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Creating Digital Leads in 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters this weekend. Both this sequel and the Rise of the Planet of the Apes reboot that preceded it manage to pay tribute to the original series while at the same time abandoning the prosthetic makeup effects that were one of those movies' most beloved and defining features. The apes in the new movies are some of Hollywood's most impressive digital creations to date.

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Gino Acevedo is the Creative Art Director at New Zealand effects house Weta Digital and worked on the new movie. He's also one of the people best position to comment on the transition from practical to digital effects in these movies. We had a long conversation about his path from Phoenix, AZ to Wellington, NZ.

Some background Gino's first job out of high school was with a Halloween costume company called Imagineering, where he learned to sculpt and design masks. His Hollywood connection came from Barry Koper, a makeup artist who flew to Phoenix once a year for the company's catalog photo shoot. Through Barry, Gino met Hollywood SFX makeup legends like Rick Baker and Stan Winston.

Gino eventually moved to LA and a big break when he worked on Point Break, where he designed the film's iconic Jimmy Carter mask for the bank robbery scene. He eventually moved to New Zealand to work on The Lord of the Rings movies and, during his time at Weta, Gino made the transition from making masks to designing effects purely in the digital realm. He's got a lot of insight into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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Do you think your strong background in practical effects gives you extra perspective in the digital effects world?

There’s something that I find really interesting when I see a lot of reels or portfolios from artists. I have a real problem with artists that do so much Photoshop stuff and not any of the real traditional stuff with pencil and paper.

I'll see an image that they’ve done and then they say, “I drew that.”  And I say, “It's really beautiful and got really nice composition, but did you really draw it? I can see where you cloned a bit of an elephant skin from this and a little bit of rhino skin from that and maybe a gorilla nose and you comped it all together quite nicely, but it's more of cut and paste as opposed to you painting it.”

What I tell everybody when I do talks is that there's nothing wrong with a pencil and a piece of paper.  It's the cheapest thing you can buy and it's still the best thing you can get.  You know there's nothing wrong with sketching something out and then scanning it, then take it into Photoshop.  You can enhance it there, because it's just another tool.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Talk about the digital creation of the apes in the current movies. Was it weird for you as a guy with such a strong background in practical effects to work so heavily on the computer side of things?

I grew up a huge fan and the original films really changed my life, so I'm really proud and so excited to be part of these films and to see that it's made this resurgence and we’re able to show it to a new audience.

For the designs, we've got to give a lot of credit to a very good friend, a very talented artist in Los Angeles.  His name is Aaron Simms. Aaron did a lot of the production design and some of the original concepts for the apes.  We took those concepts and enhanced them in New Zealand and made changes where we had to, just to make them work. Sometimes an image looks fantastic on an illustration, but we have to make a few changes for the design to physically make it work with when the characters have to move and talk.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

When my friends back in L.A. heard what I was doing for this film, they were all in shock and said, “Aren't you gonna do any prosthetics at all?”  And I said, “No, no, it's all gonna be digital.”  And they said, “That’s ridiculous. Come on, Gino, you come from the physical background.  You’ve got to really push them to do makeups and stuff, like they did on the last one.” Rick Baker did some beautiful makeup on that movie. I said, “No, it's just not gonna work, guys, because these have to look like just normal apes.” We can get all sorts of just incredible little nuances now. Look at what we did with Gollum. We couldn’t have done that as a makeup.  You know we just couldn’t find an actor skinny enough to be able to play him.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

So I got a lot of harassment for a while, before the first film came out.  And the one person that I kind of avoided talking to is Rick Baker.  We were quite close and I just didn’t want to have that conversation with Rick. Finally, when Rise came out, I got an email that says, “Hey, Gino, it's Rick, haven't heard from you in a long time, hope you're okay, and, just to let you know, the Baker family just got back from seeing Planet of the Apes and we loved it.” I got the stamp of approval from the king of the apes, you know you can't get any better than that.

There's still a lot of heartache because digital is sadly putting a lot of the practical stuff away, but at the same time there's still a lot of the physical stuff that we still need to do. Aaron and his company actually sculpted some busts of Caesar, so we had those as practical things to look at and scan for reference.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

What's amazing is how technology is really becoming more and more advanced and getting the look of these guys to become so realistic now.  For instance, look at Andy Serkis and his performance capture. I've known Andy for years and years, even back from the Gollum days.  And I know Andy's face really well and I know his expressions and the little things that he does, but now with the new technology is that they're able to capture all those little nuances that are Andy and put them into the Caesar puppet. The performance capture captures about 70 percent of the performance, and the rest of it has to be done key frame by the animators, so there's still quite a bit of work that needs to be done by the animators to tweak and smooth things out a bit.

When I look at these playbacks of Caesar, it's so Andy.  It's so weird.  When I see Caesar’s eyes, it's as if Andy was wearing prosthetic makeup or if he were to have sex with a chimp and they had a baby.  This is what the baby would look like.

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It's been an amazing journey working on this film with all of the family here at Weta Digital.  All the departments come together and that’s what I find so exciting. It starts out as a design and goes to models.  They model it, it comes to us, and then we texture it, and another department puts the hair on it, and another department puts the skeleton and the muscles and things, and then of course there's the animation department, then there's the lighting department. There are so many departments that make the final film look like how it does.  And that’s the thing, I don’t think a lot of people really realize how much goes into it, but there's a huge amount of work.  In the end, there's really no one person who can say, “I did that,” because it's all such a big amalgamated pipeline of talent.

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