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‘War for the Planet of the Apes’: Inside The Creation of Steve Zahn’s Scene-Stealing Bad Ape

Weta Digital created a new kind of fast-talking, frenetic ape, which posed several animation and performance challenges.

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fo


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While Andy Serkis was completing the evolution of his remarkable Caesar in trilogy finale “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape introduced a new kind of chimpanzee to the franchise: a fast-talking, scene-stealing wild card. More than merely a foil, Bad Ape provided the key to understanding how rapidly the apes were evolving.

“We found this picture of a chimp on the internet and Mark Bomback and I developed that character in the script,” said director Matt Reeves.“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.”

Steve Zahn as Bad Ape in “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Reeves immediately thought of Zahn to portray Bad Ape, given his ability to be hilarious as well as tragic. At first, though, the actor didn’t see the comic potential. Although his first vocal pass had Reeves in tears, the actor needed a little coaxing to find the funny vibe.

Creating Bad Ape

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Weta Digital 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 Dan Barrett, the animation supervisor. “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. They had never had to handle this much dialogue for an ape and so they kept testing. The challenge was not having Bad Ape look ridiculous. “There are important performance moments when you might lean toward more outlandish chimpanzee expressions, but you have a certain set of lips and you need the sound of the ape lips to match as closely as possible,” added Barrett.

Steve Zahn stars as Bad Ape in Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes," also starring Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson.

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fo

Also, his eyes weren’t registering too well. “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,” Barrett said. “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.”

At the same time, Weta leveraged other innovations to enhance the look and performance of Bad Ape, including faster and more interactive models with real-time animation facial tools for instant feedback.

Re-shooting Bad Ape’s Introduction

The introduction of Bad Ape is a pivotal scene. After discovering the mute human girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), Caesar and his friends chase a mysterious figure into the ski lodge, who turns out to be Bad Ape. He’s thrilled to find other simians that can talk and displays a child-like exuberance in explaining his situation. Caesar is particuarly surprised about his ability to speak by merely studying humans.

There was even a happy accident during the shoot when Zahn knocked over some items off-screen, which got a laugh. However, after shooting Bad Ape’s introductory scene on set in Vancouver, Reeves was dissatisfied with the results and reshot the scene on a mocap stage at Weta Digital in New Zealand. He wanted more frenetic energy and concise blocking from Zahn. The scene also proved difficult for editor William Hoy to cut.

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

“I had an idea what Matt wanted with Bad Ape and his energy, but this was early on and Steve Zahn was still trying to find his character, and how he should actually speak and how ape-like he should be,” Hoy said.

“So we shortened his movements in the reshoot and got him from point A to point B quicker and we had more interaction with Caesar,” said Hoy. “The two scenes were then merged together and I had to pick and choose between original performance and newer performance and make them flow seamlessly.”

For Serkis, the character provided a dramatic contribution to Caesar’s emotional journey: “Bad Ape is an incredible creation by Steve Zahn and the suffering that he has felt impacts Caesar in such a huge way, and that begins to draw him back into an empathetic state,” he said.

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