Magazine article Variety

Weta Wizards Raise Bar in Trilogy Finale

Magazine article Variety

Weta Wizards Raise Bar in Trilogy Finale

Article excerpt

EVER SINCE THE debut of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" in 2011, Hollywood's visual effects community and mainstream moviegoers alike have been enthralled by the breakthrough digital motion-capture work that endowed the movie's simians with uncanny human movements and facial expressions.

That film - the first of a trilogy that continued with 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and culminates with "War for the Planet of the Apes," out on July 14 - also catapulted actor Andy Serkis into the controversy over whether mo-cap performances should be considered awards contenders in the acting categories.

In the latest film, Serkis again reprises his role as Caesar, the genius chimp leading the ape rebellion against homo sapiens as the bitter conflict between humans and apes reaches its peak, pushing to the limit the series' dark themes of racial oppression, animal rights and the inevitable struggle between species.

"War" also marks a new high-water mark in the digital wizardry that captures and expresses the characters' complex emotions, and much of the credit for that movie magic goes to the team that's headed by Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, who left the U.S. in 2001 to work on "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." He ended up staying and creating effects for more than 20 additional films, including the third "Rings" movie, "King Kong," "Avatar" and the two "Hobbit" films.

From the start with the "Apes" films, the question was about making the simians look believable. "When I read the first script, I said, 'Look, this is great - it has to be done," Letteri recalls. "We just have to figure out how to make them look realistic.'"

"Rise," which started production in 2010, built on technical breakthroughs that had been developed for earlier Weta projects. Among them: the technique used for Serkis' portrayal of Gollum in the "Rings" films (2001 through 2003), although that captured the body only, explains Letteri. "We couldn't capture facial movement at the time; we figured out how to do that in 'King Kong' [2005]," he adds.

With body movement and facial expressions nailed, the next advances came with 2009's "Avatar." Director James Cameron wanted the actors to wear head rigs that -> ?- would capture facial expressions as they were performed, says Letteri. "We learned how to make that work ... and that set the stage for what we did with 'Rise.' We came up with a way to bring the mo-cap stage to the live action stage. …

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