As Rise of the Planet of the Apes throws a banana at The Smurfs Movie to claim the number one spot at the box office on its opening weekend, we bring you a conversation with director Rupert Wyatt, and visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon where they discuss how they managed to capture Andy Serkis’ on set performance, and turn it into the digitally created star of the movie, Cesar.

On the collaboration between motion capture artists and animators

Rupert Wyatt: It’s definitely a collaboration. In a sense that you can’t have a human performer as soon as you go airborne. As soon as you go into an elevated world, you’re either dealing with wirework, which doesn’t even always work on every level, so you have to hand over – you pass the baton. What we always attempted to do in order to keep it as real world as possible, is never went into close up. When we said goodbye to our apes, when they started heading upwards, we always kept the camera further back, and allowed them to be portrayed by [key frame animation].

Certainly… the difference with something like Avatar, where you have the opportunity to work within a volume where you can go very airborne, in such a way that your environment becomes digital; the difference between that and our film is that we’re always working in a real location, or a real environment, so it became technically very challenging to put an actor 70 feet up, because – how do you do that? So I think we’ll get to that stage technically in the next film, where we can attempt to address that.

Dan Lemmon: In terms of the close ups, the real hero-acting, performance shots, that’s Andy Serkis playing Cesar. There is a little bit of confusion sometimes. There’s this notion of computer generated images – as if you push a button and the computer just makes you a picture. It’s a bit like talking about ‘hammer generated architecture’. You have to understand that it’s a tool that’s used by craftsmen to create images. There’s nothing automatic about it, but the important thing to understand is that Andy Serkis is the actor who is giving the performance, and who’s making the decisions for what Cesar’s doing – making the facial shapes. He’s got an incredibly expressive face as well – we’re able to get a great performance from him, and then take that and essentially, if we’re doing our job correctly, we’re essentially fitting digital makeup that’s being applied after the fact. He’s not wearing it on the day, but it’s being applied afterwards.


On the slight changes made from Andy Serkis’ performance Cesar’s

RW: The thing that we were always facing the challenge of is that Andy does not look like a chimpanzee. He does not have a heavy brow like a chimp, so if you’ve got Andy emoting in such a way that that brow is displaying fear in terms of his performance, and then you put that into your avatar, your Cesar model, and suddenly that brow, because it’s heavier, portrays something completely different – aggression for example. So then you’re thinking, ‘OK, that’s not true to the performance’ so of course you can then manipulate it. In our case, what we did, we made the brow not quite so protruding on Cesar in order to make it faithful to Andy’s performance. That’s part of the process Dan and I would work on every day, on both sides – our editorial team in LA, and Weta down in New Zealand. Every day we’d collaborate by way of Cinesync to look at every shot, and every stage in every shot, and work out – always referencing back to what we shot on the day saying ‘let’s go back to the performance. How does it look, and how does it relate?’

DL: I think that’s the key. Because, like Rupert was saying, there’s vast anatomical differences between Cesar and Andy, it requires the skill of craftsmen and animators to map that performance from one to the other, but we were always looking back to Andy as the gold standard, the reference for what, emotionally, should be coming through, but also physically. We took a lot of the signiature wrinkles, the key shapes, and the silhouettes of his eyes, the nose and the mouth – even though the nose and the mouth were different on the chimpanzee than they were on Andy, we’re still using those beats and those changes to drive the digital character.


On the difficulty of conveying certain emotions

DL: I think, because of the muzzle structure of the apes, some of the tight-lipped things, the disdain shapes, we have to figure out what that look like on a chimpanzee and get that to carry across. Rupert touched on the eyebrows as well, that was really critical. On the original concept art we had quite a bit of a heavier brow, but when it got to the animation we found that we weren’t able to match what Andy was doing, get the same emotion through with this larger brow. We looked at Andy, we looked at a lot of reference of other chimpanzees that had a less prominent brow, and made some small modifications that allowed us to get a lot bigger range of performance out of that.


On replacing a full-sized, adult human actor with a much smaller digital chimpanzee

RW: Traditionally you shoot the Andy playing Cesar, and then you shoot James Franco playing the human character he’s interacting with. You do that in a shot. Let’s say Cesar then shuts the door on James, once you’ve got that shot, you take Andy out of that shot, and then you shoot the clean plate, which is James acting to thin air, and a special effects guy with a filament wire closing the door at just the right time, coupled with, if the camera’s moving, you have to then time the move –we didn’t use motion control, so we had to do it through manual operation to match it.

That’s really time consuming, and it’s a frigging headache, but, from a technical point of view, what it allows Weta to do is then, because Cesar is quite a few inches shorter than Andy, and his anatomy is so different, they don’t have to paint Andy out of the shot, they can just use the clean plate, and they can put the digital Cesar into the shot, with the same performance, because they’ve just captured the performance in the previous take. The downside of it is that you lose something of it in the human performance. If James is acting to thin air, his eye lines may be off, or his energy’s a bit down. He’s not got that something to bounce off, and so it was never quite as good. Sometimes it was OK, if it was a simple shot, but more often than not, his energy would drop, so what I was always asking of Dan and Weta, was ‘could we just use the performance pass?’ and that involves them digitally painting out Andy, and then putting Cesar in. And I think I’m right in saying that the technology is becoming more evolved to allow you to do that?

DL: Yeah, it’s certainly easier now than it was in Lord of the Rings, for example, but we had to take it on a shot by shot basis. Some cases are easier than others. One of the big challenging ones was when we had the toddler Cesar – the three foot high version –interacting with James Franco. Andy Serkis was playing the three foot high Cesar, so he was just physically a whole lot bigger than Cesar. There was the scene where they were up in the attic, and Caroline –Freida Pinto’s character – was there for the first time, and they’re wrestling on the bed. That was a bit of a negotiation on the day on the set, trying to figure out how we could get that level of interaction in a way that finishing the shot would be possible. Any time that you have a performance capture actor’s body crossing over somebody’s face, we have to put his face back on, or we have to cover it up with the digital chimp. If the digital chimp is only [so] big, he can only cover up so much, and painting back somebody’s face can be really difficult. Some might say, impossible.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas now.