It’s an extraordinary experience to observe Andy Serkis and his fellow motion-capture castmates-as-primates perform on the set of War for the Planet of the Apes. At first there’s the pure visual oddity of watching loose-limbed actors decked out in bodysuits, helmets, and dotted-up faces communicate with varying command of the English language.
In this case, the ensemble is on a soundstage where an abandoned ski lodge has been meticulously constructed. Serkis (who returns as ape leader Caesar) is flanked by fellow series mainstays Karin Konoval (Maurice) and Terry Notary (Rocket) as they confront a new face: Steve Zahn (Bad Ape). “Human get sick, ape get smart,” Zahn tells them just above a whisper with deliberately fractured delivery. “But not me. I run!”
Eventually, something transformative happens. We forget we’re watching human beings. The CGI is still months away, but it already feels like we’re in the presence of apes. “That’s interesting, and very much the point,” Serkis laughed when we relayed our revelation to him in his trailer later that afternoon. But it’s no day at the zoo for the actor. “It’s very painful,” Serkis said of the physicality involved.
It’s Day 18 of the threequel’s 95-day shoot at Mammoth Studios in New West Minister, B.C., about a 30-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. And in a nearby trailer, Zahn, an actor typically known for bringing comic relief and who’s just recently begun his motion-capture debut, is visibly exhausted. “It’s extremely demanding,” he says. “It’s daunting to me personally because I’m coming into something that’s already been rolling for a long time, and these guys are incredible performers. So it’s scary. I was extremely nervous coming into this.”
Directed by Matt Reeves from a script he co-wrote with Mark Bomback, War for the Planet of the Apes marks “the final chapter” in a trilogy following box-office hits and surprise critical darlings Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). After a drug made the apes increasingly intelligent in Rise and humankind became endangered because of a resulting virus in Dawn, War — as its title implies — will see the two fighting for the survival of their respective species. “There are no winners. It’s just a brutal situation,” Serkis explained.
The “Caesar-centric” story opens with the apes, having lost their enclave in Dawn, taking residence in a hidden fortress behind a waterfall. Humans attack, and something cataclysmic unfolds. This sends Caesar, typically a peace broker between man- and ape-kind, on a path for revenge, with his sights set on the brash military leader, Colonel (Woody Harrelson).
During their subsequent journey, Caesar, Maurice, and Rocket find Zahn’s Bad Ape at the ski lodge. He’s a smaller, slightly unhinged zoo escapee whose existence leads Caesar to believe there could be more apes out there like him.
“It’s like doing theater again, and being in that absurd world,” said Zahn, who compared the motion-capture work to the two years he spent doing experimental productions at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. It was daunting for the actor, but he had some valuable allies at his disposal. Most notably, Serkis, whose work in films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the Apes films has made him the Brando of Motion Capture (“He’s like royalty,” Zahn said); and Notary, a Cirque du Soleil alum who serves as a mo-cap player-coach, hosting an “Ape Camp” in the lead-up to each installment. (“Terry Notary is so central and so much the heart of this whole thing,” Serkis said. “Not only does he play one of the roles, Rocket, but his responsibility is enormous because he’s watching what everybody else is doing.”)
Ape Camp is set up to help the actors master the movements (whether quadrupedal like Maurice or bipedal like Rocket) and speech of their simian characters. “It’s really about finding a foundation,” Notary explained. “Because everybody comes in like, ‘Oh, I’ve watched all kinds of videos!’ But as soon as someone starts to pretend to be an ape, there’s tension, which is the exact opposite of what an ape has. An ape has a relaxed, soft integrity to everything they do.” Or as Zahn put it, “When you pretend to be an ape, it doesn’t work. It looks dumb.”
Notary, whose camps run between two and five weeks, has a very meditative way of breaking down exactly how one becomes an ape. “All you have to do is drop the BS and be real and be who you are and drop into yourself. You find that you can see better and you can hear better, and tune into who are you, really, rather than the idea of who you are, or the person that you’ve socially become. Who is the real person in there? Who is the root of you? When you do that, you’re being simple, and you’re being present. You’re not pretending, you’re not acting, you’re not emulating, you’re just stripping away the human stuff.”
For War, Notary orchestrated a three-and-a-half-hour improvisational period where all the actors playing apes remained in character the entire time. It started in a room in the studio, “and then the next thing I know we were off journeying this way and journeying that way, and then we’re in the parking lot,” recalled Konoval, a 125-pound woman who plays a 300-pound male orangutan. “And you know people are looking at us like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Serkis found it instrumental: “You find how they relate to each other, how they guard Caesar, how the family operates, how they move as a unit, how in their rituals they operate, and how they’ve evolved,” he said. “You’re discovering stuff. And when you get into improvisation of that length — apart from the fact that it hurts like hell — it really does unlock so many things, and you can gather an enormous amount of information. And you feel unified as a group.”
Over the course of the trilogy, aping around has gotten easier for Serkis. “I don’t think anything will ever be as painful as playing Caesar as an infant,” he said in reference to his intro in Rise. “Because that was so high-energy and hard on the quads like you wouldn’t believe.”
But watch him go to work on set and you will believe.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens July 14. Watch the trailer:
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