Playing an ape on the big screen is about more than just getting into the right mindset. The widely acclaimed Planet of the Apes prequel series has been a pioneering force in the art and technology of motion capture performance, and a big part of that is finding a way for actors to move like the apes they’re portraying – despite having a significantly different anatomy.
This is where stilts come in: custom-made arm extensions that allow War for the Planet of the Apes‘ main cast and stunt team to move convincingly like apes – from gorillas, to orangutans, to chimpanzees. One non-human character who has been in the movie series for as long as protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) is Caesar’s close ally and friend Rocket, played by Terry Notary. Notary himself has been part of the franchise for well over a decade, having originally worked as a movement instructor on Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, and has coached his fellow motion capture performances through all three of the prequel movies.
Notary’s part in creating the apes doesn’t stop there. On the set of War for the Planet of the Apes, actress Karin Konoval (who plays Caesar’s orangutan friend, Maurice) explained how Notary designed a new version of the arm stilts for War, allowing the performers to more realistically mimic the movements of apes. Describing the current version of the design as “the Cadillac of arm stilts,” Konoval explained:
“On the previous films… the arms went down. It was kind of straight down. And then the bottoms of a crutch; like, a regular crutch that you would use… Terry streamlined this little affair and put this wonderful rubber ball on the end. Now, why this development is fantastic for me is, with the other arm stilts, one of the things I’ve always had to do, for Maurice, is to create his weight. It’s got to come from me first. Weta Digital can’t make that up later. If I don’t give him his full 300 pounds in everything I do, it’s not like they can go, ‘Oh, well, let’s make him heavy now.’ No, it’s going to look like this kind of large guy flouncing around.
“So, in [Rise of the Planet of the Apes] we put five pound weights on each of my arms so that I could register that fluidly. And when I was trying to keep up with the chimps, it was difficult because the chimps and gorillas walk in an entirely different way. Chips can do a quadrupedal gallop and they use their legs, so they get a lot propulsion from their back feet. For an orangutan, the back feet are purely balance points. You don’t get any oomph out of that. So it’s totally opposite to the way we as human beings work – because we use our legs in just about everything.
“Not only did I have to create weight with those things, so we added the weights to the stilts, but also because the orangutans are only using their arms, because the feet are just balance points, and the legs are a lot shorter, I have to get all my propulsion from my front arms. And it has to be a very fluid pull-through movement. So, with this ball feature… I can now roll through and give all my weight to my front arms without any kind of resistance… It’s the best cardio workout you could ever get for your life, I can guarantee you. I would say, to me, right here this, it really feels like Maurice’s arms, and I love them.”
If you think lumbering around like an orangutan or leaping around on all fours like a chimpanzee sounds exciting, you may be in luck. Notary told us that he was inspired by the movie to design a carbon fiber arm stilt that he is planning to make available for public purchase:
“So my dad and my brother and I just brainstormed for like three months and did a massive R&D and came up with this super lightweight – it’s carbon fiber. It’s super strong, indestructible. And I’m going to market them. So if you want to get into this, it’s a philosophy. It’s about ease. It’s about grace. It’s about fluidity. It’s about getting centered and being connected and not using too much energy to do things in life. The philosophy is ease and grace of movement and getting in a real great workout at the same time. It’s like swimming on land. So it’s coming out. If you want to get your own! The patent is in process.”
Many people enjoy experimenting with different types of movement – from skateboards, to unicycles, to jumping stilts – so there’s no doubt that Notary’s custom designs will find a market, as well as having potential applications for the future of motion capture in movies and other digital media (video games, for example). With War for the Planet of the Apes lead Andy Serkis still lobbying for motion capture performers to qualify for Academy Awards, it’s fascinating to see the technology and the stunt choreography behind it evolve.