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April 13, 2011

‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’: Weta wizards speak (but the monkeys won’t)

Posted in: Movies

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” chat, Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. (PDT)

Caesar of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (Weta Digital)

There’s a key difference between the simian stars in every prior version of “Planet of the Apes” and the ones who will appear in this summer’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” —  the power of speech.

Caesar has got to carry the scenes with no dialogue,” said Joe Letteri, who is supervising the digital creation of the apes in the film for Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based company that was behind the visual effects in “Avatar,” “King Kong” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “We had to figure out how to portray a lot of the emotion just through the eyes, which is something we learned on Kong and with ['Lord of the Rings' villain] Gollum.”

In the future-set 1968 Charlton Heston film that launched the “Planet of the Apes” brand, monkeys rule — talking and functioning like humans — and humans are speechless slaves who are viewed as livestock. This summer’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” takes place in present day and traces how those species evolved to play such different roles in society. James Franco is a scientist testing an Alzheimer’s cure on apes, and Andy Serkis —the Olivier of motion capture after his portrayals of Gollum and King Kong — is Caesar, a test subject who begins mutating.

“It’s the origins story, so that gave us a lot of freedom,” said Letteri, who will be speaking to fans in a live Facebook chat Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. in which he’ll show how the Weta artists created the photorealistic apes of the film.

In both the Heston franchise and the Tim Burton “reimagination” in 2001, the apes were played by recognizable actors in suits and makeup. In the new version, the apes are portrayed by actors such as Serkis in motion-capture suits and then digitally rendered by Weta artists. “Our chimps have to look like real chimps,” Letteri said. “In the original franchise, you could tell they were actors in suits. Here we’re seeing how the evolution happened. We have to go to reality.”

As in the original Heston films, the apes that appear are varied, with gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. The filmmakers used the same facial head rig that was deployed to capture the Na’vi of “Avatar,” but unlike those characters, the faces won’t reflect the features of the actors playing them. “They’ll be recognizably distinctive due to differences in size, how dense the fur is, how big the ears are, different colorations to the face and the muzzle,” Letteri said.

Because Serkis is close in size to Caesar (unlike when he played Kong), the actor was present in his mo-cap suit even for live-action scenes such as those shot at a park and an office in Vancouver. “It was great for getting the emotional beats, the eye contact with other performers,” Letteri said.

The film, which is directed by a little-known British director named Rupert Wyatt, has been monkeyed with quite a bit — there have been multiple release-date changes and a late-in-the-game title switch away from the simpler “Rise of the Apes.” None of that matters much to the team in New Zealand. “I’m not in on those decisions,” said Letteri, who noted that there were still about 400 Weta artists working to finish the film in time for its Aug. 5 release. “All I know is, we have the same amount of work to do.”

– Rebecca Keegan

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