Weta captures Dawn of a new era

23:10, Jul 16 2014
ape landscape
HAIL CAESAR: Andy Serkis as Caesar, the leader of the apes who have settled in woods near San Francisco while most of humanity is killed by "simian flu" in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Audiences have gone bananas over the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In New Zealand and the United States, it's No 1 at the box office.

But while Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox is happy - the film earned US$72.6 million (NZ$82.3m) over the weekend, 33 per cent more than the opening weekend for its predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes - 6700 kms away Wellington should be smiling too.

That's because a considerable contribution to what we see in the 3-D Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by American Matt Reeves, is the visual effects by Weta Digital. The Wellington-based studio - nominated for an Oscar for its work on Rise - has again created the intelligent apes, as well as other animals, for Dawn. At its height the studio employed 700 people on the project.

MOVING PERFORMANCE: Andy Serkis scowls in a performance capture suit. Weta Digital rendered his expression into the image seen above.

Weta Digital head Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor for Dawn, says his team is keen to work on any further Apes movies.

"We are all hoping there will be a third one. We already know the studio has said there will be one and Matt [Reeves] is going to direct it, so that's great. Everyone was pretty happy with how this film turned out - not just the finished film but the entire collaboration that went on. It seems like we're solidly into this world now. We kind of understand what's happening as the apes start to take over our future. We are all looking forward to it."

The film is set 10 years after the events of Rise, with the genetically-alerted ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) living with other primates in the Muir Woods outside San Francisco. Most of the world's human population have died from "simian flu".


Caesar's group encounter scouts from a small human colony in San Francisco trying to find a disused hydro electric power station. The humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), try to persuade Caesar to give them access to the power station. Meanwhile colony head Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) have other plans.

As with Rise, the apes are computer-generated. There are no humans in makeup, prosthetics and costumes or animatronic puppetry. But all of the apes are based on performances by actors, including Serkis, Kebbell, Terry Notary and Karin Konoval, using performance capture technology. Serkis with Weta Digital have been pioneers in the field, from his performance capture roles as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Kong in King Kong and Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin.

Rise, set in San Francisco but largely shot in Vancouver, was significant in that Serkis and the other performance capture actors worked alongside other actors in the same scenes. Their performances weren't inserted later, essentially making it "live action" performance capture.

Dawn has seen Weta Digital further push at the boundaries at what can be accomplished with performance capture. While most of Rise was shot indoors using interior sets, more than 85 per cent of Dawn was shot in forests near Vancouver and New Orleans. This meant shooting performance capture on location. Weta Digital had special units of 35 people, using about 50 motion capture cameras and eight "witness capture" cameras, to film any of the actors that were an ape character. At times it would up to 50 apes.

Letteri says having a performance capture team on stage for Rise was the first of its kind in the history of film-making. Having it on location for Dawn was another big leap. "Film-making in general went through this process back in the 70s, where you finally had cameras and lenses that were lightweight enough, and film stock that was fast enough, that you could break out of the studio and you could start doing a lot of location shooting in remote locations in low or available light.

"That's what we wanted here. We wanted that same feeling. ‘We are out in a remote location under all these dark trees. We're going to use available light and we're still going to get the performances captured."

Letteri says in post-production, where Weta Digital completed the computer-generated apes in Wellington, they still kept it to match the available light that had been captured on location by the film's cinematographer, acclaimed Kiwi Michael Seresin.

In Dawn there are several on location scenes which depict the results - and as I put it to Letteri, the visual effects are jaw-dropping. Audiences will struggle to work out what is a visual effect and what is real, such is quality of what the studio can now deliver. A memorable opening scene has weapon-carrying Caesar and other apes chase elk through the woods - echoing the hunting techniques of our own ancestors - and then encounter a grizzly bear. Apes, elks and bear all created via computer.

"The work was difficult and very hard. We had a very compressed schedule," says Letteri on shooting on location. It wasn't easy to get it done but we knew what the goal was of what we were shooting for."

Rendering a bear was no different to other animals, he says. "It's like we do with every character. We study the real ones and just try to gather as much references as we can, whether it's of photos or skeleton measurements. Whatever we can get."

Caesar also seems to look just a little bit more like Serkis, especially around the eyes. "We are always pushing it," says Letteri. "The eyes were remodelled in very detail - all of the fibres in the iris were individually modelled, [as were] the layers of skin in the eyes and eyelids and around the eyes, where you get all that subtle detail. We are just always increasing the resolution of what we can put into the animation of what you can actually get rendered on the screen."

Serkis for the past few years has been half-jokingly called the Laurence Olivier of performance capture actors and has his own London-based performance capture studio The Imaginarium. Among its projects Serkis will direct a retelling of George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Besides The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Weta Digital is working on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It's also to work on the Avatar sequels and likely, once confirmed, the second Tintin film. But would the studio put its hand up for a project like Animal Farm? "Those things are possible," says Letteri.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is screening now.

The Dominion Post