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Cinesite poised for success

'Titanic,' 'Sphere' put animation firm in drivers seat

As competition in the visual effects world increases at an expeditious rate, the price, quality and speed with which movie magic is delivered becomes increasingly important.

Nowhere is this more meaningful than at Hollywood-based Cinesite, the Eastman Kodak-owned facility that also has offices in London.

Cinesite provides filmmakers a wide range of services including digital composting, 3D imaging, wire and object removal, film stock repair and restoration and digital film scanning and recording.

Even as the company records profits of close to $30 million per year, Chairman and CEO Aidan Foley knows the effects industry is a fickle one. “We want to maintain a leadership position in the industry, but we have to do it correctly,” Foley says. “We need more than technical wizardry.”

Cinesite’s growing workforce of 200 in Los Angeles and 100 in London includes computer programmers, animators, compositors, 2D and 3D specialists, producers and coordinators. The space and personnel needs of the company are growing rapidly, paralleling the growth of visual effects in feature films. “Our piece of these movies keeps getting greater and greater,” says Foley.

With “The Postman” and “Titanic” behind them, their slate now includes Warner Bros.’ “Sphere,” Universal’s “Primary Colors” and Disney’s “Eaters of the Dead.”

At Cinesite, film is converted into digital form with Cineon Lightning scanners, which cost $1 million apiece. These scanners convert each 35 MM or 65 MM film frame’s extremely fine 4,000 or 6,000 lines of resolution into digital form at a rate of one frame of film every few seconds.

After conversion, electronic files are banked in a central location to be electronically accessed by Cinesite’s artists on Silicon Graphics workstations that run proprietary software. Digital compositing, painting, color enhancement and grain reduction are then completed before a Cineon film recorder converts the digital file back into film. The recorder is tuned to the spectral sensitivities of fine-grained 5244 intermediate film stock, making it virtually impossible to between the original film and new film output.

In addition to restoring classics — Cinesite cleaned up 1937’s “Snow White” — Gagnon says there are three primary services it can offer a film: the creation of unfilmed special effects, the visual sweetening of pre-shot effects and the occasional cleanup of a cinematic “accident.” One recent example included a grip caught in a scene of Columbia’s “Air Force One.”

The dual locales maintained by Cinesite — about 90% of Cinesite’s work in Hollywood involves work on feature films, while the London office dives into TV commercial work — has definite advantages.

Working alongside helmer Joe Pytka, Cinesite provided visual effects for 1996’s “Space Jam,” a film which required 1,200 effects shots within a five to six month window. Artists in Cinesite’s London office became involved in the project and helped the company meet its deadlines. While the amount of work done on “Space Jam” was unusual, jobs involving 500-1,000 shots are now increasingly common.

As films get “bigger” and more expensive, pressure builds to show the audience something they’ve never seen before. In addition to eye-popping visuals, though, many effects go unnoticed. As an example, Cinesite put background points into several scenes in “Jerry Maguire,” allowing a busy Tom Cruise to work on sets rather than on location in particular cities. Additionally, expensive on-screen explosions have been enhanced, wires have been removed and weather and light can become more consistent from scene to scene.

Looking ahead

For the upcoming, John Bruno-directed “Virus,” Cinesite is creating clouds based on software they developed in-house, as well as 2D and 3D compositing work. “The landscape is fairly competitive right now,” says John Swallow, vice president of production technology, motion picture group, Universal Studios, “but they’ve been consistent and quick.”

For Barry Levinson’s “Sphere,” Cinesite is completing between 400-500 effects shots including in-and-out scanning as well as 2D and 3D compositing. On the menu are virtual sets, set extensions, tracking miniatures into shots, and the creation of an underwater coral tunnel around a swimming actress. One scene which involves space travel uses proprietary software and another scene involves hundreds of thousands of 3D jellyfish.

And haste is definitely important. As visual effects director on next year’s “The Truman Show” from Paramount, Mike McAlister sees speed as one of the primary concerns of a facility.

“Turning shots around very quickly is important,” he says. “Some houses seem to get caught between the need to make money and the needs of the film to have the best effects possible.”

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