Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (6)

This is Part Two of our set visit report from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for Part One please click here.

During a setup change on the blisteringly hot set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes we are taken out of our very comfy video tent, just out of frame of the impressive 3D camera rigs, where we are watching Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and hundreds of extras react to seeing a large gathering of apes take their position just outside their walls. There is confusion and fear in their eyes. Some have never seen the apes before and some are curious as to why they have showed up in such large numbers.

However, because of movie magic our apes aren’t even on set yet, although we are told we have Mr. Andy Serkis himself waiting for us in his trailer. We quietly take off our headphones and walk back into the wretched humidity. With the weather so unkind on this day it seems a bit post-apocalyptic. I know it would be very easy for me to feel like it was the end of the world if I was an actor on set.

As we make our way through the tall weeds and past the cars that have seemingly become one with the land, I can’t help but hope that Andy Serkis is in full mo-cap mode when we chat.  In hours of behind the scenes footage from Lord of the Rings, King Kong and the first Apes film, he seems to be at his absolute finest in that mode. He greets us outside his trailer and I get the feeling like Andy still has no idea how freaking cool he is. There is not a single journalist in this trailer who doesn’t admire the work this man has done for film, but that seems like a very distant thought for him at the moment. He’s an actor first and foremost and is trying to give the very best performance he can each and every time. Also, he’s wearing the dots…

All day long we’ve heard members of the cast and crew talk highly about this man, an actor who really should be a household name at this point for bringing to life characters like Gollum, King Kong and now Caeser, a role that many in our community believe should have garnered Oscar consideration. He talks very passionately with us for over 40 minutes about this film, where he thinks the third film could go, performance-capture and the growing acceptance of the technology, his newest film Animal Farm and director Matt Reeves. HeyUGuys asked,

I think we all see you as sort of the godfather of performance capture. Can you talk a little about what you’re still learning, not just about yourself, but about the technology and how that affects your performance?

The technology has reached a point now where … there’s two things, really. There’s the perception of performance capture and how it’s used, the usage within the film industry at large and how it’s been accepted by the acting community to a great degree now. I’m directing Animal Farm, and we recently went to the States and did a big casting session. Compared to say three years ago, there isn’t one actor we met who wasn’t very keen to be involved with the project. Mainly because it’s a great project, but performance capture as a method of transforming an actor’s performance into an avatar, and the understanding that this technology is becoming more transparent, so it is about returning to pure acting. There’s a greater understanding of that. The real practitioners of performance capture on the visual effects end, like Weta, who I’ve obviously had a massive relationship with over the last 14 years, are extraordinarily good at interpreting the performance and honoring what’s been caught on the day.

Directors respond to performance capture in lots of different ways. You can of course embellish it. You can break the performance if you’re not careful. Or you can do it like Rupert Wyatt or Matt Reeves. They’re all about wanting to honor the performances they get on the day. That means the visual effects side of it, in effect,is digital costume and make-up. That’s how it ought to be thought of from an actor’s point of view. The authorship of the performance happens with the directors and actors on set and in the moment. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. If you don’t arrive at that moment, if you don’t have that drama happening there and then, you can’t fake that. You can’t add that on. That’s not a bolt-on thing you can do with visual effects, if you want to work in a pure way with this new technology. It’s been amazing.

This film is probably the most ambitious performance-capture film to date, more than Avatar, more than The Hobbit, more than anything really. There are so many locations shoot. Everything isolation. There’s very little set work. We’re capturing outside in very difficult circumstances. In Vancouver, we had the weather to deal with; it was freezing cold and raining every single day. We’re putting cameras up in trees, covering large areas. We have amazing head-mounted cameras now to capture facial expressions, which helps the back-end of the process. We’re wearing live markers, which we had on the last project, but they’re refining and becoming much more practical. They don’t break. Everything is very robust now. The system is very robust.