One of the earliest visual effects shots Weta Digital delivered to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” director Rupert Wyatt was a closeup of the film’s lead chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis), in a moment of guilt and confusion. Born with hyper-intelligence thanks to an Alzheimer’s drug and raised by humans, Caesar had just tapped into his ape instinct and rampaged violently through a suburban neighborhood.
Serkis filmed the scene wearing a motion capture suit and head rig, and it was up to the artists at Weta to retain the look of contrition and bewilderment on his face while turning him into a chimpanzee.
“We needed the audience to understand what Caesar was feeling with no dialogue,” said Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor at Weta. “Andy had delivered the performance with his eyes, with his whole body, and we had to preserve that performance.”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a prequel to the science-fiction franchise begun in 1968 about a world where sentient apes rule over human slaves. In the new film, a scientist named Will (James Franco) is seeking a cure for the Alzheimer’s disease that is incapacitating his father (John Lithgow). While experimenting on apes, Will inadvertently creates Caesar.
Here’s the pivotal scene, with Serkis’ original performance and Weta’s final shots.
To animate Caesar and his ape brethren, Weta relied on the facial motion capture technology they developed during the making of “King Kong” and “Avatar,” which won a Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences this year for engineer Mark Sager.
“We took advantage of the fact that apes have the same facial muscles as humans,” Letteri said. “It’s very much about trying to discern the underlying emotion as much as it is a mechanical process.”
A key part of communicating that emotion was Caesar’s eyes, which Weta tackled by building a detailed digital model. While filming, they tracked Serkis’ pupils and relied on markers placed on his face to chart the movement of his eye muscles.
“The one thing people do know about performance capture is that when it’s bad it’s because the eyes look dead,” Serkis said. “When Weta built a digital eye on a computer, it contracts and the pupils dilate and light refracts off the eye. They pay attention to the way the layers of the eye work, how moisture works. It is an extraordinary technical achievement and artistic achievement.”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” opens Friday.
— Rebecca Keegan
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