Although he isn’t talked about in the usual dialogue about top ten lists or awards consideration, Joe Letteri is one of the hardest working and most influential people in movies in 2011. As a visual effects supervisor at Peter Jackson‘s WETA Digital, he had a hand in two of this year’s most discussed movies, creating the sublimely expressive Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and supervising Steven Spielberg‘s motion capture wonder “The Adventures of Tintin.” We got a chance to talk to Joe earlier this week, where we discussed making you feel for a revolutionary monkey, the goals of WETA’s first completely animated film, and what the challenges are for next year’s “The Hobbit.”
Letteri was brought over to WETA from George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic. While at ILM Letteri worked on everything from the dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park” to that killer train sequence from Brian De Palma‘s original “Mission: Impossible” (he also supervised the frogs in “Magnolia“). He was brought to the New Zealand studio after the first ‘Lord of the Rings‘ movie, while the studio was hard at work on the second film, “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” As soon as he got there he was met with a challenge: Gollum, the first truly human motion capture character.
“There was a fair amount of trial and error,” Letteri explained. “Eyes, having to get the eyes to look realistic and recognizable as human. And skin. Up until that point, the skin we had done was tough – like the skin of a dinosaur. But with a human character you needed that translucency. It gives you that softness that makes it feel alive.”
We wondered what the process was like going from a character like Gollum, a character that these days seems fairly rudimentary, to a something like Caesar, a thinking, feeling, plotting character that looks like you could reach out and stroke its fur. “There was an evolution there,” Letteri said. “From Gollum we went on to do King Kong [in Peter Jackson’s remake] so the interesting thing there was a character who was human-like but didn’t have any dialogue. Kong was still an animal and had to carry the scenes by expression and body language. It really taught us to focus on those physical aspects. And we went through a whole learning curve.” From “King Kong” the team at WETA would take on an even bigger challenge, in what would go on to become the biggest film of all time. “From ‘King Kong’ we did ‘Avatar,’ which was a whole ensemble acting piece, as well as individual shots. We worked on refining techniques of skin and muscle and bone and all of those things to keep a character alive.”
All of this research and development went into the creation of Caesar. “We were able to pull all of that together and also apply it to the groups of chimps, since they were full characters but had no dialogue,” Letteri said. “It’s been a nice evolution.” The experience also helped given the incredibly small turnaround time for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (about a year from the start of filming to the release date), but Letteri seemed nonplussed about the schedule saying, “Going into it we knew what it would take it to do it, and brought on the people we needed. We hit the ground running.” Explaining how the development time has shortened, Letteri told us that it took almost a year just to create the King Kong character, before they even started animating. “With Caesar it took 3 or 4 months,” Letteri said.
The team faced a challenge in designing Caesar, since he had to exist alongside photorealistic digital chimps but still be a creature, a designed character with personality. “At the beginning of the movie you see the chimps in the jungle, the same forehead, the same muscle of a real chimp,” Letteri said. ” But with Cesear because we needed him to be a little more expressive, we had to make some changes. We brought his muzzle in a little bit, we softened around his eyes.” All of the changes were to make the character more identifiable. “If you suddenly had these intelligent eyes in this extreme brow, it would look jarring.”
Of course Caesar wouldn’t exist without the amazing performance capture work of performance capture whiz Andy Serkis (who also plays a central role in “The Adventures of Tintin“). In fact, they compared what they were doing with the character to Serkis. “We took what Andy was doing and then look at the character and see if it had the same intelligence as Andy,” Letteri said, of the checks and balances. “We were walking that line with a creature that believability as a chimp but the design of a new race of chimps.”
It’s true that Andy Serkis is a truly gifted performance capture artist but Letteri said that talent comes through for anyone who puts on the shiny silver suit. “Andy is extremely vital to the process because Andy is a great actor. And he drives the performance as a character you really want to watch,” Letteri said. “I would say that about any actor that is giving us the performance. Andy just happens to be exceptionally good at it.” He boiled it down further: “It just comes down to acting and not always be about yourself but being about the character.”
When we brought up the question of whether or not Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination, Letteri said that it may be a generational thing. He suggested that the next generation of Oscar voters, having grown up with Wiis and other technology that charts your movements, will be more sympathetic to the performance capture performances. “Andy gave a stunning performance and we really tried to make sure that performance came through so when you see Caesar you see Andy’s performance,” Letteri said. “But people have to decide – can you have a performance without seeing the actor through that performance?” He remains pretty philosophical, “We’re in that transition period where people don’t understand how an actor’s movement can be translated to screen.”
On the subject of “The Adventures of Tintin,” which is already a smash overseas, Letteri said the animators were led by a simple principle. “What we were trying to do there was create a film that would honor the world of [original writer and artist] Herge.” It was this principle that led them away from the original idea, which was to shoot live action with an animated dog. “Originally we were talking about doing it as a live action film. And going that route would limit who you can cast, to look like the characters, and we were talking about prosthetics.” It was during the shoot of “Avatar” that the ‘Tintin’ filmmakers got in the motion capture swing of things. “We were preparing ‘Avatar’ at the time and Jim Cameron invited Steven and Peter and they brought some ‘Tintin’ characters onto the ‘Avatar’ set and it was then that we decided to go that way.”
Up next on the WETA docket is the 3D “The Hobbit” films, the first of which is hitting theaters next Christmas. Letteri teased that, “Gollum will be there and there will be other new characters who are going to be computer generated.” In fact things have come full circle and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which was partially inspired by the work that Letteri had done on Gollum in ‘The Two Towers,’ will now influence the new version of Gollum they’re cooking up for “The Hobbit.” “It’s great, especially because we’re able to do Gollum now based on what we’ve done with ‘Apes,’ starting off with Andy performing.” In the original ‘Lord of the Rings,’ Andy Serkis had to be filmed separately and integrated into the scene later. In the new films, “he’s in there with the other actors and we’ve got performance capture live on set.” Evolutionary, indeed.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” hit DVD and Blu-ray this week. “The Adventures of Tintin” arrives in theaters on December 21st.