Anyone who’s seen ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ is agreed about one thing – the special effects are absolutely spectacular. That’s thanks to the expertise of pioneering New Zealand FX company Weta Digital, best known for their work on Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord Of The Rings’ franchise and ‘Avatar’.
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But while the results are brilliant, creating realistic CGI apes meant years of toil and innovation. Here, the movie’s visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon (who’s also doing the same job on ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice’) explains how they pulled it off.
Eyes are the Holy Grail for CGI boffins. “Dead eyes” were so prevalent in early Hollywood computer effects (see the ‘The Polar Express’ for a particularly terrifying example) that there’s even a term for it: ‘Uncanny Valley’.
It’s why the Weta team spent thousands of hours trying to get them right for ‘Apes’. “The eyes are critical,” says Lemmon. “We have a friend who is an eye surgeon, and we spent time in his office. We learned how moisture beads up on the eyeballs and runs down to into the fold between the eyeball and the lower lid.
“All these things, like how highlights play across the eye and how moist and glistening they look. If you don’t get that right, the eyes look dead, and not quite as believable. There’s a lot of crying in this film! Lots of eyes reddening and welling up. All those details are really important to get right and match what Andy (Serkis, who plays Caesar) and the other actors did as closely as possible.”
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It might not sound like a big deal, but the fact much of the action in ‘Dawn’ takes place in a rainy forest, rather than the dry laboratory in ‘Rise’, also presented huge problems to Weta.
“The fur was something we really pushed forward with,” says Lemmon. “On this film in particular, because it’s raining and the sets are so muddy and gritty – getting the moisture on the fur, getting the rain to play down the fur…getting the leaves ground into the fur and the sticks and debris – those were all things that we added on to what we’d done in the first film to make ‘Dawn’ look as believable as it could.”
Shooting Outside In General
The other problem about shooting on location rather than a set was that the incredibly complicated (and expensive) performance capture tools used to grab Serkis and co. had to work in the cold and rain.
“As you would have seen in the film: we’re out in the middle of the forest - the whole scene is set many years beyond the initial collapse of human civilisation, so nature has started to take over,” says Lemmon. “The apes live out in the middle of nowhere so our sets were sort of out in the middle of nowhere – things had to be portable, and really as flexible and robust as they possible could be.”
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He continues, “Our presence on set is quite a bit bigger. Doing performance capture we’ve got a bigger footprint now, and [we had to figure out] how to hide that footprint and not get in the way. For example, to work with the set decorators and props department to hide our equipment, bury it under moss and incorporate it into design of the set. That’s a whole other arena we had to come up to speed in, in terms of our education and our ability to get help from the other production departments.”
Much of ‘Apes’ is spent in close-up with the simian central characters, so there’s nowhere to hide if the faces don’t look convincing. As you’d expect, Weta went the extra mile to make sure audiences got as close to the real deal as possible.
“We’ve got a really good relationship with a zoo back in Wellington, in New Zealand, where we live. They have this fantastic troupe of chimpanzees that they gave us really good access to,” Lemmon reveals. “In fact, when they have medical procedures – one had to have an ear operation - they’ve got to be anaesthetised and when they’re anaesthetised we’re able to get in and get even better detail. We’ll take silicon casts of their hands and feet and extract all that skin detail from those casts, and we fold that back into our CG work and use all those wrinkles and folds to get better and more accurate details into our CG models.”
With multiple apes now basically the main protagonists, the WETA technicians had their work cut out.
“One of the big challenges for us as well was that there were so many characters,” admits Lemmon. “On the first one we only had Caesar and he was by far the most frontal sort of character, so all the visual focus work we had to do [was to] make him look believable. Looking at the script for this film, we saw we’d have to do that on a completely different scale – we had half a dozen characters who all had to emote and engage with the audience at a sophisticated level and that meant a lot more work for us.”
“Each time we make a technological leap – say, suddenly we’re able to, for example, do moisture and bubbles more accurately – we realise that we’re missing those kind of details all over the place, and now that we have the technology we can start to add it back in,” says Lemmon. “One of the great things about our craft is that we have the opportunity to collaborate with really creative, innovative storytellers, and a lot of times they’ll get inspired by work we did, or that someone else did, and they’ll say, ‘I saw that you did this on this film, and I had this idea – in this story I want to tell I’d like to take advantage of that thing but I want to put this twist on it.’ It becomes a little puzzle that we’re working out.”
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Photos: 20th Century Fox