Editing: <I>War for the Planet of the Apes</I>
Issue: July 1, 2017

Editing: War for the Planet of the Apes

On July 14th, 20th Century Fox released War for the Planet of the Apes, the follow up to 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was once again directed by Matt Reeves. The film marks the third in the rebooted franchise (2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was directed by Rupert Wyatt), and centers around the now mature Caesar, who continues to serve as the apes’ leader. While their colony struggles to coexist with humans, they appear to be gaining an upper hand, as the humans face extinction due to a rapidly spreading, deadly virus.

Editor William Hoy also returned to work on the new release, continuing his collaboration with Reeves. Hoy’s vast credits include Dances With Wolves, both Fantastic Four films, 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He is a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and American Cinema Editors.

“In this particular picture, almost the entire production called for visual effects,” Hoy explains. “It was dedicated to the performance and characters, which was a real plus for me. That’s what we wanted most out of it. The character and emotional character of the apes and the humans.”

Hoy, who has cut a number of Fox features, was acquainted with a number of people surrounding the project, and has developed a trust with the director. “On the first film, you have to learn to trust each other, and on this film it was a real pleasure to work with him,” says the editor. “We’ve become really good friends and that’s something that’s valuable that I take away from the picture, too.”

Hoy went on location to Vancouver in October 2015, just before the start of production. “As soon as they started shooting, I began to put the scenes together.”

This film, he feels, is different than a typical motion-capture production in that director Reeves shot most of the scenes with physical production backgrounds. 

“Matt wanted to shoot these ape actors in the environment so he could get the correct light on the human actors and we could take reference and have the natural lighting on these apes. That’s why they looked so real. There’s a lot of reference. Weta was able to light those apes so it looks like they were a part of the environment.”

Hoy describes the style of the film as a journey, filled with discovery. 

“The discovery is basically the first third of the movie — the little girl, Bad Ape, the posse,” he notes. “You never know what’s about to happen and that’s what I feel is so compelling in the beginning.”

The humans’ camp is another significant segment, one that presented its own list of challenges for the editor.

“When we get to the camp, in the script, I was quite worried about it, and Matt was too,” says Hoy, noting that they didn’t want to get bogged down in its oppressiveness. “You want to get the sense that there’s little hope for the apes and Caesar, but you can’t stay there too long. It’s a PG-13 movie, but it’s pretty heavy when you think of what happens in terms of the picture…We wanted to make sure that Caesar was to the point where he was suffering, and you didn’t know if he was going to make it.”

Shed in LA created the dailies from Arri Alexa footage shot in 6K and added a look that DP Michael Seresin had envisioned.

“They’d shoot and send digital magazines to Shed, and what Shed would do was take the 6K files and down-res them to 4K, and send 6K and 4K to Weta…Then they would down-res the 4K into an Avid file for ourselves, so we would have dailies. Weta would downconvert the 4K files into 2K, so they would work in 2K, and we worked in Avid DNx32.”

Hoy began cutting in Vancouver at Mammoth Studio (mammothstudios.ca). After production wrapped, he moved to the Fox lot. 

“When I put my cut together and showed it to the director, what we would be watching are just our motion-capture characters in that space,” says Hoy of the early edits. “After the first minute or so, your brain doesn’t say, ‘I am watching these guys in these funny outfits.’ You are totally involved in the movie. It’s not until further down the line that we get to see these apes fully rendered out. It comes quite late in the process, because we go through quite a few steps from when we turn the picture over, where we’ve cut a scene and we like what Andy [Serkis] is doing here, and we like what the apes are doing, and how they are interacting, and send that scene to the visual effects department — Weta — who begins to work on this particular scene.”

A postvis crew helped the editor fill in some of the gaps that would ultimately be completed with VFX. Occasionally, the performance by the motion-capture actor was on target, but the sight lines may have needed adjustment. 

“We know that when we give it to Weta, we can make the eye lines match and we need postvis to help represent that.”

Hoy says he typically works with four- or eight-frame handles when editing, but in this case, visual effects supervisor Ryan Stafford calculated that the production could save almost a million dollars if they went without handles — so they did. 

“That was the right choice,” says Hoy, “because very rarely did we use the handles, and if we did, we had an extra few frames (added). The expense was a lot less than carrying all these other shots that we ultimately didn’t need.”

Surprisingly, one of the scenes that presented the biggest challenge for Hoy as an editor, might not be one that audiences suspect, considering all of the on-screen action.

“The one that comes to mind for me is when they meet Bad Ape and they are sitting around the hearth,” says Hoy. “You realize he is a funny character, but also a very tragic character. If you look at it on the surface, it looks like a simple scene: There are a couple of close-ups. There are wide shots. It looks pretty easy? But that scene…took such a long time.”

Hoy spent three weeks on-location, working on that scene before he showed it to the director, who then agreed that while they were able to convey Bad Ape as a funny character, there was still his tragic side that needed to be represented.

“[Matt Reeves] went back in to the mocap stage and shot pick up,” says Hoy. Shooting in 6K allowed the editor to blow up shots, move the characters and even create over-the-shoulder angles. And while the apes were motion capture and would be achieved through visual effects, the little girl in the scene is a live-action element, so he still had to consider her performance. 

“So what you see there is a very complicated scene that, once finished, looks like it flows so well,” says Hoy. “It was truly one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever cut in any film.”

Reflecting on the project, Hoy says his approach was to make scene transitions as smooth as possible and not spend too much time in one spot or another.

“Hopefully, if you don’t feel there are any chapters, that’s one of the things that Matt and I tried to achieve,” he explains, “that the scenes kind of go seamlessly into each other.”