Planet of the Apes: Motion-Capture Gets Wild


The men and women who survived a deadly virus that wiped out much of earth's human population hunker down amidst the ruins of San Francisco; meanwhile, a growing ape population has built a lovely and thriving community outside of San Francisco in Muir Woods. The tension between the two societies drives the action-packed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,the sequel to the 2011 Rise of the Planet the Apes that starred James Franco.

As this sequel begins, Franco's character has been dead for a decade, and the apes have had plenty of time to create their version of civilization. But in real time, it's been just three years since the Rise movie. In the world ofmotion picture technology, though, that's an eternity. Long enough to create computer graphics gear robust enough to take out of the studio and deep into a real forest. And long enough that moviemakers no longer need to give a recognizable Hollywood star top billing to bring in audiences.

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In fact, if you passed the leading man of Dawn — Andy Serkis — on the street, you wouldn't recognize his face at all, for you never see it on the screen. That's because his performance in the woods (actually, forests near Vancouver, not San Francisco) wasn't filmed traditionally, it was motion-captured and used as a framework for a computer-created realistic digital ape, Caesar. And, for the first time in my knowledge, it's the performances of the motion capture actors, not the regular actors portraying humans, that are getting all the good reviews from critics; there is even talk of the first best-actor Oscar nomination for a motion-capture performance.

Motion capture enables moviemakers to create realistic non-human characters, including Gollum in Lord the Rings, the Na’vis of Avatar, and the intelligent chimpanzees and orangutans of Rise of the Planet the Apes. It has also let moviemakers digitally tweak human characters, aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The technology uses a network of carefully calibrated monochrome cameras that track the movements of reflective markers attached to key spots on the bodies of actors and then use built-in processors to extract the precise coordinates of the markers. A motion capture movie set also uses a handful of regular high resolution video cameras to record the overall scene for the director and others involved in the production to use as reference. Later, animators correlate the data about the marker locations with the same points on virtual characters, like shoulders, knees, and feet.

After it is imported into the computer system, the data about the movement of the markers becomes a connect-the-dots representation of how the human actor moved that drives the digital characters. Animators later adjust the movements to better match them to ape physiology. It’s a complicated business and has historically taken place in a studio or, at the most extreme, a small and contained outdoor area, where lighting, shadows, and reflections that could impede the tracking of the markers can be carefully controlled.

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But the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, being released into theaters on 11 July took motion capture into the wild, with more than 85 percent of the movie shot outside the studio, in forests near Vancouver and in various outdoor locations near New Orleans.

Much of the movie action surrounds a community of 2000 apes, living in a rainforest-like environment. The technical challenges were huge, reported Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor, and Dejan Momcilovic, motion capture supervisor, both from New Zealand’s Weta Digital.

“We went deep into the forest, where it was raining and wet,” says Letteri. “It was the absolutely worst conditions we could have had for getting the [motion capture] to work reliably in.”

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