With a filmography that includes Midnight Express, Angela’s Ashes, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, New Zealand cinematographer Michael Seresin found his most epic projects yet in the updated Planet of the Apes series. Entering the world of the Apes on the sequel—Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—Seresin appeared at Deadline’s Contenders London event to discuss how he came to work on the Matt Reeves-directed blockbusters, which see humanity facing off against an increasingly intelligent army of apes, as well as his visual approach to the films.
“When the director called me, I said, ‘Why did you call me?’ He said, ‘I love your aesthetic,’—what a nice thing to say,” Seresin remembered. “I got the script and then I got about 150, 200 images—postcards, photographs, bits from films, paintings—all of which was his notion of how he would like it to look. Because words are open to interpretation; images, unless they’re abstract, are not. I looked at them and I thought, There’s a lot of dark stuff.”
“I like the dark side of film, of light and of life as well, occasionally. [Reeves] would say, ‘Michael, it’s a bit light, isn’t it? Don’t you want to make it a bit darker? A bit moodier? Feed the audience’s imagination?’ And I love that, I really love it,” the DP continued. While the new batch of Apes films get increasingly dark, what separates War from the previous installments is a certain increase of scope, which led Seresin to suggest shooting the film in 65 millimeter. “The next stage was, could we afford it on a $240 million movie? Because Matt had so much to do with just the mechanics of directing the film, we just sort of got on with it,” he said. “It’s a darker story, it’s a deeper story, and there’s some pretty powerful stuff in it.’”
In the Apes panel moderated by Joe Utichi, the DP discussed the experience of working with computer-generated-performance pioneer Andy Serkis. In the trilogy, the actor portrays Caesar, the incredibly articulate and aggressive leader of the apes, who faces off in the third film against Woody Harrelson’s Colonel. “He’s an actor who plays an ape, so he’s a very physically agile person, very fit, and a lot of the moves there are his. Literally, the CGI guys put an ape suit onto Andy doing everything,” Seresin said. “He uses facial expressions, his sort of jutting jaw, how he holds himself with one shoulder up, one down. At times, the snow was like a foot thick at minus two degrees, and here he was in this little onesie, acting.”
While War for the Planet of the Apes is led on by computer-generated characters, embodied on set by actors including Serkis and Steve Zahn, the experience of shooting the Apes films wasn’t entirely different from experiences the DP had had on less CG-heavy projects. “Even though [Serkis] is dressed in a grey onesie with all these little electronic spots all over him, he’s an actor performing. You just look at the performance as if he’s an actor playing a part, knowing that occasionally, the face tones and the skin tones are different,” he said. “Sometimes, I forgot and the director would have to remind me, but they are all actors, first and foremost, and that’s the departure point.”
During the panel, Seresin also discussed the critical praise heaped on War for the Planet of the Apes—a most welcome experience, given that blockbusters of the sort are so often snubbed by critics. “It’s almost as if it was more of an art film, if that makes sense,” the DP reflected. “A lot of people that are normally very dismissive of these sorts of films found stuff in it which appealed much more to a smaller, more personal, more European movie.”
Grossing over $433 million worldwide, War for the Planet of the Apes is certainly as much art as it is commerce, and could be a major breakthrough for 20th Century Fox, in a time when genre films are more and more embraced by the Academy.