Talking War For The Planet Of The Apes With The Visual Effects Wizards Behind The Film

I recently spoke with Casey Pike (Lead Artist) and AJ Briones (Previs & Postvis supervisor) about all things War for the Planet of the Ape and goes in-depth behind the scenes regarding Previs and Postvis work.


Michael : Growing up was this something that you envisioned for yourself and something you’d always wanted to do?

Casey: Film and the Visual Effects side of film was something I saw myself doing for a long time, but the Previs/Postvis stuff in particular wasn’t something I was aware of until much later. When I came to Halon, Previs wasn’t something that I had envisioned doing, but now that I’m doing it, it really flexes a lot more muscles then a visual effects job would. It’s what I loved about film, making the film, but I also have a lot of visual effects skills and I really enjoyed all the work in that realm. This job really marries the two in a really fun way. You’re a visual effects artist, but your also in the head space of the film maker.

Michael: What’s your process, How do you take ideas that the writers and directors are presenting to you, and translate that vision?

Casey: It’s different for every project, but a lot of it is looking at their past work, looking at how they shoot a movie or tell a story.

A lot of times you’ll get storyboards and scripts, but a lot of times you won’t have those luxuries. After the first pass, it’s a lot of back and forth collaboration. For film makers, helping them realize the things that are in their head, and how it works. Once they see it, it gives them the ability to sandbox it, see their ideas on the screen, rather than having to go out and film their ideas right off the bat.

Michael: Is the Previs stuff a lot of 3d modeling? Can you explain how that works?

Casey: Mainly the Previs process, is not necessarily a replacement for storyboards, it’s a lot like the storyboarding process, but you are animating it and shooting it like a film. They can put a cut together, or a sequence, they can make their film in Previs using digital characters and environments to get an idea of how they want to shoot. We do animation, motion capture, build our digital cameras to be representative of real work lens packs for real world cameras, so they can get a really accurate representation of how it’ll look compared to the Previs.

Michael: Can you describe what the Postvis process entails?

Casey: Postvis is “Previs” for the visual effects. They might need a digital set extension, or digital characters that the visual effects studio would be putting in, we use our time to get the important elements in there to tell the story. Sometimes that’s putting in all the CG characters that’ll be in the final shot, they don’t look photo real but it’s there to allow the filmmaker to edit and communicate the idea they have to other people (studio, the other film maker) or to get a clear picture in their head on how the film is going to look. This way they can feel confident when they take it to the final visual effects studios, that the decisions they made in Postvis were true to their vision.

We remove green screens and add digital backgrounds and characters. It’s kind of like a digital effects workflow, but the emphasis is on getting a lot of shots out to productions so they can put an edit together and be confident that they are making the right choices, and if they are making the wrong choices they can come back and pitch us other ideas, and we can help them realize their vision in between shooting the movie and doing digital effects.

Michael: What was one of your more challenging products or something you enjoyed outside of Apes?

Casey: Force Awakens was a dream come true. That was full of a lot of challenges, we started off small with only one or two sequences, and it expanded to Postvis work from where we started. Initially it was going to be a couple of sequences from where it started with the beginning sequences and expanded to the end of the movie. Including lots of pure Previs elements (space ships, or space shots), then we provided the animation of the space ships and went from there. Definitely a proud moment.

Michael: Are there things in particular that you are looking forward to at San Diego Comic-con?

Casey: The thing straight of the bat that I’m excited about is seeing all the costumes. That’s something that I have a lot of pride in. I’ve never done Comic-con, or done cosplay at a con, but I’m definitely a costume enthusiast. I like Halloween, so I’m always impressed with what people put together for their costumes, so I’m really excited to see that.

Michael: AJ, could you give us a description of what you do, and what your job entails?

AJ: I’m the Previs/Postvis and VFX supervisor on War for the Planet of the Apes. I’ve been doing Previs for quite a long time now. My background is in motion capture and in animation…I started in video games. The first time I worked with Matt Reeves was on the second film (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and we had a good time with that. Thankfully Matt did as well, so he brought us back for the third one.

Michael: Can you provide a preview of what your panel at San Diego Comic-con will be like?

AJ: It’s really exciting, we’ve got a lot really great effects from Fox and Ryan Stafford (VFX producer) who really helped us get some really cool stuff. What we are going to be doing is basically showing full Previs of the battle on the hill (the opening sequence of the film).

Then we’ll be showing the Previs stuff and beyond that we’ll be showing some really cool behind the scenes stuff…How production takes the Previs and breaks it down for the shoot, and we’ll be taking a vertical slice of that opening battle and taking it from Previs, to the production plates, to motion capture, to the Postvis and then taking it all the way to final. It’s a neat opportunity for people who are interested in film making to see what the process is like especially since its very rare that they get to see Previs. They get to see stuff planned and the amount of effort and people involved in getting something like that together.

Michael: From someone not in the industry myself, I was familiar with the idea of storyboards for films and games and how those were utilized to bring movies or video games to life, but not too familiar with the Previs/Postvis work that went along with it.

AJ: In terms of storyboards, the thing that is very hard to capture is the volume of the scene and the environment as it pertains to the real world. Back in the 50’s there was a formula that was used to translate a lens into 3D space, and you had a blueprint of the space you are filming in that you could represent that with a lens in a drawing. That takes a lot of time and it’s something that’s hard to do on such a large scale. The other thing that storyboards don’t’ capture, is the tone and the pacing so we’re able to put animation there and really put the director into the space. One of the real big things was to get a 3D scan of the environment to make sure that when Matt gets on to the set and all the actors and cameras are there, he just feels like he’s been there before. He’s very intimate with the environment, he can shoot the Previs as is, but it’s really a guide to help tell his story.

The one thing Previs doesn’t do is basically shoot everything physically. One of the things that we kept in mind making it is all these guys are in a forest and it’s going to be rough terrain so it’s going to be incredibly difficult to shoot in that environment and that weather. It’s a really neat tool so the entire production can be on the same page.

Michael: Talking about the hill battle in War for the Planets of the Ape, was the location already picked out and provided?

AJ: The one thing that was really fun about this show, was how inclusive the entire production was. They had gone and scouted the location, and had it in mind. How they wanted it to look, and they were underway designing the trench and all the practical build aspects of it. Where we came along, we took all that scout data, took all the 3D scanned area footage that they thought was going to work, took in the concept art and adjusted all the models that the art department was working on for the practical builds. We can do that faster than the carpenters can build a set. We virtually built that set as quickly as we could so we could help Matt visualize what it would look like and where things could happen. From there it was a couple of interactive sessions to figure out how it would look, what the pathing would be for the soldiers, and if the entire scene would work in that location

Michael: Another question to both of you, between Previs and Postvis, is there one process that you prefer over the other?

AJ: From my perspective, having done film school and hopefully doing my own stuff later on the entire process is great to me, but I think the Previs process is where there’s a lot more freedom to try different things. You’re on this journey with this amazing director and throwing out ideas, putting his ideas down virtually and trying to see if they work. Trying to get to what ultimately becomes the final product.

Personally, as a student of film, the entire process is great.

Casey: As a kid most of my favorite movies were the big effects driven films. So the visual effect aspect (Postvis), tickles that. I really like bringing about fantastical images, but with the Previs process you really are working with the film makers to develop how the story is going to be told. That process is so steeped in film making and not just visual effects.

Michael : As far as War for the Planet of the Apes, was there something in particular that was more challenging than other movies you’ve worked on in the past?

AJ: The biggest thing for us up front was working on and creating our new pipeline that would work for us in a game engine. It’s not the first time a game engine has been used at Halon or on Previs, but what was important was getting a pipeline that was fast, as fast as a Maya pipeline or even faster. We were able to eventually achieve that but it was really slow going. I hadn’t work in the Unreal engine since 2006 and I thought that I’d never see it again, so it was pretty interesting to see it come back into my life. It’s more difficult on a show like this and the scope of Previs because we run with a very small team and we’re a small team generalist, so you don’t really have the specialization that a game studio would have. I feel like we were very successful in creating a really good pipeline that worked really well for Previs and created really good looks but also worked for our internal motion capture for Postvis.

Casey: Not only did it gives us the speed, but it allowed us to do shots that we couldn’t really have done before that with our Maya Pipeline. Shots with large crowds and we were able to achieve lighting scenarios and certain environmental sections that more closely matched a real environment in our VR environment.

AJ: On top of that and bringing it back to the film, as far as the film is concerned, the thing that I feel makes this franchise stand out above others is that Matt works through a lot of emotion, while there’s a lot of action in the film, there’s a lot of internal stuff going on inside the heads of the characters.

They’re not usually spoken, he does a lot of close-ups, there’s a lot of stuff going on with the characters. From a Previs/Postvis stand-point that’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s trying to create these shots that translate what the script is saying on the page as lot of it is emotional and getting that to work in a cut.

Michael: Thank you both for taking the time to speak with me today regarding War for the Planet of the Apes and specifically regarding Previs/Postvis. Be sure to catch their panel – Behind the Battle: War for the Planet of the Apes at San Diego Comic-con