Sony unveils computer unit

Sony Pictures takes the wraps off of its new, and quite secret, digital production unit this week.

While other studios have been talking about transforming the production system by using computers for faster, cheaper and, it’s hoped, more creative filmmaking, Sony appears to be the first to embrace this philosophy firmly.

In the process, its effort threatens to topple the current order, where a laborious and time-consuming pre-production schedule rarely avoids later mistakes, and special effects by a handful of boutiques continue to climb in costs.

“Everyone here believes digital media will play a greater role in filmmaking as costs come down,” for powerful computers and software, says Ken Lemberger, vice-chairman of TriStar Pictures, a unit of SPE, and lead player for the digital group.

Though 6 months old, the new unit still doesn’t have a name, but it’s busy influencing the success of no less than three of the studio’s potential summer hits. Indeed, its handiwork with computerized story-boards, titles, and particularly special effects, will be seen in the F/X heavy “The Last Action Hero,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Castle Rock’s “In the Line of Fire,” with Clint Eastwood. TriStar’s “So I Married an Ax Murderer” is the third film to employ the new unit.

At the moment, though, Sony Pictures chairman Peter Guber has yet to decide on one of three names currently under consideration for the division–Sony Digital Illusion, Image or Pictures–and formally christen the group occupying several warrens on the third floor of the modern TriStar building in the far corner of the Sony lot in Culver City.

Having Guber’s nod signifies how important this team is to SPE’s filmmaking future. After Sony dropped $ 3.4 billion for Columbia Pictures Entertainment four years ago, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood’s traditional indifference to technology was pushed aside and computers began infiltrating the production process.

All this horsepower, though, has engendered more than a little nervousness and a few unkind words in Hollywood’s close-knit effects community. The concern is Sony intends on bringing more business in-house, thereby becoming competitors.

“It’s certainly a threat to a company like ours, by keeping work for themselves” says the head of a top F/X company. “The studios get first crack at it before anyone hears about it.”

“That’s not the desire,” counters Lemberger. “The objective is not to eliminate all third party venders. We don’t have a corner on the market of creativity but we’d like to do as much as we can because it’s a cost savings and the people here can focus on us.”

Moreover, some projects, like the sprawling Schwarzenegger vehicle, “Last Action Hero,” are simply too big for even Sony’s in-house team. Practically every company in town has been given some effects shots by F/X supervisor Bob Greenberg.

Plus, combining Columbia/TriStar pictures with Carolco and Castle Rock makes for a very full plate. Lemberger expects to see more staff added as the year progresses to handle an effects-laden slate, which includes Gale Anne Hurd’s space adventure “Taking Liberty,””Frankenstein,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, and sci-fi bestseller “The Foundation Trilogy.”

To get films like these and others made, insiders point to three initiatives driving the effort taking place at Sony and more tentatively on other lots: better pictures, with more dramatic effects, at lower prices.

“We struggle to keep production costs down, particularly in special effects,” says Lemberger. “Still, we have to deliver new effects for the audience. They’re at odds with each other. We need more exciting effects, more efficiently.”

To resolve part of the conflict, Lemberger began with a small team of computer jockeys to do so-called previsualization. By using desk-top computers and 3-D Studio, a software program from Autodesk Inc., “Striking Distance” director Rowdy Herrington, for instance, choreographed a deadly high-speed car chase that takes place almost entirely in a tunnel.

The scene from the action film starring Bruce Willis relied on actual street plans from Pittsburgh to set up more than 40 shots before going on location. Though Lemberger is convinced that the computer saved money, it also yielded a more creative sequence.

“At first it was a financial tool to keep costs down,” he says. “But it quickly enhanced the shot by letting us experiment without 100 crew members standing around.”

With an initial price tag under $ 10 million, SPE is ramping up a fully digital production facility. Headed by Tim McGovern, senior VP of creative and technical affairs, and Bill Birrell, senior VP for operations and business affairs, the staff now stands at 22 people. McGovern was wooed away from local F/X house, Metrolight Studios, where he won an Oscar for creating Schwarzenegger’s X-rayed skeleton in “Total Recall.”

A major cost-savings will be scrutinized in a matte for TriStar’s “So I Married an Ax Murderer.” On screen for an excruciatingly long 12 seconds, the scene has star Mike Myers driving across a completely computer-generated landscape, with digital leaves and clouds blowing by.

“They were shooting in San Francisco and Oakland, and the scene needed to feel like it was (shot on a location that was) six hours away,” says McGovern. Instead of traveling a day, shooting and coming back to town, “this way they could design the atmosphere to match the script.”

Perhaps the most dramatic footage will be Castle Rock’s “In the Line of Fire, ” starring Clint Eastwood, as a secret service agent protecting John F. Kennedy.

In one scene, McGovern creates an illusion of tens of thousands of people with just a fraction of that number. In another, Eastwood watches as a 15 -year-old photo of John Malkovich is “morphed” to match him to possible suspects.

Pointing to a bank of computer discs nicknamed Clint, McGovern figures he can fill it with 48 gigabytes of data, or 6,000 frames of film. At an acceptable resolution, that’s 4 minutes of film, when a normal effect shot lasts a mere 5 to 7 seconds.

That means more for Sony, and less to share with anyone else.

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