Tool brings humanity to CGI creations

While the lifelike simians in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” represent groundbreaking performance-capture technology, the filmmakers’ first priority was using that tool to bring humanity to their CGI creations.

The latest installment in the franchise was painstakingly crafted on all levels, given its high profile as a key summer tentpole for 20th Century Fox and its status as the first feature from Peter Chernin’s Chernin Entertainment banner.

“Apes” is a “huge visual effects movie,” said Chernin, who produced the pic with Chernin Entertainment film prexy Dylan Clark. It contains the second-highest number of vfx scenes of any Fox pic behind only “Avatar.”

But Chernin stressed that “Apes” is “not about razzle-dazzle action. It’s about smart storytelling with sophisticated effects that draw audiences closer to the characters.”

At a screening event last month, experts from WETA Digital, the visual effects studio behind the film’s apes, explained how it created portable performance-capture rigs to help pick up the many LED markers placed all over an actor’s face. They measured not only the facial movements but which facial muscles were firing, allowing filmmakers to record the nuances of actor Andy Serkis’ facial gestures, then translate them into the CG image.

So while Serkis’ actual face is never seen in the Rupert Wyatt-helmed film, his movements are.

“I would hope that audiences are as emotionally involved and as invested in him as any lead actor this summer,” Chernin said.

Filmmakers also shot many of Serkis’ mocap scenes on practical sets with the actors — often outdoors and on location — a distinct difference from other mocap-heavy films shot in indoor empty motion capture “volumes.” That helped thesps, including James Franco, Freida Pinto and John Lithgow, by allowing them to play off of Serkis instead of a greenscreen.

Clark said that having Serkis acting out main ape Caesar’s motions and facial expressions “results in a more captivating, intimate, intense performance.”

Striking the right balance between visual effects and storytelling is the central challenge for a film that seeks to align the “Apes” brand with the necessities of a 21st century tentpole. Some observers questioned whether using “Planet of the Apes” in the title was a risky move given that “Rise” takes place in the present day.

“We ultimately felt that the rewards outweighed the risks in pursuing this film,” Chernin said. “This is as pure an origins story as I’ve ever seen, and we understood the value of the franchise brand and wanted to take advantage of that.”

While Chernin emphasized the choice to do an origins story rather than a reimagining, the tone of “Apes,” which bows today, is certainly different from that of previous films in the franchise.

“The most relevant analogy to this is the ‘Batman’ franchise and … Chris Nolan’s reinvention of that, which felt a little more serious, darker, contemporary….cooler,” Chernin said.

Chernin and Clark believed that setting “Apes” in present-day America added relevance for auds. Marketing the film internationally, however, required taking overseas tastes into account: According to the producers, international trailers focused more on character and story than the domestic trailers did (though Chernin points out that the trailers have aligned more in recent weeks).

While many studios push for splashy 3D tentpoles, the producers and Wyatt have said they didn’t feel pressure from Fox to make the film stereoscopic. More than that, the shoot was quick — July through September of last year with pre-production going in March — and there wouldn’t have been time, according to Chernin, to make the film in 3D.

But, just like the original 1968 film, the latest version aims to reflect the cultural zeitgeist.

“The deeper resonance is ultimately about science and responsibility,” Chernin said. “This is ultimately a very cautionary tale about science gone amok and about mankind’s use of science.”

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