Motion Capture, Visual Effects and On-Location Shooting

Motion Capture, Visual Effects and On-Location Shooting

from: Dyana Carmella,

When on-location shoots are combined with motion capture and visual effects, it can result in some of the greatest cinematic moments ever seen.

The producers of the Planet of the Apes franchise reboot know this all too well, as moviegoers were amazed by the groundbreaking visuals showcased in Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. The upcoming sequelDawn of the Planet of the Apes now picks up the baton to take the franchise’s technical achievements even further. Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) and starring Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Andy Serkis (as Caesar, the ape leader), Dawn explores the divide between humans and evolved apes as they struggle to co-exist. A good portion of the film was shot in Vancouver, Canada, where veteran Location Manager Catou Kearney (“Fringe,” Rise of the Planet of the Apes) - pictured bottom left - helmed the location logistics from start to finish.

400 PhotoByBonny NorthcottDawn would give Reeves his first motion-capture experience, so he wanted to fully understand the process before filming. He soon learned that all motion-capture workflows stem from a genuine and emotional performance. “The first thing I did was talk to all the effects people and ask them to show me all the footage of Andy [Serkis] doing the character just as Andy, and then show me what was done [with effects] by going scene by scene and looking through it,” Reeves explains. “I was blown away by the movie and what he did. The truth of the matter is the revelation was exciting for me because I love working with actors and performances. What I realized is the key to motion capture is the actor. The genius is the way Weta [Digital] is going to translate it, but it starts with the actor’s performance, and Andy is such a great actor. That’s what was exciting to me, to see that it was about directing it in a grounded and realistic way.”

To work with motion capture, actors wear gray bodysuits with motion-capture dots placed on the key areas of the body. The actors then physically perform and interact as characters as the motion capture creates computer-generated images. “People were surprised, not so much on this ape movie but on the first one we shot in downtown Vancouver,” says Kearney. “The public was wondering where the apes were, [and we said] ‘That’s him over there in the gray bodysuit.’ They were shocked on just how fabulous the apes ended up looking. It was crazy.”

To create realism, Reeves shot Dawn on location, and chose to film most of the forest scenes around Vancouver. “The first film [shot] much more on a stage,” says Reeves. “This film, because of what they are creating [with] Ape Kingdom, is out in the woods … I wanted to use as much available light as possible so that you could create all that reality. And then, of course, the key to everything was just about the emotional reality of the characters that these actors play.” Currently based in Vancouver, Kearney was central to the production having a smooth location shoot. “For those of us that work in the industry up here, we are very fortunate that we’ve had the opportunity to work and live in the same town,” says Kearney, a location veteran in both film and TV since 1989. All of Dawn’s locations were deep in the forest in Vancouver’s lower mainland. “We are able to find the majority of the locations locally,” says Kearney. “It was minimal crew travel and time involved, which is great [because] your director has more time to play during the day as opposed to losing time to travel.”

Kearney usually will work with a location crew of three to four people, including two assistants and a trainee. In Vancouver, production assistants work in the location department, so Kearney had 60 people ready to prep, shoot and strike for the production of Dawn. The film’s most challenging location was the fictional locale of Ape Gate, where the movie’s lead characters visit an ape village. The site was very difficult for the actors and crew to access. “When we first started scouting, it was quite snowy and cold,” says Kearney. “Access to it scared the living daylights out of everybody just because we would be driving in on these gravel roads and it was freezing. You are trying to envision what it was going to look like in three months when it wasn’t freezing anymore, and just the logistics involved in getting the materials in and out was challenging. It took a lot of planning and time.” During the film prep and shoot, the roads to Ape Gate had to be reinforced and constantly kept clear. “That’s the one thing [location managers] ever think about,” says Kearney. “You have to support the filming units and be able to get your trucks in or as close to set as you can get them, because the technicians need their gear.”

PlanetofTheApes DF-D05-00991Kearney felt very fortunate that she could accompany the production on location spending days as shots were planned to create the storyboard. “It was really interesting to be part of that creative process,” she says. “[Reeves] had it clear in his head how he wanted [Dawn to look], so it was interesting to take that on location and watch him work it out in the environment that we were in. There some parts that were hard, like one can’t control the weather, and when it rains and you are in the middle of a forest, and when it rains, it rains very hard.” The Vancouver shoot took three to four weeks, but Kearney was in contact with Dawn’s production designer for months prior to filming. “We took a long time scouting locations, and that’s difficult too because sometimes when you are presenting pictures a tree looks like a tree that looked exactly like another tree,” she explains. “You have to learn how to distinguish between forested areas and find an area that has something special to it so that it strikes a cord with everyone who sees it.”

Despite the difficulties, Kearney was excited to work out the film’s logistics. “It was challenging but fun,” she says. “The logistics is where you really get to pull it all together like a puzzle. And at the end, when the last piece of the puzzle sinks in and you’ve got it all laid out and the principal photography is over and done, it’s a very good feeling. Everyone has to work together to figure out the logistics of how you are going to pull this off. When you throw 3D into it, it’s a whole other beast. It’s bringing all these elements together, [and] that could be a bit mindboggling but [Reeves] maintained the right attitude throughout the whole process. This was a very strong team.”

In the end, it was the technical feats of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that really opened Kearney’s eyes. “You learn something every time you do something like this,” she says. “It was a combination this time using live motion capture and working with motion-capture units on location, [and] then adding the 3D element was over and above. Each unit had their own challenges and then learning over time what those are.… Each show is a new learning experience. I’ve done 3D [and] computer-generated motion capture before but never on the same film.”

Film Works LA      Like Film This! on Facebook