‘War for the Planet of the Apes’: How the VFX Team Created the Most Realistic Apes Yet

Dan Lemmon talks to TheWrap about new technology, making Caesar’s eyes more believable, and environmental challenges while filming

War for the Planet of the Apes
"War for the Planet of the Apes" / Fox

“War for the Planet of the Apes,” the latest installment in the long-running ape franchise, is being lauded for its stunning visual effects. Many say that the third film in the series is the most visually-enchanting one yet — and VFX Supervisor Dan Lemmon told TheWrap how he did it.

Lemmon spoke about the long and challenging process to get the movie off the ground in the two and a half years since the scripting stage. One challenge, he said, was that they had planned to shoot near the Rinjani volcano in Indonesia, but it erupted just a few weeks before shooting began. Luckily it all worked out as they found that Mt. St. Helens in Washington State was a better shooting location anyway.

Since “Dawn for the Planet of the Apes,” Lemmon and director Matt Reeves made a list of things they wanted to improve on in this movie, which included making the apes more realistic than ever before.

“[In “Dawn”] there are shots that are absolutely believable and then there are shots that are fine but you don’t get as sucked in, and quite engaged,” Lemmon said. “We spent a lot of time looking into that in terms of shot design and lighting choices, things that we could do to up the realism.”

And that included apes on horses: “There were some shots that worked great and others where I said, I don’t know if I totally I buy it, that an ape is riding a horse … It didn’t look right.”

Using new technology like a Ray tracer, Lemmon and his team were able to make light move between the apes’ fur more realistically, making the apes look more real than ever before.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” stars Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn and Woody Harrelson, and hits theaters on Friday.

Read TheWrap’s Q&A with Dan Lemmon below.

TheWrap: What was the process like creating the apes?
Dan Lemmon:
It’s always been about trying to make them look as real possible. Typically the stories [I work on] are stories where we are trying to draw the audience into a world that doesn’t exist. To take people to a space that is outside a normal experience. Anything that strikes the audience as not right, we are disrupting that illusion. We go to great lengths to make things as believable as possible but we have to work within the confines of our craft and the technology we have available. Because we’re aways pushing things forward, there’s always going to be improvement. It’s something Matt [Reeves] and I talk about a lot.

Matt came on with ‘Dawn.’  There are shots that are absolutely believable and then there are shots that are fine but you don’t get as sucked in, and quite engaged. What’s the difference between those shots? We spent a lot of time looking into that in terms of shot design and lighting choices, things that we could do to up the realism. Some light just naturally hides the tricks better. Like any magician, certain light will give away the gag. Technology keeps getting better and fur is a tricky problem, as of course, our creatures have fur. There are so many individual strains of hair, the computer has to work so hard for the picture. Also the processing power gets better and it unlocks certain tools that we can use to make the lighting more realistic. One of the tools is Ray tracing, it’s a way of modeling how light moves through the world in a more realistic way. The big change from the last film was the full use of Ray tracer, which does a lot of things really efficiently.

Was that the hardest part to get right the eyes, especially Caesar’s?
Because eyes are so fundamental to the audience’s ability to connect with the characters, it’s something we never let go. We are constantly trying to make them more realistic, more closely matched to what humans are used to seeing. Apart from the whites of their eyes, which are darker than humans, the apes’ eyes are very humanlike, which is one of the reasons why when you go to the zoo or you watch a nature documentary, humans connect to chimpanzees when they watch the behavior: you look in their eyes and you feel like you are looking in the mirror.

Did you have to do a lot of research on the monkeys to get everything right?
A friend of mine is an eye surgeon and he has some devices for looking closely at eyes and you can put dye in to and see how liquid and how tears sit. The movement is really important, almost more than the anatomy or the realism of the surface texture — it’s so critical in making people feel the apes are alive and thinking and making decisions. And those tiny micro-eye movements: When you’re talking with another human, you are looking at one eye and you’re shifting, and that’s when you understand that the person is taking in and processing what you are saying. Getting that right is important in conveying the same kind of emotion from the actors on the set.

Were the horses used in “War” real or digital?
There was a mixture — one of the things we had on our list that we wanted to improve from the last movie was apes on horses. There were some shots that worked great and others where I said, “I don’t know if I totally I buy it, that an ape is riding a horse … It didn’t look right.” In the last movie, the apes were bare-back — the feet were dangling there and you didn’t get the feeling they were connected, so we decided that apes have repurposed human saddles and we invented a new horse stirrup specifically for them. When we were editing, the human legs would frame-by-frame be removed and we replaced them with apes legs because human legs are longer. Sometimes the horses were really unsettled and it became distracting, in some shots we needed more apes and horses than we had available. In other shots, we had to have digital horses do what we didn’t want them to do in real life.

Was this film any different from previous “Apes” movies or other projects you’ve worked on?
“The Jungle Book” is an interesting comparison because we made digital apes and monkeys but the process was very different in that “Jungle Book” was mostly digitally created. We had a strip of set that the characters would walk on. But everything else we made up. You get to build a world, but the actors that were cast to play the “Jungle Book” characters, they were on voiceover contracts — they had to be in the sound booth and read some lines and work with Jon Favreau, they weren’t coming out to the set, so we didn’t have Christopher Walken on set. It’s harder to get authentic performances when you have the separation of time and space, independent of the other actor. We found that when we have the actors playing the characters physically, we get a much more spontaneous performance.

How long did this movie take to produce? 

Most of the movie was shot in British Columbia. We shot on Vancouver Island, we shot in a big empty lot near Vancouver airport and we shot in the mountains surrounding greater Vancouver for the forest and river locations. The desert stuff at the end of the movie, we had a team that shot footage from various places in California, and the end was shot at Mount St. Helens. We had planned to shoot at Rinjani volcano near Indonesia, in Bali, which is a semi-active volcano, but a couple weeks before we started shooting, it erupted so we scouted a couple places which included Crater Lake in Oregon and St. Helens in Washington, and St. Helens had better topography and tied better into the American desert from the original franchise. It ended up working out really well.

It was a pretty long process. I had early conversations with Matt [Reeves] beginning of 2015, around New Years, we started shooting October 2015 and we shot until March 2016 and then we finished just a few weeks ago. It was about two and a half years of my time and then probably roughly a year and a half of solid shots, just making everything correct. There were roughly 1,450 shots. The apes are almost in every shot of the movie as opposed to the previous movies. We are with Caesar almost the entire movie, which is great, but it was also a great challenge.

What part of the movie are you most proud of?

I think the biggest challenge — which was true from the last two movies — was to get the characters that we’re creating have the same emotional intensity and subtlety that the actors have on set … Because we’re deleting actors from the movie and replacing them with digital creations, we have to make sure that our digital creations fully  honor and respect what the actors gave on set and that they carry emotionally the same connection that we had with them when we were watching the performance. You know, every time we reviewed shots with Caesar, we had Andy Serkis’ performance side-by-side with Caesar to get the emotion right. There’s no program that does that for you, that’s only the skill and dedication of the sculptors and technical people.