Rise of the Planet of the Apes Interview: Rupert Wyatt & WETA’s Dan Lemmon – Part 2
The duo discuss the challenges in bringing the Apes prequel to the bring screen and the difficulties, and successes, of creating the film’s CGI simians.
(Huge apologies to 2oth Century Fox for the lateness in our second half of this interview being posted. Mark Clark, the author of this piece, had some unforeseeable family problems in August which completely pushed this article back. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still in cinema’s and you should go and see it now);
You can read Part 1 of this interview HERE.
In the fine tradition of keeping things in the family I joined the same group of bloggers that had the privilege, and fun, of talking to Matthew Vaughn a few months back, as we sat down at Claridges in London and talked to Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt and WETA’s Dan Lemmon about bringing the Apes prequel to the screen and the difficulties, and successes, of creating the film’s CGI simians.
As before we were all asking questions so we’re collectively Q, and they’re RW and DL. Also be aware that talking about the film there are one or two spoilers ahead, right from the first question.
Make sure you go out and see this excellent film before reading below;
Q: Is there an emotion that’s more difficult to capture than others?
DL: Well because of the muzzle structure of the apes some of the tight-lipped things like disdain – we had to figure out what that looked like on a chimpanzee. And Rupert touched on the eyebrows as well. In the original concept art we had a heavier brow but when we started to get in to some of the animation we just found that we weren’t able to match what Andy was doing, get the same kind of emotion with this larger brow. So we looked at Andy, we looked at a lot of references of chimpanzees with a less prominent brow, made some small modifications that allowed us to get a lot bigger range of performance.
Q: At what point did you get Andy Serkis involved with what you were doing?
RW: Same as any actor really – well I mean he was never auditioned – we knew that if we got Andy Serkis we’d be very lucky. When we (RW & DL) started working together it was always the idea that if we get Andy then we have our central character both from the point of view of his understanding the technology but also just the fact that he’s an actor who’s embraced performance capture as a tool. He’s very good at being able to push it to one side and focus on the performance. I think many actors could possibly achieve that, but he’s been one of the first to actually understand it. He’s a real performer, he’s got extraordinary range, he can be very physical, very expressive. Sort of Chaplinesque in the way he does things. He’s said that many actors believe that when they put a motion-capture suit on they need to over-act or over-emote but actually it’s the opposite. And that’s the beauty – you look at the original Planet of the Apes and they’re all buried beneath these masks. None of them could express themselves. With performance capture he can use his face to tell the story.
DL: I think that’s one of the things that’s great about Andy; he’s such a great character actor, you loo at all his performances – not just his digital characters but live action as well – they’re all very different from one another. He puts a lot of effort in to crack a unique performance for each piece.
Q: Would you have held out for him if he wasn’t available?
RW: You’d have to ask the studio that (laughs). Put it this way, it would be a very different film. He had the wherewithal to realise that he’s played King Kong to which he could say why Play Kong and then play Caeser. But you’ve got two very different characters – you’ve got the last of a dying breed, a loner, and then you’ve got the Che Guevara story. He saw it as such a different thing. He’s now getting the response that is so well deserved. He’s a phenomenal actor.
DL: I think it’s important to look at some of the other actors as well who played the apes. We had theatre actors, stunt performers, trained gymnasts. There’s nothing about the performance capture technology that means you have to be a specialist. It’s all about just casting the right actor for the right role. And you see that in Avatar as well.
Q: You’re having some performances acted out on a real stage by a man who’s much bigger than the character he’s portraying; how was that done?
RW: Traditionally you shoot Andy playing Caeser, you shoot James Franco playing his human character. Let’s say Caeser then shuts the door on James, and once you’ve got that shot you then take Andy out of the shot and you do what’s called a clean-plate which is James acting to thin air and a SFX guy with a filament wire closing the door coupled with, if the camera’s moving, you have to time the move. We didn’t have motion control so did it through manual operation. Now that’s really time-consuming and it’s a frigging headache. But what it allows Weta to do is to not have to paint Andy out, because they have a clean-plate, and they can put a digital Caeser into the shot.
However the downside is that you lose something in the human performance, if James is acting to thin air his eye-lines may be a bit off or his energy’s a bit down. He’s not got that something to bounce off. So it was never quite as good… sometimes it was ok if it was a simple shot but more often than not his energy would drop, so what I was asking of Dan/Weta was could we just use the performance part and that involves them digitally painting out Andy and putting Caeser in. And I think I’m right in saying the technology’s more evolved to allow you to do that…
DL: Yeah I mean it’s certainly easier now than during Lord of the Rings for example. We had to take it on a shot by shot basis as well, some cases are easier than others. The big, challenging ones are like where we had the toddler Caeser that was interacting with James Franco, and it was Andy Serkis playing the three feet high Caeser. There’s the scene where they’re up in the attic and Freida’s character’s there for the first time, they’re wrestling on the bed. There was a bit of a negotiation on the day on the set as to how we could get that level of interaction. Any time you have a performance capture actor’s body going across another actor – a shoulder going past his face – we have to put his face back on. If the digital chimp is only so big he’s only going to cover up so much. And painting back somebody’s face can be… problematic.
Q: Rise is one of the big films this year that’s not in 3D. Any particular reason for that?
RW: No it never came up actually. The two big films that Fox put out this year. X-Men and ours are both in 2D. I don’t know why that is. Personally I’m not a massive fan of 3D, I think it can enhance your experience to a certain extent but it can also give you a headache. I’d like to think that this film didn’t need it really.
DL: I mean I love 3D films except for when I hate them. It’s so easy to do poorly. Unless there’s a compelling reason to do it you’re always going to be taking effort away from things in the film that matter. As with any film you want to decide where to focus your resources. If there’s something tacked on for marketing reasons, or any other reason, it can be to the detriment of the film.
Q: When you got involved with this Rupert, what state was it in; was it still the Scott Frank draft?
RW: No, no it wasn’t. Somebody wrote about the idea that Scott Frank originated this which is not the case. Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver were the original writers. Rick, I think, came up with the idea when he read about real apes growing up in domestic environments, the dangers of that and thought that could be the basis of a thriller. Then he had this epiphany that that’s the prologue to Planet of the Apes. So he took that to Fox and they commissioned him and his wife Amanda to write the script. Scott Frank came on as a director, got rid of Rick and Amanda because he wanted to do his own take on it, a very different take as far as I know. That I think dealt with Caeser as more of a Frankenstein in a cage at home, I’m not really sure, but it was a very different spin.
He left, didn’t see eye to eye, as far as I know, with what the studio wanted, and so they went back to Rick and Amanda’s draft and then evolved it further. I think bringing in more aspects of the uprising. They then put the word out that they were looking for someone and sent me the script and I went in, and 300 interviews later got the job.
Q: There are a lot of references to the original Planet of the Apes…
RW: Yeah, it’s always kind of great to be able to reference, especially if you’re paying respect. But for me it was always about trying to make it work for the story. So for example the scene where Caeser’s building the little model of the Statue of Liberty obviously has references to where we’re headed on the beach at the end of the original, but it also represents liberty as he’s trapped in an attic, represents his abilities, his intelligence. So I was trying to work it on many different levels as much as I could.
A very early draft that I read had the African poachers on horseback (referencing the early scenes in the original film as the apes chase the humans), and I kicked that out pretty quickly because the intention was to always tell the story in a plausible way and African poachers don’t ride around on horses. But the idea of using nets, and top shot when they’re running through the undergrowth, those kind of things we worked in.
Q: It was a lot more intimate than I expected. Some people might possibly be expecting some kind of apocalyptic apes vs humans story.
RW: Yeah, it’s a bit like Spartacus, it’s the idea of revolution in microcosm. We’re not dealing with the whole Roman Empire, it’s just one part of it, and the second may do that.
Q: You’re talking like it already exists, has someone flicked the switch on this?
RW: No, I’m just talking about what’s in my head.
Q: Are they talking to you about it?
RW: Not yet.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in cinema’s now!