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‘Apes’ Takes Motion Capture to New Heights

Climactic brawl is staged on imaginary skyscraper

It is without a doubt one of the biggest-budget, highest-grossing and most critically acclaimed films in history to be directed, at least in part, over Skype.

One of the advantages for director Matt Reeves in the extensive motion-capture work that defined the production and eventual look of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — a technology with which he admits he had no experience prior to filming — was that he could, three weeks before the film was due to be finished, rewrite the ending from his L.A. office and send the lines to Andy Serkis, who plays the ape Caesar in the film. Serkis then recorded the dialogue from his home in England with Reeves providing direction from 5,000 miles away via video conferencing.

The resulting audio was sent to the effects wizards at Weta, who reworked the rendering of the scene around the previously filmed footage of Serkis in motion-capture gear to match the new lines, and just like that, the film had a brand new ending.

Reeves says the goal for most of the film, Oscar-nominated for its visual effects, was to ground the apes in reality by shooting as much as possible in physical locations, which forced the Weta team to push their performance-capture technology into the next stage of its evolution.

“The biggest thing on the performance capture side was that we completely overhauled all of our equipment so that we could take it not just on location but out into the elements,” says visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon. “We could let it get rained on and take it up the sides of mountains, places we wouldn’t have been able to go before without it getting destroyed.”

But the challenge of the final scene, a climactic brawl atop a crumbling San Francisco skyscraper between ape leader Caesar and would-be usurper Koba, played by Toby Kebbel, meant the production had to move to a completely virtual space, at James Cameron’s Lightstorm studios in Manhattan Beach.

“There would be no safe way for us to shoot that sequence, and it wouldn’t be practical to go up and shoot in an unfinished skyscraper,” Reeves explains. “Basically, it’s a stage that’s a big fluorescent box, and you create things that represent the set, but the set isn’t there. And that was the hardest thing for me to do.”

Reeves says the team wanted the fights in the film to look real and messy, and viewed videos of chimpanzees fighting to get an idea of what this scene might look like in the wild, knowing that Caesar’s and Koba’s intellectual abilities meant they could do more than the average ape. Staging the scene between two apes was difficult in its own right, not to mention doing it on an imaginary set.

“The thing that’s hard was, how do I figure out what the shot is, because I’m not looking at a set,” Reeves recalls. “We ended up having to choose the camera angles after the fact, so we essentially built a performance in virtual space through Andy and Toby and the stunt performers. Weta played back the performances with a virtual (camera), and I would try and find all of the shots.” The spectacle of the fights was an impressive accomplishment for Lemmon and the visual effects team, but he says their proudest moments came in quieter scenes.

“For us the things that are really exciting are the scenes where you have human actors playing alongside digital characters, and you totally believe their connection to one another and their presence in the scene, whether they’re a human or ape,” Lemmon says. “It’s the kind of (thing) we wouldn’t have been able to do six or seven years ago.”

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