War for the Planet of the Apes tells its story very well, but all of that might be for nothing if the effects that created the apes weren’t perfect. But it’s not just the ape fur and faces that are missing from reality. Most of the locations don’t really exist. At least, not in the way they look on screen.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a odyssey in many ways. It begins in the redwood forests that we saw in the last film and then travels up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, where snow and ice take over. That added an extra level of difficulty for the effects team. “We shoot in the conditions that we’re actually shooting in, right? So if it’s raining, it was raining. If it’s snowing, it was probably snowing. But that doesn’t mean that the apes have snow on them,” director Matt Reeves told us. “We’re on this set, and the set has all of those things, and the actors went through that experience, so it affects their performance. But then Weta has to figure out how to show us the way that looks, so when it’s put into that environment where it really is happening, that it also really looks like it’s happening on the apes.”
But even so, there are things that don’t come from what happens on location. An important moment in the movie required there to be a white-out blizzard so that the characters couldn’t see. But the crew wasn’t lucky enough to get a blizzard. “It was a story point. It had to be snowing at that moment,” said Weta visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon, “And we’d have to go add that later.”
Two major locations aren’t real; they were never built to be anything like what ends up on screen. Prominent in the trailers has been the camp where Woody Harrelson’s Colonel and his men are located. “Somebody asked me, ‘Wow! Can you talk about that great location that you filmed where the camp was?’ And I was like, ‘Well, that is one of the greatest compliments to weather, because that doesn’t exist,’” said Reeves.
In the finished film, the camp has levels. It’s built into rock and mountains. And yet only the pens at the bottom of the camp actually exist. “I remember the people from Fox going, ‘This is the biggest set that we have built on a Fox movie during this era,’ Like, it’s just a huge, huge set,” said Reeves. “And yet it was only a tiny fraction of what you see in the movie.”
“Oh my God, it was amazing. And then you’d look through the frame and a whole two-thirds of the shot is off in the green screen, or just not there,” said Lemmon. “And so it’s like, we’ve got this giant set plus this huge environment that we were then going to have to create on top of that.”
Also seen in the trailers is an ape base in a cave, where there’s a confrontation between Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Colonel through a waterfall that conceals it. “Certain parts of that set were built, but other, massive parts weren’t. And there was one scene in particular that the environment just doesn’t exist except as it was designed and then built by Weta.” said Reeves.
In this case it wasn’t just that they couldn’t find a real place to match what they needed. It was simply that it wasn’t worth the money. “James Chinlund designed this beautiful set, but if we built it, it would have been—I can’t even tell you how many millions of dollars,” said Reeves. “And given how much happened in it, it wouldn’t have been worth spending that much money there.” So there was a foam section built for reference for the actors, while Reeves looked at the virtual set on a virtual camera.
“For me, personally, that, as a director, is one of the hardest things that I had to do on these movies,” said Reeves, adding he likes to be able to position actors and see the shot in the space, lining it up just so. “But the environments that these guys built are astonishing because, I defy you to tell the difference between the parts of the set that were real and the parts of the set that were totally created.” It had a few real bits, some foam bits, and a lot of virtual reality.
War for the Planet of the Apes creates a whole world that is nigh impossible to tell apart from our own—save for the, you know, talking apes. The apes look real and their stories are compelling and moving. The seams don’t show at all. And Reeves knows why. “It’s one of those things that works really well in these films—there’s so much grounded in reality. For the physical locations, but also the performances. That’s what really gives it its heart.”