New Technology Made 'Apes' Movie Possible, Marks New Age in Special Effects

Not Your Fathers Planet of the
WATCH A New Generation of 'Apes'

Charles Darwin theorized how primates evolved. Charlton Heston played one in the original "Planet of the Apes." On Friday, the evolution of apes and movie-making will be showcased in "Rise of Planet of the Apes," the latest installment in one of the most profitable and longstanding franchises in Hollywood history.

The movie features a cast of simulated simians made possible by cutting-edge, computer-generated, visual arts technology, marking the beginning of a new stage in cinema.

Watch the full story, and see the new technology in action, on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

In the past -- as in the first "Planet of the Apes" -- make-up and prosthetics transformed actors into nonhuman characters. Then, it became something done totally in postproduction, with actors "acting" only with their voices.

The new technology uses something called a performance capture suit. It allows an actor to act as a real character, with computers storing each subtle move he makes.

Andy Serkis in performance capture suit

"You have markers on your face which pick up, very subtly, your facial expressions," said Andy Serkis, who stars as the ape Caesar in the movie. "They track your eye movements, and you can perform very subtly for the camera as if it were as we are talking now.

"It's like you're both puppeteer and puppet," he added, "and [when] you look into that monitor and you start to move, you can see the puppet moving. So it's like a magic mirror."

The absence of makeup and prosthetics means the acting becomes more natural.

"It's like being inside a video game," Serkis said. "You're literally connecting with an avatar on screen."

With this film, the technology is finally at a point where digital characters and the live action actors are physically together on the set for the big scenes. Never before have the actors actually been in the same room as their animated co-stars.

In other words, as this latest movie version of the "Planet of the Apes" story shows, the new technology allows acting to come to the foreground, where it belongs in movies.

"There really is a lot of fear about [the idea that] actors are going to be replaced by computer," Serkis said. "And it's the complete opposite. Here is a tool that enables you to play anything."

Serkis plays Caesar from infancy all the way to ape adulthood.

"It's an amazing role," Serkis said. "It's a huge arc. It goes from this innocent to Frankenstein's monster through to Che Guevara."

Thanks to his role as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, Serkis has been called the Charlie Chaplin of performance capture, the master of a new craft of digital acting.

After years of acting in the United Kingdom, Serkis received a phone call that would change his career.

"So my agents called," he said. "It was, you know: 'They're doing this "Lord of the Rings" film down in New Zealand, and they're looking for someone to do a digital character's voice.' And I'm like, 'Well, there must be like a dozen decent roles in that movie. Can't you get me up for something proper?'"

Little did he know how much his career, and the industry, was about to change.

Before the performance capture suit, there was a technique called rotoscoping.

Joe Letteri, a visual-effects artist who worked with Serkis on "Lord of the Rings," described it: "We would just, frame-by-frame, just articulate our character to match his performance, because we had no other way to do it. So it was all done by hand, both for body and for the face."

'King Kong' and 'Avatar' Steps on Road to New Technology

A variation of this laboriously slow process was used in "King Kong" and then in "Avatar," which used both body performance capture and facial performance capture.

Now, the evolution of visual effects has taken a leap forward.

"Now it's just Andy acting," Letteri said. "It's just the pure performance. We can concentrate on exactly what his face is doing, what his body is doing, and then afterwards we turn that into Caesar."

Performance capture didn't just make it possible for a talented actor to play an ape. For Fox Studios, performance capture technology meant making "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" would be possible.

"This was a great script that we had for a number of years at the studio that we loved from the first minute that we read it," said Tom Rothman, chairman of Fox Studios. "But we didn't have to worry about it, because we knew it couldn't be made.

"It wasn't possible to do because it was a 'Planet of the Apes' from the ape's point of view," he added. "You couldn't [make it] -- unless you know of some very talented apes out there!"