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One day on the set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves was blocking a scene with a few of the actors, including Andy Serkis, who plays the movie’s simian hero Caesar. “It was an emotional scene, and all we were doing was talking about it,” says the director. “I turned to Andy, and he has tears streaming down his face. It took my breath away, because I realized he was already in the scene emotionally.”
Reeves admits the powerful, emotive performance that Serkis gave as the lead ape in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is what attracted him to the sequel and why he felt Dawn, which opens today and appears to be on track to gross $65 million or more during its debut weekend, “needed to be built around Andy.”
The Cloverfield director’s journey with Apes started in early fall of 2012 when he was contacted by producers Dylan Clark and Peter Chernin. “They had been working with various writers and Rupert Wyatt (who directed the 2011 Apes reboot of 1968’s Planet of the Apes), and they reached some kind of impasse where Rupert had decided it wasn’t going in the direction that he wanted,” Reeves says. “So they contacted me and asked, ‘Would you like to come in?’ I was such a fan of what they had done on the first film — I thought, ‘I don’t know.’
“They were in an interim space where they had moved away from what Rupert was doing,” he continues. “But the thing that I had fallen in love with in the first movie was Caesar’s story and the emotional identification with his character. [Also], at the end of the first film, you saw how the beginning of intelligence entered into the apes’ world and the very beginning of the virtual apocalypse. And that would take us to the original film — it becomes the planet of the apes. With the outline they presented to me, I felt they had taken too far a leap and the story was not entirely Caesar-centric. So I said, ‘I love the franchise and I think this will be a great movie. It’s just not the movie I would do.’ ”
But the meeting didn’t end there. Instead, Reeves was asked what he would do. His answer was an “Ape-world creation” film. “What if the beginning of this film was an Earth that seemed to have no humans on it, and what if it was the beginning of the apes’ tribal development? What if you could be in the apes’ world for a good 15 minutes, see what Caesar had created, and then realize all the humans are not gone — raising the question of can there be co-existence?
“This is the time where it could have become something other than the planet of the apes. It could have been the planet of the humans and the apes,” Reeves explains. “Caesar had a human father and is caught in the middle. He has the empathy for both sides to try to find a way to have a better world than the one in the 1968 film. So why didn’t it end up that way? What went wrong?”
To Reeves’ “shock,” he says, the producers agreed to let him do the film his way. “The catch was they still wanted to meet the release date,” he adds, noting that that was originally Memorial Day weekend. But once production began, he got some extra time when the studio decided to switch its opening day with that of X-Men Days of Futures Past.
Mark Bomback had already been hired to write the next draft, based on the original outline, and Reeves and Bomback got right to work. “We had a draft by Christmas. We entered prepro and were shooting by March.”
To make Dawn, the producers again turned to Peter Jackson‘s VFX house, Weta Digital, in Wellington, NZ. Just as on The Lord of the Rings and Wyatt’s Apes film, the Weta artists and Serkis made a powerful team. “The core to the character comes from the facial expressions, the emotional commitment of the actor,” Reeves said. “What you have there is a genius of an actor. With Weta, their genius is in their artistry. It’s not a simple thing to take a performance and turn it into an ape.”
“There was a fair amount of new software development,” explains Joe Letteri, senior VFX supervisor at Weta. “Fur was a big one. We had a pretty good way to groom the fur last time, but it didn’t have much interaction with rain, contact in fighting. We wrote new software to handle the fur dynamics. Because we had large crowds of apes, we also wrote a new renderer to deal with the global illumination [the way that light gets into a CG shot without coming directly from a light source] in a more robust way.” Weta had developed an earlier version of the software for Avatar.
This development and skillful artistry is evident in the scene where the apes go to the humans for the first time. Says Letteri: “We had about 1,200 apes in an outdoor environment. You really see the global illumination. The detail in the fur effects might be more visible in the close-ups, such as in the early part of the film where viewers see the apes’ community as they bond and talk about their issues.”
Reeves also wanted to push the filmmaking techniques. “I wanted to take the level of photo reality to a higher level of excellence. A lot of the first film was shot on a stage. But we shot about 85 percent of Dawn on location [around Vancouver and New Orleans],” he relates. “I wanted it to be in the jungle; I wanted real weather with real natural light.” (Serkis describes the shoot in an interview with THR here).
“We did a little bit on location [in Rise], but it was in a park, so it wasn’t that different from being on set,” Letteri adds. “But on this one, especially for the opening with the rain and mud, we had to re-engineer all the equipment with new microprocessors for the sensors, wireless systems for the cameras and ways to transport the systems and use them in the rain.
“To me, it’s the kind of thing that happened when cameras and film stock became light enough and fast enough for studios to start shooting a lot of location work — where you’re able to just go wherever the director wants to go to tell the story.”
Adding to the complexity, Reeves says that since the studio wanted a 3D version, they decided to shoot in stereo rather than do a conversion. “Weta suggested that if we wanted to shoot in the woods, the detail in the trees wouldn’t be as effective or realistic [using conversion] as native 3D. I sentenced us to the worst possible shoot — mocap cameras and 3D rigs [Arri Alexas with 3Ality Technica rigs]. This equipment was so heavy; we used crane arms unless we were on a dolly — and that was hard to do on a hillside in the rain and mud. But I felt it would take the level of reality and increase it.”
While Reeves agreed to do a 3D version of Dawn, he admitted he didn’t want the “traditional CG tentpole aesthetic,” but his view on 3D changed after watching Life of Pi. “I had wondered if you can do soft, shallow focus in 3D. [After viewing Pi], I thought, ‘Not only is it not going to be a problem, it’s going to be beautiful.’ “
For some shots, though, it was still unrealistic to attempt to shoot them as live action. For instance, Letteri reveals that the portion of the film’s climatic battle that takes place in a skyscraper is a sequence that is fully CG.
Asked about the third film in the franchise, Reeves admits: “I have ideas. … People have asked me ‘does it spoil the story because [the viewer] knows the ending?’ But there are other stories where you already know what happened, and the question is how did it get there? Those stories are always more psychological — about story and character.”
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