By NAOMI GOLDMAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By NAOMI GOLDMAN
Gollum. King Kong. T-Rex. The Na’vi. Caesar. Iconic characters brought to life thanks to a profound imagination and a passion for math – both possessed by a visionary artist adept at using technology to create unforgettable worlds and CG characters that speak volumes about our humanity. That pioneering visual effects master is Joe Letteri, VES – a boy from Pennsylvania entranced with natural phenomena and a curiosity for the universe big enough to share.
Coming off of last summer’s stunning War for the Planet of the Apes, Letteri’s prolific skill and pioneering techniques have been on display for more than 25 years. His groundbreaking work has garnered Letteri four Academy Awards (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King, King Kong and Avatar), four BAFTA Awards and six Visual Effects Society Awards. His filmography also includes The Abyss, Jurassic Park, Star Wars: Special Edition, I, Robot, X-Men: The Last Stand and The Hobbit and Planet of the Apes trilogies – and he’s now focused on the highly anticipated Avatar sequels. He is currently Director of Weta Digital, having joined the company in 2001 after a 10-year tenure at ILM. Letteri is a recipient of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the Queen’s honor, bestowed for rendering meritorious service to the Crown and nation. In October, Letteri was given the distinction of VES Fellow, and in February he will be bestowed with the Georges Méliès Award at the 16th Annual VES Awards, in recognition of his significant and lasting contributions to the art and science of the visual effects industry.
Growing up in Aliquippa, Penn. in the 1960s, Letteri was enthralled early on with the vein of spectacle filmmaking popular in the era. “Dr. No, Goldfinger, midnight scary movies, black and white alien invasion films … they were always fun and got me thinking, how did they do that? I always enjoyed them with a keensense of curiosity,” says Letteri.
His trajectory towards visual effects was fueled by a love of math and science amidst the burgeoning computer age. “I was always interested in optics, physics and astronomy. I started thinking about how you see things. The flip side is optical illusions – how do those work and how does your mind believe those things? I was trying to understand how tricking the mind speaks to how you understand the world around you.
“I was in love with graphing things. Randall Brodsky’s work on fractals, using math to describe complicated visual images that almost looked organic, really got me thinking about the possibilities of visualizing things with equations and making pictures out of data.
“At the same time, astonishing films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars were taking you to outer space, which is where I wanted to be anyway. The advent of computer graphics created this tool where you could know something about optics, photography, motion and how to construct things in 3D, but unlike the traditional arts where you built a model and moved it and photographed it, here you were manipulating the pixels directly. It opened the door to a whole different way of thinking about the art in that anything you could describe you could capture pixel by pixel. I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t animate in the traditional sense, but using a computer I can figure out how to create any image in the world – or a world yet unknown.”
Letteri’s entre into the field was spurred by an encounter at SIGGRAPH in 1988 with the owner of Orange County, California based Yale Video, who offered him the chance to work on the company’s computers after business hours. This began his midnight-to-daybreak nightly cycle of teaching himself how to use and program the machines on the Cubicom System.
Letteri got his professional start in Los Angeles doing commercials and news graphics at Metrolight Studios. His first film job, which was also his first film at ILM, was the opening shot in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where the Klingon moon Praxis explodes into a big ring of fire. “They had tried to figure out how to do it as a practical effect, but couldn’t get the energy to make it big enough. Because I had been working on the side with fractals creating clouds and other natural phenomena, I went to work and created that first shot of the film.”
“I was trying to understand how tricking the mind speaks to how you understand the world around you.”
Next up was Jurassic Park, which Letteri describes as the big defining project. “I became really interested in lighting and shaders and how we could create truly realistic-looking dinosaurs. Discovering Pixar’s RenderMan companion and the idea that you could actually code shaders and get them to do what you want them to do became fascinating to me. So I wrote a library of shaders. How the skin was going to look, the reflectants, the lights. Everything had to be specialized.
“Getting to work on Jurassic Park, on big scary creatures – I mean as a kid, who didn’t draw dinosaurs? And the ability to actually do that and put it on the screen photographically was fantastic. Seeing the audience reaction – because the dinosaurs were the stars of the film they were coming to see – opened up lots of potential in figuring out how to create complex characters.” Letteri brings that attention to lifelike detail to every project he helmed,from creating a new technique for realistic fur on Kitty the Saber Toothed Cat in The Flintstones to conducting lighting studies based on old Hollywood glamour shots to get the right lighting for Casper (the Friendly Ghost’s) eyes.
“Getting to work on Jurassic Park, on big scary creatures – I mean as a kid, who didn’t draw dinosaurs? Seeing the audience reaction – because the dinosaurs were the stars of the film they were coming to see – opened up lots of potential in figuring out how to create complex characters.”
As to his most beloved character, Letteri speaks like a parent not wanting to play favorites, but cites his seminal work on The Lord of the Rings. “Gollum was a breakthrough. He was the first character that had to play alongside live-action characters in a way that you couldn’t tell he wasn’t a real person. He was a CG character, but he was treated with every consideration that any real character would. There was an inner conflict and there was an arc. Nothing about him was thrown away. And we set about to create this villain that we wanted you to like. Because if you have a villain that you don’t like it has to be epic, like Darth Vader, but that’s not a character that lives in your midst with emotional complexity.
“Not only did we come up with the idea of using performance capture and working with Andy Serkis, but we also created a technique called subsurface scattering that allowed us to create realistic skin for the first time. The combination of those elements gave us Gollum, who was believably alive and held up to real actors. Creating digital characters with that emotional range and subtlety has been the basis for all of the characters we’ve created since then.
“I remember the first time we saw Gollum in shots and started to get a sense that this is going to work. Or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first shot we did of him in his jail cell where he’s watching with his eyes and we knew we had captured that humanity. In every film those character moments are the standout.”
On the end note of these characters. Letteri acknowledges: “Saying goodbye to Caesar is emotional because of the investment in him. But it’s a satisfying end to Caesar and his journey as a leader. And Gollum, he was consumed by a ring of molten lava, so he certainly got a dramatic cinematic ending.”
“I’m inspired by the opportunity to create characters that allow you to tell stories in new ways. In the Apes story, telling it through the eyes of the apes gave us all the opportunity to walk back from our biases and see it told from their perspective. Taking the audience inside how they perceive love and loyalty, war and fear lets us to look at the problems of society from a different vantage point. To bring that to the screen, you have to put a lot of effort into mastering the cinematic techniques of storytelling, while also needing to understand what makes a character come alive.”
“I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t animate in the traditional sense, but using a computer I can figure out how to create any image in the world – or a world yet unknown.”
Letteri points to mentors who influenced him at critical junctures. “At the foundation of my career, Tim McGovern and Richard ‘Dr.’ Baily, both at MetroLight, were great not only in teaching me practical skills, but also in letting me run with things. And when I got to ILM, Dennis Muren, VES was fantastic, because he had such a sense of history and a keen eye and was always referring back to ‘how does this thing happen in the real world’ and keeping our work grounded in a physical basis. I’ve also been fortunate to work with visionary directors including Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, who were open and collaborative and willing to take on new ideas – no matter how crazy they sounded.”
To aspiring VFX artists, Letteri offers two pieces of advice. First, “You have to find something in the field you like well enough to become an expert in. Really know something and do something as deeply as possible. And you must appreciate the broad scope of filmmaking. Know how what you’re doing fits into the film and how everyone else is working towards the same common goal because it’s very collaborative. You have to think about your work far beyond the effects to make a valuable contribution to the story. If you do both of these things, you have a good chance at honoring the art of storytelling through VFX.”
Letteri was in the unique position at the 13th Annual VES Awards of competing against himself for Outstanding Visual Effects on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies vs. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (he and the team won two VES Awards for Apes that year). And where does he keep his gold Man in the Moon statues? “Proudly displayed in a cabinet in my office.”
What profession would he likely have pursued if not VFX? “I probably would have followed my love of astronomy or astrophysics. But I’m also fascinated with biology. Because if you’re thinking about astrophysics, you’re thinking about life on other planets, so it all comes down to the big picture that ties it all together.