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02 Jul

Is this the most remarkable CGI in a film, ever?

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Weta

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Weta Digital is at it again! This time, the red-hot VFX house is inventing new ways to overrun the Earth with primates, as evidenced by an illuminating behind the scenes featurette for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

It's summer, which means it's once again Weta Digital's time to shine. While 'Weta Digital' isn't a household name, if you're a fan of big budget Hollywood blockbuster entertainment, you've no doubt marveled at Weta's handiwork: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit movies, the Iron Man movies, WolverineMan of Steel, Prometheus, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

Founded by Peter Jackson and fellow New Zealand filmmakers Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk way back in 1993, the powerhouse VFX wing of Weta (which also has divisions that run the gamut of film production), Weta Digital has staked a leadership position in the industry with its stellar work, innovation, and growing collection of hardware, highlighted by five Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.

Weta Digital once again finds the spotlight with its groundbreaking efforts on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the next installment of the franchise reboot. The first in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was one of the surprise hits of 2011, garnering critical acclaim while captivating audiences with a riveting mix of action, smart storytelling, and truly believable CGI apes.

Innovate to Amaze

Part of the Weta Digital formula is to actively research and discover new visual effects techniques in a near-constant process of innovation, including scientific and academic research and developing its own software. This focus on the next way of doing things appears to be a necessity, as Hollywood tries to one-up itself at every turn, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is no exception, as it represents a more grandiose and epic vision than its predecessor. More scale, more scope, more apes, more demanding production requirements to challenge the expert artists and technicians at Weta.

In the accompanying behind the scenes featurette (found at the end of this article), DOPTA director Matt Reeves reveals that Weta was more than up for the task: "The thing that happened between Rise (of the Planet of the Apes) and our film is that Weta has taken a quantum leap forward."

MASSIVE Improvements

One of Weta Digital's inhouse tools, MASSIVE (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment), was first developed to realize Peter Jackson's vision of The Lord of the Rings films, enabling the creation of thousands of 'agents' that behave and interact with each other and the environment based on fuzzy logic and a set of pre-defined rules. To some extent, system is calling into presence pre-recorded clips, mainly derived from motion capture, but that doesn't diminish the achievement in any way.

Faced with the enormous task of making this community of forest-dwelling apes pass the eye test, Rise of the Planet of the Apes marked the first time that Weta brought its MASSIVE system out of the studio and on location. Weta used the lessons learned from ROTPOFA and adapted its motion capture plan for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes  a shoot almost entirely made up of real world exterior locations.

To make it work, Weta Digital employed dozens of wireless 3D cameras to faithfully capture the actors playing the apes, who donned motion capture suits with active marker strands, measuring position, velocity and acceleration even if the markers were obscured from camera view, and witness cameras mounted to the suits to capture facial mocap information.

In post for DOTPOTA, Weta Digital used the occasion as an opportunity to roll out its impressive work in hair, skin, and moisture simulations. On the craft level, Weta's most stunning achievement may be in the arena of wet fur, as the rain-soaked environment called for, well, wet fur. The effect is extraordinary, and it's worth checking out the behind the scenes featurette for that section alone.


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  • Nice article. Brief, to the point, but with all the important and interesting info included.

    As for the movie, wow. I'm looking forward to seeing WETA's latest achievement in all it's glory. The fact that they've gone beyond the old "faster hardware, better software" mentality that has ruled this segment of the industry is impressive. Seeing them expand beyond into integrating the technology into the real world shooting environment and into the acting process. That will add exponentially to the gains in quality and realism being made. It will also help bridge the deep chasm of the Uncanny Valley that the CGI realm has been stuck in for a few years. Yes there have been some impressive achievements, like Avatar, but they have all had moments in the film where the suspension of disbelief was lost by the CGI falling back into the Uncanny Valley.
    Exciting stuff. I think the next generation of CGI based films are going to be pretty awesome.

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Patrick Jong Taylor

Patrick Jong Taylor is a freelance writer, director, editor, and motion-graphics artist. He lives in Los Angeles, which means, at any given moment, he's probably eating sushi on a surfboard while reciting lines from 'The Big Lebowski'. Or washing his Bentley.

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