No “Apes” director has gone through the looking glass to explore the human condition as ambitiously as Matt Reeves. As a result, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” makes a smart and most compelling summer tentpole, with Andy Serkis delivering his most powerful performance yet as Caesar, and Weta Digital making a quantum leap in performance capture. We are totally immersed in Caesar’s struggle to prevent war with humanity, and forget that we’re watching a CG character.
“I thought it would be really cool to start with the apes and enter the world through their eyes, and to tell this story of the potential moment when humans and apes could’ve co-existed as a way of describing our own struggle against the violence within us,” explains Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”), who likens “Dawn” to “The Godfather” in terms of the heavy emotional burden on Caesar as leader, husband, and father.
But Reeves wanted to go further aesthetically than Rupert Wyatt’s brilliant “Rise,” pushing the naturalism by shooting primarily outdoors in the rustic beauty of Muir Woods, and coaxing more photo-realism out of Weta, which had to adjust its Oscar-winning methodology in a less controlled environment with rain and mud.
“They redid everything,” Reeves insists, “their fur simulation, their moisture simulation, their models, they rebuilt the rigs.” Plus with better markers and higher-res and more mobile cameras, Weta achieved greater fidelity to the performances of Serkis and his ape co-stars (including Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, and Judy Greer).
However, Reeves had to know what he was getting himself into technologically. How much of the emotion came directly from Serkis as opposed to the animators? Yet in looking at side by side comparisons of Serkis and Caesar, it became apparent that Serkis was not only the driving force but that he was also more emotional than Caesar.
“I was stunned and astonished,” the director admits. “And the genius was the way in which Weta was able to take that performance and translate it on an anatomy that was entirely different from Andy’s. So they’re not just literally taking that movement and tracking it onto the model. They’re figuring out how to take muscles and shapes of Caesar’s face and get them to express the same ideas that seem to be coming out of Andy’s face.”
For instance, during an intense moment of anger and sadness, Weta even recreated the redness on the bottom of the eyes when he cries with incredible detail.
“I think there’s confusion on both sides,” Reeves suggests. “There
are people that don’t understand how great an actor Andy is, and there are
other people on the other side who have no idea what amazing animators the
people at Weta are. They never stop pushing. It takes so many levels of
translation and performance and commitment to achieve such realism.
Shooting natively in 3-D provided another challenge, particularly since Reeves wanted to emphasize shallower depth of field with long lenses, but the results worked to his aesthetic advantage, and he was heartened by a similar strategy achieved by Ang Lee in “Life of Pi.”
“The reason I wanted that aesthetic was that if the story is presented in such a grounded way, the only fantastical element is that you have intelligent apes. But if it could feel real in every other way, it would be an uncanny, emotional, and realistic experience. It was a revelation seeing how the apes were dimensionalized equally with the humans occupying the same space.”
While Reeves will direct the next sequel (the battle), he’s also intrigued about the possibility of remaking the 1968 original, which is where this saga is headed. “Somebody asked me if it’s a bit boring that you already know the end of the story, and I said, no, that’s the best part about it. We know what happened but how did it happen? And stories that are about the how and the why are always about character. And the characters in this story are so rich. And how does Caesar go from leading these apes in one incarnation to the apes that we know from ‘Planet of the Apes’? That’s an amazing journey.”
Indeed, as the apes realize how human they are, we realize how animalistic we are. “And there’s this eternal question: Can we resist our darker nature, the struggle for violence within us, and find a way to get along with each other and with ourselves?”
Thus, the timing couldn’t be better for a return to the “Planet of the Apes.”