Today is not a good day at the GenSys Labs. The company has been performing tests on apes and today those apes are retaliating. Sparks shoot from every angle, lights flicker on and off, doors slam open and closed and a tray of oranges crashes, spilling everywhere. This would make sense if there were actually apes running around, but all of it is happening as if manipulated by ghosts. We’re on the Vancouver set of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox’s summer blockbuster set for release August 5. The film, directed by Rupert Wyatt, stars James Franco, John Lithgow, Frieda Pinto, Bryan Cox, Tom Felton and Andy Serkis as Caesar, a hyper-intelligent ape who just might be the 21st century reason why Charlton Heston finds the Statue of Liberty on the beach in the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes.
We visited the Vancouver set of Rise of the Planet of the Apes in August 2010 for days 33 and 34 of a scheduled 58 day shoot and not only did we get to walk through many of the sets before, during and after they were shot, but went on location and talked to the filmmakers and stars of this compelling modern story with global implications fueled by both character and a brand new performance capture technology. After the jump, you can take the trip along with us in an epic diary style write up of Collider’s trip to the set of Rise of the Planet of the Apes along with a video blog.
NOTE: The video blog, shot with Peter Sciretta of Slashfilm, was recorded the day after we got back from the set visit and it’s embedded at the bottom of this lengthy story. It, too, is lengthy and has a few minor inconsistencies. First of all, I no longer work for Collider, but did at the time. And second, obviously, is that the title has changed. Other than that, it’s Peter Sciretta and myself, in his apartment, discussing our thoughts on what this film could be and all the awesome things we saw. Again, it’s embedded at the bottom of this page. Now back to your regularly scheduled set visit.
Back to that phantom destruction mentioned above. That was happening because we were watching what the crew referred to as a “Roger Rabbit” take, where they shoot the action of the film without the actors involved. They need to do this, because, there won’t be one real ape in the film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes will have the some of the most advanced use of motion capture to date including massive sets totally wired with cameras everywhere making them huge, live mo-cap stages and even outdoor mo-cap, the first of its kind. And for every single mo-cap shot, like the one we saw above, director Rupert Wyatt needs to shoot it both with and without the actors in the shot so WETA can have all the information they need.
Set in modern day San Francisco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a reimagining of how Planet of the Apes came to be. The crux of the story is, what could happen today – right now – that would make it possible for apes to eventually kill all the humans and take over the world. It might start with a rogue doctor (played by James Franco) trying to help his ailing father (played by John Lithgow) with a medicine that also, incidentally, makes apes highly intelligent. And then one ape in particular might start to realize how his kind is treated poorly. And that ape might get really pissed off.
The whole trip began with a trip to Sears. Mammoth Studios in Burnaby, near Vancouver, British Columbia shares property with a Sears distribution center and looks just like that – an unassuming, large factory that could be used for anything. This one, however, just happens to house a major motion picture.
Walking through Mammoth, even in its main lobby, you can tell a movie is being made. The walls are adorned with headshots, hallways and conference rooms are lined with concept art and stills from the shoot. Being as this was in August of 2010, seeing all of this stuff for the first time was very exciting.
First up, we are shown a slide show of scenes and sets that have already been shot. We learn that the story of the movie focuses on Will Rodman, a scientist whose father has Alzheimer’s. Will works at GenSys, a high-tech science lab and has been developing a cure for the disease, a medicine called 112. However when they test the medicine in a chimp named Bright Eyes, Will notices some surprising developments. She dies but passes the gifts on to her son Caesar. Fearing that the lab will do horrible things to him, Will sneaks Caesar home and raises him as his own. That’s where things begin to get shaky.
In the slide show we see several different images and learn a bunch of key facts. We see images from a scene that will take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, shots that were filmed in the nearby Muir Woods, where Bryan Singer shot some of X-Men, and several concept images of apes jumping towards humans. Most notably, this is when we get our first glimpse of Andy Serkis as Caesar, in full motion capture suit, sitting and talking to Will in the kitchen. Just from the look on his face you can tell that Serkis is all business. Finally, we get the logistics. Wyatt is shooting on film in 2D, Rise is a prequel to all versions of the story but has nothing to do with the Tim Burton version (though there might be an Easter egg or two).
PRODUCTION DESIGN AND SETS
Next, we met up with Claude Pare, the production designer who has also done The Aviator and the Night at the Museum movies. His office looks like an architects, complete with blue prints and detailed models everywhere. He explains to us which sets were built here in the basements of Mammoth and what will be shot on location. More or less, most of the exteriors were shot on location in and around Vancouver while the interiors are downstairs.
Outside Pare’s office is a large model of the Primate Shelter, a set that was still under construction and hadn’t been shot yet. In the film, it serves as basically an ape prison run by Bryan Cox and his son Tom Felton and it’s where Caesar begins to corral other apes around him.
Like many of the sets on the film, the Primate Shelter wasn’t built in pieces; the entire thing was put together like a complete building. You could walk from one side to the other and never know you were on a movie set. Though, with this one, it was only built 30 feet up (as if that was small). The top 10-15 feet will be filled in with CG and exteriors have already been shot. Now that we have an idea of what we are going to see, it’s time to actually see it.
Walking through the studio is very reminiscent of a construction site. There are men in hardhats, wires and the smell of fresh sawdust. Simply being in the space gives you the feeling like you’re going to get something in your eye. As we get deeper into the guts of the studio we finally see the massive Primate Shelter, which is roughly 200 x 300 feet. It has been under construction for over 3 months and is scheduled to finish at the end of the week. Then, the following week, production will be here for 3 weeks straight. The entrance is plastered with beautiful tile murals and jungle paintings but as we attempt to set foot inside the huge, almost arena like main area, we are stopped. It’s still an active construction site and we are going to need hard hats. While we wait on those, we scoop around the side to ape cages, which were all built out of real steel. It’s Alcatraz for apes. All of the cages work with locks and sliding doors and were designed with attributes specific to the scenes that will be shot there. Each cell is roughly 8 x 10 feet. We head up the stairs, careful to avoid some spots where we are told paint is still wet, and walk above the sturdy cages. Pare describes this as a very dark part of the film, but also the reason for the eventual revolution.
Finally, our hard hats arrive and we enter the shelter. First and foremost there’s a 30-foot tree in the middle of the Primate Shelter made of Styrofoam over steel. All its branches are removable so that the camera can be set up anywhere in the space. The entire interior space around the tree is painted to look like a real jungle and – in the film – it will fool Caesar, but only for a moment. He will then realize that this is not a good place and things will quickly begin to change. And while this still-under-construction set looks pretty and clean now, once it’s done, the whole thing will be run down and aged by the crew so that it looks like it’s been around for decades instead of days.
Another of the main attributes of the shelter is a massive featured cage that, it’s explained, houses a gorilla named Buck. Buck never leaves this cage, but Caesar will use that to his advantage to strengthen his reputation among the apes. There will also be a waterfall that plays a part.
While we are all listening and observing all of this, the incessant hammering in the background can’t be ignored. Pare explains that shooting in the attic of Will’s house, where Caesar spends many years of his life, has completed and the site is being “struck,” or destroyed. A three-year time lapse of Caesar’s life will occur in the attic and the entirety of it was designed and decorated like a kids room, right down to the kitschy, custom copied blue wallpaper. However, even if the attic of Will’s house is being destroyed, thankfully, the bottom floors haven’t and that’s where we are headed next.
Whenever I walk into someone’s house, the first thing I look at is their DVD collection. And such was the same with the Rodman house. It was an odd mix of bad movies such as Push and Daddy Day Camp, with Spanish discs and genre films like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Once that was out of the way, I looked at everything else. The set was very homey but very dated. Everything looks like it probably did 40 years ago, which made sense since Will’s father has Alzheimer’s. There’s another shelf full of VHS tapes like Raiders of the Lost Ark, In & Out and Shakespeare In Love and family photos all over, including one I really liked of Will and Caesar sitting on a hill with their backs to the camera.
Entering the kitchen, the calendar read August 2016 – giving us a great time frame on the film – and Pare explained that the entire kitchen, which is very open but has second floor balcony surrounding it, was built in service of one specific shot that will see Caesar jumping all over the space in a continuous motion. The exteriors of the house were all shot on location and, though the film necessitated a backyard, the one on location didn’t work. So, once we exit the kitchen it goes into a large backyard space complete with garage and more. We walked through the garage – which looks dusty, messy and old – and looped into the neighbor’s garage, which was the polar opposite. It was explained that these differences in design were very specific because this clash of personalities between neighbors is a plot point of the film.
We notice, in the neighbor’s backyard, a monitor and a bunch of folding chairs. We have reached our media holding area where, one by one, we’ll be ushered to the interior of the GenSys labs to watch Andy Serkis, as Caesar, free the apes. But first, food and an interview.
MOTION CAPTURE APES
After lunch, where we got to sit and talk to Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar and Terry Notary, the ape stunt coordinator and performer who plays several different apes in the film (read that conversation here), we watched them practice on a motion capture stage, sometimes called “the volume.” It’s a huge room with a wide-open space in the middle and 26 sensors all around the room. Each of the actors is wearing the classic mo-cap suit: tight grey material with little LED sensors all over, green dots on their face, and a head rig with a camera aimed at their face.
On films that have pioneered this technology, like Avatar or Lord of the Rings, this was the only place mo-cap could occur. For Rise though, this is just the training ground. All the practical sets have been rigged with the sensors so that all the actual sets are, in their own way, “giant mo-cap stages where ever you go” according to Notary. In fact, the finale of the film, set on the Golden Gate Bridge, which was recreated in a large lot outside Vancouver, was the largest mo-cap stage in the world at the time. Plus, the LED sensors have been upgraded now so the Rise crew was able to shoot mo-cap outside. This was a huge evolution happening on this film.
In preparing for the afternoon’s scene – which will see Caesar and a group of apes breaking another group of apes out of cages at GenSys and also, maybe stealing some of the all important drug, 112, – each of the actors did a little limbering up – ape style – on the stage. “The best bit about that is that it gets rid of the waste line,” said Richard Ridings, who plays the aforementioned Buck. Each actor would mimic a mo-cap technician so, on a huge screen, they could see not only their movements, but their movements as an ape as well. Picture a screen with 2 figures on it, both making the same movements – One is an actor, the other is an ape. The actors are basically modern puppeteers, just looking for the right position. Once each actor had their beats down – be it their run or whatever – they would head down to set and we followed.
FILMING IN THE GENSYS LAB
Sitting down and waiting to see filming in person was probably the most powerful experience of the entire set visit. You’re probably 50 yards away from the set but you know exactly when a take is about to happen. There’s a loud scream, everything goes quiet, they get set up, sound is rolling and you hear “action!” Because it’s so quiet, even if you can’t see what’s happening, you can hear it. What people who see Rise of the Planet of the Apes in August won’t see, though, is what happens in the seconds before the take. You can hear Andy Serkis start hooting and hollering well before “Action” is called, just getting himself amped up and into character. It was pretty powerful stuff.
The GenSys lab set is pretty extraordinary. It looks very shiny and modern but has that cold feeling one would imagine with a science lab. That’s because, it kind of is a full science lab. Like is the case with the Primate Shelter, this set is all one huge place. Rooms are connected. You can walk from the entrance, through the lab to Will’s office, to the MRI room, around the corner and down the corridor to the ape cages. We finally get situated behind the camera looking down the hallway of cages. While the physical effects people get everything ready (this is the scene described above) I just looked around at the details, which are remarkable. There are GenSys logos everywhere, primate feed bags, pink and blue blankets, little lights everywhere, it’s very cool and most of it will never be seen. Meanwhile, the shot is still being set up. Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie (an Oscar winner for The Lord of the Rings) is peering through the lens as people reset all of the physical effects. Once the effects are “hot” it’s time to roll.
The shot in question will be about 45 seconds long and the take I saw didn’t have any actors in it, it was just the effects going off. Still, it was intense. To quote myself from 2700 words ago, “Sparks shoot from every angle, lights flicker on and off, doors slam open and closed and a tray of oranges crashes, spilling everywhere.”
Though we saw the actors getting limber earlier in the afternoon, it took about two hours to nail the “Roger Rabbit” shot. Finally, though, the actors began to get into the scenes. I got to see it on the monitor from the other side of the room and the thing that stands out is Serkis’s performance. He is filled with intensity and purpose on his face, a true sense of leadership, which would lead us to believe that this scene is toward the end of the film. Caesar is leading a revolution. The main point of this shot, though, was Caesar breaking out Cornelia, a female ape played by Devyn Dalton, a 4’6 short actress who also plays Caesar as a child. Once Caesar finds Cornelia, he breaks her out and they touch heads. We saw a few rehearsal takes but when the cameras are rolling, the intensity gets turned up. While Caesar smashes the cage lock with one hit in rehearsals, later he hits it twice, even three times in succession to show his anger and frustration. Once they got the shot, our day was done, but the set visit was far from over.
DAY 2 – ON LOCATION
For the second day of the set visit, we are on location at BCIT Aerospace Technology Campus on Russ Baker Way in Richmond, BC which doubles as both the exterior, and some of the interiors, of the GenSys lab. Today the Rise of the Planet of the Apes production has two scenes to shoot. The first will be outside of the building where Will and Caroline (Frieda Pinto) pull up in a car and tell Caesar what really happened to his mother. The second will be inside where a fellow scientist named Jacobs (David Oyelowo) confronts Will about housing Caesar. This means we finally get to see the principals in action. We start the day in a tent, again about 50 yards away from the production, which sees Franco, Pinto and Serkis sitting in a 1988 Jeep Wagoneer.
They do a few takes with Serkis in the back seat, a few with him not, and a few where he’s replaced with a creepy monkey doll. The dialogue consists of Will explaining his origins to Caesar :
Will: “This is where I work… this is where you were born…your mother was here… she’s not here anymore… that’s why I took you home to me.”
Caesar signs to him and Will nods.
Will: “She’s dead… she was given medicine… the same I gave to Charlie… and she passed it on to you… that’s why you’re so smart.”
Caesar signs and Will nods again.
Will: “Smart medicine.”
Pinto’s character then asks if they can just go home and that’s the scene.
From watching the two principals on the monitor for a few hours, we can discern a bunch of things about the production. One, director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t seem to be that hands on. It seems like he knows what he wants, communicates it, and then shoots until he gets what he wants. Second is that Franco’s performance, as Will, is very calculated. His line deliveries in this scene are very direct and matter of fact. It’ll be interesting to see if this is how he is throughout the movie or if that’s just how he has to communicate with Caesar.
In between set ups, we watch the stand-ins on the monitor while Franco sits in a chair overlooking the road, reading a book. They keep coming back and shooting a few different angles, one that concentrate’s on Pinto’s character, another that’s a reverse shot of Will looking into the rear view mirror and more, all the necessary coverage.
Again, today, we walk behind the camera in smaller groups. When it’s my turn I notice the angle I’m going to see, through the windshield, has a bit more of the background in it as opposed to the side views and close-ups from earlier. Now we see all the way through the back window of the car and that means extras. GenSys must be a very busy place because at least 20 extras cross behind in the background while the above scene is playing out. Cars drive by. It’s all very uniform and calculated. After each take, it’s funny to watch these people walk across the street, stop, then just turn around and do it again.
As for the shot itself, it’s the same dialogue we have been watching but now we are watching it with the crew. Not the director and DP, though. We are watching with the hair and makeup people who watch to make sure everything looks right. The shot goes off without a hitch and we’re heading inside.
AN HOUR LONG INTERVIEW WITH THE CREATIVE TEAM
During lunch, we sat down with screenwriter/producer Rick Jaffa and producer Dylan Clark who were later joined by Lesnie and Wyatt. The interview went on for well over and hour and here are a few of the most interesting quotes:
Screenwriter Rick Jaffa on fitting into the mythology of the series:
“We tried to be as loyal to the mythology of those movies so that fans would feel like great care was taken in trying to apply some of that to this story. At some point you just have to make your own movie. So decisions like that were made, and there’s lots of fun stuff for Apes fans specifically that we put in there.”
Producer Dylan Clark on competing in the crowded summer market place:
“I think we have the goods to be in the summer. But when you do go back and look at the other movies, the first Planet of the Apes is very dramatic. There isn’t a lot of action. In fact, I think the chasing around the villages is as big action as you get. The opening scene with the guns on horses is as big as you get. We’re bigger than that and I think we have strategic action from the beginning, a couple of pieces in the first act — we have two semi set pieces. And then we start to escalate from there.”
Jaffa on potential sequels:
“I hope that we’re building a platform for future films. We’re trying to plant a lot of the seeds for a lot of the things you are talking about in terms of the different apes and so forth.”
Clark on differentiating from the Tim Burton film:
“I think no guys in suits automatically says ‘different movie.’ James Franco isn’t the kind of guy you typically see in these movies. Frieda Pinto isn’t the type of female in these movies. Then you get Andy Serkis, I think they say: ‘they’re going for things.’”
Director Rupert Wyatt on where this film fits in with the other films:
“This is part of the mythology and it should be seen as that. It’s not a continuation of the other films; it’s an original story. It does satisfy the people who enjoy those films. The point of this film is to achieve that and to bring that fan base into this film exactly like ‘Batman [Begins].’”
Wyatt on going from a tiny budget film to a huge Hollywood blockbuster:
“My agent visited the other day and he was very excited because he looked it up and he said he thinks I’ve made the biggest leap in movie history because of the budget size. So yeah, it’s a huge challenge and it’s a huge privilege and it’s a huge responsibility. I think fundamentally, it’s the same thing. You’re working with a crew. I have an Oscar-winning DP, an extraordinary director of photography, I have an amazing crew, I have a terrific cast. I have terrifically experienced and very supportive producers. So, at the end of the day, it’s making a film, it’s telling a story. The scale of it, although daunting initially in the early days of pre-production, is actually not the biggest challenge. It’s the motion capture, it’s the technology, it’s all of the things that we’re doing that are quite groundbreaking, I think, for me as a director.”
INTERIOR – GENSYS LOBBY
After the interview, we were free to roam around the location for a bit before shooting started up again. I once again noticed an absurd amount of detail around the set: GenSys signage both inside and out, vans with the logo parked outside and a huge floor plan and even has some grammatical errors. It said “Reasearch Labs” instead of “Research Labs.”
Now it’s time for shooting and we’re standing way off camera in the lobby of GenSys. We don’t have a monitor so we can’t hear the dialogue but we see them set up a shot where it seems as if a steadicam is going to be in an elevator, Will walks in, the elevator door is stopped by Jacobs who shows Will something, the door closes and about a minute later, it opens again and they walk out. There are several dozen extras walking around on several different floors for this shot even though most of it takes place in an elevator. The café in the lobby is the “Nova Java Café,” named after Charlton Heston’s girlfriend from the original two films.
In between takes, Franco goes to a secluded part of the lobby where his chair is set up and he reads. At one point, someone comes over the touch up his hair but most everyone leaves him alone. The main difference between this scene and the other two we saw shot, though, is it just hammers home how difficult it is to shoot with the mo-cap Apes. A single take takes minutes to set up with the apes while here, if someone flubs a line, they just back up and do it again. There must have been 12 takes of this scene in the time it took to do 2 of another with an ape.
Then, after plenty of waiting, we spoke to James Franco. You can read that interview by clicking here.
Movies with “rise” in the title usually aren’t that good. Throughout the set visit this was one of the many topics of conversation held among journalists. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, etc. Still, if it all comes together correctly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a great chance to break the mold. The people behind the scenes seem to have crafted a heady dramatic sci-fi story complete with action, strong characters and very ambitious special effects. If it all comes together right, who knows? We might get a second prequel chapter in a story that already has five films and a remake.
As I promised at the top of the article, here’s the video blog.
For more Rise of the Planet of the Apes coverage: