When Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out in 1990, there was much talk in the media about its digital effects, and what they meant for the future of filmmaking. Since then, cinema’s passed a number of significant milestones, each surpassing what came before it. Jurassic Park represented a leap forward in the quality of computer-generated creatures and their integration with a live-action sequence. The Matrix showcased a new generation of fluid camera moves and effects that could make a movie look like a comic book drawn to life. The Phantom Menace, The Lord Of The Rings and Avatar broke new ground in performance capture and 3D.
Together with actor Andy Serkis, New Zealand-based studio Weta Digital has done more to further the art of performance capture than just about anybody else. Their work on the character Gollum for Lord Of The Rings, with his queasily realistic skin and extraordinarily lifelike expressions, pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved with CGI.
Weta’s most remarkable achievement so far, however, is undoubtedly Caesar. The super-intelligent, genetically-modified chimpanzee in 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, he presented something easily overlooked yet quite new in cinema. Where characters like Gollum, or The Phantom Menace‘s Jar Jar Binks played supporting roles, Caesar was the film’s lead: by Rise‘s midpoint, he’d taken over from a somewhat bland James Franco as the audience’s eyes and ears, an outsider in a world full of cruel and uncaring humans.
What’s more, Rise took place in present-day San Francisco, not a heightened fantasy world like Avatar‘s Pandora, where the unreality of digital characters could be blended in with the dreamlike landscape. This contemporary setting gave Weta nowhere to hide – but in the face of this challenge, the studio created a sympathetic, believable CGI character, where technical wizardry and Andy Serkis’ emotive performance formed a convincing whole.
This summer’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes arguably represents a further jump in CG quality. Taking place ten years after the events of the first film, at which point a simian flu outbreak has all but wiped out human life on the planet, Dawn again catches up with Caesar, now the leader of a community of intelligent apes. Life seems idyllic in the wilds surrounding the ruins of San Francisco. But when the apes come face to face with a band of human survivors, peace is threatened when old animal instincts roil up on both sides.
Under the guidance of director Matt Reeves, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes reconnects us to Caesar’s character; proud, noble compassionate. But in the film’s opening scenes, he establishes something else: a sense of realism that is beyond what we saw in 2011’s Rise. A group of apes are hunting deer in the gloom of a forest, and the sequence is so realistic that our eyes simply surrender to it.
Part of this realism is thanks to Matt Reeves’ brave decision to move much of Dawn’s production from the relatively safe confines of a sound stage to a location on Vancouver Island. Several scenes were shot in exterior locations in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, but the extent of location-based performance capture in Dawn was unprecedented.
“I wanted to push the photoreality further,” Reeves recently told us. “They shot 75 percent of [Rise] on a stage […] So we took the performance capture cameras and the 3D cameras, which are really heavy, up into the woods in the freezing cold and the rain and the mud, and it was the hardest shoot most of us had ever been on. But then when the shots started come in from Weta, it was exciting to see that the theory was actually right.”
In the period of time between Rise in 2011 and the start of production on Dawn, Weta had also been working hard on a new set of character models for Caesar and the numerous other apes and animals the sequel would require. The simulation of flesh and fur was given even greater detail, while yet more work went on beneath the skin: the movement and consistency of muscles and even fat were more accurately recreated inside a computer.
“In the old days we did animation like animatronics, we had little bladders inside the CG creatures that would inflate up and down to make it look like muscles moving,” visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri explained in an interview with Discover Magazine. “Now we actually solve fibre-based muscles. Those drive a layer of tissue, and that in turn drives the skin, and all that can be driven either by the actor’s movements or animators or most of the time a combination of the two.”
The amount of work that went into every shot of Dawn shouldn’t be underestimated. The varying dynamics of dry, damp and wet fur had to be given careful consideration. According to one recent article, a single effects shot went through more than a thousand iterations before it was given the final go-ahead from Matt Reeves.
All of this might make Dawn sound like some kind of scrubbed-up technical exercise; a series of special effects in search of a story, like an extended Weta showreel. Far from it. “To reveal art and hide the artist is Art’s aim” Oscar Wilde once wrote, and this is exactly what Dawn manages: its technical achievements are all the more remarkable for being just about invisible. Its CG characters aren’t a special effect designed to distract us from a flat story, but are instead a vital part of a grand tragedy about two societies undone by their violent nature. It’s like a historical epic from Hollywood’s golden age, albeit told with cutting edge CG technology and a sci-fi slant.
What’s significant about Dawn, from an audience perspective, is that it points towards an exciting future for performance capture. Here, writing, detailed CG and exemplary performances – not just from Andy Serkis, but also from fellow ape actors like Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary and Judy Greer – merge seamlessly. With Dawn setting a new standard, it’ll be fascinating to see how other filmmakers are inspired by it.
We may be some way from lifting CG out of the uncanny valley yet – simulating a realistic human presents far more problems than simulating a realistic ape, after all – but we do appear to have taken a decisive step closer to solving that visual effects riddle. If nothing else, Dawn is a film that uses advanced special effects for something other than the realistic depiction of a collapsing city. At a time when CG is increasingly being used to show skyscrapers falling and metal objects in collision, Dawn feels like a refreshingly different direction for a summer movie to take.
Even within the Planet Of The Apes franchise, there are all kinds of possibilities for the future. An early draft of the screenplay for the original Apes, written back in the late 60s, had the ape society living in a recognisably advanced city – writer Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) describes streets, shops with chimpanzee mannequins in the windows, a cinema, and gorilla policemen on patrol.
Those ideas were dropped in later versions due to cost, but they could easily be returned to in a future film. According to Reeves, Weta’s still refining and improving its motion capture even now – so when he returns to make the (already planned) sequel in 2016, Reeves believes that the illusion of reality will be greater than ever.
“I do believe this is the new high watermark,” Reeves told us. “And the crazy thing is, as I’m doing this I’m talking to Weta and our VFX producer, Ryan Stafford. And he was saying to me, ‘You know, as we’re doing this, they’re continuing to rebuild their pipeline, and they’re almost done. In the next movie, the effects are going to look even better…'”
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