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    The Special Effects of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    "We actually call it performance capture." That's how Matt Reeves, director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, quickly corrected me when I asked him a question about the state of motion capture technology. This was two weeks ago, at the press junket for the new film. Reeves, along with the film's actors and visual effects supervisors, fielded questions for an hour from a packed hotel suite of entertainment reporters. It was the first junket for a big hollywood film that we've been invited to, and the experience was a little surreal. It felt a lot of like a Comic-Con panel, but for just 30 people instead of 3,000. And we had all seen the movie at an early screening the night before (it's really good). And with that opportunity to speak directly to the filmmakers, I wanted to learn about the process of filming a movie on location with the latest in motion performance capture technology. Unlike some films that use performance capture with primarily green screened sets (think Avatar), Reeves chose to build out many of the film's locations as actual physical sets, like the massive ape village, for the actors--both for human and ape characters--to interact in. And the computer generated characters were maybe the best I've ever seen in a live action movie. At this junket, I was able to ask a few of these technical questions to Reeves, actor Andy Serkis, and the film's Visual Effects Supervisors Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon. Here's what they had to say.

    Credit: 20th Century Fox

    Tested: Matt, you've talked about how directing this movie differs from directing one without performance capture, without a lot of CG, and how that required you to shoot scenes many times over. Can you go over that process?

    Director Matt Reeves: My biggest fear, having never done this [kind of movie] before, and being such an admirer of Andy’s--specifically being affected so deeply by his performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes--was “How was that done?” I didn’t really understand [the process]. As much as I understood the technical side from the outside, I had this fear that somehow the technology would get in the way with my interaction with Andy. Because there would be this technology between us.

    So then, I looked at all the footage, and what I saw was Andy, working with the other actors, and he’s amazing. The trick to what gives Caesar such soul is that Andy has soul. So that part of it was immediately demystified. I was very happy to see that. The hard part comes after that [inital filming].

    So [first], I’m working with Andy, we’re talking through a scene, and then he does this beautiful scene with the actors. Then we’ve got that shot in reference. And then we’ve got to shoot that shot again. Sometimes, when there aren’t humans in [the scene], we have to shoot it with no one in the shot. The camera operator has to try to reproduce what he did when he was trying to follow Andy, including the sometimes surprising moves that he would make. And other times, I would have to get the humans, who had just played a very beautiful scene with Andy, to play the scene by themselves. Because those shots, were then used to put Andy, [rendered] as Caesar, into the scenes.

    So the shots where the actors have had that beautiful connection with Andy, often were not the shots that were going to be used [in the final film], so I had to let them know “Your performance is still not in the movie yet. We have to get it right now--you have to remember what Andy did. And Andy, then, would get on a microphone, and try to talk the other actors through, the beats they’d just experienced together. It was a very unusual process.

    Building a Custom Computer Desk, Part 4

    After a month of building, Will's almost done with his custom computer desk project! In this episode, Will finishes welding the legs together, and preps the top of the desk for mounting to the frame. It's all coming together, with lessons and tips learned from makers following along with the project. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    How the Original Star Wars Comics Saved Marvel

    Back in January, Lucasfilm announced that the Star Wars comics were heading back to Marvel, after being published by Dark Horse, who had been putting out Star Wars comics series since 1991. This wasn’t a surprise because Marvel and Lucasfilm are now both under the Disney umbrella, and Star Wars comics actually debuted at Marvel way back in 1977. In a sense, it's returning home.

    Some have credited the Star Wars comics for keeping Marvel in business back in the ‘70’s, and it also became part of the film’s enormous merchandising bonanza when the saga became a blockbuster. Before all that, however, the movie--and the comic series--were a tough sell.

    Roy Thomas, the former editor in chief of Marvel, remembered first meeting George Lucas and the film’s publicist Charles Lippincott, in early 1975. “They were eager for any kind of publicity they could get,” Thomas recalls. “I don’t think there was exactly any media blitz in the works from 20th Century Fox. You’d think there would be, but it wasn’t advertised much. I don’t remember much about the conversation except they talked about it being a sequence of movies, and it was called The Star Wars, it still had the word ‘The’ attached to it.”

    Lucas and Lippincott had already approached Stan Lee about a Star Wars comic and were turned down, so they went to Thomas to see if they could get something set up. In early 1976, they came to Thomas again, armed with the Ralph McQuarrie production sketches for the movie. “They started showing me the sketches, Charlie Lippincott flipped each one over, and he told me the story. It wasn’t likely I was going to be swayed because science fiction hadn’t sold very well in comics, and Marvel hadn’t really done movie adaptations that much.”

    Still, as Lippincott told the story of Star Wars, and flipped through the illustrations, Thomas’s head started spinning. “It was the first time I was hearing names like R2-D2, C-3PO, Obi-Wan, Planet Tatooine…Then they flipped over to the drawing of the Cantina sequence, and I said ‘I’ll do it.’”

    As Thomas recalled, Stan Lee changed his mind when he learned Alec Guinness would be in the film. Marvel decided to do a six-issue adaption, and Lucas and Lippincott were hoping now-veteran artist Howard Chaykin would illustrate the comic.

    Michael McMaster Builds a Droid for Lucasfilm

    Friend of Tested (and real-life Wall-E robot builder) Michael McMaster has revealed that he's been working on a new Star Wars astromech. It's name is Chopper, and the droid is one of the key characters from the upcoming Star Wars Rebels animated series. Chopper is just the latest of McMaster's many robot projects--the veteran R2-D2 builder is currently also working on a brand new "ultimate" R2 unit, as well as an R4-P17! We have to visit his shop again to check them out!

    Tour of Adam Savage's Cave!

    Somewhere in San Francisco is a hidden workshop of wonder. A place where iconic characters, creatures, and props from cult favorite movies are pulled from the screen into reality. Adam Savage's Cave is the Mythbusters host's personal sanctum, the place he goes not only to build his painstaking creations but where he displays a lifetime's collection of oddities, eclectic memorabilia, and film props. We're pleased to give you an exclusive tour of the shop, and announce that it's not on Google Street View! (The entrance is hidden under a manhole cover somewhere in San Francisco, so you'll have to find it!)

    Engineering Alien's Original Xenomorph's Head

    H.R. Giger's recent passing has brought to light some new accounts of the film production for which he was best known, Ridley Scott's Alien. The Strange Shapes fan blog recounts the little known story about how the original headpiece for the eponymous creature was created for infamous reveal shot. Apparently, two effects teams were hired to design a mechanized head for the scene--one at Shepperton studios which had previously build the R2-D2 droids for Star Wars, and a second led by Italian effects master Carlo Rambaldi, who was then best known for designing E.T. for Spielberg. (This is the same Rambaldi who took the E.T. design job away from Rick Baker.)

    As the story goes, both teams failed to please Giger (who was famous for being difficult to collaborate with) and rushed to build their animating Xenomorph heads by the shoot date in Fall of 1978. Rambali's team won out with a complex skull made of fiberglass, metal tracks, and puppeteering cables, while the Shepperton team was given the task of mechanizing the creature's tail (which was eventually just puppeteered with external wires). There was a lot of politicking on-set between the teams, it's the kind of tension and drama that happens on every film production that behind-the-scenes fans love to hear.

    Scott wound up not using most of Rambaldi's mechanisms, opting for an extended close-up of the Xenomorph for its glamour shot. But the Alien franchise would continue to have a close relationship with practical effects artists--Stan Winston's studio created the animatronics for the sequel, and released its own effects test videos not too long ago (embedded below).

    How High-Quality Ink Is Made

    An oldie but a goodie: Peter Welfare, Chief Ink Maker at The Printing Ink Company in Canada, walks us though the delicate process by which vibrant printer ink is created from scratch--combining raw color pigments with chemical binders and a carrier. It really is an artisan craft.

    Animating Adam Savage's Workshop

    Adam invited animator Marty Cooper to the Cave to geek out about traditional hand-drawn cel animation and Marty's creative augmented reality cartoons. Using overhead projector transparency sheets and a stop-motion app, Marty lets loose one of his creations in the shop!

    Building a Custom Computer Desk, Part 3

    On this week's episode, Will continues working on the steel legs for his custom computer desk. He makes more refined cuts to the steel tubing that will make up the legs, and begins welding them together! It's an honest day's work of building and learning from practice. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    Stop-Motion Short 'Euphoria' and Making-Of Videos

    Talented sculptor and stop-motion animator Alexander Unger (who goes by the name Guldies) has released this surreal short film that he's been working on for the past few months. Guldies explains that this animation consists of about 2200 photos, edited in PhotoShop, stitched together in DragonFrame, and rendered in Sony Vegas. He also has a supplementary video that slows down each of the animation's frames to let you appreciate the craft, as well as a short video tutorial of how to sculpt a human face. Really lovely work.

    Bits: The Idea That Birthed the Digital Age

    "Information is the resolution of uncertainty." That was the premise behind mathematician Claude Shannon's 1948 thesis--which proved that boolean algebra could be used extrapolate information from a series of binary numbers. That meant if data was recorded as a series of ones and zeroes, it would be possible to transfer that data from one point to another with a much smaller risk of signal degradation than through analog systems. That idea of digitization changed the world, and this short video pays tribute to the little-known mathematician who thought it up.

    In Brief: Finding Innovation in Vinyl Record Technology

    We've previously written about Third Man Records and the process of creating vibrant vinyl records, but Jack White's record label is doing more than mixing colors into the vinyl press. This Smithsonian story explores different technologies and tricks being used by small labels and makers to mix up the venerable analog record. Some are experiments in materials, like the laser cut maple wood record by Amanda Ghassaei, but others, like adding hidden tracks in grooves beneath label at the center of the disc, are functional easter eggs.

    Norman
    The Art of Hand-Making Scissors

    Ernest Wright & Sons of Sheffield, is apparently one of the last companies making scissors completely by hand. According to the company's site, each pair of scissors is hardened, tempered, hand-ground, and assembled by professional "putters." This short documents the process of crafting one pair of scissors by Putter Cliff Denton. And if you're curious about how scissors are mass produced by machines, this 2009 video shows that process for a pair of hairdressing scissors. (h/t Gizmodo).

    Oculus-Driven Narvaro Telepresence Robot Prototype Demo

    A team of Georgia Tech graduates have put together a demo of a telepresence system with head-tracking, named the Narvaro 3D. Not too much is known about the product except that it's made to work with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The current prototype is a wired system, with the Oculus' motion being translated to a stereoscopic camera system on a three-axis gimbal. The cameras can theoretically pipe stereoscopic 1080p video to the Oculus, and Narvaro's creators are experimenting with wireless control and using brushless motors. According to one of the developers in this Reddit thread, the current prototype has no detectable latency because of its wired setup. Narvaro 3D is still a long way from becoming an actual product (I expect that they'll launch a crowdfunding campaign first), and the Narvaro team has to address technical issues like making the cameras adjustable to match the user's interpupillary distance (IPD). Looking forward to seeing how this project comes along.

    In Brief: Sugru Builds a Multi-Chamber Water Cannon

    It's totally a marketing project, but the team at Sugru have machined a pretty sweet multi-chamber water pistol. Its use of the actual Sugru product is clever--this Instructables guide shows how the team utilized the putty to connect and seal PVC pipes for the pistons and insulate the electronic switches. Maybe a little superfluous when building an overly complex water gun, but a cool project nonetheless. I've used Sugru in the past for more practical applications, like repairing frayed laptop power cables (an alternative to electrical tape) and making recessed buttons on smartphones more prominent/proud. It's also very compatible with LEGO bricks.

    Norman
    Animating AT-AT Walkers' Stop-Motion, in Time-Lapse

    From director Joe Johnston, who was the effects technician and concept artist on Star Wars: "Original Trilogy fans...here's the digitized super 8mm clip of Phil Tippett, Jon Berg and Doug Bestwick stop-motion animating a snow walker shot from The Empire Strikes Back. As I watch this for the first time in thirty-five years I am truly amazed at the amount of work that went into the creation of just one shot in this iconic sequence. I love stop motion with all it's archaic flaws and charm. This is a great example of what will hopefully not become a lost art form." Johnston's personal YouTube channel has plenty of lovely behind-the-scenes stories and time-lapses of his drawings.