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Movie simians rise to next level in 'Apes' prequel

The Associated Press, Friday, August 5, 2011, 5:22am (PDT)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- There's no disputing the evolution of Hollywood apes since "King Kong" first terrorized audiences in 1933.

Back then, the king of the apes was a fur-covered puppet. In the old "Planet of the Apes" tales, simians were played by people in ape suits.

Today's movie apes have gone digital.

The prequel "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," opening in U.S. theaters Friday, features chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans crafted through performance-capture, in which the motions and features of human actors were recorded digitally, then layered over with computer animation to create photo-realistic primates.

It's the same technology used for the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson's 2005 "King Kong," with the same actor who did Kong, Andy Serkis, playing the lead chimp in the "Apes" prequel.

Serkis said it greatly enhanced the story's authenticity for him to be on set and in character as chimpanzee Caesar alongside James Franco, Freida Pinto and other co-stars playing the human roles. That's even though he was dressed in a skintight outfit covered with reference dots for the digital cameras and wearing a rig on his head to record facial expressions.

He didn't look remotely like a chimpanzee, but he had freedom of movement and expression the actors lacked on 1968's original "Planet of the Apes," whose makeup earned the film an honorary Academy Award.

"It did look phenomenal and iconic, but they had to kind of falsely move their faces around, move their mouths and generate a lot of energy just to keep those rubber masks alive. Because if they stopped, it would just look like coconut shells," Serkis said.

"That is the thing that performance-capture technology completely eliminates. You don't have layers of anything that is between you and the performance. So whereas you don't get the kind of stimulation of a costume, as an actor playing a performance-capture character, you have the total freedom to know that whatever you're thinking and feeling and generating and receiving from another actor is completely truthful, and is born out of here, in the heart."

Serkis led a cast of actors and stuntmen whose performances were the basis for about 150 apes that make a huge leap in intelligence through exposure to a drug being tested as a cure for Alzheimer's.

The original "Planet of the Apes" and Tim Burton's 2001 update featured apes that had evolved over centuries into thinking, talking creatures that walked upright as their limbs took on more human proportions. So humans in ape suits made sense.

But "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" features the simians we know, that move about on all fours, with shorter legs and longer arms than humans. Actors in costumes could not have realistically simulated those proportions — and live apes could not have delivered the smarter-than-your-av erage-chimp performances, the filmmakers said.

"None of these things would have worked for us because of the story," said Joe Letteri, who won a visual-effects Oscar for Jackson's "King Kong" and was senior visual-effects supervisor on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." "We need to see the apes evolve, especially Caesar, from being a chimp we recognize to being able to have this behavior they acquire through this enhanced intelligence. Essentially, they had to perform like something more than apes but still look like real apes."

Serkis has become an able observer of ape behavior, studying gorillas for his Kong role in Rwanda with researchers for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, on whose board of trustees he serves.

While Serkis' performance-capture Kong looked strikingly real, the 1933 original starring Fay Wray remains an artistic triumph that may be dated, yet still is a visual wonder. That Kong was created through stop-motion animation, in which the gorilla puppet was meticulously moved and filmed one frame at a time.

Stop-motion animation also was used for the huge gorilla in 1949's "Mighty Joe Young." The ape in the 1998 remake was created by a mix of a guy in a gorilla suit, a mechanical puppet and computer effects.

The 1976 "King Kong" starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange was a critical dud but did pick up a visual-effects Oscar. The great ape that time was a hybrid — blending the man-in-a-gorilla-sui t approach with some scenes using a giant mechanical Kong.

B-movies have a long history of putting people in cheesy ape suits, but when done well, the costumes can be remarkably effective. Hollywood's king of the ape outfit is makeup master Rick Baker, whose credits include the 2001 "Planet of the Apes," the 1976 "King Kong" and the 1988 Fossey drama "Gorillas in the Mist" and who earned Oscar nominations for the 1998 "Mighty Joe Young" and 1984's "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes."

Like the 2005 "King Kong," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" puts Caesar and his simian pals into huge action and fight sequences requiring acrobatics far beyond the capabilities of men in ape suits. Performance-capture was the only choice for director Rupert Wyatt.

"We knew that we couldn't use actors in prosthetic suits just because we're dealing with real apes. We wanted from the get-go to tell the story in as plausible and in as real-world a way as possible," Wyatt said. "And have 150 apes all captured in such a way that would be believable to a very savvy modern audience."

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