Friday, April 20, 2018
  • Monday, Nov. 13, 2017
Character Is King In "Apes" Domain
Joe Letteri, partner in Weta Digital and sr. visual effects supervisor on "War for the Planet of the Apes"
VFX maestro Joe Letteri discusses character development, advancing story in "War for the Planet of the Apes"
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While there are assorted visually striking elements in director Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, what really counts is striking an emotional, responsive chord with viewers--and that can only be done in a story advanced by its characters.

So while the film’s sr. visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, a partner in New Zealand-based studio Weta Digital, is no stranger to spectacle, what’s most gratifying for him is making characters worth caring about. It’s a priority that has served him in good stead as evidenced by not only his work on the Apes franchise but also nine Best Visual Effects Oscar nominations, which includes four wins--for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004, King Kong in 2006, and Avatar in 2010. And of his five other Academy Award nods for VFX, two are in the Apes family--Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

After a screening of War for the Planet of the Apes last Thursday (11/9) at The James Blakeley Theater on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, Letteri came on stage where he reflected on different aspects of the film during an interview with SHOOT editor Robert Goldrich.

Letteri cited the development of ape leader Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis, as a marquee example of how a character can continue to grow and develop in the realm of performance capture. Serkis’ performance in War reaches inward as Caesar battles demons within, grappling with crossing a moral boundary which has him seeking vengeance for the murder of his family, causing him to abandon his long-held vision of humans and apes somehow peacefully co-existing.

The brilliance of Serkis and Weta’s penchant for being in the moment with the character, delving into what’s happening behind Caesar’s eyes and the subtleties of translating human performance to an ape performance, serve as dynamics propelling the narrative.

This artistry is what evokes empathy and connects audience to characters and story. Letteri recalled when he was first approached with the Apes franchise. He was immediately drawn to the script for Rise, particularly the character of Caesar and in turn reached out to Serkis. Letteri and Serkis had earlier famously collaborated on bringing Gollum  from “The Hobbit” to life. Letteri saw Serkis as ideal for Caesar. Serkis too was intrigued by the story and character, sparking his Apes odyssey with Letteri. Letteri said he continues to marvel at Serkis’ commitment to Caesar and his fearlessness in defending the integrity of the character he portrays.

Serkis too has benefited from advances in performance capture where he can now be on equal footing performing opposite another actor including, for example, Woody Harrelson who in War for the Planet of the Apes plays his arch enemy the Colonel, the ruthless leader of an army of humans who subjugate the apes.

Caesar isn’t the only ape character who has evolved over the arc of the Apes films--a prime example being Maurice, portrayed by Karin Konoval. Gender becomes incidental in this instance of a woman portraying a male orangutan as Letteri noted that Konoval has embraced the character over the course of three films (Rise, Dawn and War), studying orangutans, their movements and behavior. In preparing for War, she spent time with the since deceased orangutan Towan at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Towan loved to paint, providing Konoval with a taste of how advanced non-human primates can be. Konoval, particularly in War, brings a conscience to the story, maintaining faith that Caesar’s sense of right and decency will prevail in his inner struggle against the dark side of his being in which hatred turns to violence and a quest for retribution.

Character development for Weta in the Apes movies isn’t confined to Caesar, Maurice and other returning protagonists. War, for example, brings us a new character, Bad Ape, an intelligent chimp and zoo escapee who’s trying to survive, having learned rudimentary language on his own. Portrayed by Steve Zahn, Bad Ape provides comedic relief at times while still serving as a serious character who’s important to the overall story and the plight of different apes.

Environs for performance capture have also matured. Not that long ago, performance capture was confined to a soundstage. Breaking that mold was Rise of the Planet of the Apes in which performance capture was brought out into the woods. Fast forward to War for the Planet of the Apes, and we find performance capture on mountains amidst snowfall.

Integral to the recent success of the Apes franchise has been the collaborative relationship between Reeves and the Weta team. Reeves directed both Dawn and War in the Apes franchise, developing a rapport with Weta artisans. Letteri has said that Reeves and Weta reside happily on the same wavelength, wanting to make the Apes story an emotional journey.