Tech Support Interview: Joe Letteri and Andy Serkis on the progression of performance capture in 'Apes' and 'Tintin'
In 2011, New Zealand-based visual effects company Weta Digital was at it again with another banner year in the CG filmmaking landscape, perhaps the company's biggest year to date.
With Rupert Wyatt's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," performance capture technology was taken to new progressive heights as a franchise was not only rebooted but redefined, primarily due to the hardworking effects engineers behind the enterprise. With Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin," a legendary director saddled up to the technology and commissioned added effects elements to the mixture that brought the work of Belgian artist Hergé to life on the big screen.
At the forefront of making those films a reality were visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, director of Weta Digital, and actor Andy Serkis, steward of the performance capture form and the face for a technology that could potentially, at some point, become a standardized tool in the filmmaker's arsenal.
On "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," great strides were made toward streamlining the performance capture process and affording flexibility to its use in the making of a motion picture. Coming off of "Avatar," which was the last milestone for the form (following in the shoes of "King Kong" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy before it), Letteri says the key was realizing it outside of a contained soundstage environment, allowing for run-and-gun usage that set the performance capture unit up like any other unit on a typical film set (grips, electric, etc.).
"We worked out some new technology, LEDs, new filters on the cameras to make it work in sunlight," he says. "And so, from a filmmaking perspective, it just kind of closed the loop for us there. We had actually experimented with it at the end of 'Rings.' We did a couple of sequences using this idea, but it was really early days and it was just something we always just thought we’d want to get back to if we ever needed to do it. A lot of these things are just ideas until you have a real reason to get in there and make it work."
When 20th Century Fox was first mulling over the idea of making the film, sparked by a screenplay that had everyone excited over the possibilities, Letteri said he reached to people he knew could click right in and start working on something with this kind of specified technology. So "Lord of the Rings" alums were his first calls, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, for instance, and, of course, Andy Serkis. And being such an enthusiastic supporter of the form, Serkis was naturally excited about the potential for advancing the technology.
"I guess one of the major kind of progressions is the fact that it’s becoming more transparent as a technology," Serkis says, calling from the Southern Alps in New Zealand where he's completing second unit photography on Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" films. "If you look at 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' that was pretty much the first time an entire film was shot using performance capture on a live action set with major performance capture characters interacting with live action characters. And it’s kind of seamless."
The difference between former performance capture projects and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was a considerable one for Serkis as an actor, though. Whereas before, he would act out a scene as, say, Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" with the other actors and sometimes months later recreate individual shots of the character on a motion capture stage, now it was "just purely acting with your fellow actors and you’re sharing the same environment in the same moment," he says. "That all adds to the symmetry. You have the same stimulation. If I’m acting in a live action film conventionally, it’s exactly the same process."
This also allowed for director Rupert Wyatt to ease into the form, as it was all very new for him.
"Like in the old days, if you were doing a visual effects shot like without the visual effect creature in it, say, you would just shoot a plate and maybe some tennis balls or a lighting reference," Letteri says. "In this one it was like, shoot Andy, do your close-ups, the camera will track him. Do all your coverage exactly as you want it and you cut with that and then at some point Andy will get replaced by Caesar, but the performance will be the same. That way all your cutting rhythm and all your dialogue rhythm is all what you want it to be from a live action film."
If you can believe it, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was actually done in the middle of work on another intensive performance capture shoot, Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin." Weta originally got involved on that project to do a test on a digital Snowy (the lovable dog from the series) with live action actors. It was a time when Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson were still trying to figure out the best way to bring Hergé's creation to life on the big screen.
"The more we all got into it, the more we realized one of the big problems is casting," Letteri says. "Who are you going to cast that looks like Tintin? And can you get the two guys that play the twins? Are they going to be the right size? You need fat suits. And you start getting into all this and Peter just started thinking, 'Why do any of that? Why not just see if we can bring the whole thing to life digitally?'"
This was prior to "Avatar," even, so the possibilities of the technology had not reached the fever pitch yet. And Spielberg had never worked in this way before. So to enlighten him a bit, director James Cameron invited Spielberg and company to come onto the stage while he was filming "Avatar" to do a few tests and get the director's toes wet.
"Steven and Peter came over, we set it up for 'Tintin' and they shot for a couple of days and both of them immediately loved it, especially Steven," Letteri says. "The idea of having a virtual camera and being able to set up your shots any way that you want and fly the camera everywhere and see your actors and the characters, he just loved it."
Says Serkis, "I think it’s such a perfect use of the medium for 'Tintin,' to bring it alive in that way. It’s really hard to imagine it could be done that successfully any other way. And it’s very interesting having these two films come out in the same year, because they’re exactly the same technology, to produce entirely different results on screen."
And yet what binds them, Serkis says, is the acting, allowing actors to stand on the set and work through a scene, to invent and create just as they would on a live action film.
"With all of the characters, you’re just finding a psychological, physical and emotional core and then acting those," he says. "For me, I've never drawn any distinction between playing live action roles and playing performance capture roles."
Letteri ultimately shares a similar sentiment.
"What it really comes down to is have you captured the performance," he says. "And I don’t mean technically recorded it. I mean looking at the finished result, have you got the essence of the performance? We always use our animation team to judge that because what you’re looking at is how much or how little do you need to massage the data that is there to say that you’ve captured the performance."
From here, performance capture technology will surely, as we've seen it do already over the course of just a decade, evolve exponentially. For Serkis's part, he has started a company in the UK called The Imaginarium, which is dedicated to furthering the art and craft of performance capture in all different realms. There, he and his team are looking at implementing it in new ways via video game projects and even live theater and dance, projecting real-time images onto screens which are driven by actors' or musicians' performances and so on. "And I think it can be used in more abstract ways," he adds, "that the movements of an actor, the thought processes of an actor can actually drive more abstract characters, which are not necessarily humanoid. I think we’re just really beginning to grasp what possibilities there are."
For now, though, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "The Adventures of Tintin" represent a new benchmark technically, but it may still take some doing to get the industry completely on board with it as equally performance and technology. Perhaps new ground has been broken with Fox's dedicated awards push on behalf of Serkis in "Apes." It's certainly a campaign Letteri fully endorses, not only for what it represents for actors but what it represents for the forwarding of the medium.
"I think he should be considered because it is a fantastic performance," he says. "However, I do understand the reticence because what is happening now is for the first time in history you’re seeing a performance, but separated from the physical recording of that performance. In other words, we separated acting from the character. That has never happened before, and so I think a lot of people are kind of wrestling with that. I think as time goes by that’s going to be less of a distinction to generations of actors who grow up with an XBOX Kinect in their house, where it’s no big deal to see a performance look like something different on your screen. However, one way to handle it would be, as the Academy has done with animation, to add another category for this, but that would depend on there being enough performances to really make that worthwhile."
Time will tell if the form advances to a stage where there are indeed enough performance capture perforamances to warrant a separate designation. But the possibilities are limitless, so don't be surprised if we find ourselves at that place sooner rather than later.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray. "The Adventures of Tintin," meanwhile, is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
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