We've seen tons of new footage from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we're even more excited for the upcoming primate rebellion. We also learned from the creative team just how far they went to create realistic apes.
Last Thursday evening, we headed out to Caltech for a special presentation by the creative team behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Director Rupert Wyatt offered a detailed preview of the movie, which included showing a bunch of clips focusing on the journey of the main ape Caesar, a fully CGI creation realized via a motion capture performance from Andy Serkis (who also played Gollum in Lord of the Rings) and the animation team at Weta Digital.
We were also given a crash course on ape behavior and how much of it the filmmakers tried to include. This movie isn't meant to paint chimpanzees and gorillas as terrifying monsters - if anything, it's precisely the opposite. Here's our spoiler-y description of the footage and our reaction to what we saw, followed by a recap of what Wyatt, Serkis, and Weta head Joe Letteri had to say.
Rupert Wyatt took the stage and offered a fairly extensive overview of the first part of the film, including lots of footage. He explained that the movie begins in the Congo with the capture of Caesar's mother to be a part of research trials by Will Rodman (James Franco) to find a cure for Alzheimer's. She is designated Chimp 9, but she earns the nickname Bright Eyes when genetic modification creates bright green specks in her eyes.
The first clip shows Rodman's big presentation to the board about the successful trials. Meanwhile, two chimp handlers are trying to get Bright Eyes out of her cage, but for some mysterious reason she is being highly aggressive. She breaks free and runs amok through the facility, ultimately crashing through the wall into the meeting. As we see in the next clip, Rodman's financial backer has canceled the experiment on the grounds that all the chimps must be contaminated somehow.
This means the chimps have to be put down, and the main handler (Reaper's Tyler Labine) reluctantly agrees. The third clip reveals the tragic truth - Bright Eyes wasn't aggressive because of the treatment, she was simply protecting her newborn child. The handler refused to kill the baby chimp, and Will Rodman ends up taking it home, where he and his Alzheimer's stricken father (John Lithgow) reveal that the young ape has inherited his mother's genetic modification and is himself a prodigy.
When next we see the chimp, he's fully grown, named Caesar, and played by Andy Serkis in performance capture. The clip skips ahead to when Will's father, now in the more serious stages of the disease, accidentally wrecks a car and draws the ire of his neighbor. Seeing a threat to his adopted family, Caesar rushes out of his attic room and, acting on instinct, savagely attacks the neighbor.
This lands him in an ape sanctuary run by Brian Cox. Rupert Wyatt explained that the sanctuary is home to a number of dangerous, mistreated apes, including ex-NASA chimps and a circus orangutan. Caesar here has to interact with other apes for the first time, and he quickly realizes that he has to use his brains, not his brawn, to get the upper hand against the bigger, stronger apes around him. As Wyatt explained, Caesar eventually takes on the alpha chimp and becomes the new alpha, and then it's just a matter of tricking the humans into freeing him, genetically modifying a bunch of other apes, and launching full-on war against humans.
All the footage I saw looked pretty amazing. We've commented before that the CGI looks absolutely incredible, and while I can't say I ever totally forgot I was looking at fake apes, that didn't really matter. The apes were well-integrated with the film's overall reality, and the interaction between them and the humans felt very natural. The clips didn't give me too much of a sense of the human characters, although the performances seemed uniformly strong from what little I saw, and Sock from Reaper got some surprisingly heartfelt lines, which is something I never thought I'd have to type.
However, I did get to see a lot of Caesar. I can definitely believe Rupert Wyatt's contention that this non-speaking primate is the film's real protagonist. A lot of his acting was amazing, thanks to a combination of Serkis's performance capture and Weta Digital's work. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the ape sanctuary sequence is the highlight of the movie. We saw a creepily awesome little clip of Caesar recoiling as he watches a deformed orangutan walk by — it felt like something I'd never seen before. Overall, I'm much more excited about the film now than I was going into this event.
Beyond showing all this footage, the big focus of the night was the film's complete use of CGI apes instead of real ones. Rupert Wyatt explained that that was their first big decision while working on the film, but it wasn't a difficult one - there's no way they ever could have made this film while trying to wrangle real apes. Besides, he pointed out that a big theme of this movie is humanity's mistreatment and abuse of captive apes - as far as he's concerned, apes are the heroes of this film, and humans are the villains - and he said he couldn't imagine a worse way of undercutting that message than by using real apes in the movie's production.
However, while there was little question that the apes would be CGI, it wasn't clear whether this was actually technically feasible. Weta Digital had created lots of fantastical creatures like Gollum in Lord of the Rings or the Na'vi in Avatar, but they had never been asked to create something as realistic as chimpanzees and gorillas - even the title character in King Kong was 25 feet tall and existed in a heightened reality.
Wyatt and Weta head Joe Letteri both said that the only way that they could realize the movie's apes was to study their real life counterparts closely. For Wyatt, that meant delving into their behavior. A primatologist told him that an adult chimp has the cognitive abilities of a four-year-old human, which to him really threw into high relief whether it's right to keep them in cages. He also pointed out that, unlike how they're depicted in the original Planet of the Apes series, gorillas aren't actually naturally aggressive, and he tried to address this discrepancy in the movie.
Letteri more focused on the physiological aspects of chimp movement. Weta artists closely studied the chimps at New Zealand's Wellington Zoo to understand how their movements differ from those of humans, and he hopes that they capture both the visceral and the subtle sides of the apes' behavior in the finished film. The only way to accomplish that, according to both Wyatt and Letteri, was to go get Andy Serkis to play the main chimp Caesar.
They then returned to the clip where Will Rodman takes Caesar to the animal sanctuary, only this time they showed how the scene was actually shot, with James Franco holding hands with a crouching Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit, who was creating all the emotions of fear and confusion that Weta would later translate to the finished Caesar. We could also see how Franco and Serkis are really interacting, and their hand gestures looked far more organic and real than if each was just trying to imagine holding the other's hand.
This, Letteri explained, was something of a breakthrough for performance capture, as this is the first time that the digital characters are similar enough in scale to their flesh and blood counterparts to allow for direct interaction, which wouldn't have been possible with the 25-foot Kong or the 10-foot Na'vi. (Gollum would have been the right size, but Lord of the Rings was made in the very infancy of modern performance capture.)
One interesting challenge was making sure Caesar's facial expressions matched those of Serkis, even if they were not necessarily directly matched. Chimps and humans share largely identical facial muscles, but Letteri explained that their culture is different from ours, and they express emotions in different ways. The trick then was to work out what emotion Serkis was projecting as Caesar, then figure out the corresponding facial expression from the chimps, which hopefully makes for a more physiologically realistic performance.
Because he's a champ, Andy Serkis skyped into the event from London, despite it being about four in the morning where he was. He echoed a lot of Wyatt and Letteri's sentiments about how they wanted to create apes with soul and that they worked hard to capture real ape movements. He also stressed that he wanted to play the character without arrogance - in other words, without projecting human conceptions of intelligence onto the chimp. He did say that he thought a lot about gifted children in crafting his performance and tried to convey Caesar's abilities as those of a young prodigy.
When asked why he decided to play an ape again after providing performance capture in King Kong, he said he never even really compared the two characters, pointing out one was a 25-foot, past its prime giant that was the last member of its species, while Caesar was a genetically modified super genius who has lots of interactions with humans before ultimately leading the revolution against them. Those are pretty much totally different characters, their ape connection notwithstanding.
He explained that he truly believes there's no difference between a "regular" performance and one involving motion capture, particularly now that he can actually interact with the live-action actors. That said, he admitted one big advantage of working in the medium is to be able to do long, unbroken takes and use that time to really find the character. Because live-action shoots need to constantly reset cameras, there's less room for that experimentation.
As for how he imagines himself as an ape when he's basically just wearing a black wetsuit with a camera attached to a helmet, Serkis said this actually is a lot easier to work with than if he was wearing heavy prosthetics. He remembered stories told by the original Planet of the Apes actors in which they said their rubber masks would harden and freeze in one position if they didn't constantly move their mouths, which obviously distracted from their performances. By comparison, he is able to work unencumbered and can create the performance without any competing stimuli.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens August 5 - for humans, at least. When asked if there are any plans to show the film to our primate cousins, Rupert Wyatt said they won't be showing it to any apes if they can help it. All things considered, that seems like a good idea.