Exclusive Interview: WETA’s Joe Letteri And The Visual Effects In ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’

Posted Monday, July 7th, 2014 01:00 pm GMT -5 by

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ScienceFiction.com was fortunate to see an advanced screening of ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘ and it was amazing! While the full review of the film will be up later in the week, we can say that the visual effects alone is incredible! And it should be no surprise that WETA worked hand in hand with director Matt Reeves to create the film. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Academy Award winner Joe Letteri, Director and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor of WETA, and talk about the technology and technique used to create the post-apocalyptic world ravaged by the Simian flu.

ScienceFiction.com (SF): The effects seem to jump in technology from the last film ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.’ Was there a lot of new technology that you had to develop just for this film?

joe letteriJoe Letteri (JL): Yeah, there was. The most important one that we started with was the ability to take the performance capture gear out on location. On ‘Rise’ we were able to get it in the studio for the first time which was great because the actors were there … you know, the apes and the humans… the apes and the apes… they can all be together. The director could direct them in the moment; you didn’t have to go back to the motion capture stage to direct them. But as Matt [Reeves, the director] was saying earlier, he really wanted to go out into the reality of the forest, far away from civilization. So we had to just create a new generation of gear that could stand up to that and working remotely, still working accurately.

SF: And the designs of the individual apes?

JL: Once we had this new information and the fact that we had sometimes dozens of apes at the same time who were performing, we needed all new software to just get the realism back up so that we can translate the facial expressions and the body language from the actors. We needed new software to get all the hair dynamics and simulation. We had to re-groom all the hair. We basically do like you would if you were making the creature. You have to plant all the individual hair.

SF: So you were putting in all the hairs on the apes individually?

JL: Yes, all the hairs on the body and then we have all the dynamics for the muscles, for the skin, and the eyes… it all has to come together and there’s new software for all that. And for the cinematography. We have to work with the cinematographer and make sure we are doing the lighting that matches what was done on the set so that everything integrates. So basically we had to create the whole world as it existed when it was shot and bring that to our characters.

SF: This sounds like the film was a very well collaborated project between WETA and Matt Reeves.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Andy SerkisJL: Matt’s obviously directing it, he’s constructing the film, he’s constructing the narrative, and he’s working with the actors to bring out the moment – what’s the heart of the performance. But, yeah, we have to take that all on board and we have to do a lot of that behind the scenes to present it back to him in a finished fashion. When you are working with an actor, Matt can work with them one on one and in the moment he can see is it working? Am I getting what I want? Do I need to move the camera around?  Because our process takes so much longer, we have to describe what we’re after, go back and get a dozen people to work at it for a little while and then come back and say here’s what it is. So there’s not that quite immediacy so the director does have to turn it over to us for a little while to hold and give it back to him.

SF: I think what was amazing was the emotional connection you get with Caesar (and really all the apes) who are not human but computer generated. How were you able to get that across the screen?

JL: Yeah, it’s a combination of the actors and the animators. The machine is only there as a tool to allow us to store information, amplify things that we do. None of that is machine generated; it’s all done by the artists, either actors or animators.

We did a lot of research and studied a lot of real apes… we videotaped them, we photographed them. You start to pick out their individual personalities. Then what we do is go in and the animators will do studies of these characters. They take little moments that they like and say ‘Oh, look what happened when the baby crawled on the mother’s back here.”  And they try to reanimate that so they can understand for themselves how the physicality works and also, once you have that down, why you get that same sense of emotion from them when you see them.

SF: Has Matt Reeves ever given you a scenario where you just scratch your head and wonder if it can be done?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Andy Serkis on horsebackJL: Not so much. Sometimes you find moments when you’re shooting bits and pieces that you like that make it more difficult to assemble everything. Like some of the shots with the ape actors on horses — it was great to do that, it really made them part of the scene, you get the dynamics of them on horseback and all the nuances that brings. But, for example, because we have to paint those actors out of the horses — you have to paint them off the horses and put them back on for certain scenes — and the apes are riding bareback but the riders have to attack so all that stuff has to be replaced and a lot of times we’ll just replace the horse instead. So we do things like that and it may just be sometimes a question of format, like you know, if you had a tighter shot on this we wouldn’t have to do that. And we try to judge this against a moment on the wide shot that really brings it alive and we keep it.

SF: Is there one scene that is your favorite or that you are especially pleased about how it turned out on screen?

JL: Well, it would probably be the technically most challenging scene — the final fight scene on the tower because you were staging in this three dimensional space and it was pretty much all computer generated. Matt had no idea early on what he was constructing with the scene and he was making it in pieces and we had to give it back to him in a way that could help guide him towards being able to see what he needs to see to be able to get the shots.

SF: Where do you see digital effects, specifically performance capture, and its place in the movie industry?

JL: It really depends on the story and how far you need to take it. It’s weird because to me, this is the height of what you want to do. You want to create these characters that are close enough to human that we can project ourselves onto them and still get the drama. The way you can use nonhuman characters to give yourself a mirror and amplify the feelings we all understand by looking at it in a new way, it gives us someplace to go with the drama.

To see more of the magic of WETA, check out this behind the scenes featurette of the making of ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ and make sure to see the final product when the film is released in theaters on July 11!