Rise of the Planet of the Apes : The Set Visit


Back in 1968, the idea of a world being run by apes did not seem too far-fetched… and that was before Richard Nixon had been elected President. (rimshot)

Even so, the original Planet of the Apes went over huge with movie audiences, leading to four more movies over the next five years and a television show building upon the premise. The fourth of those movies, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, went back in time to 1983, to show the beginnings of what turned into the ape revolution against humans led by a circus chimp named Caesar played by Roddy McDowall. In 2001, Tim Burton decided to tackle his own “reimagined” version of Planet of the Apes, which was a worldwide blockbuster making $362 million but being quickly overshadowed and forgotten by other franchises that began that same year like “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Now, almost ten years since Burton’s movie, 20th Century Fox decided to start entirely from scratch with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the series that hopes to reboot the franchise with director Rupert Wyatt helming. Wyatt is a founding member of the British filmmaking collective Picture Farm, who spent many years making short films before making his feature film debut with The Escapist, a terrific prison escape thriller starring Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes, which debuted at Sundance. (You can watch an earlier interview we did with Wyatt a few years back right here.)

The movie star James Franco and Freida Pinto, both coming off their Danny Boyle experiences in 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire, respectively. James plays Will Rodman, a scientist at the Gen-Sys Corporation, whose father Charlie (played by John Lithgow) is suffering from Alzheimer’s so he starts to develop a smart drug that he tests on a chimpanzee named Bright Eyes. She has a baby named Caesar that Will notices is smarter than other chimps around him, and that intelligence seems to be growing by leaps and bounds but not having support from his bosses, Will takes Caesar home with him and shelters him there. His girlfriend Caroline (Pinto) helps him take care of Caesar as well as convinces him to take Caesar to a primate shelter where apes are mistreated, so Caesar ultimately revolts and leads other apes to do the same.

Last summer, ComingSoon.net was invited to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were shooting the movie, and in fact, where many 20th Century Fox films have been made over the years. We spent two days there for a fairly immersive experience into the mindset that’s going into making what’s likely to be one of the most debated films of the summer due to the approach being taken. (Of course, back then the movie was still called “Caesar: Rise of the Apes” and it was going to be an adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play as reenacted by monkeys but fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and Fox decided to turn the movie into a prequel to Planet of the Apes instead.)

The biggest difference this time around is that they’re not going to have actors in ape costumes playing the main characters, something that might have worked fine in the ’60s and ’70s, but clearly was one of the things that didn’t help with Burton’s vision ten years ago. Instead, they would be creating photorealistic apes using CG by FX-specialists Weta Digital based on performance-capture technology with mo-cap veteran Andy Serkis portraying Caesar and a group of mocap actors playing the apes around him.

Arrivals and Introductions

Our first day was spent visiting the soundstages of Mammoth Studios Burnaby, checking out the sets and watching some footage being filmed. We were greeted there by unit publicist Gregg Brilliant before production designer Claude Paré gave us an overview of the movie by showing us concept art of the various locations that play a part in Caesar’s story going back to his birth. Much of the movie takes place at the Gen-Sys labs where Franco’s character Will has been working on developing a smart drug that was tested on Caesar’s mother, but Caesar is eventually taken home by Will, before being placed at a poorly-run primate sanctuary where Caesar’s kind nature is replaced by something more violent.

“The studio wanted this to be taking place in the normal world so that almost eliminated the aspect of sci-fi to it,” Paré told us. “I mean it’s a prelude to everything that happened, it’s a prequel, so it proceeds everything, so what we did with Rupert was we pulled out visual references for each set that we were going to do, and each of them to had to have a different identity. So it’s a combination of references, of needs for story telling and of past experiences, so all these elements are put together to come up with the design of the picture.”

One of the film’s climactic moments even takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge though once again Vancouver’s Lionsgate Bridge would be doubling for its San Franciscan counterpart.

Origins of the Apes – Is it “A Reboot?”

Maybe before we get too far into what we saw on set, we should go back to the beginnings of the project, which starts with the film’s co-writer and co-producer Rick Jaffa, who told us a bit about how this came together when we spoke to him, producer Dylan Baker and Wyatt on our second day.

“The idea came together from several different sources and bits I’d been working on and staring at for a long time. One of which was the amount of people in our country that are raising chimps and primates in our home, some as pets, but many as children. I’d done a lot of research for other projects about genetic engineering, and then I had been reading a lot of accounts of people who had been attacked by their own chimpanzees after having raised them. So a lot of those ideas were just sitting there, and they just coalesced one day as an idea for ‘Planet of the Apes.’ Amanda (Silver, his co-writer) and I had been working at Fox, and we called them up and said that we’ve got this idea. The thing is, we had assumed that they either were developing it at the moment or had thought about it and decided not to. The idea was just one of those things that came together so strongly and so quickly that we called up and pitched it, and then they talked it over and decided to go through with it.”

Clark told us a few of the reasons why they went with Rupert to direct. Although his previous movie The Escapist was significantly smaller, it did have similar themes of redemption they were going for with this movie. “One, he can direct and we thought he was a nice guy, and we loved his script, so that were his perks, but the themes of his movie were clearly in this movie. There are lots of different reasons why you choose directors. There are other guys we looked at that you knew exactly how they’d make that movie. We just didn’t want to be that summer movie that came out and exploited Apes in an aggressively action way: ‘Look at these apes, they’re fighting back.’ We wanted it to be something more, and with Rupert you didn’t know exactly what he was going to give. He’s going to give you something great, but the end product was unknown.”

“He had great ideas,” Jaffa chimed in. “One of the things Dylan said before that I really appreciated was, you look at a certain director and you know exactly what the movie is going to be and you look at another director and you think, we have a chance of doing something really interesting here, and a surprise to everybody.”

A lot of our time on set was spent being reminded that this movie was meant as a prequel to the original 1968 movie rather than the 2001 remake by Tim Burton, but Jaffa wanted us to be aware that it isn’t meant as a direct remake. “When reports of the script and the project got out, it started being labeled a reboot and a prequel and then a remake of ‘Conquest’ and stuff. That was all surprising to us, because we never really thought of it that way. It was more just,
‘Wouldn’t it be cool to reimagine what could get us here?’ In other words, what were some of the dominoes that could line up in a narrative way, and an actual, functioning way in terms of what is happening in the world right now.”

Caesar’s Palaces

Since this is a set visit, we have to talk about some of the sets we were able to see first-hand, as we were given a guided tour by Paré of two of the primary environments where Caesar spends his time before all hell breaks loose.

A good chunk of the first act takes place at the Victorian house where Will lives with his ailing father, much of which was built on stage. It’s a house that’s fallen into a state of disrepair due to his father’s ailment, but the interiors looked like any other house with a kitchen, living room, etc. and Paré and his team of designers and set decorators have done a fantastic job making it feel like a lived-in location. The kitchen was a good example of how the space was created to enhance the story, as every aspect of it was built to facilitate a scene in which Caesar gets from one side of the room to the other without touching the floor, something they ambitiously shot in a single shot. Most of the time, Caesar is kept hidden up in the attic of the house where he watches the world through a window with a very specific structure that will play a major part in Caesar’s revolution. Through this window he spies on the outside world and sees the violence and aggression that affects him rather adversely when he’s confronted by violence himself. They not only built all the interiors of Will’s house on the Mammoth soundstages but they also built part of the exteriors – the house covered in vines from neglect which causes a conflict with their neighbors. When we walked out of the interior sets, we found ourselves in Will’s backyard which was fenced off from the neighbor who had a BBQ and gym equipment. There also was a toolshed built in Will’s backyard, and we ended up spending a bunch of our time sitting out here as we watched them filming on another set. (See below.)

The other big set for the production, still in the midst of construction after three months, is the primate sanctuary where Caesar is brought by Will, and it’s his time there that really plays a key part in his transition from a kind and gentle pet chimpanzee to the violent revolutionary he will become, much of that coming out of Caesar’s conflict with the habitat’s Alpha Male ape, Rocket, and it’s where the violence Caesar witnessed in the outside world while in the attic will become part of his own language.

The sanctuary exteriors were being shot on a fenced location they found but everything else was being built on stages, from the entrance lobby to the offices of the shelter’s director Hank Landon, played by Brian Cox, whose mistreatment of the apes is part of what causes Caesar to revolt. The most impressive aspect of this build was the atrium habitat where the apes spend most of their time. In the middle of this set was a large fake tree that reached almost all the way to the ceiling, which we learned would play a part in Caesar’s escape later on. It was surrounded by wooden jungle gyms, a pool and rock structures with the plaster walls painted with jungle scene murals to make the apes feel more at home. We were told that when Caesar first wakes up in this place, it confuses him because he thinks he’s been returned to his jungle home. (We were actually told a lot of details about this section of the movie and how Caesar learns to acclimate, but we don’t want to give too much away, though you can see the atrium briefly in the new teaser trailer.)

Running all along the outside of the main habitat area is a caged walkway in which the primates are wrangled from their individual cages, which makes for quite a contrast to the homier feel of the jungle habitat. It’s quite clear from what we saw that having such a massive set will allow Hyatt to film anywhere and not have to use the normal green screen backgrounds often used to make locations feel bigger. Even so, they did have green screen around the top of the glass atrium ceiling so that the sky could be added later on using CG.

Integrating the Performance Capture

Performance capture obviously plays a huge part not only in how “Rise” will be different from the previous six movies but also in how the movie was able to get greenlit so quickly, as well as logistically how they were going to be able to complete the extensive post-production in roughly a year’s time.

Producer Dylan Clark talked about how they came upon the decision to go with mo-cap. “It’s fact finding. Really, you think you can try it one way (but) you’re not even sure if you want to do it for various reasons, if you want to try to do it with live animals or if you want to work with guys in suits. But you just go out and you spend some time with chimpanzees and you realize that, one, it’s probably not the right thing to do, and it’s also not the easiest way to make a movie. The suits represent a certain aesthetic to the movie that we’ve seen before and when you have the opportunity to work with a guy like (visual FX supervisor) Joe Letteri, who is head and shoulders the best guy in the business, and you start to see conceptual designs and test how that works, it just feels like that was the right road to land on. It just was as easy as that. If everybody is locked in on a concept and locked in on a plan, then you can do anything in a pretty short amount of time. It all kind of came together because the time frame constricted us. We had to just make decisions.”

The performance capture actors spend a lot of their time between filming on the mocap stage that was up at Mammoth called “The Volume” where they’re able to see how their movements are translated into CG by the FX team at Weta. This entirely green screen area was lined with the 26 cameras used for motion capture which we’d see on some of the other practical sets. Since the actors are playing a wide variety of apes from chimps to orangutans and gorillas, these training periods involve studying the behavior of the actual creatures, and the actors playing orangutans use special metallic arm extensions that allow them to walk on their arms and legs (or “quadruped”). We actually saw a similar use of metal prosthetics when we visited the set of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and the actors playing centaurs were using special stilts to help them reenact the specific stride and gait of a horse.

As we would learn later, having actors in mocap suits meant that every single scene and camera angle had to be shot three times: once with the live actors with the ape performers, once with just the live actors and then a third time for lighting reference for the Weta techs. This creates a few issues both technically and for the actors, including the fact that it would take three times longer to shoot every scene.

Wyatt told us a bit about how what the actors are doing on the sets is going to be integrated into the animated apes being created by Weta Digital. “We always try and get the performance in the location because it obviously works for the performance much better and with our schedule and with the fact we’re looking to turn this film around very quickly. It’s really, really vital that we don’t leave a lot to the animation of it. And of course when you have actors like Andy Serkis playing the role, you don’t want to do that anyway. Weta have asked of us and we want to achieve this is to actually get the performance on the day. If we need to tweak things here and there, then we’ll do that, but we’re not leaving very much to the Volume.

“What we’re looking to do as well is the foreground of it is being captured by us and then we’re creating additional characters on the stage,” he continued. “For example, last week we were on the Volume stage and whilst we were shooting, Weta were working away with our support and input in terms of creating a lot of the ape characters, so for example–it’s something we’ve yet to get to–but the sequence that takes place in the primary facility, we’ve looked to create a whole host of characters. For example, two old men who comment on everything, there’s the chimp equivalent of that, or the chimps that join in the fight when Rocket takes on Caesar. So there’s a real arc, not just to our leads but our other supporting characters and they will pay off. For example, when we reach our climax on the Golden Gate Bridge, we’ll see some of those characters again in the background. So there’s many layers to what we’re trying to achieve, the idea being that everything is real world.”

Our first day on set culminated with a lunchtime interview with Andy Serkis and his performance-capture partner Terry Notary, which you can read in its entirety below:

Interview with Andy Serkis & Terry Notary

Caesar Takes on Animal Testing

Everything we’ve discussed so far was put into practice as we watched them shooting on the Gen-Sys lab sets that had been built on the soundstages. Besides the cameras being used to shoot the scene, these sets were all configured with the same 26-camera mocap set-up that would be used by Weta to transform the actors into apes.

That day, we watched a pivotal scene of Caesar breaking into the Gen-Sys labs to free the primates being tested upon and rescuing his mother. We watched as Serkis and other actors in mocap suits proceeded to trash the labs with Caesar heading towards the cage where Bright Eyes is kept to rescue her. After they shot with the actors, they proceeded to shoot the other two scenes, and it was wild to watch the labs essentially trash itself, as hidden members of the crew used wires and other methods to have the doors slam open and carts get overturned on their own to replicate the destruction we saw the actors creating earlier. This all involved precision timing of actually where each individual event takes place so that Weta would be able to match up the takes later.

Other sets that had been built in this area included the long corridor of the futuristic Gen-Sys labs, which you can see at the beginning of the teaser trailer. The labs are probably the most futuristic and sci-fi looking aspect of the movie, basically all glass and chrome metal with large concrete pillars giving them an austere demeanor. They also showed us a matching Gen-Sys boardroom and the MRI room, both of which you can briefly see in the trailer as well.

Day 2

On the second day of our visit, we traveled out to the BCIT Aerospace Campus in Richmond, a large futuristic building by the side of a highway, and frankly, much of our day was spent watching two scenes being shot, one in the parking lot where Franco, Pinto and Caesar drive up in a jeep and Franco tells the chimp about the significance of the Gen-Sys labs to his origins.

The scene had Franco and Pinto sitting in the front seat with Andy Serkis in mocap in the backseat and Will drives his car up to the front of the building and turns around to tell Caesar all about his origins, that the labs are where he was born and that his mother and other chimpanzees there were given medicine that made them smart, and that he took Caesar to protect him from the plans of his corrupt bosses. This scenes was shot a number of times with different camera angles, and each time they changed the shot, they had to do the scene three times, once with Serkis in the car, and twice without him.

We then went inside the complex to watch an earlier scene where Will is confronted by his boss Dr. Jacobs, played by David Oyelowo. As we were brought inside the building, we were pretty impressed with how they had turned what was essentially a cafeteria area of the building into the Gen-Sys lobby, adding a number of fake cement pillars. We noticed that the décor of this lobby was similar to the laboratories we had seen the previous day. The lobby area was surrounded by overlooking walkways on the second and third floors where dozens of extras dressed in labcoats business casual attire walking around the different levels to create the illusion of a busy corporate building. The scene between the two actors happens on the ground floor as Will is getting into the elevator, his boss sees him and stops the elevator doors from closing, and he gets in and they have a conversation, which ends as the elevator reaches the top floor and they get out together.

Eventually, we had a chance to talk to James Franco about his experiences making the movie, an interview you can read below:

Interview with James Franco

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stick around for what was likely to be the coolest use of this location which is when Caesar and his ape horde invade Gen-Sys to free the other apes–the scene we saw being filmed earlier–but that would certainly have been something worth seeing first-hand to see how they deal with the challenges of performance-capturing so many actors in a real-world location like the building’s parking lot. You can actually see part of this in the new teaser-trailer–the scene of Jacobs looking at a room with tables and chairs scattered everywhere and then looking up to see the apes above him on the second and third terraces, that was shot in this location, presumably after we left.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens everywhere on August 5 and we’ll probably have more on the movie closer to then, but we’ll leave you off with a spoiler for one of the key nods to the original series in the movie that may help put the movie into perspective with the rest of the series, so POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!!

Early in our visit, we happened to notice on the walls of the production offices that there was a picture of a space shuttle called “Icarus,” which of course was the name of Charlton Heston’s ship in the very first movie. Later, we asked about this nod and were told by Jaffa how that plays into the story:

“The thing about the Icarus is that it’s a big nod to the past and for the fans. Quite frankly, it opens up great possibilities for coming back in time into what, hopefully, we’ve set up to bring back some of the other ape narratives and mythologies. At one point, one of our friends said, ‘It sounds like you guys are trying to fix the original.’ And we weren’t really at all, but we were really aware of a lot of small details that the original had, that maybe we could explain or set that up, so that maybe the fans could go, ‘Oh my God, I see what they’re doing. They’re setting this up for the future.’ But the reality is, ultimately we just had to make it work as a contemporary story. Science Fiction, science fact, in a way.”

You can watch the teaser trailer below: