[Warning: This story contains spoilers for War for the Planet of the Apes]
Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is the secret to the success of the recently rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise. Series producer Dylan Clark once said that Rise was a “good film, but a great performance [from Serkis].” On a director’s audio commentary, Dawn and War director Matt Reeves said that he was drawn to the series because of Serkis’s performance: “I thought that Andy Serkis’s performance, and the way that [special effects workshop] Weta was able to translate the emotion of the performance was so powerful that I found myself identifying with the apes more than the humans in the movie.”
And in behind-the-scenes featurettes, series co-writer Mark Bomback joked that, while a lot of the shooting scripts included detailed descriptions of the apes’ behavior, the writers often hope that Serkis will figure out how to convey complex emotions independently of their contributions: “Sometimes we’ll assume: ‘Andy will pull this off!’”
There’s already talk of more from the franchise, but there’s just one problem: Caesar, Serkis’s psychologically complex lead character, dies at the end of War. Caesar’s development, from human experiment to tortured ape leader, grounds all three of the recent films. Even Rise, which starts off as a film about the relationship between a human scientist (James Franco) and his rapidly-evolving ape friend (Serkis), ends as a story about Caesar’s new-found sense of freedom. Reeves has even said that he insisted, during an early stage of his involvement on Dawn, that the story focus more on Caesar since that was the aspect of Rise that most fascinated him. If the Apes franchise is going to hypothetically continue, its cast and creators will have to pay close attention to what Serkis did in the last three films.
Serkis’ contributions speak to the integral role that make-up and special effects has always played in enhancing the performances of the Planet of the Apes’ actors. In Behind the Planet of the Apes, a decent 1998 documentary about the making of the Apes films, late 20th Century Fox studio executive Richard Zanuck recalls how nervous he was that audiences simply would laugh at the make-up job that transforms the film’s human castmembers into apes, calling the film “a very humorous idea if not done properly.”
So producer Arthur Jacobs was given $5,000 to assemble a make-up test that starred Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson, the latter of whom was crudely made-up to look like an orangutan. This test was done before Ben Nye, the head of Fox’s make-up department, hired John Chambers, a former World War II medical technician and prosthetics expert, to spearhead the use of relatively advanced mouth movements. This test scene is relatively crude: actors playing chimpanzees wore relatively simple (ie: less hair and technically articulate) make-up, and Robinson was sparingly filmed in close-ups. But the test impressed Zanuck, who approved the film’s production based on the scene’s strength.
Weta’s involvement in the making of Rise was equally vital. In fact, they were the ones who suggested that producer Peter Chernin use Serkis, who had just collaborated with Weta as the title character in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Chernin recently told The Independent’s Roslyn Sulcas that “We really had no idea how we were going to do it[…]We looked at performing chimps, at animatronics. Weta said, ‘Frankly, you would be crazy if you don’t get [Serkis]. There is no one better.”
Serkis was initially skeptical about getting involved since he did not want to play two apes in a row. But the emotional complexity of Caesar’s character drew him in. In the Dawn blu-ray feature “Andy Serkis: Rediscovering Caesar,”h e’s since described his interpretation of Caesar, in Rise, as “a human being trapped in an ape’s body.”
Reeves elaborated, speaking for Serkis in the Dawn commentary: “As if he was human, and didn’t know that he wasn’t.” You can see the intensity of Serkis’s performance in behind-the-scenes footage where he, dressed in a grey unitard and an elaborate motion-capture rig, cries out in confusion, sadness, and fury when Franco’s character abandons Caesar at a primate shelter. This behind-the-scenes footage makes already emotionally involving scenes—when Caesar erases his chalk drawing of Franco’s attic window; when he slowly closes his cage door on Franco’s character; when he speaks his first word in English: “No!”—that much more impressive.
Serkis’s commitment to the development of his character was infectious, as co-star Toby Kebbell has recalled. Kebbell’s role as Koba, the second ape to become intelligent in Rise, and the one that challenges Caesar in Dawn, is integral. So it’s heartening to see that Kebbell follow Serkis’s lead in Dawn by, in Serkis’s words, internalizing rather than externalizing his emotions: “Performance capture isn’t about doing gross body movements, and pantomime. Where it’s most powerful is in its stillness. Being brave enough to hold a close-up, and internalize, and not having to demonstrate your ape-ness.” You can see Kebell exemplify Serkis’s approach when Koba tells Caesar that he doesn’t care about his fellow apes, or when Caesar drops Koba to his death in Dawn.
There are several stand-out performances from performance-capture-enabled actors in all three films, like Steve Zahn in War. As Bad Ape, an anxious ape that Caesar enlists in his quest to rescue apes that were captured by Woody Harrelson’s power-mad Colonel, Zahn often threatens to steal every scene he shares with Serkis. This is not small feat given how commanding and expressive Serkis’s body language is (and explains why the creative team is already talking about a Bad Ape spin-off).
Karin Konoval, who plays Caesar’s companion Maurice from Rise to War, also delivers a riveting performance, though she’s often overshadowed by her co-stars. Her mute orangutan communicates predominantly through sign language, often forcing Konoval to internalize emotions. This does often make Konoval’s performance very pantomime-like. But if you pay close attention, you’ll see a world of emotion in Maurice’s worried stares, and confused glances. It’s a very physical role, and Konoval has clearly taken to heart Serkis’s tendency of speaking loudest through her shoulders, hips, and facial muscles.
The Planet of the Apes movies have succeeded thanks to Serkis, but they can continue to be great without him thanks to co-stars like Zahn and Konoval. Caesar is dead, long live Caesar.