As Weta’s senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri says, “It’s not about the technology — it’s about letting dramatic moments develop, and getting out of the way when you need to.” Thus, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” represents the first movie to record most of the performance capture in difficult locations such as Muir Woods, before the more nuanced acting and action were refined in post at James Cameron’s Lightstorm stage in Manhattan Beach.
1. One of the most gripping moments occurs when Toby Kebbell’s Koba slyly disarms two drunken humans before shockingly gunning them down. “Matt [Reeves] and Toby were able to work the scene in a way that was different from how it appeared on the page and come up with that performance,” adds four-time Oscar winner Letteri. “We were able to capture that and work through the translation and made that scene come alive. Toby added subtle details in getting on their good side before taking advantage of them and killing them. It’s a really street kind of thing that happens. And so it had that spontaneity that we didn’t have to worry about. We let them develop the drama and the animators came in took over.”
According to visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon, the scene was striking and chilling to observe: a microcosm of Reeve’s approach to making the movie. “You had these talented actors working together on the set and they could play off of each other’s ideas. Toby wanted to take situations he was in as a youth in London. Some of the scariest involved people pretending to be your friend who would suddenly turn on you, He ended up improvising half of it on the spot and it became much more powerful. It starts out humorously and then Koba becomes unhinged and you realize that the movie has taken a very dark turn.”
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2. The single 360-degree shot of Koba overtaking the tank turret and ramming his way into the human compound is the visual highlight. It took nearly a year to complete with more than 1,000 iterations. The crew had a real tank in an empty stage. Then Weta brought it to life by returning to the volume with carefully choreographed bits of explosive business and populated it with 600 CG proxy apes. The challenge was re-timing the speed of the original background plate to get it to work correctly and then layering in all of the VFX.
“Matt described it as a fever dream,” Lemmon recalls. “It was disturbing and unnerving. Lighting was key and he was keen to use uncorrected orange-colored sodium vapor lights so that it had an industrial wasteland look. But we were limited in what we could do with the tank, which came with its own driver. Explosions and elements that were meant to be timed with it turned out differently. Some story ideas changed and the animation team came up with new gags.
“We started with the plate and brainstormed with Matt. He thought a burned out trolley could be a great place for the apes to jump off and storm the breach and cascade over the humans. He wanted the apes’ spears to figure prominently. We worked it out in previs and recaptured some of the action with Toby. When the tank spun around and hit the door of the human colony, it turns the tide for Koba.”
3. In the thrilling climax, Andy Serkis’ Caesar fights Koba on the tower of an unfinished skyscraper — a concrete jungle. “We had to figure out the beats of the action with the help of a fight coordinator as well as the environment,” Lemmon explains. “It didn’t get nailed until after finishing principal photography. The art department designed a tower schematic and we did previs. Then we took it to LA for a new mocap session with Matt and Andy and Toby. Then we placed that action in the digital environment and they had a separate performance capture session just for the cameras. It was all virtual and we played up the vertical nature of the composition by letting the two characters hang and swing from the precarious skeletal structure.”
According to Letteri, form and function came together beautifully. “All that arrested work spoke to the premise of the film where the virus stopped humanity in its tracks. But it also gave us this human jungle environment that we could stage with these two apes and have it all happen in three-dimensional space.”