By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
Those darn, dirty apes are at it again.
Now they're going digital. After six films of actors running around in monkey suits, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, set to open Aug. 5, will render its simian stars through computer-generated effects, a first for the 43-year-old franchise.
Director Rupert Wyatt says that while making digital monkeys removed the stress of live animals on set, technology came freighted with new pressures. Wyatt hired WETA, the New Zealand-based effects wizards who handled Avatar, to create lifelike chimps, gorillas and orangutans. But because the animals' fur and eyes needed so much detail, Wyatt shot the film without seeing his simian stars.
"We will succeed or fail based on how much people believe in our apes," he says. "But WETA is the best in the world, and once they sent us one shot, we knew we made the right decision."
Going digital also sidesteps a moral conflict that Wyatt had with the project: training real apes.
"Their alpha instincts are so strong, to get them to do something you have to dominate them. I wasn't comfortable with that."
So he hired Andy Serkis to provide the digitally captured movements of Caesar, the ape who ultimately leads the revolt against mankind. In Rise, James Franco cares for the precious primate altered by genetic testing.
Planet has long been a franchise marked by startling images: a gorilla on horseback; a scorched Statue of Liberty; a nuclear bomb as religious monument. But it could also look pretty silly. The original cast never quite looked convincing swinging arms and dragging knuckles.
"I used to think, wow, look at these great actors, in these wacky costumes, having quasi-philosophical discussions about what civilization is made of," Franco says.
The 2001 version did well at the box office but was critically assailed, in large part for putting the actors in primate wear.
"It was hard to watch such a highly budgeted movie where people obviously are wearing masks," Franco says. "We're going to transform it into our version of realism, what intelligent apes would be like."