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
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.”