How “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” Raised The Blockbuster Bar With Emotion, Realism

Director Matt Reeves and Weta VFX supervisor Joe Letteri talk about the pivot, and the visual breakthroughs, that made Dawn a critical hit, and moved the art of the blockbuster forward.

How “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” Raised The Blockbuster Bar With Emotion, Realism
[Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox Pictures]

In 2011, the first footage of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a big-budget, dramatic retelling of the 1968 sci-fi classic, was released. It was a brief, five-second glimpse of Andy Serkis as Caesar, a photorealistic chimpanzee created via the actor’s inspired performance and the artistry of New Zealand-based digital effects studio Weta Digital. It’s a union that’s cemented Serkis as the Laurence Olivier of motion capture performance and that began when he and Weta successfully co-created Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy almost 13 years ago. Rise eventually became a global hit, earning $500 million worldwide and sincere critical acclaim. But it’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel out July 11, that truly evolves what a summer blockbuster can be through storytelling and technology.


The inevitable simian flu pandemic at the end of Rise was always the sequel’s starting point, but the final product is radically different from the way it was initially conceived. An impasse between Rupert Wyatt, the director of the first movie, and 20th Century Fox caused him to abandon the sequel altogether. Eventually, Fox asked Matt Reeves, the director responsible for the monster movie Cloverfield, the American adaptation of the vampire drama Let Me In, and the TV series Felicity, to replace him on the high-profile project, with a new concept.

“When they approached me, I was very skeptical because Rupert did such a beautiful job,” Reeves says. “I actually don’t know what he was going to do, but the outline they presented me was not Caesar-centric.” Instead of focusing on Serkis’s ape, the studio wanted a movie about a band of human survivors that would begin in a desolate, post-apocalyptic city. Their foes would be an army of primates speaking in full sentences. “It wasn’t a story I would want to do,” Reeves says. “I told them they weren’t building off of the last movie, which was so brilliant, and I figured they would find someone else.” But they didn’t.

They asked what his vision would be. It was a movie that would spend at least 15 minutes with sentient non-humans before introducing the Homo sapiens. “Don’t start with the human post-apocalypse,” Reeves explained. Instead, it would be set 10 years after the genetically engineered apes escaped their cages and disappeared into Muir Woods. It was important to build an emotional connection, Reeves thought. “Start in the ape civilization because that’s a movie I’ve never seen that I want to see.” More than that, it would give audiences time to marvel at the organized and peaceful world the apes built, full of evolving communication, rules, and structure. To his surprise, Fox agreed.

There was just one catch. Shooting had to start a few months later. The writer of the scrapped outline, Mark Bomback, sat down with Reeves and heard his pitch. “We just figured it out,” Reeves says. “What was weird is that the scale of the film is so much larger, but it was very similar to my experience on Cloverfield when I got together with (Cloverfield writer) Drew Goddard just 12 weeks before the shoot and there was no script.” Despite the time constraints, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. Reeves, a lifelong Apes fan–one who collected dolls and unabashedly loves Beneath the Planet of the Apes–was determined to abandon the kitsch of the original series and the forgotten Tim Burton remake in favor of something a little more personal.

“After I had my son and before I met with Fox, I watched Rise again and was struck on a deeper level,” Reeves says. He saw his child in Serkis’s performance. “I found it so moving and shocking that my son had this total understanding of the world around him, but didn’t yet have the tools to speak.” An ape civilization coming into articulation was the most delicious part of the story for Reeves. “When they speak it should be driven by a kind of primal urgency,” he says. He spoke to a childhood development specialist to determine what those first words would be. The rest of the dialogue between apes would incorporate sign language, pictograms, and symbolic communication–like war paint–inspired by Native American and African tribes.

That creative decision might come across as a bold, but luckily Fox experimented with sign language and subtitles in another special effects-driven movie, one that almost made $3 billion worldwide. “A lot of this did start with Avatar,” says Joe Letteri, Dawn’s visual effects supervisor from Weta. “Jim Cameron’s idea when we created the technology was that we needed to just knock down the barriers between live action and digital filmmaking.” It’s a goal that earned Letteri his fourth Academy Award, following his work on King Kong, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. He was also nominated for his work on Rise.


However, Avatar was shot on a stark white performance capture stage. It’s a completely controlled environment meant to capture a performance in a digital world. The Na’vi in Avatar are far more advanced than Gollum, a character whose face and body where mostly nudged into shape by hand, but they are still bound by the separation of live-action and digital sets. Weta began to mix the two in Rise, which allowed digital characters to be shot on more traditional soundstages. That hardware was an incremental step in blending motion capture with everything that happens on a live-action set, especially lighting and sound. They had to avoid getting in the way of all of the other departments, but still fit in and add the layer needed to capture the performances.

But the underpinnings of Reeve’s story required Weta to experiment with even more advanced hardware; robust tools that could actually go outside. More than 85% of Dawn was shot in exterior locations in Vancouver’s forests, which acted as Muir Woods, and New Orleans, which stood in for San Francisco. “The idea of making this gear and getting it out there was very much like ‘70s Hollywood,” Letteri says. “The cameras started becoming lighter in weight, lenses became faster, and film stocks became faster to where you were no longer studio-bound.” They had 35 people in each unit, 50 motion capture cameras, and eight Witness capture cameras (which provide visual reference for animators). Shooting motion capture on real locations gave Weta targets for realism like never before.

“It gives you touchstones of reality,” Letteri says. “It gives you things to match into because you know the contrast ratio of the shadows, you know how much wind was there and what it does to trees and buildings, and you know how the light was that day.” While creating a completely digital space allows the filmmakers freedom to create something they were unable to capture during a day of shooting, it’s still open to interpretation. For Letteri, the new lightweight, mobile equipment broke the last barrier to realism when it didn’t fall apart in the middle of a wet forest. “Every now and then, I’d pinch myself,” Reeves says. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but they still let us do it.”

The capture side is really about shooting the movie, but Weta’s post-production work is a whole other layer that goes into creating compelling characters. “We had a much more sophisticated set of animation tools that went into this because we were going for greater realism in the posing and what the apes could physically do,” Letteri says. That included a system called TISSUE, which allowed the team to create muscle and skin simulations and WIG, which was essentially used to outfit the apes’ fur through a combination of hand placing individual strands, while also understanding its physical parameters and how it responds dynamically to forces like wind. “We also wrote new software to figure out how to render all of this,” he says. “We had to work closely with the cinematographer, Michael Seresin, to match how he was shooting it, what light sources he was using, and what lenses he was using.”

The end result is striking. While the initial five-second teaser released for Rise was advertised as photorealistic, there’s a noticeable jump in Dawn’s ambition vis-a-vis the apes’ movements, facial expressions, and how they interact with real-world environments. “When you go to a more fantastic character like the Na’vi, you’re looking for those same sorts of expressions,” Letteri says. “But ultimately it becomes an instinctive judgment because you’re mapping these personalities and behaviors onto a different morphology.”

Even if it’s impossible to tell, that intuitive, creative judgment really translates when it comes to Weta’s work on the apes. They’re naturally interesting subjects because they resemble humans so much. Chimps do have deep, inset eyes that differ from ours, their brows are much heavier, and humans have more expression from face folds that happen when they smile or frown. Actual apes might not exactly be capable of everything they do in the film, but then again, real ones also can’t talk or use machine guns (yet…). Reeves and Weta’s creations might make you forget about all of that for a little over two hours.