“In the digital realm, we’re now like neurosurgeons instead of blacksmiths.”
This is how Richard Edlund, founder and chairman of Boss Films and a four-time Academy Award winner, likes to explain the great leap in visual effects that resulted in the application of computer graphics to movies.
The figurative hammer and anvil of the optical printer that worked so precisely for Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral 1968 landmark film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and all visual effects films until the late 1980s, became an antique practically overnight, as CG imaging has become a major part of moviemaking.
“I can remember when there were about 40 to 100 people in the digital business in town,” recalls Tim McGovern, who won an Oscar for the visual effects in “Total Recall.” “Now, we have 375 people on staff here at Sony, and there are probably as many as 5,000 to 7,000 people working in the field today.”
HAL-9000, the control-oriented computer with the mellifluous cadence who kept upping his dominion and usurping his human counterparts on the spaceship Discovery in “2001” — “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” HAL intones in one of his insolent but honey-coated denials — marked the outer limits of what was possible with special effects and science-fiction movies in the era of NASA’s Apollo space exploration.
“‘2001’ took the science-fiction picture out of the realm of ray guns and green slime and gave it an intellectual aspect,” recalls Stuart Robinson, senior visual effects supervisor at Pacific Ocean Post Digital Film, one of the many Hollywood post-production specialty houses that have multiplied to handle the digital boom.
“Everybody’s booked to the rafters this year,” says Ken Ralston, the five-time Oscar-winning visual effects artist and supervisor who is currently working on Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact.” “We’re all plugged into this world to accomplish as much as we can and speed up the process in digital.”
This year marks the date of HAL’s birth, as HAL explains rather pleasantly to an astronaut in the picture:
“I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Ill., on Jan. 12, 1997. My first instructor was Dr. Chandra. He taught me to sing a song. It goes like this: ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.’ ”
Until the last decade, when digital effects have become a tool not only to create fantastic worlds and action sequences, but also to correct bungles or enhance other footage in post-production, computers still came saddled with the memory of HAL and his crazy Hitlerian tendencies, amplified by other foreboding items such as “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), to scare off the industry.
“Special effects are now part of the grammar of film that’s available to any director,” Edlund says. “The barriers between the special-effects movie and the non-special-effects movie are breaking down. Any director knows that he can now erase the wires from any stunt man and get rid of the Wonder Bread billboard from the frame. With digital, it’s easier to predict the outcome of a shot creatively, costwise and timewise.”
“We had 100 shots in ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ that were special-effects shots,” says Robinson. “It was the safety factor entirely, not to endanger the actor, Val Kilmer, in shots with the lion.”
“In ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery,’ Woody Allen had a long scene in which he gets up out of bed in the middle of the night in a T-shirt, and he has a pick-up mike bulging from the T-shirt, and the wire could be seen,” remembers McGovern. “The editor, Susan E. Morse, called, and I referred her to (Industrial Light & Magic), and they erased the mike and wire. That’s a five-minute scene. It’s a lot of erasing, but it’s just one example of a film that used digital that doesn’t have another digital scene in it.”
The visual-effects advances from HAL to the digitally integrated dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” (1993) first went through the now-primitive computer phase known as motion control.
“Motion control dominated special effects for a time, and it was a system by which cameras and models were controlled by computers,” says Don Shay, founder, publisher and former editor of Cinefex, the magazine that has cov-ered special effects for 17 years. “The advantage was that the actions were programmed and repeatable, which allowed multiple takes.”
In 1977 George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” both used motion control to achieve many of their effects.
“John Dykstra invented the process for ‘Star Wars,’ ” says Greg Kimble, a visual effects artist who was optical supervisor for “Independence Day” and whose credits include the upcoming “Volcano,” as well as “Mars Attacks!” “Motion control gave special effects people more leeway. Now, with digital, we have a lot more interaction with the director, and more creative control.”
Morphing — the visual technique that shows an object or person transmogrifying into something or someone else — then became a part of the visual-effects language.
“Ron Howard’s ‘Willow’ (1988) was a wonderful use of morphing,” remembers Adam Howard of Pacific Ocean Post. “But then everybody did it — television, commercials — to death, and it became passe.”
James Cameron was the filmmaker who helped up the ante in the digital visual effects game.
“There was a 3-D piece in ‘Young Sherlock Holmes,’ but ‘The Abyss’ really captured the imagination of the audience — the ‘pseudopod,’ as it is known,” says Scott Anderson, who won an Oscar for visual effects on “Babe.”
“Jim Cameron pushed people to the limit. It was digital technology in contact with human beings. Then (”Terminator 2: Judgment Day”)was the logical advancement of that technology. With ‘T2’ the floodgates opened. It became possible for digital technology to be a big part of a film’s story and concept,” Anderson says.
“When Jim Cameron came to me to discuss the pseudopod for ‘The Abyss,’ my advice to him was to go to Dennis Muren and see if they could solve it with computer graphics or write it out of the screenplay altogether,” says Phil Tippett, a two-time Oscar winner for the visual effects in “Return of the Jedi” and “Jurassic Park.” “I’ve never been a techno-geek, so I never imagined computer graphics would catch on the way they did until ‘Jurassic Park.’ Now, absolutely. It allows you to do many things that you couldn’t do otherwise.”
Dr. F/X, by anyone’s estimation in the business, is eight-time Oscar-winner Dennis Murren, the guru at Industrial Light & Magic.
“Dennis Murren is the most prominent visual effects supervisor in the business,” Shay says. “He’s added to or influenced most of the best visual-effects films. He was the first to embrace digital technology. He took a year off from Industrial Light & Magic to study digital technology.”
That year paved the way for digital effects.
“I wanted to see if the handwriting on the wall was going to have any payoff,” Murren says. “We did ‘Young Sher-lock Holmes’ and some wire removal on ‘The Hunt for Red October.’ Then we worked on ‘The Abyss.’ All of this came from an analysis of the computer graphics world. It was the most valuable work year of my life — 1990. I could tell what was needed after about eight weeks. It was really illuminating.
“The big step was ‘T2.’ We had the guy changing shape with the liquid metal scenes, running, acting and everything, with no sense of lap dissolve, no sense of graininess. It was the first feature that was seamless from live action to special effects. After that, we could do ‘Jurassic Park.’ That was the big breakthrough,” Murren adds.
While the public and the industry identifies with such quantum leaps in special effects as “2001,” “Star Wars,” “T2” and “Jurassic Park,” other less notable pictures served as litmus tests for the visual effects field. Douglas Trumbull’s “Silent Running” (1972), Steven Lisberger’s “Tron” (1982) and Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Homes” (1985) were all cutting-edge productions in the advancement of visual effects, but not big box office draws.
“They created a mechanical arm for the little robots in ‘Silent Running’ which became the basis for most of the prosthetic arms that are used medically throughout the world,” said Adam Howard, whose recent work includes effects for “Star Trek: First Contact.”
“Toy Story” (1995) became the first all-special effects narrative feature.
“That was a big step,” said Robinson. “It was incredibly realistic motion without motion-capture techniques. People are now realizing that visual effects people can be extremely skilled in creating performance.”