The Joe Letteri effect: Visual effects wiz on creating 'Apes,' 'Tintin,' 'Hobbit'


Pull back the curtain on much of today’s movie magic and you’re likely to find the wizard is visual effects master Joe Letteri.

The resume of Letteri’s effects work reads like a list of some the most popular, and biggest banking, films of the last 20 years: The Abyss; Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; Jurassic Park (recently released on Blu-ray); the 1997 special edition of Star Wars; The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers and The Return of the King); the highest grossing film ever, Avatar. Even films that look great but aren’t remembered as great films, like Van Helsing, X-Men: The Last Stand and 2005’s King Kong survive because of his talents.

The strength of Letteri’s work isn’t just that he brings the visions of directors Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and James Cameron to life, but his creations impress the movie biz’ toughest boss, the audience, and has earned him five Oscars.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
But Letteri keeps upping his game to keep all parties happy. In 2011, he created the super intelligent apes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (now out on DVD and Blu-ray), a movie that was initially met with skepticism by fans until that initial trailer showed off the expressive eyes of Caesar – which was courtesy of Letteri. He is also behind the performance capture effects in Spielberg and Jackson’s The Adventures of Tintin and is currently at work on The Hobbit series, the first installment of which is one of the most anticipated films of 2012. Moreover, it's a good bet that Apes will net Letteri another Oscar nod for best visual effects.

Letteri spoke with us about Apes, Tintin and The Hobbit – as well as some of his past work - and opened up about the relationship between technology and actors (after the jump).

Q: What is the first thing you wish audiences would understand about being a visual effects supervisor?

A: Boy, that's a good question. What we are always looking for is that moment when it works. And it's kind of intangible. For me, the thing that interests me the most is, working on characters and creatures that are the kinds of things that you can identify with on the screen. So, for example: Caesar. Just being able to create this character that you can look in his eyes and understand what he's thinking and how that fits with the story - and given the whole experience that you're watching. To try and answer your questions, it's more about, for us, all these things are not real, yet we have to make them appear real. It is always a constant question of, ‘how do you do that?’ It's an ongoing dance between science and technology. Looking at story and looking at character, and looking at lightning and just everything that you can think of in the real world that actually has to come together when you roll a frame of film. We have to create by thinking through all that because it's all virtual to us.

Q: Is it best when people don't recognize your work, or that you've been there? Is that what you're striving for?

Courtesy Universal
A: Not necessarily. For me, it's always more about the - I want to say the unbelievability of it. I remember working on the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. As a kid, drawing a dinosaur was always a really great thing. But to see a dinosaur on the screen and have it run across the screen and look like you were running film on that island while this was all happening, that's, to me, the stuff that I like. It looks like it couldn't be real. But your brain is telling you that it is real. To me, that's the most interesting stuff.

Q: It's fascinating because you've created these indelible images. If we had a T-Rex on the streets of New York right now, we would sort of expect it to look like creatures that you've created. So you've had this larger cultural impact. Have you ever thought about that? That's you've created the images that people expect if they were ever to be introduced into reality?

A: Only from the point of view, we kind of give that thought building into it. You want people to get it right away, what they're looking at, and to not question even the smallest of choices. In a way you kind of do try to arrive at a consensus at what people do expect to see. It was the same thing when we created Gollum. Everyone has read those books. What is he going to look like when you see him in front of a camera? Really, just try to hammer out the details to make sure that that's actually the case. In a way, I guess that's what we're shooting for.

Q: Speaking of Gollum, or even Caesar or the characters in Tintin. How important is the role of a human in these films? And what do you say when someone sees these creations and says actors are doomed?

A: I'd say the opposite. What we're really doing here is bringing actors into the center of all these fantasy characters that there would be no other way to do. I don't want to say there's exactly no other way. You could have done Gollum with Andy Serkis in makeup. You wouldn't have had this big impact. He needed to be this creature the way Tolkien described him. Take Caesar, for example. He needed to be a real chimp, from a baby to an infant. But you needed to understand the beginnings of his intelligence and how his feelings of rejection by society, by the human society that he thought he was part of, motivated this desire for freedom. These are things that we all kind of deal with ourselves as humans. There would be no other way to really convey that unless it felt completely real to you. You'd be taken out of it. You'd be questioning it too much.

Q: Is there a component when you're working on these films that you dread having to deal with? Like hands? Something where you are just like, 'OK, we have to do this.'

A: All those things that we are used to seeing that are in so much detail, that just take infinite amounts of detail to get right are exactly those kind of things. Hands are a really good case in point. They are really difficult to undertsand what's going on with all the muscles and bones and skin and everything that actually happens with the hands. Obviously people are so used to seeing what hands look like. Seeing an ape hand is not that big of a leap from seeing a human hand. So it has to be just perfect. So those are the kind of things that we just spend a long time going over the details, hoping we got it right.

Q: When you look at a film like Planet of the Apes, what is an example of your work that you think really shines? A moment that makes you really proud. Also, is there a moment that you're kind of like, we can go back and do that a little bit better?

A: For Apes, there's a shot that got used in the very first trailer, where you are seeing Caesar in his cell and a guard passes by in the foreground and you see his eyes just kind of follow him. You can see from that one shot that he is thinking and he knows what he is about to do. He knows that he has to do it and he's just waiting to make it happen. To us, that was the key moment. That was the first shot we did of Caesar. We thought you need to see that on the screen and understand all those things just from that one beat. If Caesar can deliver that one performance - because we saw Andy deliver that performance - if you saw Caesar deliver that performance, then we knew he could do anything else he needed to do for the film. So, in a way, that was kind of the highlight of the thing that kickstarted it. There's not anything in the film that I would think we'd want to go back and redo. We constantly do that through the filming process, as the character evolves and we get to know the character better. We always go back and look at the film, and go back and watch it over and over again and say, ‘OK, do we know more now here? Could he do that bit a little better?’ And we had a chance to go in and make all those changes so that Caesar was the character that he needed to be through the whole film.

Q: You’ve worked with guys like Lucas, and even Spielberg, who has gone back and retweaked effects on films years after they were released. Is that something you would want to do with your films - as years pass, go back and apply modern technology?

A: Personally, I wouldn't. To me, they live in the era when they were created, and I'd rather just leave it that way. Plus, I have very little interest in going back and redoing something I have already done. But, I understand for a filmmaker like George, where he's got the Star Wars legacy - where he's also got to think about audiences who are seeing films for the first time, like young kids growing up who are seeking more modern and much more realistic effects. He's going to want them to - I'm just speculating here, I haven't talked to George about this - but, I'm guessing that he's going to want them to not be thinking that they are old-fashioned. The stories are not old-fashioned. So he's not going to want any element of the film to take that route. As a director, he's got a different way of looking at this than I would

Q: What's something with The Hobbit, specifically, that you are excited to introduce. Something you are excited to work on?

Andy Serkis as Gollum, Courtesy ScreenRant
A: Actually, for us, it's really simple. It's just going back and working with Andy again to do Gollum. In a way, nothing new there other than we've been able to go full circle now. This technology that we've creaetd, starting with Gollum: The idea of using motion capture and performance capture, and having an actor on set. We are now able to put Andy on set and capture everything he did right at the moment. When we started with Gollum, Andy would perform with the other actors but then he'd have to re-perform his bit on the motion capture stage. We'd have to go back and fit it all in, after the fact. So, it was quite a bit of work in doing that. But with Caesar, we were able to take all this motion capture technology that we created for Avatar and figure out a way to bring it to the stage and do it with a lot of action right there. So Andy's performance was the performance, in the moment. Being able to do that with Gollum, it's nice because it has come full circle.

Q: What are some of your favorite special effects from other people's movies?

A: I'd have to say Davey Jones was a good one [from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise]. I tend to like character pieces and I thought that was a really good one. That would have to be a highlight of the last few years.

Q: Even stretching a little further back, anything really old school, maybe old monster movies?

A: Old school, obviously King Kong, Harryhausen, Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2001. Even Planet of the Apes. All the old classics; all those things introduce you to the world in a way that you're not used to seeing. But they are still stories about our world. These fantasies, they get you to think about things in a way that you may not have thought about them before.

Q: With all the technology we have you can put together an entire movie like Tintin with performance capture, but do you long for those old Harryhausen, stop-motion animation or man-in-rubber-suit effects?

A: No, because the realism of what we can do today. With all those old movies, there was a suspension of disbelief that you were required to make when you first saw it. Like, when audiences first saw King Kong on Skull Island, you could see all the thumbprints and the fur moving in every frame. I don't think people thought they were looking at a real gorilla. Yet, they knew the story was, ‘This is a real gorilla,’ and there was no questioning it. Now, I think, as we do with Gollum, he has to look like a real ‘gorilla.’ You have to make the leap now to where your eyes are totally involved with what you are seeing in the screen.

Q: In just in the last couple of years, so much has changed. Avatar was a game changer. Planet of the Apes changed the game again. What, in your mind, is that next leap - that next big hurdle to tackle with technology?

A: You know, I really don't know because it depends on the story. Technically, anything that you see in the world is something we are interested in creating in one form or another, whether it's architecture or clouds or a smile or hands or fur. Anything like that is interesting because, anything like that can make a really good photo and a really good image and a really good story. But where we put the focus really depends on the script of the story.

Q: If you're to look at the last couple of movies that you've done - you personally – what are the things that you felt raised your game? From Avatar, to Planet of the Apes, to Tintin, to Hobbit. Do you look at it and say, ‘I have now raised my game to that next level?’

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
A: I think Avatar was really the film that did that. For me, there were breaks where these things happen. Jurassic Park was really the first one because we’re putting an organic character on the screen for the first time. And you kind saw a lot of that for a while. Then the next step for me was Gollum because now you are putting a speaking character, driven by an actor's performance, on the screen with other actors that has to hold his own. Then you started to see a lot of that for a while. With Avatar, then, Jim Cameron just set out to break down the barriers between live action and digital filmmaking. That caused us to rethink everything that we know from a technical and science and performance point of view - and start all over again because you have to build the whole world not only inhabited by these creatures, but influenced by the back-and-forth that happens with the environment and the people living in it. So that kind of cracked everything wide open.

Q: You said the job sort of dictates what you create. But still, as an artist, what is your dream creature or dream thing that you would love to one day create on screen?

A: That is a good question because I've got to do a lot of them so far. I've gotten to do dinosaurs, gotten to do a human-like character like Gollum. Alien characters like the Na’vi . Doing realistic, like Planet of the Apes was kind of a dream because I love the old movies but now you can do this with a realistic chimp and actually see the intelligence evolving. Really, I've had a chance to do these things that I've been really interested in thus far, so I'm not really sure what else would be out there. I guess Tintin was a surprise to me. I've never really thought about doing a character coming out of a cartoon page. But when Steven started talking about it, you could see all the possibilities, and that was interesting as well. I guess somehow I just like to respond to what's out there.