As Bad Ape, Zahn went truly ba­nanas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - COLIN COVERT

With War for the Planet of the Apes, Steve Zahn has landed the big­gest part in the big­gest film of his ca­reer. There’s only one caveat: He doesn’t ac­tu­ally ap­pear on screen be­cause he’s play­ing a chim­panzee.

But he wasn’t just mon­key­ing around. He chimp-walked through scene after scene of the pro­duc­tion, his knuck­les drag­ging and his knees bent so sharply that he needed Ep­som salt baths to ease the pain ev­ery night.

“For six months I had to learn to quadruped, and my thighs be­came so strong it was un­be­liev­able,” he said.

The movie, which opens to­day, was done in mo­tion cap­ture, a pro­ce­dure in which ac­tors’ bod­ies are cov­ered with dots of tape. A com­puter uses the dots to cre­ate a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an ob­ject, in this case an ape. Be­cause the ac­tors weren’t re­stricted by bulky ape cos­tumes, they were able to move much more freely, in­clud­ing

run­ning, jump­ing and, as the script re­quired, tum­bling to the ground.

“I went into this not re­ally know­ing any­thing about what mo­tion cap­ture was,” he said. “I was the most ner­vous I’ve ever been. I was pet­ri­fied the first day.”

He quickly learned that there’s noth­ing phoned-in about this deeply tech­no­log­i­cal form.

“When you see us quadru­ped­ing to­gether across a prison yard to get away from bul­lets, that’s ex­actly what we’re do­ing. In that lo­ca­tion, too,” he said. “It’s not like we were in some stu­dio with green screen, re­act­ing to some­thing that wasn’t there.”

When a scene shot in snow­bound Bri­tish Columbia looks like it was cold, it was cold, he said, and when it looks like they were in pain, they were in pain. Play­ing the ape char­ac­ters had to be­come so sec­ondary that they could fo­cus on the emo­tion of the scene.

Zahn wore 51 dots on his face so the com­puter could con­vert his ex­pres­sions to the face it was gen­er­at­ing for his char­ac­ter. Zahn has a spe­cial gift as an ac­tor with his soul­ful, ex­pres­sive eyes, which al­lows him to speak vol­umes with a gaze. He was able to add that el­e­ment to the char­ac­ter be­cause “the cam­era is al­ways record­ing you, at all times. Those dots on your face re­ally record ev­ery move­ment and they can in­cor­po­rate that. You can see even the tini­est ex­pres­sion through all that tech­nol­ogy, ev­ery blink, ev­ery mo­ment when I looked away.”

NOT HIS FIRST AN­I­MAL ROLE

Zahn lends his un­mis­tak­able voice, ex­pres­sive fea­tures and gym­nas­tic phys­i­cal­ity to a key char­ac­ter. As Bad Ape, the ner­vous side­kick to the series’ heroic pro­tag­o­nist Cae­sar, he gives the film cru­cial doses of comic re­lief.

Although Zahn stud­ied at the Amer­i­can Reper­tory The­ater’s school for act­ing at Har­vard and has spo­ken in movies as a pig, cat, hawk, shark, bear, chicken and di­nosaur, noth­ing on his re­sume pre­pared him for this role, he said.

He had to ad­just to the fact that none of the ac­tors looked any­thing like what they were play­ing. “I think if we had been do­ing it with peo­ple in ape suits, it would have been eas­ier” for the per­form­ers to get into char­ac­ter. “You’d look at them and think: You’re an ape,” he said. “But you were do­ing it be­side peo­ple wear­ing a hel­met with a cam­era, and 51 dots on their face, and a gray uni­tard. The pres­sure to be­come an ape was much greater.”

In free mo­ments be­tween shots, he would go off with stunt­men who had worked on ear­lier films in the fran­chise “and pre­tend to be chimps.”

But while there is well-doc­u­mented re­search on how apes look and move, there are no prece­dents for how they speak. Bad Ape’s sound and ca­dence, which echo the anx­ious tenor of the le­gendary Bar­ney Fife, the bum­bling, lov­able, deputy sher­iff on the 1960s TV com­edy The Andy Grif­fith Show, was en­tirely Zahn’s creation.

Di­rec­tor Matt Reeves “was very con­cerned about how I’d talk in re­la­tion to the other apes.” His char­ac­ter, a zoo es­capee, “lived alone, so you just play it in the mo­ment. If you think about ‘How am I sound­ing,’ you’re not act­ing.

“The beauty of act­ing is you just get lost in it, you play the char­ac­ter, and you hope that it works. You just in­ter­act with each other like on any other movie. Ex­cept on this one you’re squat­ting as low as I could do to the ground and my legs were shak­ing so hard that I wanted to stop, and Matt was shoot­ing on dig­i­tal, where a take can last 30 min­utes. I was ter­ri­fied my back was go­ing to go out. It’s crazy.”

Steve Zahn makes his mo­tion-cap­ture de­but as the neu­rotic Bad Ape, a former zoo an­i­mal who found him­self be­com­ing smarter than the hu­mans, in War for the Planet of the Apes.

Mo­tion-cap­ture per­for­mances are done on lo­ca­tion — not in a stu­dio. In this still from War for the Planet of the Apes, the il­lu­sion of Steve Zahn’s char­ac­ter Bad Ape rid­ing a horse was ac­com­plished by Zahn rid­ing the horse wear­ing a spe­cial sen­sor-stud­ded uni­tard.

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