'Planet of the Apes': The Digital Muscle Behind the Oscar Nom

 

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

It's no surprise that Weta Digital, the Wellington, New Zealand-based visual effects company co-founded by Peter Jackson, is known as the house The Lord of the Rings built -- it was rewarded with visual effects Oscars for all three Rings movies. But in the nearly 10 years since the last Rings, Weta has proven it can go beyond Middle-earth, bringing to life all kinds of creatures from King Kong to the blue-skinned Na'vi of Avatar.

PHOTO: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' First Look: The Many Faces of Andy Serkis

In 2011 alone, Weta handled visual effects for X-Men: First Class, helped realize Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin and animated a new generation of intelligent simians for Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Its contributions to that last film have earned the company a spot in the current contest for the visual effects Academy Award and won it two Visual Effects Society awards.

Rupert Wyatt, the movie's director, knew he would have to go the computer-graphics route to bring Caesar and his fellow apes to life. "I was never a fan of using live animals for numerous reasons. Morally -- and practically," he says. "It would have been very hard to get them to do very specific things from a narrative point of view. Our one option was CGI, specifically using performance-capture."

Weta was a natural place to turn because it has been at the forefront of performance-capture. So Andy Serkis, who proved the viability of the process in Rings -- for which Weta experts filmed his movements and transformed him into Gollum -- was drafted to play Caesar. With a big part of the movie's $94 million budget going toward visual effects, Weta artists relied on both science and art.

PHOTO: Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Hollywood Premiere at Grauman's

The artists used medical data, explains VFX supervisor Dan Lemmon, to create "a new system of muscle and skin simulation. Basically it adds an additional level of simulation on top of the facial performance. Things like the way the muscles wrinkled and the way the flesh got mushed around on the face were a much higher-fidelity solution than we have had before." They even added touches like moisture beads on the apes' lower eyelids. Adds Lemmon, "We introduced advances on our translucency model to make the way the light interacts with the skin and the eyes more realistic."

Such attention to detail has made Weta, and its 850 employees, very much in demand. It is working on Jackson's two new Hobbit movies, currently in production, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, Joss Whedon's The Avengers and Zack Snyder's Man of Steel.

VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner and Jackson's partner in Weta, says: "Having Peter here definitely helps. We have been lucky to get these interesting projects and to be able to work with good directors on them. We are able to immerse ourselves wholly in a project, contributing ideas as well as techniques."

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THE OTHER NOMINEES FOR BEST VISUAL EFFECTS OSCAR

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler, John Richardson

This is the final opportunity for the Academy to recognize the effects in the Potter franchise with an Oscar statuette. The series' most ambitious effort included loads of R&D and a collection of elements from CG characters to, for the first time, a fully CG Hogwarts school in which to stage the climactic battle.

STORY: Oscars 2012 Nominations (Complete List)

Hugo
Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman, Alex Henning

With an emphasis on the artistic use of visual effects, echoing the film's focus on the history of movies, the effects team incorporated a range of techniques including CG, models and stop-motion. Even with its runaway train, "the movie doesn't stop and turn into a VFX moment," says Legato. Pixomondo was the primary effects house on the film.

Real Steel
Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor, Swen Gillberg

Lead visual effects house Digital Domain brought virtual production techniques on location, using performance-capture to make the 'bot bouts feel natural in their live-action environments. Says Nash, "Using the SimulCam system developed for Avatar we could 'see' the fights on a monitor during principal photography and react to what was happening."

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler, John Frazier

Industrial Light & Magic really upped the complexity on the latest Transformers film with 3D and the most complicated creature the company had ever created -- the snakelike Driller, made up of 70,051 parts. Says Farrar, "The Driller wrapped around that tilted building demonstrates everything we put into these movies."

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