Mike Seymour digs into the process of turning mocap actors into living breathing digital apes for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes focused on a scientist who adopted an ape in the science-run-amok break-out hit film of 2011. Dawn of Planet of Apes focuses on an ape who deals with Shakespearean issues of betrayal, family and conflict. While Rise was lead by a human cast with amazing ape effects, Dawn is an ‘ape film’, with the principal actors – the lead actors – as digital primates.
Ironically, Dawn is a more ‘human’ story than Rise and delivers as much nuanced acting from the leads as it does action or drama effects work. In short, Weta Digital delivers Gollum-like character impact, but in the lead ape roles. Away from fully animated features, we have not seen digital characters so successfully carry the emotional heavy lifting of lead ‘actors’ in a major feature film. From Star Wars to The Hobbit, digital characters have had key but supporting roles. If you look at the film’s marketing, the one face on the poster is the lead actor and he is not real, but watching the film you almost immediately forget this. Furthermore, Caesar’s performance could be argued to not even be the most gripping in the film. In a movie with a digital lead actor, he ends up almost being outshone by the incredible performance of his supporting digital actor Koba.
Set 10 years after the virus outbreak that ended Rise, this follow-up film finds the enhanced Caesar in a new ape society in the Redwood forest north of San Francisco. Isolated, the apes have built a strong family-oriented community with order and structure. With the re-appearance of man and their guns, Caesar must explore if it is possible to trust and co-exist with humans again or face the prospect of ending years of peaceful remoteness with bloody conflict. Koba features strongly in the film, from the opening hunting scene with a heroic saving of Caesar’s life when a bear threatens his son, to the film’s gripping climax. In Rise, Koba had a much smaller part, but his former cruel treatment at the hands of the viscious laboratory staff sets up his much expanded role in Dawn perfectly. Koba has both the back story and acting opportunities to be perhaps the most complex and interesting of the Dawn apes.
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