Each year, the Oscars recognize A-list talent we regularly see on screen, on the red carpet, and in tabloids. But the Academy Awards also reward those who work behind the scenes: the writers, editors, costume designers, and others who help create trophy-worthy movie magic. This Oscars season, we’ll be toasting those off-screen artists by delving into the hidden secrets that helped create the on-screen magic that we — and the Academy — fell in love with. For more access backstage during this Oscars season, click here for EW.com’s Oscars Behind the Scenes coverage.
If you want to pinpoint the specific moment when Rise of the Planet of the Apes stopped being a punchline, you can look right back to the very first teaser for the the sci-fi preboot, which ends with a striking close-up shot of primate protagonist Caesar. He’s not doing anything. He’s just… thinking. The combined efforts of performance-capture performer extraordinaire Andy Serkis and the visual effects team at Weta Digital turned Caesar into summer 2011′s most unexpected hero — and earned the film an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects. That striking shot was actually the first successful image completed by the effects team, and the story behind that shot provides an intriguing snapshot of the multilevel process that went into creating Caesar.
Director Rupert Wyatt and character designer Aaron Sims designed the character with some real-world reference, though Visual Effects supervisor Letteri notes that they wanted to give Caesar “a bit more nobility… to stand out a little bit more from the other apes.” The effects team looked at real chimpanzees, “videotaping them constantly, looking at what they do and what their expressions are.” Meanwhile, Serkis — no stranger to primates after his titular role in King Kong — was doing his own chimp research.
That labor-intensive first shot of Caesar took roughly six to eight months. “The character design was done as a sculpture,” Letteri explains. “Then there was some PhotoShop done on top of that, and then we built a 3-D model. We got Andy to do a bunch of recorded performances, so that we could explore a full range of performance motions in Caesar. At the same time, we were building all the details of the character. The skin. The eyes. The fur. Those first six to eight months are all about finding the character.”
Letteri has worked with Weta throughout the evolution of performance-capture technology. (He actually already has four Oscars, for The Two Towers, Return of the King, King Kong, and Avatar. “My first one, I keep up on the mantelpiece at home, just to be traditional,” he notes. “The other three I have in my office.”) “The real breakthroughs for us are what we learn about characters and creatures over the years,” he notes. “What makes eyes really look like eyes? It’s not the eyes themselves, though they’re obviously a big part of it. It’s the whole area around the eyes, how the eyelids and the muscles respond. You look at the eyes, but you interpret outward from there.” For that reason, the team decided to make Caesar’s eyes more humanlike. “We needed audiences to be able to understand what he was thinking right off the bat, even when he was an infant.”
All that hard work produced that memorable shot of Caesar scanning around his cell. “You see this sideways glance. You just know something’s going on behind his eyes, and you don’t know what it is. Those moments, where it’s just in the eyes, are where you find the character. And that was all Andy coming through.” The success of that first completed shot also explains why it appeared so prominently in the advertising: Says Letteri, “The reason that shot was in the trailer is that it was the only one that was done!”
Compare the first shot of Serkis to the final shot of Caesar here, and, for more Oscars-related intel, see live video from behind the scenes at the awards at Oscar.com:
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Oscars 2012: EW’s special coverage