Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [click to enlarge]

Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [click to enlarge]

CGI, or computer-generated imagery, has come a long way since its debut over forty years ago. Arguably beginning with Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi western, Westworld, CGI has now entrenched itself firmly in cinema’s history. While Industrial Light & Magic has made one of the largest impacts on the business with films like Star Wars, Terminator 2, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Jurassic Park, it is hard to argue that in the last decade Weta Digital has risen in ranks, becoming one of (if not the) leading visual effects houses in the world. While it was with Peter Jackson’s 1994 murder-drama, Heavenly Creatures, that Weta Digital would form, it would be with another Jackson film that they would make their mark, The Lord of the Rings. Having now worked on all of Jackson’s films (Including the two recent Hobbit films), Weta has expanded their reach including work on films like Godzilla (2014), the X-Men franchise and the Planet of the Apes reboot franchise. In light of their newest picture, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we got the chance to sit down with Weta Digital Creative Director Gino Acevedo and talk about his work on the Apes movies, the VFX vs. Practical effects battle, and his time spent in New Zealand with Weta.

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Weta Digital Creative Director Gino Acevedo

Weta Digital Creative Director Gino Acevedo

Diabolique: What inspired you to pursue this line of work?

Gino Acevedo: I was kind of a strange kid. [Laughs]. No, I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and I was always fascinated with monsters. Every Saturday morning, in Phoenix, there used to be a TV show called The World Beyond. It showed all the great, famous monster movies: Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and all that stuff. I was always glued to the TV watching those films. But, I was also inspired by my dad. My dad was a pretty good artist and it kind of rubbed off on me.  But, it wasn’t until I was just out of high school that I found out that there was a Halloween company based in Phoenix. I started with this company when I was 18. The company, which was called Imagineering, was owned by Larry Liff, who was the guy that invented vampire blood and those plastic vampire evil teeth that have been around for years and years—I’m sure you’ve probably even used it [laughs]. So, yeah, I started at this company when I was 18. It was unbelievable. I worked in the factories making the vampire blood, the evil teeth, and a kit called “the face.” Then I started designing Halloween masks for the company, and they sent me away to LA to learn the skills of how to set up a latex factory.

Diabolique: So you’ve done a little of it all, both practical effects and digital effects. Do you have a preference?

GA: Yeah, that was really interesting. You know because starting out with the practical effects and the make-up effects really helped a lot with the position I am in now, which is pretty much digital. I still play around and go to sets and do make-up, but the majority of my work is looking after the textures department. What I found really interesting is that when I first started to learn how to texture paint—because my mind doesn’t really work technically [laughs]. I have more of a simple kind of brain, creativity-wise—a lot of my techniques I learned from airbrushing and painting I just took into the 3D world. I just pretended I was painting on a rubber mask.

Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [Click to Enlarge]

Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [Click to Enlarge]

Diabolique: Can you give us an example?

GA: For instance, with Golem—Golem was kind of a character that kind of brought me over into digital, way back when during [The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers]—I had painted a small mock bust of Golem and I cast him in silicone, because silicone is one of the things that I had perfected and worked a lot with when I was doing practical effects. Silicone is so much like skin, and I could paint it exactly like skin. So, I painted a few of these busts to show to Peter Jackson for a buy-off on the skin tone. He finally bought off on one, and this got handed over to this mysterious world of digital [laughs]. They took it from there and used it as reference to copy for the digital character. I didn’t have a clue on how they did it. Anyways, what had happened was we had just finished doing a fake body of the actor Sean Bean—who plays Boromir in Lord of the Rings—and Joe Letteri, who runs Weta Digital, saw it. He was really amazed and intrigued at how life-like the skin was, how translucent it was. I explained that a lot of it comes from the silicon. Silicon is very much like our skin, its very translucent. And, then I build up all my colors in layers with an airbrush. And he mentioned that, at the time, they were having bit of a problem painting Golem and trying to capture exactly what I had on the bust that Peter really like. And then he said, ‘Would you be interested in maybe trying to do some texture painting?’ And then I said, ‘does that involve a computer?’ And he says, ‘Well yea’ [laughs]. I replied, ‘You know Joe, I’m struggling with email at the moment.’  He goes, ‘Look its no problem, we will set up a computer in your office, and we will have a texture painter come over and teach you how to texture paint, the basics and everything. And maybe as a trade you can train him how you do it practically, to paint with an airbrush.’ So I gave it a try and the rest was history.

Diabolique: Is there a trade-off when you choose to do something digitally? Do you lose anything?

GA: That is a really good question because I still struggle with seeing things that should have been done practically, as opposed to digitally. I think the advantage that we have here at Weta Digital is that we have the time, the facilities, and the people to make it look as good as possible. I still like to see a combination of both, both practical and digital. But there are some things—like for instance, I’ll give you an example of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), when we did the first one. I was very excited when we got that film because, for me, Planet of the Apes (1968) was really the film that got me in to wanting to do make-up effects. I remember telling all my friends, back in LA, that we were doing Planet of the Apes but it is going to be all digital. And, I got all these e-mails, almost hate e-mails from my friends saying ‘what are you doing, it should have been done with make-up and prosthetics.’ But, it couldn’t be because these apes look like regular apes. Even the best animatronics—and I am really sorry to say—that even the best animatronics just can’t capture the subtle nuances that they can with the digital stuff. The funny thing with Apes, was that with everybody that said ‘Ah, I can’t believe you’ve turned to the dark side,’ the one person that I didn’t hear from—that I was really afraid to talk to—was my good friend Rick Baker. You, of course, know Rick Baker the “monster maker,’ the “king of the apes.” I just didn’t want to hear it from him. I didn’t talk to him for about a year, but finally after the film had come out I got an email from Rick—and I thought ‘ah shit, here we go’—it said, ‘Hey Gino, the Baker family just got back from seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes and we loved it, great work and please tell everybody they did some amazing work.” And, I was like ‘Thank God!’ It was such a relief. And I am really excited about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the stuff that we are doing on this is just, once again, ground breaking work. It is just looking really amazing. Even though it hasn’t been that long since we did Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the technology is always changing. The way that they are doing the motion capture, they are able to capture so much more of the subtle nuances that they couldn’t capture before.

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), in Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [Click to Enlarge]

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), in Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [Click to Enlarge]

Diabolique: As an artist, is it still really difficult to create realistic hair and fur these days?

GA: It is. I think that one of the things they probably struggled with a lot is the hair. It is definitely getting a lot better and they’ve pushed it a lot farther. There are a lot of scenes where it is raining, so we had to figure out the ways that hair gets wet and how it clumps together. The great advantage that we have [in New Zealand] is that we have such a great connection with the Wellington Zoo. My friends over there always let me know when they have to knock out one of the chimps to do a normal check up. They will call me and say ‘hey we are knocking out so-and-so, wanna come over and have a look?’ It is a great opportunity for us to go over and get some video footage and photographs; and I’ve even gone over and spritzed their hair with a little bit of water on their legs so we could see exactly what chimp hair looks like when it gets wet. It was a huge advantage.

Diabolique: Do you feel that digital effects have just as much poetry as practical effects?

GA: Hmm, let me think about that for a second. [pause] No, I wouldn’t say poetry. I think we are talking about two generations. There is the generation that grew up on practical make-up effects. I can remember when CG first started coming around, and obviously it looked terrible; it wasn’t very good. But, with the new generation now, and some of the standards that we’ve been setting, the audience wants to see more and more realism, I think. There is a huge controversy going on right now about V-effects vs. practical effects. And, I have a lot of friends making films that will have no CG involved at all; they will have all practical effects, which is fantastic. I love that. But, I hope that we can figure out a way to merge the two together to make it work a lot better, rather than it being so separated.

Matt Reeves on set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [click to enlarge]

Matt Reeves on set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [click to enlarge]

Diabolique: What is your work dynamic with Matt Reeves? How much input does he have into what you do?

GA: Well, for us, Matt works directly with our VFX supervisor, which is Dan Lemmon, and then a lot of notes get handed down to us. Now, as far as design stuff, a lot of the design work has come from Aaron Sims. We base a lot of our work on Aaron’s designs, and then we have to refine it in places just to make sure that it will work in regards to our workflow. We did a lot of concept work here, especially with the war paint. One of my texture artists—who is like my graphic texture artist—, Aaron Black, and I would sit down and go through hundreds of iterations to choose the designs for the war paint that got chosen for the film. There is a lot of concept art done like that. Matt has a huge amount of input, obviously. He’s got a fantastic eye, and the working relationship he has with the whole team has been really successful. It is going to show on the screen.

Diabolique: I assume the goal, when painting textures, is to obtain a sort of gritty realism. In your strive for perfection, is it ever an issue that something looks too perfect, and therefore not real enough?

GA: Exactly [laughs], and we call that CG perfect and it applies to everything across the board. So we have to add those kinds of imperfections. It is one of the things that we do at Weta: ee do a huge amount of research and we have a huge library of all sorts of reference materials, from organic to man-made. We really try to get that, like you say, grittiness into it. You know, no one does it better than Mother Nature, so we have lots of those references we use to try and make it look as realistic as possible. With the digital models, that is one of the things we really have to look at, to get a lot of that asymmetry into the characters. Just to make it feel that realistic, because if you don’t the audience’s eye will go right to it.

Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [click to enlarge]

Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) [click to enlarge]

Diabolique: Anything you’d like add?

GA: I’ve got the best job in the world. I love the people here. I’ve been in New Zealand for 15 years, so this is home; I’ve married a Kiwi and we have a little girl. I love having the position I have, but also having been able to do the practical stuff. They’ve built me a nice workshop in the back, where we can make a mess and still get our hands dirty.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens today, July 11, 2014