‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes': An Exclusive Look Inside The Stunning Ape Village

Production Designer James Chinlund reveals how they put together the movie's central set-piece.

On July 11, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” the sequel to the surprise hit “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” hits theaters. And with it, our first glimpse at what Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been up to in the 10 years since the Simian Plague decimated most of Earth’s human population.

One of the things he’s been up to? Building a massive Ape Village in the hills outside San Francisco, housing hundreds of apes living peacefully… For now.

In order to expand the world of “Planet of the Apes,” Production Designer James Chinlund worked extremely closely with director Matt Reeves and the rest of the team, crafting a world that felt like it would organically grow out of “Rise,” while setting up elements of the 1968 original “Planet of the Apes.” And his designs (Chinlund has also worked on “The Avengers,” “The Fountain” and more) are now featured in a new volume from Titan Books, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes: The Art Of The Films.”

In advance of the movie – and book’s – release, MTV News talked to Chinlund over e-mail about how he crafted the stunning Ape Village. Plus, we can show off some exclusive images from Titan Book’s volume, including a look at the Ape language, also featured in the movie.

Mild spoilers for “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” past this point.

MTV News: Talk about the development of the Ape Village… It’s been 10 years since the first film, so how much thought was given to their evolution/development of use of tools?

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James Chinlund: When I was first approached about the film, my mind immediately began to turn on the evolution of the Apes. As a Production Designer, the greatest challenge and most exciting opportunities are those that allow you to explore worlds that haven’t been visualized before. Trying to imagine how the Apes would take their next evolutionary steps and begin to formulate their civilization was an amazing opportunity for myself and my team.

Matt [Reeves] was super engaged and excited about trying to bring the world of the Apes to life in an entirely grounded way. Working side by side with WETA as they brought even more realism to the characters than they had on the first film allowed us to really push and develop a world that hopefully feels entirely real and true to the audience.

As we were researching the world of the Apes we spent a lot of time looking at the way real apes live in their habitat. For example, Chimps live in large clans, as many as 100 live together in a group. Orangoutangs are largely solitary. Gorillas live in pods of one male and ten females. Using this information we tried to imagine what their first steps would be architecturally and began to design structures that would follow this logic.

The courtyard was designed as a chimp habitat, imagining that this would be the seat of the ruling clan, and it’s immediate family as well as a communal gathering place. Some of the tall nest like structures you will see around were conceived as Orang nests. In other areas you will note large messy pile like structures that are meant to represent the gorilla pods.

We certainly did our best to plot carefully the logic of their first evolutionary steps and hopefully this is something that will help ground and support the characters.

MTV: The design – and terrain – is of course radically different from the one we glimpse in the 1968 original. What elements did you use to sort of tee that look up, if any? Or are we not there yet in the continuity?

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Chinlund: We were careful to follow the last point of reference for the audience as we left off in “Rise.” This film is very much based on the idea that the Apes fled to the Muir woods at the end of the last film, and when we pick up again it felt important to pick up the story there.

We did spend a lot of time looking at the ’68 original, but mostly to help us shape the arc of their evolution, to look at where their architecture and writing systems wound up, in order for us to define the next steps on that path.

MTV: The design is very circular, down to the walkway leading to Caesar’s “house.” Why this pattern, in particular?

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Chinlund: As we were evolving the language for the Ape architecture, we were trying to walk a line between showing intelligence but not pushing them so far ahead that it felt implausible. We played with the idea that as the Apes moved higher into the mountain their building techniques evolved as well. Starting at the bottom with cruder forms and finishing in the courtyard with a primitive nautilus form.

The nautilus layout shows thought, a plan, pattern, and felt like a gentle way to show that Caesar was thinking in an evolved way. His home reflecting the most advanced form of Ape architecture, hopefully defining a launch point for future evolutionary development…

MTV: It’s also incredibly menacing, particularly the scenes set at the entrance when Malcolm comes to beg Caesar’s forgiveness. How much of the design was about building up to that moment, versus, “Apes wouldn’t be able to neatly saw logs?”

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Chinlund: The gate was a hugely important piece to us. We wanted to create a moment of shock and awe, that reflected how powerful the Apes were, and reinforced the feeling of intimidation that Malcolm was feeling as he began to enter the Ape world.

One of the things I am most proud of in the film is that most of what you see in that sequence was built practically with very little VFX extension, our team in Vancouver did an incredible job assembling that gate and the surrounding environment, standing there in person watching the craftsmen moving the giant timbers into place, you could get an immediate sense of power and scale.

It is one of my favorite sets I have ever been involved in. It is a statement of power and force, and reflects the beginning for me of the idea of the Apes as a community, a civilization. The first wall, defining the border of their world.

MTV: The symbol of Caesar’s window from “Rise” is very important to the movie, and shows up in the Ape Village, too. How did you choose where to put it on the central tableau, in that set?

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Chinlund: The symbol is a real, tangible form that we imagined would create a bridge between Caesar’s world with the humans, and show how far he has come into his new world. Seeing it in this new context hopefully shows the tremendous contrast between the worlds and the journey he has been through since the first film. We wanted it to be central to the courtyard so placing it at the center, on the ceremonial stone felt appropriate.

MTV: In general, it seems like you were very involved in the process of making the film… So how much was the logic of the production design able to influence plot points and staging of the action sequences? Any specific examples?

Chinlund: Matt was such an inspiring leader and collaborator. It was a tremendous pleasure and exciting opportunity to be there every step of the way with him as he broke the story. I was actually on the film before he started, which was a very unusual circumstance, but allowed us to feed him with ideas and environments as he explored and evolved the story.

There are many examples, but some of the big ones are the Gas Station, as we were looking for a way to reflect evidence of the human world near the Apes and also a way to explain how the power had been restored.

Another was the Human Colony itself. I was interested in the idea of reflecting the human world of our time and showing it frozen, as the pandemic hit. That our evolutionary path stopped as the Apes was starting. The Human Colony encapsulated that idea. We created a hypothetical development at Market and California in San Francisco, playing with the idea that developers had taken the shell of an older building and redeveloped it, installing a massive tower into it’s base.

I liked the contrast between this cutting edge architectural form and the classical architecture of the old San Francisco. I felt like it wrapped up the history of the humans in one form and also created a great battleground for the final conflict!

As a designer, it is a great feeling to be able to be a part of the narrative evolution itself, it is really the pinnacle of the process, where the story and the design are so tightly in sync. I am so grateful to Matt for including me in those formative steps and dazzled to see how far he took it!

MTV: Are you tackling the next movie? And if so, how much more do you think the ape architecture will evolve?

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Chinlund: It’s a bit early to discuss the next one… but I must say I am eager to get back at it and explore the next step on the path. I certainly feel that a powerful progression has been established, and the power of the Apes should be apparent to all, the sky is the limit!

“Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is in theaters July 11. “The Art Of The Films” is now on sale everywhere from Titan Books. As a bonus, here’s a look at how the Apes’ visual language has evolvd since “Rise:”

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Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.
@azalben