'Unprecedented' movement of cameras, characters marks 2001

With 2001’s crop of big-budget films, special effects shots numbered in the thousands. But when members of the Academy’s visual effects branch met Feb. 6 to select three Oscar nominees, they were looking for something else besides quantity: breakthroughs.

Experts came to judge the best from digital innovations to novel twists on classic techniques. And they witnessed quite a few. They saw virtual worlds that passed for real, and computer graphic creatures with improved realism. That these f/x played out while cameras panned and zoomed and moved with abandon made it clear that no shot is impossible anymore.

Four-time Oscar winner Richard Edlund, who chairs the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences visual effects branch, called this year’s effects “unprecedented, and often the most exciting parts of these movies.”

“The biggest challenge,” says Bill Westenhofer, of Rhythm & Hues, which worked on “Cats & Dogs” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “was making CG animals with millions of hairs, and having them intercut with shots of animatronics and the real thing.”

While computer-generated creatures showed off their abilities to run and fly, advances in puppetry made several animatronic characters noteworthy as well. Stan Winston Studios created “Jurassic Park III’s” dinosaurs and robots for “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” including a teddy bear that Winston calls the most extensive animatronic ever.

The Henson Creature Shop also contributed notable animatronics to “Potter” and “Cats and Dogs,” including a Persian cat that Westenhofer calls an engineering marvel.

Marvelous monsters

It was a good year for monsters, too, like the giant trolls in “Potter” and “The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings.”

Jim Rygiel, who supervised the f/x in “Rings,” calls the film’s flaming Balrog monster “a wipe-your-brow effect.” It took WETA Digital months to achieve, Rygiel notes, “because it was technically very difficult to give its massive, fiery mane sufficient scale and volume.”

Like fire, CG water is still difficult to do well, but Rygiel got an outstanding shot from Digital Domain, which transformed a torrent of CG water into a stampede of surreal horses.

Digital humans

Humanlike digital doubles were plentiful this year, comprising the vast armies in “Rings” and peopling the miniature helicopters of “Black Hawk Down.”

“Pearl Harbor” also had cadres of CG extras in its battle scenes. “In some shots,” reports visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig of ILM, “there are hundreds of virtual sailors.”

Equally significant, though often undetectable, were countless virtual vehicles and set pieces, such as helicopters and a digital stadium that the Mill created for “Black Hawk Down.”

Brevig also notes that in “Pearl Harbor,” “ILM created photorealistic versions of real places completely in the computer. We had to create things that we’re incredibly familiar with, like planes and ships and smoke.”

In one amazing shot, physical effects specialists built a 700,000-pound portion of a battleship that rolled over, and ILM then completed the back end using CG. With today’s computer tools smoothing out the seams, the most clever shots often marry digital and traditional crafts.

Cutting-edge environs

For “Jurassic Park III” ILM created CG dinosaurs flying through virtual environments, explains animation director Dan Taylor. “In the canyon sequence with the pterandons, everything but the actors was computer-generated. Virtual sets give directors the flexibility to place cameras wherever they want.”

This approach also gave a boost to the Quidditch sequence in “Harry Potter,” where the camera followed real actors and their digital doubles as they flew broomsticks around a virtual stadium. What made the sequence unique was the background.

“We took photographs of a landscape, pieced them together and made, essentially, a 3-D cyclorama that looked real,” says Sony Imageworks visual effects supervisor Rob Legato. “It gave us a virtual background to stage the Quidditch scenes against, which is something I couldn’t have done even two years ago.”

Virtual cinematography also figured in “The Fast and the Furious.” One ingenious (and notably low-budget) racing scene was captured using a Circlevision camera rig mounted on a motorcycle. Scanning this footage into a computer, Hammerhead’s Thad Beier then tracked the camera’s movement and created a 240-degree moving background that could be placed behind the actors when they were filmed inside cars onstage. “The ability to marry stuff shot in the real world with stuff shot onstage is a big deal,” says Beier.

Camera in motion

Perhaps the most striking trend this year was the moving camera in so many effects shots. Despite the extensive digital elements that were combined with real photography, static shots were rare.

In “A.I.,” Steven Spielberg employed dramatic moves even in scenes shot against bluescreen, using ILM technology that enabled him to see his actors combined with CG sets in real time.

As effects supervisor Scott Farrar explains, “Steven could move the camera wherever he wanted, even using a Steadicam, because the system told the computer where the camera was looking and it did an instant mix. He called it ‘pie-in-the-sky.'”

Even without such interactive tools, directors like “Rings” Peter Jackson and “Pearl Harbor’s” Michael Bay could shoot freely and rely on computers to make everything come together in post. The camerawork in those films and in “A.I.” may have contributed to their selection as this year’s visual effects nominees.

As “Rings” effects producer Ellen Somers notes, “The breakthroughs today are in the production process, and how visual effects are integrated into films. The shooting process was previously so rigid because of how little could be done, and there was a risk that things wouldn’t go together. Now, because it’s easier and faster, visual effects are becoming part of regular production. In the future, that will happen more and more.”

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