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Franco, Serkis lured by 'Apes' technology and script

By KAREN BUTLER   |   Aug. 15, 2011 at 7:55 PM   |   Comments

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NEW YORK, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" stars James Franco and Andy Serkis say the technology used to create the primates on-screen was a huge draw when they considered whether to sign on to the Hollywood project.

Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, this prequel to the iconic science-fiction film franchise begun in the 1960s has been No. 1 at the U.S. box office the past two weekends.

Led by director Rupert Wyatt and featuring special effects by New Zealand-based digital wizards Weta, the filmmakers mix live-action performances with motion-capture technology and computer-generated animation to make the ape characters appear more emotive and intelligent than ever before.

Serkis' every movement was documented by computer, then animated to create the character of Caesar, a chimpanzee who inherits the high intelligence his mother develops after Franco's scientist Will Rodman tests a genetically engineered retrovirus -- a possible cure for Alzheimer's disease -- on her and others.

After his mother is killed for going on a rampage while trying to protect him, baby Caesar goes to live with Will, but he eventually gets taken away from his foster father and leads a rebellion against those who oppress him and his brethren.

Speaking shortly before the movie was released, Serkis told reporters in New York: "It was a fantastic role and an amazing story."

"It was something I believed in from the moment I picked up the script," he said. "It was a real challenge, a totally different character from anything I'd done before, regardless of the fact it's a similar species to a certain character I'd played before," he said, referring to the titular gorilla he portrayed in 2005's "King Kong," also via Weta motion-capture technology. "Playing Caesar was an amazing challenge."

In addition to King King, he memorably played the computer-animated Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy using similar digital techniques.

"All the scenes that you see in the ['Apes'] movie are co-acted by everyone you see. Performance-capture, all it is, really, is a tool. There is no differentiation at all between live-action actors and performance-capture actors. It's all acting. ... What happens after the performance is a whole other area of wizardry," Serkis remarked. "But, in terms of acting, there is no difference between acting in a performance-capture suit and live-action acting, except for the fact that I am playing a different species."

Franco, an Oscar nominee for 2010's "127 Hours" who also co-starred in the blockbuster "Spider-Man" series, said he had some initial reservations about signing up as the human lead in "Apes." However, he emphasized he was sold on the notion once he read the screenplay.

"I was given the script by Rupert. Before I read it, I thought, 'Well, hmm, I don't know about that idea,' but once I saw his take on it, compared to the other 'Apes' movies that were made, it was a really grounded take on it and then when I met with Rupert he told me the apes would be captured with performance-capture technology and Weta would be doing it and there would be a lot of the crew from 'Lord of the Rings' and I thought, 'Well, yeah, this will be the way to do it,'" Franco said, while sitting alongside Serkis at the New York press conference.

Asked if he was concerned audience members might be more interested in the movie magic used to bring his primate co-stars to life, Franco insisted: "I really, honestly, didn't think about being upstaged by apes. I just thought it would be an interesting movie."

Franco, who also likes to work behind the camera and has studied film-making, literature, writing and design at various U.S. universities, said his attitude toward effects-laden movies has changed a lot in recent years.

"The technology has advanced to a place where we can do a movie like this where I don't think I acted in front of a blue screen once. If I did, it was just something in the background. We had actual sets and the technology allowed Andy to come onto our sets and just act," Franco explained. "It brought us back to good old-fashioned movie-making where you could act on real sets, but get these kinds of computer-generated creatures, but also have a great actor underneath the computer-generated creature. ... [School] has changed my whole perception of this kind of work. I embrace it and it is actually one of the reasons I wanted to do this. It was a chance to have a different kind of acting experience."

Franco pointed out "Apes" isn't just a feast for the eyes, it explores human relationships, too. He then drew some parallels between the movie and Michael Cunningham's 2005 novel "Specimen Days," which tells three stories set in the Industrial Revolution, 21st century and 150 years in the future.

"What it shows is, up until this point, we as humans, kind of define ourselves as superior to animals because of our intelligence. But now, as technology grows, and we have thinking machines and I guess in the foreseeable future have machines that interact with us and talk, we start to define ourselves as humans based on our feelings," Franco reasoned. "This movie and all the other ['Planet of the Apes'] movies, really define who we are as humans by the way we treat both animals and other intelligent species or cultures. The previous films, all the apes have been around for a number of years, so their cultures are fully developed. They're much more about culture clash. This is an origins story, so the dichotomy and the tension is more between animals and humans. But it is still all about who are we? How do we define ourselves? How do we treat the other? Whatever that may be."

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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