VFX Ups the Difficulty Level in 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

War for the Planet of the Apes Still 8 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Weta's Dan Lemmon details everything from new fur to that avalanche.

Weta’s Dan Lemmon knows a thing or two about apes. He served as VFX supervisor on 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (both of which earned VFX Oscar nominations), as well as on this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes. Meanwhile, he won an Academy Award earlier this year as Weta’s VFX supervisor on The Jungle Book. Here, he talks about the Oscar hopeful War.

How have the techniques used to create the apes advanced since Rise and Dawn?

There have been a few big innovations that we've made over the course of the franchise as we've moved from Rise to Dawn to War. And on War in particular, it was the first time in the Planet of the Apes franchise that we used our rendering engine called Manuka. It simulates the movement of light through the scene more accurately than any of the tools we've used before. So, the realism of our lighting and our ability to match the cinematography was much greater. And, we were able to, basically, get the shadowing and the detail on the fur and the skin to be more accurate and more realistic.

We did a lot of new development on the fur. We implemented what we call a multi-layer hair model. Previously, we've been simulating the hairs as individual solid cylinders, as if they're made of one material. But in fact, hairs are made of multiple layers of different kinds of materials. By simulating those different layers of the hair … the detail that we've seen in the hair is a lot more accurate.

Aside from the apes, what were other challenges?

One of the other big things we did was simulation. This movie, of course, has snow … the apes roll through the snow, Caesar (Andy Serkis) ends up strung on a cross and he gets ice in his beard. So, getting the snow simulation, getting it on the characters and seeing it carried by them and shaken off by them, that was a big thing.

We've also created an avalanche, which we hadn't had in any other ape movies, and getting the avalanche to be both physically realistic but also "directable," was really tricky. We see an avalanche rip down through a mountain and through a forest, knocking down trees as it goes.

We used a new tool that we called Totara; it's an ecosystem simulator. … As the trees got taller, the lower branches would die away and decay and the trees would stretch out and try to get as much sunlight as possible. That gave us a much more realistic forest, even though it had very good trees before.

The contribution of actors in performance-capture roles is something that is still debated. What are your thoughts?

The real strength of the characters in the movie is the fact that they're driven by actors. We have actors on the set, playing the ape characters as well as the human characters, and they're interacting with one another. And with the director and everybody else on set, they can collaborate in the filmmaking space, and they can react to the decisions that each one is making, and in the end we get a performance from the "ape" actors that's believable because there was an actor in that space reacting to that environment. We also get better performances from the "human" actors because they're reacting to the "ape" actors, rather than some stand-in or somebody waving a tennis ball at the end of a stick. Everybody's performance is that much richer.

The pacing of the edit, the information — the storytelling — that's being conveyed to the audience is all based on what Andy Serkis and Steve Zahn [and the other actors] were doing on the day. So when it comes time for us on the visual effects side to create a version of those characters, we adhere sort of religiously to what the actors did on the set.