Motion-capture technology has been used by film-makers for a range of purposes over the past decade or so, but it only really seems to have come into its own in science-fiction.
Hollywood has just about given up bothering with the technique for children's animations, following the failure of 2011's Mars Need Moms, realising rather late on that this form of "realism" simply doesn't suit. No one wants to see the Toy Story or Despicable Me series with mo-capped Grus and Woodys: the cartoony style of the material produced by Pixar and its burgeoning gang of rival animation studios simply looks more natural when rendered via traditional CGI animation.
Where mo-cap can add value is for films that attempt to respond to humanity's essential 21st-century passions: our essential loneliness as a sentient species, not mutually exclusive with the terror that we might one day be supplanted at the top of the intelligence tree. James Cameron's Avatar beautifully hinted at glimpses of life on other worlds in the company of exotic extra-terrestrial creatures, but the revived Planet of the Apes series has delved into more frightening territory.
On Wednesday, I spent an hour in the company of mo-cap alpha male Andy Serkis for a footage screening of material from the second film in the rebooted saga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It's always hard to tell with these previews whether the final movie will hang together well, since we only get to see unfinished clips. But in this instance the advances alone in the rendering of realistic sapient apes and resulting fascination with these sci-fi versions of our closest relations made the experience unmissable.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to 2011's Rupert Wyatt-directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, finds chief monkey Caesar (Serkis) leading his fledgling society of intelligent apes in the forests just outside a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. I won't ruin the story for those who haven't seen the first one, but suffice to say humanity has been left shattered and riven by the effects of a terrible virus just as the apes begin their march towards terrestrial hegemony.
Reeves's film begins with an encounter between Caesar's new civilisation and a band of humans who have unwittingly veered into their territory. Given that this is a summer action movie, the chances are that conflict is the most likely outcome. But Dawn looks to have more about it than a series of man-ape standoffs.
One of the most impressive scenes featured the apes discussing their approach to the newly arrived humans, using a mixture of sign language and English. Hearing these gruff but perfectly comprehensible vocalisations from the mouth of an animal continues to send chills down the spine, but the chimpanzees, orang-utans and other simians are not rendered simply as creatures of nightmare. If anything, the film-makers have made Caesar and his friends an ever greater focus for viewer empathy in the sequel than they were in the first film. That's not to say that all the humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are evil either: one group, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are seen forming bonds with their simian counterparts. A particularly elegant segue featured a poignant moment during which the teenager helps an enormous orang-utan with his reading skills.
The villain of the piece, if there is one, seems to be Gary Oldman's human leader, Dreyfus. But even here the film offers some degree of depth: Dreyfus' two sons died from the virus, and he blames their deaths on the apes.
"It's a peace movie," replied Serkis when asked if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be viewed as a war film. "This is about avoiding conflict. It is about empathy. It's about family and it's about prejudice on both sides, and how they deal with the other. Matt [Reeves] really wanted to balance it out [in terms of where the audiences' sympathies lie], though the emotional pull does lie with Caesar's journey."
Serkis was keen to flag up the improvements in mo-cap technology since 2011, which mean that the ape actors' performances have been translated even more accurately on to the screen. "It is now a direct correlation," he said. "It's not to take away anything from the CGI artist, but everything that creates those performances is authored by the actor on set."
Added Serkis, whose own London-based Imaginarium studio is vying to create a working framework for mo-cap technologies in the movies: "We are trying to ask how stories are going to be told in 20 years' time, and trying to invent the technology and find the performers to do that. We're trying to push the boundaries in different ways, but still relying on the actor. [The end result] doesn't even have to be humanoid – you can use it to drive quadripeds, for instance."
If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up strong reviews, questions will inevitably be asked once again about whether Serkis and his team deserve Oscars recognition. This time around, with Caesar delivering more than the odd word of dialogue, it will be even harder to argue that the arrival of a new era is upon us.
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