Michael Bergeron
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War for the Planet of the Apes: An Interview with Andy Serkis & Joe Letteri

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Actor Andy Serkis and Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri work on the cutting edge of performance capture technology. Some of their collaborations include Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; Kong in King Kong, both movies for director Peter Jackson; and Caesar in The Planet of the Apes Trilogy.

Separately the two have amassed numerous credits with Letteri currently working with James Cameron on no less than three Avatar sequels. As the senior special effects supervisor for the company WETA, Letteri has won five Academy Awards including one for technical achievement.

Serkis was acting in movies and television for a decade before the development of motion capture.

About his role in the 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan themed dramedy Topsy-Turvy Serkis noted to Free Press Houston in a phone interview: “Mike Leigh is a brilliant actor’s director. He allows you to investigate your character on a level, which up to that point I’d never experienced. You’re burying yourself in a character for months before you even shoot. That teaches you an awful lot.”

Serkis and Letteri are promoting the latest Apes movie War for the Planet of the Apes. “Matt [Reeves] really wanted to go wide on this film, working with the depth of field. He wanted the scope of a big exodus,” says Letteri about the director.

photo: Doane Gregory

Starting with an armed assault on the apes waterfall-protected lair by a renegade army squad led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), War for the Planet of the Apes subsequently turns into a prison escape movie. Caesar infiltrates the Colonel’s prison camp where other apes are forced to work as slave labor.

Virtual cinematography plays a large part in the filmmaking process although most of the prison is a practical set. “Virtual cinematography is synonymous with virtual production. You’re shooting a film that has visual effects and some component of it is not going to be real,” explains Letteri.

“Anything that can be created in front of a camera we overlay on top of that. The set is built. We scan the set and build it in the computer. Because when we go to photograph our characters, even if the set is live action, we need to know what the interaction is. So when Caesar puts his arm through some bars that are physically built we need to know what’s there.

“We need to record the lighting that Michael Seresin [Director of Photography] did for any live action components, which goes to the lighting of Caesar as a character.

“The big aspect is you’re trying to match everything including the photography and at some point you have to branch out from what is there. There are shots that are completely digital shots. The characters may have been captured using very rudimentary props.

“For example, the battle at the end of Dawn [of the Planet of the Apes], the big fight between Caesar and Koba that happens on top of the tower — that was done on a virtual stage. It’s the same technique we developed for Avatar where the director can look into the camera and see the world and the action through the viewfinder. But there is no physical world there,” says Letteri.

About the prison set built by James Chinlund [Production Designer] and his crew, “The place was a hellhole actually,” says Serkis.

“It was as you might imagine complete with the bars and the cages, the train tracks, the trains. We were shooting this thing during the Canadian winter. The actors playing human can dress with layers of coats. But I didn’t get a break because I was wearing a Lycra body suit.”

“One time we’re shooting in the rain and Matt says ‘We need more rain,’ and so they dump even more rain on the actors,” adds Letteri.

As the third film in the current Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes takes Caesar from a chimp to a full grown adult. “For me this part of Caesar’s journey was physically easier in the sense that I was not quadrapedding as much as the young Caesar. I wasn’t using that part of my body. Caesar is brutalized quite a lot in this movie. Everyday I’m thrown into a cage or getting scrapped up, so you want to be fit.

“If you look at the journey of Caesar over the three movies, first Caesar was a young chimpanzee so that’s how I played him as an infant. High energy, lot of swinging, hanging on things.

“In Dawn, Caesar becomes more human. More bipedal. I used to wear weights to make my boy a little heavier. For War I used quite heavy weights. It gives you the sense of the weight on his shoulders,” says Serkis. “The point of performance capture technology is that it captures all the subtle facial movements, breaths, and the words that you say.”

A pivotal scene in the middle of War finds Caesar face to face with his nemesis The Colonel in the latter’s office in the prison camp. “Caesar at the beginning of this movie is the empathetic leader. This ape knows there are no winners in war,” says Serkis.

“His personal loss at the beginning of the movie catapults him on this journey of revenge and hatred, specifically towards Woody’s character. Both species are hanging on for dear life, and that scene shows there are no good guys or bad guys. We as an audience no longer see The Colonel as a despot but as a human being who also has undergone huge sacrifices, and personal loss.

Serkis adds director to his resume with the film Breathe, a true story about a young man struck down with polio, set for an October release and starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. “It’s about triumph over adversity, but not told in a mawkish sentimental disability manner,” says Serkis.

Breathe will actually be Serkis’ sophomore directorial feature. Serkis previous directed an all-star version of The Jungle Book, set for release next year with a cast that includes Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christian Bale.

“We are in post-production as we speak. Ours is very different than the Disney version. A lot darker, it’s a Mowgli-centric story. And it’s shot on location.”

War for the Planet of the Apes opens wide starting Wednesday night.