That’s what blew me away. Rise of the Planet of the Apes represents a huge leap in performance capture technology. I can’t tell you a thing about the movie until I’ve seen the movie, but I can tell you that the technology is incredible and the FX created with it are amazing. And I think Oscar caliber.
What’s really remarkable about this film is that Serkis and the other performers are completely in the scene with the other actors. When Serkis played Gollum in Lord of the Rings he would play a scene with the other actors, but then they would do passes without Gollum, or without Sam and Frodo. Occasionally, Serkis said tonight, they would use the scenes where he actually interacted with Sean Astin and Elijah Wood, painting his form out of the frame, but that was rare. The truth is that those are the best Gollum scenes, though, because it’s actors working together, not actors playing to FX marks.
And so every scene where Serkis plays Caesar he’s in the shot with the live action actors. When James Franco looks into Caesar’s eyes, he’s actually looking into Serkis’. What’s more, the camera shoved in Serkis’ face (it’s mounted on a ridiculous bit of headgear) allowed the WETA team to truly capture the soul of the actor’s performance, and thus make Caesar much more nuanced. The ape is alive behind the eyes, and Serkis is able to actually ACT through the character’s face. We were shown comparison footage, with Serkis in his get-up and then with the finished FX and every movement of the eyes, every twitch of the cheek was there. It’s a full performance in every sense of the word.
Also noteworthy is the way that the film brings Caesar out on location. Avatar, for all of its next-gen tech, was stagebound, with the actors stuck on green screens. So many FX-heavy productions stay on stage because it’s easier to control lighting conditions, but it also makes everything look much, much phonier. Having Serkis out in the open playing Caesar adds a layer of reality to the effect. He’s in the world, physically interacting with the actors, and seemingly in the same lighting conditions as they are.
The actual ape effects are incredible. Let’s be honest: you’ll know it’s not a real ape. You’re a sophisticated enough viewer, and sometimes the effects don’t quite work as well as they should (there’s something just slightly off when the apes are moving quickly), but most of the time they’re about as close to photoreal as you can expect on a movie that didn’t cost five hundred million dollars. But there are shots - close-ups of Caesar’s hands, or scenes where he’s expressing pain or sadness - that are mind-blowing. In some of these shots you’ll swear that there’s a man in a suit or a dummy hand or something physically hairy in front of a camera. But it’s just a guy in a grey leotard, covered in pixels.
I hope the movie’s good. I really want it to be good. I can’t draw any conclusions as to the film’s quality from the footage I saw tonight, and I won’t be pre-reviewing it. But there’s no denying that the FX works, that this is some of the best work we’ve seen from WETA, who are some of the best people in the world at this stuff. But again, more than the quality of the fake apes I’m impressed with the way the latest generation of performance capture truly allows the virtual beings to interact with the physical beings.
This feels like a major step in the advancement of special effects for something more than spectacle. The work WETA is doing on Rise of the Planet of the Apes is bringing performance capture out of the green screen volume and into the real world, and it’s allowing filmmakers to create characters, not just rampaging monsters or eye popping action scenes. To me this is what the ultimate end game of these sorts of FX should be - not to make me be startled by what I’m seeing but to allow me to forget I’m watching an effect and completely connect to a character who doesn’t technically exist.