Aping Reality: Behind the Scenes of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

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Film technology can be a funny thing. When done right, it’s either subtle enough to augment the movie or stunning enough to blow the audience away. But when it’s not done right, it can be ruin the whole thing (Clash of the Titans, anyone?).

Luckily, for fans of the Planet of the Apes franchise, the CGI technology in the latest installment has been done right. Very, very right.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a reboot of the original movie series, which is a cult favorite. A prequel to the futuristic story of the 1968 Charlton Heston film, Rise is set in present-day San Francisco, years before apes take over the world. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist looking to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. His drug trials are done on, you guessed it, chimps.

After an experiment goes awry, he finds himself caring for Caesar, a baby chimp whose intelligence has been dramatically increased by the testing. Caesar is easily the star of the film, as the chimp that’s responsible for galvanizing apes against the oppressive practices of humans. (By the way, no one should be surprised when PETA has a field day with this plot.)

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Early on, the film’s director Rupert Wyatt decided that they wouldn’t be using live chimps in the film (too complicated and unpredictable) so he initially struggled with a way to portray them. “Then performance capture came along in terms of providing us with that opportunity,” he tells TIME, referring to the fast-evolving technique of using computer-generated characters based on real actors’ performances.

Once it was decided that CGI apes were the way to go, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that Andy Serkis was cast in the role of Caesar. Serkis, who played Kong in King Kong and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is no stranger to CGI technology and performance-capture acting. And thanks to his nuanced performance and Peter Jackson’s digital technology company Weta Digital, Caesar is the most believable character in the film (sorry, James).

Though he makes bringing Caesar to life look easy, Serkis admits that it was a challenge. “You’re trying to do that without dialogue,” he says. “It’s all conveyed through the eyes and through body language and through projecting your emotions.”

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But whatever challenges Serkis faced, his performance helped the rest of the cast. Previous CGI movies have been filmed in front of a green screen, with some characters added in post-production, which, as you can imagine, would be an added hurdle for actors. However, in Rise, every interaction between Caesar and the other characters was filmed in real-time. Frieda Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire fame, who plays Franco’s girlfriend Caroline, says she didn’t find acting across from a faux-chimp difficult. “It would have been a challenge if Andy did not play Caesar,” she says. “I feel it was easier having Andy play the whole emotion in order for us as actors to play off of him.”

And it’ll likely be Andy-as-Caesar’s emotion that wins over even the biggest CGI skeptics. It’s also a prime example of a way the latest film trumps the original (yeah, I said it, and I’m pretty sure Richard Corliss agrees with me). It’s Caesar’s amazing evolution that makes the movie and that performance is thanks to Serkis’s talents via performance capture.

“Performance capture un-encumbers the actors, in that it allows them to emote and express and we actually pick up every detail of their facial expression,” Wyatt says. “Now with the prosthetic masks and suits, they’re buried.”

But what about fans of the originals, who love the movies in part for the campiness of the prosthetic masks? Well, that’s another funny thing about technology: it doesn’t take long for it to look dated. “You have to remember that when the first one came out in 1968, that was cutting-edge technology of the day,” Franco says. “So the campiness of the films actually developed over time.”

“This is the cutting edge technology of our day,” he adds. And let’s hope it hasn’t gone stale before the next (inevitable) installment.

Click the video above to watch our interviews with the stars of the film — and to see the motion-capture technology in action.

Megan Gibson is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeganJGibson. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

(MORE: Full Review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes)