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Animal Attraction – Dan Lemmon

Beasts may rule the screen in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", but it took visual-effects wizards like Dan Lemmon to bring them to life. (Score one for the humans.)


BACK IN THE EARLY DAYS of moviemaking, the great W.C. Fields famously advised his fellow actors, “Never work with children or animals.” Yet while many actors have no choice but to share the screen with such unpredictable co-stars, some are finding that today’s visual-effects technology has made at least part of Fields’ mantra obsolete. Just ask “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” star James Franco, who spends much of his screen time opposite a chimpanzee so realistic you forget the creature isn’t real.

Franco’s computer-generated co-star, Caesar, is the creation of Weta Digital, the Oscar-winning visual-effects company behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and Avatar, and he represents a Kong-sized leap forward in movie magic. More than 500 visual-effects artists, guided by Weta Digital supervisor Dan Lemmon, joined forces to invest Caesar and his rebellious kin with layers of never-before-seen realism; the result has left audiences and critics goggling.

How did Weta manage to pull it off? What does it mean for future visual-effects breakthroughs? And what, exactly, is a “hair pipeline”? Play tracked Lemmon down to find out.

Everyone seems to agree your apes look like the real deal. Good job! That was certainly one of the big things for this film—we knew we had to make the apes look totally believable. Since this story is set in the present day, you can’t get away with saying, “There’s been 10,000 years of evolution and now they’re more anthropomorphized.” Everybody knows what chimpanzees look like.

Does that mean ape-making is more difficult than, say, creating the aliens in Avatar? You’re definitely more constrained because people are so familiar with the subject. You can’t really deviate from reality. Whereas if you have a fantastic creature and its legs end up a few centimeters shorter than in the concept illustration, nobody’s going to be the wiser, because they don’t know what that creature should look like.

Weta also provided the visual effects for 2005’s King Kong. Did your experience on that film make it easier to do “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”? It was very helpful to have worked on that, because it gave us a library of ape references, mostly gorilla. We already had an idea of the musculature, and we’d spent some time experimenting with ways of articulating the face, which is quite different on apes when compared with humans. But we also had a lot of new things we wanted to try. Plus, much of our technology had moved on. We had a whole new fur system, for example, and new systems for muscle and tissue simulation. So, we had a head start in terms of research, but when it came to actually building our apes, we pretty much started from scratch.

It also must’ve helped to be working with actor Andy Serkis again, who provided the motion-capture performance for Kong and now Caesar. He’s a pleasure to work with, and a really talented actor, too. He’s got the ability to communicate so much without even speaking, just by his facial performance. And every character he makes is different. You look at the way he played King Kong and the way he played Caesar, and even though they’re both apes, they read completely differently emotionally.

In preparing for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, did you put in time with actual chimpanzees? There’s a great zoo here in Wellington, New Zealand [where Weta is based], which has a fantastic troupe of chimps, and we spent a lot of time getting video of the way they moved. Also, the zoo occasionally has to put the chimps under anesthesia to do medical procedures, so when the staff went to draw blood or do a scan, we got to go in and take castings of the hands and feet, which we used when we built the digital apes.

What was the biggest challenge you faced on this film? Creating Caesar. He has to emote and connect with the audience in a visceral way without using dialogue. So, getting the facial animation to the level where it matched what the actor—in this case, Andy Serkis—was doing was an enormous challenge. If you don’t do it well, the audience won’t buy the film at all. It’s not just that they won’t like the character; they won’t like the movie. It was hugely important that Caesar’s facial performance be as convincing as possible.

Did anything prove particularly tricky in creating the rest of the apes? Getting their hair to look and move naturally is definitely a challenge, but we’ve spent a lot of time since King Kong developing our hair pipeline.

Er, hair pipeline? That’s what I call the suite of software tools we use to render the hair. One of them is a specific tool that we wrote, called Barbershop. It’s got brushing and combing features that allow our modelers to sculpt the hair to a precise level. And then that goes through a simulation process where we’ll run “wind” through it—if the ape’s bouncing around, the hair will react accordingly.

Sounds like a lot of science went into it. Were you into physics in high school? Yes, I had a good time with it. I had difficulty with math when it was abstract, but when I started seeing how it applied to the real world, that was pretty exciting. I try to bring that to the work I do in visual effects.

People—OK, me—often confuse visual effects with special effects. Can you break it down for us? Sure. Typically when we talk about special effects, we mean something physical that happens in real time on the set. Visual effects tend to be the things that have to be added after the film’s already been exposed.

Got it. Maybe the visual-effects industry needs a better publicist? Well, it’s all just terminology. If you’re in the movie business, you make the distinction, and if you’re not, it doesn’t really matter. If I’m talking to my grandmother about what I do, she still thinks I do special effects, and that’s fine.

Some PETA activists showed up at the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” premiere with signs like “Thanks for not using real apes!” Clearly, some are hoping that visual effects can put animal actors out of work. How about you? Yeah, it was a treat to see those guys at the premiere in their gorilla suits! Certainly, when it comes to apes, I don’t think it’s right to use them for films. And just from the perspective of acting, you can get a much better performance if you use a human actor and make a digital aid than if you try to use a trained chimpanzee. But I think some animals that are accustomed to living with humans still make sense—like, I don’t have a problem with dogs being in films if they’re being properly cared for.

Do you get to goof off with visual effects at all while you’re working? Please tell me you made footage of apes doing the Saturday Night Fever strut. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to blow off steam on this film because it was on a really compressed schedule. But, particularly when you’re sleep-deprived, you start finding things unexpectedly funny. And occasionally you’ll have happy accidents where something will fail on one of the simulations—for instance, the ape’s skin will walk off and leave the hair behind.

Hilarious. Say, have you ever attempted to re-create yourself using your visual-effects skills? I’ve never done that, but everywhere I go—especially when I’m working on a particular problem—I see things that are related to that problem. When we were doing King Kong, I’d be putting my daughter to bed and looking at her hair and seeing the way the light bounced off it. I’d be looking at the dog and noticing the skin underneath the hair and trying to figure out how they’re related to each other. My work is fun—but it can also be a curse sometimes.

You obviously worked intimately with Andy Serkis on this film, but did you get to hang with James Franco? We were very present on set. We had a whole performance-capture [setup] there, and that was a new thing for us. We were basically taking the same technology that we put together for Avatar and bringing it to a live-action film set. There were about 15 of us running around and trying to stay out of people’s way. James Franco and [co-star] Freida Pinto were great to work with, although we didn’t interact with them too much. We focused mostly on the actors playing the apes.

Did the rest of the crew refer to you guys as “the nerds”? I’m sure they did. Everywhere we go, we get referred to as “the nerds.”

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