Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes: interview with Rupert Wyatt and Dan Lemmon

With Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes out now, we enjoyed a round-table discussion with director Rupert Wyatt and effects supervisor Dan Lemmon...

Already a surprise hit in the States, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes has been notching up positive reviews from all quarters, dispelling much of the trepidation that greeted the initial plans to reboot the iconic sci-fi series.

With the ape revolution occurring now on British shores, we (and a bunch of the country’s best bloggers) had the chance to chat with director Rupert Wyatt and visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon.

Besides going into great detail about the performance capture technology that turned Andy Serkis into lead ape Caesar, they weighed in on the 3D debate, told us their thoughts for the future of the series, and even threw a couple of compliments in the direction of the much-maligned 2001 Planet Of The Apes flick, directed by Tim Burton.

Obviously, we know the ultimate end of this story – a planet full of apes – but where would we go after this film? Because the ending here is quite closed.

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Rupert Wyatt: There’s so much we could do. I’m speculating when I tell you all this, because I don’t know yet. The ideas that I’ve had… all sorts for this. Full Metal Jacket with apes. I think you could start this story again eight years from where we left off, and that’s the next generation of apes perhaps going into a conflict with humans, and showing real fear, the same way that young soldiers are going into battle in this day and age.

Telling their story. And how apes are taking over cities, and being moved into human environments, and having to interact and deal with things that are part of our culture, and understand and evolve through them. And humans maybe existing underground because that’s the way that they can avoid the virus, and coming up aboveground in order to fight wearing gas masks, which is what dehumanises them. I’ve thought about it!

This film relies a lot on performance capture. There’s still quite a lot of ambiguity out there about how much of what we see on screen is the actor, and how much is animation. We know you’ve preserved the essence of what Andy Serkis was doing, but how much of that is a collaboration with animators and other technical people?

Dan Lemmon: In terms of the close-ups, the real acting performance shots, that’s Andy Serkis playing Caesar. There’s a little bit of confusion sometimes, that there’s this notion of computer-generated images, as if you push a button and the computer just makes you a picture. It’s a bit like talking about hammer-generated architecture. You have to understand that it’s a tool that’s used by craftsmen to create images.

There’s nothing automatic about it, but the important thing to understand is that Andy Serkis is the actor who is giving the performance, and who’s making the decisions for what Caesar’s doing, making the facial shapes. I mean, he’s got an incredibly expressive face as well. We’re able to take a great performance from him and, if we’re doing our job correctly, we’re essentially creating digital makeup that’s being applied after the fact.

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RW: The thing that we were always facing the challenge of is Andy does not look like a chimpanzee. He does not have a heavy brow like a chimp, so if you’ve got Andy emoting in such a way that that brow is displaying fear, and then suddenly you put that into your avatar, your Caesar model, and suddenly that brow, because it’s heavier, it displays something else entirely different – aggression, for example. That’s not truthful to the performance. So of course, you can then manipulate it. In our case, we made the brow not so protruding in Caesar, in order to remain faithful to Andy’s performance.

That’s part of the process that Dan and I would always work on – and all of the team on both sides, both our editorial team in LA and Weta down in New Zealand – every day we would collaborate by way of cineSync to look at every single shot, and every single stage of every shot, and always be referencing back to what we shot on the day.

DL: I think that’s the key. Because there’s a vast anatomical difference between Caesar and Andy, it requires the skill of craftsmen and animators to map that performance from one to the other, but we were always looking back to Andy as the gold standard, the reference for what, emotionally, should be coming through. But also, physically, we’d look for signature wrinkles and key shapes in the silhouettes of his eyes, and things that would come in the nose and the mouth, even though the nose and the mouth were completely different on the chimpanzee. We were still using those beats and those changes to drive the digital character.

Is there an emotion that is more difficult than the others to portray?

DL: Because of the muscle structure of the apes, some of the tight-lipped things, the disdain shapes. We had to figure out what that would look like on a chimpanzee, to get that to carry across. And Rupert touched on the eyebrows as well. In the original concept art, we have quite a heavier brow, but when we got into doing some of the animation, we just found that we weren’t able to match what Andy was doing, and get the same kind of emotion with this larger brow.

So we looked at Andy, and we looked at a lot of reference of other chimpanzees that had a slightly less prominent brow, and made some small modifications that allowed us to get a bigger range of performance out of that.

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Could you have imagined another actor doing it? Would things have fallen apart if he wasn’t available?

RW: You’d have to ask the studio that question! Put it this way, it would be a very different film if it wasn’t him. He had the wherewithal to realise that he’s played King Kong, to which you could say, “You’ve played King Kong, and then Caesar?”, but it’s a bit like comparing Mary Poppins to Frankenstein. You’re looking at two very different characters. You’ve got the last of a dying breed, a loner, somebody who’s suppressed in a similar way to Caesar, but Caesar’s much more proactive. It’s a totally different story.

It’s a Che Guevara story. And I think he’s now getting the response that is so well deserved, because he’s a phenomenal actor, and whether he be playing his human roles, or avatar characters that are unlike him physically, he has the ability to cut through everything and shine on screen.

DL: I think it’s important to look at some of the other actors who played apes in the film. We had theatre actors, we had stunt performers, trained gymnasts that were all playing different apes. And there’s nothing about the performance capture technology that means you have to be a specialist, so to speak. It’s all about casting the right actor for the right role.

And you see that in Avatar as well, with Sigourney Weaver and other actors who came from a traditional film background, there’s no reason not to put them in a performance capture environment.

Could you run us through the process of capturing Serkis’ performance and replacing him with an ape in a little more detail?

RW: Traditionally, you shoot the performance, you shoot Andy playing Caesar, and James Franco playing the human character that he’s interacting with, and say Caesar shuts the door on James. And once you’ve got that shot, you then take Andy out of the shot, and you do what’s called a clean plate, which is basically James acting to thin air. And a special effects guy with a filament wire will close the door at exactly the right time, coupled with, if the camera’s moving, you have to then time a move.

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And we didn’t have motion control, so we had to do it through manual control to match it. Now that’s really time consuming, and it’s a frigging headache. But what it allows from a technical point of view, what it allows Weta to do, because Caesar is quite a few inches shorter than Andy, they don’t have to paint Andy out of the shot, they can just use the clean plate, and put the digital Caesar into the shot. It’s the same performance, because they’ve just captured the performance in the previous take.

The downside of it, basically, is that you lose something in the human performance. If James is acting to thin air, his eyelines may be a little bit off, or his energy’s a bit down. He’s not got something to bounce off. So it was never quite as good. Sometimes it was okay, if it’s a simple shot, but more often than not, his energy would drop. So what I was asking of Dan and Weta was could we just use the performance pass, and that involves them digitally painting out Andy, and then putting Caesar in. And I think I’m right in saying that the technology is becoming more evolved to allow you do that…

DL: Yeah, it’s certainly easier now than it was during Lord Of The Rings, for example, but we had to take it on a shot-by-shot basis as well. One of the challenging ones was where we had the toddler Caesar, the three-foot high version, that was interacting with James Franco, and it was Andy Serkis who was playing the three-foot high Caesar, so he was physically a whole lot bigger. There’s this scene where they’re up in the attic and Caroline – Freida Pinto’s character – is there for the first time, and they’re wrestling on the bed.

And that was a bit of a negotiation on the day on the set, trying to figure out how we could get that level of interaction, but in a way that finishing the shot would be possible. Because any time you have the performance capture actor’s body crossing over somebody’s face, we have to put his face back on, or we have to cover it up with the digital chimp. If the digital chimp is only this big, he can only cover up so much. And painting back somebody’s face can be problematic, it can be really difficult.

This is one of the only big films of the year that wasn’t in 3D. Was it ever discussed to make it in 3D?

RW: No, not with me anyway. Interestingly, the two big films that Fox have put out this year have both been 2D. X-Men’s the same. So I’m not sure. Personally I’m not a massive fan of 3D. I think it can enhance your experience to a certain extent, but it can also give you a headache. I’d like to think that this film didn’t need it.

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DL: I love stereo films, except for when I hate them. It’s so easy to do poorly. And I think that unless there’s a compelling reason to do it, you’re always going to be taking effort away from the things in the film that really matter.

And I think it’s with any film, you really want to decide where you want to focus your resources, what’s the most important thing for that film, and put all of your energy into that. And if there’s something that’s just tacked on for marketing reasons, or whatever reason, it ends up being to the detriment of the film.

RW: It takes them hours to change a lens in 3D, or something crazy like that. It’s five minutes to change a lens normally.

DL: You’re dealing with a camera package that weighs twice as much, and you’re limited in terms of how you can move it. And there’s a lot of good reasons to use it in some films, but I don’t think this one needed it.

We’re not that far away from Tim Burton’s badly-received attempt at a Planet Of The Apes reboot, did that weigh on you when you were making this film?

RW: No, not really. Only insofar as it’s such a different film. And by that, I mean, I think the thing that really appeals to me, and all of the original films, is that it’s about us, it’s about our world, and who we are. And if you set that story on an alien planet, you’re distancing people from that, potentially. Although, interestingly, he was very faithful to the Pierre Boulle novel. It just so happened that maybe the modern audience didn’t embrace that so much.

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You have to remember that Rick Baker won the Oscar for the prosthetic effects, and there were some remarkable things about that film. Tim Roth was great, I thought. And actually, Tim Burton’s version, funnily enough, I read somewhere the other day, it was the first reboot in modern Hollywood. It actually started the whole idea of reboots. Now, whether you think that’s a good thing or not, it’s another matter, but that’s the first time I think they attempted it.

Rupert, what’s the state of play with the Animal Farm film that you and Andy Serkis have been talking about?

RW: Nothing as yet. We talked about it on set quite a lot. It would be really great, it’s such a great technology to do that story in such a way that it would be really interesting. We haven’t really got to a stage where we’ve started to visualise it. Andy did some work and sent it to me. We thought we could set it in the modern day, with factory farms, and in a way that would reference our own world of mass produce. But we haven’t started writing a script… we haven’t got the rights!

The film opens alongside Project Nim over here, have you had a chance to see that?

DL: I haven’t yet, no. I’m really excited to, though. When we were doing research, getting started on the project, we looked at a lot of chimpanzees that have been raised in human environments, and it was awesome looking at their level of intelligence, and what they’re capable of learning. So I’m fascinated, and I’m looking forward to that.

RW: There was another ‘humanzee’ called Oliver from a similar period, and Andy and I used that as a template for the performance. This chimp that had this ability and this preference to walk upright. He’s quite a sad character. He ended up on the Japanese chat show circuit, and ended up in a primate facility not dissimilar to ours, and lived there in a cage for thirty years. This is after he’d been brought up in a human household. And then they found him thirty-odd years later, and I think he had a happy ending, and they found a sanctuary for him.

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At one point in the film, Caesar does something that I’m not quite sure he’s physiologically capable of doing: he talks. Did you adhere to the research there, or depart from it in presenting that physical change?

RW: Just from the point of view of physical capability, the primatologist that we were working with made it clear to us that the voicebox of the chimpanzee sits much lower in the throat, hence the reason why they can’t talk. I shot a scene between Caroline and Will, in the infirmary, where she’s just checking him up, and she feels something different about his throat, and she points that out. And then I suddenly realised “Hang on, everyone’s going to go ‘Ooh, he’s going to talk in a minute!’”

If this gene therapy had passed from mother to son, and if gene therapy had allowed for not only a rebuilding of the brain stems, but perhaps also some physiological development… it’s feasible. There are certain things that can grow from gene therapy. We explored that, but we didn’t want to give it away.

DL: We did one subtle thing at the very end, before he speaks the final line. We made his larynx more prominent, only in a couple of shots. Not anything that you’d notice on a casual glance, but he’s just starting to become physiologically a little bit more humanoid. We really tried to ground it in chimpanzee movement as much as possible. We looked at the way that their muscles work, and the looseness of the skin and the muzzle, and the way that things hang open.

We had the opportunity to spend some time with a chimp while it was getting a medical procedure done, and it was anaesthetised. When they’re unconscious, and they’re on their backs, their upper lips flop up, and they’re big and heavy. So getting that mass and that sense of movement, that was one of the big challenges, trying to make that fit into the lip-sync and the precision and speed with which to move the lips as well.

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We’ve talked a lot about Andy Serkis, but what was James Franco like working on the film?

RW: He’s terrific. Because we set out on the path of making this story as believable as we possibly could, and avoiding that aspect of the mythology which deals with heightened reality and science fiction and humanoid apes, and all of the things that tie into that ethos of what Planet Of The Apes tied into back then, we wanted to do something with the origin story that was plausible.

And I think to have our human protagonist be a very good character actor, which is what James is first and foremost, playing this scientist that finds this extraordinary cure, you’ve got to believe him every step of the way. And I think the studio, fortunately for me, took that gamble with him.

He’s one of those actors who, if he’s on set with you, and he doesn’t believe in something, he won’t do it, he’s not interested. As frustrating as that can be at times, there’s a real rhyme to that reason, which is basically that you believe in him. And he’s very canny. He immediately realised when he came onto this film, and it’s a testament to the fact that he is ego-free in many ways, he realised the movie wasn’t about him, it’s about Caesar.

So he supported that all the way through his performance. He always underplays, he always plays in a very understated fashion. So I think that really helped us in many ways, because it made the audience understand very quickly not to look in that direction, but to look in another direction. That’s a real gift.

Gentlemen, thank you very much!

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