When Andy Serkis talks about Caesar, the revolutionary leader of the simian origin saga, it’s always in mythic terms — part Bible, part Shakespeare. He has brilliantly played the sentient chimpanzee from infancy to advanced adulthood in this unique “Planet of the Apes” trilogy. But in the finale, “War,” he rises to Moses-like stature, grappling with his darkest demons before freeing himself and his tribe.
It should make no difference that Weta wizards “capture” Serkis’s performance to create Caesar. It’s acting — “a human in ape skin” — only with the benefit of, arguably, the best photorealistic animation in the industry. And it’s about time that the Academy honors Serkis with a Best Actor Oscar nomination. The emotional performance is much more nuanced and transformative. And it’s also about time that Weta win the VFX Oscar, too, for the franchise, after twice denied.
“In terms of acting, the process hasn’t changed all that much, but ‘War’ is the best yet — it’s the most accurate representation of the performance,” said Serkis. “We still see this empathetic leader, then set against the most animalistic he’s ever felt in terms of his rage.”
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“What Andy is doing is acting and performance capture is recording it,” added Matt Reeves, who directed both “Dawn” and “War.” But Reeves took Caesar on a more brutal journey of self-discovery in his war with the humans.
“In this story, we pushed Caesar to a place where you’re able to empathize with his desire for revenge and then question how you’ve been provoked and implicated,” said Reeves, “And what these effects represent from Weta is a high water mark. It takes tremendous artistry on both sides [actor and animator].”
A Crucible in the Snow
Fittingly, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a rougher movie, shot in the harsh rain and snow of Vancouver on the Alexa 65 for big vistas and intimate close-ups. And Reeves pushed Weta Digital to achieve the most realistic performance capture hybrid yet.
Weta responded by becoming a greater a part of the live-action shoot. The New Zealand VFX studio prepared by weather-proofing the performance capture gear along with capturing better data. Weta even created an amazing CG avalanche, tackling the intricacies of gas, solid, and liquid.
“What we’ve really tried to do with this third film is take that integration of virtual production and live-action and make it work as a unit,” said four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri, Weta’s senior visual effects supervisor. “We go anywhere we want and we capture what the actors are doing in the moment, and that’s the performance that you see.”
New tech abounds at Weta, which IndieWire witnessed first-hand during a recent trip to Wellington, New Zealand, including a personal mocap session as an ape at the nearby Zealandia nature sanctuary. Weta created faster and more interactive models, real-time animation facial tools for instant feedback, more complex fur grooms to handle the snow, a new organic tree-growth software, Totara, with physical accuracy, and a new lighting system, PhysLight, which simulates on-set lighting.
A Tougher Caesar
This all benefited Caesar, who is grayer and walks more slowly, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Weta also deepened his wrinkles and added more creases into lines. His model and facial rig were adjusted, too, given the complex emotional range of his character, who evolves into the galvanizing leader.
“He is far more fluent and linguistically more sophisticated, and, physically, more upright,” Serkis said. “And had it not been for the personal tragedy at the beginning of the movie, he would’ve continued to become more human-like.”
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“One of the big improvements in rigs is that the geometry you see on screen is the geometry that’s rendered at very high-resolution,” said Dan Barrett, Weta’s animation supervisor. “Now the rig is stored on state-of-the-art graphics cards and the amount of detail and level of interaction are more advanced.”
But it’s not 1:1, of course, because humans and apes are different. However, on, “War,” the interpolation is more accurate and nuanced. But since the ape brow and muzzle often gets in the way of accurate emotional expression of the actor, Weta has to compensate. In one scene Serkis was both sad and angry, but the model only read anger, so Weta tweaked it to make it more human-like.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
“Emotionally, this is what we’re reading from Andy in front of the camera, so here’s another way to get to that same emotional response on an ape face,” said Dan Lemmon, Weta’s visual effects supervisor.
Or it could go the other way, to make the performance more ape-like. “It’s a painstaking, interpretive process that takes over a year,” said Reeves. “We do a 50/50 debate. But if you do it too literally, it looks cartoony.”
Introducing Bad Ape
As part of Caesar’s journey, he discovers that there are other apes who have learned to speak on their own. The neurotic, sad, and funny Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) introduces that revelation.
“We found this picture of a chimp on the internet and Mark Bomback and I developed that character in the script,” Reeves said. “The idea was to find this lonely, hoarder ape hiding in this ski lodge because he had been through a traumatic experience during the viral apocalypse. These are apes that didn’t have the benefit of Caesar’s leadership and would lead to future conflicts. But we didn’t want to tell that story yet.”
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Weta then modeled Bad Ape based on the photograph. The challenge was interpreting the ape performance as vividly as Zahn’s. “He brought a necessary tone to the film,” said Barrett. “He’s very hard-hitting and he brings levity and he takes them where they need to go.”
But it was a hard rig for the animators. There was so much dialogue and the eyes weren’t registering. “We couldn’t get those same big, bug eyes that Steve had going on, which at once were kind of innocent but also there was so much anxiety or joy,” added Barrett. “We had a function put into our face puppet where we could actually alter the poses, not just the pupil but the iris as well.”
The presence of Bad Ape brought out the best in Caesar as well. “Bad Ape is an incredible creation by Steve Zahn and the suffering that he has felt impacts Caesar in such a huge way,” said Serkis. “And that begins to draw him back into an empathetic state. This film is all about empathy and not choosing to objectify other people or species.”
The Apes Will Return
And where does the “Apes” saga go from here? A return to a different “Planet of the Apes”? Not yet, according Reeves, hinting that the Bad Ape revelation opens up more dramatic tension between the different simian species.
“For me, the idea would be to continue to movie toward that trajectory in a sort of ‘Tolstoy of the Apes’ way,” Reeves said. “At the end of ‘War,’ we’re still not like that ’68 world. How do we continue to tell stories that are resonant about our nature in smaller increments? The metaphor of the apes is that we’re looking at ourselves and our struggle as part of the animal world.”