'Mr. Bones' is 'nice challenge,' sez Hattingh

JOHANNESBURG — South African visual effects artist Jeremy Hattingh has a jumbo-sized problem — how to make an elephant swing a helicopter around at the end of a rope.

“It’s a nice challenge,” Hattingh tells Variety. “It’s quite different from ‘Merlin,’ ” he adds in his Johannesburg studio, referring to the Peakviewing movie that earned him and post house Video Lab colleagues Bett Manson and Cyril Schuman the top effects feature award at the Vancouver Effects and Animation Fest 2001 in April.

Hattingh’s problematic pachyderm is part of Video Lab’s latest project: doing the visual effects on South African comedy “Mr. Bones,” a joint venture between acclaimed South African anti-apartheid producer Anant Singh and comic filmmaker Leon Schuster.

Pic, directed by Gray Hofmeyer, tells the story of a golf-playing witch doctor and is firmly rooted in the slapstick that has made Schuster South Africa’s most financially successful moviemaker.

The elephant sequence comes when a party of hunters tries to lasso the animal from a helicopter. The pachyderm instead grabs the rope with his trunk and commences to spin the chopper around, as if a toy at the end of a rope.

Hattingh’s task is to create a computer-generated rope to link the elephant and the helicopter, and make the two parties swing around in a way that makes it appear natural — just before the chopper goes flying into trees and crashes in a spectacular ball of flame.

About 10% of “Mr Bones” will be digitally created or enhanced.

The footage will be scanned on the Video Lab’s Spirit Datacine, its Inferno visual effects tool and its Kodak Lightning Film Recorder — “the three links in the technology chain,” says the 36-year-old Hattingh, who dropped out of architecture school to get his degree in computer sciences.

The success of “Merlin” at Vancouver, says Hattingh, indicates South African visual effects artists are up there with the best in the world.

“It was the first digital experience of this size for us,” he says. “It was a steep learning curve, but we coped. In terms of skills, we’re there, but we just don’t have the volume yet.”

Hattingh and Video Lab are hoping their Vancouver experience will start to change that.

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