Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Going ape over motion capture

High-tech effects make Andy Serkis's startling portrayal of Caesar look oh, so human

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems to have ignited a primal feud. On one side, there are calls for Andy Serkis to get an Oscar for his astonishing work as the simian statesman Caesar. On the other side, there's an anxious sense that Serkis's motion-capture-based performance is monkeying around with the threatening possibilities of "post-human" filmmaking.

Homo sapiens are undeniably on the run in Dawn's bleak storyline. Human survivors of a global plague are barely hanging on in the ruined grandeur of San Francisco. Meanwhile, in the nearby Muir Woods, intelligent apes are constructing a rising city state. They've mastered the alphabet, architecture and ethics. Some hairy form of classical democracy can't be far off.

Dawn really is all about the apes, who are seen riding horses, toting guns and eventually planning and plotting, longing and regretting, right up there with the best and worst of humanity. Serkis gets star billing, ahead of Jason Clarke's Malcolm, a human with really good intentions, and Gary Oldman's Dreyfus, a human with a really big loudspeaker. Serkis is, in fact, the kind of leading man -- uh, leading primate -- who's becoming increasingly endangered in Hollywood movies. His Caesar is quiet, strong, understated and -- chimpanzee posture notwithstanding -- a real stand-up guy.

Motion-capture technology, like the apes it depicts in Dawn, has made huge evolutionary leaps in the last few years, progressing from Star Wars' roundly despised Jar Jar Binks to fully dimensional characters like the pathetic, Precious-craving Gollum in The Lord of the Rings saga. But our feelings about motion capture can be uneasy, haunted by a sense that something living, breathing and human might be lost.

Motion-capture can be seen as non-human because it is used mostly to create creatures -- blue aliens, talking dragons, piratical squids. Paradoxically, when motion-capture is used for actual human beings -- to transform Jeff Bridges into a decades-younger version of himself in the Tron reboot, for example -- the results often appear uncanny and, well, inhuman.

Mo-cap can also be viewed as non-human because it relies on elaborate and ungainly technological trappings. The apes in Dawn start out as actors wearing unitards and headpieces dotted with sensors. Their movements and expressions are captured and then augmented, in this case by the Weta Workshop, a digital-effects outfit that uses computer animation to transform the actors into realistic and highly nuanced ape characters.

There is a fear that Dawn's human performers might somehow disappear under all that techno-fussing. And the transformations are startling, especially for fans raised on the rudimentary rubber-mask monkeyshines of the original '60s and '70s flicks. In real life, Serkis looks a bit like a tired, middle-aged elf. In chimp terms -- OK, I'm guessing here -- but I'd say that his Caesar is totally hot. An even more striking alteration involves Maurice, a lumbering orangutan whose world-weary eyes are stranded in the middle of his vast orange face. Maurice is actually played by Karin Konoval, an elegant dancer who weighs in at 118 pounds.

At the modern multiplex, there are all kinds of digitized tricks and pixellated ploys that can come off as post-human. But ultimately, whether a movie technology succeeds or fails depends on human factors -- the filmmakers' intentions, the actors' performances, the ingenuity of the digital artists, the human dimensions of the story.

It's not technology itself, but how you use it: Just look at the way two summer blockbusters examine the lines between animals and humans (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and between humans and machines (Transformers: Age of Extinction). Both movies rely on whiz-bang technology. The difference is that Transformers director Michael Bay makes his humans as mechanical and limited as his robots, while Dawn director Matt Reeves makes his apes as fully formed as his humans. (Arguably more so.)

The incredible potential of motion-capture technology can be seen in the ferocious way that Dawn's apes draw our attention, interest and empathy across the species divide. For these scarred and weary primates, burdened with sentience, the real war isn't the flashy firefight for San Francisco but the quiet moral battle over how to define themselves.

Dawn's people characters may be struggling to save humanity, but it's the ape characters, brought to life through motion-capture performances, who raise the essential questions about what it means to be human.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 D12

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