Computers taking big byte out of filmmaking

Call it desktop filmmaking.You want a train on a towering bridge with a gorgeous valley below but you can only afford a shot of the train on a track? No problem. The computer will give you a new landscape.

You want a stadium filled with a cheering crowd but you only have enough extras to fill one section? Simple. The computer will fill every seat. You’ve found the perfect period location but there’s a modern-day high-rise smack in the middle? The computer will make it disappear.

Throughout the almost 100-year history of movies filmmakers have created screen illusions with special effects but today’s computer-generated images (CGI) offer a whole new world.

Everybody’s talking CGI. “Anybody who’s hoping to be competitive in the ’90s really has to have it,” says Harrison Elinshaw, VP, visual effects, Walt Disney Pictures.

Elinshaw runs what he calls a medium-sized visual-effects facility on the Disney lot, with 55 people. They handle optical work, matte painting, effects animation, titles, trailers and feature effects.

“We’re also coming into the digital world,” he says, “and hope to be fully operational with our digital compositing by the spring.”

Throughout Hollywood it’s the same story with studios plunging into the digital world. Major effects houses like George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios, Pacific Data Images (PDI), The Post Group and Dream Quest are leading the way. “We’re basically in the business of creating visual magical images that make it possible to portray scenes that otherwise couldn’t be photographed,” says Oscar-winner Richard Edlund. “Optical printers have been the only means to the end for a number of years. Now we have CGI.”

CGI allows filmmakers to combine all the elements they want to see on screen digitally instead of optically. For example, in “Ghost,” Edlund utilized an assortment of images to create the scene in which Patrick Swayze materializes to kiss Demi Moore goodbye.

Edlund used digital video so he could composite and re-composite andkeep duping the scene over and over, adding little elements to it each time.

“You don’t have any generation loss because it’s all digital,” he says. “There are about 25 or so shots in the progression, when Swayze starts becoming visible to Demi, so whenever you see Swayze and his background in that sequence, that’s digital video. When you see Demi Moore by herself, it’s 35-mm, normal production. When you see her and Patrick in the same shot, then she is Vista Vision and he is video. There’s a scene where film kisses video. When he comes in and kisses her he’s a video element and she is film.”

Edlund says he has no love for the optical printer. “It’s quite a bucking bronco, technologically,” he says. “In order to break that horse, you’ve got to really know how to ride it. And the traditional photo-chemical style compositing is always a series of fudges. Digitally, you can do all this on the fly and it almost becomes a dial-up situation.”

Edlund says optical equipment will dissolve out and digital will dissolve in.

“The optical printer is not going to disappear from our optical department overnight. It will be useful for numerous things for some time to come,” he says. “We’re also working on new scanning and recording hardware and software. It’s the future and I haven’t been as excited about new technology since ‘Star Wars.’ ”

The folks at ILM agree. Jim Morris, ILM VP-GM, confirms that digital technological innovations have added to the palette of imagery and techniques available to directors and producers for images in their films.

“There is still all types of miniature work, matte-painting, mo-tion-control and optical techniques that are available and are tried and true,” he says. “They are relatively cost-effective in many applications. We have the benefit of all that and we have the benefit of all the different emerging digital technologies as well.”

ILM has been putting digital images in motion pictures from as far back as “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985) followed by “Willow,””The Abyss,””Terminator 2” and “Death Becomes Her.”

“Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” were done optically. “Producers and directors now have a huge variety of techniques and types of images they can use in their motion pictures and TV programs and commercials,” says Morris. “There are immense pressures to keep the costs of production down and we’re subject to the same pressures. We find new marriages between traditional and new digital techniques.”

A good example is “Death Becomes Her.””There’s a lot of different imagery in the picture and what stands out are the effects with Meryl Streep with her head twisted around and Goldie Hawn with the hole in her stomach,” says Morris.

“But the opening shot in the film is a long, slow boom down from the Manhattan skyline ending up on a shot of a theater.

“Up to the point that you’re actually on the theater with its marquee, you’re looking at a very elaborate miniature with rain added to the image,” says Morris. “You could go out and shoot a shot like that of Manhattan but you could never get the staging of the buildings and the quality of the lighting to be like the director wants it. Do it with CGI and 999 out of 1,000 viewers wouldn’t know they were looking at a miniature.”

Morris calls it a digital backlot. “Basically, we’re able to create environments in the computer,” he says.

Even at the low-end of budgets, especially for television, CGI is making its mark.

“All this stuff is happening right now,” says Peter Moyer, digital-effects supervisor for The Post Group. “Who would have thought a year ago that a $ 1,000 Amiga, that you can buy in a K-Mart, could do a network television show? Well, some creative people wrote some sharp software and now you can do it.”

Not everybody is thrilled about the new developments. Me-chanical-effects specialists are finding that CGI cuts into their opportunities.

“It seems like it’s really hurting our business,” says industry vet Chuck Gaspar (“Batman Returns”). “Right now, there’s a lot of people out of work and it seems like they’re trying to do as much work as they can visually through the computers.”

Gaspar isn’t completely impressed with the results. “They say they can do it all,” he says. “I went to the Film Expo here a few months back and I saw some of it. It didn’t seem right to me now. It’ll maybe work out in the future.”

Peter Chesney, a mechanical-effects designer for Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies , including their upcoming “The Hudsucker Proxy,” says that the advent of CGI has caused chaos in film budgeting.

“You don’t know what’s CGI any more. There are secondary techniques flying around sort of halfway between CGI and telecine,” he says.

“There are so many new choices and the techniques are changing so fast that you can’t even get different groups of people to use the same vocabulary any more.” he adds.

Everybody worries about money and some people believe that special effects is where the money goes. Disney’s Harrison Elinshaw thinks it’s a phony rap. “We often do effects for very inexpensive films. It’s just a portion of the budget,” he says. “You’re not going to spend $ 4 million on costume and wardrobe on a $ 10 million film, but you will spend $ 4 million if it’s a $ 60-million film. It’s the same for special effects. It’s all in proportion.”

While computers and the range of equipment that goes with them have become more affordable over the years, the rate of obsolescence has also increased dramatically.

“The rule of thumb is to assume that when you buy a piece of equipment, you’re only going to have it for three years,” says Carl Rosendahl, founder and president of Pacific Data Images. “A year-and-a-half into that you’re going to spend another 50 percent upgrading it. At the end of the three years you literally throw it away because there is no after-market.”

He points out that if you have a lap-top computer you bought three years ago, no one is going to buy it from you today.

“CGI is a tool,” says Denis Muren, ILM’s senior visual-effects supervisor. “It hasn’t yet changed the imagination of the people.

“All we’re producing are better and better tools. It still boils down to creativity and one’s imagination and the skill of the filmmaker,” says Hoyt Yeatman, founder of Dream Quest.

“What we’re ultimately trying to do is tell a story, tell it visually, and tell it well,” adds Yeatman.

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