TV creatures gang up on film monsters

When it comes to today’s film and TV monsters, Hollywood’s growing group of creature creators is using a wide variety of techniques to conjure up some challenging, imaginative and gut-wrenching fright sights.

One such purveyor of the grotesque is Greg Cannom, who with his Cannom Creations company is pumping gallons of lifeblood into New Line Cinema’s upcoming “Blade.” Slated for a February release, the film stars Wesley Snipes as a contemporary vampire hunter (based on the Marvel Comics character) and is directed by Stephen Norrington.

“One of our characters is a 1,500-pound vampire who sits in a lair and operates computers for the rest of the vampire community,” Cannom says. The undead giant was designed over a three-month period: “The creature, which is close to 9 feet wide and 5 feet high, is operated by five people from inside the body. An actor, who wears a five-piece prosthetic makeup, sits in the middle of a giant body that was sculpted from about 1,500 pounds of clay. Two people operate the arms, and two people control the feet. Outside the monster, more people work on a massive bladder and an air-conditioning system.”

Lupines in the loop

Santa Barbara Studios, whose cutting-edge digital sights will be seen in New Line’s August release “Spawn,” also created computer-generated werewolves for “An American Werewolf in Paris,” the sequel to director John Landis’ 1981 classic “An American Werewolf in London.” With a budget of approximately $3.8 million, the Santa Barbara-based powerhouse, which worked on the project for about 14 months, utilized Silicon Graphic Workstations, DEC Alpha servers and such software as Softimage and Alias Wavefront.

“It’s hard enough to make one creature look convincing,” says James Straus, the project’s animation director, “but we had to create a massive fight to the death between two werewolves. Initially, I wanted (director Anthony Waller) to indicate the flow of action, so on the set, he acted out the fight scene on camera with a crew member. After I studied the rhythm and flow of that footage, I applied the humans’ moves to the werewolves because I wanted the fight to be very motivated and violent.

“In the final shot, they’re rolling on the ground, a werewolf’s claws are digging into its opponent’s neck and one werewolf is trying to bite the other werewolf — elements that required careful planning. So I sketched the scene on paper and did some blocking with simplified werewolves to make sure that the action’s timing and fundamentals were proofed out for the entire scene.”

Equally challenging are television’s expanding plethora of digital devils — even though there are major differences between their conception and that of feature film effects. A case in point is NBC’s adaptation of Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Slated to air May 18-19, the four-hour miniseries, which shot from October through February, retells the tale of Odysseus (Armand Assante), who, after leading his troops to victory in the Trojan War, survives 10 years of torment from the god Poseidon.

“Whenever you work in film resolution, the computer has to sift through three to four times the amount of detail that you get on TV,” says Mike McGee, the creative director of FrameStore, the London-based digital-effects company responsible for more than 200 shots for “The Odyssey.” “And because it takes time to access that data, the most basic processes are slowed down. For instance, we completed a sequence, which takes place in the Temple of the Dead, using Flame, within the course of one week. The same thing would have taken about three or four weeks at film resolution.”

“The Temple of the Dead is the interior of a volcano,” McGee explains; he’s the visual effects supervisor of the project, which has a budget of about £800,000 ($1.25 million). “As Odysseus sails into this place with his crew, we see a row of Greek columns, lava pours down the inside walls of the volcano and fire drips from the ceiling.”

Another f/x highlight is the sequence involving Odysseus’ encounter with ghosts. “We used about 20 extras, wearing flowing costumes and ghostly makeup, against a bluescreen, suspended them on wires and shot them with a high speed to create a slow-motion movement,” McGee says. “After we replicated those people in Flame, we gave a distorted look to those background shots that are seen through the ghosts’ bodies. In the final scene, about 40 to 50 spirits fly down from the ceiling and close in on Odysseus.”

Directed by Andrei Konchalovksy (“Runaway Train”), “The Odyssey” also brings to life amazing mythological creatures such as the Cyclops and the three-headed sea monster Scylla. The creative team at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop used a full-body character with a radio-controlled animatronic head. The Henson Performance Control System enables a single puppeteer to operate a complete spectrum of expressions in real time.

A world away from Homer’s universe, Richard Hollander, president and senior visual effects supervisor of Vifx, the company that spent more than 10 months last year creating the digital effects of ABC’s recent six-hour miniseries “Stephen King’s ‘The Shining,’ ” says director Mick Garris’ project was spared certain problems that plague some feature films. The miniseries also features the makeup and creature effects of Steve Johnson and his fright factory XFX Inc.

“When we see film storyboards we have a rough idea of the images, but the final piece is sometimes completely different because the director ventures into a brand-new direction, so there’s no firm planning,” Hollander says.

His visual-effects team, headed by Boyd Shermis, used Silicon Graphic workstations to breathe life into such visions as a digital lion, part of an animal-shaped topiary that comes to life, and a fire hose that sprouts a set of dangerous chompers — manifestations of an evil force that plagues an old hotel in the Colorado Rockies.

Involved from the start

“When a product enters our digital world, the lensing is different, the camera pans from left to right instead of right to left, or there is some other major problem. In the case of ‘Stephen King’s “The Shining,”‘ however, Boyd worked on the project before we were even contracted. That’s planning — talking, designing, talking, redesigning, talking, drawing boards, talking, drawing more boards and finally bidding it out. So, from the very beginning, we knew what we were going to get.”

“TV and feature work are on opposite sides of the spectrum,” says Kevin Kutchaver, who with partners Kevin O’Neill and Doug Beswick heads Flat Earth Prods., a company that uses Macintosh and Carrera Alpha systems and such software as Newtek’s Lightwave 3-D to invoke the digital creatures seen in the fantasy shows “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” “When we receive the script, we often have about five weeks to deliver the final render — about half the schedule of some feature films,” says Kutchaver, whose budget can reach $130,000 within a single episode. “On the bigscreen, a flying skeleton — one of our many creatures — would probably reach down and grab an actor in one shot, but in a TV show that skeleton can only fly down and take a swipe at somebody — thanks to tighter time constraints.”

Skeletal demons also were invoked via Quantel’s Henry system in the two-hour pilot episode of Showtime’s “Poltergeist: The Legacy,” a weekly series that posits that an ancient organization has been fighting the forces of darkness since 55 B.C.

“We modeled our skeleton characters in 3-D,” says “Poltergeist” f/x supervisor Robert Habros of the demons, which were created by digital-effects house Vision Art. “After we enhanced a wire frame with limbs and a sense of mass and shape, we added texture, namely four layers of skin, different shadings and veins. In the final shots, they looked so real that a number of people initially thought they were puppets, actors or some form of animatronics. They were quite surprised when I told them that they were all computer-generated.”

“Our budget for a TV pilot was about $5 million,” says creator and executive producer Richard Lewis. “But if we had created the same creatures for a $75 million feature film, we would have made the skeletons even more dynamic. ‘Jurassic Park’ was a combination of fully rendered CGI dinosaurs and Stan Winston’s puppets, so we might have used a combination of CGI, puppets and men in suits.”

Time-consuming terrors

Back in the world of makeup effects, John Vulich and his company Optic Nerve Studios — the scare factory responsible for the many thingies of the WB’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — is another monster-maker who must adhere to the parameters of weekly television terror. The series, which chronicles the ongoing exploits of a high-schooler (Sarah Michelle Gellar) destined to slay vampires, witches, hyena spirits, a 6-foot praying mantis and countless other horrors, requires Vulich to spend an average of two weeks preparing for each episode.

“The design process usually lasts for about two days, while construction takes an average of one and a half weeks,” says Vulich, who spends approximately $10,000 per “Buffy” adventure. “At the same time, we tend to reuse a lot of stuff. For instance, when we created a demon, we used the rear of a demon’s head we had built for a comedy special a few years ago. We only had to build new horns and a new face, so that cut the workload in half. If we had built such a creature for a feature film, however, we probably would have built a fresh demon right from the ground up.”

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