Primatologists, professors and filmmakers gathered at CalTech in Pasadena this past Thursday to discuss 20th Century Fox’s new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Apes director Rupert Wyatt headlined a panel that included visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, Diane Fossey Foundation representative Clare Richardson and CalTech professor of philosophy Steve R. Quartz, as well as actor Andy Serkis via Skype from London. Their discussion centered around Fox’s re-imagining of their venerable Planet of the Apes franchise, the role of motion capture technology in the film, and its implications on the status of the great apes in our world today.
Hit the jump for a recap of the panel that includes quotes from both Wyatt and Serkis. Starring James Franco, Tom Felton, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, and the aforementioned Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on August 5th.
For me, the most surprising revelation was that the film itself involved no live animals at all. The apes – particularly the hyper-intelligent Caesar, who leads a simian revolt against humanity – are all rendered by performance capture. The filmmakers touted the advances of the technology in the years since it was first introduced, as well its ability to help them avoid any moral compromises on the film. As Wyatt explained:
“We had a choice: we could use live apes or we could use performance capture technology. There was no way we could put actors in… simian suits and pull it off. We immediately set about exploring both options, and we very quickly put to bed the idea of using live apes for all sorts of reasons. I personally think it would have been a bit of an irony to be telling the story of our most exploited and closest cousins, and use live apes to tell that story. I think it would have been a cruel twist.”
With performance capture technology as the only viable option, the filmmakers turned to WETA Digital in New Zealand to see it through. Their challenge was to render the ape characters with total realism, often appearing side-by-side with live actors in the same shot. Serkis – who has become the go-to performer for motion-capture roles – explained that such a notion wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago:
“When we first started working on Gollum, it was a sort of freakish activity that people didn’t really understand… I would actually shoot the scenes on set, and my performances were shot on 35mm. We’d always shoot a blank plate, so I’d play the scene with other actors: with Sean Astin and Elijah Wood… Then I would go back months later and – by myself in a motion capture studio – work in isolation with the plates we had shot. Using tennis balls and a stick, I’d then have to act with a pretend Elijah Wood and a pretend Sean Astin.
Here, this is the first film that uses performance capture on a live-action set. For the entire shoot, we were fully integrated into the live-action shooting… with head-mounted camera and so on. We get the entire performance in one hit: emotionally connecting with the other actors, not having to repeat everything, every single decision made with the director… It’s come to the point where it really isn’t any different from live-action acting.”
Wyatt also showed a number of clips from the film which depicted Serkis’s Caesar being raised in secret by a benevolent scientist, only to be shown first-hand the cruelty that humanity is capable of. Feeling abandoned by his “parent,” he begins to realize his own worth as he rallies his fellow apes against those he believes are oppressing them. For a summer film, it looks extremely intense, with scenes of animal entrapment and torture in science labs, and a deep connection – ultimately betrayed – between Caesar and his human family. Serkis’s performance shines through in each of the clips. If the film ultimately works, it will be because the technology captures his expressions and body movements so perfectly. The actor explained his level of comfort with the technology, saying:
“A motion capture costume is actually a very liberating costume. The alternative is to wear a suit with fur and have layers of prosthetics on your face, like the actors did in the original Apes movies. For me, I find that much more restrictive… performance capture allows you to just play intention without being encumbered in any way.”
Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters on August 5th.