So by now, you’ve seen the trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (if you haven’t, click here or here). Regardless of what you think of the film, you can’t deny that WETA is tossing some serious CGI the way of the main ape, Caesar. Bob, Max, and I all attended a panel at CalTech featuring the director, Rupert Wyatt, Joe Letteri, WETA’s VFX supervisor, Andy Serkis (via Skype), as well as scientists Claire Richardson from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and Dr. Steven R. Quartz from Cal Tech. We witnessed a fairly illuminating portrait of the effects going into the film, as well as some scientific background to some of the film’s creative decisions.
So check out all of our impressions below the jump, and let us know what you guys think about Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Motion capture has come a long way, from the uncanny valley horrors of Robert Zemeckis’s work with the medium. After seeing how Rise of the Planet of the Apes used Andy Serkis’s performance to create this digital, nigh-photo realistic ape, I’m convinced it’s got the potential to really change the way Hollywood creates digital characters in a live-action setting. Leaving the quality of the CGI out for a moment (it’s fantastic, by the way), being able to watch, side-by-side, Serkis performing as Caesar live on set, wearing the motion capture rig designed for Avatar, and watching the final, digital performance is fairly mind-blowing. To see a human actor’s performance, including all the various subtleties of facial motion and eye movement, completely translate to a digital ape’s face is nothing short of revolutionary.
I can only hope that, as this sort of technology improves, that it won’t replace human actors, as I don’t think the technology can work as well to create a living, indistinguishable digital human, though it’s fairly obvious that such an act is an eventual goal. Actual, human performance should never be fully supplanted by digital magic. I love performance capture in its ability to translate human performance to a non-human character, as is the case here and with Avatar, but human-to-human just gives us Mars Needs Moms or The Shittiest Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey.
I’m highly skeptical of any use of CGI to represent a character, because no matter how much you try, the fake character will stand out from everyone around him or her. In that header image, for example, Caesar looks just about perfect, but in motion, it’s clear that this is an artificial animal, and I can’t help thinking a little about it all the time, like someone endlessly poking your head.
That being said, I can’t imagine this film being done any other way. Using live chimpanzees would not allow for the breadth of human emotion Serkis brings to Caesar. Even the eyes, notoriously a problem for CGI characters aiming for realism, came across with plenty of soul behind them; this is motion capture at its most advanced, and the results are stunning. If it wasn’t for the visual disconnect of CGI, I would be totally convinced that Caesar was a real, living monkey.
Sadly, the same praise can’t be given for James Franco’s character Will Rodman, who only seemed capable of displaying one overwrought face through the clips we saw. It might be a problem when your fake ape character displays more human emotion than your human protagonist.
While I’m no fan of performance capture, the technology behind it is actually pretty cool. And having the one and only Andy Serkis there to explain everything only made the evening more interesting. Seeing how physical he had to get to become the ape Caesar reminds me more and more that Serkis is our generation’s Buster Keaton in terms of physicality. Serkis isn’t just an actor playing an ape, he is an ape.
The rig itself is actually ingenious. The actor wears a chroma green suit, with a camera attached to a helmet and pointing at his face. What this does is help the animation guys track movement and subtleties in Serkis’ face, which in turn gives the finished Caesar character those subtleties. And throughout the set, there are a few cameras to capture Serkis’ actual movement from several different angles. This is actually the same technique that James Cameron used to make Avatar.
Overall, the panel and discussion about motion capture really opened my eyes to the technology. And while I know I’ll never use it, I now have a thorough understanding and respect for the technique, and can’t wait to see how this technology advances.