Director's Chair: Matt Reeves - 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Issue: July 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Matt Reeves - 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

In 2011, the Fox reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis and a bunch of genetically-enhanced chimps who get ready to take over the world, turned into a critical and commercial success, scoring nearly half a billion at the box office. Three years later, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel — and eighth film in the long-running franchise — picks up the story, and things look even grimmer for what’s left of the human race. A growing nation of smart, evolved apes, led by Caesar (Serkis), are in charge thanks to the devastating virus unleashed in San Francisco a decade earlier. But a small band of human survivors (including Gary Oldman and Keri Russell) soon clash with the apes in a struggle that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Directed by Matt Reeves, who helmed the science fiction/horror hit Cloverfield (2008), about the arrival of a giant monster in New York City, and horror-thriller Let Me In (2010), the film was shot in native 3D by Michael Seresin, the New Zealand-born director of photography whose eclectic resume includes such films as Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, edited by William Hoy (Fantastic 4, 300) and Stan Salfas (Let Me In), with Weta Digital’s senior visual effects supervisor and four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri (The Lord of the Rings, Avatar) overseeing the complex VFX and a team of hundreds of artists and technicians.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Reeves, who was still knee-deep in post and VFX shots at press time, talks about making the film, his love of post, and the importance of music and sound.

This was a very ambitious project. What sort of film did you set out to make? 
“As a child I was obsessed with the original Planet of the Apes. It was a seminal film in my youth and it set the stage for later obsessions like Star Wars. The whole look of apes on horseback fascinated me. It was this thrilling, primal, terrifying world, and I collected all the dolls, I had 8mm reels of excerpts, and years later when I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I realized it was able to turn you into an ape emotionally — and that level of emotional connection was vital for me in doing this film. But when I first came on board, the story the studio was planning to make was very different. It didn’t start in the ape world, but I wanted to start there and show the ape civilization they were creating and developing. So I saw it as an epic ape western, and I wanted to take that premise and realize it in a totally naturalistic, believable and visually-expansive way.”

How early on did you decide to go 3D?
“The studio wanted to shoot it in 3D, and I wanted to treat the image like you’d do in a traditional human drama. Here’s the thing about 3D — often when you see very complex CG work, the instinct for everyone involved is to go for very deep focus. The thinking is, here we have this ape civilization and there’s this ape in the foreground who’s the center of the story, but he’s surrounded by 100 apes, so if we’re doing all this CG work and paying huge sums, let’s see it all. But I felt it’d be much more realistic if we used shallow focus and let scenes play out as if we weren’t using any effects at all, just to let the drama take center stage. So my initial fears with 3D were all about that deep focus. But then the DP and I both saw Life of Pi, which had just come out, and we both loved that look and its shallow 3D and sense of intimacy, so we wanted to use the same 3D ‘look’ — and keep a beautifully-realized 3D aesthetic and combine it with the strengths of a 2D aesthetic. We just didn’t want it to look digital. But then Weta said given our visual approach, because of the accelerated schedule, there just wasn’t enough time to post-convert, what with all the details of the leaves and woods and everything we wanted to create this immersive experience, so we had to shoot native 3D, which was a first for both me and Michael. So we didn’t make it easy for ourselves.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot, considering it was all shot on location in both the cool rainforests of British Columbia and the heat and humidity of Louisiana?
“It was very tough, but while the last film was done mainly on stages, I really wanted to shoot in real locations, with all the bad weather and rain and so on, and make this a very tribal and hopefully emotional story. But that meant taking the cast and crew into very difficult locations and conditions. And on any film of this scale it’s tough enough shooting all the mo-cap, but it was pretty crazy what we did on top of that stuff, taking all the 3ality Technica rigs and Alexa Ms and fiber optic cables out in the mud and rain. But then we had all these CG characters and also got a higher level of photo-realism, partly as we weren’t on stage, and partly because of Michael Seresin’s great work and all the technical advances that Weta made. So while all the VFX part is huge, it also takes a back seat to the uncanny reality of it all. That was my goal and the biggest challenge — to make this ape epic that was also very grounded in reality.”

The VFX were obviously crucial. How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?
“Like so many of these huge films now, we began post during pre-production, and we had the editors on-set with us in Vancouver and New Orleans, along with all the Weta VFX supers. That’s the only way we could deal with the schedule.”

Did you do a lot of previs?
“Again, a lot of these type of films are driven by previs because they’re so complex, and the studios like to see what’s going to happen. And every single shot costs a lot, because in this movie, the main character doesn’t even exist until he’s created — and that’s a very unusual situation to be in. And based on how late I came on, and wanting to tell a very different story, which meant completely re-writing the whole script — and still planning to meet the original release date — it meant I had a very curtailed prep, which in turn meant I couldn’t develop the previs to the usual level. But I found that to be fantastic and liberating, as never having done mo-cap before, my fear was that everything would be driven by the stuff you do in previs. Previs can be a great tool, but it can’t give you a performance, and a lot of the camera angles I choose are based on what the actors are doing and the light. So although I didn’t have enough prep, it meant I was able to shoot it exactly the way I’d do a 2D non-mo-cap movie.”

Do you like post?
“I love it. It’s a cliché but it’s really where you get to sit down and really shape all the raw material and actually make your film. And as I said earlier, you start doing post right away on a film like this, so it’s really the biggest part of the whole process. And it’s the calmest part of the whole process. So I’m a huge fan of post.”

Where did you do the post? 
“On the Fox lot. We’re doing all the sound [and] everything there.”

The film was edited by William Hoy and Stan Salfas; tell us about that relationship and how it worked? 
“Because our whole schedule was so tight, they were on the set at both locations and started cutting material right away. That way I could shoot, look at a rough assembly of scenes, keep shooting, and so on.”

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
“I lost count! And we’re still waiting for shots to come in. There’s probably a couple of thousand, but then every shot is a VFX shot in a sense, as something’s going on somewhere in the frame.” 

Tell us about working with Weta and VFX supervisor Joe Letteri?
“Joe came on the set and his guys were there all the time. I think we had 30 or 35 people on each unit, 50 or so mo-cap cameras, and then a bunch of helmet cams that were constantly rolling in any scenes that involved an ape character. So it was a huge crew on top of the traditional crew.”

What was the most technically-difficult shot to pull off?
“We had one major sequence of the surviving human colony we shot on this huge set on half a city block in downtown New Orleans, and that was pretty tough as it had to look like it was gray and overcast, like the stuff we’d shot in Vancouver. So matching footage from British Columbia and then Louisiana was obviously hard, but Michael did an amazing job, considering the story all takes place in the San Francisco area.”

Talk about the importance of music and sound? 
“Film is a visual medium but it’s also hard to overstate the importance of music and sound to those visuals. There’s so much information you give an audience through those areas, and I also had a fantastic composer in Michael Giacchino, who won the Oscar for Up. He’s an incredible artist with such soul and power in his music. Eddy Nelson and Will Files are doing the sound effects and mixing, and Will and Doug Murray are doing all the sound design. They’re so talented and I’ve worked with them since Cloverfield, and all the sound design is incredibly important to me, in trying to match the reality of the visual that Michael and Weta created. I didn’t want it to just feel like the traditional big-movie sound. I wanted it to be very subtle and totally immersive. Doug is literally going over all the ape voices, trying to find some ape sounds that echo the performances in places where we can’t use the actor’s voice. And Will’s been creating all these marvelous effects. So it’s a very complex process, but I’m very excited about how it’s all blending together."

The DI must be vital?
“Absolutely. We’re doing it with Company 3 colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, on the Blackmagic Da Vinci Resolve, and we’re going for a darker look than the last film, with a lot of attention to detail with the apes.”