Summer’s money shots

Sequels and remakes soar with upgraded vfx

In visual effects, 2006 is a summer of encores.

Most of the season’s tentpoles are either remakes (“The Omen,” “Poseidon”) or sequels (“X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”). One of the biggest, “Superman Returns,” is arguably a bit of both, being a sequel to a movie made 25 years ago, with different stars, before the advent of digital vfx.

All these present a common challenge to the directors and vfx team: They must top their predecessors while keeping the feel that made the property a hit in the first place.

“Superman” helmer Bryan Singer inherited certain rules about Superman — cape, “S” insignia, curl on forehead — and some visual elements from the Christopher Reeve starrers of a quarter-century earlier.

“The challenge,” says Singer, “is that the audience’s palette has increased so much and the expectations have increased so much, you have these animated characters living in the real world. And unlike Spider-Man, our character has no mask on. That poses an enormous challenge. But when it works, you can create sequences that are really spectacular.”

Singer’s Metropolis isn’t simply a remonickered Manhattan. Pic shot in Sydney and uses digital set extensions to get a 30s-flavored look.

By contrast, “Pirates” comes just two years after the “Curse of the Black Pearl’s” surprise success launched the franchise. Even vfx supervisor John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic was wondering how the filmmakers would keep things fresh.

But with the same creative team that guided the original, says Knoll, there’s no problem. “I should never have doubted these guys.”

Technology has marched on, and budgets have ratcheted up. “Dead Man’s Chest” gets a new villain, Davy Jones, with an all-digital beard of some 46 tentacles.

“They’re alive and they’re always writhing around in the shot,” says Knoll, “and they need to respond to his body motion and they hang and sway in realistic ways, and collide against each other.”

Want larger tentacles? Pic also features a digital sea monster, the Kraken.

Fox’s “X-Men” franchise found itself working with a new helmer, as Bryan Singer ankled to take on the Man of Steel and was replaced by Brett Ratner.

John Bruno, pic’s vfx supervisor, says, “I went for what I called parity with the other two films, to make them look like they were done with the same filmmakers.” That sometimes meant sending shots out to houses that had done the same character in the previous film.

One mandate the “X-Men” franchise has is to keep the action as real as possible, given the mutants’ powers.

For example, the pic’s new mutant, white-winged Angel, “had to fly like a person would really fly, with known physics. There were things where we said that’s not from this movie.”

“Poseidon,” which didn’t catch fire at the box office, featured an early shot swooping around the boat and up to Josh Lucas that was the most computer-intensive shot in the illustrious history of ILM, says vfx supervisor Kim Libreri.

“It was 4,000 frames long, and just to render the boat alone, the render times were between 10 and 25 hours per frame, depending on how close you were to it at the time. Nobody’s ever had renders that took that long for such a long shot.”

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