Letteri was brought over to WETA from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. While at ILM Letteri worked on everything from the dinosaurs from "Jurassic Park" to that killer train sequence from Brian De Palma's original "Mission: Impossible" (he also supervised the frogs in "Magnolia"). He was brought to the New Zealand studio after the first 'Lord of the Rings' movie, while the studio was hard at work on the second film, "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." As soon as he got there he was met with a challenge: Gollum, the first truly human motion capture character.
We wondered what the process was like going from a character like Gollum, a character that these days seems fairly rudimentary, to a something like Caesar, a thinking, feeling, plotting character that looks like you could reach out and stroke its fur. "There was an evolution there," Letteri said. "From Gollum we went on to do King Kong [in Peter Jackson's remake] so the interesting thing there was a character who was human-like but didn't have any dialogue. Kong was still an animal and had to carry the scenes by expression and body language. It really taught us to focus on those physical aspects. And we went through a whole learning curve." From "King Kong" the team at WETA would take on an even bigger challenge, in what would go on to become the biggest film of all time. "From 'King Kong' we did 'Avatar,' which was a whole ensemble acting piece, as well as individual shots. We worked on refining techniques of skin and muscle and bone and all of those things to keep a character alive."
The team faced a challenge in designing Caesar, since he had to exist alongside photorealistic digital chimps but still be a creature, a designed character with personality. "At the beginning of the movie you see the chimps in the jungle, the same forehead, the same muscle of a real chimp," Letteri said. " But with Cesear because we needed him to be a little more expressive, we had to make some changes. We brought his muzzle in a little bit, we softened around his eyes." All of the changes were to make the character more identifiable. "If you suddenly had these intelligent eyes in this extreme brow, it would look jarring."
It's true that Andy Serkis is a truly gifted performance capture artist but Letteri said that talent comes through for anyone who puts on the shiny silver suit. "Andy is extremely vital to the process because Andy is a great actor. And he drives the performance as a character you really want to watch," Letteri said. "I would say that about any actor that is giving us the performance. Andy just happens to be exceptionally good at it." He boiled it down further: "It just comes down to acting and not always be about yourself but being about the character."
When we brought up the question of whether or not Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination, Letteri said that it may be a generational thing. He suggested that the next generation of Oscar voters, having grown up with Wiis and other technology that charts your movements, will be more sympathetic to the performance capture performances. "Andy gave a stunning performance and we really tried to make sure that performance came through so when you see Caesar you see Andy's performance," Letteri said. "But people have to decide – can you have a performance without seeing the actor through that performance?" He remains pretty philosophical, "We're in that transition period where people don't understand how an actor's movement can be translated to screen."
On the subject of "The Adventures of Tintin," which is already a smash overseas, Letteri said the animators were led by a simple principle. "What we were trying to do there was create a film that would honor the world of [original writer and artist] Herge." It was this principle that led them away from the original idea, which was to shoot live action with an animated dog. "Originally we were talking about doing it as a live action film. And going that route would limit who you can cast, to look like the characters, and we were talking about prosthetics." It was during the shoot of "Avatar" that the 'Tintin' filmmakers got in the motion capture swing of things. "We were preparing 'Avatar' at the time and Jim Cameron invited Steven and Peter and they brought some 'Tintin' characters onto the 'Avatar' set and it was then that we decided to go that way."
Up next on the WETA docket is the 3D "The Hobbit" films, the first of which is hitting theaters next Christmas. Letteri teased that, "Gollum will be there and there will be other new characters who are going to be computer generated." In fact things have come full circle and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which was partially inspired by the work that Letteri had done on Gollum in 'The Two Towers,' will now influence the new version of Gollum they're cooking up for "The Hobbit." "It's great, especially because we're able to do Gollum now based on what we've done with 'Apes,' starting off with Andy performing." In the original 'Lord of the Rings,' Andy Serkis had to be filmed separately and integrated into the scene later. In the new films, "he's in there with the other actors and we've got performance capture live on set." Evolutionary, indeed.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" hit DVD and Blu-ray this week. "The Adventures of Tintin" arrives in theaters on December 21st.