As astonishing as digital effects have become, directors and vfx artists are always fighting to avoid the “CG look.”
So pervasive is that struggle that a wag imagined vfx legend and “Wall-E” consultant Dennis Muren complaining about the film in a Pixar screening room, “It looks too CG!”
Ben Snow, ILM’s vfx supervisor on “Iron Man,” concedes, “It’s something we strive to get further and further away from,” but he adds, “There’s a look to other things, too. There’s a look to the practical costumes. There’s a look to miniature work.”
No matter the technique, he says, “It’s something that is different from looking at a real ocean liner or airplane.” So top vfx supervisors have become adept at combining practical and digital — and using each to enhance the realism of the other.
Even audiences have become aware of the CG look, but Snow says, “By mixing the two you keep the audience guessing.” On “Iron Man,” Stan Winston Studio created practical Iron Man armor that either Robert Downey Jr. or a stunt man could wear on set.
Sometimes the real-life suit looked great, says Snow, and even when it had to be replaced with CG, “It gave us something to hold ourselves to,” most importantly because the cinematographer had lit the suit, so the digital lighters knew how he wanted it to look.
In “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” the vfx team had to go the opposite route and use a practical effect to head off digital headaches.
Dean Wright explains that in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a scene where young Lucy touches the fur of the lion Aslan “really, really sent the guys crazy at Rhythm & Hues (the shop that animated the lion).” So on the second “Narnia” installment, the effects team built a practical front half of Aslan.
“So in that way,” says Wright, “we could use as much of the real prosthetic Aslan as we could and just replace the parts where we had to.”
They used a similar approach on some of the others among the film’s numerous creatures. “It was much easier for us to take something that was already there and move it around.”
Getting away from the CG look is tough because it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. Sometimes it’s a peculiar flatness to a beautifully rendered image, so it looks like it was composited in. Sometimes it’s something that moves too smoothly or looks too perfect. That’s what concerns “The Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan, according to vfx supervisor Nick Davis.
“Chris likes imperfections, things to be not quite perfect,” says Davis. So all departments are put on notice.
“The natural way that tends to happen in modern pre-production is, ‘Oh, visual effects can do that, we won’t bother doing a practical effect there, we won’t do a stunt there.’ (Nolan) sees people start to get lazy. Individual departments have to be pushed to get the most out of them.” In production, Nolan likes to go practical.
Some of “The Dark Knight’s” most stunning shots have a major CG component, such as Batman’s skydive and swoop in Hong Kong, which combines a stuntman making a real dive with a digital Batman gliding.
Perhaps no franchise takes better advantage of mixed techniques than the rebooted James Bond. “Casino Royale” shocked the vfx world — and its own team — by making the Academy bakeoff. They may be more prepared to present on “Quantum of Solace” if they get another chance.
Vfx supervisor Kevin Tod Haug points to the skydiving sequence near the end of the film, which combines CG with a new process they’ve monickered “event capture.”
Stars Daniel Craig and Olga Kurylenko learned to skydive in giant wind tunnels north of London. “What we did was having an array of cameras capture them,” says Haug. “We had 16 cameras pointed at them.”
That camera array let them create a three-dimensional virtual image of the pair performing their skydive. Then the camera could be placed virtually, in ways that could never be accomplished with a stuntman and real camera.
“We could go from closeup to wide shot in the same shot,” Haug explains. “Then, on top of that, we had to make CG versions of them that match the final volume that we did, and threw sunlight on them to make them look like they were falling outside.
“It’s probably the kind of thing you shouldn’t do on such a short schedule.”