Weta Digital Monkey Business
The DNA for Rise of the Planet of the Apes was set with Avatar, but Weta Digital takes performance capture animation to the next evolutionary level with the new origin story about Andy Serkis' CG Caesar, the uber chimpanzee.
To begin with, Weta revamped the performance capture process by placing the performance capture actors in the live-action set or out on location with the other actors, and replacing reflective optical markers for motion tracking with an active LED system with infrared lights to work in a variety of environments and lighting conditions.
Weta additionally upgraded its system for hair, muscle, tissue and eyes. "There's new technology for all of those pieces, but I think making the performance looks as realistic as possible is still the main thing," suggests Oscar-winning Joe Letteri, Weta's senior visual effects supervisor.
The most prominent improvement is a new facial muscle system that adds all the dynamics, ballistics, and secondary motion to keep the volume of the face. "There are a lot of artistic decisions that by the end of the movie come through more easily the first time around," adds Letteri.
It's still a work in progress because figuring out how facial muscles work is not easily understood because they don't behave like the other muscles in the body. They are not so bound by the skeleton. But there's enough of it working for the animators to drive the performance, whether it comes from the capture or the animation or the combination of the two.
Despite all the primate research and realistic attention to detail, there were human touches built into the design of Caesar to instill intelligence, familiarity and empathy. "We treated them as individuals, playing on the idea of the caged gorilla, Buck, as the muscle, Caesar and the other chimps do the scheming and Maurice, the orangutan, was given the intelligence," Letteri says. "He knew sign language. It was to set them in the vein of what we see later on but not necessarily the exact same roles."
Meanwhile, Weta ditched its old procedural system for hair for one that allows direct manipulation of the hairs so the modelers and creature TDs can comb the hairs individually, getting away from interpolating hairs and plugging in procedural controls for them. This time they went for the level of detail, which sacrifices the ability to do things quickly.