F/x kudos contenders worthy of the Stars

Every year it gets harder to single out that one feature film that pushed forward the already staggeringly advanced envelope of special effects production.

Technological advances account for only a part of this difficulty, though a significant part: Every year something that was once thought impossible (or, at least, impossibly expensive) winds up on the screen. In 1990, it was morphing; in 1993, it was realistic animal motion-capture (or generation); in 1997, it was applying that motion-capture advance to thousands of objects.

Digital advances

Sheer computing horsepower accounts for some of these advances, certainly, but more importantly, it was the wide professional base of CG artists, animators and technicians that finally became available to studios and producers over the past 18 months or so.

The “cult of personality” that existed around the various veteran FX magicians lessened, with the result that, for example, Digital Domain could hire 50 people to work on “Titanic” and still leave another 200 in the L.A.-based talent pool for Sony Imageworks to tap for “Starship Troopers” work.

Another important step forward in efficient FX production was the establishment (first by Side Effects, then by Alias/Wavefront, then by SoftImage, then by everyone) of “suites” of CG programs that allowed the artist to move from creating to rendering to animating without stopping the work to reload programs, reboot machines and (most importantly) adjust for new changes from the director or producer. When even major changes in a shot can be made on the fly, efficiency rises even as relative expense drops.

F/X hot list

:Ultimately, the list of the year’s most eye-popping FX film productions can be winnowed down from well over 20 down through the workmanlike (“Alien Resurrection,” “Spawn”) and the interesting (“The Fifth Element,” “Batman and Robin”) to the awesome (“The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Contact”) and, finally, to the Big Three: “Starship Troopers,” “Titanic” and “Men in Black.”

The terrific troika offer digital visions that range from the nightmarish to the celestial, and in many instances, from both a narrative and a technical point of view, their use of FX could hardly be more dissimilar. But the important thing to remember is that in all three cases the bountiful (and expensive) FX employed always serve and forward the films’ stories.

As Spielberg, Cameron, Lucas and every other director who’s experienced with FX-enhanced filmmaking can attest, that is the ultimate purpose of being able to conjure new worlds: to tell us a compelling story about that imaginary place, and/or the creature(s) in it.

Ultimately, for CG fans, it comes down to one film: Tri-Star’s “Starship Troopers.” Though Cameron’s naturalistic use of digital matting and character animation was stunning in “Titanic,” and Barry Sonnenfeld’s use of CG aliens as comedians (and straight men) made “Men in Black” a consistent delight, it’s Verhoeven’s pushing the envelope of what is possible with VFX that gives his latest opus the nod.

The Dutch-born Verhoeven has proven many times over how dab a hand he is with FX storytelling, from 1987’s “Robocop” right through to the regrettable 1995 feature “Showgirls.” But he said not too long ago that, after a string of present-day, relatively realistic features, it was a pleasure to get back to a world and a time he could really control: namely, the 23rd Century Earth (and elsewhere in the galaxy) of “Starship Troopers.”

‘Troopers’ components

Any survey of the FX work in this film must begin and, ultimately, end with the bugs. Critter-meister Phil Tippett, who has soldiered on with stop-motion animation in a world going completely digital around him, shows the wisdom of his lonely position with the utterly realistic yet completely fantastic creations for this film.

The long shot in the Planet P outpost segment — which, as Verhoeven has acknowledged, is something of a futuristic homage to the 1964 British classic “Zulu” — is simply jaw-dropping in its scale and accomplishment.

Tippett, working with Ken Ralston and the Sony Imageworks crew as lead FX house and several others in copilots’ chairs, devises a basic one-shot and then replicates it, but each replication runs on its own more or less unique wireframe.

The result, in the finished film, offers thousands of marauding Bugs closing in on the human outpost — almost as if a vast cauldron of Bugs was overturned just over the hill, each of them individual in motion and attitude. Tippett has certainly come a long way since he created and animated ED-209 for Verhoeven in “Robocop” 10 years ago, but the essence of his work — approximating natural movement and attitude — hasn’t changed a bit.

The other major eye-popper comes a bit earlier in the film, as a Bug “flak” attack cuts an Earth spaceship in two. twain. The basic shot sequence was built around modelwork done by Thunderstone, but it also involved much visual matting (from Boss Film Corp., Imageworks and others) and pyrotechnics (from Thunderstone and Imageworks), as individual deck fires, spewing gases and floating bodies all make their claims for attention in the sequence.

One other sequence definitely worth mentioning is one where human attack fighters “napalm” a swarm of Bugs. Again, close-frame matting (by Imageworks, Visual Concept Entertainment and others), pyrotechnics and CG flame effects (Industrial Light & Magic), all combine in frames that, in some cases, involve up to 42 effects elements per frame. The result is possibly the most gee-whiz effects sequence — in a film stuffed with them.

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