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VES '99: A Visual Effects Smorgasbord

The Visual Effects Society put on its first festival and with such guests as Dennis Muren, Robert Abel and Ken Ralston how could it have been anything less than a resounding success? Eric Huelsman reports.

This year's "VES '99: A Festival of Visual Effects" was an awesome display of talent, technique and tantalizing teases of things to come in the next millenium for those in the know and those on the go in the visual effects community. Intended mainly for members of the Visual Effects Society itself, the VES '99 show ran a packed house for its entire run of Friday, June 4th through Sunday, June 6th, 1999 at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences complex in North Hollywood, California.

Compared to other VES shows of the past, this truly was a blockbuster event. On scale, it could be likened to a mini-Woodstock for visual effects artists that was days of fun and effects and nothing but fun and effects." And while many of the shows packed in big crowds, the presentations given by the visual effects staff at Industrial Light and Magic were sold out weeks in advance. This is not surprising given the amount of hype surrounding Star Wars Episode One:The Phantom Menace and its much-ballyhooed effects. What is pleasantly surprising, however, is that the VES '99 show also managed to pack the house for other, non-ILM visual effects events.

Speakers from all walks of the film and television visual effects community came to give detailed talks about technique-oriented subject matter. A list, in order, of the presentations given at the VES '99 festival starts Friday, June 4th with: Flat Earth Productions (FX house responsible for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess), Robert Abel (in a presentation that featured Rob Legato and Ray Feeney among others), the stellar folks from SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Ken Ralston (Sony Pictures Imageworks, Contact) and Dennis Muren (ILM, The Phantom Menace).

Saturday, June 5th began with David Barrington Holt (Jim Henson's Creature Shop), Rob Coleman (ILM, The Phantom Menace), NASA/JPL's Dr. Dan McCleese (Mars Exploration), Digital Domain's Rob Legato and company (Apollo 13) and John Knoll (ILM, The Phantom Menace).

On Sunday, June 6th the presentations were: Threshold Entertainment (Mortal Kombat) enduring visual effects legends Ray Harryhausen and Phil Tippett in a lively discussion of "how they did it" back in the Golden Age of Special Effects, and last but not least, Scott Squires from yup, you guessed it, ILM to discuss, yup, The Phantom Menace. A nice touch was that several old special effects movies ran between several of these shows. Among these were pristine cuts of War of the Worlds and the original Mighty Joe Young.

The presentations covered include ILM (spread out over two days), Threshold Entertainment and Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

The ILM Wizardry Behind The Phantom Menace

There was enough to be gleaned from the combined talks of Dennis Muren, Rob Coleman, John Knoll and Scott Squires to write this entire column about how they did the effects for the picture. Given so little space here to do so, however, I will need to limit this report to what I feel are the most important generalities, sprinkling in "tech" specifics where I may.

Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Muren's presentation was fascinating. Dennis, fresh from receiving his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, did a two hour exploration of the Gungan underwater world and how the Gungan/Droid battle scene was created. It was like watching Jefferson talk about how he drafted the Declaration of Independence. History talking about how he made history. Suffice it to say that, details aside, the running theme from Dennis' presentation was, "Don't obsess on the details."

With respect to creating the The Phantom Menace worlds of Tatooine, et al., Muren described how the Gungan scenes were constructed. Using pretty much (now) conventional set-building techniques that work in both practical and digital formats, ILM had to do very extensive pre-planning. The use of CG animatics for pre-planning this movie was extremely critical to understand how shots should come together and explains in part the richness of the final product. The underwater scenes often required more than 50 elemental passes, and this is not inclusive of all the layers that consisted of fragments or pieces of other layers. The Gungan battle scenes were almost all key-framed and required much cheating to get the renders down to a manageable amount of time.

Obviously not a lot of time was had to play with things just to see how they'd look. A funny bit about Muren's collaboration with director George Lucas came when Dennis confided with the audience that Lucas saw the picture as a B movie, and said not to obsess on the details, although everyone in this business knows that visual effects people by their nature do just that. In other words, if a ripple of water doesn't work out right or the motion blur on Watto's wings isn't exactly right, move on, hardly anyone (except for fanatics like the author, of course) will notice it. With so many digital effects shots in the picture it makes sense to not overwork a scene to achieve perfection. Judging from the movie itself, I think George Lucas may have been right. It's a masterpiece, effects-wise. Perhaps George's B-movie analysis could serve as a pearl of wisdom for the rest of the viz-fx community.

Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi encounter Watto, a flying creature that looks like a cross between a hummingbird and an elephant. A cloth dynamics program was written specifically for the clothes worn by Jar Jar, Watto,

Part of the mystique for Star Wars has been its uncanny ability to bring new species to life on-screen, yet, true to any great story, manage to have the viewer care more about the character itself rather than how cool the effect looks. That was certainly the challenge and subject for Rob Coleman and his presentation on Saturday, June 5th as he described his role as animation director on The Phantom Menace. Rob was in charge of digital characters such as Jar Jar and Watto and worked with a team of 45 animators on a grueling 18 month schedule.

According to Coleman, a major obstacle to overcome in designing a character such as Watto (the flying creature that looks like a cross between a hummingbird and an elephant), was how to make it look "real" in a scene. In order to achieve the maximum realistic effect for digital "clothes," a cloth dynamics program was written specifically for the clothes worn by Jar Jar, Watto, and other digital characters using a combination of dynamics and procedural animation techniques. Coleman also elaborated on how "physics engines" were applied to Watto and Jar Jar to make them appear more realistic. For Jar Jar, the Rastafarian-like Gungan, this included applying real-world physics to an anatomical model that was considerably different than a hominid biped. For Watto, this meant making him wiggle back and forth in suspended space, giving all his parts or "elements" weight and inertia.

Queen Amidala and the wacky, CGI Gungan, Jar Jar Binks.

Another interesting demo was how the ILM animators used move matching techniques to provide eye-lines for the interaction between human and digital characters in scenes that were filmed with human actors months before. For example, the ILM crew used a practical Jar Jar head attached to the human actor Ahmed Best, so that the other human actors in the scene would know where to look, and more importantly, give the digital character animators a reference point for creating Jar Jar in the finished scene.

Finally, Rob Coleman spent some time discussing why keyframe or hand animation was often employed instead of using motion-capture libraries for many of the digital scenes. It worked out that keyframing gave a more convincing look. Any of the CG artists out there, who have keyframed every single frame of a, say, 120 frame (5 second) shot know just how extensive and time-consuming this work actually is. This is just one of many examples of the dedication that Muren, Coleman,Knoll, Squires and the rest of the ILM staff employed for the nearly 2,000 shots in the movie...and, judging from the outcome (e.g., a record box-office take for the first three weeks), all the hard work is paying off.

Flat Earth Productions, Xena and Hercules

The combined talents of Doug Beswick, Kevin Kutchaver and Kevin O'Neill were on hand to discuss the trials, tribulations and triumphs of producing Hercules: The Legenday Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, two of the most successful syndicated television series of all time.

These folks from visual effects company Flat Earth Productions have a pretty tough job. While principal photography is done in New Zealand, post-production is done over 10,000 miles away in Burbank, California. In what they described in the program as a "fly by the seat of their pants" operating philosophy, some problems include, needless to say, how to make footage shot months previously match effects being produced months later...perhaps without director input! The remedy obviously would demand seamless teamwork, something the speakers indicated is typically the norm but, like all artists everywhere, not always the case.

Although the Xena a nd Hercules series often play off the built-in, ribald (and often over-the-top) humor and double entendre of the scripts and storyline, the effects nonetheless must be much more subtle and work as seamlessly as possible into the scheme of things. Where the temptation is great to make the effects call attention to themselves, Flat Earth's incorporation of pyrotechnics, stage practicals and the use of other non-digital effects in the storyline is deliberately underplayed, not only for the sake of allowing the human actors to interact with monsters et. al., in a realistic way, but also to not detract from the story itself.

To maintain this comparatively low profile for the effects, Flat Earth's work on Xena and Hercules requires a hand-crafted approach that is handled by a deft team of mechanical effects artists, CG animators, compositors and other post-production experts. Match moving, motion control and the use of digital mattes are crucial to providing the illusion that what is happening is real to the characters in a scene. Not surprisingly, the Flat Earth team was inspired by the likes of effects master Ray Harryhausen and stop-motion masterpieces such as Jason and the Argonauts. The net result is that if, say, a centaur enters a scene, the viewer is less likely to think, "Wow, what a cool effect," and more likely to think, "Wow, it's a centaur...what's going to happen next?"

Jim Henson's Creature Shop

Any animation retrospective would be incomplete without at least a word or two about Jim Henson and the impact that his creative genius has had on the industry. On hand to do just that was David Barrington Holt, Creative Supervisor at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. David, who is a first-rate lecturer, provided a superbly well-prepared twenty year history describing in detail just how Jim Henson and his many creative inroads into the worlds of puppetry, animatronics and computer technology have served to change what we currently understand as "creature effects."

The popularity of Jim Henson's characters such as Miss Piggy and Kermit during the 1960s provided the impetus for PBS to fund Sesame Street. The success of that series led to the foundation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop in 1979.

Holt pointed out that the history of Jim Henson's Creature Shop really begins with Ralph the Dog, Kermit the Frog, and the occasional one-off characters that would frequent early '60s TV programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jimmy Dean Show. Throughout the '60s and '70s Henson's operation grew very quickly. These early days of Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy resulted in a cast of characters instantly recognizable to a core of fans who, appreciative of the Henson group's ironic, somewhat self-deprecating sense of humor, recognized the work as distinct and fun, and wanted to see more. They provided the impetus for PBS to fund the Children's Television Workshop series, Sesame Street. With Sesame Street the use of monitors inside costumes, cable control and remote control animatronics increased dramatically.Armed with this new technology, Henson packed up and headed to London to formally open his Creature Shop in 1979. From this location he recruited an echelon of puppeteers, marionette artists, and animatronics operators to launch an endeavor that would explore the new and exploit the known worlds of puppetry, with an emphasis on European tradition. What resulted was a unique fantasy factory that began delivering creatures and creature effects that began modestly in British television and grew into a major force in the feature film industry. The Muppet Movie (1979) revolutionized puppet animation and carried the genre to heretofore unrealized heights.

From the early '80s more and more film projects began to roll into theCreature Shop, giving rise to such animatronic marvels as The Dark Crystal, which was the first all-creature animatronics movie, employing very sophisticated remote control puppetry and computerized, programmable facial and body movements for the characters. In the mid-80s, development began on the BBC television series Storyteller. Classic fairy tales were literally given a new face with the Creature Shop treatment of such enduring characters as the rabbit and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. From here the Creature Shop did the movies Witches and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, each of which furthered the Henson confluence in the effects industry.

Holt was then interrupted by a group of gorillas. No, not event security. These apes were real. At least in the sense that they were incredibly adept puppeteers wearing ultra-realistic costumes. Unaffected, Holt continued into the '90s with outtakes from Creature Shop forays into feature films Dragonheart, Pinocchio, The Phantom, Loch Ness and recent releases Lost in Space, Merlin, Jack Frost, and Babe: Pig in the City. Much of the Creature Shop's work on these films was done in CG, with most of that work being done in Softimage. Employing their expert knowledge of puppeteering and animatronics to enhance their use of morphing and motion capture in CG, theCreature Shop has continued to blaze a path in the effects arena. At presentation's end, Holt talked a little about the future of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. He announced future projects that include Animal Farm, a sort of Babe with a political spin, and a totally fun piece called Brats of the Lost Nebula, which is a continuation of the Pigs in Space satire of the Star Wars series.

All in all, the VES '99 was a tremendous success. According to Tom Atkin, Executive Director of the Visual Effects Society, "Our first festival far exceeded the expectations of everyone. Attendees from around the world made it a point to advise us that, in their experience of attending other visual effects events, VES '99 was, without a doubt, the best visual effects platform ever produced. We are grateful to all of the participants, volunteers, members and sponsors who made this wonderful event a reality. The turnout was spectacular, and I, like everyone else, can't wait for next year, where there is the potential for expansion overseas. The bar has now been set to an extremely high level of performance."

Eric Huelsman is the head of the 3D computer graphics center at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center.