<I>Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes</I>: Director Wes Ball
Issue: March/April 2024

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: Director Wes Ball

It’s been 56 years since Planet of the Apes became a huge hit and spawned an epic franchise. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is the latest and tenth installment, and was directed by Wes Ball ( The Maze Runner trilogy), who takes the reins of the global franchise with an adventure set several generations in the future following Caesar’s reign, in which apes are the dominant species, living harmoniously, and humans have been reduced to living in the shadows. As a new tyrannical ape leader builds his empire, one young ape undertakes a harrowing journey that will cause him to question all that he has known about the past, and to make choices that will define a future for apes and humans alike.

The film stars Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon and William H. Macy, along with a ton of CG apes. Behind the camera, Ball assembled a team of collaborators that included cinematographer Gyula Pados and editors Dan Zimmerman and Dirk Westervelt, as well as Weta FX’s visual effects supervisor Erik Winquist, who oversaw the complex VFX, and a team of hundreds of artists and technicians.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Ball, who was still deep in post at press time, talks about making the film, his love of post and the VFX.

I heard that you first pitched this as Apocalypto with apes. Is that true?

“Yes, and although it didn’t end up being that kind of chase movie, that idea was my way in. The initial idea was a simple sort of road movie with characters plucked from a simple, idealistic existence and put in this world that you can barely fathom, and that’s where it finally ended up. It’s not a simple chase movie full of action anymore.”

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I wanted to make a movie that fit into the long legacy of the Ape films. I was born in 1980, and I grew up on that first movie from 1968 with Charlton Heston. I don’t know why I loved watching an old movie like that so much, but it had an incredible pull on me. I think it was partly the whole concept and primitive existence thing, and upside-down nature of the world and the whole spectacle of it all. So the challenge was, how do we make a movie that honors all that, and the history and achievements of the series, especially the last two films that Matt Reeves made? They were these mature, grown-up and very sophisticated takes on genre, with great stories and really well-crafted. So how do you build a bridge from all that to the classic 1968 world story-wise and visually? That was the goal.” 

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?

“Just the sheer scale and process of making these films is unlike anything I’ve ever done. You’re showing up on-set with all these virtual IR cameras hidden around the set, and built into the set itself, to capture all the data, and you’re getting all the takes you want, and then you’re clearing it all out and having the DP repeat — from memory — all those camera moves. And we had a very spontaneous approach to the camera moves, with a lot of handheld, as well as elaborate setups, so there’s not a lot of still and quiet scenes. It’s a bit different from the previous films. So all that was a huge challenge, as you’re grabbing all these puzzle pieces that have to fit together, and you’re having to make choices about VFX shots six months ago that only now, late in post, am I seeing whether they were the right or wrong choices. It’s wild that all this stuff is floating around and that it all has to fall in place right in the last few weeks of post. It’s like one of those magic tricks, where you throw everything up in the air and it all lands perfectly in place.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“Yes, but I try not to do too much, as it never adds up to what you actually do on the day on-set. The sets are not the same, the shots are different, you have new ideas and so on. But there were certain key scenes we had to previs and Halon, who I’d worked with before, did that, and really delivered in the places where we had lots of departments involved and full-CG worlds we had to build, where no one knew exactly what was going to happen. So there was a lot, but less than you’d imagine on a huge movie like this that’s all CG.” 

Talk about working with VFX supervisor Erik Winquist and Weta.

“I’ve been so fortunate and lucky to have made four films now with Weta, and Erik was one of the very first people I began talking to when we began prepping this film. Obviously, it had to be Weta, as they’re just the best at what they do, and I wouldn’t do another film without them.   

“I can’t tell you how humbling it is to work with the best people in the world at creating and crafting impossible images, like a full-CG creature that you believe is real. So we had to integrate all the VFX very early on, as there were whole new characters and designs that had to be rigged and built. And it was a whole new world and look this time, as we were going to be in the harsh sunshine of Australia for the shoot, not that soft, beautiful light of Vancouver, where they shot the last films. On top of all those challenges, we shot anamorphic with old C Series Panavision lenses that have all these weird optical characteristics that are a nightmare for VFX. And our LUT was based on an old Agfa film LUT, which gave us this great, old, dirty look, as if we’d found the film in a vault.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was tough. We shot for 73 days and did all our stage work at Disney Studios in Sydney, Australia, but these movies are made on-location. So we went to some that were so wild and really hard to get to, and the big problem is that a film like this requires such a huge footprint. The logistics involved and the number of trucks is crazy. We had one just for all the computer systems that run the cameras that do all the motion capturing. And all the cabling and conduits on-set have to be rigged and hidden the day before. We had a couple of locations on the mocap stage that were full-on mocap and full volume — not volume in The Mandalorian way, but volume in the old-school mocap way. There was nothing there. You just had to use your imagination.”

Where did you do the post? 

“It was all at FotoKem, and we had a whole floor. It’s been a year of post so far — the longest I’ve ever had. And it’s been wild, as you’re making choices based on a plate where you assume there’s going to be an ape and a building in the background, and you have to wait to get it all back six months later and see if you made the right choice or not. So it’s been very nerve-wracking. We’re just about to start the sound mix with Ai-Ling Lee on the Fox lot. She’s doing all the sound design and mixing, and she did my other films. For me, sound is crucial. It’s so under-appreciated, but it’s over half the film experience, particularly for this one, where it’s a blockbuster spectacle, but every single sound effect has to be sonically real and accurate for CG characters that don’t really exist. It has to feel naturalistic and organic, as well as heightened, so it’s a big challenge. If anything sounds or feels unreal, it’ll pull you out of the whole illusion.”

The film was edited by Dan Zimmerman and Dirk Westervelt. What were the big challenges of editing this? 
“We brought Dirk in right before we finished shooting, and he watched all the dailies, and then Dan joined the team, as we needed two editors, as we had so much footage to go through. And then the whole process was wild. Not only are you dealing with all the regular challenges of editing, but we had to track all the clean plates for every shot. And then we have this crazy super-power, which allows me to take the performance from one take and insert it in another take with another actor, or into another scene and so on. So we have all these choices, and that makes the whole process the most difficult editing job I’ve ever done.”

What’s been the most difficult scene to cut?

“They’ve all been hard but the hardest were the full-CG scenes, where you’re cutting actors on a gray, sterile stage and trying to imagine a giant building collapsing around them or whatever. I should have done what James Cameron does and use a virtual camera on-stage, but we just didn’t have the time to do that, and so it was more me jumping in during the edit and trying to explain what I wanted to do, and then doing it in post. I’ll definitely shoot with a virtual camera in the future. And the big challenge is not just making it all look real, but making it feel real. And that’s not so much about the rendering, but about what the camera is doing.” 

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?

“Over 1,500, and I think there are just 30 shots in the whole film that have no VFX.”

I’m surprised that there are only 1,500 VFX shots?

“Yes, and that tells you that the shots are long, which I like in movies. And it’s not just about holding a shot. They move and one person’s shot becomes another person’s shot, and they’re alive and spontaneous. As we speak, we’ve done about 80 percent of them, and Weta have done an amazing job and every shot. There was no VFX outsourcing.”

Have you started the DI yet? 

“Yes, we’ve done quite a bit with colorist Dave Cole at FotoKem, who did my last movie there. My DP Gyula Pados is in the sessions with Dave more often than I am right now, as I’m so busy with post and dealing with the rest of the VFX shots coming in. But I love the DI, and the whole approach is to not push it too hard. We want to keep that older feel to the film and keep a naturalistic look. I don’t want to crush all the blacks. I’m very detailed in the DI, and I can really obsess over the light and density of the image. And so far I’m really happy with what we’ve done and how it’s looking.”