"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a prequel to the classic science-fiction film franchise, makes its big screen debut this weekend. Since April, I've been following the film, in part due to its groundbreaking computer-generated apes and the underlying animal welfare themes that filmmakers are attempting to convey to the public. 

Director Rupert Wyatt said in a recent NY Times piece that the decision to go with virtual animals was the right one. 

“Live apes were considered and quickly abandoned — this is a story about animals being exploited and, um, it would have been morally wrong to exploit animals to make the movie,” he said. “Ultimately, digital recreations — some scenes have 150 apes, after all — was most efficient.”

This decision has already earned him praise from PETA, and the animal rights group recently sent the director a Proggy Award for "the Most Animal-friendly Feature Film."

Of course, none of the movie's computer-generated characters would have resonated as well if the filmmakers and WETA Digital hadn't taken extreme care and attention to detail in studying the lives of great apes. With the assistance of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the film's virtual representation was given life in an unprecedented way on the big screen. 

I recently spoke with Clare Richardson, president and CEO of the conservation organization, about her decision to become involved in a Hollywood science-fiction film — and how audiences might be inspired to help make a difference. 

MNN: Can you tell me how The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund was approached to work with filmmakers on this movie? 

Clare Richardson: "The original movie is about apes. When they began to develop the prequel, they hired Andy Serkis to represent the main character, Caesar. Andy is also on our board of the directors." 

"He first became involved in this kind of movie making when they were doing a remake of the movie "King Kong" and came out to Africa to spend six week at the Karisoke Research Center — which is the center founded by Dian all those years ago. And he spent every day in the forest observing the mountain gorillas — how they move, how they communicated, both verbally and nonverbally. He just immersed himself in the great ape forest, got to know our staff, and really became quite a favorite. And I also think he’s done an amazing job of using this technology in a very expressive way."

"One of the hesitancies I had with the film, of course, is that it's quite violent. One of the things that we’re very anxious to dispel is this notion of gorillas and great apes are inherently violent — where as you and I both know that the most violent primate on this earth is man."

MNN: Why was it important to become involved? 

The opportunity was there to do two things: One, to get the word out there about these wonderful great ape cousins of ours; how much they are like us. The movie does show some of their most wonderful attributes — how they live in groups and how nurturing they are, and it unfortunately shows the violent side as well. But mostly it shows their incredible intelligence and that they have intrinsic worth as non-human primates. So, getting any word out like that is good."

Anything that attracts people to go to a primate site, including ours, and learn about great apes and their level of endangerment and what’s going on in the field, is just a great opportunity. So that increase in awareness was one big plus for us.

The other was being able to see the type of technology they use in this movie, such as what was used in “Avatar.” And it clearly sends the message to movie makers that you do not need to use live animals to make really good movies. And you especially do not need to use exotic and endangered wild animals to make movies. That was a very good opportunity for us, because when they see the animals in this movie, it will be very hard for the general public to realize that no live animals were used, absolutely none." 

MNN: Did you have any input on the production process?

"We were not consultants to the movie — but we were asked to review the script and invited the moviemakers to interface with some of our scientists if they had questions.

MNN: A piece of the plot for "Rise" involves the main character, Caesar, being sent to a prison-like animal facility. Do you think the movie might inspire better facilities for apes and other primates? 

The depiction of the facility into where these animals are put, I think, could raise some questions as to how we house great apes, as there are so many alternatives to it. Even people who may not be really big fans of zoos should know that the zoos in the United States today have extraordinary great ape facilities. They have several acres, forest canopies, outside areas, exactly what they need to be able to live in groups.

I think the larger message of that particular sanctuary [in the film] is that they weren’t allowed to live in groups. They were isolated as individuals — something that doesn't work for man, never mind great apes. So hopefully, people will look at that and start becoming more involved and asking good questions.

MNN: After seeing the film, where should those seeking more information look? 

We would love them to go to our website, GorillaFund.org, and there are several other primate websites. Become involved in what is happening because it is all about habitat — the great apes and the rainforest in which they live are global assets, so if we lose them, then our planet is diminished. And if you’re concerned in any way about future generations — your children, your grandchildren — you should be looking at what we are doing to our planet."

Preserving that wonderful rainforest habitat and then becoming involved somehow in your community to help put money into the field — because the biggest threat in the field is the poverty of people whose lives are inextricably intertwined with these great apes. A dollar goes a long way in Africa or in the Asian rainforest.

Use the Internet, get out there, and become active.

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"Rise of the Planet of the Apes", which is currently rocking a 91 percent approval rating with critics, opens in theaters Aug. 5. To learn more about great apes and how you can assist conservation efforts, visit The Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International website here.

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