Apes Director Rupert Wyatt: Why CGI is Now the Moral Choice

An account of how an orangutan got beaten on the set of Babe: Pig in the City and why that sorry spectacle needn't happen ever again. It's CGI to the rescue, say PETA.

Ever since Jurassic Park almost twenty years ago - and reaching its zenith at the time of the effects reliant Star Wars prequels - Hollywood's blanket use of CGI has engendered strong opinions and heated discussion. Many critics routinely choose to harp on about the evils of using computer graphics and wax lyrical about the good old days of practical effects. For instance, the quaint, seventies-inspired model-work of Duncan Jones' Moon was enthusiastically received by reviewers, whilst many have already expressed doubts about whether the upcoming The Thing prequel will be anything like as unsettling as the original without the tangible prosthetics, gore and make-up. But whilst pre-existing arguments have tended to focus mainly on aesthetics (through a lens of nostalgia) and the question of realism, the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes this week has brought a new aspect of the debate into play: the question of ethics. Until now whether or not a film used CGI has never been a moral concern, at least not in the popular consciousness, yet animal activist organisation PETA have heralded 20th Century Fox's franchise prequel - which takes the point of view of an intelligent ape (a motion captured Andy Serkis as Caesar) starting a revolution against humanity - for its lack of real primate actors. Indeed, every ape in Rupert Wyatt's film is digitally created and based on human performances. Literally: no apes were harmed in the making of this picture - and it's something of which the young British director (who saw off competition from Oliver Stone to land the gig) is justifiably proud:
€œCertainly, from a moral point of view, the idea of using live apes was wrong. There€™re many animals in entertainment that live happy, fulfilled lives: we had a dog on set that was a very happy dog. But I think the difference between that and an animal that is essentially alpha, is that to get an ape to do what you want it to do you have to dominate it and manipulate it basically. So, for example, what we think to be a chimpanzee€™s smile is actually it showing fear. They€™re such different creatures, so certainly played into our decision: we didn€™t want to ."
And there is a very real danger inherent in using live chimps, and also a potential risk of harming the animal, with Wyatt telling a sobering story about an incident on the set of an otherwise cheery family movie:
"I remember Andrew Lesnie, our DP who worked on Babe: Pig in the City, there was an orangutan in the film and there was a moment where the orangutan essentially attacked his handler and they both rolled off the back of a chair and rolled down the stairs and the handler just starting beating him to get him to stop... basically just beating him into submission. Then one of the crew walked up and chucked some water in his face and said "how could you do that?" and the handler had to call everyone together and say "look, the only way there is safety on this set is to dominate this animal. I'm his alpha and if he thinks for a second that I'm not he will attack me and all our lives are in danger." And you get that and it makes sense. But then the very idea of putting an animal in that situation... that's the questionable thing about it."
So could Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the incredibly vocal backing it's received from PETA (who held banners aloft at the US premier thanking the filmmakers), be enough to put an end to the use of real apes, at least in the American film industry? "I hope so. They're an endangered species," was Wyatt's optimistic, no-nonsense reply. Though there are also practical reasons why the film's demonstration of a viable alternative might lead to lasting change, as WETA effects supervisor Dan Lemmon explained, "there's really no way to use a chimpanzee after the age of about four or five, they're just too strong... so if you're making a story about a large animal it's just not practical to use a live animal." A point Wyatt expanded upon:
€œThe things that we were doing would be very hard . There€™s a very limited gene pool in North America with performing apes: the majority are young, female chimps because they€™re the least aggressive. They all look a bit alike and for us we wanted to personalise these apes, so the real challenge when I first started working on the film was €œcan performance capture actually achieve this?€ But because of Dan, when he came on board - and WETA would say to us €œwe can do this and trust us because you won€™t see anything for six months!€ €“ that€™s what set us on the road of performance capture.€
The decision to go the CGI route also allowed the team at WETA to subtly differ the film's chimps from their real-world counterparts, giving them more human eyes by making the whites larger (a change accounted for in the film as a side-effect of James Franco's intelligence increasing drug). This change was intended to make a human audience empathise better with Serkis' Caesar in particular, a crucial aspect of the film as it is from the point of view of this chimpanzee that the story is told. It goes without saying that Gollum and King Kong motion capture specialist Serkis brings a range of expression and a degree of acting talent to the screen not found in real apes. Actors, Lemmon was keen to point out, still make the choices we see on the screen, even with digital characters:
"In terms of the performance we're letting what happens on the set drive what we end up putting into our characters... and essentially working as a digital make-up company in a way, applying pixels on the top to give them the look of a chimpanzee. All the performances are being driven by the decisions are making on set and the reaction they're having with James Franco or Freida Pinto."
Wyatt and Fox were also keenly aware of the grand act of hipocracy using real apes would have represented, bearing in mind the moral of the movie itself: basically that people should treat animals better, with irresponsible animal testing and Tom Felton's cruel animal shelter worker the villains of the piece. Caesar's wife, as they say, should be above reproach. Wyatt sees the film as very much about exploitation and oppression and, he agrees, "to use live apes to do that would have been a mistake.€ However, if technology is nature's saviour in this instance, what are we to make of the film's seemingly anti-science message, with Pinto's character chastising Franco for his attempts to cure Alzheimer's? Well apparently the movie's moral position on science is not supposed to be taken as so clear cut:
€œI don€™t think it is anti-science. I hate stories and films that have that slightly moralistic tone €“ €œbe careful what you wish for€ or €œdon€™t open that box€ - and I think the beauty of our civilization and our species is what we can invent and how we evolve. Look at the jet airplane and see that came about through the First World War and see that we€™re a very complicated civilization and through conflict invariably we progress. So, medicine and modern science, in many ways, are one of the better aspects of who we are. I think we can very safely say it€™d be wonderful to find cures for certain diseases and I think it€™s more to do with the responsibility lying in the hands of the individual €“ Dr. Frankenstein is a great example of that pathology: the idea that mankind€™s hubris can sometimes get the better of him.€
In any case, with the film's terrific opening weekend performance in the US, no one could accuse Wyatt of hubris for already fielding questions on the probable sequels. He and Serkis are already attached to direct and star respectively, and revealed that they have discussed the future of the series over the past few days. And the director wasn't shy about suggesting where he might take the franchise in the future as he bridges the gap between his film and the Charlton Heston original. "Any future stories, we'd be dealing with a level playing field in terms of the human population and these rising apes... There's still opportunity in terms of a nuclear explosion in New York and we could go down that road certainly." In the meantime though, the director can enjoy his accession to a place among the Hollywood A-list safe in the knowledge that, even if he never makes another film as good as Rise, he's possibly helped to make Hollywood a more ethical place in terms of its use of animals. And in bringing such realistic and compelling ape characters to life, Wyatt, Serkis and Lemmon at WETA have struck a major blow for the art of CGI in the face of the critics. CGI is now the moral option: just ask PETA. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is out in the UK today and is very, very good indeed.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.