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Getting Respect for Invisible VFX

Mary Ann Skweres looks at how invisible visual effects are becoming a crucial part of the industry, but are still being overshadowed by the flashy f/x.

Master and Commander and the like have such seamless vfx that they mask the challenges of creating them. ™ and © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and Universal Studios and Miramax Film Corp. All rights reserved. 

Master and Commander and the like have such seamless vfx that they mask the challenges of creating them. ™ and © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and Universal Studios and Miramax Film Corp. All rights reserved. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences has been honoring visual effects since 1963, when The Birds lost to Cleopatra. However, it used to be that vfx were measured and honored for their invisible craft, whereas now the big effects-driven blockbusters get most of the attention and acclaim, thanks to their popularity and higher profile. Low-key effects that even a visual effect professional might have trouble recognizing are understandably passed over by the public. Frequently in reality-based films and even in historical epics and comic book fantasies, the filmmakers themselves downplay the effects, not wanting to call attention to them. Recognition of this subtle artistry, therefore, continues to be the subject of much discussion in the vfx industry, especially since seamless effects have come back with a vengeance in the last few years, witness the likes of Master and Commander, The Last Samurai, The Aviator and the various “sword and sandal” actioners.

Second unit director and visual effects supervisor Ted Rae (The Passion of the Christ, Any Given Sunday), wonders how you can even judge the effects of big budget films against those with smaller budgets. “How can you compare a budget of $50 million dollars where you hire an army of people to produce a large volume of shots that look like very nice CG to a production where 10-15 people create 100 shots that are 95% invisible.” Visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun (The Last Samurai, Cutthroat Island) agrees: “The Perfect Storm had two years and $30 million dollars to develop the software. Compare that to a show that had three months and $1-2 million dollars. How do you judge that?”

For Rae, an important criterion for visual effects is that they fold right into the filmmaking process and are aesthetically part of the storytelling. The drama drives the effects. Rae likes the fact that he doesn’t always see invisible effects in his peer’s work. “I had no idea that there were 300 visual effects shots in Cold Mountain. I can’t find the 800 effects in Master and Commander, even though I’ve seen the film five times.” Commenting on the 400-plus effects shots in The Aviator, Rae admits, “I could sit through it again.” In The Passion of the Christ, Rae spent more than 19 months shooting the visual effects in collaboration with special makeup designer and producer Keith VanderLaan. They used a combination of real and digital elements to achieve a brutally realistic scourging that appears to have been done on set.

Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (The Aviator, Apollo 13) prefers reality-based films such as The Godfather. He doesn’t want to draw attention to the effects either. Big effects films often use the effects to impress the viewer — a see what I can do attitude. There’s no hiding the fact that effects are being used. Legato doesn’t want the effects he creates “to star above the art direction or photography.” He believes “the work should fit in like it was shot.”

Legato doesn’t dislike computer graphics, but thinks that, like a new toy, they have been overused and don’t have the impact or production value they once had. “There is a backlash from overuse. Now there is a trend toward using more truthful, simpler effects that are shot like a conventional shot.”

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman (Master and Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Star Wars: Episode II) has worked on both big and small effects shows. He enjoys both, but also believes that, “just because we can do it, doesn’t mean that we should. With technology it’s easy to get excited on set. We are all very visual and get hung-up on those things.”

More and more big dramas such as The Aviator rely on visual effects to bring their stories to life. © 2004 Miramax Films.

More and more big dramas such as The Aviator rely on visual effects to bring their stories to life. © 2004 Miramax Films.

Legato combined the best of both worlds at Sony Pictures Imageworks to create the effects for director Martin Scorseses Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. He mapped the biplanes moves from the original film and often digitally altered the sky and clouds to get the feel of speed, but he used many traditional in-camera techniques to achieve effects in much the same way they could have been done in Hughes own time. Radio-controlled, scale-models of Hughes planes and forced perspective photography were used to create flying sequences, including the Hells Angels dogfight and the crash into Beverly Hills of the XF-11 experimental plane. Legato thinks these techniques can be cumbersome to shoot but blend better into the live-action footage because the lighting and grain are consistent with the production footage. They can also be more cost effective, a consideration on The Aviator, which wound up costing around $8 million even though all the other bids came in considerably higher. Still, it can be tricky getting the perspective right. On set the cameraman was convinced it would never work, until he looked through the eyepiece. Through the camera, the miniature engines mounted on the full-scale cockpit looked full-size.

Cinesite model supervisor Jose Granell (The Phantom of the Opera, Master and Commander) knows about the problems scale can cause an ill-prepared production. For instance, when continuing a first unit camera move for a miniature shoot, its important to pay attention to scale or the camera could be out of the stage. In The Phantom of the Opera, only the front entrance and exterior square were built at full scale. The rest of the opera house was 12-scale model built first in pristine condition and then aged to reflect the deterioration of the structure in its latter years. Because they were more convincing at a larger scale, other live elements such as the windows and flames for the destruction sequence were built at 1/4-scale and then composited into the 12-scale model. The footage was shot like it would have been done for real, mimicking the first unit camera moves and lighting, only at a smaller scale. It is sympathetic to the approach of the main unit. Granell thinks that using all live elements helps make the effects much more photoreal and therefore more seamless when incorporated into live-action footage. Receiving recognition for these types of effects is a sore point for Granell, who believes that digital effects stole the steam from more traditional methods such as shooting miniatures.

Helman adds, The role of technology is to help the director to shoot his movie his way. For The Bourne Supremacy, there were many logistical problems on the live-action shoot such as, filming a car chase scene in Moscow traffic that is worse than New York and with limited location shooting days. To achieve the directors vision, Helman had to make both greenscreen shots and production shots filmed in Berlin look like they were Moscow. This required some very complicated compositing, adding in the Seven Sisters the seven buildings always seen in the Moscow skyline without the benefit of motion control. You have to have the attitude that motion control is for wimps. Helman takes special pleasure in the audience not noticing the visual effects. I get a kick out of tricking people.

While much of Lemony Snickets A Series of Unfortunate Events is comprised of stylized effects, ironically the most innovative work was designed to be invisible; namely, the CG baby. Since working with babies is always tricky, visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier (Master and Commander) created a digital version of 16-month-old Sunny, the youngest of the films three orphans, to act the parts that the real twins who played the character could not perform. These scenes include Sunny catching a spindle in her teeth like a dog.

Even character animation, as in Lemony Snicket, is becoming so photoreal that audiences may not even notice they are looking at a CG shot.  & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Even character animation, as in Lemony Snicket, is becoming so photoreal that audiences may not even notice they are looking at a CG shot. & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

To make the virtual character appear real, it was important to have the real girls to photograph. Not only did the team have numerous references from photographs taken during the filming, but the girls came to ILM for elaborate sessions as well. Because the girls were so young and couldnt sit still for a cyberware scan, in order to construct Sunnys facial geometry, ILMs software group devised a new technique of simultaneously photographing the girls from different angles. The CG closeup, in particular, was a breakthrough for invisible effects in achieving a realism superior to the cyberware scan.

Helmed by visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall and executive producer Margaux Mackay, Gray Matter FX is a filmmaker-driven, boutique company known for their seamless effects in reality-based films such as David Finchers Fight Club, Spike Jonzes Adaptation and the current The Life Aquatic. Marshalls approach is to use a combination of methods, especially live elements as much as possible. Real pyro, real smoke and real water elements are more convincing than the computer-generated versions. He believes CGI elements, such as water, are not quite right. With a real shot of water, there is not arguing that the water is water. Marshall explains: From our point of view, the reason to do this is not to make effects, but to enhance the story. If the film does well, weve done our job. Marshall admits receiving Oscar recognition would be nice, but more important to him is recognition from the directors, cinematographers and editors that the company has worked with. Thats because new projects usually come from clients who have been pleased with past collaborations.

The invisible effects that Okun created for The Last Samurai (including all of the arrows and a lot of the horses) were indistinguishable from the props, sets and locations used during production. The audience is caught up in the world of the story and completely unaware that visual effects are part of the process. According to Okun, though, some of the best effects can be passed over because a film is not well received. Cutthroat Island had some of the best visual effects Ive done. There were over 500 shots and seamless composites. We had no motion control. Thus, Okun contends that when visual effects are hard to spot, they fulfill their duties. Helman agrees: If a lot of people dont know what you did, keep doing what you do.

And while Rae allows that big scale effects are a large part of the fantasy genre, even comic book movies such as the Spider-Man series still require some basis in reality. Sometimes the most touted effects films contain those that defy the laws of gravity. But visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren went to great lengths to address the laws of physics in The Hulk. The effects dealt with the characters mass and physical properties such as inertia. Because the Hulk has super-human strength, he can bound greater distances than a normal man, but he also lands with a lot more weight. Because a lot of technology has been developed at one time, Rae thinks that the visual effects community is still giddy with computer graphics, but that the best techniques will eventually settle out to be used not for the effect but to tell the story. Its just one of the aesthetic cycles in the film industry.

In an attempt to even the playing field, the Visual Effects Society (VES) has tried to recognize the visual effects artistry within the film industry. The awards committee honors the overall best visual effects in an effects-driven film such as Spider-Man or Lord of the Rings. Yet another category has been created to credit the best effects in a supporting role such as The Last Samurai (this years winner) or Master and Commander (the outstanding compositing winner). There are also categories that recognize superior work on individual shots. Effects supervisors, companies and studios can submit films for consideration. Submissions receive total peer review. Twenty-three categories of awards give recognition not only to visual effects supervisors and producers but also to the artists themselves.

When it comes to comparing the sword work in Star Wars and The Last Samurai, what film do you think will get more noticed for its visual effects? Star Wars images © Lucasfilm Ltd. Last Samurai © Warner Bros.

When it comes to comparing the sword work in Star Wars and The Last Samurai, what film do you think will get more noticed for its visual effects? Star Wars images © Lucasfilm Ltd. Last Samurai © Warner Bros.

Visual effects have been maturing since those first Academy Awards. Good work is being done on all levels, in all formats and at all budgets. The craft has grown up to play a significant role in the filmmaking process, on a par with the other crafts. Technicians are now artists. Both the art and the technology have advanced. Advances are happening so fast, in fact, that what will be cutting edge in two years is something not seen before. According to Okun, the proof of visual effects place in the film food-chain is that the visual effects supervisor has more say in the creative storytelling. In the future, invisible effects will be the bulk of effects work done.

Legato sees the future of visual effects as a blend of traditional and evolving computer-generated techniques. It no longer becomes special. Its another tool in the filmmakers toolbox.

However, there is already hope for films boasting invisible effects, as The Aviator made the shortlist for the Academy Awards visual effects bake-off, which takes place Jan. 19 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So did Lemony Snicket, with its marvelously invisible CG baby.

Obviously, Im delighted that a film thats not a big effects film, but a dramatic film, has received attention, Legato enthuses. Its great that people have an appreciation for the work as an alternative to the big effects films, even though the effects are not meant to be noticed. It seems that the invisible effects have been seen. Maybe the future of visual effects is here.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

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