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How the ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ FX team created a realistic ape army

Ahead of the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday, our Oscar Effects series puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Visual Effects,” looking at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

Few would have expected 2011’s reboot film Rise of the Planet of the Apes to spawn one of the best movie franchises of the last decade, but thanks to incredible special effects and a gripping cast of characters, that’s exactly what it did.

The new Planet of the Apes series reached its dramatic conclusion in 2017 with War for the Planet of the Apes, which earned the series yet another Academy Award nomination for its groundbreaking visual effects.

Directed by Matt Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes was both the final chapter in an epic story about a super-intelligent ape named Caesar — portrayed across all three films by actor Andy Serkis — and the culmination of three films’ worth of evolution in cutting-edge visual effects and performance-capture technology that brought to life Serkis’ digital alter ego. Leading the visual effects teams on all three installments of the series were veteran Weta Digital visual effects supervisors Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, who went from digitally creating Caesar and a few apes in supporting roles, to an entire civilization of intelligent simians interacting with each other, the world around them, and (to a lesser degree as the films went on) a cast of human characters.

Each of the three films in the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy has earned an Academy Award nomination for visual effects. With the 90th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, Digital Trends spoke to Lemmon — who won an Oscar last year as a visual effects supervisor for The Jungle Book — about his work on War for the Planet of the Apes and the franchise as a whole.

Digital Trends: Each of the films in the Planet of the Apes franchise has raised the bar for visual effects. Is there a point in that early stage of development when you sit down with the director and discuss how you’re going to top the previous film? 

Dan Lemmon: [Laughs] Well, one of the first things Matt [Reeves] said to me and Joe Letteri about this film — before there was even a script — was, “Okay, two things: Apes and snow. Are you scared? Does that worry you at all?”

We said, “That sounds like a great idea. We’ll figure it out.”

Visual effects artists often say hair and water are the two most challenging elements to create digitally. There’s a lot of both elements in War for the Planet of the Apes. How much of a challenge did this present to you and your team?

“We learned a lot in that process. Our artists got a lot better and our technology got a lot better.”

It really was a challenge for us. Over the years, we’ve tried to push the envelope and make hair more realistic, but it’s been an ongoing process going all the way back to the Lord of the Rings films. I think some of our first furry creatures were in that movie. Gollum had hair and we had those Warg — the wolf creatures — as well. As we moved from Lord of the Rings to King Kong, we knew that with a creature like Kong, we would have to really sort of increase our level of control and fidelity and be able to sculpt and groom Kong to look like a real gorilla. We learned a lot in that process. Our artists got a lot better and our technology got a lot better.

From King Kong to the Planet of the Apes movies and The Jungle Book, you certainly haven’t shied away from working with digitally created animals — particularly apes. What’s the secret to making such realistic, furry characters?

To give you an example of the process, when we were working on The Jungle Book recently, we were dealing with King Louie and some of the monkeys and I looked at some of our creatures and reference photos of real monkeys. There were certain conditions — particularly when the light was behind the character — in which we weren’t quite matching the photographs. We were having trouble getting the level of light breakup and detail we were seeing in the photos to come through in our renders.

So we got some hairs and started looking at them under the microscope and doing some research, and we realized that our hair model — the computer program that tells the computer how to simulate hair fiber — wasn’t quite accurate enough. It was treating the hair like it was a single, uniform material, but when you look at a cross-section of animal hair under a microscope, you realize that there are actually layers to that hair. Each of those layers have different optical properties and densities, and they break up the light and change the way the light moves through the hair in different ways.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

This is one of these little things that we found that we could improve, and it made a big difference in the pictures. It made the apes appear more natural and realistic — particularly in backlit situations. That’s sort of emblematic of the industry and the technology as a whole. What seemed like cutting edge and the very pinnacle of realism two or three years ago, this year it barely holds up. You’re constantly chasing yourselves and all of your peers in the industry that push the craft forward.

You discussed the hair element, but what about water? You were dealing with both snow and water in the film. Did that make things more difficult?

The snow thing was a new one for us. There was also a lot more water in this movie — at least, in terms of apes interacting with it — than we had in the past. Water is always hard, and even more so when you have a furry character interacting with it.

war for the planet of the apes
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

That was an area in which we’ve made significant advances over time. We had a rule in the past with the previous movies: Caesar can go into the water, but we’d really prefer if you don’t show him coming out of it. We’d rather not have the fur go from being dry, to being under water, to coming out of the water and being wet. But in this last movie, we see a lot of that. Caesar jumps out of a waterfall, and he comes through it and lands on a rock, and later we see another character pour water on top of him. It was something we could push with a little more confidence this time.

Apes weren’t the only non-human characters you were dealing with in War for the Planet of the Apes, though. You also had the apes riding horses. How did that complicate the process?

“He wanted to have them ride bareback, with reins but no saddles.”

One of the things we try to do when making these films is to put as much in camera as possible. When we could, we had Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, and other actors actually riding their horses through the scene. That gave us the pacing of the animals and the effect of the animals’ movement through the actors. As the horse would shift a little bit, that would telegraph up through the actors’ spines and they would shift as well. That would affect their stance and performance a bit, and it all contributed to a natural movement.

Going back a bit, though, when we worked on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, that was the sort of introduction to this culture of super-intelligent apes, and one of the things Matt Reeves had suggested is that these apes were sort of eschewing human technology. He wanted to have them ride bareback, with reins but no saddles. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when we were making the movie, we discovered that it was a really challenging process due to ape anatomy. [Apes] have such short legs, so getting them to feel like they were really solidly seated on the horses was a challenge. So, when we came back to the franchise for the third film, we decided to go ahead and give them some saddles — but we made them “ape saddles.” Rather than regular human stirrups, they would have these knotted cords they could grab with their feet and really solidly sit on the horses.

When it came to create those scenes of the apes on horses, how much was created digitally, and how much was performance-capture material?

Well, we didn’t have apes riding the horses on set, of course. We had humans, so part of the process was taking the regular stirrups and painting them out along with the actors’ legs and replacing them with the ape stirrups and ape legs.

There were a lot of background apes, though, and we only had half a dozen real horses or so in most scenes. In the movie, there were dozens of horses in some of those scenes riding together, so we added digital horses amongst the real horses.

Andy Serkis has been such a prominent figure in raising the profile of performance-capture techniques. From your perspective, what makes the digitally created characters he plays so memorable?

The thing that makes Andy so good at creating these memorable, unique characters like Gollum and King Kong and Caesar just comes down to Andy being a great actor. Through his craft, he’s able to create these characters that are distinct and totally authentic and believable.

“If what the actor is doing isn’t all that compelling, it doesn’t matter how good the technology is…”

That’s one of the things that gets lost in the conversation about the technology: The technology is all there to record what the actor is doing. If what the actor is doing isn’t all that compelling, it doesn’t matter how good the technology is, what you’re recording won’ t be very interesting.

A testament to that process is that we took Steve Zahn, an actor who was totally new to the process, and we dropped him into the performance-capture world. Even without having a lot of experience in big digital-effects films, he was able to step into that role and create that character of Bad Ape, who was unique and distinct and unlike any other character in that world.

It’s not like we’re asking the actors to do anything different in how they approach their craft and what they would do to create a character. They just have to wear a different sort of costume. Basically, they wear these funny gray pajamas with little dots instead of a normal costume for a human character.

What’s the visual effect you’re most proud of in War for the Planet of the Apes? Is there one visual effect that encapsulates the experience of working on this film for you?

I think the avalanche at the end of the film was one of the biggest, in-your-face moments we worked on. It featured Caesar prominently, and you see the snow swirling around him and falling off the trees and settling on his fur. That was one of the most technically challenging and artistically challenging visual effects in the movie. Not only were we simulating a natural phenomenon and trying to make it look totally realistic, but we were doing some storytelling at the same time. We needed to have this force of nature hit specific beats in the scene and tie in to the drama. It had to develop a sense of jeopardy with Caesar and nip at his heels in just the right way while feeling totally realistic. That was one of the hardest things for us creatively and technically, but it also encapsulated the entire process of taking these apes and this franchise to this new, snowy place that they’d never been before.

War for the Planet of the Apes premiered July 14, 2017. The 90th Academy Awards ceremony kicks off March 4 at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.

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Rick Marshall
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