Hi-tech magic machines revitalize creative teams

High tech equals high interest. Witness the huge turnouts around the highest-tech demonstrations at the National Association of Broadcasters’ recent Las Vegas convention. This continuing fascination with digital ones and zeros isn’t lost on commercial directors. Their demands for new avenues of creative expression have been a key force in the development of silicon visual-effects technology. But today it isn’t the outrageous effect that draws attention, but the ability to integrate the effect seamlessly into filmic “reality.”

For instance, try to teach Michelangelo’s lion sculpture to walk through the streets of Las Vegas. Boss Film director David Ashwell, and Boss Film’s CGI director Jim Rygiel, using Soft Image’s 3D animation software for the Silicon Graphics platform, set out to do just that for an MGM Grand Hotel commercial, with film crew, a model builder, five workstation operators, 2 1/2 months, the work of Italian master Michelangelo and a real “wired” lion. The end result: Michelangelo’s lion learned to walk.

“I found a real good book on Michelangelo’s lion sculpture,” says Ashwell, “and we had a model-maker model the lion sculpture, and then we did a 3D scan of the model into the computer. We got a real lion and put him on a stage and plotted the course that the lion would take in Las Vegas, then we had the lion walk that course.”

Ashwell insists the lion composited to the Las Vegas mattes look real. “When the paw first touched the street it looked hard-edged, it didn’t really look like it was there. But these guys really worked on it, almost on individual pixels, to get the reflectionworking as strongly as the foot.”

The Flame from Discrete Logic, in Montreal, is another piece of technology that blurs the distinction between reality and the impossible. Chris Devlin, the Flame artist at Hollywood’s graphics/post-production house CIS, described the use of the Flame for a cereal commercial. “There’s a fantasy scene in this guy’s bedroom where he dreams about toucans filling his room with Froot Loops. When they shot the practical footage of that, they just dumped Froot Loops into the room and hoped it would look beautiful.

“But instead the Froot Loops shut all the light out and the camera didn’t see a thing. It was black. Using the Flame’s displacement technology, we distorted a 2D image of a Froot Loop, stretched it into 3D and made up a bunch of Froot Loops that we had tumbling from space, hitting and bouncing off the camera. I had complete control of the lighting and textures.”

The Flame and Soft Image are output-device independent, meaning the digital visual effects world is no longer locked to the tube; the program output matches the resolution to TV, HDTV, print, whatever. Feature directors are free to use devices once pegged as “the TV look,” because they now can achieve film resolutions.

The opening scene in the movie “The Coneheads” was shot daytime and changed to night in the Flame. CIS prexy Gottfried Pie reports, “The city in the background is a matte painting, so we applied lights to all the buildings, put in real helicopters flying past, and just sort of pasted them in and animated them. We put traffic moving along the road and we invented flashes of lightning and the whole thing lit up with the flashes, and then the 3D gold ‘Conehead’ title.”

Conversely, TV commercial producers can now see their TV commercials on the big screen with film-quality resolutions, and this capability is opening powerful marketing avenues for their agency clients. David Hays, president of E-Film, a Los Angeles tape-to-film service, observes, “Clients using the E-Film process take their D1 video masters back to film for theatrical release. Before, because the technology wasn’t quite up to film quality, a lot of clients wouldn’t consider advertising in the theater.”

The Quantel Harry software has been around for some years now, but it still produces — along with previous generation devices Henry, Flash Henry, Hal, the Edit Box and other Quantel wonders — its fair share of commercial spectacles. Filmcore editor Steve McCoy describes the Luxor Hotel’s visit to Harry at Encore Video post-production house in Hollywood: “We created glows and animated them around the Luxor pyramid and added birds and clouds to the sky.

“We gave it a life it didn’t come close to having. There was also an ani-motion control shot that had sort of an ominous look that the client originally thought they’d want. We had to go in and brighten it up, put in a bright happy sky, and add some grass around the thing. It went from being the monolith in 2001 to an inviting place kids would want to go to.”

Directors, previously dragged kicking and screaming into the colorization process, are queuing up at colorization expert CST Entertainment Imaging for — believe it or not — colorization. These aren’t involuntary feature-film participants, but very voluntary commercial directors working for Avis, American Express, Dunlop, Autolite and others, to the tune of five commercials a month. CST found producers looking for an edge and offered these producers what some term the ultimate paint tool.

Orange beach sand? No problem. Magenta sky? No problem. CST’s process goes much further than telecine color tint control because CST’s process works with black-and-white film, adding color.

In the CST process, color saturation follows the luminosity of the high contrast black-and-white film, giving a range of color contrast that would be impossible to achieve with color film. For those still uncomfortable with the color “enhancing” of classic films, there’s always the hope that CST Imaging will find their pot of gold in the commercial world and will leave the old features alone.

Meanwhile, new toys emerge seemingly every day to dazzle and tempt all of the hard-core techies of the production community. Uplink tomorrow for details.

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