This year ShowBiz Expo goes into double digits. And in honor of its 10th anniversary there will be two keynote speakers: Robert M. Greenberg, the president, chief executive officer and general manager of R/Greenberg Associates., a pioneering company in image integration for film and video; and Dennis Muren, ASC, senior visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic.
Before you finish that yawn, take heed. Greenberg and Muren don’t plan to do any standard, “I’m so happy to be here … isn’t technology great” speechifying. The addresses are likely to generate a great deal of discussion.
Greenberg, whose company has created special effects for such feature films as “Zelig,””Predator” and “Silence of the Lambs,” as well as this summer’s expected blockbuster, “The Last Action Hero,” will speak about the “quiet
revolution” in filmmaking. The “business of imaging”–for print, broadcast and feature films–has undergone a dramatic change, according to Greenberg, “not just in the kinds of images one can create but in how fast and in how important these images are to telling stories.
“It’s a literal explosion in technology,” says Greenberg. As an example of how subtly and rapidly technology has changed in the past decade, in 1983 most post-production visual work was done
by optical houses. There were about 10 in New York back then, says Greenberg, whose main office is in Gotham. Only a couple are left.
About a month ago, R/Greenberg disassembled its Academy Award-winning optical printer and put it in the basement. The printer was only seven years old; its predecessor, one of the first computer-assisted optical printers, was only 10 years old.
“The computers are now faster and we have off-the-shelf software in addition to the ones we create ourselves. We have scanners to get film into digital and output devices to get it back to film. The relationship between time and money is such that it now makes sense for any multilayered shop to become digital,” Greenburg says.
And in truth, about 15 digitally oriented companies have opened in the past year, he says. And they will facilitate the changes in virtually every area of the filmmaking process–from editing to storyboarding and compositing. With multiple processors that do all kinds of computer graphics that previously required several differ-ent processes, the cost factor will decline also.
“You can take advantage of a different internal architecture to do things that haven’t been done before. What we have now is fast, interactive production, ” according to Greenberg.
For instance, commercials that had eight-week post-production schedules can now be completed in three or four weeks, employing fewer people, which cuts overhead tremendously.
The production of Columbia’s “The Last Action Hero” brought many of these ideas into practical usage, says Greenberg. “It was one of the most ambitious projects with one of the shortest production schedules.” The postproduction time savings was 40% to 50% over a comparable feature. The greater production value in the shortest period of time provides a real savings on the money invested by the studios, dramatic savings in interest alone. “Like ‘Terminator 2,’ it will become benchmark and eventually establish a new standard.” Digitally, films are catching up with broadcast and once all the bugs are ironed out, non-linear editing will be the common practice. Films will all be edited on video.
“New machines are out there that will handle broadcast, features and print and deal with every area based on a delivery system. It will happen over the next couple of years. It will result in a huge democratization of the business,” Greenberg says.
Part of Greenberg’s address will focus on the potential abuses resulting from this super-facile manipulation of images and sound.
“We’ll literally be able to put together all sorts of images seamlessly. It will change the way everybody lives and communicates. The situation will have its good and bad sides.”
A news story can, within an hour, be digitally altered to completely change the images. Or images can be used to create the illusion of an incident that never really happened–like a fire at the top of the Empire State Building. It could result in some dangerous public manipulation. “I want to get people thinking about that. It’s very provocative,” says Greenberg.
The second keynoter, ILM’s Dennis Muren, disagrees. “You go back 130 years to when the telephone was invented. How did you know the person on the other end of the telephone was the person they said they were. Some people will be fooled but there will be no more abuse than that in virtual reality.”
On the contrary, he feels that the changes will free the imagination rather than enslave it. “I’ll focus on the computer artist’s maturation on ‘Jurassic Park’ and beyond,” says Muren. “We’ve reached the stage in the past couple of years where the talent will make the difference and not the equipment.”
“George (Lucas, ILM founder) started doing this back in 1979 on ‘Young Sherlock Holmes,’ using laser scanners and computer graphic work,” says Muren. “More and more people are doing this now and the artists are coming up with incredible images.”
But the real renaissance of visualeffects that came via such recent breakthrough films that ILM worked on as “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2” continues as the digital manipulation of images becomes invisible. The result has been a creative leap, “ideas that no one ever thought they could do realistically.”
With “T2” new software was written, but once that was done, it could be applied to and enhanced for future productions. “Jurassic” is the next step for which more new software was written. The film’s dinosaurs represent the maturation of the computer artist. The dinosaurs don’t look like puppet animation and will be far more flexible than robotic ones. “They can act, they can perform. It isn’t done with cutting. It’s done with computer and visual images,” says Muren.
The original plan to use full-size robotics had to be scuttled because it presented too many limitations and the cost was prohibitive. “Steven (Spielberg, director of “Jurassic”) wanted to do a sequence we thought would be too expensive, so we did a test with 10 galloping dinosaurs on computer graphics. Steven put it in the film.”
Robotics would have limited the expressions and body language of the dinosaurs. Computer imaging gives the creator the freedom of animation. Further, images can be separated and composited with a background and then dramatized later with lighting. “We can now make moments and put them together to tell a story.”
“So to paraphrase Mr. Al Jolson, ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,’ ” Muren promises. “You’re going to think you’re really taking a safari in ‘Jurassic Park.’
“There are no quick cuts, no shaky cameras to hide things. It’s right there for you to look at, in bright daylight, 25 seconds of dinosaurs moving. It’s just about perfect.”
Spielberg began shooting “Schindler’s List” in Poland while “Jurassic” was in post-production. Images were sent to him by a fiber-optic link using two satellites and two-thirds of a second delay. It speeded up post-production work tremendously, Muren says. This process would have been inconceivable five years ago.
“Jurassic” will expand the horizon as “T2” did, says Muren. And for the future: “We’ll need writers and directors who have been intimidated about conceiving ideas that they don’t have to be concerned about anymore.”