Film

I Went Behind the Veil Of Secrecy At Weta Digital

Officially I was there for 'The War for the Planet of the Apes', but what I really wanted was to make friends.

by Max Olijnyk
13 July 2017, 12:12am

If you spend any time around Wellington, you'll hear a lot of talk about Weta Digital, one of the ever-multiplying movie companies based in the suburb of Miramar (along with Weta Workshop, Weta Productions, Stone Street Studios and Park Road Post Production) that produce and polish special effect-laden blockbusters like Ghost in the Shell, King Kong, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.

There's a fascination around Weta like there is any sort of incredibly successful (and lucrative) thing, but there's also a veil of secrecy that surrounds the place, a seemingly impenetrable fortress of dragons and dollars and glamour. So when the chance to write a behind-the-scenes Weta story came my way I put my hand up, no questions asked. When it turned into a press junket to promote the upcoming 20th Century Fox feature War for the Planet of the Apes I was fine with it. And when they booked me into a flashy hotel with a daily allowance, I was like: this just got interesting.

This life-sized model of Gollum holding a fish is for sale for $4100 from the Weta Workshop gift shop.

After checking into my room and luxuriating for a couple of hours, I ambled down to the lobby to find a group of tired-looking Americans looking at their phones. "Are we all journalists?" I asked Ryan from Fox, who was corralling us into a mini van. "Journalists and bloggers, and influencers," said Ryan, counting them off on his fingers. I sat next to a couple of guys from LA that run their own YouTube channel, and an Alaskan gold diver named Emily who's in a show on the Discovery Channel. It seemed that most of the junket had flown in from LA that morning, so they were all pretty jet lagged. "It's 2 AM at home," said one of the YouTube guys, "yesterday!" I asked him if they do this kind of thing very often, and he told me they did, "all the time," but mainly to different studios around the States. Another van load of us had already arrived at Park Road Studios, and we milled about The Shining-like lobby shaking hands with each other. Everyone seemed a little surprised and impressed that I was from VICE.

The YouTube guys.

After being told we couldn't take photos (the veil of secrecy), we were ushered through to an ornate little theatre with twinkly lights on the ceiling that resembled the night sky. We were to be given a presentation by top-shelf visual effects whizzes Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon. "He's amazing," gushed the young director guy next to me as Letteri took the stand. It's quite charming how a guy like Joe can win four Academy Awards and pioneer incredible motion capture techniques, yet still fumble his way through a PowerPoint presentation.

It's quite charming how a guy like Joe can win four Academy Awards and pioneer incredible motion capture techniques, yet still fumble his way through a PowerPoint presentation.

Joe, then Dan, explained that the actors who play the chimps are basically in every scene now, lumbering around in their funny grey suits with cameras strapped to their heads, whereas they used to do all that afterwards on a separate stage. This way, the actors all get to interact with each other rather than wasting their acting powers on interacting with nothing, or a rubber ball—that's what I took from the presentation, anyway. I also began working up a pitch for a movie about a guy dressed in a motion capture suit who thinks he's a chimp; but in the end, isn't it society that's crazy?

After the presentation, we all walked up the road to a nice restaurant that was booked out just for our group. The food was delicious and we were all very impressed. "What's your favourite dish?" asked the woman sitting next to me, who was a producer from the Discovery Channel. I told her I couldn't decide between the pork, the broccoli and the wine. "I love how it gets you drunk," I said, and we all laughed.

Amy the publicist came over and told us there was a spare seat at Joe Letteri's table if anyone wanted to talk to him. "Now's your chance!" I said to the young director guy who loved Joe. "Should I go over?" he asked, staring at me meaningfully, then got up and walked off before I had a chance to answer.

The conversation at the table turned to Winona Ryder's meme-inspiring appearance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and I suggested she probably went to a dinner like we were at before the ceremony. "I'd probably act like that too if I won an award right now," I said, making my eyes go all spooky like Winona's. We all laughed at that; it was a decent gag.

After dinner we headed back to the theatre for an advance screening of War for the Planet of the Apes. As we filed back in, I spotted the young director guy. "Well, how did it go?" I asked. He told me it went great and Joe Letteri was a really nice, humble guy. As we sat down, I started telling him my story about when Spike Jonze lived in Melbourne while making Where the Wild Things Are and everyone seemed to be making friends with him except me, and when I finally met him at a party he had smudges of makeup under his eyes like a baseball player, and... "Oh, can you, I just can't... no" interrupted the guy, waving his hand at me like I was a fly. He was gazing adoringly at the screen, where the studio credits had started rolling.

The movie wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but it was highly enjoyable—the visual effects were incredible and I really liked the apes. I scribbled notes to jog my memory for this article, but my pen wasn't working very well and I kept writing over myself because it was dark. Anyway, here are some of them:
monkeys riding horses
dead monkeys
movie nerd didn't want me to finish my story
big mistake
cool avalanche

Ape with gun.

The next day started pretty fuzzy. I woke up early and did some writing, before hitting the buffet breakfast bar. Bill from IndieWire was already there, dining by himself, and I gave him a respectful nod. I like Bill; he's a quiet, bemused little guy who loves films and records. When I got down to the lobby, I found him discussing the movie with Ryan from Fox, calmly pulling apart the plot and pointing out all the references to old films and earlier chapters of The Planet of the Apes series. Ryan seemed impressed and intimidated by Bill's lengthy dissemination of ideas, and a little confused. "So did you like the movie?" he asked finally. "I loved it," said Bill.

We had been split into groups for the day, and my group was just Bill, the ever-puffer-jacketed Peter from Variety and me—serious journalists in a sea of bloggers and influencers. As we drove along in the van, Peter announced that he had lost his passport. Ryan from Fox dealt with this news very calmly, considering this would mean Peter would miss out on most of the activities they'd flown him out here for. Poor Peter must've been freaking out. We dropped him back at the hotel and continued on our way.

Andy Serkis "should be nominated".

At Weta studios, another guy named Dan had prepared a presentation on motion capture technology for us that covered similar ground to the one from the night before, but kind of more in-depth. We talked about scrubbing in real-time and key frames and funnelling and stereoscopic cameras and polygons. I asked Dan what he thinks will happen next in digital filmmaking, and he said the biggest change will be that actors will be more excited by a role that requires them to "suit up". "Increasingly, actors are realising that they're acting, it's not some second-rate gig," said Dan.

Later, Bill told me he thinks this will only change when a motion-capture character actor wins an Oscar. I asked him if Andy Serkis, the guy who plays the lead ape Caesar in the rebooted Apes movies (and also played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, and King Kong in, er, King Kong), could be in the running for his performance in the new film. "He should at least be nominated," said Bill.

Me trying on the tiny helmet.

Next, we were ushered to a dressing room to try on a helmet with a camera attached to it. That was cool and I got some laughs talking about how big my head is. "No, it's actually really big," I said, as the guy attempted to squeeze the tiny expensive helmet over my ears. Then we got to do some actual animating on a computer with yet another nice guy named Dan, who was the animation supervisor on the film. Dan showed me how to adjust various muscles in the chimp's face to mimic the actor's face, and I gave it a shot. Animating was a lot more hands-on and tedious than I had imagined; but so is writing, or any job really. "Do you guys ever get stoned before work?" I asked. "No," said Dan.

Me and Dan (the animator one).

From Weta, we were driven across town to Zealandia eco-sanctuary, where they had set up a set to mimic a scene in the movie where Caesar walks through a trench of wounded chimps after a battle with some humans. We were to number among those chimps. Everyone in the junket was to take a turn being a chimp separately, so it took ages. Once we'd been fitted with our wetsuit-like costumes, we were covered with a complex system of little LED lights strung together with rubber-encased wire all over our bodies. "I feel like a Christmas tree," I said, which went down great.

We had a film crew following every move, even though neither Bill nor I were making a video. Since they were there and had nothing else to do, we figured we'd use them. "Do you want us to film this?" they'd ask, and I would shrug and say, "Sure!" It was nice being followed around by a film crew. They seemed to think I was funny, and Bill was a great offsider. He just looked uncomfortable and slightly amused the whole time. We were shown into another tent full of computers and friendly experts, where our suits were calibrated with the motion capture technology. I looked at the computer version of myself and reflected that I actually didn't look that bad.

That's Bill on the right acting like and ape, and me next to him.

We were the last apes for the day and when I suggested that Bill and I could take our turn together, no one objected in the slightest. There was a guy named Allen who gave us a five-minute crash course on how to move like an ape. I could get the hang of standing with my knees bent and moving my head around like a child who was seeing everything for the first time, but once they brought in the arm extensions for us to get around on all fours, my mind couldn't handle it. It was like being in a strange dream; I just couldn't get my legs and arms to do what Allen was telling me. "Let's forget about the arm extensions," said Allen. For the scene, we decided to pretend I had an injured arm, and Bill was to take me to the doctor ape. Bill and I started giggling and enjoying ourselves at this point—I think it's the most fun we had on the whole junket. Between takes, Bill started yelling, "Yarrr!" like a pirate. "What, you're a pirate ape now, Bill?" I asked. "Great idea for a spin-off series," said Bill. That cracked us all up.

Not sure why I'm posing like this.

I ad-libbed a few screams whenever the doctor ape touched my injured arm. They sounded more like a scared boy than a hurt ape, but no one seemed to mind. Afterwards, Dan showed us the take with the apes superimposed over our motion capture suits. Because of how long the chimp's arms were, it looked like I was permanently crossing them in an 'x' position. I asked if I should do it again and Dan said they could fix all that up in post. I agreed, but secretly I wanted to really nail that scene.

Back in the van on our way back to the hotel, I reflected on the incredible effort and resources the studio had afforded to make this junket a success. It had been a fun couple of days learning more about special effects and how to be an ape, but really just hanging about with a bunch of journalists, bloggers and influencers. Ryan from Fox told us that Peter from Variety was at the embassy organising a new passport. "I bet it's just in his pocket," I said. Bill chuckled quietly.

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