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Influencers: Joe Letteri Is the Master Behind Performance Capture

The "Alita: Battle Angel" visual effects supervisor is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Joe Letteri with Andy Serkis playing Caesar

Joe Letteri with Andy Serkis playing Caesar

There is nothing more exciting in the world of visual effects than the pioneering work being done in performance capture by Weta Digital. The New Zealand-based company has created tools that allow the artistry of a human performance to breath life in the digital characters in “The Lord of the Rings,” “Avatar,” and “Planet of the Apes.” One visionary has been leading the charge in transforming this revolutionary technology into a tangible tool for filmmakers: Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor and co-partner of Weta Digital.

Letteri has won four Oscars for his instrumental work in advancing performance capture and virtual production (“Avatar,” “King Kong,” and the two “Lord of the Rings” sequels, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”). However, his most recent supervision of Andy Serkis’ simian Caesar on the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy has been the most innovative. The performance-captured animation was so believable that audiences couldn’t tell that it was a CG character — the Weta artists translated Serkis’ epic performance, with all of its nuance and emotional gravitas, into that of a magnetic leading man playing a traditional hero role.

Director Matt Reeves said that he was so impressed by how far Letteri and Weta had pushed the technology when he worked on “Dawn of the Apes,” he was able to envision more of a David Lean-style war epic rather than worrying about the effects. “I’m directing the actors, so it’s a lot more similar to conventional movie-making situation than you would think,” Reeves said. “You are daunted by something when you don’t understand it, but when you learn to use it as a tool you stop thinking about it as a hindrance and you start thinking about, oh, ‘We could do so much more.’”

Reeves pushed the remarkably adaptable Letteri and his team toward more photo-realism in a less controlled environment with rain and mud in Muir Woods. Letteri oversaw the rebuilding of everything for the older, wiser Caesar. Plus, with better markers and more mobile, higher-res cameras, Weta achieved greater fidelity to Serkis’ performance with a smaller footprint. Finally, on “War,” Weta conveyed Caesar’s final arc with on-set performance capture in both snow and rain, achieving his most subtle and tragic performance as he completed the emotional hero’s arc.

“A lot of times when doing a CG thing the idea is to look for the broadest effect possible, and what’s so great about performance capture is the level of subtlety that’s possible,” said Reeves. “When I think of not only what Andy [Serkis] does, which is always incredible and very subtle, but Karin [Konoval] who plays Maurice she’s so internal, she’s so intuitive, and it’s just like gestures.”

For Letteri, the “Apes” trilogy represented a new pinnacle of all he had been working toward since he made the move from Industrial Light & Magic to Weta in New Zealand, when director Peter Jackson needed a creature specialist to evolve Serkis’ iconic Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings: “The Two Towers.” As the new supervisor, Letteri helped ground the character in Serkis’ performance through a new rig, facial system, and subsurface lighting that keyed into the actor’s personality. With “King Kong,” Letteri guided Weta through greater advancements in muscle, fur, and eye animation, capturing Serkis’ emotional state and translating that to the gorilla. When Serkis returned to play Gollum again in “The Hobbit,” the actor was captured on set and Weta improved the performance with better muscles, bones, eyes, skin, and teeth.

However, the biggest Weta game-changer was its virtual production work on James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Cameron shot the entire movie on stage with his hand-held virtual camera — the Simulcam, which integrated CG with live-action. Weta provided the CG characters and environments for Pandora with powerful new facial solves and tracking, enhanced by a global illumination lighting system. Letteri and his team have been hard at work the past few years with Cameron on the four new “Avatar” sequels, updating the entire workflow and introducing underwater performance capture by solving the interface disturbance between air and water, and raising virtual production and performance capture to the next standard of excellence.

 

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