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Contender – Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri, Rise of Planet of the Apes


Joe Letteri. (Photo by Andrew Gorrie).

It may be a two-fer year for Joe Letteri: his work on the summer reboot of Fox’s Planet of the Apes franchise has generated considerable buzz about how poignant digits can be in the form of Andy Serkis’ mo-capped performance as Caesar – the chimp leader of the ape uprising against mankind.

But Letteri is also one of Weta’s credited supervisors for the upcoming Steven Spielberg-directed The Adventures of Tintin, which itself is generating considerable buzz (after already opening outside the U.S., and due to run as a Yuletide offering on these shores). The latter film is entirely mo-capped, a la Polar Express, though represents – according to those who have seen it – another “great leap forward” in the technology’s use.

Many we’ve talked to for our year-end visual effects round-up wonder if that film will be nominated as a best animated film, or if it will be perceived as a visual effects film (in spite of being entirely “animated”) instead.

For Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, Letteri worked with a more traditional definition of “visual effects” with the digits – all the simians and primates – embedded in a regular live-action film.

But what digits! Serkis, as the hyper-intelligent Caesar, finds emotional levels that make his one of the most clearly heart-rending performances of the year. Why, the other buzz goes, should a mo-capped performance be less nomination-worthy than one done live in heavy make-up and costume?

And while this doesn’t seem to be the year the Academy will step into the 21st century (does any year, really?), Letteri’s work, in overseeing the CG is in the thick of nomination-talk in the effects category.

“The script was really good,” he says of Apes, but it came with the realization that unlike in its classic antecedents, “doing any kind of a suit isn’t going to work anymore… (It) made sense to do performance capture.”

Andy Serkis gives a stunning performance as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

But the project made even more sense for Letteri –  to the point of saying “yes” – when he knew Serkis would be portraying the pivotal primate. Serkis was well known to Letteri and the Weta crew for his equally pivotal mo-cap work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (a role which he’s reprising in the two-part Hobbit adaptation), plus had specifically simian “body language” experience after essaying the role of King Kong in Peter Jackson’s post-Ring adaptation of that other classic “ape flick” (Mighty Joe Young notwithstanding).

The breakthroughs here – and the things making Serkis’ performance so palpable – include new rendering software for skin and sub-surface muscles, allowing for ever-more-subtle facial expressions. Letteri describes it as a “whole new set of tools on top of performance capture itself.”

But “the real breakthrough” he says was a development in rigging the performance capture gear so that Serkis could actually be “on stage” (or wherever the actors were), using “active LEDs, (so that) set lighting didn’t interfere with motion capture lighting” or vice versa, which allowed Serkis to actually interact, on set with his fellow thespians, in “Caesar” mode, even if his “costume” wouldn’t be finished ‘til post.

So if he’s emoting a character, and feeding back to his other performers because he’s on set with them, interacting,  isn’t that the definition of “acting” itself?

“It’s going to be up to the guilds to define what you mean by ‘performance,’” Letteri says. However, what the guilds, societies, and academies mean by “visual effects” is still clear enough, and Letteri definitely figures to be in those conversations.

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