The arrival of digital visual effects has given filmmakers the ability to conjure space battles, magic spells, dinosaurs and the like in photorealistic detail — and these are the spectacular f/x that tend to draw most of the heat at Oscar time.
But inside the effects world, there’s a special pride in subtler work. “Not being recognized is actually the best compliment,” says Gray Marshall, creative director and visual effects supervisor for Gray Matter FX, which recently completed work on Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic.”
Gray Matter specializes in doing f/x for films that don’t want to call attention to them, including “Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Secret Window.” Marshall says, “If any critic actually writes the effects are really good in this movie, we haven’t done our job right.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many effects maestros, even on more flashy films such as “I, Robot.” The best f/x sometimes go entirely unnoticed — and therefore unrecognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Take “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” for example. The film’s lonely hearts shot, which starts on a miserable-looking Bridget smoking in her window and soars over her London neighborhood to reveal happy couples everywhere, looks like it could have been done with some kind of crane. But the skyline is digitally rendered, the neighborhood buildings don’t exist and the happy couples, though shot live, were composited in by Double Negative. Even the moon is computer generated.
The one giveaway that it’s CGI is a flock of birds that flies by. “Directors always seem to ask for birds,” says a Double Negative insider. “It’s sort of a cliche in the effects world.”
Another movie not generally considered an effects film is “The Passion of the Christ.” There is perhaps one moment in the film that is obviously a digital effect: the fall of a single raindrop, God’s tear, at the moment of Jesus’ death.
Yet the film relies a great deal on digital f/x in the scourging scenes. As the film’s visual effects supervisor, Ted Rae, explains, “We didn’t want to slow things down on the set; we wanted to give (director Mel Gibson) total freedom to tell his story.” So Jesus’ wounds were never added with practical effects during a shot. Instead, the same makeup was used through the entire shot, and wounds were either added or hidden digitally later. That meant that there were no wound-makeup resets between takes, so Gibson and the cast could focus on the intensity of the scene.
Even the whips and canes the Roman soldiers used to beat Jesus were mostly CGI; the actors held only handles. “With producers, when you work on a shot for a long time and it’s hard to get it right, people look at each other and say what took so long because it looks easy, and it looks like it was there all along. That’s the case with the two Roman soldiers.”
Another film that uses subtler, even old-fashioned effects, is “The Aviator,” the Howard Hughes biopic from director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese wanted the look of the film to reflect the moviemaking techniques of Hughes’ time, so for the early part of the story, set at the dawn of talkies, the film was digitally altered to re-create the pastel tones of two-strip Technicolor. Scenes set later in time have more vivid colors, like those of three-strip Technicolor.
CGI was used to re-create the aerial sequences in Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels,” so that we see not only the dogfight but Hughes himself in a camera plane, shooting it all. The sequence maps the biplanes’ moves in the original film, but not a single real plane is onscreen.
Some of the most striking effects on “Aviator” were accomplished with radio-controlled scale models of Hughes’ planes and forced-perspective photography. “It’s more cumbersome, but it’s cheaper and, in the long run, better looking,” says “Aviator” visual effects supervisor and second unit director Robert Legato. “You get some things for free: The lighting and the grain are consistent and the lens isn’t off.”
The sky or background was often digitally altered, but the result is something that looks like it was shot using a real, full-sized plane without f/x.
These in-camera techniques would have been well known to Hughes’ own cameramen 70 years ago, but they’re mostly forgotten today. In one scene, the scale model’s miniature engines were mounted on a full-scale cockpit mockup, carefully placed so they’d look full size — but only if seen through the camera. “The cameraman was sure this was never going to work,” says Legato. “But when you looked through the eyepiece, there it was.”
“The Life Aquatic” helmer Wes Anderson also likes to capture effects in camera. In one shot, a painting of a ship comes to life, thanks to a scrim curtain and a full-sized set of a cutaway view of the ship. “”You know when you see a particular director’s style in a movie. You know when you’re seeing a Wes Anderson film. It’s very much his style and his way, and he has a very definite idea of what he wants and what he wants to see. So it’s our job to get to that as fast as possible.”
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, no stranger to fantastical imagery, uses CGI to re-create Paris’ old market at a distance and close up in his “A Very Long Engagement.”
Rendering long shots and medium shots — at a distance of 30 feet — of the same building are two different challenges, says visual effects supervisor Alain Carsoux.
In the past, it was very difficult to render the textures of building materials convincingly. “Now we can do that with great precision,” he says. “We can get that very straight.”
Carsoux takes pride in these effects precisely because they go unnoticed. “If people see it’s something strange, we lose the party,” he says. “We have to go farther in the details.”