Ever since the debut of Rise of the Planet of the Apes back in 2011, Hollywood’s VFX community and moviegoers alike have been enthralled by the breakthrough digital motion-capture work that brought to life the movie’s simians with uncanny human movements and facial expressions.
That film—the first of a trilogy that continued with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and culminates with War for the Planet of the Apes, out today (November 15) on Blu-Ray and DVD—also mired actor Andy Serkis in controversy over whether "mo-cap" performances should be considered awards contenders in acting categories, such was the level of his performance.
In the latest film, Serkis again reprises his role as Caesar, the genius chimp leader leading the ape rebellion against humankind as the bitter conflict between humans and apes reaches its peak, pushing to the limit the series’ dark (and contemporary) themes of racial oppression, animal rights and the inevitable struggle between species.
While I'm all for giving credit where credit is due, and there's no doubting Serkis' ability on camera throughout the trilogy, the talented animators and VFX artists at New Zealand's Weta Digital (co-founded by Peter Jackson) deserve just as much credit for their part in taking Serkis' raw, green-screened performance and surgically adjusting it into the remarkable achievement you see in the final product.
So, to get a better understanding of what goes into the creation of the film's photo-realistic ape characters—and immerse myself in the world of mo-cap VFX—we were invited to Weta Digital's studios in Wellington, New Zealand for a crash course in not only playing an ape onscreen, but attempting to animate one, too.
Getting into character
Arriving at Weta Digital's studios, you realise just how nondescript this major player in the world of VFX's digs really are. While Weta employs some 2,000+ employees and takes over large parts of Wellington's eastern peninsula, centred in the quiet suburb of Miramar, you'd be hard-pressed working out the presence you were in if you didn't already know.
Starting off with a presentation from Dan Lemmon, Visual Effects Supervisor on War for the Planet of the Apes and a Californian who moved out to New Zealand to work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and stayed, at Weta's Park Road Post Production facility (we weren't allowed to take photos here sadly). After getting his brief on what the team do, I was then directed to the motion capture stages to start getting in character.
First port of call, getting fitted into a mo-cap suit before having my body dimensions scanned into Weta's computers so I could be trained as an ape. If you've ever seen the dimensions of a mo-cap suit, you realise how terribly unflattering they are, but after a little help I was well on the way and ready to have my body scanned before we could begin.
The suits themselves are fitted with little markers all over them (that look like tiny balls) which reflect light from infrared cameras and enable Weta's mo-cap computers to capture any movement in their field of view. This was explained as I stood up on stage, moving my arms, legs and torso around to help render a 3D image of my dimensions for use later on.
Then it was back to the stage, where Dan Lemmon would be directing me through a scene from the film. I'd be walking alongside another ape (actor Allan Henry) through an enormous crowd scene filled with hundreds of other simians before reaching Caesar and the crew, and improvising a few lines for the camera. In reality, it's really just Allan and I in mo-cap suits, walking through a set looking like we're stumbling home from a big weekend, but with slightly more intent.
Getting into character really wasn't all that easy, and gave me serious appreciation for everything these guys do. In my rendered VFX clip which you'll see later, its pretty obvious to see Allan had just about every movement down pat, even telling me how he ingeniously worked his own injuries into his characters' movement and adjusted things depending on what his own body was telling him that day. Impressive stuff.
Getting to know facial animation at Weta: Part 1
Facial animation is some of the most impressive technology throughout the trilogy, and running me through it was Animation Supervisor Dennis Yoo, a Canadian who, like Dan Lemmon moved out to New Zealand to work on LOTR and stayed for further projects. The team at Weta use the facial animation software Maya by Autodesk, so Dennis showed me the ropes by putting a render of Bad Ape, played in the movie by Steve Zahn, next to a 3D model of Zahn's face and asking me to attempt to match the facial expressions of Zahn using only the software and a few tips from the king of facial animation himself (Dennis).
We jumped right in, starting with Bad Ape's jaw before progressing to different parts of the face. Despite it being a one-on-one tutorial with one of Weta's masters of animation, things quickly turned south for me as I realised just how awful I was at using the program. Despite Dennis' guidance, I struggled for much of the session and gained appreciation for just how painstakingly tedious facial animation is.
Another key pointer I picked up is that, even despite my severe lack of talent, Dennis' ability to alter minute details of Bad Ape's face to totally change his expression means that so much of what goes on onscreen can still be tweaked later on by Dennis and the facial animation team.
Getting to know facial animation at Weta: Part 2
I have a massive head. There's no denying it, and a lot of my mates often give me lip about it (it's still not the biggest I know, but not far off it). While my stage scene didn't feature the full head-mounted facial capture rigs used in the movie, I still got to experience wearing one (or attempting to) and had the whole process explained to me by Motion Capture Tracking assistant George Redmond.
"The helmet's are custom-made to fit each performer's head, so as to maximise their comfort and leave them free to focus on their performance," George told me. The rig I used was Steve Zahn's actual rig used in the movie, which was pretty cool despite my inability to wear it comfortably (George told me Zahn has a fairly normal-sized dome, thanks for the reassurance of my own head's size mate!).
"For each performer we also use one of these vacuum-moulded masks, again based on a 3D scan of their face. From there, on the very first shoot day we'll go through and mark each performer's specific network of dots on their face that give us raw capture of their facial movements," George carried on as he held Zahn's mask in front of me. Sadly due to time constraints, I wasn't able to test the added dots applied to my face, though George's explanation gave me a more than adequate run down of how things work.
Becoming an ape for a day
We're nearly there, but before checking out my rendering with Allan, I got to sit down with some of the team at Weta and find out just how rigorous production was, plus how the filmmaking process has developed throughout the trilogy. The team at Weta has gone to great lengths to evolve its technology from film to film, despite Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' at the time cutting edge animation tech.
"Some of the big stuff that's happened for us as an animation team has been speed increases. Each time our puppets have gotten slightly quicker, certainly on War for the Planet of the Apes they got a lot quicker, both physical body puppets and facial animation puppets got a lot quicker which is a huge thing for an animator because you really need interaction so you're not constantly slowed down having to check everything," Dan Barrett, Animation Head of Department told me.
"Every movie (in the trilogy) feels like a startup."
Dan Lemmon. Visual Effects Supervisor at Weta Digital.
VFX Supervisor Dan Lemmon, who earlier directed me on stage, was also keen to point out how Weta's mo-cap and animation tech has evolved over the course of the trilogy. “On the first film it was ‘How can we do it?’” he recalls. “We were riding the very edge of the technology, and things were kind of fragile. We had an idea that hadn’t been battle-tested, so there was a lot of inventing and problem-solving."
"Since then there's been a lot of advancement, but I think the biggest thing has been that a lot of the technology has gotten a whole lot better, certainly what we call 'rendering,' which is the light simulation engine that basically makes the characters appear as the way that you see them in the movie," he explained.
The crash course in mo-cap and animation I received at Weta really helped me gain a better understanding of how digital animation works, the physical and mental demands of the job and the painstaking level of detail that goes into everything to end up at the final, consumer-ready product.
The actor's ability to work in some of the most unusual conditions on any film set, anywhere in the world also cannot be overstated, something I took for granted before spending a day at Weta Digital.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a genuine masterclass in what technology can do when applied non-traditionally. The team at Weta's job constitutes nothing less than the addition of an entirely new unit to film production, equal in importance to areas such as cinematography, costumes and production design.
On that note, I'll leave you with the finished rendering of my ape scene with Allan. I know it lacks sound (my gag was brilliant, if you were wondering) and facial animation but it still puts you in the box seat, giving you an idea of what goes on at Weta Digital and just how brilliant the team really are.