'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Director on Caesar's Story, CGI Characters, & More!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Koba

SR: It is kind of weird that if we just put prosthetics on an actor it’s like nobody really says anything. But if you put digital, essentially what is digital prosthetics on an actor and everybody is like, “Whoa. No, no, no.”

MR: Know why? It’s because it’s more invisible. Nobody understands the process. I didn’t understand the process until I came into the movie. I knew that Andy was legendary and that he did all these things. But there’s something about when you get behind the process you suddenly understand that the reason that it’s called performance capture is it’s based on a performance. And Weta will be the first people to tell you this. Their methodology is that everything follows from the performance.

So if I had an ape in the background and I wanted him to do something, they’d say, “Well, we have to get a performance for that.” So we would. It was really important.

I think the other thing is, and there have actually been some animators from other companies who have sort of taken issue with Andy sort of talking about… I think he mentioned this concept of it almost being like digital makeup because it sort of is the way that the makeup was in the original Planet of the Apes except a photo real ape is now on top of him as he performs. That actually was a term that was coined by Weta themselves to describe kind of how it worked, which was not meant to demean the incredibly artistry that it takes to do that, because, first of all, I have to say that is the artistry that it takes… Like John Chambers, who did the makeup for Planet of the Apes, that makeup was Oscar worthy. It’s incredible.

So it’s a very different art. But it wasn’t as if that wasn’t an art. And this art, this art the way it’s animated and translated, and the hair simulations, and the way they create it, the way they create that photo reality, the way that they’re actually… I mean it’s one thing to have a performance that could affect you emotionally. It’s another thing to find a way to translate that so that that performance still comes through. That is the amazing artistry of Weta.

You’ve got two groups of artists—the actors and the animators. And they both are equally important to the process and they are both really the best in the world at what they are doing.

SR: We know you are attached to the next film. You were talking a lot about the emotional connection that you have to have going into a movie. What is your way in for the next film, and will it be War for the Planet of the Apes?

MR: Well, you know what? It’s too early for me to say what the movie is going to be. I can tell you that my weigh in to this one was that when I watched Rise the second time in preparation for going in, in the interim from the first time, I had had a son. In Andy’s performance, I was reminded of my son. There’s something about being a first-time father. I looked into the eyes of my son and I can see sort of all this understanding that’s behind his eyes. He was just learning how to speak, and the struggle to come into being, to learn how to speak. And I could feel that going on in him. When I saw it in Andy on that second viewing of the movie, I was so moved. I was like, “Oh, this is really about us. We’re animals. And this is about struggling to articulate,” and even in the metaphorical sense—the idea of people finding a way to express themselves to each other so that they can understand each other or not understand each other. I mean Koba is desperately trying to express himself, express himself to Caesar. He was tortured by humans. He went through an ape holocaust.

And so, I can only tell you that that’s the level of emotional connection that I have to this story and these characters. It’s very personal to me in that whatever the next movie will be, it will come from that same place. To me, what differentiates this story and this sort of vein of going into the world of Planet of the Apes is character and being intimately connected to empathy with these characters and moving forward into difficult situations and seeing how they grapple with it.

The thing that grabbed me the most was watching Andy as Caesar grapple with that situation in Rise. That’s what we tried to do in Dawn. And there’s no question that that grappling with continue in the next film.

SR: It sounds like reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive for the most part. 

MR: So far. I hope it continues. I’m glad you liked it.

SR: Yeah, I mean I would be hard-pressed to see, not to jinx anything, if people really didn’t respond to this movie. Personally, as you were just saying that about Koba, the line, “Human use." Going across the scars on his body like human work. I think that’s going to stick with me forever.

MR: I love that scene. He’s amazing in that scene. Can I just say something about Toby, too? People have seen that scene where he does the thing where he takes the gun away from those guys. That scene is so performance driven. That was one of the few scenes where I said to Weta we actually can’t shoot clean plates for this. I want that interaction with those actors. So those are actually the shots where the actors were all together, the ape actor Toby and the human actors. That was written in the script a certain way and he came in with an idea which was that idea of… He was supposed to spit the alcohol in their eyes and use that as an opportunity to take the gun. He decided that he would not do that; that he would do this thing where he would continue to sort of toy with them and play with them and win them over and then kind of toy with the gun and then suddenly turn the tables.

It was so chilling. He told me that that idea came from a personal experience where he knew these guys that you would see in a bar fight. And it would be the kind of guy that would come up to you and pat you on the arm and go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” And, all of a sudden, he was pounding you, and how terrifying that was.

When he did the rehearsal for that scene, I was like, “This is it. This is amazing.” I have to say performance capture made that possible, because, normally, what you have to do is you pre-vis and you work out effects to such a large degree that the idea of that kind of discovery on the set, which we had every day, but this is an example of what I think was one of Toby’s that I just loved, is something that you can actually do. And it’s one of the things that I don’t think everybody knows about performance capture, which is that it’s totally actor driven. It’s “performance” capture. So it was really fun.

SR: That was a point for me where I was like, “Yeah, this man deserves it, at least an award consideration,” when I thought about the fact that what I was seeing was actually Toby Kebbell imitating an ape imitating a stereotypical ape. I was like, “I don’t even know how to get my head around that.”

MR: Yeah, totally. He came up the first day and he had learned so much about Bonobos. He was saying to me, he goes, “Well, you know the way Bonobos say hello is they have sex. They’re driven by their sex drive.” [laughs] He, like the other actors, had gotten so into the instinctual side of the apes. But I think he plays it very sympathetically. There are a couple moments where I feel very bad for him in the story.

SR: This movie does a beautiful job of just adding complexity to all the characters where you understand, like, even when Koba is riding a horse with two guns on his shoulders, he’s so…

MR: Yeah, where that came from. He went through the ape holocaust. He was experimented on. It’s horrible.

MORE: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Podcast

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives in theaters on July 11th, 2014.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for further updates on the Planet of the Apes film series, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

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