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'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Production Designer on the 'Evolved Thinking' of the Sets

Production designer Chinlund talked to The Wire about how he illustrated the core conflict, from placing the Ape Village atop a mountain in Muir Woods to embedding the humans inside an incomplete skyscraper in San Francisco. 

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues to dominate the box office, and rightly so: It's impressed critics (including our own), and has safely crowned itself a summer blockbuster, raking in nearly $140 million at the domestic box office.

The film follows the familiar human vs. ape conflict the franchise has explored through seven previous films, but this installment also features a memorable look at the evolving apes and the diminished human population, using sets conceived by production designer James Chinlund.

Chinlund talked to The Wire about how he illustrated the core conflict, from placing the Ape Village atop a mountain in Muir Woods to embedding the humans inside an incomplete skyscraper in San Francisco. Along with concept art released in the companion book Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: The Art of the Films, Chinlund explains how the sets aimed not only to contrast the rival factions' situations, but also to demonstrate their parallels. Here, he talks designing the homes, his most challenging set, and how he used San Francisco:

The Ape Village

The stages of the Ape Village. (20th Century Fox; Titan Books)

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.

Caesar's Nautilus-Inspired Home

Caesar's home. (20th Century Fox; Titan Books)

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.

[The nautilus] is a building block and also one of the most elegant and refined forms. It shows a pattern, thought, but also reflects an instinctual beauty. It felt appropriate that the Apes would find this form and begin to work with it as they evolved the design of the courtyard and into Caesar's home. We were struggling to find ways that would bring a grace and elegance to the Ape civilization and still reflect force, without softening them too much.

The Human Colony

The Human Colony rests at the end of Market Street in San Francisco. (20th Century Fox; Titan Books)

The set that took the most to nail down was the human colony. Finding the right balance was tricky. We wanted to reflect their desperation without pushing them into absolute squalor. It needed to reflect an appropriate counterpoint to the power of the Apes and still show how far the human world had declined.

I was interested in reflecting the human world of our time and showing it frozen, as the pandemic hit—the idea that the human evolutionary path stopped as the Apes embarked on the next phase of their evolution. 

San Francisco

San Francisco, post-simian flu. (20th Century Fox; Titan Books)

We did a lot of research and scouting and spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to stitch together a San Francisco that locals could relate to. We created a hypothetical development at Market and California [Streets], 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. 

As a designer it was a great opportunity to be able to tell the story with images, reflect the history of the pandemic in the streets. I was excited to not only show the pain and suffering that had occurred but to reflect nature healing the world that we had corrupted. To show nature retaking the human constructions and beginning to reclaim its territory. In this way the story has an uplifting quality to me.

The opening hunting scene, in concept art and during shooting. (20th Century Fox; Titan Books)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.