Weta wizards describe the progression from ‘Rise’ to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

Just before the end of the year, we looked at the incredible accomplishments of Weta Digital on “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” This, however, was not the only 2014 film where the wizards of that New Zealand-based effects house had their talents on full display. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the latest entry in the on-going rebooted franchise, where Weta topped itself yet again. And it began at a high time for the studio.

“We just finished 'Avatar' and got the call from Fox,” visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon reminisces. “We were big fans of original 1960s movies and television shows so we were really excited.”

Adds fellow supervisor Joe Letteri, “Fox sent me the script [for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes'] and I loved it. It was just a fantastic script and I loved the way they did the story. Essentially it was a story of growing up and we got to see Caesar in all the stages of his life.”

However, this approach to the progression of Caesar – the simian lead of the franchise played via performance capture technology by Andy Serkis – meant that new ground needed to be broken from a visual effects perspective. “The original movies used makeup and prosthetics and John Chambers won a special Academy Award before they gave out awards for makeup,” says Lemmon, super-familiar with the franchise's backstory. “Anybody who is a fan of creature/monster movies, that movie has a special place in their hearts. But because of the specific requirements of the story Fox wanted to tell, we knew those traditional approaches weren't going to work.”

Being an original story beginning with regular apes indistinguishable from what would be found in the wild, Weta needed to make Caesar indistinguishable from them. Performance capture was the obvious answer. “Even though proportions of humans and apes are so different, we could get humans to move like apes in a reasonably convincing way,” Lemmon says. “So we could use humans to drive the performances and get all the great things that go with working with talented actors.”

They needed one actor in motion capture for the various stages of Caesar's life, Letteri says, because “the actor needs to lead us as an audience along this journey, along this pathway.”

Having already spearheaded the creation of characters like Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and 2005's King Kong, Letteri felt he knew exactly which actor was up for the task. But Fox felt Andy Serkis might not be interested given his extensive history in motion capture characters. Letteri took matters into his own hands. “I just sent him a script and he said, 'Yeah, this would be great.' No one ever says to an actor, 'Are you ever tired of playing humans?'”

The rest, as they say, is history, with both Lemmon and Letteri praising Serkis as being absolutely pivotal to the success of the series.  And Lemmon notes that his task was merely to make the story visually believable, because the actors had already done the hard work in making it emotionally believable. “There's a version of 'Rise' that exists that the editors put together where there are no apes, just grown men in pajamas pretending to be apes,” he says. “It's a little weird, but after a couple of minutes you forget that and you understand you're experiencing the story as though they were apes.”