Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first live-action film to star and be told from the point of view of a sentient animal with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences will experience a real emotional bond. Along with the technology itself, that extraordinary achievement is largely made possible thanks to the world’s foremost performance capture actor, Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong). Infusing Caesar the ape with nuance, soul, wisdom and heart, Serkis has helped to bring a contemporary view of the Planet of the Apes mythology to current movie-going audiences.
While is San Diego for Comic-Con, Andy Serkis and director Rupert Wyatt did a press conference to talk about how the performance is manifested in the film, bringing such a character to life with the intention of the actor behind it, the challenges of making a film of this level of ambition, the progression of motion capture over the years, and why there is such a fascination with apes, in general. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
ANDY SERKIS: Well, obviously Rupert’s seen quite a lot of the movie. I’ve been going around doing various publicity, demonstrating some of the clips, which I’m really blown away by because I think it really is an extraordinary piece of collaborative team work. It is amazing. When you’re watching yourself, as an actor who has played with CG in a role, obviously you are looking to see how your performance has finally manifested itself on screen, and if it contains all the original intention that was put there. And, everything I’ve seen so far has delighted me. I know Rupert had been really, really devoted to trying to push the emotional core of all of the performances, right through the post-production phase.
Do you prefer to see your work by yourself or with a group, for the first time?
SERKIS: In terms of watching it, for the first time that I see it, I’m always excited to see it, whether it’s a private screening or not. I’d love to see it. I’ll probably see it in the next few days, or something.
Rupert, how difficult was it to adapt the prequel to the classics?
RUPERT WYATT: It’s always a challenge. It’s a challenge to make any film, certainly, and it’s a challenge to make a film of this ambition. It’s never, from my point of view, as a director coming onto the film, my intention to be a slave to the franchise, as it were. The writers presented us with a script that is very, very respectful and very, very subtly acknowledging the mythology, but it’s very much an origin story, in the real sense of the word, ironically so, bearing in mind that we’re talking about an origin of the species here. So that, in itself, sets it apart from other films in the franchise, and it’s a real first, in that respect. It’s set in the modern day, and it doesn’t deal with humanoid apes. It deals with apes that are of our world. We set out to tell that, first and foremost. The very fact we’re laying the groundwork for The Planet of the Apes, in a way is, is just the icing on the cake, as it were.
How many apes do you have in the film?
WYATT: We’ve got a lot of characters in our film that are apes. We’ve got a gorilla – his name is Buck – and we have an orangutan named Maurice, who’s from the circus. These are really fully formed, very resonant main characters of the movie, of a real scale, which is pretty unusual because they’re animals. But, at the same time, the way we approached it and the way Andy and I talked about it, and the other actors, we thought, “What if 3,000 years from now there is a civilization where the alphas of that world are apes? They will look back on these characters and they will think of them as the heroes of the day. They will build statues to Buck.” That was the way we wanted to tell this story. It’s very much a Bible story, or a story like any great myth with real broad resonance.
Andy, as an expert in motion capture now, what has changed over the years, and what’s it like to go back there again with The Hobbit?
SERKIS: In terms of the performance capture and how that’s developed since The Lord of the Rings and my joining the performance capture world, the perception has changed hugely. On The Lord of the Rings, my performance was shot on 35 mm, so I acted with all the other actors. We always shot a blank slate, and I had to go and re-shoot all the performance capture, or we could expand the character in the performance capture volume, only in a very tiny volume. There were not many cameras and the markers didn’t quite work in real-time. They kept breaking down. So it was in its very, very early days. When we started to work on King Kong, it was the first use, really, of facial capture because, up until that point, with Gollum, all my facial expressions had been key-framed and matched to 35 mm footage, which was used as the definitive reference, but nevertheless, it was key-framed to match. With King Kong, it was really, in earnest, the first time I had done facial capture, where I was wearing 132 markers on my face, that were driving all the facial muscles of Kong. Then, in the years after that, around 2005, when Avatar started to be testing, the whole change started with using multiple actors. You could suddenly put multiple actors, and not just one actor, in a performance capture suit, in the volume. You could suddenly group them together and, with head-mounted cameras, you could film. You didn’t need markers on faces. You could use head-mounted cameras to capture facial expressions. And then, the whole shift really happened around Avatar, where the entire principal production is taking place in a volume about the size of a room. That’s how Avatar was shot and, in fact, how Tintin was shot. On Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it was the first time that performance capture has existed outside of a volume, on live-action sets. So, we were shooting in a live-action environment and we didn’t have to go back and repeat anything. We did some pick-ups, but not many. Every single scene, we were shooting with live-action actors and with the other actors playing with performance capture. We’re in the real locations with physical sets that were shot on film. It’s become much more of a tool. The important thing to remember about performance capture is that people aren’t so much wanting to celebrate the technology anymore. That’s passe, you know? It’s over. It’s now an industry tool. It’s something that we need to get over, really. It’s basically another way of recording an actor’s performance, and that’s all it is. It needs no more to be hailed. Although it’s a great technology, it’s actually returning us to the ability to do something really simple, which is to record an actor’s performance.
As a character, how does Caesar evolve?
WYATT: Well, his surrogate father is a scientist. He’s a vivisectionist. He’s a man who’s using live apes as part of his research to find a certain cure. Without giving too much away, Caesar is the product of that, in many ways, so he’s unlike other chimpanzees, in terms of the fact that, from a practical and a physical point of view, he grows up in a human environment. Now, that’s obviously not unique. There are other chimpanzees who have done that. The documentary that’s out now – Project Nim – is a good example of that. But, in its own way, he’s a very interesting experiment, as to how the chimpanzee develops human traits and human characteristics, if he’s surrounded by humans as he grows up, and at what stage he becomes more human than ape. Caesar has an intelligence. He’s inherited the genes of the mother and he has an intelligence far evolved from other apes, so he’s always learning. He’s always evolving, but fundamentally he starts to believe in himself, as a human being. That’s how he perceives himself, even though he’s in the body of an ape, and that’s what ultimately is his undoing because that’s what sets him apart from his other ape brethren. And then, obviously, for humans, he’s a freak. So, he’s neither here nor there. That’s where the revolution is born. It’s the idea of this Frankenstein-esque creature ending up in a place where he’s shunned by our society and he’s also shunned by his own kind. Therefore, certain decisions that he has to make are what sets him on the path to leading this Che Guevara-like revolution.
Why do you think Planet of the Apes continues to endure and have an appeal for people?
SERKIS: Well, we go through a cycle of being interested in our closest brethren, which are 97% the same as us. As the scientific discovery moves on and we learn more about behavior and we think we understand where they’re coming from, we re-engage. I suppose we gauge ourselves against them. What I remember, and the joy of that first movie, was how little dialogue there is in it. The human beings said very little, and it was a very quiet film. There’s a resonance with our film because a lot of the movie is actually communicated through body language and vocalization, and not a lot is [through dialogue], particularly in the second act. It’s like a universal language, and so I think it just resonates worldwide. I think we live in a time of conflict and of global uncertainty, and if anyone were to take over, it would probably be apes. Whatever species would take over, they would be faced with the same problems. They would form the same hierarchies. The selfish gene would be present, in whatever species did take over. I think because they are the closest mirror to us, we continue to look to them, really, as a litmus paper.