Exclusive Interview with Dan Lemmon of WETA Digital on War for Planet of the Apes

In the long-awaited third installment of the Planet of Apes reboot, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape brethren are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson). As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both of their species and the future of the planet. We had the rare opportunity to talk to one of the important folks who work behind the scenes to make these fantastical characters to life: Oscar nominated VFX artist, Dan Lemmon (Avatar), revealed some interesting insights on his incredible work on War for the Planet of the Apes.

Dread Central: We read that animal fur and hair is one of the hardest things to recreate, digitally. Is that true?

Dan Lemmon: It is, it’s one of those things – because on an ape or human, there’s so many strands of hair that go in specific directions and there’s so much visual complexity to the way the hair lies, and the way that it clumps and sticks together, and when it gets wet and comes apart as it gets dry, and the way that it moves in the wind. How it interacts as characters touch it, the way that it shifts and adjusts under pressure, and those are all things that we have to worry about, in the digital world, if the characters are going to be believable. So yeah, it’s definitely one of the biggest challenges. I wouldn’t say the biggest challenge, though. That would be the performance, making the characters feel like, emotionally, their presence. That they connect and have the subtlety and sophistication in their performances that the humans do. I think that’s a lot more obvious to the audience when you get it wrong, but if sort of the veneer of realism, if it sort of looks fake or people don’t buy the lighting or skin textures, it could take them out of the experience and make it not feel as real.

DC: What’s it like collaborating with Matt Reeves [the director]?

DL: We work really closely with Matt and he’s a terrific collaborator. At the moment, we talk to him at least once a day, five or six times a week, and usually for about an hour at a time. He’s just the best possible director you could have for these movies. Incredibly character driven, really understands stories, a strong writing background, but he’s also got a really fantastic eye for detail and realism. So on a film like this, where it’s all about the characters and making sure the characters connect with one another and the audience, he’s the perfect sort of shepherd and steward of that whole process.

DC: What’s your day-to-day like, when working on a film on this size and scope?

DL: It’s a job where your responsibilities, what your day looks like, changes completely from the beginning of the film to the end of the film. You’ve got different stages of the process and your day is different at each stage along the way. So when we’re first starting the film, you spend most of your day talking to the heads of other departments, the production designer, the set decorators, the cinematographer, the director of course, the actors, and you’re trying to plan out the best methodology for the photography of the film, for how you can shoot pictures, shoot the sets and get the photography that you need in a way that is going to ultimately create the most satisfying and realistic end shot. So you have to look forward months down the line and make determinations on where you want to do things practically and digitally.

There’s budget considerations, there’s a number of factors and negotiations that happen between you and the other departments to arrive at an agreed upon methodology for each shot in the movie. Then you get into shooting, and you spend most of your day on set and you’ll be trying to catch problems as they come. In our case, on a big performance-capture movie like Planet of the Apes, my department spends a lot of time putting actors into costumes, those Velcro pajamas, and hanging performance capture cameras around the sets and making sure we’re getting all the data, all the information we possibly can about what those actors are doing at that moment on that set, so that when we come back to New Zealand later and we go to create the visual characters you’ll see in the movie, Caesar and the rest of his ape troop, all of the facial tics and emotional beats that the actors hit. We’ve got good information about what they were doing, so we can re-create it on our digital characters. And that’s pretty much what the process is like back here at WETA. Once we get into actually making the shots, I’ll spend the first half of my day usually with the team who makes the characters, the team that builds their skin, the whole texturing and works on the material properties, makes the hair look realistic, the modelers who actually make the shapes of everything, and then I’ll spend the second half of the day with the animators and the people who are doing the shots, taking that motion and adding digital lights to it and rendering it and putting it together into the final shots.

DC: But it’s not all digital, right? The horses the apes are riding look real. They are, aren’t they?

DL: Yeah, it’s a real mixture. That’s one of the things we work out at the very beginning of the film, like in the beginning, we read that the apes are going to be riding horses; so what are we going to do for that? To be bring in real horses, how many horses? How many riders do we need? Are the actors going to be doing the riding or will it be stunt guys? So these are the questions we answer based on the requirements of the shot and what the director wants to achieve with those shots. In this case we really wanted to keep as much real in a shot as we possibly could, for those reasons you mentioned, for the reasons of interaction, for making it so the apes and the horses feel totally connected with the ground, all those kinds of things.

So we had real horses, in particular for the ape posse, the four or five apes that ride together and they were ridden by the actors who play those characters – by Andy Serkis as Cesar and Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary who plays Rocket – they were wearing their motion capture suits with the funny dots and the Velcro pajamas, and they rode the horses, then we covered their bodies with their ape characters but of course the apes are a slightly different size and shape than the humans that are playing them. They have much longer legs than their ape characters so whenever we put the apes back on top of them on the horses, the human legs stick out from underneath their original character, so we have to go back and paint out the legs from the photography. Also, the humans would be riding the horses with stirrups, we’ve removed the stirrups as well, and we’ve replaced those stirrups with ape stirrups, so if you look closely in the movie you’ll see that there’s a strap of leather that has rocks knotted to it. One of the ideas we have is that the apes would use their grasping feet to hold on to these rocks on the leather straps, and that would give them a solid purchase, in an ape way, so it didn’t look like they had human stirrups. So, that was something we had to add on as well.

DC: Are there some things viewers won’t even recognize as CG?

DL: There are a lot of little things that we do throughout. In this case there were little moments of blood enhancement. There’s a shot in the movie where there wasn’t as much blood on the human characters as the editor and director ultimately wanted when they put the scene together, so the whole idea is if we do our job right you’d never know that we did it. It would be like makeup on the set. There’s similar things with fire enhancement and torches in place where there might not have been torches, but I would say, most of our work on this movie anyway, is work that you can’t miss. You sort of know there must be, if we done our job right hopefully it’s pretty seamless, it all looks totally real. But everybody knows that apes don’t talk, there’s no getting around that and there are a lot of talking apes in the movie, so we’re in a much different world than the one we walk around in.

DC: There are some brand-new characters in this installment of the Planet of the Apes story. That must be a lot of fun, from your creative standpoint.

DL: Well, it’s always a lot of fun to be able to create new characters. I think that’s one of things we most enjoy, starting from nothing and being able to design a living, breathing creature that has character, that has a point of view and perspective in the world, that has their own hopes, fears, desires, and that we can drop that into a film and have it participate in this story and see where they go. I think that’s one of fun things and most rewarding things about working with actors: they build this character and you put them into this situation, and while there’s a structure in terms of the script that they follow, a lot of the detail and subtlety is created there on the spot in front of you, and it’s just really exciting to watch. It’s the same with our digital characters. They’re so much fun to bring to life, to see what the actors bring to them and also to see what the people here at WETA bring to them. The people doing the modeling and the facial recognition, the motion, the surface texturing, the fur grooming, all those little details add up to a compelling, interesting character that’s fun to watch. One of the new ones is Steve Zaun, who is just a terrific character actor and who puts in a really fantastic, kind of slightly innocent but world worn character called Bad Ape. And that ape is this old, almost Yoda like character who is Caesar’s foil as he goes on his quest to hunt down the colonel that killed his family.

He’s a great bit of comic relief but also adds a lot of heart and soul to the picture. Winter was this fantastic gorilla we created based on a famous gorilla from Barcelona named Snowflake, who was an albino gorilla, so he’s got white fur and pink skin and he plays a role early in the film and the action that surrounds Caesar’s family and so he’s an important conflicted character. He is played by actor Aleks Paunovic, who put in a really great performance, who has this wonderful kind of gentle giant quality about him. It was just tons of fun to see what the actors do and then how you can translate that onto the digital characters. We used a lot of Aleks’s shapes of his eyelids and eyebrows and kind of sculpted them directly into the digital character which was a fun project. Then Red, who is kind of the ape antagonist in the story, he’s actually switched sides and works with the humans now, and has a lot of direct contact with Caesar throughout the movie. He was great too, he was largely based on a gorilla in San Diego named Winston and he’s just got a great face and character about him and Ty, the actor who played him, did a really good job of making him feel believable in his not just villainous, in a moustache twirling, hand wringing kind of way but to actually make him feel like he had motivation, there were reasons that he was making the decisions he was making, even though they kind of betrayed his own kind.

Watching his arc through the story, it’s really compelling and interesting. One of the big challenges for us was, with all of these characters, was figuring out how to make them unique and distinct from one another because we as humans, we don’t spend a lot of time around apes, at least not anymore, so there’s a danger that they all could look the same if we’re not careful so finding these distinct characters and making them look unique and distinct is a challenge. With Red, we worked a lot of red hair into him so hopefully he stands out and you don’t get him confused with some of the other gorillas in the movie. And the same with the other characters, we’re always looking for details and little things that we can do for our human audience to be able to differentiate between the different apes.

War for the Planet of the Apes is directed by Matt Reeves and stars Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, and Terry Notary. It comes out July 14, 2017.

Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

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