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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Weta Digital interview


By Trevor Hogg

Web: www.wetafx.co.nz (will open in new window)

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Date Added: 20th August 2014

Weta Digital Animation Supervisor Dan Barrett reveals the art of retaining and transforming mo-cap performances into believable CG apes in Dawn of the Planet of
the Apes
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In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) the CG primates have evolved beyond using sign language to communicate with humans. "There were a couple of words in the first film Rise of the Planet of the Apes but it's fairly extensive in this film,” observes Weta Digital Animation Supervisor Dan Barrett. "If you deliver dialogue with the physical properties of a human face with human lips making the shapes that make the sounds, you need to take that into account when you're doing lip sync. We ended up going back into the facial puppets, and creating new shapes and shifting shapes to help with the dialogue, while at the same time looking at the mouth shapes that Toby Kebbell (The Counselor) and Andy Serkis (Burke and Hare) made for Koba and Caesar.”

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Andy Serkis transformed into Caesar
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

"We tend to build more detail into the brows of our apes so they end up being more humanoid both in the structure and in the way that they move"


Barrett adds: "We're lucky that the muscles of the chimp and ape faces are similar to a human's, so we approached the building of these rigs in a similar way. We tend to build more detail into the brows of our apes so they end up being more humanoid both in the structure and in the way that they move.”

On-location motion-capture

A major difference for the production was the extensive use of on-location motion-capture. "In addition to the active marker system Weta used a vision-based motion-capture system in which the actors didn't need to wear the battery packs,” remarks Dan Barrett. "They could wear suits with markers essentially stitched into them. You have plenty of coverage from locked off witness cameras and we can gather the motion-capture data just from that; it frees the actors to do physical things. That's something we'll probably see more of in the future.”

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Toby Kebbell transformed into Koba
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital


"The animators made sure that they're picking up on every little eye dart because the smallest movements are often the most important"


The reference material was indispensable, especially, when making believable CG eyes. "The animators made sure that they're picking up on every little eye dart because the smallest movements are often the most important.” Barrett notes: "In the case of Dawn we have more successful motion-capture because the apes are a lot more bipedal; that's something which is a lot easier for a human actor to convey than a quadrupedal gate.”

"It's not about being a great motion-capture actor; it's about being a great actor"


With the advancement of technology, motion-capture performers are gaining acceptance as actors. "Directors are becoming confident and comfortable with the idea that what they're seeing from Andy Serkis is what they'll see from Caesar,” observes Dan Barrett. "It makes that relationship on-set a successful one. Andy is now being given full reign. It's not about being a great motion-capture actor; it's about being a great actor. You see that with Toby Kebbell; he became completely unhinged, embracing the character of Koba.”

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Karin Konoval transformed into Maurice
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

Another motion-capture performance stands out to Barrett: "For me, Maurice is the most ape-like even though he's possibly the most evolved as a personality; his behavior is wonderfully Orangutan-like and that's all due to Karin Konoval (Alone in the Dark) who played him.”

Baby River and a raspberry

Caesar has an offspring named Baby River which is an entirely CG creation. "Matt Reeves (the director) was keen for him to be physically adept while at the same time not losing that wobbly charm babies have.”

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CG Baby River interacts with live-action cast
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

Another notable animation task for Dan Barrett was to articulate a comical act by Toby Kebbell into an action by the character of Koba. "The raspberry blowing was a good example of something that we had not done before with any of our apes and that's the kind of situation where we have to look at the rig and ask, ‘How are we going to do it? Is there something here that we need to address?'

In a situation like that we would go back to Alessandro Bonora and his facial modeling team.” Computer simulations were utilized but modified when needed. "There are plenty of background apes in the film that have come through the facial solver with not too much intervention from animators.” Close-up shots continue to be art directed. "The hero stuff will always go through an animator's hands; they will spend time looking through the reference and making sure that they're hitting all of the emotional beats properly.”

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Koba plays the fool
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

Rendering fur and riding horses

"One of the biggest leaps with Dawn, which has been a progression over the years at Weta, is our ability to render fur,” remarks Dan Barrett. "We have developed systems that allow us to have dynamic interaction with fur (such as with wind) and key frame animate areas as well.”

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Apes riding horses was not an easy task to accomplish
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

A major animation complication involved the horses as the motion-capture performers made use of saddles and stirrups while the CG apes rode without them. "The saddles were not that much of an issue. The stirrups were a problem at times given that it is possible to take the body weight onto the feet, and that becomes a slightly weird look when you have an ape riding bareback on a horse. It was a case of altering that or allowing the apes to grip the sides of the horses with their feet.” Barrett remarks. "An awful lot of that interaction stuff is the result of the incredible work done by our paint and roto team. There is a shot that I'm thinking of now where they lift Caesar into the back of the Land Rover.”

During the filming of the scene the actors picked up Andy Serkis who was subsequently replaced by his CG persona. "You couldn't fake that. It would feel like they were pantomiming it because there wouldn't be enough weight on their bodies and arms.”

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Still taken from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

Elk and grizzly bear

Other animals appear such as a herd of elk. "No motion-capture there,” states Dan Barrett. "We found plenty of reference of galloping and running elk. One thing that we never managed to find was the initiation of a stampede that you see in the first shot of the elk. When we couldn't find exactly what was needed we started looking at something like a moose or a larger deer.”

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A grizzly bear poses a threat to the hunting apes
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

The hunting apes encounter a ferocious adversary in the form of a grizzly bear. "It was a tricky bit of animation because we had to have an aggressive standoff. Bears tend to hang back while their attacks are very violent and quick. You have to be careful of reference of bears because often what you'll see are performances of trained bears which tend to be quite different compared to bears in the wild.”

Final battle

An explosive showdown takes place in the final act of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when the humans attempt to reclaim what is left of San Francisco from their primate captors. "One of the other challenges we dealt with in the animation department was the collapse of the crane in the Tower Sequence,” states Dan Barrett. "The destruction and modeling team did a huge amount of work on that but the animation team led the process by deciding how the crane would break and fall.”

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Still taken from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

In the end Barrett was pleased with what Weta Digital was able to achieve with the project. "It's important for you to know that the performance of Caesar is driven by Andy. The technology is remarkable but we're still doing the work of animators ensuring that we bring Andy's performance through. It's a successful collaboration.”

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Still taken from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Weta Digital

Related links:

Visit the official website of Weta Digital
Find out more about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Check out our ZBrush Character Sculpting book and related eBooks
 
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