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Mars, MythBusters Highlight VES 2004

The buzz at VES 2004 may have been mostly about jobs, outsourcing and the need to unionize the industry, but the seminars were still about creativity at the sixth annual VES Festival of visual effects, held in the bucolic community of San Rafael, California, June 18-20. VES 2004 also introduced new executive director Eric Roth, who recently succeeded founder Tom Atkin.

While the majority of the weekend was devoted to dissecting the enormous vfx work of some of the latest commercial features, including TROY, HELLBOY, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, SHREK 2, VAN HELSING and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, the two most talked-about seminars held at the San Rafael Film Center were about Mars and the Discovery Channel's cult TV show, MYTHBUSTERS.

With the continuing success of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, the VES took advantage of the popular convergence of science and mythology. "Mars Movie Legends, Myth and Reality" juxtaposed how Mars has been depicted in the movies with the latest images from the expedition. Not surprisingly, science fact blew away science-fiction in many ways. Dr. Daniel J. McCleese, chief scientist, Mars Program Office, at JPL, presented quite a show (in 3D, no less), revealing images of atmospheric change and physical erosion on this brown-looking planet. McCleese's presentation was enhanced by the 3D simulations by young animator Dan Maas (

Hosted by visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (an ILM alumnus and co-founder of Matte World Digital), the distinguished panel included supervisors Jeff Okun (RED PLANET), Mike Fink (MARS ATTACKS!) and John Knoll (MISSION TO MARS), who also showed off his pet project, a 3D simulation of the Apollo moon landing missions. The supervisors revealed their imaginative work as well as their passion for Mars, but also discussed their frustrations in having to leave science behind when directors decided to emphasize mythology.

Speaking of science and entertainment, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage (another ILM alumnus) were very engaging in their presentation of MYTHBUSTERS, the funny and educational reality series devoted to testing the veracity of urban legends. With varied backgrounds between them in commercials, animation, effects, puppetry, animatronics, carpentry and mechanical design, the duo revealed their tireless and often dangerous experiments in the Bay Area. Relying mostly on low-tech practical effects, they have tried everything from installing a rocket to a '67 Chevy Impala to make it fly (it didn't) to raising a ship in Monterey Bay with thousands of ping-pong balls.

A significant occupational trend in the vfx industry, the migration from movies to gaming, was explored in "Film Visual Effects: Techniques in Games." Henry LaBounta (SSX3, Electronic Arts), Habib Zargarpour (007BOND: EVERYTHING OR NOTHING, Electronic Arts) and Mohammed Davoudian (DARKWATCH: CURSE OF THE WEST trailer, Brain Zoo Studios) discussed the latest advances in modeling, lighting and rendering. DARKWATCH, for instance, a cross between THE MATRIX and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, utilized low res modeling and up res'd multilayering. SSX3 reinvented the lighting pipeline through mental ray, casting shadows, bounce light and light bloom to take the hard CG edge off. Meanwhile, EVERYTHING OR NOTHING took advantage of specularity radiocity and realtime rendering, which are new to gaming.

LaBounta, formerly visual effects supervisor at PDI/DreamWorks, said he found the creative challenges in games more exciting than movies, which are getting more and more bogged down in bureaucratic obstacles. "It's not about how many polygons you put in there, but [how creative you can be]."