Pyromania fires up the industry

When “Independence Day” won the Oscar for visual effects, a major reason was undoubtedly its pyrotechnics. In a business that’s becoming more digital every day, sometimes there’s still no substitute for blowing things to kingdom come.

Joe Viskocil, who picked up the statuette for “ID4,” says, “When it comes to pyro techniques, what was done 50 years ago is still good today. There are a billion chemicals out there now that one can add, subtract or manipulate to create a desired effect.”

Viskocil, a 25-year veteran who also supervised the miniature pyro effects for “Apollo 13,” “True Lies” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” cites the lava he created for “Volcano” as a recent example. “They originally wanted to do it in CG, but once again we proved them wrong. We used methocil with different colorings and textures to make it runny or thick and had painters create the crust with something as simple as Krylon paint.”

Viskocil believes that digital still can’t do justice to “something as unpredictable as lava — the flow, the texture, the glow, the steam, the flying particles — there are big-time variables involved.”

Viskocil’s “ID4” collaborator Clay Pinney agrees. “Digitally, fire and water are still very tough because a sense of scale is a real problem.” While he expects that computer animators eventually will be able to create convincing explosions, Pinney thinks traditional pyro specialists “will hold on to some of the market for a while because the interactive lighting effects that happen with explosions are so complex.”

He recalls doing a dockside blast in “Blown Away” where “the light reflected off literally thousands upon thousands of shapes.” To do that digitally, says Pinney, “You would have to lay in light around every single pier piling — just the complexity of something like that could be prohibitive.” But, he adds, “Quantum leaps in the amount of information that computers can process means it’s just a matter of time before they can layer a lot more stuff in.”

In the meantime, he laughs, “If I were smart, I would go out into the desert with a crew and blow up every single combination of chemicals, transfer the footage to a CD and license it!”

Because today’s digital compositing tools permit seemingly limitless numbers of elements to be wedded together, shots of physical explosions are applied to computer models breaking apart. But Thaine Morris, whose credits span “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Air Force One,” notes the difficulties of using footage from “bombs on a stick.” “These explosions,” Morris explains, “work to a certain extent, but not entirely because they can look like pasted on. You may not consciously register that you’re not seeing a car body bulge as it starts to come apart, but you’ll know something feels weird about the shot. A lot of what we do in visual effects is based not on what something looks like but what it feels like.”

Reality counts

Getting the feeling of maximum realism is what drives full-scale pyro veteran Joe Lombardi, whose work includes “The Godfather,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “Courage Under Fire.” Lombardi acknowledges that the pyro field “is trending toward computers, and there’s not many old-timers left,” but he believes there are still some surprises left in doing things traditionally.

“In ‘Con Air’ we sailed a real C-123 into the Sands Hotel and had a hook-and-ladder truck going 60 mph blow an armored car in half and go right through it,” Lombardi says. “There’s stuff in there that nobody’s ever tried, and it’s for real.”

Using real explosions as a starting point for digital artists to build upon is likely to be the state of the art for a while to come, believes Clay Pinney. “On ‘ID4’ our explosions provided a specific point of reference to do their work from. You still have to have a physical takeoff and landing point,” he says. “Hopefully, that will last for the next 10 years until I can retire!”

For now, where computers are really helping the pyromaniacs is by providing ways to digitally erase rigging equipment and correct camera jitters.

Thaine Morris says, “Digital rotoscoping has saved us a tremendous amount of time and worry. Now we can run a fairly fat cable into a model, paint it bright orange and they can take it out later.”

Like his colleagues, Morris stresses the efficiency of traditional pyro, observing, “An algorithm to make fire in a computer takes a library of numbers that will choke a small horse. I don’t think you should push technology any higher than you have to.” And with real pyro, he asserts, “You can still do a whole lot of damage for $500!”

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