[Interview - Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes] At the Forefront of Technology Ushering in a ‘New Kingdom’ - Erik Winquist
[Interview - Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes] At the Forefront of Technology Ushering in a ‘New Kingdom’ - Erik Winquist
  • Jaewon Sheol(Editor-in-Chief)
  • 승인 2024.04.30 17:00
  • 댓글 0
이 기사를 공유합니다

Erik Winquist, VFX Supervisor of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes
On April 23rd 2024 At Four Seasons Hotel Seoul

We caught up with VFX Supervisor Erik Winquist of Wētā before the release of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Wētā is one of Hollywood's leading VFX companies, responsible for the visual effects of Planet of the Apes, Avatar, Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, and The Chronicles of Narnia franchises.

When I spoke to Erik Winquist after his presentation with the footage screening, he sounded relaxed and confident. The more naturalistic ape performances and overwhelming scale of the visuals showcased the forefront of VFX technology. Here's the process and behind-the-scenes stories of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes with Supervisor Erik Winquist


Good afternoon. Cinema has always been a product of technology. From being an interesting spectacle at the end of the 19th century, cinema has become a composite art form using the latest technology, which is still true today. That’s why I'm looking forward to seeing Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which is the epitome of cutting-edge technology. In that sense, I'm curious to know what you focused on most in this film. Also, please tell us about the latest technology you used this time and how it is unique to this production.

In the march of the progress of the films, the first thing that comes to mind is the speaking characters because, in the previous films, much of the communication that took place was via sign language. There were only the occasional grunts here or there or like monosyllabic words. While the script told us that their physiology still makes speech a bit strained and difficult, here, we still had characters that talk much more. So the first thing we needed to do was to make sure that the facial puppets of the apes were taken to a higher level because of all the complex deformations that took place with speech. That was one of the aspects we needed to focus on.

And I think there were a few sort of technological milestones that we needed to know we could achieve, one of them was the grass. A large part of the middle of the film involves a chase, and the apes are trying to find the young woman hiding in the grass. Based on our location that didn't have that grass, we needed to add the entire field of it. Just the sheer number of these tall grasses to cover the entire field. And part of that was the interaction with those apes thrashing through it and everything else on the grass had to behave in a natural way.


There's a seven-year gap between this installment and the previous installment in the franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, which was released in 2017. And for the last 7 years, the VFX industry has seen tremendous change and innovation. You also worked on War for the Planet of the Apes, so tell us if there was anything you had in mind at the time that you didn't have the opportunity to do that you show in this piece.

Our facial solver has significantly reduced the workload for facial animators. By processing data from the two facial cameras and using stereo depth matching, we've incorporated machine learning into the process. So we trained on the actors' faces and we continued to refine and add new shapes. As we went through the show, we got a more efficient process. Toward the end, both the animators and our toolset benefit from the familiarity of the characters, allowing for a quick and accurate approximation of the desired facial expressions.

And then from there, it's the facial animators' job to just sweeten it up and look for any moments that didn't quite sell the same emotional resonance that the actor had, instead of needing to go from scratch and animate all of those facial shapes for a long performance because we had a lot of very long shots in this film. I think if you compare our shot count on this film to something like the Avengers or other Marvel movies’ fast cut, we probably have about half the shot count because we have longer shots. The performance can be sustained without having to cut.


Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes takes the baton from the Caesar trilogy but it's been 300 years after Caesar's death. So there has to be some newness and change in creating the world of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. So what was your challenge or what was your biggest focus in terms of expressing that time span and making sure that we are immediately invited into the world and we understand where we are?

The first thing that comes to mind is just the environment that we see in the film. We shot those scenes in nature in Australia. Throughout production, we continuously sought out opportunities to enhance the setting. Wes, in particular, was keen on transforming elements of nature into urban remnants, such as repurposing a rock as part of a building facade adorned with exposed rebar and rust. We looked for those opportunities everywhere we could because it tells you, even if you can barely recognize it, that there's something not natural that we were able to pepper into all the shots. It helped convey how far we went beyond the previous films when you can barely see a structure because it's so overgrown with greenery.

Another crucial aspect to consider is the portrayal of the apes themselves. As we delved into this project, we found ourselves traversing a timeline that stretches from the Caesar trilogy, set in the contemporary era around 2010 and grounded in authentic chimpanzee behavior, to the earlier renditions typified by Charlton Heston's era, where actors wore costumes with human-like proportions. Despite the relatively short timeframe of a few hundred years, rather than millennia, we sought to subtly acknowledge this evolutionary progression.

One notable challenge we encountered was incorporating apes onto horseback, a task complicated by their naturally short legs, which often led to comedic moments when mounted. While we took some liberties in the portrayal of apes in the Caesar trilogy, particularly with Caesar's height, our approach remained anchored in the inherent traits of chimpanzees. To bridge the gap and evoke the aesthetic of the '60s and '70s films, where scenes featuring apes on horseback were more prevalent, we made a deliberate decision to slightly elongate their legs. This adjustment not only facilitated their ability to ride horses but also streamlined the filming process, given the frequency of scenes involving apes mounted on horseback throughout the film.

Moreover, the inclusion of costumes is noteworthy. Now we can see apes wearing clothes. It's not much but it's more than just what we saw in the previous films. Though not a drastic change, it adds depth to ape society, hinting at hierarchy and allegiance. Marauders working for Proximus Caesar wore a certain sort of copper pieces and armor, whereas the Eagle Clan Apes had more natural fiber elements to their costumes. The adornments and jewelry worn by the apes subtly foreshadow the franchise's future direction.


I've seen in other interviews that you worked a lot with water in this film. The river and the wet apes have been used before, so I want to know how you developed that aspect in this work. Also, I would love to hear about any expressions that you’ve taken to the next level in this piece, like waterwork.

We had apes in a river, and we had apes in a flood. So we had to pull off broad daylight scenes of raging waters that interacted with our characters. That was the big aspect of the film that we needed to make sure we could achieve. So obviously we could draw on the water development that had been done over the last few years for Avatar: The Way of Water. But Avatar looked like a tropical, crystal clear, beautiful water where we needed violent, dirty, floating floods and raging rivers. So we could use a lot of technology from that but there was a definitely different direction that our film needed to go. To achieve this, our team, comprised not only of artists but also developers of our proprietary water solver at Wētā, worked tirelessly to enhance simulation processes. Their efforts focused on improving efficiency, and reducing wait times for simulations to return, crucial for shots involving our characters in water, which required multiple simulation steps, especially for hero close-ups. Collaborating closely with our developers, we explored new avenues to refine our simulation techniques.

And then the eagle. The studio had done Peacemaker, an episodic television streaming series where we had to do a character called Eagly that was a bald eagle. So there was some really nice work that we did using the existing feather toolset that we've had at the studio for some time. During the project, a new grooming toolset that would allow us to place the feathers and style the feathers wasn't quite ready when we needed to start building our eagle. So we had to start with our existing toolset. But by the time we got to the end of the project, the new feather toolset had enough features for our groomers to start working with it. When we decided to make some changes and improvements to help the photo reality, we were now able to use the new feather grooming toolset and the results were the difference in what we got was remarkable.


As a supervisor, your job is to bring ideas and imagination to life, and that's why it's so important to have good working relationships with directors. I'd like to know what it was like working with director Wes Ball and if there were any funny stories.

Working with Wes Ball was a truly beautiful creative partnership, perhaps more so than any other filmmaker I've collaborated with. His background in 3D animation allowed us to communicate effectively, as we shared a common language and understanding of the process. So there was a ton of love and respect between him and Wētā, cultivated over his involvement in all of his films thus far. Through this collaboration, we gained insight into Wes's aesthetic preferences and his meticulous attention to camera movements and shot composition. He possesses a keen eye for detail, knowing precisely when a camera angle enhances or detracts from a scene.

That plus he's really fun in the sense that he's like a kid. He often used sound effects and physical gestures to convey his vision, which proved invaluable in translating his ideas to the team. Working with Wes was both fulfilling and enjoyable, and I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to collaborate with him again.


Visual effects always go hand in hand with sound effects to make sure the audience will be immersed in the world, especially with a film as visually stunning as Planet of the Apes. So what was it like for you to work with the sound team?

Our collaboration with the sound department was somewhat limited by the nature of our pipeline. They typically added sounds to our animations after they were approved or in progress. Once a shot's animation was finalized, the sound team could refine the sound effects—footsteps, crunching, or the rustling of fur—to match the action on screen.

Occasionally, during the final review of a shot, new details emerged that weren't apparent in the animation stage. In these cases, the sound team could enhance the audio with additional elements to enrich the scene. While there wasn't extensive back-and-forth communication, there were instances where our animation choices influenced the sound design.

For example, when Noah made a joke about Mae smelling bad and Raka reacted by sniffing, we added a nostril compression to Raka's animation to emphasize the action. This detail, initially omitted, added depth to the character's expression. Upon seeing this, the sound team incorporated a subtle sniffing sound, bringing Raka to life in a remarkable way.


Planet of the Apes franchise is arguably one of theaters' most popular big-screen experiences. The pandemic has changed the theater landscape, and one of the things that stands out is the rise of specialty theaters. IMAX, 4DX, ScreenX, Dolby, and other specialty theaters are more popular now than they were in 2017 when War for the Planet of the Apes came out. I believe Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is the one that we must experience in one of those specialty theaters. Are there any special considerations you made with these formats and if so, or even if it's not, what would you want the audience to experience on the big screen or in the specialty theater?

Yeah, It's fascinating to see the emergence of alternative or expanded exhibition options over the past 10-15 years. While specialty extras like these weren't initially part of our planning process, I wish they had been. It would have made it much easier for us to provide whatever might be needed while we were doing the work. Take ScreenX, for example, when we get to the end of the project and we only have a few weeks and then they say, oh, we'd like this and this and this, and this. We want audiences to have the best experience possible, so the more we can assist these other vendors in creating alternative versions, the better the overall experience for filmmakers and audiences alike. It's definitely something I'll be considering for the next project. We should be discussing these aspects early on to incorporate them into our planning process.

And the big screen experience is truly revelatory in terms of how much detail is perceivable. It reminded me early on in the process of the importance of ensuring that the details are clear and crisp for audience members sitting even in the third row of the theater, even if they may not be as visible on smaller screens like laptops.


Studios should take your advice. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. I'd like to ask if you have any last words for our readers we missed in your answers.

I just hope that all of the talk of technology doesn't overshadow the narrative and the enjoyment of the story in these characters because the characters are fantastic and the performances from our actors are so good. I hope that within five minutes everybody forgets they're watching digital characters and we just let yourself go on the ride!


Jaewon Sheol is the editor-in-chief of Cultura, a Korean cultural magazine, and the publisher of K-Writer, a Korean-US magazine with offices in both Korea and Los Angeles' Koreatown. He specializes in cultural commentary and has written numerous articles, with a particular focus on the film industry. In 2023, he was appointed as an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards due to his recognized expertise.


Photo Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Korea


* 《Cultura》 2024 May (Vol. 119) *


삭제한 댓글은 다시 복구할 수 없습니다.
그래도 삭제하시겠습니까?
댓글 0
계정을 선택하시면 로그인·계정인증을 통해
댓글을 남기실 수 있습니다.