Oscar 2012: Joe Letteri Talks Rise of the Planet of the Apes
JL: We made Caesar more human because we wanted him to look a little more intelligent than the rest of the apes and to stand out among them. There's not enough time in the story to show physical transition, so it went into his design from the beginning. You could see it in his eyes: we made the irises a little smaller so you get a better idea where he's looking; the muzzle is slightly smaller; and the forehead is shaped a little bit more like a human's.
We made a new model that more realistically captures movement in and around the eyes and how they are affected by different lighting conditions. One of the drawbacks of doing performance capture in general is you've got that light on the face, which happens to flatten out the characteristics. In this case, though, because we were on the real set, we at least had the lighting to play off of Andy's face. But you still have to pay attention to whether it reads in the current lighting situation. You might not be getting the light in Caesar's eye, so you make slight adjustments to get a better read.
BD: The performance capture is so successful. What about the importance of the animators?
JL: Performance capture is still more artistic than mechanical, and the animators were more empowered to make creative choices. When you're capturing the shapes of the face, nothing on the face is ever fixed; there's nothing locked down to refer to it, so the first thing you have to do is figure out your baseline. And then you just look at it side by side with the performance from the actor and say, 'Does that look like the right performance or not?' If not, why not? Sometimes there are errors that you can fix; sometimes it really just comes down to interpretation.
BD: But the performance has to be believable.
JL: Right. He might be digitally rendered, but there's a soul when you look into those eyes,
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.