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Hail Caesar! Weta Delivers Digital Mastery for ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

Models supervisor Florian Fernandez talks about his team’s use of proprietary Manuka ray tracer to create photorealistic apes and more for Matt Reeves’ futuristic action-adventure hit.

Much like our hero, Caesar, Weta Digital has embarked on a lengthy and difficult journey over the course of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, which has seen the Wellington, New Zealand-based visual effects company solidify their position as a leader in the production of believable synthetic characters. Part of that success, according to Weta models supervisor Florian Fernandez, stems from new technology. “The big change for us was switching over to our Manuka pipeline, our inhouse renderer that we wrote over the last many years.” Fernandez, who is responsible for generating geometry to build everything from digital doubles to trees, adds, “War for the Planet of the Apes is fully rendered in Manuka, which gave us a good chance to update all of our grooms and displacement maps. Everything got polished up to look even better in this movie.”

Returning Planet of the Apes mainstays include Caesar, Maurice, Rocket, and Cornelia. The switch to Manuka, a physically-based ray tracer, resulted in better hair shading for these as well as new simian characters.  “We do have our main group of hero characters that get updated for each movie,” notes Fernandez. “Most of the hair shading changes to get more realistic shading and render results.  We also keep on improving their facial performances. Quite often, the density of the hair doesn’t exactly match what you see in real life, so we were able to push many millions of hair strands to make the groom look more realistic.  That was the biggest update on existing characters. We had to rebalance all of our displacement mapping, such as for wrinkles, in order to for them to read better. Usually, certain things are lost at render time, but with Manuka, you read a lot more. Then there were seven new hero characters, with two of them being gorillas.  The gorillas have been a bit neglected.  That was super fun for us.  Gorillas have wrinkly faces, big bodies and complicated grooms.  Winter has a white groom which was particularly tricky for us to render.”

However, adding fur to the ape models didn’t lead to major reconfiguration of the facial details. “We do have quite a bit of experience with that by now,” explains Fernandez. “We do it from the inside out. We finish the model and make sure that all of the deformations, such as wrinkles, are in place, and then build the groom on top of that.  Sometimes we might go back and adjust things to be more balanced, but we try to find a lot of reference and backlit photography. When the Wellington Zoo takes chimps in for surgery, we get an opportunity to study how the hair connects to the skin and how the volumes work.  It’s not too much of a back and forth anymore.”

A significant part of the Planet of the Apes films’ success can be attributed to the acting performances that form the foundation of the characters. On-set performers dressed in motion capture suits runaround with crutches to imitate ape walks.  “Andy Serkis, Terry Notary and all of the crew have perfected that over the last two movies,” says Fernandez. “Originally, there was a lot of back and forth trying to remap motion data from a human to a chimp.”

Caesar, as embodied by Andy Serkis’ performance, has become an iconic character.  As Fernandez describes, “The pressure is there, and people expect Caesar to look awesome. We had a great starting point from the second movie. Upon getting the plates with Andy Serkis’ performance, we updated our facial shapes.  Caesar is getting older, so his groom needed to be updated as well.”  Maurice, an orangutan, is a key member of the cast.  “Maurice is probably one of our trickiest guys, with the fur and skin simulation on his waddle,” Fernandez continues. “He’s a heavy groom.”  The actors’ eyes are a particularly key physical attribute Weta tries to integrate from the motion capture performances into the digital ape counterparts.  “One of the things we try to do is get some of the actors in there by incorporating their eyes, while trying to stay true to the ape anatomy,” notes Fernandez. 

Steve Zahn portrays a new addition to the trilogy known as Bad Ape. Reveals Fernandez, “Matt Reeves, the director, found a picture of a funny looking chimp online and asked us to make some aesthetics based on him. We couldn’t find any other reference of that chimp online, so we had to construct him from that single point of view and hit the same expression in the picture.” Part of the challenge was getting the new model to covey the range of Zahn’s performance. “We wanted Bad Ape to do what Steve could do, but keep it within the boundaries of what an ape can do,” Fernandez explains. “Matt also wanted him to look worn down, with low density fur. Getting the groom under control was tricky, as we didn’t want him to look bald.  The other big thing for us is Bad Ape wears a jacket and beanie.  He exchanges jackets with Nova in the plate, so we had this complicated high-resolution jacket build -- it was built inside out with knitted patches. The beanie was fully knitted from wool.  We had to build all of these fibres and get them super close to the real thing.” 

One of Caesar’s main adversaries is a white ape named Winter. “White fur is super tricky,” admits Fernandez.  “Then the fur had to interact with snow.  It was hard for us to get the white fur working.  White fur scatters light internally.  That’s where Weta’s latest Manuka-based hair shading came into play. It helped us to get how light travels through the hair.”  Fernandez went on to note that the hair shader makes use of double cylinder attributes along with custom treatments of scattering, near/far field, eccentricity and interference. 

A big part of the achieving a sense of realism lies with the character’s eyes.  “Every single show we improve the eye model that we run,” notes Fernandez. “The Apes movies are known for the close-up eye shots.  The geometry is massaged to get realistic shadings, along with small things that we do, like eyelashes.”

Additionally, Weta provides two sets of controls within the ape models. Says Fernandez, “We have basic chimp expressions and the human equivalent. They’re in animal mode when attacking, and for calm moments, the human-related set of controls are utilized.”

“We had all different kinds of snow that collected on their grooms in different stages,” Fernandez adds. “That was the first time we did that.  We do have a basic system, which involves layers of light, medium and heavy snow dusting on the groom, that can be added in like a costume element. On top of that, we had to develop a system that takes things into account like how thick the snow layer is, which requires different shading properties.”   

Fernandez concludes by noting a major challenge for Weta was dealing with the film’s big environments, such as the prison camp and mountain ranges. “We used an in-house system called Totara to grow a dynamic forest throughout the mountain range.  Tying in the live set with the massive environment and CG elements was definitely something that kept us busy.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.