Actor Steve Zahn—known for his roles in That Thing You Do, Riding in Cars With Boys, and Dallas Buyers Club—once stumbled onto an online post about his role in War for the Planet of the Apes that read, “I can’t believe Steve Zahn is going to be the voice of Bad Ape.”
“I thought, ‘The voice? My God!’” he says. “The role was a lot of work. It was five months of pain. Performance capture? I had no clue what that meant. When I arrived and started training, I realized how physical it was.
“What you bring to the performance is really what’s seen in the final product,” he continues. “They can make you look like an ape, but they can’t make you move like an ape, or give you a character. Those traits, those are things that actors come up with. When I went into it I didn’t know that would be the case. I thought there would be technical things that would inhibit me. But there wasn’t anything, other than a small camera mounted on a helmet 12 inches in front of my nose to record every second of my face. That was the only thing I had to get used to. Other than that, we were apes—we just happened to be wearing grey jumpsuits, backpacks and helmets with dots all over us.”
The performance, Zahn says, felt very much like the experimental theater he did in his youth at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. “When we were quadruped, we used arm extenders so that we had the ability to run. In post, our arms were elongated. When you see us running across the prison yard, we were running across the prison yard. When you see us mounted on a horse or in three feet of snow, that’s what we did. And yet the acting is simple, truthful, pure. I was really blown away by it. I knew it was going to be special.”
War for the Planet of the Apes is the third installment in this reboot of the 1960s-’70s classic sci-fi franchise. It takes place a few years after the second, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and a decade after the first, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). This film opens with, as the title suggests, interspecies war: The human military, led by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, is bent on eradicating the intelligent ape population. After suffering horrible losses at human hands, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) leaves his simian survivors and sets forth to extract vengeance on the Colonel. Caesar’s dark quest forces both ape and man to grapple with their own ideas of morality in an epic final confrontation.
Zahn plays Bad Ape, one of a band of tagalongs that accompanies Caesar on his mission. The actor sees his character as a mischievous kid who can’t sit still in kindergarten—he picked up English from his zookeeper owners, who constantly reprimanded him, hence the name. He’s the film’s comic relief, but also a tragic figure.
“He was heartbreaking,” Matt Reeves says. “I knew who Steve was as an actor; he’s really funny. But what really got me in our talks was how emotional he was. He read a scene for me, the one where Caesar and Bad Ape are talking about their children, and he read it over Skype and I immediately started crying. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, you have to be Bad Ape.’”
Many of the cast and crew involved in the making of War for the Planet of the Apes liken the film to an epic Western à la Sergio Leone, though Zahn—with that theater background—is quick to point to the raw emotion of King Lear.
“You are going on this journey with Caesar,” Reeves says. “He wants revenge against the Colonel, whom he perceives as an absolute monster. But then you start to understand the Colonel’s behavior and you begin to question: What would you do to save your own species? That was the intention—to suddenly have the tables turned, to make you question what you had been feeling previously. The whole thing is a revenge movie where you don’t want him to take revenge—because, again, that is what Caesar is all about. He has to be released from wanting his revenge.”
Reeves believes it’s crucial for those mixed emotions to bring depth to the characters and story, whether it be in an extreme close-up, or in large, action-filled vistas. The effect is reminiscent of the classic sequence in Shane when Ryker, the cattle baron terrorizing the townspeople, confronts the protagonist and explains his motivations. You understand the cattleman, but his actions are wrong. And as in Shane, there are no simple characters or easy answers here.
This isn’t the first Apes movie for Reeves: While Rise was directed by Rupert Wyatt, Reeves was tapped to helm the second movie, Dawn. Before, the New York-born moviemaker had made his name with the 2008 disaster thriller Cloverfield and the crackerjack low-budget vampire film Let Me In (2010). (Next up, he joins the DC Extended Universe by directing The Batman, set for a 2019 release.)
“This movie is heavy duty, man,” Zahn continues. “There aren’t five seconds that go by without real tension. You have two species moving in completely opposite directions, one getting smarter and stronger, the other seeing everything being chipped away.”
To get back to the central misconception, though—that the film’s incredible performance-capture technology means the actors are merely doing voicework—perhaps it’s better to consider them actors in a different form of make-up: like Eric Stoltz in Mask, John Hurt in The Elephant Man, or Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley (the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man) in The Wizard of Oz. They’re performers benefiting from the next stage of the Darwinian evolution of film make-up.
“Everybody says Andy Serkis is ‘an excellent performance capture artist,’” Reeves says. “But that means absolutely nothing. Andy is an incredible actor. The performance capture records his performance. When he plays Gollum [in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit], King Kong or Caesar, it’s his talent, his essence, that comes through. He’s able to play a 40-foot-tall ape, a five-foot-tall chimp—and Gollum!”
Moviemakers didn’t always have this philosophy of merging the intangible with the technical. “When we worked with Andy on The Lord of the Rings, performance capture was an afterthought,” says Joe Letteri, a senior visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, the Peter Jackson-co-owned FX studio behind the Apes movies. “He was just there to provide a voice. Then we realized he was an actor and could interact with other actors. So we had to go back, have him watch his performance and recreate it on a separate stage.”
Back then—the early aughts—the whole endeavor was markedly different. “You couldn’t shoot motion capture together with live action, because you had a motion picture camera with its own set of lights and cinematography, and a motion capture—mocap—camera, with its own set of lights. The two couldn’t interfere with each other,” says Letteri. “It was a problem figuring out how to integrate the two. But we finally cracked it on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we didn’t have to ask Andy to do his performance twice. He could be in the moment with James Franco and the other actors. It’s one of the first times in a hundred years where a new department in film, a performance-capture department, became part of the stage.”
From there, due to story demands, Weta continued to push its tech forward, shooting exteriors in the forest and rain for Dawn, and in the grand, snowy locations Reeves chose for War. The production shot in Canada, including Vancouver and the Kananaskis mountain range in Alberta; as many as eight large-format Arri Alexa 65 cameras were used during the shoot.
“This is all pretty delicate technology,” Letteri says. “It has to be accurate to get what you need from the performance. To get it to work reliably in harsh conditions with lighting and shooting setups and not slow down production is a challenge. For the actors, director and DP Michael Seresin you want it to be invisible, natural. When they’re working with Andy, they’re making their movie. The fact we’re going to make him look like Caesar later on isn’t something they should worry about while they’re shooting. In fact, actors are very good at this because it relies on imagination.”
Letteri notes that facial animation for the apes was one of the biggest hurdles for Weta. After all, the endlessly expressive human face is arguably the foundational element of all cinema, yet in the Apes movies, Weta often removes it from the equation.
“It’s all about preserving the subtlety of the actors playing those characters,” agrees Dan Lemmon, another Weta visual effects supervisor, “making sure our digital characters perform and emote in a way that can really connect with the audience, so that they can carry the story when there are no human actors to be seen. The actors don’t look like chimpanzees. The facial anatomy, the shape of their mouths, jaws and noses, is quite different. The mouth in particular— the muzzle extends quite a bit further. Certain facial expressions become a real challenge because if you match the actor too closely, the apes can start to look humanish and that becomes unsettling. So how do you create the same emotional affect on the ape faces that we see on the human faces? We put a lot of attention to making them look as alive, expressive and realistic as possible.”
For editor William Hoy, who also cut Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, to work on a film where so much of the budget went to visual effects, yet the emphasis was placed on performance, was extremely satisfying.
“I think what Matt did very well is make the film look like it was just shot, nothing else” he says. “The angles match, like we actually had these cameras on the physical sets, though a lot of the backgrounds were virtual. An example: If you were to see what I put together when Caesar finally meets his antagonist, the Colonel, in the final CG-realized version of that scene, you’d see that almost everything is unmanipulated in there. It’s pure performance from Andy and Woody. It could have been a stage play.” For other sequences, Hoy explains, his team was able to take an actor’s head from one performance, turn it slightly and put it on another body for perhaps a wide or over-the-shoulder shot.
Besides facial features, another thing Weta loses sleep over? Fur. “From the Wargs [giant wolves] in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” Lemmon says, “right up through King Kong, The Jungle Book and all three Planet of the Apes movies, we are still finding ways to make fur more realistic.”
“In Dawn, when I said we were going to be shooting in a rainforest and the characters were going to be fishing, Weta said, ‘Well, if they step into the water, they can’t get out,’” Reeves recalls. “‘We can have them partially in the water but we don’t yet know how to do the wet fur coming out of the water.’ I said, ‘What about the opening shot? It’s raining and I want beads of water on the fur.’ They said, ‘Well, that might be ready when we’re at the end of the whole process.’ We showed at Comic-Con and we didn’t have any drops yet. Finally, on the last week, just when I began to think I wasn’t going to get the shot I wanted, it came in. There were little drops of water on the fur and I was blown away.”
War features a scene where Caesar falls into water. “He pops out, grabs onto a stone. There isn’t anything real,” Reeves marvels. “The pipeline for everything has increased to such a degree that the fur, the detail on the skin, the moisture, all of those things are perfect.”
Many of the sets in War were either filled in or completely built virtually (in order to have actors interacting on the correct angle). This work was overseen by production designer James Chinlund, who worked closely with the parallel Weta design unit to create from the practical references. For instance, the apes’ hidden fortress is a mix of practical and virtual sets.
“The part of the catacombs where the soldiers are walking up with their laser scopes was practical,” Reeves says. “We built Caesar’s bedroom with the fireplace and waterfall. The part we didn’t build was the giant entryway and the council room where they all meet when Caesar’s son returns.”
When all that’s said and done, though, Reeves doesn’t want to get too far away from his film’s underlying strength: performance. “As Steve said to me, you have to always be on and in the moment [doing performance capture]. And I think that for everybody, it shows.” MM
War for the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters July 14, 2017, courtesy of 20th Century Fox. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.