Monkey Business

To capture the ape performances in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Weta Digital and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri had 35 people on each unit, 50 or more motion-capture cameras and eight witness capture cameras that were constantly rolling on anything that involved an ape character.

As a result, camera crews are also far larger than they used to be. "You have your traditional crew, and then you have all the tech guys, as well," he reports. "And while I don’t like the term, it’s probably more accurate to say you’re ‘capturing the image’ rather than just filming something. All the new technology has really changed that side of it."

The film was shot with two main units, with the 1st always running two rigs, "as we were leapfrogging and shooting with one while the second was set up," he explains. "Sometimes, we had a third rig. Then, the 2nd unit had three or four rigs, depending on what they needed for a big action scene." Occasionally, they also used a 2D setup "for maybe five percent of the film."

Dawn marks the first collaboration between the DP and director. "Matt said he loved my work and aesthetic, and that my aesthetic would really work for this," recalls Seresin. "So I read the script, and he also sent me about 150 electronic pages of images, which was amazing and really gave me a visual point of departure. And then he told me that he’d love to shoot on film and do it all 2D, but that there was no time for post-conversion. So it had to be 3D."

Both Reeves and Seresin referenced Ang Lee’s Life of Pi because of its shallow 3D. "We both loved that look and wanted to use the same 3D ‘look’ to maximum effect in the appropriate scenes," notes the DP. [At press time, with the cut still unfinished, this approach wasn’t finalized.] "So the look we went for was a 2D film aesthetic—we didn’t want it to look digital at all. And I generally don’t like rules, so we shot a ton of tests, a lot of them for 3D, and we kept it really shallow." Close attention also had to be paid to all the VFX work being done by Weta Digital, who did all the visual effects on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

After starting preproduction in January 2013, Seresin began principal photography in April, on location in Vancouver for a month, before moving to New Orleans and then the FOX lot for pickups. "It was around an 80-day shoot, all shot on location, which I love, though it wasn’t easy with all the 3D rigs," he admits. "At one point, we started scouting on Vancouver Island, and we were tramping through the snow and rain, and it hit me how tough it was going to be, carting all the gear. I mean, we had more Apple computers than there is in an Apple store, and we were shooting in really inaccessible locations, in these quite remote forests. It would take two hours just to get in there and another hour to set up all the equipment—and until it’s all set up and working, you literally cannot see a shot."

Seresin has high praise for his tech team and the other filmmakers, including production designer James Chinlund. "He did an amazing job and was the most filmmaking-friendly production designer I’ve ever worked with," he reports. "He was on the set every day, watching everything. Also on set, to capture the ape performances, Weta Digital and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri had 35 people on each unit, 50 or so mo-cap cameras, and eight witness capture cameras that were constantly rolling on anything that involved an ape character.

"We had a pretty big 2nd unit who did some of the really big action stuff," adds the DP. "Matt and I would shoot through the day, and then most of the time we would go down and watch the 2nd unit doing the big stunt scenes and just keep an eye on it all because I don’t like letting anything go."

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