Fri 2nd Sep 2011, by Renee Dunlop | Production
Worlds inhabited with fantastical beings and imaginative scenarios are Weta’s forte, and once again in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Weta does not disappoint. The completion of approximately 1,200 shots handled at Weta Digital required a wide range of solutions and disciplines, a number of which were handled by Weta’s VFX Supervisor Chris White. Tasked with the primate shelter and asset development, White oversaw integration of 400 shots involving digital characters and environments into the practical set built on location in Vancouver, Canada. There, in the second act of the film where the character and story arc gains momentum, Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, meets his other main ape characters Buck, Rocket, and Maurice.
The primate shelter sequence begins with the chimps confined within rows upon rows of cages, holding on to and banging up against the cage bars. Close-up and medium shots involved Caesar interacting with 15 to 20 chimps in their individual cages and at times there would be over 100 chimps visible in the atrium section. The background chimps needed to be as real as the hero chimps since, explained White, “you would see them close up so you need to have as much detail and structure as the main characters.”
The scene required CG chimps and foreground cage bar meshes to be integrated into the practical environment. After practical shooting, the CG apes were placed inside the cages and the bars were added in front since, “it was much easier for us to shoot those scenes without the bars in front of the ape characters so we could go back in and add the CG elements later.” They added in name plates so the audience could identify who the main characters were, and TV sets to complete the environment. But camera moves through so much vertical and horizontal geometry presented an unexpected challenge. Proper registration required seamless lineups through camera moves through rows of straight vertical bars and specific angles that needed to match exactly. “If they even slipped a little bit it looked like the cage was slipping off,” making the compositing far more complex than was originally expected. It was important for the camera department and layout department to do good lineups, making sure they had good camera tracks. Layout would make sure everything was registered correctly and if there were still issues the compositors would repair the tracking by hand.
Some of the camera moves were fairly tricky; cameras occasionally needed re-speeding to speed up or slow down the camera pan in order to reach a character beat at the proper moment, done in compositing using a software package like Nuke. “But the biggest challenge was the lighting integration of Caesar and the other apes.” The lighting had to be seamless so it looked like they were integrated into the space. Since the practical shoot was done with cage bars and characters missing, proper shadows were missing as well. “We had to go into the plate itself and darken out areas where light had penetrated where it wouldn’t have been.”
The focus of lighting so much geometry and correcting the shadows was exacerbated by perfectly matching the mood of the practical set. “Because we were doing live motion capture of Andy (Serkis), and that was being translated into Caesar, we had Andy there on set as a reference for lighting. We spent a lot of time focusing on highlights in the eyes and making sure the eyes read really well.” Serkis was dressed in the motion capture suit “which gave us an idea of what certain values were. We could also look at his skin tones to reference to Caesar’s skin.”
Mimicking the emotion that Serkis portrayed in his performance of Caesar was an important part of the story. Using Weta’s lighting setup they would collect HDRI images of the environment and use that for the soft ambient lighting while the direct beauty lighting for each shot was done by Weta’s TD’s. Weta uses a spherical harmonics setup that is used for the major lighting and specific key lights and direct lighting was set up by the TD’s who would set up their own specific area lights. “We tried to sculpt and shape our lights as well to get the eye highlights to be a little more interesting. There were times where we would texture those lights and make sure our light sources were irregular enough to get interesting kicks from the surface.”
Another important sequence under White’s supervision is shown in the film trailer, when Caesar goes into the refrigerator that holds the canisters of the #113 treatment “virus.” Caesar picks up one canister and presses the button, releasing the gas. “That is one of our signature shots because it was one of the first shots we started working on, where we started tackling all the issues of Caesar, it’s a nice close-up on his face.” It’s a series of shots as he looks into the freezer, a close-up on his hand as he examines the canister, and him releasing the gas. It involved making sure Serkis’s expressions were properly integrated with the movements that apes display in their facial movements. “There are small details, like bits of dirt and dust in his hair, the highlights and reflections in his eyes, getting the meniscus, the tear film that forms a the bottom of the eye.”
When Serkis would act out the emotional scenes his eyes would tear up causing a fluid collection along the bottom lid and the blood flush into his face causing redness around the eyes, “so we made sure we conveyed that, adding the redness. He’s an amazing actor. Our work is a direct translation of all the emotion he had on set. All that emotion you get from the film is coming from Andy. His expressions, his eye darts where he looks away and looks back, or staring straight into a characters eyes, all those things are coming from his performance and were used to drive what we were doing.” The lighters worked to make sure the highlight reflected back from the little bit of wetness in the bottom on the eye kicks back just right “to add that little bit of drama, that teary-eyed look.”
Serkis also played the toddler Caesar “so there were things we had to do on set to make sure eyelines were correct, so James Franco was looking a little bit lower. All that was captured with James and Andy.”
Knowing the importance the eyes would play in portraying the needed emotion, Weta dedicated much time and research on the eyes, spending time with a local ophthalmologist, quizzing him about how the eyes work, how the fluid moves through the eye, how it forms, what the different layers of the eyes are and what they do, the structure of the fibers. For the close-up shots we built all the little fibers that are inside the iris because we knew we would be flying through those.” Some shots in the film have a camera move right through the eye requiring enough 3D structure and detail in the shaders to hold up for an eye to fill the entire frame.
Hands were also very important, so much time was dedicated to sculpting and animating the hands and detail such as bits of dirt collecting on the fingernails, nicked cuticles, and how they grasped the CG canister. The canister had to look completely photoreal next to the other practical canisters, requiring perfect anisotropic shaders.
Weta drew on experience from a number of films, such as spherical lighting experience from Avatar, as well as motion capture. “Each project influences the next,” said White. “Anything you learn from previous films you apply to the latest. This one incorporated a lot of it. Kong was an influence because that was Andy as well, and we had a gorilla there and had gorillas in this project.” Weta has a relationship with the Wellington Zoo so they can study whatever creatures they need to recreate for each film. By studying the chimps at the zoo Weta was able to recreate chimps for the film as anatomically correct as possible, blending that look with the concept art that was approved. Knowledge gained from Kong, how the gorilla’s skin reacted, the musculature and facial expressions added to the wealth of Weta’s knowledge about these creatures over the years.
In early 2009, Weta began development on a new software called Barbershop. Designed for grooming fur, human hair, chimps and other animals, Barbershop allows the groomers to brush hair is a desired direction, twist the strands, adjust the length, with precise interactive control. The software allows the artist to groom every hair instead of clumps or sections of hair. “We needed enough control to basically groom every hair to get a very specific look for each chimp.”
Capable of handling fine hair Barbershop was used on Apes for detail such as the fuzz on the chimps’ chins, the tips of their ears, the eyelashes and nose hairs. The orangutan character Maurice was particularly difficult because had very long hair that hung down. It was also used to enhance the reality of Caesar’s clothing such as the fuzz around the fringe of his collar and pilling, moving the realism beyond a surface shader to showing fine bits of fabric fuzz. Barbershop also gave Weta the ability to instance little pieces of geometry into the fur, used to add bits of hay and leaves that helped with the realism of the apes, and their integration into their environment.
The Golden Gate Bridge was partially built true to scale and extended through CG, with matte paintings depicting the surrounding environments and the water underneath for the last act of the film. Integrations issues were plentiful, as they always are when you introduce a large number of CG characters into a complex shot. Shot on location in Vancouver, the practical section had to be extended and the environment recreated. Hundreds of CG chimps were jumping on practical and CG vehicles and interacting with people and police requiring onset motion capture, tracking the motion of the actors who were playing the chimps. Reflections in practical cars, dents from the chaos, explosions, and helicopters all were added digitally and the paint department tackled one of those enormous tasks that often don’t get recognized, the daunting task of painting out live action characters and replacing them with CG characters.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Andy Serkis (Caesar)
Writer: Renee Dunlop