it's raining or foggy, or there's all kinds of stuff around, it's hard to get reliable information.
“And when you're shooting in native 3-D, every camera is two digital cameras, and one side might go down. I can't tell you how much we were bound by wires, and the equipment is so heavy, our Steadicam operator was only able to do one shot at a time.”
With around 85 percent of its action shot live in this manner, “Dawn” projects an incredible sense of naturalism for such an effects-heavy production.
But it would be for naught if the apes weren't as compelling as they are, and that's where the real painstaking work on the movie came in.
The transformations of actors to apes were done by Weta Digital, the New Zealand effects house that turned Serkis into Gollum for company owner Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” movies.
“What people don't necessarily understand is that Andy's performance is the heart and soul of Caesar,” Reeves says. “But it would be one thing if they could just attach an ape face to Andy. They can't; they have to translate what Andy's done onto the anatomy of an ape. And I've gotta tell ya, Andy doesn't look like an ape.
“You've got to figure out how to take a shape in Andy's eyes and put it on Caesar's eyes. His mouth, which is very expressive, doesn't fit on Caesar's mouth; it's an ape's muzzle.
“Weta rebuilt the characters from the ground up from the last film,” the director continues. “They redid the hair simulations, the moisture simulations. These effects are so much better than ‘Rise,' it's astonishing. And the effects for the next film are going to be exponentially better.”
Reeves is set, at the moment, to direct that third modern “Apes” film. The New York-born, Los Angeles-raised filmmaker is a lifelong fan of the series, and like his close friend and sometime partner J.J. Abrams, who is now directing the next “Star Wars” movie, he feels like he's living a dream come true.
“J.J. and I met when we both making 8 mm movies,” recalls Reeves, who found a role for Keri Russell, the star of his and Abrams' first hit TV show “Felicity,” in “Dawn.” “We both were such huge fans of ‘Star Wars' and ‘Planet of the Apes.' If someone had told us then that one day we'd be directing movies in those franchises, I think our heads would've exploded.”
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