A Whole New Dawn

Di­rec­tor Matt Reeves talks about putting the fo­cus on Andy Serkis’ hy­brid mo­cap-an­i­mated rebel leader Cae­sar for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. By Bill De­sowitz

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

When Matt Reeves was ap­proached to suc­ceed Ru­pert Wy­att as di­rec­tor of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it was the per­fect match: he was an Apes fan from child­hood and re­sponded pas­sion­ately to the suc­cess­ful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. How­ever, Fox nearly lost Reeves when he saw the early di­rec­tion of the se­quel: a quasi Bat­tle for the Planet of the Apes. He wanted to pull back and ex­plore more of the tran­si­tional story of this simian re­boot and fo­cus on the apes’ leader Cae­sar, played again by Andy Serkis. Woods and see the civ­i­liza­tion that they cre­ated and pick up where they left off, but af­ter the vi­ral apoca­lypse that knocked out the hu­man race.

“What I loved in Rise was watch­ing Cae­sar come to­ward ar­tic­u­la­tion. But a weird thing hap­pened for me in be­tween the first time I watched Rise and the sec­ond time: I be­came a first-time fa­ther. And when watch­ing Rise again, I had a new view of the movie, which was that Cae­sar re­minded me of my son. I looked at him and I could see that there was tremen­dous com­pre­hen­sion of ev­ery­thing that he was

“What they’re do­ing is es­sen­tially in­ter­pret­ing

a per­for­mance, which is com­plete artistry.

There is no Cae­sar with­out Andy and there is

no Cae­sar with­out Weta.”

In the be­gin­ning, they were just cool cars that trans­formed into ro­bots — twisted into Ginsu-knife origami by the CG artists at In­dus­trial Light and Magic. But that was back in 2007, when Transformers first un­veiled di­rec­tor Michael Bay’s pho­to­re­al­is­tic take on the toons from Has­bro’s toy­land. Now, the fourth in­stall­ment in Bay’s be­he­moth fran­chise for Para­mount bar­rels into a place where any­thing can trans­form, and fire-breath­ing Di­nobots threaten the world.

Transformers: Age of Extinction continues Bay’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with ILM — par­tic­u­larly with Os­car-win­ning vis­ual-ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Scott Far­rar (a two-time Os­car nom­i­nee for the Transformers films). As Far­rar ex­plains: “This is the be­gin­ning of a new tril­ogy. The big­gest en­emy that hu­mans and Transformers face isn’t war; it’s extinction. And part of the extinction process may be com­ing from man­made char­ac­ters.”

An Ex­pand­ing Cast

That sto­ry­line opened the door for a raft of new an­i­mated per­form­ers — along with the nasty Di­nobots are good Au­to­bots like Hound (voiced by John Good­man), Drift (Ken Watan­abe) and Crosshairs (John DiMag­gio). Peren­nial bot-he­roes Op­ti­mus Prime, Ratchet and Bum­ble­bee are back in ac­tion, too, and there are new twists in sev­eral trans­for­ma­tions. “For the first time in this movie,” says an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Scott Benza, “we’ve got a triple-changer — a ro­bot that’s a Bu­gatti war­rior, which also trans­forms into a he­li­copter.”

Like Far­rar, Benza and co-an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Rick O’Con­nor have worked on all four Transformers films, so they’re used to be­ing chal­lenged to do some­thing new. As O’Con­nor re­calls: “Al­most two years ago, when Bay Films was pitch­ing this story, I thought it would be hard to trans­form into a di­nosaur if you’re a ro­bot in dis­guise. I wasn’t sure how we were go­ing to in­cor­po­rate that.”

ILM’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Bay’s pro­duc­tion artists be­gins early in pre­viz, some­times be­fore cast­ing is com­plete. “Maybe a third of the art­work is done by the time we join the pro­duc­tion,” says Benza. “We’ll take some ini­tial de­signs and con­trib­ute ideas as to how char­ac­ters could change to be more an­i­ma­tion-cen­tric. If a scene calls for it, we have the op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce ei­ther new char­ac­ters or new story beats.”

“Ev­ery artist on our staff has come up with some­thing that’s ended up on screen,” says O’Con­nor. “Cast­ing John Good­man as the voice of Hound was sug­gested by one of our an­i­ma­tion co­or­di­na­tors.”

Bay’s Bap­tism of Fire

This give-and-take is es­pe­cially fruit­ful when you con­sider that Michael Bay’s back­ground — di­rect­ing films like Pearl Har­bor and Ar­maged­don – hasn’t in­volved vir­tual ac­tors. “Michael had never re­ally done a film with an­i­mated char­ac­ters per se,” says Far­rar. “Sud­denly, not un­like any other an­i­mated film, he’s do­ing a movie where you have to worry about voice cast­ing, and be con­cerned with per­son­al­i­ties.”

“We spent a lot of time dis­cussing who these char­ac­ters were,” says Benza.

“The in­spi­ra­tion for char­ac­ter traits for Bum­ble­bee since the first Transformers was Michael J. Fox in Back to the Fu­ture, where he

was a lit­tle bit out of his el­e­ment. And we’ve car­ried that all the way through.”

It helps that Benza and O’Con­nor have had no­table con­ti­nu­ity on their 72-per­son an­i­ma­tion team. Charles Al­le­neck, who has risen to lead an­i­ma­tor over the course of the four Transformers, says, “The an­i­ma­tors here are all clas­si­cally trained as char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tors. So it’s nice to get to flex those mus­cles. In this film, the ro­bots are more cen­ter stage so we’re get­ting to do more spe­cific char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion. They have more rec­og­niz­able faces and ex­pres­sions and so we try to make them more emo­tive. And, more than any of the pre­vi­ous Transformers films, there are lots of scenes of ro­bots in­ter­act­ing with ro­bots. It is es­sen­tially an an­i­mated film for those parts.”

“The line be­tween vis­ual-ef­fects an­i­ma­tion and an­i­mated films is re­ally fuzzy these days,” says Al­le­neck. “A lot of these an­i­mated se­quences are meant to marry with live ac­tion. Part of be­ing in the vis­ual-ef­fects busi­ness is tread­ing that fine line.”

Com­bin­ing CG within live-ac­tion en­vi­ron­ments is a par­tic­u­lar spe­cialty of Far­rar’s, who has a cine­matog­ra­phy back­ground. He and Bay typ­i­cally shoot real lo­ca­tions with wildly mov­ing cam­eras — and that re­mains true even though the fran­chise has ex­panded into IMAX 3D. “We have new styles of pho­tog­ra­phy,” says Far­rar. “Even in IMAX.” It’s then up to ILM to fig­ure out how to fit the CG char­ac­ters and ac­tors into those shots. (HDRIs, pho­togram­me­try and match mov­ing were key tech­niques that en­abled this ap­proach.)

An­i­mat­ing to the Ac­tion

“Un­like a lot of other films, we use very lit­tle pre-de­ter­mined mo­tion-based items,” says Far­rar. “We might put ac­tors on cranes or wire as­sem­blies where they can ba­si­cally be pup­peteered. I don’t like the ma­chine-driven stuff so much. You can pre­pro­gram a move based on an­i­ma­tion that you’ve cre­ated and you put it on a mo­tion base rig and the ac­tors get on and go for a ride. Or you move them around and you retro­fit your an­i­ma­tion to that. That’s what we do, by and large, be­cause I think it looks more nat­u­ral.”

Transformers: Age of Extinction did find Bay for the first time film­ing an ILM an­i­ma­tor in a mo­cap suit while view­ing a rough Op­ti­mus Prime char­ac­ter through his viewfinder. O’Con­nor re­calls: “Michael en­joyed it, but he said, ‘You guys just blew the dream – now I’ll never be able to look at Op­ti­mus Prime think­ing he’s a war­rior. I’ll know he’s an an­i­ma­tor!’”

Ride On, Op­ti­mus!

Au­di­ences of the lat­est film will see Op­ti­mus do some­thing com­pletely new: gal­lop astride a T-Rex-styled Di­nobot. “It’s like John Wayne rid­ing to res­cue the stage­coach,” Far­rar says with a laugh. “As if we had a cam­era truck fol­low­ing Op­ti­mus Prime on the di­nosaur down the streets of Hong Kong to save the day.”

De­spite all of ILM’s ad­vances on the new Transformers, one process hasn’t changed: the sig­na­ture shape shift­ing of the ro­bots. “Ev­ery trans­for­ma­tion is hand-crafted,” says Al­le­neck. “We don’t want them to feel pro­ce­dural. We wanted each trans­for­ma­tion to fit the char­ac­ter and also the scene and the cam­era an­gle. Each one is a la­bor in­ten­sive process that has an artistry to it.”

Far­rar’s fi­nal tally is that his 500-per­son crew hit a mile­stone with Transformers: Age of Extinction. “Over half the movie is made up of our shots. I think this is the largest data pushthrough in the his­tory of ILM.”

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