Simian vs. Sapiens: Andy Serkis returns as rebel leader Caesar in Matt Reeves' 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Although it's only been three of our terrestrial years since the Planet of the Apes franchise was reborn, onscreen a decade has elapsed between the events depicted in the 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which roars into theatres on July 11. And nowhere is that passage of time more evident than in the face of the series' central hero, rebel ape Caesar. A youthful firebrand when we last saw him, he's since evolved into a mature, battle-tested leader all too aware of his many responsibilities as the pillar of his community, to say nothing of his duties as a husband and father. His eyes still burn with determination, but his features and posture reflect the emotional weight he's had to carry on his shoulders for the past ten years.
Moviegoers are obviously accustomed to seeing the various tempests of time mark the faces and forms of human characters, to say nothing of the actors who portray them. What makes Caesar's aging process unique is that he's a character that's brought to life out of a union of man and machine. Where the original Apes series (along with Tim Burton's ill-advised 2001 reboot) used practical makeup and costume effects to transform mankind into apekind, this new iteration of the franchise has embraced the "motion capture" (or, as some prefer, "performance capture") process by which a live actor—in this case, Andy Serkis, reprising the role he originated in Rise—performs the character on set and then their work is interpreted and enhanced by a digital animation team—in this case, one based out of the renowned effects house WETA Digital, which also worked on the previous installment—sitting in front of their desktops.
It's a still-young technology that has birthed a number of memorable movie characters in recent years, many of them played by Serkis himself, who helped popularize performance capture with his pioneering turn as Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. And yet, perhaps because of the digital strand that's a part of their DNA, it remains somewhat difficult to imagine how a mo-cap creation could capture something as fundamentally human as…well, aging. Making audiences recognize Caesar's physical and mental evolution was precisely what excited Serkis about the notion of taking a ten-year time jump. "As with any great leader, you see the years of worry and stress and responsibility bearing on his face," says the actor, on the phone from England, where he's alternately preparing to make his directorial debut with a Warner Bros.-backed adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, as well as playing a highly secret role in J.J. Abrams's highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII. "We left him at the end of Rise as a young revolutionary who had galvanized this group of apes, brought them all together and led them to freedom. We pick up with him in Dawn in charge of a community of about 2,000 apes, as well as the father to a teenage son and a newborn. So the big question that we're asked to reflect on is: How has Caesar achieved that?"
The evidence of Caesar's maturation is communicated through the film's liberal use of close-ups, a visual approach that incoming director Matt Reeves (who stepped into the director's chair after Rise helmer Rupert Wyatt departed the sequel) saw as essential to the film's success. "When I saw Rise, I was really taken with how emotional it was," the 48-year-old director says, adding that he's been a lifelong fan of anything Apes-related, from the previous 1968-1973 film cycle and the ’70s TV series to the assorted toys and tchotchkes they inspired. "I had never had a level of emotional identification with a [mo-cap] character that I had with Caesar and when I got involved with Dawn, I wanted to carry that emotionality forward. Obviously, I also wanted to create a grand, epic vision of an ape world, but the key was never to lose the emotion, which is seen in the landscape of the face. For me, it was a modulation between grandeur and intimacy."
Reeves had previously made artful use of the close-up in his 2010 horror film Let Me In, one of the rare American remakes of a foreign-language feature (in that case, the 2008 Swedish vampire tale Let the Right One In) that equals and, in some ways, surpasses the original. In order to bring that style to Dawn, though, he first had to be convinced that he could mine as much emotion from the face of a performance-capture actor as he could a human performer like, say, his Let Me In star Chloë Grace Moretz.
"Never having worked with mo-cap before, one of my big fears was being able to work closely with actors and create an environment where we can see into their characters' inner lives," Reeves remembers. "So the first thing I did was ask to see every shot of Andy performing Caesar on set and then view the same shots from the finished film so I could see what he was doing and how it was translated. The amazing thing was that, not only were you able to see how WETA was able to capture so much of what Andy did, but how much of the performance really was Andy. And what really blew me away was that Andy was even better than Caesar. In fact, now I can't look at Caesar without seeing Andy. So I realized that the mystery was that there was no mystery—Andy's just a great actor. That clarified for me that the key to making this movie was the same to making any movie I've ever done: working with the actors to create that specific story."
While Reeves had to discover that particular aspect of the mo-cap process for himself, his leading man has long been a vocal proponent for the importance of emphasizing the "performance" part of performance capture. "There's a school of director who sees it as a form of reference and something that can be improved upon later," Serkis explains. "And then there's the school of director like Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Rupert Wyatt and Matt, who understand that it's not about improving the performance later on. What you get on the day is the performance; ultimately, you're just using another bunch of cameras to record an actor's performance. That's the understanding that I think all great directors have. And Matt was very much about the emotionality of the performances; for him, the close-ups were a very important part of conveying the thoughts, feelings and worries that the apes are going through."
The opening scenes of Dawn spend so much time catching up with Caesar and the ape village he's built deep within the forests outside of San Francisco, the audience may start to wonder if mankind has become an extinct species following the virus that was unleashed upon the globe at the end of Rise. Sure enough, though, pockets of human survivors are soon revealed to remain and one eventually comes into contact with Caesar's tribe. It goes without saying that conflict inevitably follows. While the weary ape leader would prefer to avoid another war—an opinion shared by sympathetic family man Malcolm (Jason Clarke) in the human camp (whose teenage son is played by Let Me In's other lead, Kodi Smit-McPhee)—a rabble-rouser named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) seems dead-set on making a last stand against the damned, dirty apes.
"The question of violence lives under every moment of the movie," Reeves explains. "In Rise, Caesar had nothing to lose and now he has a lot to lose. Given those stakes, he's very much on edge, as are the human characters. Like in a classic western, things could turn really bad, really fast.
"But this is also a creation story," he continues. "It explores the world the apes have created in the woods and how the humans have to deal with that now that [mankind] is in a very different position than where they were in Rise. That's why I didn't want to jump ahead too far in the timeline; we all know what the ending of the story is, which is Planet of the Apes. And when you know the end of the story, the story ceases to be about what happens and more about how and why it happens. In other words, it becomes all about character. I think this is the next step in a great, mythic journey showing who Caesar is and the world he creates and how it eventually becomes the world we know from the original film."
To add texture and realism to his post-human, pre-ape world, Reeves made a concentrated effort to shoot the majority of Dawn in natural locations rather than on one of the green-screened filled soundstages typically associated with performance-capture technology. The ape village, for example, was a practical set constructed in the Vancouver wilderness by production designer James Chinlund, whose previous credits include The Avengers and The Fountain. "It was a crazy engineering job," Reeves says, laughing. "We used real material and built in real spaces. There's a central courtyard where the apes gather that was built out of real logs. I wanted to take mo-cap to places where mo-cap had really not been taken before, which was out there in the woods with the rain and the mud. It was one of the things I talked about with WETA, the idea of shooting this the way you would shoot an intimate human drama, with natural light and shadow. And WETA completely agreed; they said that their models would hold up to that level of reality and, in fact, putting them in natural environments would make them seem more real."
For his part, Serkis says both he and the rest of the ape cast appreciated being out in the wild, even with all the difficulties location shooting brings. "It just added tons to the final aesthetic of the film, as well as the relationship between the human and ape characters. It was challenging—we were working in the freezing forests of Vancouver and then the 100% humidity of New Orleans [which stood in for the Bay Area]—but that's what we're there for really."
Before heading out on location, Serkis and the rest of the mo-cap ensemble (including Judy Greer as Caesar's wife and Nick Thurston as their eldest son) went through "ape camp," under the guidance of performance coach and stunt coordinator Terry Notary. "Terry's the unsung hero of the whole process, because he physically teaches the actors how to move," Serkis says. "The ape camps were big on improvisation; we explored the hierarchy of the group and how they communicated, including vocalizations. We had a script with dialogue for our characters, but it didn't depict how we were going to articulate those thoughts. In the movie, it's through a combination of vocalizations and sign language, a real prototype form of human language they're just learning to speak. Again, we're not far enough down the timeline that they're reciting poetry and articulating freely—we wanted to show how speech and communication works."
Serkis and Reeves both hope to continue depicting Caesar's evolution, as well as the evolution of his great ape society, in the next Apes installment, which the director is already confirmed to helm. "The great thing about this reimagining of the franchise is that it's centered around the emotional life of the apes," Reeves observes. "That's something the first set of movies couldn't do as effectively, even though that was my fascination about them when I was a kid. For me, the secret of Rise is that even though it started out with James Franco, the reveal of the movie is that it's actually Caesar's story. And here, it's not even a reveal—this is Caesar's movie. Our human cast is incredibly important, but you get a real ape-centered universe right out of the gate. Seeing the way future generations deal with the conflict between humans and apes and how that will lead to the world that's in the original film is the richness of exploring the whole franchise right now. We obviously know that one day the Icarus [the spaceship that transported Charlton Heston to the ape-run future in 1968 and was glimpsed heading off to explore the final frontier in Rise] is coming back, but it's a long way before you get there." And by then, Caesar will almost certainly be getting some much-deserved rest, leaving that particular problem for his descendents to deal with.