The rise of the previs of Planet of the Apes

The digital simians in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of Apes represent breakthrough performance capture work by Andy Serkis and incredible VFX tech via Weta Digital. To help in the planning effort for the effects-heavy film, a bevy of previs artists tasked with literally choreographing just about every shot featuring a digital ape. We talk to Image Engine and Pixel Liberation Front, two of several studios involved in the previs for Apes.

With numerous visual effects supervision and production credits, Apes co-producer Kurt Williams took on the previs – and post-viz – duties with the assistance of several companies over the course of filming and into post. They included Fox’s in-house Cinedev, Image Engine, Pixel Liberation Front (PLF), MPC, Blind Squirrel Digital and Halon Entertainment. Close to 1500 shots in total were previsualized, with up to 50 previs artists working on the show at different stages, sometimes on same or similar sequences as the film took shape.

Image Engine’s previs reel for ‘Apes’: Part 1

Image Engine’s team, led by previsualization supervisor Cameron Widen, was embedded with the production on set in Vancouver. Up to seven Image Engine artists worked nearby to the offices of Kurt Williams and director Rupert Wyatt and utilized a mobile server that essentially had a cut down version of the studio’s visual effects pipeline.

“We used Maya, Nuke and Final Cut Pro to piece things together,” says Image Engine previs animator Earl Fast. “Our team was mostly animators, some generalists building characters and sets, a technical artist and another doing rigging. Most of our work occurred before they had started shooting and it was really interesting in terms of the animation and timing beats we were hitting – the detail. We would even go to the point of scrapping whole scenes and starting over again to make sure we were getting them right.”

One of the sequences Image Engine previs’d included a shot of the apes rampaging through an office building, seen in profile as the animals scale the walls, crash through windows and then wreak havoc. “When we started on this, it was actually a series of unconnected shots,” notes Fast. “But as we worked on it, these larger individual shots become tied to each other. The iteration process in previs has to be really fast. That’s typically why the level of animation isn’t really pushed super-far, because you’re just trying to get the large brush strokes down.”

Image Engine’s previs reel for ‘Apes’: Part 2

Another, perhaps more subtle, shot that Fast enjoyed creating featured Caeser in his cage at the ape sanctuary drawing a window on the wall. “We spent quite a bit of time setting that out,” he says, “trying different angles, even working on a little bit of mood and lighting.”

Image Engine’s previs ranged from both overall shot beats to sequences with technical information such as camera lens and set size details. For Image Engine visual effects executive producer, Shawn Walsh, the goal was to provide both as a service to the director and other filmmakers. “We call some our previs ‘presentation previs’,” he says, “because it’s designed in such a way to help people understand the whole movie and know what the final product might look like. It can sometimes be less about figuring out the size of a bluescreen, although that happens as well, and more about the overall picture.”

PLF’s previsualization supervisor Duane Floch came on during filming both in Vancouver and LA to help co-ordinate the large number of previs artists and approvals required, and also moved with production to the Fox lot in LA to carry out post-viz work. Like Image Engine, PLF relied on mostly off-the-shelf tools like Maya, After Effects and PFTrack to allow for quick turnarounds. “You want to blend your low-poly characters into the scene as much as possible,” says Floch, “so we do what we can with lighting, and then we add blur and desaturation to our 3D assets when it goes on top of the plate. ”

PLF previs still

Although on set Andy Serkis and other actors performed in motion capture suits, the resulting data was not available for the previs teams, who relied on keyframe animation for the apes. “We had various walk and run and jump cycles,” says Floch. “Some of the shots had more than 150 apes in them, and they were all moving, all rampaging doing various things. So we designed the cycles and dumped the information off of the rig and onto the geometry itself – you could have well over 100 characters and it worked easily in the scene.”

PLF also completed previs for scenes of the apes escaping the lab, including one of them crashing through the glass facade onto the street below – a shot that came together during re-shoots. “We’d been off the project for about a month,” recalls Floch, “and then we got back on to help prep for the new shoot. We had somebody in the office who was interning and happened to know ICE through XSI. We needed really nice looking plate glass window breaking – there’s not really an off-the-shelf button for that in Maya – so he set this up. I gave him the dimensions for the window and the relative speed and he did it in basically no time. We cross-walked it over to Maya and got it shaded and lit!”

Sometimes we were comping together five, six, seven layers of elements,” explains Floch. “This included fog, characters, effects and lighting thingsThe biggest sequence PLF worked on was the Golden Gate bridge scenes featuring a confrontation between the apes and police. “Cinedev started on that sequence and had developed some very usable and nice rigs for each of the main ape characters,” says Floch. “As various houses came on, those rigs were distributed among the vendors.”

PLF breakdown of the Golden Gate sequence

For the bridge shots, the work ranged from pure CG previs with detailed measurements and camera positions, to composites in post. “Sometimes we were comping together five, six, seven layers of elements,” explains Floch. “This included fog, characters, effects and lighting things – just to get it to look the way the director felt was right and to allow some art direction from the director and approve these things and turn the shots over to Weta.”

Some long panning shots were added to the bridge sequence, choreographed to be shot in the parking lot at the Vancouver studios. “We translated a helicopter move into something they could get with a somewhat strangely mounted Technocrane on a back of a truck,” says Floch. “That put the camera about 50 feet high and we could get these panning moves. They’d paint out all the surrounds and extrapolate the length of the bridge into digital, but at least the main foreground elements with the key figures would be practical.”

Ultimately, the filmmakers, actors, and the Weta Digital artists, could rely on the previs as an important template for the film. “We think of previs as a service to a director,” says Image Engine’s Shawn Walsh. “I think you need to center it around a supervisor that has a particular knack for it. You need to make it like a departmental service, similar to R&D. So it’s a service we offer to filmmakers while they may also engage us for visual effects work in general, which has happened on other films.”

A still of PLF's previs for inside the ape sanctuary.

PLF’s Duane Floch agrees, adding that “we definitely spent some careful time helping the production realize things as practically as possible. Not all of it was used as a specific blueprint for how each shot would be done, even though a lot of it matched exactly. It was really used to give the film its flavor. Then Weta did their magic and got us what we see in the movie.”

All images and clips copyright 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

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