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Interview: Dan Lemmon on Creating the VFX for War for the Planet of the Apes

Dan Lemmon was inspired as a young child by Star Wars, Predator, and Terminator, but it was the soaring John Williams score in Jurassic Park that got Lemmon hooked and put him on the path to enter into the world of Visual Effects.  As a Visual Effects supervisor, Lemmon’s work can be seen in The Jungle Book, The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, and Avatar. He has also worked with Weta Digital on all three Planet of the Apes movies. This past summer he supervised on War for the Planet of the Apes.

I caught up with Lemmon recently to discuss the visual effects process of Weta and the magic of creating new characters like Bad Ape, and watching as performance capture brings a creation to life.  Since War for the Planet of the Apes also depicted the end of Caesar’s character, Lemmon talks about that moment on set.

Read our chat and enjoy the special clips provided by 20th Century Fox.

This was your third Apes movie. How has your relationship evolved with Matt?

Matt came on in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He had come on with a lot of admiration and respect for the work that we had done with Rupert Wyatt in the first film. He was also under tremendous pressure to get a movie made in a year and three months that would normally take to years to do, so it was really frantic.

We had a lot of the same team in terms of the visual effects producer and myself. So for Matt, he was trying to come up to speed with the tools and get an understanding of the tools and what the process was in order for him to make it work for the story he wanted to tell.

For him, that’s one of the things that he’s really amazing at. He’s really good at absorbing technical information and harnessing it towards the emotional story that he wants to tell. We get along great and there’s a huge respect for his craft, his process, and his storytelling.

Let’s just go back because this is the first time we’ve talked and your body of work is amazing. I’m talking Lord of the Rings, Titanic, King Kong. How did you get into visual effects?

I was really into movies when I was a kid. I was into Star Wars, Predator, Terminator, all those ’80s creature movies. I followed Spielberg, Cameron and dreamed of working on those movies when I grew up.

When I was in high school, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park opened and those films opened my eyes to the possibilities of these new digital tools to create worlds and characters that were totally believable at a level that nobody had ever seen before. In particular, Jurassic Park when the John Williams score sets in and you’re flying through the mountains, all of a sudden you’re seeing a brontosaurus, my jaw hit the floor. That’s what got me hooked. I started chasing every thread I could find to get a foot in the door.

Where do you start on a film like this?

It starts with the script. We had a few conversations before anyone had ever seen it. Matt said there were two things he wanted to talk about, “apes and snow. What do you think?” That for me was alarm bells ringing and I had to figure out how to get the snow on the fur. He also said he had the idea for a comical, Yoda-type character and he was talking about Bad Ape. That character got us really excited.

One of the challenges in this movie is figuring out how to make the apes distinct and allow the audience to keep track of who’s who. You go to the zoo and you look at a chimpanzee, it’s hard to tell which one is which sometimes. Having these distinct characteristics was part of the game.

When Steve Zahn was cast, it was such an inspired choice and watching him who had no experience with performance capture, he really took to it right away.

When you get to create a new character and do that, what’s that like for you?

It’s the greatest thing. There’s this thing that happens where no matter how many times you’ve done it before. The words on the page, the director and often us and concept designer will look for a mood board to assemble what the character will look like. You’ll sculpt it either in 3D or sometimes digitally this model that represents the character. You’ll make changes to the eyes. We’ll look at the actor playing the character and pull little details from the actor. In the case of Andy and Steve, we’ll take little bits of their brows and put it on to the character to help that connection. We go through a long process of creating the puppets. The animators will then go in and animate it, but that can take a few weeks. Then you start rendering the shot and you put the character into the background of photography and that moment, no matter how much work you put into it, there’s a switch that flips, and it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked, it’s still magic. You feel almost like God because you’ve created this thing that is living and breathing in front of you. That suspension of disbelief kicks into high gear and allows you to get sucked into the character and story.

There’s still something cool about prosthetics and rubber masks and knowing there’s a person inside somewhere. That’s an amazing experience, but there are limitations with that craft and the movements you can do. It’s a bit cumbersome. With digital, all those limitations go away.

What’s it like for you where you see the script and you see horses, ape, and snow? What is that pressure?

It’s exciting. As a visual effects artist, you always want to be pushed and go to a place you’ve never gone before.The nature of the craft is you constantly have to invent new stuff.

James Cameron used to say, “They’re called special effects, not pretty good effects.” Th idea is there has to be something magical, special, or unique about the thing you’re doing. If you’re not scared when you start a project, then something doesn’t feel right.

Describe a typical day for you.

My day changes depending on whether we are in prep, shooting, or in post. On set, I will have worked with my VFX producer, the grips, production designer and we’ll come up with a plan to put in place to allow the director and actors to create the movie. We have everything in place and there will be discoveries and not everything goes to plan so that collaboration with departments happens at a frantic pace. It’s a dramatic and really exciting, but sometimes grueling process where you might have to problem solve on the fly.

We were in the middle of the Canadian winter, it was mostly night shoots. We were in blizzards and there was freezing rain. The cast and crew were getting soaked, but if you look at the photography, it’s all dramatic.

You’ve been involved with performance capture for a long time. How has it evolved?

The biggest innovation is what we’ve done for the movies over the last ten years, in the same tradition as the original from 1968, you can cast actors and interact with each other. You can have the traditional filmmaking process, but those performance capture tools could only happen indoors on a soundstage. There are limitations, you’re not on set, and you’re not in natural lighting. So, the big innovation was to figure out how to take those tools from the dedicated space and make them robust, portable, and flexible so we could take them outdoors, in the elements, and still get the performances of the actors captured with the same fidelity as we would if we were in the dedicated space.

What’s the hardest thing to recreate in VFX?

There are so many different kinds of things that are challenging, but the thing that people are working on right now is to get completely believable humans to perform at a level that they can be in scenes with real humans and the audience won’t know the difference.

There are so many complexities to the human face but there are some areas that are not quite 100% working, but that’s an area that a lot of people put a lot of effort into.

What was it like seeing it for the first time?

It was great because I’ve been with it through a number of different edits. I consulted with Matt. It was tough to look at the film as its own thing. At the premiere, I hadn’t seen it with the final score, and suddenly it was different and so fantastic to see because I had seen it with a temp score.

You get so invested in the characters, I have to say to the point that you suspend reality.

You do. You totally buy it. It’s a funny thing that process. You go to live theater, say The Lion King, you know they’re puppets, but when you sit down you accept it. This is what I signed up for. You know it’s not real, but you connect with it. Our craft has been all about trying to make that psychological leap shorter between it’s real/it’s not real.

There’s a version where Matt makes his cut, it’s just Andy and Steve in those funny gray pajamas and you can watch the movie, just them with those suits. After a minute, you accept it, Andy is an ape and Steve is an ape. As we start putting the apes in and it’s no longer them, it’s almost distracting because it has now become as real.

How devastated were you by that ending?

It was a tough day on set. Tears were rolling down faces and we shot it on the last day of principal photography. It was Andy’s last scene as Caesar so emotions were running high.

Bad Ape Progression photos

Maurice Progression photos


Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox