In an era of flash and flamboyance on film, it is easy to overlook the ever impressive task of transforming what’s real, into what extends beyond the possible for the big screen. For Dan Lemmon, this undertaking has been the primary focus from almost the beginning of his life. As Visual Effects Supervisor at Weta Digital, this task is pushed to its furthest limits. Dan’s repertoire is remarkable even by industry insider standards, leading effects on films such as Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, and Avatar, among others. His day to day has Dan zooming in on the question: how can I make something imagined look and feel real?
In Weta’s latest project with 20th Century Fox, War for the Planet of the Apes, this question was tested in new and nearly impossible ways. From its inception, this origin story would involve creating characters neither wholly chimp, orangutan or gorilla, nor entirely human. In fact, this technological and creative challenge is one which lives at the heart of the classic Planet of the Apes theme: What does it mean to be human and what is our true relationship with our closest relatives – fellow great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas) – and the rest of animal kingdom?
Read our exclusive interview with Dan below to find out what it took to make the world of War for the Planet of the Apes living, breathing cinema, and how this work helps take empathy building through storytelling to the next level.
Ashley Sullivan: Tell me a little bit about yourself – How did you become involved in Computer Generated (CG) Animation/film and what makes you so passionate about it?
Dan Lemmon: Growing up, I was a big movie fan. Because my family didn’t have very much, going to the movies was a treat. We would buy affordable movie ticket books for the summer, so I was able to watch a lot of movies. When I got older and moved to California, I was exposed to people whose families worked in the movie industry. My best friend and I made movies on the weekend, and we wanted to do that when we “grew up.”
My direction within filmmaking really took a turn when I saw one movie in particular: Jurassic Park. I’ve always been a big fan of SciFi, Fantasy, and Action Adventure, but up until this point dinosaurs on screen had always been stop motion. They weren’t quite realistic (think early King Kong), and though this held a certain charm, you had to occupy a suspension of disbelief. Jurassic Park was different because it had this big John Williams score and moments like the massive, breathtaking brontosaurus sequence. I knew they were using computers to make special effects, but I didn’t know they could make such realistic creatures. From that moment, I knew that was the way forward. I got everything I could get my hands on in terms of reading about the CG industry, and a lot of preparation and luck landed me my first job.
AS: How did you get involved in the War for the Planet of the Apes project in particular?
DL: We started with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we had to ask: How are we going to create these apes? Earlier 1960s Planet of the Apes was revolutionary. John Chambers makeup effects to turn humans into apes caused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a special category for makeup to award the film, 16 years before it was an official category. This film series has a legacy of being groundbreaking. The 1960’s film is set in the future, so there was space to believe their bodies looking more human. The story Fox wanted to tell for War for the Planet of the Apes was an origin story – where these apes came from. In the beginning of the movie, they had to look like apes in the wild or in the zoo – totally photorealistic. So that’s what we worked on doing!
We had to think outside of the current technological barriers. Performance capture – developed in advance during Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and Avatar – proved a great way. For this film however, we had to remove it from a dedicated sound stage and bring it on a live-action film set. All that equipment that normally lives on a special stage, we needed it to be a mobile, light set up which could be prepared in 20 -30 minutes. This is where we took on some challenges and built some really great solutions.
AS: Why do you think it’s so unique and compelling to use this technique with live actors? What makes that so wonderful when thinking about the theme of WFTPOTA?
Performance capture, or the filming of live actors upon which animation can be overlaid, puts actors together in a room with a director. They’re able to react to each other and the environment, and work with the director to find these characters and this performance. It was important to get them into the moment with the props, other actors, experiencing snow and the rain, because it changes the reactions. It enables us to have Matt Reeves, the director, give feedback and for them to really figure out what the scene is about. It’s amazing to watch how collaborative the process is, and it really allows us to put actors together in an old school way no longer constrained by their appearance. It also has the actors performing in the gait or positioning of one of the chimps or orangutans – with arm extenders to get their backs proportionally more accurate and at the right angle – which further deepens their performance.
AS: As Dr. Goodall discovered and others have confirmed, chimpanzees are very expressive, demonstrating emotions much like our own: fear, jealousy, love, compassion, drive, etc. How did you create those features in digital form?
DL: We watched a group of chimpanzees at the Wellington zoo. There are so many different kinds of personalities; some are sweet, some are not so sweet, some are try-hards, and they have rich, complicated relationships with one another. You can watch who’s trying to impress who, who is competing with who – it’s really similar to humans, and why they make such amazing documentary subjects. We learned a ton in the process. Orangutans and chimps are incredibly strong and super comfortable in trees or along ropes, and also walk upright with such dexterity and balance. They really fly through the air – even the strongest stunt man couldn’t do the things that the weakest ape could do. When characters in the film swing through the trees, animators would look at these great apes for inspiration.
To get the expressions just right, we worked intensely and creatively on little details. For example, when apes make a hooting shape with their mouths – or what we call a “funneler shape,” which is a sort of open duckbill – we tried to replicate that. When humans say the word “wash” it makes a sort of “hooting” shape. If a character was speaking, we would diminish the pure “ape funneler” shape for a more human shape so that a human audience would be able to understand the lip sync better. Another thing we observed is the way that a chimpanzee chin or mandible is not attached to their skull the same way that a human jaw bone is. Sometimes we would play that up and other times we would make it more human.
It is amazing how much “humanity” we would see in these great apes. We were lucky enough to see one of the chimps have a baby at the Wellington Zoo. The other chimps would gather around it and coo at it, and it looked so much like when a human has a baby. They are as dynamic as we are in so many ways.
AS: This film involves no live animal actors, which is something we are very happy about! Thinking about the idea of removing animal actors, particularly great apes, from the entertainment scene – do you think it’s possible to do so right now with digital?
DL: There are many reasons why not to use live apes in a movie making atmosphere. For one, we wanted to make the realness of the characters come to life on screen as performed by the human actors. I definitely think for great apes, and for most primates, actor driven animation is a better choice than using live animals. When we did the Jungle Book, we animated the primates – gigantopithecus, for example, which is extinct, but overall it was a better choice. For some animals like horses, it’s a little more complicated. Their relationship with humans is different from great apes or some other animals. Dogs and humans have particular relationship, too, but the process of making movies can be hard on those animals, especially when they’re front and center lead actors in a movie. It’s also just tough from a practical standpoint to get animals to “act” in a way that’s compelling. There are growing reasons to use more digital solutions, and use more actor driven technology, these are just a few.
AS: What was your “wow” moment working on this film/these characters?
DL: I’m really lucky because I get to look behind the curtain. You follow a program step by step, and then you show up one day and see a shot and say, “Oh wow, it’s alive!” This creation is breathing, living and making decisions! One thing that’s amazing to watch is when actors like Andy Serkis and Karin Konoval are in these scenes, and you see them react to each other and even though they’ve humans and they’re in these jumpsuits with little dots, emotionally it’s totally real. It’s a testament to these actors, that have done all this work and let themselves go to this place.
Good storytelling in its core comes down to empathy: Do I care about these characters and what is it about their situation that I recognize in myself? Cinema is an empathy machine, getting you as an audience member to connect with the characters. When I saw the play War Horse, they had horse puppets that were controlled by people – just sticks, wood and bits of fabric. It was incredible how once you bought into the experience, you totally believed for that moment that those horses were alive; you cared about their plight and their story. That’s what it’s all about.
JGI Partners with 20th Century Fox
In honor of the release of the new War for the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox will be working with the Jane Goodall Institute to provide care for rescued chimpanzees at Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in Republic of Congo. Read more about this partnership here.
The Jane Goodall Institute is a global community conservation organization that advances the vision and work of Dr. Jane Goodall. By protecting chimpanzees and inspiring people to conserve the natural world we all share, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment. Everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.