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Bringing 'War for the Planet of the Apes' to life

Andy Serkis, Matt Reeves and the stars of the jaw-dropping new movie talk funny suits and going ape.

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"War for the Planet of the Apes" started out as a movie with no apes in it. It was shot and edited as a film about a bunch of guys in funny suits with dots on their faces -- the apes were only added in afterward.

The funny suits with dots are performance capture suits, used more and more in blockbuster movies to turn actors into apes, beasts and even long-dead stars. In "War for the Planet of the Apes", the result is an astonishing marriage of cutting-edge technology and powerful acting.

We caught up with the director and stars of the new flick to find out more about the movie magic going into this visually astounding film.

The first film in the series, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", featured a handful of apes in a human world. The sequel, "Dawn...", featured a near-equal balance of apes interacting with humans. And now, in "War...", the balance has completely shifted to the ape perspective, with only Woody Harrelson and a couple of other actors even having speaking parts. Going into the third in the rebooted "Apes" series, co-writer and director Matt Reeves felt he and his colleagues had earned the right to make the ape Caesar their main character. 

"This story is told entirely from Caesar's point of view," says Reeves. "Everything we learn about the humans comes from Caesar's point of view. There's no scene without apes in the movie, which is the first time that's been done in the series."

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The ape Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, is the lead character in "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Twentieth Century Fox

Every ape character starts with an actor's performance. Having learned the mannerisms of chimps and gorillas in training sessions nicknamed ape camp, the actors donned grey latex foam performance capture suits to go in front of the cameras on the production's elaborate sets. Cameras tracked the dots on the suits to record how the actors moved, and each performer also sported a special lightweight, head-worn camera rig that tracked precision dots placed on the face and recorded every blink, snarl and change of expression. 

"There's a version of the movie that exists that's just the actors," Reeves says with a smile. "It's not 'Planet of the Apes', it's 'Planet of the Guys in Their Tight Suits with the Dots on Their Faces'."

That raw version of the movie, without any visual effects added yet, was shaped and edited until the story worked.

"You take the performance that's shot on the day," says Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, "and then you live with that in the cut for months and months, and you create the drama all around that. It has to work in its own right."

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Steve Zahn as a childlike chimp in "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Twentieth Century Fox

Series newcomer Steve Zahn, who plays the wide-eyed chimpanzee Bad Ape, went into the film expecting it to be a technical challenge. "I thought there would be all these tricks that I would have to adapt to," he says. "But there weren't any ... it's really like shooting any other movie. There's absolutely no difference other than the fact that you have dots on you."

So for Zahn the challenge was about moving and acting like a chimpanzee rather than mastering the technology. This is where Serkis and other "Apes" veterans came in, with their knowledge and experience of studying and playing animals. "It's a masterclass with a great actor", Zahn says of the ape camp sessions. "He didn't give me technical advice, he gave me acting advice."

"It's the closest thing I've done to theater in film," says Zahn, much to his surprise. 

In fact, Zahn reckons that 12-year-old co-star Amiah Miller had a tougher job than the performance capture artists in their funny suits. "We do a scene together, all of us," he explains, "and then we leave the scene and she has to do it by herself in the same way as if we're there. It's a harder gig for a human."

"I had to do the scenes with the apes and then without," remembers Miller, "so I had little pieces of tape to represent the apes ... It was difficult at first because I'd never worked with it before, but everyone was just so amazing, they were all so talented that I was just reacting to how I would normally react in that situation."

Once the film has been shot and shaped into the finished product, the visual effects maestros at Weta take over. The tracker dots on the faces of the actors are mapped onto the computer-generated digital ape models, translating the nuances of the performances into the ape characters.

Weta are old friends with Andy Serkis. "They're my old team from back in the day on 'Lord of the Rings'," he says. "They've studied my face and facial muscles, and practically every single expression I'm ever capable of making, more than anyone else on the planet!"

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Rain, snow and blood slick the fur of the digitally created apes in astonishing detail.

Twentieth Century Fox

The movie is packed full of close-ups of the characters. There's an astounding level of detail in the apes' skin and fur, with every hair and eyelash clearly defined. Most of all, the glistening eyes are full of emotion.

Performance capture has reached the stage of giving any actor any face or form. In films like "Apes" and "The Jungle Book" it's used to turn actors into animals. In films like "Ant-Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2" it's been used to make legendary stars look younger. And in "Rogue One" it was even used to digitally resurrect the late Peter Cushing, mapping the face of his character from the original "Star Wars" onto a living actor's performance. 

"For me it's like sampling music," Serkis says of this latest development. "As long as it's in good taste and the estate and family are happy with the likeness being brought back to life [it's like] great artists' work being brought back to life with new beats."

Serkis, who co-founded leading performance capture company Imaginarium, sees the future in virtual reality and gaming. "I think there's so much potential for the shared, immersive experiences that audiences want now," he enthuses. "We'll probably see in the next 10 to 15, 20 years film experiences which almost feel like theatrical experiences with some real event happening. I think there's lots of really exciting places to go with technology."

And if the stars of "Apes" could use performance capture to digitally insert themselves into any movie ever? Zahn opts for "A Bridge Too Far" or "Jeremiah Johnson". Serkis meanwhile would love to have a crack at a classic role: "I would probably want to go back and be Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver'."

"War for the Planet of the Apes" is in theatres from 11 July in the UK and 14 July in the US.

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