Low-tech serves as bridge to future

Computers have proved so adept at creating astounding visual effects that it’s easy to forget that not only are low-tech effects still in use, they are a huge part of some of the year’s most jaw-dropping sequences.

Low-tech effects give vfx crews a lot of flexibility in terms of simplicity, cost and the best way to get the shot done. “Miniatures are very cost competitive with computer graphics and they look great,” says ILM’s John Knoll, vfx supervisor on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” “You get a very realistic result and, in a way, it’s less work than computer graphics.”

Knoll had a 10-person crew spend three months building a 24-foot miniature of the Black Pearl pirate ship for the pic. He says models are easy to light and can be manipulated as real objects instead of having to generate every detail and element in a computer. Using models also frees up digital artists to work on effects that have to be done in CG and kept the production pipeline moving quickly, he says.

“X-Men: The Last Stand” faced a similar schedule, starting and finishing production in almost exactly one year while also going through a director change six weeks before shooting.

Visual effects supervisor John Bruno turned to miniatures for Jean Grey’s parents’ home, which rises into the air and then is smashed into the ground, and for the film’s centerpiece Golden Gate Bridge sequence.

“Digital shots are quite expensive and extremely time consuming,” says Bruno. “With miniatures, you can knock something out and see that fairly quickly.”

The Golden Gate model — built by miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung to be 9 feet wide and nearly 60 feet long — allowed work to begin on the sequence immediately, which was crucial as the studio wanted to feature it in the trailer. Bruno says shooting a real object allows nature to handle tasks that take time to mimic in a computer. “Physics is helping you,” Bruno says. “If you’re dropping it, you get the weight of it. The dust, the dirt, the things that fall from it are happening for real.”

CG was required to finish these shots, and was used to extend the bridge and match up the miniature shots with footage of actors shot on a replica of a section of the bridge.

The “X-Men” crew also used practical effects to facilitate digital work. For Kid Omega, a mutant who projects spikes from his face and body, a practical makeup was worked out first and then re-created in the computer because the trial-and-error process is more time consuming in CG.

Such combinations were normal on “Superman Returns.” Vfx supervisor Mark Stetson says about half the film’s 1,400 effects shots had some practical element –mostly shots of actor Brandon Routh appearing to soar through the air.

“We did shoot a lot of Brandon flying,” Stetson says. “That was everything from him flying on a belly pan to flying on a box to being suspended by maybe eight or 10 wires, making the cape work and his hair blow. Sometimes, Brandon had a digital cape on him; sometimes he was surrounded by wind blowers.”

Much has been made of director Darren Aronofsky’s aversion to CG effects, but Jeremy Dawson, vfx designer and second unit director on “The Fountain,” says the director’s main goal was to create effects that would not look out of date a few years from now.

“For him, it’s not about showing everything practically, it’s that everything begins with something that’s photographed. It’s OK to alter it digitally,” says Dawson. For example, actor Hugh Jackman was photographed underwater to simulate zero gravity, and a sequence where flowers burst from the ground to consume his character was done on set with compressors and bladders underneath the stage.

The most impressive effect is the unique look of outer space, which was created by London visual effects artist Peter Parks by photographing chemical reactions in a Petri dish. The process, completed before principal photography so lighting on the set could match the effect, produced terrific results, but was unpredictable with no two shots being the same, Dawson says.

“It probably put us through more pain than pushing a button and letting an algorithm happen and working in a computer room,” he says. “But it was more of an adventure where none of us knew what we were going to get and we trusted the universe to give us something to work with.”

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