Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Bringing Caesar to Life
This third part of an inside look at Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks at the efforts involved in bringing the character of Caesar to life from the point of view of WETA.
To access the first two parts of this story, just click on the Ape Central logo at the top of this page.
In creating Caesar and the world he inhabits, Weta Digital’s mandate, as it was on Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is to take audiences to worlds never seen before. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner, explains: “For Avatar, Jim Cameron created a complete fantasy world that no one had ever experienced before. The challenge with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a very different one, and in some ways, it was even more daunting. We applied some of the technology we developed for Avatar to create a real, recognizable world – modern-day San Francisco. Everything – the apes, the locations – had to feel genuine because we’re exploring a story that’s reality-based and not straight-ahead science fiction.”
Letteri credits Rupert Wyatt for championing the notion of a reality-based story and effects. “Rupert has instilled the overall idea in all of us that we are bringing realistic-looking chimps into the mix. So, we started at ground zero. It’s a fresh new approach to the Planet of the Apes film series. We’re presenting primates as we know them. We’re giving them an additional level of intelligence and subtle human tendencies.”
For Letteri, Planet of the Apes is in some ways the Holy Grail for visual effects artists, because the 1968 original is a cinema touchstone for both its spectacle and themes. “For me,” says Letteri, “Planet of the Apes is such a classic and beloved film that the idea of working on an origin story - the story about how it all came to be - was interesting, especially being able to focus on the point of view of Caesar as our main character.”
As Weta Digital utilized its state-of-the-art tools to render photo-realistic apes, the world’s foremost performance capture artist, actor Andy Serkis, came aboard the project to infuse Caesar with nuance, emotion, soul, wisdom and heart. Serkis’ contributions to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES cannot be overestimated, says Wyatt: “Andy Serkis is our generation’s Charlie Chaplin. By that I mean he’s one of the very few actors around who has fully embraced the available visual effects technology because he completely understands the full potential of what it can achieve. I think some actors are intimidated by performance capture because they think it’s separating their performance from the actual reality of the film, when quite the opposite is true. Andy understands that every little nuance – every breath, every little muscle movement that he gives on camera is visual exposition. Film is primarily a visual medium and if you are able to have your character tell a story with a minimal amount of words, then that’s ideal.”
Caesar’s character arc takes the chimp from a newborn to an adult and the leader of a revolution. Serkis, who gave acclaimed performances as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as Kong in King Kong, notes that “Caesar is one of the most formidable roles I’ve undertaken, both physically and emotionally. It’s one thing to play a chimpanzee, but to play one from infancy to adulthood – and a revolutionary leader – well, that’s quite another. But it was irresistible to me as an actor.
“Part of the journey is having played him as a toddler and the joy of discovery and then realizing that he has this intelligence beyond his years,” Serkis continues. “He’s picking up on human beings around him and is sensing that he is an extraordinary gifted being and then realizing that the world can be a very brutal place. Caesar has intelligence foisted on him. He didn’t seek it out. There’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, without him having asked for it.”
By the film’s second act, “Caesar becomes a prisoner,” says Serkis. “He gets taken away from a loving environment and feels rejected. He is imprisoned in the San Bruno Sanctuary, where he’s put in a cage, surrounded by these disturbed, wild creatures after being rejected by the human beings who have been his parents and loved ones. He’s questioning his identity. Then he finds the strength to lead and unite the other apes and I think it’s then that he moves into kind of the third stage… which is the revolution. He uses his intelligence to galvanize these apes and then his strength and power to lead them. It’s an extraordinary journey for me, as an actor.”
The role’s physical rigors represented a different kind of journey. Precision, training and focus were paramount in capturing the realistic ape movements. Stunt coordinator Terry Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil artist, was instrumental in helping the performance capture actors shape their roles. Notary also contributes important performance capture work to some other key ape characters.
As the performance capture actors broke new ground in bringing emotion and physicality to their roles, Weta Digital, too, was extending its groundbreaking work on Avatar for RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. For the first time, Weta Digital filmed visual effects on practical locations outside the controlled environment of an enclosed stage, also known as a Volume.
Letteri explains: “As we did with Avatar, we used the performance capture suit and headgear to capture the actors’ facial expressions and get the full range of their performances. But here, for the first time, we used performance capture as a fully integrated part of the live action performance. Working on RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES became all about the performances and the actors interacting with one another. We would take care of the rest – the actual visual effects – later.”
Weta Digital devised a new portable performance capture rig, which could be set up in different kinds of locations. For the first time ever, notes visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon, “we were able to get those performances in direct sunlight.”
Weta Digital’s – and the entire production’s – biggest challenges came during the filming of the film’s climax, which unfolds on, above, along and beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. (The production constructed the massive set outside of Vancouver.) The scene, depicting an epic battle between man and primate, features elaborate stunts, fire, explosions, helicopters, hundreds of cars and extras, and an atmospheric San Francisco fog – as well as the culmination of all the drama, emotion and character interactions.
This scene and the film’s other big set pieces are always in the service of its emotional core and resonant themes. Sums up Andy Serkis: “RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES doesn’t feel like a visual effects-driven film. It feels like a powerful emotional story with a big backdrop. The action and spectacle work seamlessly with the drama. And that’s why I think it’s really powerful – because the ‘wows’ aren’t in your face. It’s all about finding realism and truth.”
“The film taps into our most primal fear of the Alpha of our planet being usurped – literally letting another species take over the world – and asks how would that play out,” concludes Rupert Wyatt.
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