Backgrounds come to the fore

Whether fantasy or reality, digital environments are gaining complexity

Spaceships. Flying asteroids. Explosions. Everyone knows the big effects when they see them, but digital artistry is just as important to the backgrounds of today’s films.

Unlike those “hero” effects, though, some digital environments are meant to slip past auds undetected.

That was the goal on “Batman Begins.”

“When we were putting Gotham City together, the director didn’t want the audience to notice the visual effects,” says Paul Franklin, a visual effects supervisor with vfx shop Double Negative. “It had to be a city that was somehow fantastic and out of control and completely recognizable to audiences at the same time.”

Making Gotham real meant drawing from the cityscape of Chicago for inspiration and then layering the imagery until it was just right.

“The final city is made up of more than half a million CGI structures,” Franklin says. “To get the look we wanted meant filling out the city in a way that no city on Earth had ever been.”

Such digital environments are just as important to films set in a real time and place, like “Jarhead.”

“When we got together with director Sam Mendes, we realized the third act of the movie was going to be all visual effects because of the fires of Kuwait,” says Pablo Helman, visual effects supervisor for the film.

“People have a sense of what fire looks like and how it moves, so we had to be careful in the way we treated the fires. The idea is to make the actors in the foreground look like they’re there in the middle of this war, because it’s just not practical to try to recreate all those fires.”

“King Kong” had to create two islands, one real and one fantasy.

For Depression-era Manhattan, Weta Digital’s team could refer to photographs. But for Kong’s home, Skull Island, “there was not a lot to go on, so we had to make up a lot of things,” says Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor for “Kong.”

“Dealing with the organic nature of the plants and the way they move in the light and wind became the hardest thing.”

On “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” visual effects supervisor Dean Wright had to guard against letting the fantasy backgrounds become distracting. “We didn’t want to delve into something too cartoony,” Wright says. “It had to be spectacular but also real in a way, so the audience would believe in it.”

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