A chance to look at a battle we all know: the war between our intelligence, our empathy and our instinctiveness, and how that forms what defines our humanity.
The Art of filmmaking and the craft of storytelling are showcased in War For The Planet Of The Apes, unleashing rapidly evolving simians into a world boiling over with divisions and rage as the ape vs. human battle for control of the world careens towards the ultimate winner-takes-all decision.
It is directed and written by Matt Reeves, whose Dawn of the Planet of the Apes grossed $700m at the worldwide box office – he gained feature film prominence when he helmed the much lauded science fiction-horror hit Cloverfield (2008), and wrote and directed Let Me In (2010), a remake of the Swedish horror film acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. – from a screenplay he co-wrote with Mark Bomback, who wrote screenplays for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Insurgent, The Wolverine, Total Recall, Unstoppable, Live Free or Die Hard, Deception, Race to Witch Mountain and Godsend.
For Reeves, the film that resulted is one that, no matter what becomes of humankind or apekind, speaks to the basic ideals of humanity – humanity not in the sense of being human-related but in the sense of seeking the most inspirational qualities of wisdom and benevolence.
“The wonder of these films is that they give us a chance to explore human nature at its core, but in a way that can be exciting and different.”
Breathless action, big ideas and potent storytelling combine as War For the Planet of the Apes pushes the series into new realms of legend-building as it explores the values that forge a civilization. It all comes to life driven by the most complex and intense performance by Andy Serkis yet as the majestic Caesar, and groundbreaking visual effects from Weta Digital.
In a flurry of mythic filmmaking, audiences will witness the pivotal moment that determines the fate of human civilization forever –and be immersed in the ape leader Caesar’s emotional quest to lead his young society to a new home, even as a war between his belief in family and honor versus the lure of a vengeful reckoning churns within his soul.
At heart, this is the story of both a military and emotional last stand. As peace between species has collapsed — and a renegade band of human soldiers led by an imperious Colonel makes a final, all-out attack — Caesar is hit with an unimaginable personal loss and a dark line inside his psyche is crossed. Now, he is wrestling with merciless impulses and roiling doubts about his own ability to inspire the apes towards freedom. But if the apes are to survive the coming conflict, Caesar must lead. In a time when empathy and compassion have nearly vanished both in the world and his heart, Caesar searches for the grit, sense of fellowship and striving vision to lead the apes towards a future of hope.
For Reeves, who returns to the franchise to take the next step after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the large-scale ambition of the third film was clear: to follow the increasingly upright and capable – but also haunted and questioning — apes not only into the spectacle of total warfare but into stirring psychological territory as Caesar fights to hold onto his own most humane instincts.
More than ever, Reeves realized, the trajectory of the apes mirrors the archetypal myths of humanity. “As this story starts, there is no more peace with humans, which thrusts Caesar into a deeply emotional, universal kind of conflict,” Reeves describes. “Caesar has always been unique in that he is part ape, part human, yet neither one fully. The hope has been that he might be able to bridge the two societies, but now it is clear that this will not come to pass. What’s so exciting is that in exploring Caesar’s internal dilemmas at this profound moment it becomes a chance to look at a battle we all know: the war between our intelligence, our empathy and our instinctiveness, and how that forms what defines our humanity. At the same time as this is a very dark journey, it is also a story with so much spirit in it.”
Producer Peter Chernin, who has been instrumental to the Apes legacy from the very inception of the trilogy, says: “From the beginning, we always viewed this as a three-part story that began with the birth of Caesar, saw him become an innocent hero as head of the apes and then a smart, compassionate leader only to now be tested, grow and become even more heroic. In a world in which intelligent apes are born, we knew it would inevitably lead to this ultimate conflict with humans. We’ve come to a remarkable place in the story. It’s the apotheosis of Caesar’s journey – and as you see him struggle, you see his soul. That was always what we wanted to do with this series: to explore the full panoply in way that inspires us and helps us think about what it means to be human.”
Sums ups producer Dylan Clark, who also produces along Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver: “War is part road movie, part war story, part Western and an epic adventure – but at the heart of it all is an emotional exploration of a leader we love. We witness Caesar wrestling with dark demons but he also comes across new signs of light. It may be both the darkest and most hopeful part of the apes’ story.”
A Leader Tested: The Screenplay
At the core of The War for The Planet of the Apes is the story not only of the coming of the decisive battle between the rapidly rising apes and desperately declining humans but also of a dark night of the soul for the apes’ noble leader, Caesar.
He now faces his most perilous, legend-making moment, and an urgent moral dilemma, as he begins to mistrust his ape principles and any hope for peace with a human species that has wounded him in the deepest of ways. As the terror of war spreads to the heart of his own family, this is a Caesar at war with humans, but also with himself, one whose burning anger at the suffering he has seen must give way to a new vision if he is to take his kind forward and out of chaos.
“We put Caesar to the ultimate test in this film,” says Mark Bomback, who co-wrote the screenplay with Reeves. “Unfortunately for Caesar, that test is a harrowing one. The apes are in trouble and he understands they are going to have to really earn their spot as the dominant species on the planet.”
Adds Reeves: “Caesar is tested in ways we found thrilling and epic and really open the movie up. The scale of this movie is huge. As the apes leave Muir Woods, they encounter a larger world.”
As inspiration for the film’s panoramic scale and mythic atmosphere, Reeves re-watched many of cinema’s most sweeping, action-packed spectacles, from Kurosawa’s Samurai epics to Clint Eastwood Westerns — films with which War shares a mix-mastering of conflict and comedy with themes of perseverance, sacrifice, allegiance, wilderness, heroism and questing through moral grey zones in times of dizzying uncertainty. “Part of the thrill of making these films is the opportunity to bring new technology and new forms of cinema to classical myths, creating something unique for these times,” Reeves explains.
The classic interplay of light and dark elements, of loyalty tested and courage found all come out in Caesar’s epic journey, in which he descends into the depths of anguish as he is forced to weigh his personal dream of revenge for his own kin against the plight of his entire species facing possible defeat.
“In this third story, we wanted to take Caesar to the one place we never thought he could go,” explains Bomback. “It’s totally surprising because no one would think Caesar was capable of anything approaching hatred or fully breaking ranks with humanity. But we now have him in a place where he can, for the first time, understand the hatred that he saw in Koba, the former lab chimp. It’s terrifying for everyone around him, because Caesar has always been the moral center of the group. And if Caesar spins out of control morally, what happens to the entire society? That is ultimately what the movie is about.”
Reeves notes that the screenplay pushed Bomback and himself to dive deep into Caesar’s interior psyche as never before – but at the same time, to expand the story vastly outwards into a thundering showdown with the frantic humans determined to eliminate the apes before it is too late. The result is a screen-filling display of technical majesty that is also a testament to simple goodness.
“At this momentous juncture, Caesar is descending into a different journey than any before because he is battling himself,” describes Reeves. “But even as the story brings us more inside Caesar on the most intimate emotional level, we also felt this film had to be huge, on a magnitude unlike any of the previous films, because this is both a wartime epic and a story of migration.”
As the final chapter of the trilogy, it is also the endpoint of a sprawling story that began with the Simian virus that rendered apes intelligent only to lead to an interspecies conflict that can only have one winner. Bomback points out, “What we’re witnessing in War isn’t simply Caesar’s story; it’s the dawn of a civilization. What you see happening now will be part of a future mythology all the apes will know for all time, as Caesar attempts to deliver his people to a new Promised Land.”
The titanic scale took cast and crew into new territory of every kind – pushing them on tech, design and to the borderlands of compassion for another species. Much as Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a breakthrough that suggested the potential for this kind of filmmaking, War demonstrates how far its come.
“This has been an evolutionary process,” notes Peter Chernin. “We had insane concerns on the first movie because we’d never even seen anything like this kind of performance capture, but then we started seeing these revelatory performances that were so believable, so emotionally true. Everything changed when we finished the first movie. Knowing we were capable of creating realistic, sentient apes now we could take them deeper. One of the liberating things about this franchise is that we can explore emotional storytelling in new ways because we are creating our own vision of a society that has never existed but is intended to be real, not fantastical, and that has been great fun.”
For Chernin, Reeves has been essential to propelling the franchise forward. “The level of action, effects, acting and overall scale was a quantum leap for Matt on this film, but this time, he had the time and space to plan out the movie he envisioned. There are action sequences on this film as phenomenal as any I’ve seen, but most importantly, Matt was utterly obsessed with the emotional side of this movie, and making this journey of apes into what is really a very humanistic story.”
“This film gives audiences more spectacle, more intensity, more humor and takes them on the biggest journey of the three movies,” concludes Dylan Clark. “The power and poignancy Matt and Mark brought to the script inspired us to take things even further than ever before.”
Evolution And Myth: Andy Serkis As Caesar
In War For the Planet of the Apes, Caesar — the king of the new breed of primates who have come in a rapid-fire way to develop the power to think, speak and see the world in complex, emotional terms – takes on the fableistic journey of a true leader who must go through a crucible to be able to help his people. As Dawn of The Planet of the Apes ended, Caesar was already on a precipice. He had broken his most fundamental moral tenet and killed another ape, his own very dear friend Koba, thrusting him into an abyss.
Reprising the role for which he has drawn global acclaim, Andy Serkis takes the regal Caesar into the riskiest, most psychologically nuanced zones we have seen. Serkis is renown also for bringing another digital character, Gollum, to life in the Lord of the Rings series – but never rested on those laurels.
He says that taking Caesar into a personal maelstrom – through pain and fire and surprise meetings to find his gravitas and nobility as a leader — in this film “has been the most rewarding acting challenge in my life.” Serkis adds: “To be able to play such a complex and complete character as Caesar all the way from infancy to this most profound juncture in his life as a leader has been incredible.”
For Matt Reeves, Serkis brings something special in this momentous juncture of Caesar’s story. “Andy is simply one of the best, most soulful actors I have ever worked with,” says the director. “In this film he went to emotional extremes that were deeper and more painful than in the previous two, and it was astonishing to watch how far he pushed himself. Our working relationship is one of the joys of my life.”
War finds Caesar, sharp, measured and principled as he is, at a loss for moral footing. He hungers for a personal reckoning, yet knows the other apes still look to him as their last chance to find a life of safety and freedom. As Serkis approached the role, he took it as a personal challenge to bring a visceral, perhaps one might even say “human” truth to a character who is a mysterious other, and yet who simultaneously embodies predicaments to which human audiences can deeply relate, no matter Caesar’s physical form.
As the apes have continued their rapid advancement from speechless animals to higher intelligence, each film has taken Serkis further in his explorations of Caesar’s expanding abilities – and War becomes the apex. Caesar’s increasing eloquence allows Serkis to etch more and more shadings into his persona. “In the first film, there was dawning of language and it was about exploring how the apes dealt with the beginning of their evolution. In the second film, I began to think of Caesar more as a human and he started to use more intricate linguistics, expressing himself intellectually,” Serkis in explains. “Now, Caesar can speak fluently which changes how he approaches things, how he thinks of himself and others.”
He continues: “It has really been amazing to be able to climb inside the mind of a being who is transforming on every single level. Physically in this film, Caesar is much more upright and he uses his hands a lot more now, so he’s more like a human being in ape skin. But as his intelligence and abilities have grown, the things he feels and remembers have become more daunting to him.”
Serkis observes all of this was possible for him only because Reeves created an environment in which understanding Caesar’s inner emotions was given as high a priority as bringing him to life visually.
“Matt’s passion for this story is bottomless,” Serkis elaborates. “He has an incredible eye for using the camera – but the key is he never sacrifices performance. It’s all about getting to true emotions at every single moment. Even in the most unforgiving environment, he’s looking for the heart of these characters.”
Perhaps what has inspired Serkis most in his creation of Caesar is the idea that, like a majestic animal in a fable, he is a creation who mirrors back the essence of humanity. That seemed especially true in War, as Caesar journeys through a time of global conflict that looks like many moments from human history, but with the intriguing difference of being seen through the revealing POV of once-wild animals.
“I think perhaps the playing out of our most fundamental human struggles through the eyes of apes allows the audience to connect to human emotions on a more visceral level,” he comments. “We know the Great Apes are our closest cousins — they are 97 per cent the same as us – and yet we perceive this world of difference. Perhaps, by giving them a voice and seeing the world through their different eyes, we can stand outside ourselves and really see ourselves under the microscope as we haven’t before.”
Upping The Performance Capture Bar
The development of leading-edge performance capture technology – technology that can record even the tiniest nuances of movement, gesture and emotion to animated characters via human actors — has led to the creation of some of motion pictures’ most memorable personalities, including the apes seen in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
But the merging of this technology with human performance has not been static, and the bar keeps moving.
The filmmakers once again turned to the visual effects artists at the New Zealand-based visual effects house Weta Digital. “Working with Dan Lemmon and the artists at Weta is so inspiring,” says Reeves. “They are constantly raising the bar of what is possible, and the results in this film are absolutely a high water mark in visual effects to date.”
Weta Digital has continued to evolve their capture technology over the three films to ensure no matter where the story goes, the performance of the actors onset is always recorded so the animators can see the dynamics at play.
Visual Effects Producer Ryan Stafford supervised some 50 visual effects personnel – and overseeing a 10-person witness camera unit, an array of 35 to 45 motion capture cameras, as well as an army of data wranglers, surveyors and photographers gathering information on every detail of each of the sets. The surveying alone was a massive job. ““Because we don’t know while shooting what elements might ultimately be created as CG, we have to make sure that every single inch of our sets and locations were surveyed. It takes a huge team to make sure every prop, every set dressing, every pebble on the ground is photographed. We 3-D scanned every inch of the set,” he explains.
Stafford continues: “Then we had a huge bank of computers we called Mission Control, which had a variety of human operators. They are the ones who hit record on all the motion capture, focus the cameras and make sure all the data we get is clean. It was a monumental effort. We had to shoot every shot twice, sometimes four times, then try to fit all of those complexities into a standard shooting day.”
Ape Effects: Advances In Vfx
Advances in performance capture were just the beginning for Weta, which also pushed into new territory in several areas of digital effects to craft the film’s array of more than 1,400 highly complex effects shots. The team working under senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri and VFX supervisor Dan Lemmon particularly focused on creating highly realistic interactions between the apes and their environments, from their hidden fortress to the Colonel’s prison. New concepts seen in War include:
- A new organic forest growth software known as Totara: this next-generation simulation tool cleverly emulates nature’s own growth patterns, allowing trees to adapt to the plant life surrounding them and even makes changes to shape and color caused by aging over time –new growth is red, then leaves turn green and naturally brown as they decay. Weta considers this tool to be an early look at the exciting direction organic effects tools will take over the next decade.
- Advanced Fur System: the fur technology used in War surpasses all used previously, bringing new levels of complexity to how digital fur behaves and interacts with the world. The particular need to mix fresh snow with fur drove innovation as the VFX team worked through of how snow sticks to fur, clumps on it, falls off and reacts as the apes walk through snowy environments. The fur grooms also got substantially denser: Caesar alone had nearly a million strands of hair.
- Manuka physLight toolset: this newly-built toolset models with pinpoint accuracy how cameras pick up and respond to light. The result is that the War team was able to light the apes similarly to how a DP would light, with all the same photographic rules applying as those used on the soundstage.
- The CG avalanche: Weta put major research into forging the film’s spectacular avalanche, including studying the physics of fluid dynamics to accurately recreate clouds of snow rocketing down a mountain.