This past summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes brought the trilogy begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) to an epic conclusion. While it’s unclear where the venerable Apes franchise will go from here, it is clear the movies have set a new standard for motion capture (or “mo-cap”) performance.
Over the three films’ course, Andy Serkis brought Caesar, the evolved chimpanzee who leads the apes, to thoroughly convincing life. Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003) had established him as the master of mo-cap acting. Playing Caesar, Serkis could show even more, taking performance capture to the next level.
As Serkis has stressed in several recent interviews, mo-cap’s about much more than the admittedly impressive technology. “Acting is acting at the end of the day,” he told Den of Geek!, “but playing these kinds of characters, there’s an element of being fearless… You can’t be vain and do this. You’re in a tight-fitting Lycra suit, and [tracking] dots and all the rest of it – you can’t be worried about what you look like. You get your hands dirty playing these roles… That’s what’s liberating and exposing. The joy and the combination of those things [are] what makes it thrilling!”
The impressive prosthetic makeups John Chambers designed for Planet of the Apes in 1968, and for which he received a special honorary Academy Award, took an average of four hours to apply. Serkis and his fellow ape-playing actors don’t spend hours in makeup chairs, but they’re wearing makeup all the same – “digital makeup,” as Serkis told the New York Times, supplied by the visual effects artists of Weta Digital. “The visual effects render the character, just like putting on makeup, except here it happens after the fact.”
These two comparison videos, which are included in the movie’s Blu-ray, demonstrate how Weta’s mo-cap magic, so far from concealing cast members’ performances, allow them to truly shine.
In the first clip, Caesar confronts Winter (played by Aleks Paunovic), an albino gorilla who has sided with Colonel McCullough and his troops against the apes. (The humans belittle the apes who join them by calling them “Donkeys,” even tattooing the slur on the apes’ backs.)
Winter’s and Caesar’s fur and faces are computer-generated, but Paunovic and Serkis generate their purposeful movements and palpable emotions – Winter’s terror, Caesar’s wrath.
In the second clip, from the movie’s climactic moments, Caesar discovers McCullough (Woody Harrelson) has been infected with the “Simian Flu” the Colonel so feared.
The chimpanzee features that Weta digital artists added to Serkis’ face in no way mask his shifting, conflicted emotions as Caesar realizes he can either indulge his desire for revenge or prove himself better than his enemy.
Serkis finds the finished scene especially compelling. As he told Bleeding Cool at San Diego Comic-Con, it is “the point where Caesar begins to empathize with the Colonel and yet is terribly conflicted. It really asks the audience the question of ‘What would YOU do if you were in that situation?’ That’s what great drama is all about, isn’t it? Great drama is about, hopefully, taking an audience into a place where they’re feeling it viscerally and emotionally.”
Capturing Fans at Comic-Con
Last month at New York Comic-Con, Twentieth Century Fox and Weta marketed War‘s digital and home video debuts in a creative way: giving fans the chance to experience mo-cap for themselves.
Con-goers put on partial mo-cap suits, sat on a horse simulator, and were digitally mapped and inserted into a chase scene from the film. Other lucky fans, chosen at random, learned how to make basic ape-like movements using mo-cap arm extensions from two of the film’s stars: Terry Notary, who played former alpha chimp Rocket, and Karin Konoval, who played the gentle and faithful orangutan, Maurice.
Like earlier entries in the franchise, the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy pushed technical and technological boundaries in the service of provocative storytelling and unforgettable characters. If the series enlists talented actors like Serkis and uses innovative methods like mo-cap, its future as a medium for powerful stories will be secure.
Which Planet of the Apes movie, from any era, is your favorite, and why? Don’t “take your stinking paws” off your keyboard until you’ve told us in the comments below!