If performing apes had a union, a picture of Andy Serkis would be pinned to the office dartboard.
The 47-year-old British actor has stolen two of the greatest simian roles of the 21st century right out of their hairy, prehensile hands: first, the title primate in Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong” and now Caesar, a sentient, wordless chimpanzee who becomes a Che Guevara-like revolutionary in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
Opening Friday, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a reboot of the science-fiction film franchise inspired by French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel about a planet where hyper-intelligent apes rule over mute human slaves. The new movie, from British director Rupert Wyatt, is the origin tale of the young ape who sparked that subversion of power.
The story begins in present-day San Francisco, where a young scientist named Will (James Franco) is seeking a cure for the Alzheimer’s disease that is crippling his father (John Lithgow). It’s through a lab experiment on apes that Will inadvertently creates an exceptional baby chimp he names Caesar.
“Regardless of the fact that he’s an ape, Caesar is an extraordinary character,” said Serkis, who has become Hollywood’s go-to performer when it comes to pivotal but largely anonymous motion capture roles, first as the villain Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, then “Kong” and this coming Christmas as Tintin’s seaman sidekick Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.”
“It’s a great journey of this innocent who has a profound moment of self-recognition that he’s not part of the species he’s been brought up and loved by, and so he’s this outsider, this freak who has yet to really find out who he is,” Serkis added, in an interview during San Diego’s Comic-Con International last month. “The second act of the film is really like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ All these damaged apes are just fighting for survival. Does he reject the humanity he’s been brought up with in order to galvanize these apes and lead them to freedom?”
That question is central to the new film, which was shot in Vancouver last year with Wyatt at the helm. The relative newcomer won the job thanks largely to his 2008 prison break movie “The Escapist,” which won some acclaim when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.
Early on, Wyatt ruled out shooting the film using any real apes, both for practical and moral reasons. “It would have been a bitter irony to tell a story of the subjugation of apes and do it at the same time,” he said.
Instead, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” utilized advanced motion-capture technology that was unavailable to either the 1968-73 series of “Planet of the Apes” movies starring Charlton Heston or the 2001 remake directed by Tim Burton, both of which had relied on prosthetic makeup to allow humans to play apes.
For his film, Wyatt had actors including Serkis breathe life into Caesar and the movie’s other simian stars wearing motion-capture suits and head rigs. About 450 visual effects artists at Weta Digital in New Zealand, the company that also worked on “King Kong,” crafted the bodies of photo-real chimpanzees onto those performances.
Still, the film has fewer visual effects shots than other recent science fiction films — fewer than 1,000 compared with the more than 1,300 for “Green Lantern” or 2,000-plus for “Avatar.” The movie’s $93-million budget, too, was slimmer than that of many other comparable summer popcorn pictures.
Serkis said the technology was hardly a hindrance to his performance; by now he’s become quite comfortable in the marker-covered bodysuits that motion-capture actors must wear. “If you’d done this in an ape suit you’d be so encumbered, but I was able to really experiment with taking it to the edges of being very human,” Serkis said. “Facially you can be quite subtle. I was watching footage of (the 1960s “Planet of the Apes” actors) in makeup. They had to work to get the emotions through those layers of rubber.”
Serkis and the other actors who played apes, including former Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary as Caesar’s thuggish co-conspirator, Rocket, began by studying videos of apes and consulting with a primatologist about how apes sleep, eat and interact with each other. Notary even designed customized crutches to serve as arm extensions that enabled the actors playing apes to glide as they walked.
Serkis focused in particular on documentary footage of a chimp named Oliver who walked upright and had a human-like face, causing his handlers to wonder if he was a chimp-human hybrid and earning him the nickname “the humanzee.” (Genetic testing on Oliver in the 1990s disproved the theory).
“People say it’s all about doing monkey movements but that’s the least of it really for this character,” said Serkis. “With Kong I was hellbent on playing him as 100 percent gorilla, whereas with Caesar it was, how to communicate that super-intelligence? I thought about gifted children who can play concertos when they’re 4 or are brilliant at maths when they’re 8, and what that must be like.”
As Serkis bounded through his scenes, he and the other actors and crew could see only rough approximations of what the ape performances would look like, as it would take several months before the artists at Weta had finished shots to show them.
It helped that Serkis, who studied visual arts at Lancaster University in England and transitioned to acting after a stint designing posters for school productions, found his love of acting in the imagination-dependent world of the theater.
“Andy is a very accomplished theater actor and he’s a great mime,” Lithgow said. “He’s got incredible physical abilities. He’s as much a dancer as an actor.”
When motion capture doesn’t work, it’s usually because the characters look dead-eyed, as they did in early films that relied on the technique. For Caesar, Weta built an infinitely detailed digital model of an eye, accounting for how pupils dilate, how light refracts, how moisture forms. While filming, they tracked Serkis’ pupils and relied on markers placed on his face to chart the movement of his eye muscles.
“If you can track all the muscles of the face then you can figure out what the eyelids are doing, and then you can figure out what the eyes are doing,” said Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor at Weta. “Then there’s the visual side, which is more what makes the eye look believable. How does it respond to light? How does it tear up? You have to combine everything. If the motion’s perfect but it doesn’t look right, it doesn’t matter. If it looks great, but it’s not moving in a lively fashion, it looks dead.”
The rendering of those 1s and 0s into a character with whom audiences can empathize was the filmmakers’ ultimate goal.
“In an ideal world, I’d like people to be so taken by the story, they don’t focus on how the apes were created,” Wyatt said. “The heart of this movie is Andy.”