Special Effects Guru Joe Letteri: Breaking Boundaries

Oscar-winning effects guru Joe Letteri of Weta Digital loves his job.
(Photo credit: Andrew Gorrie.)

Joe Letteri has been a special effects innovator for over 20 years, and he recently worked on Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn, with The Hobbit in the works. Given his extensive knowledge and experience, he has an interesting perspective on the amazing transformation that visual effects have undergone in recent years, and A.D.D. chatted with him for 15 minutes recently to learn more about the job of a senior visual effects supervisor.

How do you feel about the way visual effects have progressed over the years and how it is affecting the art of moviemaking?
It is becoming a little bit more integral to the storytelling, but that has been happening for years. When I say effects, I’m talking about digital effects and CG effects, so the early days where the stained-glass knight from Young Sherlock Holmes, some of those very early tests, add something to the story that you really couldn’t do otherwise. Then you start to progress into The Abyss with the water creature that becomes a part of telling the story. And you get more into it with Terminator 2. That had to be done that way, the liquid Terminator that could transform. The only way to get Jurassic Park to work was to have those dinosaurs rampaging through the screen like they did. Before we did that movie, we talked about if we could do it with stop motion or animatronics or maybe a little bit of CG, but once we started doing the tests Steven was sold on this being the way to go with it.
        For me, Gollum was the first character that brought that sensibility of an actor to the screen. Even though he wasn’t central to the story per se, you couldn’t imagine the story without him, and then that progressed through King Kong and Avatar. The Na’vi were the whole story. That allowed us to come with full circle with Caesar, and now we could take the early idea of Andy Serkis acting on set as Gollum with this whole virtual cinematography that we set up with Avatar. We did all the performance capture right with all the live action. It has progressed in a nice way to bring it all back together again to where you can integrate these fantastic performances with the real world and have it happen on set as well as after the fact in your imagination.

All hail Caesar, or he and his ape buddies will kick your ass.
(Photo © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.)

For some of the movies you have worked on, like The Lovely Bones, you wouldn’t think there are a lot of visual effects in there, but there’s a certain subtlety that has creeped in, even with digital set design. Do you worry now that we’re in this era where young viewers are being inundated with effects and have come to expect so much that it would be harder for them to watch older movies?
I see what you mean. I really don’t know how to answer that. You try to keep the effects as part of the story as much as possible, but I guess in a way if they are part of the story it no longer matters. But it is hard, once you’ve done something in a certain way, to go back. It’s harder and harder to go back to animatronic characters or things of that nature or not moving a camera on an effect shot. It’s hard to go back to those old techniques because everyone is so used to the freedom that you get right now. I don’t know if that affects watching an older movie so much because if you go back and watch a movie like Star Wars, I think people still accept it for what it was at the time. But with a new audience seeing it for the first time, I’m not exactly sure.

Wasn’t Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes the first film to do a lot of motion capture outdoors?
We did. We basically redeveloped the whole motion capture system. We tried to do this in the past. We did a little bit on some of the [Lord of the] Rings films, more as a test. The markers had to be gigantic — they were the size of ping-pong balls — and you had to hit them with a lot of light. That really doesn’t work with a film camera because you don’t want to interfere with the film camera lighting, but then again the light on a bright set or outdoors contaminates what the motion capture cameras need to pick up. We rethought it and did active LED markers with infrared filters on all the cameras, so that way the film camera never saw the light that was coming off the markers and the motion capture cameras never saw the light that the film cameras needed. That allowed us to put the two together. So even outdoors you could drive a car in the middle of the apes and have sunlight reflecting off the chrome bumpers, and it didn’t confuse the system. That’s really what we were after because you want this to be as transparent as possible to the actors and all of the other crew that have to deal with the set because you want it to be as integrated as possible. That’s what we did here. If we were moving onto a new set, we rigged the cameras at the same time the grips were rigging the lighting and everyone else was doing their job. It was all just built into it.

“It’s harder and harder to go back to animatronic characters or not moving a camera on effect shot. It’s hard to go back to those old techniques because everyone is so used to the freedom that you get right now.”

Other than the films you’ve worked on this past year, which film had your favorite special effects?
The one that I enjoyed the most was Rango. I thought they did a great job on the effects and the look of that film. It was interesting in the way that ILM took all these visual effects techniques that we would use for live action film and just brought to bear on a film that was completely animated. I thought that one looked really good.

Right now digital effects are being used in movies, video games and animation, and they all seem to be blurring together. Where you do see all of this going?
I think it’s going to completely mingle. That was what we were trying to achieve with Avatar. Jim Cameron’s goal was to break down the line between live-action and digital filmmaking because as a director, he wants to be able to have both worlds work for him to tell the story he’s trying to tell. Apes was the flipside of that, where it is more heavy on the live-action and less so on the digital. The barrier is no longer there; you can do both together. What that means for the industry is a lot of tasks that you’re used to thinking of now get broken and reassembled in new ways. Everyone is used to thinking of an actor in a performance, but they’re also used to seeing the actor give that performance. Now you no longer see the actor give the performance, but you still know it’s the actor’s performance, so what do you do with that? That’s what everyone’s wrestling with right now.

You have a job that requires a lot of problem solving and spending really long hours making new breakthroughs. How do you stay motivated after all these years?
Filmmaking is always a little bit of problem solving and a little bit of creativity, no matter which part of it you’re involved with, why is which it’s interesting. It’s pretty interesting stuff that we get to do. When you’re looking at [something like] how do you create an ape that can give a performance that we’re all interested in, you look at it and know when something is not right. So you have to keep going until you get it right, and that’s pretty much all it takes really.

For more from Joe Letteri, read my Queued Up column in the Aquarian Weekly here.

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