Gino Acevedo is a hero in the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres – in fact, his work has been nominated for three Saturn Awards over the years. His film work includes 30 Days of Night, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, to name just a few. This year, he’s proud to be talking about the third and newest installment in the Planet of the Apes franchise. There was a lot of work to be done, and Acevedo gave us a little glimpse into his wonderful working world.
Dread Central: You have so many talents and several different film credits – what specifically did you do on War for the Planet of the Apes? Was it more in the practical makeups, or EFX?
Gino Acevedo: I’ve been involved in all three films here at WETA Digital and there’s a bit of a disclaimer on War for the Planet of the Apes. I was only involved in the beginning. So I did a few concepts for the ape Elder and a bit on Caesar and a few of the others, but I used to look after the textures department here at WETA Digital for the past seven years and I’ve recently moved into the art department, so now what we do is we sort of cater to the textures and models department and to environments and things like that, just to give them more information, details in the shots and for the characters themselves. So in saying that, that’s why I have a little bit of a disclaimer, I didn’t work on the whole film all the way through. But my involvement from the very beginning was, even going back to my childhood, the original film was the one that made we want to become a special makeup effects artist, which is my background, doing practical makeup effects, that’s what brought me out here to New Zealand, to do the practical makeup effects on Lord of the Rings. When I transitioned over to the digital side, one of the things I brought with me was just the practical elements and knowledge that I had in making things so here at WETA Digital I have my own little workshop here in the back, where I can go and create our own textures that we can put in our library or that are specific for a character.
DC: Have you done field trips to observe real primates?
GA: Yes. I’ve always been into apes and in 1968 when the original one came out, I was only four, but I think I finally saw the film when I was six or seven I think and it just blew my mind and then I saw a documentary on how the apes were created, by this artist named John Chambers, how he turned Roddy McDowell into an ape and everything. Again, just totally blown away by that but again, I’ve always had this passion for apes, even when I lived in L.A., I lived in L.A. for about fifteen years before I moved out here, and I have a friend who raised and took care of a lot of different primates, especially chimps and orangutans, so I used to go there and play with them, help him take care of them. It was just an amazing opportunity to really study them and one of the great advantages was when they had to do checkups on them, like if they had to do dental surgery or something like that, they would have to be knocked out for a bit, and while they would do that I would mix up my materials, my alginate, silicones, and take castings of their hands and feet so I have this amazing collection of gorilla, chimp and orangutan hand and feet casts from there. That was incredibly useful when we were doing the original Planet of the Apes [first installment of the reboot] because from those, we were able to scan those and use those as an amazing reference.
DC: Did those become part of the reference for this Planet of the Apes movie?
GA: From those casts, myself and a couple other colleagues developed a process back on Avatar called skin scans, and what that was, it was extrapolating the really fine details in face casts and hand casts. By having a physical cast, pouring a very thin silicone over the surface of it and then letting it totally kind of slough off, and then once it would cure, you’d peel it off and it would be about the thickness of a latex glove. It’s a very translucent material, the silicone is, and then when you hold it up to the light you can see all that really fine, amazing detail that it’s captured. So, from that we can get that we can scan that into our flatbed scanner at a really hi-resolution, take it into Photoshop, another program, and then run it through some actions, and turn those into what we call “displacement maps,” where the texture artists who use… now the displacement maps…are meaning like all the wrinkles, pores, and things like that, and so we were able to extrapolate those from the actual hand casts and feet casts from the orangs and from the chimps. I also had a couple of face casts of some chimps and orangs as well, and again, we did that same process on those, and we were able to extrapolate a lot of those details. That was a huge bonus on having that kind of stuff and plus the amazing library that I have of just hundreds and hundreds of photographs and then reference so that was pretty much used throughout all three films all the reference that I was able to collect over the years.
DC: Since you are a fan of the original vintage movies and a fan of the franchise as it’s continued, can you speak just from the point of the view of the people who love these characters what it is that contributes to our enduring fascination with them and the stories that they continue to tell?
GA: Yeah, I think what’s really cool about this now is like it’s the continuation of the genre is fantastic for the new generations out there. My daughter, she’s 10 and I try to get her to watch the original Planet of the Apes and her comment is like, “Dad, they look kind of fake.” “That’s okay because it was done a long time ago and this is what they had to work with, you know?” So now, it’s funny with a lot of these films with they’re doing the reboots on it’s for the new generations to go out and see those and kind of relive it again. And my daughter loves the new Planet of the Apes, and has loved the way that the characters have evolved and just how you feel so passionate about these characters. One funny story was when we got the go ahead and the green light to do the original or the first Planet of the Apes all my friends back in Los Angeles said “Aw that’s fantastic! We heard you guys were doing the Planet of the Apes, and so you are going to be needing some makeup artists so put it in a good word for me,” and it’s like, “Well actually, they’re all going to be digital.” They said, “What do you mean?” I said “No, I Look I read the script, and they’re just apes, you know?” They haven’t changed into these humanoids or anything so they’re just apes. “What do you mean they’re going to do it all digital?” I said, “You wait and see.”
And – so funny – I got called a traitor and I turned to the Dark Side. You wait and see. And of course, when the film came out everyone was like “Oh yeah… now I see what you mean. They all look amazing.” Part of my explanation to that stuff, even with the best prosthetic artists and animatronic artists we have in the business today who can do amazing stuff, there’s just no way to really be able to capture a lot of the fine nuances and details and emotions and expressions we can get with the digital characters. Gollum being a great example of that. When we did Gollum I was at WETA Workshop with Richard Taylor, and we’re thinking could this possibly be a makeup that we could do on somebody? And trying to find somebody who is that skinny, and with those kinds of proportions and who can perform, is probably going to be a hard challenge. But it just proved that what they could capture and get with Andy Serkis’ performance of that, and once again, it’s been fantastic working, and knowing, and becoming great friends with Andy all these years and to see him how he’s really brought the character of Caesar back to life, and just the emotions that he can put through this character. And not just him, but all the other guys as well.
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.