Just before the end of the year, we looked at the incredible accomplishments of Weta Digital on “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” This, however, was not the only 2014 film where the wizards of that New Zealand-based effects house had their talents on full display. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the latest entry in the on-going rebooted franchise, where Weta topped itself yet again. And it began at a high time for the studio.
“We just finished 'Avatar' and got the call from Fox,” visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon reminisces. “We were big fans of original 1960s movies and television shows so we were really excited.”
Adds fellow supervisor Joe Letteri, “Fox sent me the script [for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes'] and I loved it. It was just a fantastic script and I loved the way they did the story. Essentially it was a story of growing up and we got to see Caesar in all the stages of his life.”
However, this approach to the progression of Caesar – the simian lead of the franchise played via performance capture technology by Andy Serkis – meant that new ground needed to be broken from a visual effects perspective. “The original movies used makeup and prosthetics and John Chambers won a special Academy Award before they gave out awards for makeup,” says Lemmon, super-familiar with the franchise's backstory. “Anybody who is a fan of creature/monster movies, that movie has a special place in their hearts. But because of the specific requirements of the story Fox wanted to tell, we knew those traditional approaches weren't going to work.”
Being an original story beginning with regular apes indistinguishable from what would be found in the wild, Weta needed to make Caesar indistinguishable from them. Performance capture was the obvious answer. “Even though proportions of humans and apes are so different, we could get humans to move like apes in a reasonably convincing way,” Lemmon says. “So we could use humans to drive the performances and get all the great things that go with working with talented actors.”
They needed one actor in motion capture for the various stages of Caesar's life, Letteri says, because “the actor needs to lead us as an audience along this journey, along this pathway.”
Having already spearheaded the creation of characters like Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and 2005's King Kong, Letteri felt he knew exactly which actor was up for the task. But Fox felt Andy Serkis might not be interested given his extensive history in motion capture characters. Letteri took matters into his own hands. “I just sent him a script and he said, 'Yeah, this would be great.' No one ever says to an actor, 'Are you ever tired of playing humans?'”
The rest, as they say, is history, with both Lemmon and Letteri praising Serkis as being absolutely pivotal to the success of the series. And Lemmon notes that his task was merely to make the story visually believable, because the actors had already done the hard work in making it emotionally believable. “There's a version of 'Rise' that exists that the editors put together where there are no apes, just grown men in pajamas pretending to be apes,” he says. “It's a little weird, but after a couple of minutes you forget that and you understand you're experiencing the story as though they were apes.”
Of course, everyone knew that Weta would eventually work their magic and the onus turned to the effects house to make it truly magical. They had the foresight to realize the groundwork for their work needed to be laid during filming. The approach of having all actors shoot at the same time on a live set had never been done before in precisely this way. “We came up with new technology to integrate motion capture with the other actors as part of the principal photography and it made everything just gel,” Letteri says. “Because everyone got so comfortable with that same process. Even with actors who'd never done it before, they were able to give fantastic performances.”
Lemmon similarly notes the changes in technology that were required to make sure Serkis and the other ape actors could be on the same set as everyone else – a set that would ultimately become the backdrop for the whole movie. “We could take performance capture tools we'd developed on 'Avatar' [mostly shot on a green screen] and take them onto a live set,” he says. “That required changes in technology to take traditional equipment and make it portable and flexible. That was how we got started.”
In Koba, “Dawn's” ape antagonist played by Toby Kebbell, the franchise brought another character whose development “as a character” was absolutely crucial. “When Tobyauditioned with Andy, we knew it would work great in the final characters,” Lemmon says, also explaining how, as with Serkis and Caesar, they made sure that Kebbell's characteristics became Koba's. “We took signature things from Toby's face like certain wrinkles his eyebrows make and Toby actually has a couple of veins that stick out in his neck that became part of Koba.”
Despite the new actors and characters, Letteri cites the maturity of the actors and familiarity with the techniques as being a principal change between “Rise” and “Dawn.” “We had all done this before as a crew, which was great, but more importantly, the actors led by Andy Serkis were just more comfortable in those roles,” he says.
“Dawn” also required changes in technology due to the change in scenery. “Rise” was primarily shot indoors, much of it in the same house. “Dawn” went out into the forest, with the rainforest of British Columbia subbing in for the natural area near San Francisco. (As for desolate San Francisco, desolate New Orleans did the trick, notably a parking lot of an abandoned Six Flags amusement park.) “When 'Dawn' came around, locations we were going to be in were a whole lot more challenging than for 'Rise,'” Letteri explains. “The script had us on the side of the mountain, raining a lot of time. It took a level of engineering to get our equipment to a new level to capture that.”
Lemmon explains that they were required to develop “another iteration of the same type of technology.” He recalls practical examples of what they needed to develop to shoot in Canada's national parks: “The trees were always wet and we couldn't attach anything to them. Getting equipment to stick to the trees was tough. The best thing we could use was the same adhesive to stick dentures inside your mouth!”
Between the characters and the locations, there is also the fact that “Dawn” is simply a bigger story, more sprawling and epic than “Rise.” Lemmon calls it “Shakespearean in the number of characters, the stroggle between species and the struggles within those species.”
Letteri similarly describes his biggest challenge as balancing the “scope” of “Dawn” with the survival story at its heart. “There are hundreds and hundreds of apes and the question of 'how do you do that?' comes up. But this tribe is in a hunt for its survival and we need to understand the physicality of their world and the danger of their world.”
He focuses on the apes' language as a specific example of building the characters and ensuring the story was not lost. “How do we bridge this gap of apes learning sign language at end of 'Rise' to speaking and using dialogue as it progresses,” he proposes. “Apes, when we first see them [in 'Dawn'], are using sign language because they don't need to speak. When humans come in, Caesar starts speaking with them and more and more the others speak. We wanted the apes to feel that it wasn't natural to speak, the sense of almost pushing the words out, not quite knowing how to perform each word. I thought that gave it a nice sense of realism and understanding.”
At the end of a big year, however, it will ultimately be the people more than the work itself that sticks with these Weta artists as they go forward. Letteri describes Serkis as now being a good friend, and Lemmon says when he looks back and sees the cover to a DVD jacket, he thinks of late nights in a conference room with a few individuals as an effects shot finally starts to click into place. “It's so cool and rewarding and exciting,” he says.