Monkey Business

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), is 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 clashes with the apes in a struggle that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Michael Seresin, BSC, on set.

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 by Michael Seresin, BSC, the New Zealand-born director of photography whose eclectic résumé includes such films as Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, City Hall, Angela’s Ashes and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

"I chose Michael because I’m a huge fan of all his movies and the way he uses light," notes Reeves, who says he viewed the project as a chance to make "an epic ape western, and take that premise and realize it in a totally naturalistic, believable and visually expansive way. Right from the start, I wanted a soft-light feel and to take all the CG characters and put them in an environment that would feel more real. I didn’t want that storybook, stylized look, or for it to feel or look like a fantasy. And Michael’s approach to light has always transported me, so when I found out he was available, I just jumped at the chance to work with him. Plus, I needed someone of his experience, given what we were taking on."

"It’s a hugely complex production, especially in terms of cinematography," reports Seresin, who at press time was back on the FOX lot still shooting pickups barely two months before the release date. "And the biggest initial challenge was that the decision to shoot it in 3D was taken a bit later than ideal. There wasn’t enough time to shoot 2D and post-convert, so we had to shoot native 3D, which was a first for me. [The DP, who previously shot about half of Gravity, notes that the Oscar®-winning film was largely done 2D and post-converted, thanks to a more leisurely schedule.] So I called up a bunch of DPs who had shot 3D films and picked their brains about all the pitfalls, and they all told me that if anything can go wrong, it does, as it’s so complex. Fortunately, I had a great team around me, which helped us pull it all together fairly quickly."

Seresin stresses that, "Whether it’s 2D or 3D, the principles are the same—telling a good story with light and composition—so I went through the normal process of testing lenses and then incorporating those into the rigs."

The team then settled on the key elements of the camera package: 3ality Technica rigs (TS-35 with the SIP 2101), ALEXA Ms and Leica Summilux-C lenses. "Once I had chosen the lenses, which for me are pretty much about resolution—some lenses are cool, some are warm, some are in between—the important thing is that they have the same quality throughout, so I can switch from one to another and keep it consistent, and the Leicas are incredible. And when you shoot 3D, ideally, you need the two lenses to be identical, or as close as possible."