War for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Weta Digital claim victory on "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Weta Digital has been at the cutting edge of visual effects design for nearly a quarter-century, during which time they produced some of the film industry’s most iconic visuals: the epic battles in The Lord of the Rings movies, for example, or the physics-defying fight scenes in various X-Men movies. And as for character modeling, well, they’ve done it all: from Gollum to Smaug, mutants to vampires, and King Kong to Neytiri. For their achievements, they have been awarded six Visual Effects Academy Awards and six BAFTAs, among numerous other accolades.

Here, Anders Langlands, Weta VFX Supervisor, and Florian Fernandez, Lead Modeler, discuss the work on "War for the Planet of the Apes," and share how they’ve returned to raise the bar once again in this latest installment of the renowned franchise.


 

Nova (Amiah Miller) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) in a still from War for the Planet of the Apes
Maurice (Karin Konoval) in a still from War for the Planet of the ApesWar for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

"As with the previous installments, the whole movie revolves around [the apes], and the audience's ability to identify with them as real, breathing characters."

THE CHALLENGE

Anders: We had a huge variety of work to cover in this one, from huge full-CG environments to incredibly detailed FX simulations, but the core of the work was on the apes themselves. As with the previous installments, the whole movie revolves around them, and the audience's ability to identify with them as real, breathing characters.

My work concentrated on the first half-hour of the film, from the opening battle in the forest up to the point where the apes start their journey, and for most of this timeframe the main area of focus was on the apes’ fortress environment and the waterfall that hides it from the outside world.

 

Steve Zahn (Bad Ape) on set of War of the Planet of the Apes VFX breakdown

Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) in War of the Planet of the Apes VFX breakdown

Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) in a still from War of the Planet of the Apes (VFX breakdown)War for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.


"…it comes down to hours upon hours of painstaking observation and creativity from hundreds of dedicated artists…"

 

INTELLIGENT APES

Anders: The increasing intelligence of the apes is a continuing story point between each film, and that's a creative decision by the director together with the screenwriters and the actors. Where we come in is making sure those performances translate effectively from the human actors onto our CG apes.

First and foremost, it comes down to hours upon hours of painstaking observation and creativity from hundreds of dedicated artists at Weta Digital. From the animators figuring out how to translate a human facial performance to an ape's anatomy; the texturing and shading artists working on the look of the skin, hair, and cloth; the creature TDs making sure everything moves with the correct physics; the lighters and compositors integrating the apes with the photography – everyone's constantly examining what we're doing and figuring out what makes it look real, and what makes a compelling experience for the audience.

 

Ape tribe walking in snowy forest with cherry blossom tree in War of the Planet of the Apes VFX breakdown

Ape tribe walking in snowy forest with cherry blossom tree in a still from War of the Planet of the Apes (VFX breakdown)War for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.


"Our overall approach has stayed much the same throughout the trilogy… we've refined it to the point where we can focus much more on the subtle nuances…" 


EVOLVING VFX

Anders: The technical progress this industry makes on a year-to-year basis is inspiring. We’re constantly evolving new strategies, new techniques, new technologies, to raise the bar of what’s possible. For example, this was the first Apes film to be rendered entirely in Manuka, which really helped us push the boundaries of CG photorealism in our renders.
 
Our overall approach has stayed much the same throughout the trilogy. The difference now is that having done this process twice before, we've refined it to the point where we can focus much more on the subtle nuances – those last few minor details that elevate the apes to being lifelike, believable characters. 

 

"Maya is the foundation of our 3D pipeline… Almost all of our polygonal modeling happens in Maya, as does all of the ape topology."


MAYA

Florian: Maya is the foundation of our 3D pipeline. We’re actively testing Maya 2017 on other projects, but we had already locked into the 2016 version for this latest Apes feature – and that familiarity was helpful to us. Almost all of our polygonal modeling happens in Maya, as does all of the ape topology.

For hair and grooming, we use our proprietary Wig software, running in Maya. The flexibility Maya offers in that regard is wonderful, since we can just design Maya plugins (like Wig, Lumberjack, and Totara) to meet our needs, and that’s exactly how we handled tricky stuff like the fur, or the trees and vines that form the backdrop of so much of the movie. We rely a lot on custom Python and open Maya tools, and that versatility is huge for us.


Anders: We also made good use of the greater modeling toolkit integration. In the past, for things like topology, we’d rely on external applications, and now we get most of that done right in Maya. The same goes for low-resolution sculpts, thanks to the new sculpting tools in the 2016 version. We also made good use of the new unfold UV tool and the brush-based options in the UV editor.

 

Armed ape tribe concept art for War of the Planet of the Apes

Armed ape tribe riding horses in War of the Planet of the Apes VFX breakdown

Armed ape tribe in a still from War of the Planet of the Apes (VFX breakdown)War for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.


"There were 1,415 shots, 1,699 assets and an average of 221 iterations per shot…Shotgun’s speed and intuitive interface helped us to manage it and navigate it quickly."

 

INTEGRATING SHOTGUN

Anders: Weta Digital made the decision to adopt Shotgun after a trial run at two smaller firms, and the benefits – in terms of standardizing production, tracking workflow, consolidating a lot of tools and data storage – were simply enormous. There were 1,415 shots, 1,699 assets and an average of 221 iterations per shot. That’s a huge amount of data, and Shotgun’s speed and intuitive interface helped us to manage it and navigate it quickly.

And from a scheduling perspective, being able to use waterfall views and Gantt charts really helped speed up the process and divide our time and attention effectively. 

It's still early days for our Shotgun integration, but it's been very helpful as a way of improving the flow of information to the whole team. Things that would previously have required production to pull out of a database and disseminate manually now appear on Shotgun pages that are easy for the artists and supervisors to browse, and obviously, that’s a huge help to us.

 

Apes in trees concept art for War for the Planet of the Apes

Apes in trees in a still from War for the Planet of the ApesWar for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.


"And in honor of one particularly impossible weekly target, one of our coworkers even wore a monkey suit for an entire day."

 

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

Florian: There were so many memorable moments and funny stories that made the production of this movie special, from late-night beer deliveries to epic reference shoots – bear fights! – that helped inform the movie’s final look. And in honor of one particularly impossible weekly target, one of our coworkers even wore a monkey suit for an entire day. There were so many great memories made during the production of this film, and we’re grateful for that opportunity. 

 


Weta Digital, you make incredible VFX! Thank you for allowing us to share your story with our community. 

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