Upcoming pix ensure a range of digital delights in store

You don’t need Gandalf the wizard’s magical powers to know that the success of “The Mummy Returns” and the first “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” installments have whetted the appetite for more effects-driven movies in 2002.

Starting next month, the visual effects arena will be packed with early arrivals, including films as wide ranging as DreamWorks’ “The Time Machine,” Paramount’s tweener-friendly “Clockwatchers” and New Line’s “Blade 2.”

The barrage continues consistently through the year, as sequels and originals such as Sony’s “The Scorpion King” (April 19), “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” (May 19), “Scooby-Doo” (June 14), “Men in Black II” (July 3), “Stuart Little 2″ (July 19) and “Eight Legged Freaks” (Aug. 30) hit the bigscreen.

The f/x symphony will hit a crescendo around the holidays with the release of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Star Trek: Nemesis.”

“Since the studios had a lot of success with tentpole projects last year, we’re seeing many more scripts that are (being) put into production that are very effects and animation intensive by nature,” says Jim Morris, prexy of f/x house Industrial Light & Magic. “The prognosis is good for the effects industry. Right now, everyone’s busy with the summer movies, then, we get a slow period in the summer, and things pick up again in the fall and winter.”

This might prove to be a banner year for ILM, which has such heavy hitters as “Star Wars: Episode II,” Steven Spielberg summer release “Minority Report,” “Men in Black II,” helmer M. Night Shyamalan’s crop-circle pic “Signs” as well as the “Harry Potter” sequel.

Animated achievements

“Filmgoers can look for lots of groundbreaking digital achievements in terms of character animation, clothing and skin simulation in ‘Star Wars: Episode II,’” says Morris. “We also have very extensive synthetic environments, as well as more principal digitally created characters, and of course, the whole film is digitally captured.”

Morris also notes that the digital projection of a digital film creates a slightly different aesthetic than old-fashioned film projection. “It has a luminous quality that suits fantasy and sci fi best, although it may not be the right medium for something like film noir.”

In addition to “Attack of the Clones,” ILM worked extensively on Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” creating the right kind of backdrop for the film’s mid-19th-century setting via digital touch-ups and matte paintings.

The company also has worked on the 20th anniversary re-release of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” inserting north of 100 new shots to the popular Spielberg fantasy, and designed several more wild and ghoulish aliens for the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed sequel “MIB II.”

“It had to be bigger and better than the first one,” Morris offers of the latter pic. “All the original characters are back, so the real focus is the creature work. In this business, it’s always a challenge to top your last effort, but Barry had a lot of great ideas.”

Also fighting sequelitis will be helmer Chris Columbus, and visual effects supervisors Bill George and Jim Mitchell who were already working on “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” before the first chapter in the trilogy was released in November.

Subtle effects

“Obviously, the effects are all in line with the first movie, but since they don’t have to introduce all the elements all over again, they can focus on more subtle effects,” says Morris. “There are a couple of new characters that we are all very intrigued with.”

Another diminutive digital star returning for its close-up on the bigscreen this summer is Sony Imageworks’ Stuart Little. E.B. White’s brave mouse boy is back for another adventure, and senior visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen is the man behind many of the eye-popping sequences in the sequel.

“We have more new characters in this movie,” says Chen, whose previous credits include “James and the Giant Peach” and “Godzilla.” “In the first film, we had to make sure Stuart’s fur and clothes were photorealistic. In the sequel, we have Stuart flying a plane, as well as new bird characters, which means we had to tackle creating feathers with our proprietary tools.”

For Chen, one of the biggest achievements of “Little 2″ is bringing a sense of humanity to the digital depictions of mice and birds.

“My favorite scene in the movie is one in which Stuart and his bird friend Margalo are watching a TV together that’s placed on a deck, just as if they were in a drive-in,” says Chen. “If you can actually make the audience believe that these digital characters are thinking and feeling, then you’ve done your job.”

Chen’s sentiments are echoed by Oscar winner John Dykstra, “Spider-Man’s” visual effects supervisor, whose career has spanned such landmark effects films as “Star Wars,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and the first “Stuart Little.”

“As you get older, it becomes less about topping what you’ve done before and more about the business of telling a unique story,” notes Dykstra. “You can see that the best received, most acclaimed films are the ones that offer great integration of visual effects and storytelling.”

In bringing Stan Lee’s comicbook hero to cinematic life, Dykstra and director Sam Raimi had the challenge of creating a CGI character without the aid of facial expressions.

“Spider-Man’s costume covers his face, so in order to evoke a human response from the audience, his body language has to be amplified,” says Dykstra. The same was true for Spider-Man’s arch enemy the Green Goblin, who also wears a mask.

Equally tough for the animators was creating virtual streets of New York and points of view of Spider-Man as he jumps from one high-rise to the next.

“We had to get actual shots of the buildings, create texture maps, and light and position the cityscape correctly, and then integrate the shots with final composites of New York City,” says Dykstra.

So far, the results have been impressive. The dazzling trailer of the summer pic, which ran during the Super Bowl telecast on Fox, generated good word of mouth among the property’s die-hard fans.

Another summer picture with a built-in fan base is Warner Bros.’ live-action version of “Scooby-Doo,” which features a computer graphic version of the crime-solving dog. The Raja Gosnell-directed caper incorporates the work of the John Cox Creature Workshop, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, f/x house Rhythm & Hues and the Warner Bros. Feature Animation team.

“The big goal was to develop the main character from a cartoon character to a real CG dog and keeps it Scoobyness,” says producer Charles Roven. “The Scooby that we ended up with has more in common with the dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park,’ in that he is a 99% CG creation living in a realistic world. The story takes place in a fictitious theme park called Spooky Island, so we also had to use a lot of digital magic, creating the rides as well as the supernatural bad guys.”

Digital monsters are the name of the game for Mark Franco, president of Centropolis Effects (CFX), who’s been working on the cobras, creatures and sand storms in Universal’s “Mummy Returns” prequel “Scorpion King.” The company is also in charge of creating the sinister spiders featured in this summer’s “Eight-Legged Freaks,” a tale of angry arachnids attacking a small Nevada town.

“Business seems to be picking up,” Franco notes, optimistically. “And there’s more quality work done than ever before. Thanks to the growth of digital technology, everyone believes that the playing ground is more even than before, and that creates a strong climate all around.”

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