Last night I had the good fortune to see the last of the modern Apes trilogy at Arclight theaters, followed by a talkback with some of the crew. Writer/director Matt Reeves, actor Andy Serkis, VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri and editors William Hoy and Stan Salfas talked about the three year process of bringing the story to the big screen.
Reeves spoke about how he manages to preserve his vision, even on big-budget studio films. For him, this involves an attitude from the get-go of, “I only know how to make my vision of the movie, not 60% my vision and 40% someone else’s.” He internalizes studio notes as pointing to problems, not necessarily to solutions.
Every time Andy Serkis does an impressive mo-cap performance, there is a push to see him nominated in the acting category. Moderator Pete Hammond played some side-by-side footage showing Serkis performing in a mo-cap suit and the final result with the all-digital character, Caesar. (Letteri noted that, while all the apes are 100% digital, they did use Serkis’ real tears in one scene.) Reeves stressed that it was Serkis’ performance that let the editors do their cut, and it was Serkis’ performance that all of the digital animation was pushed to equal.
The editors spoke about how difficult it was to find the right balance in the VFX versions of Steve Zahn’s performance as Bad Ape where the character was believable instead of cartoonish. The important thing always was to honor the performance of the actor.
I, for one, am on the side of nominating motion capture acting performances alongside the analog ones. Filmmakers have always enhanced actor performances, from makeup prosthetics to a whole array of editing tricks. These days, an editor might use an actor’s body from take 3 and their head from take 6 and their voice from take 9 in a single shot. They might add digital makeup to the point where most of an actor’s face is digitally re-created. Where you draw the line in what should be recognized and awarded as screen acting is not clear. It may very well be that in the future the vast majority of screen performances are more like Serkis’ in the Apes movies.
Well, enough of my soapbox. War for the Planet of the Apes is an epic film — with a great assist from Michael Giacchino’s epic score. Add it to the other two recent Apes films and you have a yet more epic achievement in filmmaking. It’s hard to think of a film where the visual effects technology is so central to telling the story, yet disappears so completely. War for the Planet of the Apes may not reach the promised land of awards recognition, but it looks ahead to a future where such work gets the recognition it deserves.
War for the Planet of the Apes is available on Digital and arrives on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on October 24.