‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ takes motion-capture into real world

April 25, 2014 | 5:00 a.m.
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Caesar, the leader of the ape nation, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (right) (in performance capture suit) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a representative of a colony of human survivors, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Jason Clarke in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (20th Century Fox)

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Jason Clarke and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit) in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), the leader of the ape nation, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) ponders his next move as he faces a threat posed by a colony of humans in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

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Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is surrounded by apes as he tries to make peace in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

A troop of men in skin-tight motion-capture suits darted across a sparse set inside a Manhattan Beach studio on a late October morning. A grid of more than 50 cameras recorded their movements as they grunted and screeched their way toward a gray platform where Andy Serkis crouched. The 49-year-old actor snarled and flared his nostrils, stretching the white markers painted on his face.

Anyone watching the scene unfold on the bank of computer monitors tended by the Weta Digital visual effects team, however, would have seen a herd of chimpanzees scampering by.

“Good, OK, let’s keep rolling, and let’s do one more even more territorial,” called out “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” director Matt Reeves. “Just a little harder, a little louder.”

When it comes to helming the sequel to 2011’s breakout hit “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Reeves’ mission is to raise the stakes for the next installment in the Fox franchise, due in theaters July 11.

Set 10 years after the earlier movie, a reboot of the sci-fi franchise inspired by Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel that brought in more than $480 million at the worldwide box office, the new film posits a world where apes have developed their own civilization and human sightings are rare.

When a group of survivors — including Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, a single father and former architect; Keri Russell’s Ellie, a nurse; and Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, the leader of the human colony in the ruins of San Francisco — seeks to restore electrical power to San Francisco, it comes into conflict with the rapidly expanding tribe of apes, led by Serkis’ Caesar, the orphaned offspring of a laboratory chimp who has evolved into the leader of his own expanding tribe that includes wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), teenage son River (Nick Thurston) and a council of close friends.

“Caesar’s created a society in which there is complete equality between orangutans and chimpanzees and gorillas,” Serkis said. “There are a set of beliefs that they’ve collectively imposed, and there are strict tenets of what they should and shouldn’t do. He’s an egalitarian leader.”

“It’s an ape-point-of-view movie,” added Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”). “The apes are still coming into being, so it has a kind of majestic but also primitive, tribal aspect to it. … Once you kind of get into that world, then all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh, there are some humans left.’ The story really is about who will inherit the Earth. This is the one moment where it could have been ‘Planet of the Humans and the Apes.’”

To immerse audiences in the ape-centric world, Reeves pushed performance-capture technology to new terrain. Traditionally, motion-capture movies are filmed in a studio on a stage called a “volume,” with actors’ performances digitally enhanced by animators and visual effects technicians. “Dawn,” however, was filmed almost entirely on location, with cast and crew trudging through the sweltering humidity of New Orleans and the freezing forests of Vancouver, Canada, lighting gear and enormous 3-D cameras in tow.

Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (20th Century Fox)

Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” ( 20th Century Fox)

“We’re in the woods; we’re not creating the woods,” said Reeves, who takes over the franchise from “Rise” director Rupert Wyatt. “It was crazy hard, but what’s going to be cool about the aesthetic is that you’re going to feel very grounded in the real world, so just the one fantasy is that they’re intelligent apes. No one has done that yet to the level that we did, so it should have a really distinctive feel and look.”

Reeves also looked to replace animation with performance-capture acting when it came to action scenes, casting parkour athletes as many of the apes for stunt scenes.

“These parkour guys who can move like humans doing amazing things have learned how to do all of that like apes,” Reeves said. “It’s all going to feel very real-word because we had amazingly talented stunt people.”

Acclaimed choreographer and stunt coordinator Terry Notary, who reprises his role as tough-guy chimp Rocket in “Dawn,” trained the actors and parkour artists in ape movement and behavior.

“He has this beautiful way of, if something’s wrong, he’s like, ‘See, you’re doing it like this. And what you need to do is this,’” said Toby Kebbell, who plays Caesar’s trusted friend Koba. “And you realize it’s the hip or the knee or the foot’s slightly turned in the wrong direction. It’s weird, the subtleties it takes to make it real.”

Despite the physical challenges of portraying a chimp — including galloping on arm-stilts and working in extreme weather — the performers’ real emphasis was on emotion and relationships, Serkis said.

“[Reeves wanted] to create the right atmosphere for the actors to really get at the heart of the story, rather than it being a kind of whiz-bang special-effects bonanza,” he said. “It’s not about that. You forget that apart from the technology that we’re wearing, it’s all about performance. It’s entirely about the truth of the drama.”

– Noelene Clark  | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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