‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ brings virtual simians to life



The simians who have forged a civilization in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are at a crossroads with their human counterparts, 10 years after a virus rendered homo sapiens virtually extinct – save for a small band of survivors eking out an existence in the ruins of San Francisco.

The film’s stunning effects were created by Weta Digital, the same team that did the groundbreaking work in 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Director Matt Reeves, who worked with the film’s star, Keri Russell, on the 1990s WB hit “Felicity,” had some reservations about taking on a project so dependent on digital effects. 

“My biggest fear going into it – because I’ve never done motion capture before – was would the technology get in the way with my relationship with the actors?” Reeves explained. “Because to me, as a storyteller, the most important thing is the actors. What I discovered very quickly was that it actually wasn’t an impediment at all.”

During the filming of “Dawn,” 85 percent of which was shot in Vancouver and New Orleans in native 3D, Weta Digital had dozens of technicians and artists on set. For any scene involving an ape actor, Weta Digital had 50 motion capture cameras and eight witness capture cameras to record every movement. The footage required some imagination in the editing room.

'My biggest fear going into it...was would the technology get in the way with my relationship with the actors?'

- Director Matt Reeves

“When you’re cutting the material, you’re looking at a shot that has Andy Serkis with a camera on, he’s got these dots on him – and he’s not an ape – and you’re responding emotionally to him, but then you have to block out about 90 percent of what you’re seeing and pretend it’s not there,” Reeves explained. “So you spend about a year of working on this material because it takes so long for these guys to get these shots going because they’re so complicated and you don’t see them until very late, so there’s a huge leap of faith.”

“Basically, we shoot pure performance capture on the stage – it’s very abstract,” visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon of Weta Digital explained. “You’re just getting the blocking – you’re not getting the individual shots. For somebody who’s used to building their story, thinking about shots, you can get ideas, but it’s real tough to make decisions and get your head around it. We try to come up [with] ways to make it simpler, but it’s still a little bit abstract.”

“None of what you see on the apes was from the actors – it was all digital,” added senior visual effects artist Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri. “There’s nothing real on anything that you see.”

Karin Konoval, who reprised her role as Maurice, an ex-circus orangutan who now serves as a wizened adviser to Caesar, the ape leader, was stunned by her digital transformation. 

“My jaw hung open, not just at the finished image of Maurice, but of every single ape in the entire film,” Konoval told said of her reaction to seeing the premiere of “Dawn of the Planet Apes” in San Francisco last month. “I have enormous appreciation that Weta was able to capture my performance so meticulously. The incredible work they do for outer Maurice, in terms of the digital makeup of his hair and the work with moisture, was amazing.”

Konoval prepared for her role by studying the orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She spent most of her time with 46-year-old Towan, learning how to move and act like the great ape. 

“(Orangutans) move differently from gorillas and chimpanzees,” Konoval said of the arboreal great ape, which has the strength of six men and arms that span seven feet. “Gorillas, especially the silverbacks, have an arch in their backs and it’s a stiffer knuckle walk, and they have a strength that is very solid. But orangutans are very yogic, they’re very agile, they’re very silent – except for the mature males with their long calls and some grumblings – but basically they’re very silent, watchful and solitary. So that brings with it a certain psychological state.”

Maurice was created by capturing Konoval’s performance with technology developed by Weta Digital – along with some help from a very uncomfortable suit. “Every morning, you wrestle with the Velcro,” Konoval explained. “It takes a good 10 minutes to get into the suit – and the suits are tight! Then the team goes to work on you, attaching the sensor markers that are all run on wires.”

Konoval had more than 50 reflective dots placed on her face for the motion capture cameras to read even her most subtle expressions and muscle movements. “The dots have to be absolutely exact,” said Konoval. “They’re based on scans of our bodies and faces. There’s a lot of procedures that go to making sure that they have every bit of my physiology – they have scans of stuff – I don’t even know what they were scanning! They could build a virtual Karin, easy!”

“Dawn” may have some of the year’s most astonishing special effects, but for Reeves, it all came back to telling the story of how Planet Earth eventually became the “Planet of the Apes.” 

“The conceit of the story is that the animals have taken over the planet,” explained Reeves. “But the secret of the story – and the secret of the metaphor – is that we are animals. And so by looking into the faces of apes, and seeing them struggling with their nature, we really are looking at ourselves.”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens nationwide on July 11.