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Serkis and Weta Talk Photo-Real Performance Capture for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

Serkis and Weta Talk Photo-Real Performance Capture for 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

From the outset, with that tight close-up of Caesar’s face, it’s clear that Andy Serkis and Weta Digital have taken performance capture to a whole new realm of photo-reality. The detail and emotional intensity are extraordinary. We’re not even aware that Caesar is CG anymore. We are totally immersed in the moment and from there it just gets better as we witness the complexity of Caesar’s epic struggle.

As director Matt Reeves suggests, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is like “The Godfather” and Caesar is the Don: compassionate yet conflicted leader of the simian race as well as husband and father. And it’s time that this crucial collaboration between Weta and Serkis be better understood and appreciated for this remarkable, Oscar-worthy achievement.

To meet the photo-real demands of shooting on location principally in Muir Woods, Weta revamped its performance capture system, including bodysuits, cameras, markers, lighting and simulation of fur, skin, moisture, and especially the eyes. Added detail and fidelity of performance weren’t enough: the process had to hold up to the rough elements as well as the scrutiny of IMAX 3-D, which provides further depth and dynamic composition.

“We knew this was coming because we did a touch of it on the first film but the environments were more controlled: we were in a park and it wasn’t that far from any support services we needed and generally the weather was much better,” recalls four-time Oscar winner, Joe Letteri, Weta’s senior VFX supervisor. We had to make everything indestructible and accurate at the same time. Basic things like creating more robust wireless networks — things that made it easier for us to pick up and move quickly to the next setup. We like this idea of shooting the movie wherever you want.”

Weta VFX supervisor Dan Lemmon adds that they had to slug it through the rain and the mud and live explosions in camera. “It was great to have our tools up for the robustness to get in there shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crew and still be able to get good data to get the capture that we needed from the actors’ performances. And I think to be able to put the actors in those kinds of spaces and know that whatever they were going to do would translate to the apes was really important and powerful.

“With the tools that we’ve got, and the artists working behind the scenes, we can pretty much take what Andy’s doing and with some adjustments for the anatomy of the ape, which is a little different, translate what he’s doing in front of the camera and make sure it gets there up on the screen.”

It’s been quite an evolution from Gollum to Kong to Caesar. According to Serkis, though, the difference now is that they can use the performance in the moment. And to correct any misconceptions about the process, Serkis emphasizes that it is a “marriage of skills” among actors and animators. “Performance capture is deriving from an actor the essence of a character…you’re authoring a performance and it has a wide arena.

“What is extraordinary is how truthful the underlying performance has been rendered by the artists at Weta and it’s an incredible experience to see what you have authored being translated in that way. It is all about the underlying emotion.”

John Lasseter likes to recount how legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas told him that CG would only be on a par with hand-drawn when characters elicited empathy. Well, the time has come to declare that performance capture is on a par with traditional CG, as Caesar elicits profound empathy, particularly in a scene in which he displays anger at Jason Clarke for interrupting a private moment and sorrow about his sick wife (Judy Greer). And Serkis’ powerful performance wouldn’t be complete without the Weta animators making the perfect simian translation, down to the redness in his eyes.

“Obviously you have to follow what’s in the performance,” Letteri explains,”but the details of doing that sort of [moisture] is important because what happens is the weight catches on the micro-structure of the skin and affects how it falls, and you need the jaggedness to make it believable. But the pacing of what happens in the animation needs to match the performance because that’s the emotion.”

“I’ll tell you what’s interesting,” adds Serkis. “It’s kind of easier when it’s driven by an emotion. But when it’s more reflective or philosophical, that was the hardest stuff to pull off. To put across complex thoughts as an ape was hard, like the line: ‘I used to  think that apes were better than humans, but now I see how much like them we are.’

“I’m honored to be able to have this kind of level of integrity of filmmaking in a blockbuster movie and that’s what I love about these kinds of films. You can set out to communicate quite in-depth philosophical ideas. And it’s interesting because, yes, in the next movie we could arrive in New York [and intersect the 1968 original]. But, equally, you could take three movies to arrive in New York. Should the appetite be there, it bears that level of continued discovery of their evolution and how it starts to fracture and how it starts to complete the circle. It’s so rich.”

Likewise, it’ll be interesting to witness the continuing evolution of performance capture as an animated craft.

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