By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 5, 2011 at 5:43AM
One of the debates on Twitter Friday morning was which movie will be the one to the beat for this year's VFX Oscar? Michael Bay's 3-D Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which set out to challenge James Cameron's 3-D Avatar, or Terrence Malick's spacey The Tree of Life? Now a new summer movie has entered the Oscar fray: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Bill Desowitz reports:
After Andy Serkis's remarkable performance as the CG sentient simian in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there's no question now about the validity of his digital acting chops. We sensed it instantly with Gollum, he evolved dramatically with King Kong, and now with Caesar, he's attained full maturity. What an arc: he goes from adorable innocent to beleaguered outsider to angry revolutionary. It reminds me of when legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas told John Lasseter that CG animation would only rival hand-drawn when the characters evoked pathos, which Pixar obviously achieved with Toy Story.
Well, Caesar certainly achieves a sense of pathos when holding an Alzheimer's patient (John Lithgow) tenderly in his arms that he's grown to love, or when sadly saying goodbye to his human family, or when rallying his new ape tribe to fight for freedom and dignity against their human captors.
The only question now will be the impact of Serkis's performance capture pantomime on the acting community, which has viewed the technique skeptically, especially the fim Academy.
Director Rupert Wyatt calls Serkis the Charlie Chaplin of performance capture, but, to me, he's more like Lon Chaney: "The Man of a Thousand Digital Faces." But clearly his performance is linked to the wizards of Weta, who've taken performance capture to the next evolutionary level beyond the Oscar-winning Avatar.
"We rewrote skin, muscles, fur, and eyes one more time to do them a little bit better," admits Joe Letteri, Weta's senior visual effects supervisor, who worked on both Rise and The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 23). "But I think making the performance look as realistic as possible is still the main thing that we accomplished."
Indeed, to attain such photorealism from Caesar, the chimpanzee, and his fellow primates, Weta placed the performance capture actors out on location or on set with the other actors. "Rather than using reflective optical markers for motion tracking, we developed an active LED system so we could use infrared lights and that allowed us to be able to work in a variety of conditions [and with the proper lighting]," Letteri explains.
Likewise, to help deliver such a nuanced, naturalistic performance from Serkis, the Weta techies developed a new facial muscle system still in progress that delivers better capture and animation, particularly for secondary motion. "It's a problem that's not easily understood because the facial muscles don't behave like the other muscles in the body," Letteri suggests. "They are not so bound by the skeleton. A few of them are like on the jaw. But on a face they're moving other muscles around and other tissue, and there are deep embedded layers that have an impact on what kind of shape they do, which is really complex and why in the end we wind up sculpting a lot of these things."
But the trick with Caesar was walking a fine line between chimp and human. In fact, Weta worked hard at anthropomorphizing him. "We made him more human because we wanted him to look a little more intelligent than the rest of the apes and to stand out among them," Letteri says. "There's not enough time in the story to show physical transition, so it went into his design from the beginning. You could see it in his eyes: we made the irises a little smaller so you get a better idea where he's looking; the muzzle is slightly smaller; and the forehead is shaped a little bit more like a human's."
In the end, it still comes down to the eyes, which Weta perfected further with a new model that more realistically captures movement in and around the eyes and how they are affected by different lighting conditions. "One of the drawbacks of doing performance capture in general is you've got that light on the face, which happens to flatten out the characteristics," Letteri notes. "In this case, though, because we were on the real set, we at least had the lighting to play off of Andy's face. But you still have to pay attention to whether it reads in the current lighting situation. You might not be getting the light in Caesar's eye, so you make slight adjustments to get a better read."
In fact, the moment Letteri knew they had it right was the shock of recognition in Caesar's eyes when he realizes how and why he must lead the revolt.
But Letteri maintains that performance capture is still more artistic than mechanical, and the animators were more empowered to make creative choices on Rise. "When you're capturing the shapes of the face, nothing on the face is ever fixed; there's nothing locked down to refer to it, so the first thing you have to do is figure out your baseline," he continues. "And then you just look at it side by side with the performance from the actor and say, 'Does that look like the right performance or not?' If not, why not? Sometimes there are errors that you can fix; sometimes it really just comes down to interpretation."
And that's why they were fortunate to have Serkis. He might be digitally rendered, but there's a soul when you look into those eyes, which is why Rise is such a resounding success.