In an age of digital effects wizards where tornadoes can be culled from thin air, the White House can be zapped by aliens and dragons can be made to speak, the now-ancient optical printer often gets left in the dark. But like the few monks who kept the printed word alive during the Dark Ages, a small, scattered band of devotees are keeping the printers humming, waiting for a new day in the sun.
“The funny thing about the special-effects industry is that every five to 10 years people think they’ve invented the wheel,” says director Barnaby Jackson, who at one time helped his mentor Douglas Trumbull develop the Showscan film process. “But it’s essentially the same wheel people were using 15 years before.”
Jackson has used a combination of digital and state-of-the-art opticals in many of his projects, including “Back to the Future: The Ride,” the Imax 40-minute feature “The Journey Inside” and various national commercials. Jackson and other effects gurus say a lot of current CGI work is becoming repetitive and look-alike. “As an audience member, I like the real deal,” Jackson continues. “Even when CGI gets totally photoreal, there’ll be a certain nuance to the reality of optical effects and miniatures that people will always want.”
Meanwhile, at Hollywood’s venerable Pacific Title & Art, founded in 1919, optical effects, including a new hybrid of so-called “dopticals” used on the recent “Star Wars” reissue are moving full speed ahead. In fact, business was so good last year that the company is adding to its array of 11 optical printers, building a multiformat, motion-control printer at its facility on Santa Monica Boulevard.
“I wish there were more people saying, ‘The optical printer is dead,’ ” opines Phil Feiner, PTA executive producer. “It always brings us more business.” In 1996 PTA bought 2 million feet of title stock from Kodak, an increase of 31% from the previous year.
The precursor to the doptical technique first saw the light of day in “Last Action Hero,” when producers wanted a number digitally erased from an apartment door filmed in an important sequence with star Arnold Schwarzenegger. But when they saw the estimated tab for digitally recording 40 feet of negative in and out plus the cost of the workstation, they balked.
Enter dopticals. Using state-of the-art Nikkor lenses and Kodak 5244 intermediate stock, PTA made an interpositive from the original negative. Then, for the last 10 feet of the shot, where the camera pans to the door with its offending number, that negative footage was scanned on a Cineon system and the number removed.
With full Cineon resolution of 4K-by-3K with 10-bit color depth, Feiner says production houses can manufacture a duplicate negative that “almost perfectly matches” the original. To put the two pieces of the “Last Action Hero” film together, PTA engineers simply cross-faded from the optically generated first 30 feet to the digitally generated final 10 feet as the camera made its panning move.
“You couldn’t see the difference,” Feiner says.
Unless you were looking at the bill, which for the doptical was significantly less than if the entire sequence had been done digitally.
Since then, dopticals have been used for major fight sequences in the reissued “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” and, most recently, on Warner Bros.’ “Pre,” due out this fall.
In the restoration of the Jedi training scene aboard the Millennium Falcon in “Empire” — a sequence with 55 cuts and 19 visual effects — dopticals were heavily used. First, PTA’s digital division Pacific Title Digital scanned and composited updated effects and recorded them out on PTD’s proprietary film recorder. The yet-undeveloped negative then was loaded into one of PTA’s motion-control printers and the rotoscoped laser sword moves were burned into the film.
It’s perhaps important to note that doptical work accounts for less than 2% of PTA’s total annual billings. The bulk of their work still is in generating beginning and end title sequences for major motion pictures. But, Feiner says, dopticals are a very efficient and very cost-effective technique.
“When creating effects you have to consider everything in the tool box,” says effects virtuoso Alison Savitch. “CGI has become very sophisticated, but the organic irregularities are not there yet, so there’s still a place in the box for opticals.” Savitch, whose credits include visual-effects supervisor on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “The Shadow” and “Dracula” and executive producer on the upcoming “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” adds that it’s the irregularities that often give an effects sequence its legitimacy.
“Computers, even the most sophisticated particle systems, still think in ones and zeros,” she says. “They still try to organize things, and organic elements don’t necessarily have a pattern.”