Digital creature pix devour the big screen

The summer “creature feature” has been a durable genre ever since King Kong first roared, but now Kong’s digital descendants are delivering performances that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. Whether scripts call for fantastic aliens or species past or present, today’s animators are turning computer pixels into photorealistic characters that behave more believably than ever before.

Already this season, “Anaconda” slithered from the computers at Sony Imageworks to the top of the box office. And everyone’s awaiting “The Lost World” to see more digital dinosaurs brought to life by Industrial Light & Magic.

Dennis Muren, the visual-effects supervisor who won one of his seven Oscars for “Jurassic Park,” again headed ILM’s team of digital artists. Muren feels these latest dinosaurs have “far more expression than in the first film in terms of their performance, their look and the complexity of the shots.”

“From their conception, when the storyboards were drawn, the shots were extremely bold, and far beyond the first film.”

The challenge presented by “The Lost World,” he says, “was to search for what the next step would be. I think we did the first ‘Jurassic’ right, but nobody wanted to do ‘Jurassic: Part B.’ It had to be what ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was to ‘Star Wars.’ It had to go beyond, or there was no point in doing it.”

What Steven Spielberg and ILM sought to achieve with the dinosaurs this time, Muren explains, “was a much greater sense of them interacting with what’s going on.” The 80-plus digital creature shots in “The Lost World” include several new types of dinosaurs, mingling with one another as well as with live-action elements. Muren stresses that the techniques used to achieve such complexity have been evolving steadily, from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” through “Dragonheart.” “The Lost World” dinosaurs even stand on the shoulders of their predecessors — literally. Some of the computer data that described the original T-Rex and Raptor models were reused.

Assessing this evolution, Muren says, “Before, we were learning if we could even do it. Now we’re in the process of discovering everything we can do.”

“Everything” these days includes a greater ability to depict the dinosaurs as living, breathing animals. “What I hope comes through,” Muren says, “is a better sense of muscles and skin moving over bones, as well as more complex nuances of performance in the animals than we had before.”

Hybrid creature solution

The sequel, like the original, offers a blend of computer animation and Stan Winston’s animatronic dinosaurs — a hybrid solution that typifies creature filmmaking today. In “The Lost World,” Muren notes, “There’s still a marriage in some sequences between both types of work.”

The ability to blend digital creatures with animatronics also is behind this summer’s alien invasion spoof “Men in Black.” The film features a half-dozen digital aliens animated at ILM, some of whom have mechanical counterparts created by Rick Baker. As often happens, creatures originally designed as puppets wound up being done digitally as well.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld found some of these puppets so charming, says ILM visual-effects supervisor Eric Brevig, “that he wanted to see them doing more. So we had to animate them digitally to walk by themselves.” Other creatures, like one that’s supposed to be 12 feet tall with six legs and a scorpionlike tail, could only act out its role within the digital realm.

Several tradeoffs are involved when it comes to puppets vs. digital creatures, Brevig says. “It’s more cost-effective, if you have enough shots of a creature that isn’t moving through space, to design sequences so that closeups can be performed by puppeteers. Then any sort of gross motion, distance shots or dynamic acting is accomplished with a digital creature. It’s a bit of a restraint on digital-creature builders to have to match something built out of rubber, so it’s a nice freedom when you’re able to create something that’s only seen as a digital character.”

In some cases, Brevig adds, “It’s also far more cost-effective to have one or two people working in post-production for a long time to perfect a character’s performance than have 75 stagehands waiting — at thousands of dollars an hour — while 12 puppeteers try and coordinate their efforts.”

The keepers of the “Alien” franchise certainly have used puppetry to terrifying effect in three films, but in this summer’s “Alien Resurrection,” computer animation will enable the infamous monster to do things it hasn’t done before.

At Blue Sky Studios, which animated this digital “Alien,” executive producer Amy Jupiter explains that the creature is depicted “in situations where you see it move — full body — which has been awkward in the past. Even very good performers in suits have limitations. This alien had to be in an environment where it wouldn’t work to have a man in a suit for an extended period of time.” Jupiter notes, however, “We still had to match our character, physically and emotionally, with the human in the suit.”

While early digital creatures often lurked in semidarkness to hide their limitations, now they’re coming out of the shadows. Jupiter promises, “You’ll definitely see this alien in a lit environment, up close and personal.” She believes that such intricate characters will be handled increasingly by CGI, because “as the costs of computers come down, we’re able to bring the complexity level up.”

Several other digital creatures are waiting in the wings as well. This fall’s “Starship Troopers” will feature an arachnid army of thousands, animated at Tippett Studios. Phil Tippett notes that “99.9% of the arachnids are digital, plus we have a pretty significant number of CG stunt doubles. You gain flexibility in the 3-D world, and the physical constraints that one has with rigs and lighting in stop-motion animation are all gone. Now the problem is that a lot of times you’re flying blind.”

Tippett notes that having actors play to empty spaces where digital creatures will later be inserted is no small challenge. That opinion is shared by John Farhat, the visual-effects supervisor on Eddie Murphy’s 1998 version of “Dr. Dolittle.” The film’s digital creatures “will be mostly little furry animals that have to interact with humans. We’re using robots on set with eyelines that Eddie can perform to.”

The animals in “Dr. Dolittle” will be very anthropomorphic, and Farhat will use a proprietary system to record the movements of performers and apply that captured motion to animated characters. It’s a strategy that’s increasingly being explored as a way to efficiently animate digital characters as their screen time continues to rise.

When it comes to screen time, 1998’s “Godzilla” is slated to set a record, with hundreds of digital creature shots. At VisionArt, where their new motion-capture system is being readied for “Godzilla,” production VP Josh Rose says, “This will be a very efficient approach to this character.”

He asserts, “You get so much more subtlety with motion-capture, and we’ll be able to show the director a low-resolution, textured character that he can interact with in real time.”

Increasingly sophisticated tools will undoubtedly embolden filmmakers to keep raising the bar for their digital stars. As Farhat says, “As we approach the point where it’s painless to do chrome characters and dinosaurs, we’ll take on hairy talking characters who punch each other out.”

Despite all the artistry that today’s digital animation represents, as Muren puts it, “We’re still scratching the surface of what we can do.”

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