The important thing to know about Matt Reeves’s Planet of the Apes series is that when you look at the superb rendition of apes, you forget that you are looking at computer-generated imagery coupled with motion-capture acting by actual humans. But War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film and probably the conclusion of the trilogy, pushed the envelope even further and the apes in that movie looked so uncannily lifelike that it was almost surreal to watch the film on the big screen.
Andy Serkis, the motion-capture actor extraordinaire who has been in this business since The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which he memorably played the role of Gollum, knows his craft like no other. First, a little introduction to the series for those who are unacquainted. Serkis’s character Caesar was born an intelligent ape that could do things which humans could. He led an army of apes to a forest in order to escape human civilisation. But civilisation found them anyway and there were battles. In the third film, nearly all the humans died of the simian flu. A US Army unit sought to decimate Caesar and his apes to avenge and to rebuild human civilisation without danger of another outbreak. In the first two films, Caesar’s job was to play an ape with intelligence and communication capabilities lower than that of a human, but way higher than other chimpanzees. But in the last film, he was almost as intelligent as a human, and probably wiser than most.
It was, as I said above, in the third film that the film and its cast and crew achieved their full potential, and the result was a breathtaking experience that wowed those who saw it on the big screen. The character model of Caesar was so detailed now that it was dumbfounding. There were lines on his face, due to age and strain due to the responsibility he had to keep those under him safe. He was world-weary and walked slowly as though carrying a huge weight.
The whole effect was a result of two things: cutting edge technology and incredible acting by Serkis. The motion-capture technology captures movements like gestures and expressions using reflective markers that are stuck on a special suit covering the actor’s body. Those reflective markers are there to assist the geeks who would render the three-dimensional image on their computers. These markers identify angles of joints and so forth for the camera.
As you can guess, there is a lot of 3D rendering and computer work involved, but it would all be useless if the actor is not good enough, not charismatic and not fluid enough in his or her movements. That is the reason Andy Serkis is so good at it – he is a great live-action actor as seen most recently in Black Panther and good at emoting and expressing things in a subtle way. War for the Planet of the Apes is not only a great film, it is also a pinnacle in motion-capture technology and if War for the Planet of the Apes does not deserve the Oscar for VFX, I do not know which film does.