Thursday, July 19, 2018
  • Friday, Oct. 27, 2017
Road To Oscar Prequel: Feature Creatures Affirm Our Humanity
A scene from "War for the Planet of the Apes" (photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
Insights from "The Shape of Water" DP, VFX supervisors on "War for the Planet of the Apes" and "Okja"

Part of this season’s Oscar conversation centers on creatively inspired creatures who play integral roles in telling ambitious stories. They include:

• A leader of apes who faces a profound inner struggle.
• A genetically engineered “pet” who’s seemingly part pig, manatee, hippo and elephant with playful dog-like traits.
• And a hybrid man/sea creature in a Cold War espionage narrative and love story rolled into one.

Whether from the animal kingdom or an otherworldly place, these non-human characters trigger all-too-human feelings, reaffirming the humanity in all of us.

In this prequel to SHOOT’s The Road To Oscar Series, which starts next month, we gain insights from those who helped bring these creatures to life: visual effects supervisors on War for the Planet of the Apes (Twentieth Century Fox) and Okja (Netflix), and the cinematographer of The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight).

Joe Letteri
The Road To Oscar is one that has been successfully navigated by VFX maestro Joe Letteri, a four-time Best Visual Effects Academy Award winner—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. He is also the recipient of the Academy Technical Achievement Award, bestowed in 2004 for his work as part of a team that developed subsurface scattering techniques for rendering skin and other translucent materials.

Thus far Letteri has a total of nine Best Effects Oscar nominations, the other five coming for I, Robot in 2005, Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2012, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2013, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2014, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2015.

Now Letteri, a partner in New Zealand-based VFX studio Weta Digital, once again finds himself in the Oscar banter as sr. visual effects supervisor on War for the Planet of the Apes. While there’s plenty of spectacle in the work, what resonates most for Letteri are the characters. “They’re the most interesting part of what we do as artists, helping in those subtle moments when you discover something about a character,” related Letteri. “You can see Caesar [leader of the apes] watching what humans are doing. You can see and feel him plotting in his mind. This is the third film we’ve done in this Apes series [after Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes]. Our being able to spend time with the characters and getting to know them has been invaluable—especially watching Andy Serkis as Caesar. He gives a wonderful inwardly driven performance in this latest film.

“In the first film, he’s a chimp growing up and discovering the world,” continued Letteri. “In the second film Caesar is coming to grips with the forces buffeting him, the conflicts within the group and group dynamics. And now in the third film, Caesar crosses his own moral boundary. He wants to kill the people who killed his family. He’s driven in a different direction. We had to capture the struggle within him. You get that emotion and drama by delving into what’s happening behind his eyes, the subtleties of translating human performance to an ape performance. That requires us to be in the moment with the characters.”

Caesar and his followers are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. Both leaders have to face their darker instincts, and from that there are lessons to be learned about what it means to be human—and humane.

Letteri said it’s imperative that visual effects support and advance the development of characters; his track record of having a hand in creating compelling, realistic creatures extends from The Hobbit’s Gollum to the Na’vi in Avatar, and Caesar from the Planet of the Apes franchise.  For the latter, Letteri cited the collaborative relationship between his team and Matt Reeves who directed both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes. “We were on the same wavelength, wanting to make this story an emotional journey,” said Letteri. “Matt explores and goes with the nuances of the characters who are on that journey. Our work and the imagery we integrate later on has to do everything it can to support the performances of actors as they experience and take the audience on that journey with them.”

Performance capture technology—which can record nuances of movement, gesture and emotion, bringing them to animated characters via human actors—has facilitated the creation of memorable apes in Rise, Dawn and now War for the Planet of the Apes. Throughout the process, the technology and its capabilities have progressed as developed and deployed by Weta Digital over the years—to the point where Serkis can focus on his performance as being much more than a stand-in for the character until magic is added later on. Rather than representing Caesar, Serkis can now more fully than ever become Caesar. And while Caesar isn’t a person, his emotions are very human. Serkis observed that the playing field has been leveled to where there’s no difference between portraying a character in a performance capture suit or taking on a role in costume and with makeup. Thus there’s more of an equal footing when an actor in a performance capture suit is in a scene opposite an actor not wearing technological garb.

Performance capture has also advanced in terms of environments. Prior to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, performance capture hadn’t been attempted in an open environ outside a soundstage. For that film, the precedent was set of lensing performance capture in the woods. Most recently for War for the Planet of the Apes, action was captured on mountains and in falling snow, conquering the elements, including the technical quandary of properly depicting wet fur.

War for the Planet of the Apes features a dozen key ape characters, which is more than in the previous Ape films. These characters speak with more polish and fluency, posing yet another challenge to Weta Digital in terms of facial expressions and lip sync.

The bottom line, said Letteri, is how the technology—from performance capture to real-time facial animation—enables storytelling, empowering the director to explore characters and get the most out of his cast. “The bar keeps rising as the sophistication of performance grows.” In the case of Caesar, this entails conveying the intensity of his emotions, the battling of inner demons, and how he copes with a human predicament.

Erik De Boer
Erik De Boer too is no stranger to Oscar-winning visual effects, having earned one for his contributions to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. De Boer also was an artisan on The Golden Compass, for which his colleagues won the Academy Award for VFX, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was nominated for the same honor. All this work was done during De Boer’s lengthy tenure at Rhythm & Hues.

Fast forward to today and De Boer, now a four-year veteran of Method Studios, is again generating Oscar buzz, this time as visual effects supervisor on the feature Okja directed by Bong Joon-ho. Method was the lead and primary effects studio on Okja, with Creative Party in Busan, South Korea, handling some environment work.

The title character in Okja is an 8-foot-tall, 13-foot long genetically modified pig that looks a bit like a hippopotamus, has big floppy ears like a dog, and moves about like a somehow nimble elephant.

Debuting at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Okja centers on the loving relationship between this hybrid creature and Mija (portrayed by Seo-Hyun Ahn). Mija grew up with Okja only to have her “pet” and friend taken away by the corporation that created it. The multi-national conglomerate is looking to get a major return on its investment, harvesting these lovable oversized creatures for their meat. Okja is headed for a slaughterhouse, but Mija and some youthful allies are on a wild, adventurous quest to save the beloved pet—and perhaps other such genetically modified creatures.

For the creation of the Okja character, director Joon-ho turned to primarily two artisans—conceptual artist Jang Hee-chul to design Okja, and De Boer. Hee-chul had designed to great effect the monster in Joon-ho’s 2007 thriller The Host. And De Boer won the Oscar as the animator who crafted the tiger Richard Parker in Life of Pi. It was The Life of Pi which prompted Joon-ho to seek out De Boer.

“The pig was already designed,” recalled De Boer who added key touches. “We looked at manatees for skin and musculature since the character is an engineered animal who needs layers of fat so it can yield lots of pork.”  De Boer also looked at canines and elephants for the ears. Dogs were also prevalent in terms of capturing Okja’s behavior, showing intelligence and a bond with its human owner. De Boer went far more than just skin-deep, delving into Okja’s innards such as bone structure, arteries, fat and blood, studying all the crevices and how the internal organs shape the external appearance.

Like the hybrid animal Okja, the movie is a hybrid—part action/adventure, part comedic (with dark humor provided by a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano), part satiric social commentary and part magical fantasy with elements of drama and suspense.

To do justice to this multi-faceted story, a prime visual effects challenge was to keep the interactions between Okja and humans, most notably Mija, believable.

While CGI characters have advanced greatly over the years, it still is a feat to mesh them naturally into live-action scenes. And in the case of the creature Okja, this coming together with live action is seemingly constant in the film. Mija or others would have a hand on Okja regularly. At times, noted De Boer, as many as six people were touching Okja. To keep a believable tactile feel to those interactions, a foam puppet rig of Okja—sometimes the entire creature, at other times just part of it—were used during live-action lensing. VFX animation director Stephen Clee controlled the rig, positioning it so that actors could reach out and touch it. This went a long way to helping to create the seamlessness of people and pig interacting in the final film.

“Stephen was in front of the camera puppeteering the Okja rig, working with Mija, and connected via radio with me behind the camera,” related De Boer. “The laser-cut foam models of Okja were on set like they were standard props. We also had a lot of rehearsal with Mija so that she was comfortable and knew what was going on. She learned how to pet Okja’s neck, making the connection between the two characters believable. Hugging, kissing, petting Okja as much as she does, we had to make this work. Okja is a friendly creature and there’s no way to get around our having to make embraces between them look real and natural.”

De Boer shared that watching folks running around—and actors interacting—with foam-cut pieces was a sight to behold during filming. “It was pretty spectacular and at times pretty funny looking.”

Dan Laustsen, DFF
The Shape of Water marks the third feature that cinematographer Dan Laustsen, DFF, has shot for director Guillermo del Toro—the first two being Mimic (1997) and Crimsom Peak (2015). From his prior experience, Laustsen knew going into The Shape of Water that he and del Toro are very much simpatico.

“We have the same taste and opinion when it comes to lighting and camera movement, related Laustsen. “Guillermo knows exactly what he wants to do and how. As a cinematographer, I find him very easy to be around. We understand each other. A lot of stuff we don’t even have to talk about.”

Being on the same page proved invaluable for such an ambitious movie, which topped last month’s Venice Film Festival with a Golden Lion win. The Shape of Water is a fairy tale set during the Cold War era of America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute, is trapped in a life of isolation. Her life, though, takes on hope, when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment—a hybrid man/sea creature with whom Elisa makes a special connection. Elisa and this amphibian man (Doug Jones), who too is mute, fall in love.

A relationship between mutes, steeped in a rich emotional silence, is a premise, said Laustsen, that is “very cinematic.” The visual becomes all the more important in showing their special connection, against a backdrop of espionage, danger and government Cold War era secrecy. Adding to the fairy tale mystery is how the creature is photographed. “You have to reveal enough of him so that the audience can feel a connection but at the same time,” noted the DP, “the key was not to show too much.”

This was done in part through inventive use of light. Del Toro observed, “A great cinematographer is like an orchestra conductor—he transmits emotion with light instead of musical notes.”

That lighting acumen also applied to helping to re-create the Cold War era. With expressionistic lighting and use of shadows, the film is lit as if it were 1950s’ black and white even though it was actually shot in color.

Another dynamic that propels the film is what Laustsen called “a visual liquidity” so that the narrative would “ebb and flow like water.” The cinematographer observed, “Everything’s in motion in the film. Guillermo wanted lots of camera movement, and he likes very precise movement so we worked with all kinds of cranes, dollies and Steadicams.”

Laustsen deployed the ARRI ALEXA XT camera with an internal diffusion filter, in tandem with ARRI/Zeiss Master Prime lenses. Laustsen said the filter and lenses softened the digital sharpness, “evened out the skin tones on the actors a little bit. This enabled us to get closer to what we envisioned for the film.”

For some of the underwater sequences, Laustsen shot “dry for wet,” using smoke, wind machines and projection to create a dripping, pulsating feel contributing to the illusion of water. This enabled the actors to perform with their eyes open, tapping into their facial expressions—again heightening feelings of both romance and mystery.

Laustsen has lensed 40-plus feature films, TV movies and documentaries both in his native Denmark and internationally, winning the Robert Award (Denmark’s Film Academy Awards) for Best Cinematography three times,including for director Ole Bornedal’s I Am Dina, for which the DP also scored a coveted Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage. Among Laustsen’s other credits are Simon and the Oaks, The Possession, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and John Wick: Chapter 2. The dailies of his first American movie, Nightwatch, caught the eye of del Toro, who then hired him to shoot Mimic.

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Josh Ausley DP