"Wellington: once you come, you stay." This is both a threat and a promise, uttered by the geniuses employed at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand. The quote is certainly true for most of their staff that has come in from all over the world, as I learned when I stopped in to get schooled on how Weta created every single ape you see onscreen (as well as some of the world they lived in) for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Lucky for them, as Creatures Supervisor Simon Clutterbuck says, there's "nothing to do [in Wellington] but work a lot." I can't say I mind. After speaking with each department about how an ape is made, I have an entirely new respect for the work they do. I mean, before I just thought it looked cool. Now I understand the effort that these people put forth using creativity as well as technical know-how to bring smiles to our faces at the multiplex.
Weta is a much more nondescript place than I anticipated–it feels more like a log cabin than a special effects juggernaut. But if you listen carefully, you can almost hear the hum of computer drives rendering and fingers deliberately clicking mouse buttons just beyond the comfy couches of the lobby. Their creations mimic this deceptive exterior. They don't just animate the shell of a monkey, pop a banana in his hand, and send it away to the studio–that would be too easy (and too fake). Avatar is the movie that really honed in on the need to build "living" creatures from the inside out. For Apes, as Visual Effects Supervisor R. Christopher White explained, the departments include Character Rigging (making "bone clones" of the real-life animals they're imitating), Creature Dynamics (that determine muscle movements), Modeling (that creates a realistic outside surface to build upon), Textures (that elaborates on the model's surface), Fur Grooming (inspired by Jenna Jameson), Lighting/Compositing/Grading/Coloring (e.g. reflections in surfaces or red color in crying eyes), and Matte Painting/Digital Environments (which creates the outside world). Shots move from one department to the other, building on the previous ones' work, to reach the finished product.
Weta is probably the only place I will ever listen with rapt attention to someone such as Marco Revelant, Model Supervisor, discuss fur creation and grooming as it applies to their new program Barbershop. Consider how many apes are running around in that film, and how many strands of hair are on each of their bodies. It's a lice colony's dream, right? During their work on King Kong, hair management became a huge problem because it was taking too long to make a change, render it, and make more changes on the same shot. Barbershop allows artists to matte hair and give it that genuine ape appearance in real time…and that's but one of their most recent developments. Textures Supervisor and Creative Art Director Geno Acevedo spent time taking LifeCasts of real apes' skin (while they were under anesthesia for unrelated surgery), forging the result in silicone, and sending it to Photoshop using a custom 3D scanner filled with baby oil to capture the minute details. These are only a couple examples of the kind of time invested in making animals out of thin air–they consulted optometrists for eye details, captured videotape of actual monkeys to mimic their movements, and consulted with biomechanics specialists to make sure that their muscles were moving accurately.
We haven't even started talking about the actual performances yet. Remember when actors were concerned that the power of computer animation would eventually yank jobs out from underneath them? The good news is that this assumption is outdated and completely untrue. In fact, none of this could take place on the scale that it does without actors to guide the animators in creating a compelling character. Gone are the days of people staring at green tennis balls, everyone– Andy Serkis, who plays revolutionary ape Caesar, was actually side-by-side with James Franco during filming, thanks to his helmet-cam and motion capture suit. All of the subtleties of his performance are recorded, put through the pipeline, and morphed into the ape that kept us on the edge of our seats this summer.
The best part was, when my brain was ready to explode with information, those lunatics let me put on a motion capture suit and experience it for myself. I crouched down in my grey spandex with infrared balls firmly attached, arm extenders in hand, and pretended that I was Caesar leading the charge on the Golden Gate Bridge. I had visions of being handed a bouquet of flowers when I was done, or at the very least have someone pick the nits off my back, but in reality I was too sweaty and exhausted after my 30 second performance to accept any accolades. When I asked Andy Serkis how he manages to do this for a living, he quipped, "an excellent neuromuscular specialist."
Being treated to this experience and getting to see behind the curtain didn't make anything less magical. In fact, it was complete movie nerd overload. I no longer have contempt for the look of the rudimentary Final Fantasy movies, because everything is revolutionary in its time, right? Weta just happens to be making things that age really, really well. Acevedo was recalling Jurassic Park and mentioning how things are less smoke and mirrors now–that movie aged well because they followed important rules about concealing the CG as much as possible. Luckily, they don't have to follow the same rules now. Computing power and lots of hours of experience has allowed them to bring animation to the forefront, and I returned home with the surprising realization of exactly how much soul is involved in what I previously thought was a hollow pursuit.
Don't forget to check out the interactive trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes: http://www.apesinteractivetrailer.com and the Ape Locator, where you can find out if the Apes have taken over your area: http://www.apesonyourstreet.com