The time has come for the Academy to finally give the VFX Oscar to “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Twice denied for “Rise” and “Dawn,” Weta Digital’s remarkable work on Caesar (Andy Serkis) culminated with a Shakespearean finale. It’s undeniably the best of the field. And coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the original “Planet of the Apes” would make it even sweeter. The Visual Effects Society obviously got the importance of the work, honoring the entire Caesar trilogy, now we’ll see if the Academy makes amends with “War.”
However, “Apes” has been denied before (with the acting branch, in particular, having a bias against Serkis and performance capture) and there is other noteworthy character animation to choose from, including the stunning CG Rachael from “Blade Runner 2049,” the creepy Snoke (Serkis) from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ego and the de-aged Kurt Russell from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” and the latest incarnation of King Kong from “Kong: Skull Island.”
Read more about these nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:
“War for the Planet of the Apes”
It’s been a unique experience for Serkis to play the sentient simian from birth to death, and Weta rose to the challenge of capturing and animating his performance. In “War,” though, Caesar rose to Moses-like stature, grappling with his darkest demons before freeing himself and his tribe. For Weta, the challenge was capturing Caesar’s final arc with on-set performance capture in both snow and rain. On “War,” they achieved greater interpolation and more nuanced animation.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fo
Caesar was grayer and walked more slowly, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Weta also deepened his wrinkles and added more creases. His model and facial rig were adjusted, too, given the complex emotional range. At the same time, they added a new character, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), nervous and funny, with a lot more dialogue requiring special care to the rigging and his big, bug eyes.
“”For me, the key to the whole movie is empathy,” said Matt Reeves (who directed both “Dawn” and “War”). “I saw ‘Rise’ and for the first time I had an emotional connection with a CG character. This film was pushed into the realm of the mythic. It’s a Darwinian, biblical, ape epic.”
“Blade Runner 2049”
The great VFX suprise was a stunning CG recreation of the Rachael replicant played by Sean Young in the original movie. the two-minute sequence brought an emotionally stirring reunion with Harrison Ford’s Deckard, requiring technical virtuosity and subtle performance.
Body double Loren Peta played the young Rachael (in costume, makeup, and with dotted face) and performed on set with Ford and Jared Leto (as replicant manufacturer Wallace). She was directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Young on set as well for reference. The goal was to merge the two into a perfect replica.
Oscar-winning MPC (“The Jungle Book”) was tasked with animating the 20-year-old Rachael. However, Villeneuve wanted a three-beat character arc for the new replicant when she encounters Deckard. First, she displays confidence and then longing before feeling rejected when realizing that she doesn’t measure up. The result was a major step in digital human animation.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
For the first actual appearance of Supreme Leader Snoke, director Rian Johnson worked with Industrial Light & Magic on a complete redesign. He looked too ghoulish and zombie-like as the hologram in “The Last Jedi.” ILM got data capture of Serkis on set with Daisy Ridley (Rey) and Andy Driver (Kylo Ren).
However, the initial concept looked too frail and didn’t match the power of Serkis’ voice. So they resculpted the model, referencing Michael Fassbender and Steven Berkoff, and Ben Kingsley from ‘Sexy Beast.’” ILM made Snoke’s shoulders broader, straightened his back, and restructured his face. They also raised him from seven to eight-feet-tall.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
First, there was Baby Groot (Framestore made him softer, more alien-like, and quite the athletic dancer), but the other new wrinkle was Ego (Russell), a living planet that takes on human form. Weta Digital was challenged with creating the interior look of Ego, along with the various transformations during his climactic fight with son Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).
This involved complicated mathematical patterns known as fractals (inspired by artist Hal Tenny, who served as a consultant). However, not only did Weta have difficulty controlling the fractals, but it also had to make them pliable in short order. To avoid an R rating for gore, Weta came up with particulate sand.
Meanwhile, Lola VFX handled the young Russell for the prologue, a 36-year journey back in time. Despite claims that it was achieved with special effects makeup, Lola, the masters of digital de-aging (“The Social Network”), once again handled it with nifty 2D compositing and 3D tracking, with the actor wearing a wig and the aid of a younger stand-in.
“Kong: Skull Island”
ILM went back to the 1933 original “King Kong” in designing the 100-foot gorilla for Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Apocalypse Now” riff. However, Kong was a hybrid of man and gorilla, and so ILM came up with the idea of a movie monster. He doesn’t walk on all fours and they had to find the right cadence and movement style to make it work.
The animation was entirely keyframed, using ILM’s Oscar-winning facial-capture and BlockParty procedural rigging systems. But, not surprisingly, fur posed the biggest challenge. Kong required a dedicated two-person team for thicker and more-realistic grooming, which also demanded a battle-weary look. That’s 19 million hairs, complicated by water interaction on the fur, achieved with the help of the water simulation team on a variety of looks. For ILM, it was the badass Kong.