Senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri reveals how he brought Caesar to life in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, on Blu-ray an DVD now
Director Rupert Wyatt's smash hit prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes is available on Blu-ray and DVD this week. We recently caught up with senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who is responsible for creating all of the Apes in the film. In honor of this anticipated release, we discussed the filmmakers' remarkable achievements in creating believable CGI characters, Andy Serkis' Oscar worthy performance, and their current collaboration on The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Here is our conversation.
There is a real push right now to get Andy Serkis nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. What are your thoughts on that?
Joe Letteri: I think he deserves one. I think this is a fantastic performance he gave, and Caesar was one of the hardest things we did. Being able to work with Andy on that was fantastic. The trick for the Academy, or anyone looking at it, is trying to understand the performance and the recorded image of the performance. Because never before in the history of the medium have the two been separate. You saw the actor perform, you saw the actor's face. Now you are seeing the actor's performance, and you are seeing a completely new face on top of that performance. People are still trying to wrestle with what that means. It doesn't diminish the power of the performance. Argumentatively, he gave a very powerful performance as Ceaser.
John Hurt got nominated for his work in The Elephant Man. What is the difference between a practical mask, and a digital mask. It's essentially the same thing, right?
Joe Letteri: There isn't much difference. But you did see John Hurt on screen. Even with all of that other stuff, and him being underneath it. You are right. That broke ground there. But now the complete image is replaced with this fantasy creature. This super intelligent chimp. I think that's where people are still trying to make up their minds. Is what I'm seeing real? Or not? Is this valid. It really gets down to the core emotional performance. For us, we can use a lot of technological tricks to wrap this creature up, and to wrap around it. But, do you understand the performance? When you look into Caesar's eyes, do you get the same feeling as if you were looking into Andy Serkis's eyes? For us, when we are creating it, it's the opposite problem. We ask, when I look into Caesar's eyes, do we see Andy? Because that's the bar we are using to measure Ceaser's performance. And it doesn't go out onto the screen until we know that we captured what Andy did.
Watching the movie, the most amazing thing I think you guys did, was create the orangutan. That particular character blew me away. What was the process of creating such a believable ape?
Joe Letteri: Maurice was the character's name. It was the same technique as Caesar. In this case, it was a woman. Her name was Karin Konoval. We played him the same way. Trying to develop that character as an ape, and doing what was specific to an orangutan. How they sit, and how they use their arms. That sense of presence they have. She would perform that physically. We used her face. Even though there was no dialogue. She wore a facial camera just like Andy Serkis did. We also looked at a number of orangutans, to find the design of the one we wanted Maurice to be. Then, we went about designing it. The long orange fur. The eyes. Everything else you would see in an orangutan. Then you put together the things that look good. You have a great performance. When you marry the two, you now how have a character that performs, and you get the same sense you would if you were just watching an actor doing it. So there are some refinements that go on, until you find that you have all of the nuances the right way.
Did you guys digitally de-age James Franco? Because he does look younger at the beginning of the movie...
Joe Letteri: No. We didn't do anything to James. I think that is all make-up and lighting. That has been done in other films. That was done in an X-Men, where we see a younger version of Magneto. That has been done in films before, but we didn't have to do that.
Watching the finished movie now, is there anything that you still find frustrating? That you think could, maybe, look better?
Joe Letteri: No. We had a chance to go through it and rework everything. We put everything in there first. And the edit is constantly being readjusted as the shots are being completed. You want to make sure you have the same feeling when the chimps are in there, as you do when you are watching the edit with the human actors on camera. There are a few subtle refinements that need to happen. Maybe a few frames to help the movement get across a cut. Once you look at all of that, it gives you a chance to go back and look at Caesar, and go back to six months ago, to make sure it matches what is being done at the end. To make sure it all still works as the same character.
I didn't hear anything specifically about Apes, but this summer, we saw quite a few articles come out about how locked-in release dates were really pushing digital effects houses to work over time to get this stuff done. Did you guys experience any of that pressure in getting Apes ready for its theatrical release? And more so, did you guys go back to the film, and complete more work on it specifically for this DVD release?
Joe Letteri: No, no...We didn't do anything new for the DVD. We had completed everything for the theatrical release. If we had of gone into this movie knowing it was a tight schedule, when we talked to Fox, and got a sense of the movie we were trying to make, and when they wanted to release it...We just committed to doing that.
Watching the movie, I did not think of the actor that is Any Serkis one time, nor did I think about the fact that I was watching a digital effect. This is a character that audiences fully buy into. What does it take to get things to that state? Because in today's cinematic age, we are always too aware that something is CGI. Do you simply equate it to having such a finely tuned character?
Joe Letteri: I do think a lot of that does come down to Andy Serkis' performance. We kept going back and watching our Caesar performance compared to Andy's, frame-by-frame. There's a lot of learning that goes into this, and a lot of creativity that comes in on top of that. The interpretation from human to chimp can't really be done by computer. We use computers to assist the process, to analyze it, and to store it. But someone still has to make a judgment call on every frame. That emotionally, this is what you feel. Then there is the physical aspect of going out and photographing real chimps, and studying their fur, and their skin, and their eyes. Making sure that from a technical, and a photographical level, that everything looks as real as possible. Then you put the two together, and you hope you have a performance that feels as real as it can be. That this is a real living, breathing character.
Does this mean that, in the remake of Every Which Way But Loose, we won't see a real orangutan?
Joe Letteri: (Laughs) No. You are probably just stuck with that one you have. (Laughs)
How do you feel this technology is going to evolve, now that you can achieve a believable character, that can interact with humans? And people aren't immediately drawn to the fact that it's CGI?
Joe Letteri: It will still evolve. There are a lot of things that we don't completely understand about how this works. We want to envelope a deeper knowledge about how humans work. How people respond to a movement. When you see somebody walking down the street, you can understand the difference between two different people, although you can only see their silhouette. You think we are all similar. But there are these very subtle differences that we are all very good at picking up on. We've gotten very good at mimicking that. But it's a hard thing to understand why that is. I think those things are interesting. The more we understand that, the more we will understand even better, how to craft some of these performances.
The most remarkable thing is, you guys made a leap over what is called "The Uncanny Valley". You were actually able to bring life, and a soul, to these eyeballs. Which was important, because the eyes of the apes play quite heavily into the story...
Joe Letteri: There are a couple of aspects to this. Just the detail you see in an eye. The eyes are incredibly detailed. We built for this movie, the most detailed eye model we've ever built for any movie. We keep building it more and more detailed every time. Because it's organic, it can be instantly detailed. So we put a lot of detail into the eyes. The movement of the eyes is really important. It is really subtle, and how you perceive that movement depends on how you perceive the light hitting the eyes. How the light works in the eyes is also extremely complicated. You get into a lot of physics and math, trying to figure out how the eyes take in light from the whole world all at once, and allow you to focus on what you are seeing. We all respond to those little, subtle changes of light. The human eye, when we are talking to each other. A lot of that radiates outwards from there. If the eye is moving, is the skin around the eye doing the right thing? Then, is that influencing the rest of the face? And onward, down to the whole body. Then you start adding all of the fur. It all has to work together. If you have all of that right, then you have a character that is believable.
You guys are once again working with Andy Serkis now, again, on the Hobbit?
Joe Letteri: Yes, Mm-hmm.
How has Gollum changed from the first three films to now?
Joe Letteri: Without getting into what he is going to look like on screen, and everything, because we are saving that...Technically, what has been good about this, is that we did Gollum the first time around, and it was the first time that we were doing performance capture in a film. But we couldn't record on the stage. Andy was performing with all of the other actors. But then he would have to come out, and do his performance again on a motion capture stage. We would fit the two together. He would mimic his first performance, and we would put it in with the other actors. When we did Avatar, we created this whole virtual world. It was completely immersive, and everything was in this virtual world. What we did with Rise of the Planet of the Apes was come full circle with it. We took all of the technology we created for Avatar, and we figured out a way to make that on set. How to make it work within exterior sets. That way, Andy could be in the scene with all of the other actors. So you're not getting a second performance from him, trying to duplicate the first. You are getting the performance that he did with James Franco and Freida Pinto, and everyone else. It closed the gap for us, to have Andy be right in the movie, and have that be his performance. That's the thing we finally got to do with Gollum. Just as a way of nicely closing the circle.
How is it having Andy be the director on some of those scenes in The Hobbit?
Joe Letteri: He is only directing second unit. Peter Jackson is still directing the main unit.
I knew that. But I thought Andy was directing some of the Gollum scenes himself. I guess I am wrong about that?
Tintin is coming out this Christmas as well. Were you guys making that the same time you were working on Apes?
Joe Letteri: We did work on it at the same time. We started on The Adventures of Tintin as soon as we got done with the shoot for Avatar. Then Fox sent us the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We just thought, "This is a really great script!" That Caesar could be a really great character. So we fit it in at the same time we were doing The Adventures of Tintin.
Its already been announced that there will be a sequel to Apes. How do you hope to see the Apes evolve?
Joe Letteri: We haven't discussed it yet. The film is obviously set up for a sequel or two. There is so much story that you can tell now. From what we saw in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and what we remember from the original films. To me, that is one of the best parts of this. Reading the script, we realized that not only is this a great story...But, boy, you can see where this will go from here.
I watched this with some younger people, and they had no idea about the Planet of the Apes. They'd never heard of, let alone seen those films. So that really gives you a new audience with no expectations about what the Apes should look like. That must be a freeing concept to you...But then, maybe you feel like you need to honor the originals in the way your apes will eventually evolve...
Joe Letteri: I actually don't know. For a second film, I don't think you want to jump that far ahead of yourself. You still want to bring people along. Again, I don't know yet. They are still working on that script. You could get away with the look of the Apes on the original film. It was far into the future. They were more humanoid. You could see that they would be walking upright, and doing all of these things that they did. For our first film, they had to look like modern day chimps. That were just starting to become self-aware. We had to start with something on screen that looked as believable as a real chimp could look.
I'm sure that Tintin will get nominated for a best animation Oscar. Is there any trepidation that Apes won't get recognized in the same category, since both films utilize the same technology?
Joe Letteri: No. That all comes down to the rules. And Rise of the Planet of the Apes is primarily a live action film. With animated characters in it. Where as, the animated category recognizes films that are completely animated characters. The whole film needs to be animated. The backgrounds, the worlds, everything.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.