No "Apes" director has gone through the looking glass to explore the human condition as ambitiously as Matt Reeves. As a result, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" makes a smart and most compelling summer tentpole, with Andy Serkis delivering his most powerful performance yet as Caesar, and Weta Digital making a quantum leap in performance capture. We are totally immersed in Caesar's struggle to prevent war with humanity, and forget that we're watching a CG character.
"I thought it would be really cool to start with the apes and enter the world through their eyes, and to tell this story of the potential moment when humans and apes could've co-existed as a way of describing our own struggle against the violence within us," explains Reeves ("Let Me In," "Cloverfield"), who likens "Dawn" to "The Godfather" in terms of the heavy emotional burden on Caesar as leader, husband, and father.
But Reeves wanted to go further aesthetically than Rupert Wyatt's brilliant "Rise," pushing the naturalism by shooting primarily outdoors in the rustic beauty of Muir Woods, and coaxing more photo-realism out of Weta, which had to adjust its Oscar-winning methodology in a less controlled environment with rain and mud.
"They redid everything," Reeves insists, "their fur simulation, their moisture simulation, their models, they rebuilt the rigs." Plus with better markers and higher-res and more mobile cameras, Weta achieved greater fidelity to the performances of Serkis and his ape co-stars (including Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, and Judy Greer).
However, Reeves had to know what he was getting himself into technologically. How much of the emotion came directly from Serkis as opposed to the animators? Yet in looking at side by side comparisons of Serkis and Caesar, it became apparent that Serkis was not only the driving force but that he was also more emotional than Caesar.
"I was stunned and astonished," the director admits. "And the genius was the way in which Weta was able to take that performance and translate it on an anatomy that was entirely different from Andy's. So they're not just literally taking that movement and tracking it onto the model. They're figuring out how to take muscles and shapes of Caesar's face and get them to express the same ideas that seem to be coming out of Andy's face."