The recent Planet of the Apes trilogy has been praised for a lot of things, but nothing quite as much as its groundbreaking visual effects.
The ability to utilize motion capture technology, making the primates in the films feel completely authentic, is truly one-of-a-kind. Theater-goers after get up from their seats in awe, wondering how anyone could make those apes feel so real.
Well, the folks who make that magic happen belong to a company named Weta Digital, and they've changed the game when it comes to bringing these animals to life.
Ahead of the theatrical release of War for the Planet of the Apes, Weta's visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon took some time to walk us through the process of creating an ape from scratch, and the challenges the team as faced over the years.
PopCulture: War is the third movie you've been able to do this. Talk a little bit about what that was like to capture them and to make them look as real as they do on the films.
Dan Lemmon: It's been a bit of a process. We've been on the quest to create photorealistic ape characters that can emote and that can connect with audiences in a profound way for nearly 12 years now. We worked on King Kong, Peter Jackson's remake of the classic 1930s original, and that was the first time we really sunk our teeth into trying to make a photorealistic, emoting, performing, digital ape character. Also one that is 30 feet tall, but that was our foray into starting to develop some powerful fur tools. We were leveraging some of the facial animation technology that we built for Gollum on Lord of the Rings and adapting it for new characters.
That was sort of the genesis of that process, and then, of course, not too long later we did Avatar, and that was a film where performance capture technology really came into its own. The idea of using actors and capturing the performances on set and then replacing their likeness with a digital character, but using the authorship of their performance to drive that digital character.
When we were coming off the back of Avatar, it was about the same time that Fox was looking at the possibility of rebooting the Planet of the Apes franchise. We thought that it was a really good fit in terms of the marriage of the technology and the particular project, the story they were trying to tell.
One of the challenges, though, is we needed to adapt that performance capture technology to be able to be used outside, on location, on a working movie set. That was another opportunity for us to move the tech forward and adapt proven tools, but adapt and reuse in a totally new way.
Along the way, apart from the performance capture aspect of the technology, we've really been pushing the realism of the characters themselves. The fur system, the ways that we simulate light and shadow in our digital tools, the fidelity of the detail and the skin pores and the textures on the apes and the creatures, the dirt and debris that collects in their fur. Most recently, on War for the Planet of the Apes, snow, heavy rain. There's even apes that get caught in an avalanche in this movie, so it's been a lot of extra stuff to throw at the characters.
But at the end of the day, really the most important thing is that the characters function as characters that the audience can connect with. They participate in the story and the fabric of the movie in a way that people can empathize with and that they can relate to, and that they feel for the apes. That they're rooting for them, and that they get emotionally invested in their story. That is really the biggest challenge for us is creating characters and making sure that the performances that we endow those characters with connect with the audience in the same was as the rest of the actors in the movie.
Bringing those apes to life, obviously there is some aspect of an actor's face that will carry over into that, but do they have any kind of say in what their ape would look like? What's the process of saying, 'Here's this new character, and this is what we're going to make them look like?'
That's a really good question. I guess first and foremost, when we're looking at creating a new digital character, we look at the story. We look at what's in the script and what the director is trying to achieve with that character. Oftentimes, essentially we'll put out a casting call for apes. We'll look around. We've got a really good relationship with the zoo here in Wellington. We'll also just look the world over, hunting for images, pictures and video footage of apes that we really like.
The director will often respond to particular characters. What aspect from one ape from a zoo in Germany and another ape from a zoo in Barcelona, or Wellington, or Australia, and we'll take those pictures and we'll figure out what it is about this pictures that we're connecting with. What is it that we like?
A lot of times, we'll take pieces of one, a piece of another, and we'll try putting them together. The same way as a director casts actors for his movie, we're looking to build a character that we have an emotional response to that has a particular kind of quality to them that fits in the overall goals for the story.
Then, in the case of these digital characters, a lot of times we'll also look at the actor who is going to be playing that digital character and we will actually incorporate some of the features from that actor into their digital ape. Andy Serkis is a great example. When we first started building Caesar, Andy hadn't been cast for that role yet. The Aaron Sims Company and WETA Digital had put together some concept art, and The Aaron Sims company had actually done a bust, as well. So we started with that model, but what we found once Andy was cast and once we started looking at Andy's performance and we started shooting the movie, we found that certain things he was doing with his eyebrows we just couldn't do with the existing design. So, we redesigned the Caesar character to include some of the signature wrinkles and folds that Andy Serkis had in his eyebrows.
We did the same thing with his eyelids, like with the actual shape of the outside of his eye, and his upper eyelids in particular had some really interesting folds that came and went as Andy made facial expressions. Those were all details that we actually pulled directly from the actor and put onto the digital ape.
We've been doing that with all the new characters, as well. There's several new characters in this movie that are on the screen for the first time. Most of them were cast with local, British Columbian actors from where we were shooting up in Vancouver. We did the same thing. We just looked at their faces and we looked at some good reference of apes that had the kind of character that Matt [Reeves] was going for, and we figured out how we could take little details from their faces and put them on the apes. That just makes it so much easier down the road when you see an actor put in a performance and they hit a particular facial expression. If you've already got some details in your digital character that match those wrinkles and folds that you see in the human actor, it makes matching that facial expression and getting that feeling and the overall vibe a whole lot easier.
You mentioned Andy Serkis and Caesar there. Has it been difficult to age and evolve that one character over a long period of his life?
Yeah, a little bit. It's something that we've been tracking. We want to make it feel like he's aged. We like to say he has the "presidential gray" going on. His years of leadership have caused his beard to go a little gray, and we've increased some of the wrinkles and folds in his brows and has pushed that aging a little bit. But it's been somewhat subtle.
One of the bigger challenges is the shorter term fluctuations in his look, like in the course of this movie, he gets beaten, he gets whipped. He nearly freezes to death. He goes through a whole lot of physical abuse, and part of our job is to make sure that registers in the way that he appears. We were basically doing the makeup artist's job of putting marks and blemishes on his face and on his body that carry those story beats and make him feel more worn down or more rugged or more vital, or, in some cases, closer to death's door.
Yeah, that's a big part of the fun as well is taking the character through that progression over the course of the movie.
Caesar we've seen a lot of, but is there one ape in particular over the course of these three movies that has been more challenging to create for you guys than the rest?
Each character has their little quirks, their little things that we have to watch out for. Luca, one of the big gorillas, he's got this gorilla pot belly that can sometimes be a challenge when we're doing big, dynamic movement. We have to watch out that the belly doesn't swing through his knees and stuff like that.
I think the biggest challenge has been Caesar. He has to carry so much of these movies, and there's major sections of the film where you're just basically parked on his face. If his face doesn't work, if he's not able to connect emotionally with the audience and convey the story behind his eyes through to the people that are in the theater watching a movie, then the whole movie falls over. That's really been the big challenge is just making sure that he's right emotionally and that he matches all of the fantastic things that Andy Serkis did on the day on the set.0comments
War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Andy Serkis, is currently in theaters nationwide.
Photo Credit: Chernin Entertainment