When it was first announced that 20th Century Fox intended to revive the Planet of the Apes franchise in a prequel movie starring James Franco as a biochemist opposite a motion-capture ape, fans were not optimistic. In fact, most viewers assumed that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an easy pick to join the ever-growing list of failed franchised revivals and reboots. After all, if Tim Burton couldn't revive the series with a remake starring Mark Wahlberg in 2001, how did the studio intend to succeed in telling a Planet of the Apes story that featured more humans than apes (among other challenges)?
Nevertheless, thanks to inspired writing, directing, and a industry-changing performance from Andy Serkis as Caesar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes become one of 2011's biggest surprise hits - a bar that was hoisted even higher when Matt Reeves delivered Dawn of the Planet of the Apes three years later. Now, as Reeves prepares to deliver the third installment in the series, War for the Planet of the Apes, the embargo has lifted on our visit to the film's set - and we're free to share new details, revelations, and behind-the-scenes info with fans.
NOTE: The following list contains details that have yet to be released in the War for the Planet of the Apes marketing and could be considered minor spoilers to certain readers.
The World of War for the Planet of the Apes
Much like the jump from Rise of the Planet of the Apes to Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes picks up awhile after the last entry - and sees drastic changes in both the world, the humans, and the apes. Producer Dylan Clark suggests it's a time when both humans and apes are more desperate than ever - with incredibly high stakes (and new challenges for both species).
Clark: Two years have passed and the ALZ drug has continued to enable Caesar to develop. They are now living in a situation where both apes and humans have been at war and there is a sense that this is the crux, this is kind of the climax moment where both species are under huge threat.
It’s pretty apocalyptic. So they are weathered. They are worn. Both sides are worn out. Caesar has had to leave their encampment in the woods where they were and lead them up higher into the hills and set up a sort of temporary base.
It’s an amazing arc that Matt [Reeves] and Mark Bomback have written. What they’ve done, what they’ve managed to do with Dawn and then with this one is amplify the stakes emotionally, scale-wise. It’s very epic. It’s on a massive scale, this film. Not because of its title, but because the stakes are just so much higher. And also, kind of the global understanding, I suppose.
The apes find out that there are other apes outside of the smaller group in Muir Woods who are evolving and who are changing. And also, they are discovering how much the virus is affecting humanity, the virus is having a rebirth and actually becoming much more aggressive and then attacking the humans in another way, too.
The Scene on Set: The Colonel's Work Camp
While attending a press day event on the War for the Planet of the Apes set, filming was taking place at a fictional work camp, set against a mountainside, where Woody Harrelson's Colonel was forcing captive apes to labor. Serkis and Notary were on-set filming in motion-capture suits but the context of the scene is too spoilery to reveal at this time. Fortunately, Clark explained the broad strokes of the setting and what was happening in the scene.
Clark (Producer): Caesar goes on a western-like journey to kick Woody Harrelson’s ass. And he finds out that Woody Harrelson has captured his apes. So they’re all at this camp, which is at the top of, we’re calling it the Sierra Mountains, a fictitious facility. It was repurposed after the viral apocalypse. It was a military installation that housed a lot of military stuff, weapons and things like that. But it also became, let's call it an internment camp in that area, unfortunately.
So the apes were being put to work to do something. So it’s Caesar’s job to figure out where he fits into this story and the world of the apes, which is, “Do I want to continue the path that I started? Do I want to kill Woody Harrelson,” or, “Is my job to free the apes, or both?” And that's the drama of this place.
Koba is Dead - But He Wasn't Always
Referring to a verbal cue in the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes credits that suggested Koba might have survived his fall in the film's climax, Clark confirmed that Koba is dead - admitting the verbal cue was a way they could have kept the door open for Koba's return (a direction they ultimately chose not to pursue):
Clark [Producer]: We were never trying to manipulate or mess with people. When you finished the movie, you hope that you did a good job but you don't know. When we finish this movie, then we have to go in post for a year. We believe in our story. We believe in our team. We believe in Fox, they're great partners. We really believe that a lot of muscle is going to get behind this movie and it's going to be the hit that last two were. But you don't know. They could say, "Hey you drunken sailors. We don't know what you were doing. That's it." - they probably won't, but you never know.
You put the movie out and it's up to the audience to say, "Oh that was good!" There was talk between Matt and I, we were bummed a little that we fell in love with Toby Kebbell. Koba is a great character. He was great for entertainment. He was great for Caesar. Caesar loved Koba. He was his brother, until the humans showed up and Koba could not contain his rage and everything was lost. We loved what that said about the world but we also loved what it said emotionally for these two characters.
We were really sad to see him in visual effects turnover meetings tumble down three hundred feet and die in a fiery ball of Hell. Yeah, there were conversations like, "They wouldn't have done that to Darth Vader!" Again, we're not saying we're Star Wars good and we're not saying Koba is Darth Vader good but Darth Vader was the best character out of Star Wars, the original. I think everybody flipped out about that. And so we were like, "Gah! Did we make a mistake killing Koba?" But we have to look each other in the eyes and say, "Could anybody survive that fall... for real?" And the answer is "no."
Caesar Is in A Dark Place at the Start of War
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes saw Caesar forced to kill his best friend - and face the fact that the world is more complicated than Man vs Apes. As humanity has become more desperate to ensure their own survival, Caesar has become more militant and less empathetic toward mankind. According to star Andy Serkis, this is the darkest chapter in Caesar's life (so far):
Serkis (Caesar): Well, at this point of his journey, if you remember where we left off in the last story, the apes have become divided under the leadership of Koba. He was carrying an enormous amount of guilt at killing. You know, going against one of the primary tenants of their belief structure, which is to actually not kill apes. So, in effect, he kills the person who was his core celeb: Koba was his core celeb and he ends up killing him.
You’ll remember that Caesar, as a character, I suppose one of his main characteristics was his ability, because or being brought up with human beings, to be empathetic to both sides. But an event happens at the beginning of this movie that sets him off on a track which almost eats him up. And he goes off on a revenge mission.
In this story he goes through this incredible journey of very much going to a darker part of himself, probably the darkest he’s ever encountered, this voyage of self-destruction. And then, again, the set that we’re on here is where he claws his way back from this very, very dark, dark place through reconnecting with his tribe, who have been holed up and taken prisoner here.
So where Caesar is sort of physically and emotionally is he’s now a wartime leader. He’s carrying and bearing that weight at the beginning of the movie.
Caesar Continues to Evolve - And Speaks More Fluently
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made it apparent that some of the apes, including Caesar, weren't just smarter, they were taking-on human characteristics and technologies (including reading books, utilizing sign language to communicate, and firing guns); War for the Planet of the Apes will see the apes continue to evolve - both physically and linguistically.
Serkis (Caesar): Physically, he is much more upright, much more human-like. He’s continued to evolve. Linguistically he’s much more fluent. In this movie Caesar is much more, he becomes almost human.
If you remember in the last movie, the apes were discovering language. They were finding a sort of prototype language and it was a combination of signing and ape vocalizations and the odd human word. For Caesar now, the human word becomes his primary form of expression. That was a very big challenge for me, personally, in this movie in terms of charting the next version of Caesar, Caesar Mark 3.
It’s interesting, because we were looking at some pictures the other day, actually, of some photos of Rise and how much younger we all looked. And how our bodies looked buff and trim. And now we’re all sort of bent and twisted out of shape. It’s kind of like boyhood in the jungle. It’s sort of apehood, really. We’ve now come together all these times and Rocket, as a character, his arc and his story. There are moments that resonate back to the origin. There are great moments that we’ve been able to play up there where it bounces right back to the beginning…
Terry Notary (Rocket): Yeah. The journey has been real for us, as well. We’re carrying the journey of all three movies with us and it’s influencing our characters, I think.
The Humans Are Not Villains
While Gary Oldman's Dreyfus and Toby Kebbell's Koba were both antagonists in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, they were also sympathetic characters who were a product of their past experiences and the post-apocalyptic world of the time. War for the Planet of the Apes features the most-lethal human threat in the series but that doesn't mean anyone will be painted as a black and white good guy or bad guy either. In particular, Serkis believes that War for the Planet of the Apes, like the installments before it, present a balanced worldview - where there are go heroes or villains.
Serkis (Caesar): We do know further down the line that it gets to a point where it’s a planet dominated by apes. That doesn’t happen in this movie and there is still room for that to develop. That’s, again, what Matt has done with the movie and what Mark and he have concocted and written, is a very balanced world view. So it isn’t judgmental either way. These two species, they are fighting for survival. It isn’t necessarily…
Notary (Rocket): Picking a side.
Serkis: It isn’t picking a side, despite the fact that it sees the world more emotionally from the apes’ point of view. It still doesn’t become black and white. The humans, again, are not out and out villains. We all have lives and they are all equally valid.
Clark (Producer): When you see the movie, I think you’ll go, “Matt Reeves is a very special director because he’s looking at all the characters and he’s thinking, ‘How can I complete everyone’s journey on every side, so if we introduce a character they're going to have set up actually pay off - they're going to come around.
They're going to start the movie here and they're going to end here.’” And that includes pretty much everybody: antagonist and protagonist.
Woody Harrelson's Character Explained
Humans might not be clear-cut villains in War for the Planet of the Apes but that doesn't mean they're all innocent either. Where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes featured a tenuous peace that is violated by apes and men on both sides, War for the Planet of the Apes features humans that are more desperate than ever - and, as a result, in need of a leader who will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to ensure their survival (and an actor capable of selling some especially tough scenes).
Clark (Producer): When we were writing the script, we thought Woody would be cool. He’s just a great actor. I hate using these words, but he’s got a serious weight to him, but he can play very tough. He’s the antagonist of the movie. Bad guy is probably selling him a little bit short. He's the antagonist because he’s against Caesar and what Caesar’s trying to accomplish. He’s after survival. He wants to win, and he believes that the apes stand in the way.
It is annihilation of the apes because to him, because man’s hubris has created these apes. And, you know, the world has now smacked man around because this virus that was released and problems have happened, and he’s now trying to navigate how to deal with it. And he's a hardliner. So apes are a very big problem for the survival of mankind.
Woody was a name we always really liked. You write the script, you talk about it, you look at it, and you’re like: “Oh, who…?” You hope to have a quality actor. You don’t want to have to go stunt casting. You want somebody that can really do it.
Game of Thrones on The Big Screen With Apes?
By now, most fans of TV and movies are familiar with the claim that we are enjoying the "Golden Age" of television - as shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and The Walking Dead, among others, have become more beloved and viewed than some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. The increase in quality drama on TV has also helped reshape the film landscape - allowing producers, like Clark, to contextualize why some sequels are not cashgrabs, given that they're continuations of stories (like on TV) that fans have are already invested in.
Clark (Producer): The truth is a lot of audience members are looking at film now almost like episodic television. You have all these great cable TV shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and you get to really document minute-by-minute segments of these people's lives and they love it. It's shot like movies now. It's just great stuff. Film is starting to take note.
So there's a lot of cynicism about, "Oh God, another redo of this, or another chapter of this thing." But the truth is, once you have great characters - and I'm not saying we do but I'm saying we're striving for great characters - once you have that, the audience wants more. We really do believe Caesar is a great character.
Members of Koba's Rebel Ape Faction Are Still Around
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes saw Caesar violate one of his people's most valued tenants: Ape not kill ape. In the aftermath of Koba's rebellion, and his death at the hands of Caesar, it would be naive to assume the ape community reunited without any further tension. Instead, Koba-loyalists remain; though, it is unclear at this point, how far they'll go to seek vengeance:
Clark (Producer): What I said to you guys before is from the past movie, there was the Koba faction of apes that did not agree with how Caesar was leading the apes. And in this movie, there's conflict inside of the apes, and there are some apes have not been on Caesar’s side. How far will they go for survival?
There was a conflict. Some saw Caesar weak; some saw Koba strong - a small percentage. Most people, most apes, in particular, aren’t going to leave Caesar. He's too good. The thing I love about the character, he's the leader you want in this world. You want these leaders in every country to be acknowledging the truth. And so it feels very real. It feels pained, and he's emotional, and he’s flawed. And he's killed Koba in the last movie, and he feels flawed because of that.
Caesar is Clint Eastwood-like in War for the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has regularly drawn comparisons to Shakespearean drama (albeit starring apes) - thanks to the rich character story at its core. However, for War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves and Clark sought to increase the series' scale without losing sight of the intimacy that made the other two Apes movies so rewarding. In the process, they conceived of a setup in which Caesar would set out on a mission (with a small band of apes) and a goal to accomplish. Describing the scenario, Clark suggested that, thematically, War for the Planet of the Apes is a western - starring Caesar as a Clint Eastwood-type character; though, audiences will have to wait for the final film to find out just how much the two have in common.
Clark (Producer): We're very point of view driven in this movie, and because we don't have television or radio, we don't have the ability to cut over to France and see what's going on with the smart apes over there. I imagine there's some humans left there that haven't died but that's still left to our imagination. We really wanted to get out of San Francisco in this movie. So one of the things that was important to Matt was, "Let's start in a battle. They're fighting military people. This is a war after all."
It looks like the Muir Woods but not the Muir Woods that were their home was burned down but we know that they've left San Francisco, it's been about two years. They didn't get too far out. They hunkered down in the woods like an ape would do and they got it on. After that, through Caesar’s conflict and turmoil, he departs with his posse. It's a western. He's Clint Eastwood in this movie.
Weta Digital Rebuilds the Apes Every Movie
In certain film franchises, studios might reuse the same CGI character models for multiple films - with little refinement or improvement. That's not the case for the Planet of the Apes series. According to the film's visual effects producer, Ryan Stafford, Weta Digital rebuilds the apes every single movie. No doubt, Weta reuses assets from the prior film to lay their foundation but employing modern toolsets and overhauling the designs means that Caesar and his apes are some of the best looking animated characters in the industry.
Ryan Stafford (VFX Producer): Weta is constantly developing new tools and procedures to render fur and things like that more efficiently, faster, better, all those things. They’ve developed a new fur pipeline that wasn’t utilized on Dawn that will be utilized on this one. It’s more about real-time lighting and efficiencies in the fur and all those things. We rebuilt the characters every movie, so we certainly keep the same design, but we’re rebuilding it with the tools that are not five years old. It’s a just a moving target with the technology game.
Biggest Technical Challenge of War for The Planet of the Apes? Snow.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Weta Digital was tasked with creating a photo-realistic Ape character - capable of delivering an emotional "human" performance. For the sequel, the filmmakers improved upon the character's design while also tackling new challenges, filming motion-capture actors in the rain - requiring extensive post-production work (to merge reality with CGI effects). Viewers who were impressed by the rain-slicked visuals of Caesar and his apes hunting in the rain will be glad to hear that Reeves intends to push the boundary forward again - this time with snow.
Stafford (VFX Producer): Snow represents a huge challenge for us. Our characters are digital, and they’re played by humans, so their footfalls are different. They have a different gait. They have crutches instead of hands and all these things. So every time the apes are walking in snow that entire path has to be digitally recreated. We basically erase all of the human footfalls and we replace it with ape footfalls. That produces a huge challenge in the sheer logistics of that.
Additionally, what snow looks like when it’s balled up and icy on the tips of fur and stuff like that is going to be a whole new challenge, and it’s going to have to be applied to the fur dynamic. Last movie we had a real big breakthrough with wetness on fur, and this movie we’re going to take that ball and run with it. We have tons of wet fur in this movie, and then the additive complexity of snow and ice on fur is going to be quite challenging but really exciting. When Matt and I were finishing the last movie, and he was just starting to think about this movie, he said to me, “Next movie: apes in snow.” Then he walked away.
We didn’t even have story at that point.
The Next Challenge in Future Apes Installments: Clothes?
Having tackled an emotive CGI ape character, apes in the rain, and apes in the show, what could be the next hurdle for Weta Digital to clear in future Planet of the Apes installments? Stafford was reluctant to say for sure, since there is no set story for Apes 4, but the VFX guru did suggest that, looking forward to where the series might need to go longterm, rendering apes in clothes, would (should it ever happen) be a significant challenge.
Stafford (VFX Producer): Well, just visual effects on a grand scale, not just our movies, CG humans are still the elusive white whale. Within the framework of our movies? Clothing. If the apes were actually wearing clothing, that would be the next level of complexity. What that looks like, whether their wearing woven materials or cloths or things like that, that would be quite challenging. We’ve talked about it quite a bit and did lots of concept art.
Don ended up abandoning the idea, not because of a technical reason, but just because it didn’t fit the narrative. This movie we really haven’t even approached the subject. As we know, the apes look cool when they aren’t wearing clothes. But, in order to tie it back into the original planet of the apes, they are obviously fully dressed in there. So at some point, that needs to be discussed, and it will be quite challenging when it is.
War for the Planet of the Apes is 95% Apes
After Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it was made clear the revival series would place apes front and center as the stars - not humans. While humans still play a significant role, the filmmakers behind War for the Planet of the Apes suggest the latest installment will be more ape-centric and feature more ape characters than the prior two films. It's hard to imagine the movie will feature, literally, 95% apes to 5% humans but the larger point being made is still apparent: more apes then ever before.
Stafford (VFX Producer): The sheer volume by which the apes are in the film is incredibly challenging. Rise was maybe 30% or so apes in the movie. Dawn was like 60 or 70%. This is like 95%. Just the sheer volume. Every day we show up on set, it is just apes, apes, apes, apes. It’s an incredibly time-consuming process. We have multiple passes that need to be done. We have tons of equipment and personnel that travel with the way to produce this movie, and now it’s happening every single day.
There is no, “Oh, we’re going to be on stage with Jason Clark and Keri Russell. I’ll be in the trailer getting caught up on emails or whatever.” No, every single day it’s apes. It’s going to present huge challenges on the backend because the whole movie is going to be resting on post-production's shoulders.
The Principle Apes Cast Play Multiple Apes
Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, and Karin Konoval might not be recognizable in their roles but they've been instrumental in crafting believable ape characters in Caesar, Rocket, and Maurice - thanks to nuanced study of how apes move and behave. For that reason, the actors, along with a few other motion-capture performers, are responsible for portraying the majority of background and supporting apes in the film as well.
Notary (Rocket): There are five of us that are going to pretty much paint the entire world of apes. So there’s thousands of apes in the film. So we’re going to be very, very busy in the volume after this. So what we do is we block the shots with as many apes as we have, which is maximum nine on the set at any given time. Mostly, we have a handful of five that we have on at all times. And then we have nine on big days, like several of the courtyard scenes and stuff like that. So what we’ll do is we’ll block the shots and we’ll get the pacing and the timing of the camera, and the lens, and the pushing and all this. And then we’ll paint in the whole world and any aftermath.
Where is Rocket at the Start of War?
Looking back, some viewers might not remember that Rocket was originally an antagonist. As the alpha ape of the San Bruno Primate Shelter responsible, Rocket introduced Caesar to the School of Hard Knocks - starting the sheltered ape's journey from family pet to rebel leader. In Dawn, Rocket returned as one of Caesar's most loyal supporters - a story-arc that will continue as the ape joins Caesar for War in the latest chapter.
Notary (Rocket): Caesar was there for me at that point. The space between the last one and this one, you just feel the friendship between Caesar and Rocket having grown through that experience, through that loss. And it gives Rocket the ability and the maturity to help Caesar with his own plight. The experience I went through and our friendship has given me the gravitas to help him through this process of this film, and to push him to go where we need to go with it.
So it’s a bit of a role reversal thing that happened in the last one, which is neat. It’s cool. And I’m a confidant to the general. I’ll talk to Caesar, but I’ll go get in the trenches with the lowliest warriors. So it’s kind of like there are no boundaries for Rocket. I don’t have to stick to one way. I can be with everyone and be a part of their world and come back and have a meeting at the council with Caesar.
It’s fun that way because I’m like the lab dog of the group, you know, herding and making sure that Caesar’s focus is clear and that his back is covered. It’s creating a safe haven for the leader to venture into the new land. And to get more cookies!
Terry Notary Worked on Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes
While the classic Planet of the Apes movies are revered for their mark on sci-fi movie history, there's no question that the modern film series have elevated the core themes and ideas of the series beyond fans' wildest expectations. Acclaim for the series seemed to come out of nowhere - considering many were not expecting Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be a genuinely good film; yet, many moviegoers forget that, only one decade earlier, Tim Burton had tried his own hand at relaunching the Apes series. While that film was significantly less successful, the lessons learned from Burton's effort have informed how the current filmmakers approach their Apes movies - an approach that is all the more apparent to the one man who was their for both versions: Terry Notary.
Notary (Rocket): Looking back, I go, “Wow. How young and naïve.” Really, we’ve come so far with the performances, at least, of the apes and the approach and the whole thing. the approach has become much more about giving them something real, make the audience treat them intelligently and delve into going deeper as human beings and knowing that is what makes a great ape: a deep, connected, rooted human being - because that’s what apes have: a depth and that no BS sort of realness and vulnerability. It’s just about tapping into that as a human and telling a good story. So we’ve come a long way from that first movie. [Laughs]
And the more we evolve with the technology, the more subtleties we can really trust are going to come through. Before, we were kind of pushing, in the first one of this run, on Rise, we felt like we needed to push it a little bit. By the second one we realized we don’t need to do that, the subtleties come through with the mo-cap now, the ability to capture the nuances and the little emotions, which you can trust that you don’t have to put the emotions in the front body. You can just let it percolate inside. And it oozes out and people can see it.
So that’s the biggest thing, is just really not thinking about telling anything, but just being it and knowing that the audience is going to understand it, and get it, and translate it in their own way. That’s kind of our approach.
Karin Konoval Describes the Andy Serkis School of Motion-Capture Acting
Motion-capture acting is becoming an increasingly important part of Hollywood blockbusters - as CGI characters continue to become more sophisticated, realistic, and capable of "emoting." It would be an understatement to call Andy Serkis a pioneer in the motion-capture industry - given that many believe the actor should (and possibly will) be the first person to be awarded an Academy Award for a CGI character performance. As a result, anyone while learning from Serkis is the best chance an actor will have in preparing for a motion-capture character, there's no question studying fro Serkis would be intimidating; yet, Konoval recalls that her first encounters with Serkis weren't about the mechanics and technology, as some might expect, they were about character.
Konoval (Maurice): I was helped very early on. Maybe we were a month into the filming of Rise when I went to Andy Serkis, and I said, because I didn’t know, working with this technology, do you have to do more? And actually, Andy said it’s the absolute reverse. And it calls on you as an actor to go do the job that I would do in playing any role, any human character - which is it find the inner truth of the character and then follow my objectives through but with this it becomes even more important.
So Andy pretty much said just go inside, and the clarity of your thought, the clarity of your intention of everything from within, you have to find (if it's possible to say) more truth within that as an actor than if your face is just going to be there. Anything that I would do as Maurice, if I didn’t have that in my body, in my mind, and in everything that I'm following through, if I didn’t take authority over that and find his integrity as an orangutan, it's going to look like crap later.
Karin Konoval on Playing a 300 Pound Male Orangutan
Playing a CGI ape would be a challenge for any actor - but that challenge is exponentially heightened when the actor is a 125 pound woman playing a 300 pound male orangutang. Yet, that's been the task that Karin Konoval has tackled throughout her three-film (so far) run in the Planet of the Apes series. Like the other ape actors, Konoval's role as fan-favorite Maurice has increased in complexity with every film. So, how does Konoval approach her War for the Planet of the Apes role?
Konoval (Maurice): The performance capture aspect and working with this technology is very interesting, for sure. The most challenging job for me as an actor is to be an orangutan and to be Maurice at, you know, 300 pounds, being a 125-pound woman. It's both liberating and challenging in different ways, than say, if you were working in hard-suit prosthetic, which I've done several roles in that, where you sit in the make-up chair for six hours in the morning and get into the full latex. And trust me, that's about, endurance-wise, that pulls a lot out of you.
One of the things that you have in hard-suit prosthetic is I can look in the mirror, and I go, “OK, there,” and I feel the mask from there. So I can look in the mirror and actually see already where I'm going. With performance capture, I have to come up with everything on an instinct first.
Besides the thoughts, and the movement, and everything, the integrity of Maurice as an orangutan is something I have to find completely from within - without any immediate visual reference. Now, because we’re on the third go-through with Maurice at this point, what is wonderful is that now I've had an opportunity over time to be able to clearly see, I can look at my own performance, and I can say, “Ah, I'm getting too light there.” So it's freeing in the sense that it's up to me to do everything, and I'm not stuck within the hard-suit prosthetic thing.
But in terms of the challenge of then creating Maurice from nothing, it's exponentially larger. Because physically, I'm a little bit more of an energized person. But as Maurice, there is no way that I can carry this level of energy. I have to bring him, all the weight and everything.
Especially for a mature male orangutan, they have a huge throat sack and everything, it’s a great deal of front body weight. And their bodies work differently than the chimps and the gorillas. Chimps and gorillas have a quadrupedal walk that involves a flatfooted back foot. With orangutans, their legs are literally half as long as their arms, and their feet function more like hands.
I find that with the weight of that even to get upright, to bring Maurice’s forward position into an upright, I've still got all of this weight here. So it makes for not as easy a transition to bipedal as it would for the chimps and gorillas. There is more that comes into my performance. I find myself often very quadrupedal because that's where Maurice’s energy is - but it's there even if he’s upright.
I'm following this deeper and enriching the journey. I'm a 54-year-old female actor, who’s done all kinds of athletic things in my life, but I am playing not just once but this growing story of a beautiful 300-pound male orangutan. it's amazing.
Konoval (Still) Visits Regularly with Real Orangutans
The Planet of the Apes series has been a life-changing project for the key Apes cast members; however, the films have also made a significant impact on Konoval in the real world as well. In researching the role of Maurice (a 300 pound male orangutan), Konoval spent time with real orangutans - forging life-long friendships with the apes themselves (as well as their trainers). Even when Konoval isn't working on an Apes movie, she still spends time with the orangutans and serves as a vocal advocate for their protection and preservation.
Konoval (Maurice): I did my research very thoroughly before. I didn’t know anything about orangutans when we started “Rise”. I did thorough research, because that's the lead kind of actor I am. So I’ll treat any character that I'm approaching, human, orangutan, you know, Wicked Witch of the West, it doesn’t really matter what it is, I'm going to go at it the same way: one thousand percent.
I felt part way through “Rise”, I'd looked at all the videos. I read all the books. I was in arm stilt training and all of this stuff. And then, I had the opportunity, I sent myself, I went down to Seattle, Washington where there was an orangutan named Towan. He lives there, and he became the heart and soul of Maurice after observing him. And he approached me, and it was sort of what he kind of gave me through osmosis that gave me Maurice.
From that moment on, I never thought about gender. I thought about mature male orangutans and the difference from female orangutans. And it's very specific. They're very solitary. They're very observant. They're hugely powerful. They long call. Females do not long call. They’re very silent: so getting all of those things in my voice and everything.
And I have to say, from the moment that I met Towan and I've been visiting with him and the other orangutans there for the last five years on my own personal time, having nothing to do with the films. So now I feel like I have a huge amount to call on.
Maurice Is Caesar's Moral Compass
As Caesar has journeyed further down the path from rebel to leader to warrior, he's been faced with more than his share of heartbreak, disappointments, and insecurity. Given that War for the Planet of the Apes could be the darkest chapter in Caesar's journey so far, what prevents the once lovable and carefree ape from becoming a ruthless tyrant. According to Konoval, Maurice continues to stand by Caesar's side - both as his biggest cheerleader and, when the occasion arises, the ape who will challenge Caesar to take the right (albeit more difficult) path.
Konoval (Maurice): I feel he has because of what's inherently written on the page as part of the story. Maurice’s journey grows. There he was in “Rise,” making friends with Caesar and then his story expands somewhat within “Dawn,” And with this film, his journey and his story is richer, and deeper, and fuller, and fuller, and fuller. So you get to see so much more of him on many levels and in terms of interactions and choices that he makes along the way. So psychologically, yes.
From my perspective, just as the actor playing Maurice, because I see the consideration of things that Maurice must undertake, within the confines of this storytelling, is richer, and richer, and richer, and richer. I think that's something that's already inherent in him. I get to explore and then you will eventually get to see and experience much more of Maurice’s thought process and how these things are considered. Maurice’s number one commitment, since meeting Caesar in the cages of the San Bruno “sanctuary” was linking with him and a devotion to him as an advisor, as his conscience, pretty much.
So I would say that Maurice’s role here is a furthering of that. He will not leave Caesar’s side, and he will always be there for him. At times if he has to communicate something that is possibly not, you know, received immediately with the most enthusiasm, he will challenge Caesar at times. But within that, his devotion to him never changes.
Apes Sign Language is a Slang Hybrid
Ever since Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his fellow apes have been using sign language to communicate - which makes since given that signing has become a means by which humans and apes are able to communicate in the real world. Nevertheless, like all languages, ape signing would evolve as speakers customized and improvised. Given that the apes in the Planet of the Apes series are also becoming increasingly vocal (with Caesar now able to speak with a human-like voice), it begs the question: how accurate is the sign language used in War for the Planet of the Apes?
Notary (Rocket): I don’t know how to speak sign language. But we know our dialogue. What we try to do is we take American Sign, like certain words, specific words, like “We must escape” or whatever. But it’s like “must", we turn “must” into just real slang. So if you know sign language you can probably get it. Signers could watch it without subtitles. What we’ve done is we’ve taken dialogue like, “I think it’s time for us to go now…” You know, it’s a line of dialogue with high concept thoughts in it, we just simplify it. “We need to go now”. If you were to translate, it’s broken down into an ape version. So we’ve taken all the prepositions and all the fluidity. We've knocked it down. So they would probably go, “OK, cool. That’s probably how an ape would learn sign.”
It’s a whole other thing. We have a sign coach and we go through the whole script. And she and I went through everything. And she showed me what the sign was and I’d say, “OK. Try that. Well, this is too literal. Let’s do this and combine the two words so it feels like just more of a sweeping ape feel.” So it was a whole process of breaking it down like that. Just some things look too human, like some words.
It was a fun process working with her. And then making a video so that everyone could study their own lines, and then we’d go through and we’d refine stuff, and take things away, and simplify even more. It’s always about simplifying, it seems like, just taking more away and just getting the basic message across.
And the subtitles will read in full, because the concept was if we were to make the subtitles more basic, then it would feel that the apes weren’t having high concept thinking. And so, we’re leaving the subtitles in perfect fluid English.
Terry Notary Created Custom Arm Stilts for the Actors
When talking about the Planet of the Apes series, it's easy to focus on technological advancements in CGI characters and motion-capture performance; yet, in an industry that is also beginning to reinvest in practical effects, it's worth noting that one of the biggest upgrades on the set of War for the Planet of the Apes was redesigned arm stilts. After struggling through two films with makeshift arm stilts (to simulate an ape's body structure and posture), Notary joined forces with his brother and father to invent the "Cadillac of Arm Stilts" - which, if the actor is to be believed, he intends to market as new age fitness equipment.
Konoval (Maurice): What has been the most amazing development, for me, as Maurice, in particular, Terry Notary and his arm stilts: this man is a genius. And he has now created the Cadillac of arm stilts as far as I'm concerned. On the previous films, if you’ve seen pictures of this stuff, 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. It had that kind of a bottom on it.
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 the first film, during “Rise,” 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, this major technological advance (as far as I'm concerned), I can now roll through and give all my weight to my front arms without any kind of resistance. When it was just the flat crutch thing, I had to place and push through, which was just hell on the shoulder joint.
So, with this now, I can actually go. We have to go for long, long ways. I can give all my weight to this and just go. And even though I haven't really been doing this for a couple weeks, but it also allows me without any extra weighting of my arms, to just give my full weight to the stilts. t'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.
Notary (Rocket): They’ve always been a plaguing thing because they break, or they bend, or they get offset. The last thing you want to deal with when you are about to roll is someone’s arm extension is broken. 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.
Andy Serkis On Oscar Nominations for Motion-Capture Work
Ever since Andy Serkis wowed audiences as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, fans have wondered how long it will take the Academy Awards to recognize motion capture performances. While some actors believe the performers should be paired with special effects companies for the "Best Motion Capture Performance," others (including Serkis and Notary) believe that motion capture performances should be considered along side non-motion capture performances in acting categories. Replying a question regarding whether or not motion capture performances should be a separate category at the Academy Awards, Serkis and Notary made it clear where they stand on the issue.
Serkis (Caesar): Absolutely not. I don’t know what Terry thinks. And we don’t really talk about it. The point of the matter is that we are actors playing roles. They happen to be, in this instance, apes. But there is no difference. I mean in the scenes that we’re playing, if we were to block out the scenes as actors in costumes, it would be no different, the process is no different. The process of acting is no different. You are embodying the character. You are creating a psychology, a physicality. You are living the moment.
Notary (Rocket): It’s a different form of costume.
Serkis: Exactly. It is. And, of course there is the whole kind of gray area, seemingly, that’s seen every time it’s talked about, about animators and who takes ultimate responsibility for the character. But without question, these characters are authored by what we are doing on set. They are not authored by animators. Animators do amazing work translating, interpolating the characters in the facial performances. What we’re creating on set, if you don’t get it on the day, in the moment, on set, in front of the camera with the director and the actors, the emotional content of the scene and the acting choices, if they are not there on the day, they will never be in the movie.
So that is really important to understand. And it is understood. There are great A-list actors who are using performance capture now because they realize that there is a perception shift. Mark Rylance in The BFG. I’ve just directed The Jungle Book with Kate Blanchett and Christian Bale…
Notary: Benedict Cumberbatch…
Serkis: It’s an amazing acting tool.
Notary: I think we’re going to look back in 10 years and you are going to go, “What were we thinking?” What they need to do is a side-by-side and you see Andy’s performance without the translation of the ape. And you go, “Oh my god. Wow. If only the ape could be as good as him.”
If anything, I think the challenge is for the animators to be able to translate all the most amazing things that are happening. Having had the privilege of working with Andy and having been in scenes with him, I’m so blown away by his performances with this character. It’s mind blowing. He should be nominated for an Oscar. I think he should have won last year.
Tom Cruise Wants to Play an Ape in the Planet of the Apes Series
One of the most intriguing aspects of motion-capture performance, any actor can technically portray any character - meaning that some of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood could disappear entirely behind CGI makeup. The Apes actors know this to be true - as the human performers deliver emotional and believable interpretations of evolved chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, among others. However, as motion capture becomes increasingly respected in the industry, it won't be long before big names see the technology as a chance to push themselves beyond their comfort zone - and megastar Tom Cruise might be on of the first to give it a shot.
Clark (Producer): I love working on these movies. Fox has been great. Typically, when you make tent pole movies like the one we made last time, and Jason Clark, who’s my friend, Jason Clark is not Tom Cruise. Or he's not Denzel Washington. But we said we really loved Jason in Zero Dark Thirty, and they said, “We did, too.” And we said, “We really would like to put him in as our human lead.” And they were like,“That’s cool,” not like, “You've got to go get Tom Cruise,” who is great, too. But if we had Tom Cruise show up in this movie, you guys would be like, “Whaaaa?”
Although Cruise, I produced Oblivion. He’s a friend and he loves these movies. So he’s always, like, emailing me: “I want to play an ape…” He’s always messing with me. He’s like, “I've figured it out. I'm going to be this ape in the next movie.”
War for the Planet of the Apes opens in U.S. theaters on July 14th, 2017.
- War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) release date: Jul 14, 2017