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Matt Reeves Brings a New 'Dawn' to 'Planet of the Apes'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood July 4, 2014 at 7:26AM

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" is the smartest and most compelling kind of summer tentpole, with Andy Serkis delivering his most powerful performance 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.
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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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."

This article is related to: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves, VFX, Immersed In Movies


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.