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The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with its photoreal visual effects, is sure to be a major factor in this year’s visual effects Oscar race. The bigger awards question surrounding the film, which 20th Century Fox will release Aug. 5, is whether Andy Serkis, the actor who portrays the ape Caesar, will be considered a contender for an acting nomination.
That honor eluded him ten years ago when he played the tragic creature Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. That role, however, did launch an ongoing Hollywood debate about how much an actor contributes to CG characters who are created through performance capture.
WETA Digital, the Wellington, N.Z.-based VFX company behind both Rings and Apes, has always maintained that the actor drives the performance of its CG creations. “Performance capture (is) really (designed) to give you the actors’ moment–the spontaneity, the thought, the insight that really comes from an actor who really truly understands his role,” says WETA’s four-time Oscar winning VFX supervisor Joe Letteri.
Over the years, understanding of the technique has grown and many filmmakers have spoken out on that position, including James Cameron, who used performance capture and worked with WETA to realize Avatar.
To bolster its position, on Thursday, WETA held a preview and discussion about Apes at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena at which director Rupert Wyatt treated the audience to some exclusive clips of his upcoming film. He and Letteri also discussed the innovative visual effects. And Serkis — who was in the U.K. but participated in the discussion via Skype — offered the actor’s perspective.
Wyatt — who calls Serkis the “Charlie Chaplin of our time” — explained that his film is essentially a reboot, an original story, that takes place before the events depicted in 1968’s The Planet of the Apes. “We are working our way toward the original film … but our film is set in 2011,” he said.
The first clip he introduced showed Caesar’s’ agitated mother, who, echoing the original film, is referred to as “bright eyes.” She has been pulled from the jungle to be used in a research project looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s.
In the second clip, it is revealed that her aggression was an effort to protect her baby, which scientist Will Rodman, played by James Franco, takes home to nurture. The audience then saw a growing Caesar, who gets aggressive to protect Will’s father, portrayed by John Lithgow, who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s himself.
Wyatt next introduced a clip where Caesar is separated from his human family and placed in an oppressive facility with other apes.
Another sequence showed how Caesar continues to develop in his new environment. “He uses his intelligence and his wits to rise through the ranks and become the alpha,” Wyatt explained. “He turns the tables not only on them, but also on us.”
In those scenes, Serkis’ performance shows a range of emotions — joy, love, vulnerability, aggression and terror. Explained Serkis, “This is an ape who has been brought up with human beings. He believes he is loved; he is an innocent. Then he has a moment of self-awareness when he realizes he is a freak and then is thrown into a hard-core prison and then leads a revolution.”
There were no real apes used in making Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The director relied completely on the skills of WETA — whose work has earned Oscars for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and Avatar — to create the photoreal cast that “has a soul when you look into their eyes.”
To get that look, the filmmakers did extensive research, which included time spent at the Wellington Zoo. Letteri showed video of apes, including one that Wyatt said was “Andy’s inspiration for Caesar.”
“There’s the look, the physicality — bones, muscle, tissue, fur,” Letteri said. “In a way, that is just the starting point, what we are really after is the performance.”
For Apes, the performance capture method used was an extension of WETA’s techniques that were employed in Avatar. For Cameron’s film — where the avatars were supposed to be 10 ft. tall — the actors worked on a motion capture stage, the area where the performance capture takes place, which is covered by motion capture cameras.
Letteri explained that since the apes were human in size, “it made sense to put them in the scene.” So Serkis performed on the regular live-action sets with the other actors, including Franco, Lithgow and Freida Pinto.
“It’s no different than live action acting,” Serkis added. “And I never considered (performance capture) anything else but live action acting. You are reacting and acting with other people.”
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