F/X biz is getting artsy

The visual effects community has arrived at a crossroads. The swift pace of technological progress has made it possible for artists to become more involved in the effects process, while technicians are increasingly required to be artistically savvy.

At the keynote panel for the 10th-anniversary Showbiz Expo at the L.A. Convention Center on Saturday, two leaders in visual effects detailed the dramatic changes computer technology is having on their businesses.

Dennis Muren, head of visual effects at Industrial Light & Magic and a seven-time Oscar winner, just completed overseeing effects on “Jurassic Park.” Technical Academy Award-winner Robert Greenberg, of R/Greenberg Associates, recently wrapped (with his brother Richard) effects supervision on “Last Action Hero.”

In both features, computers play critical roles in creating illusions. According to the exex, within the past year the power of the microprocessors inside computers and easy-to-use software have made it possible to involve Hollywood’s creative talent directly in the effects process.

“We’re at a crossover point,” Muren said. “In the past, there weren’t many people who could use these tools, but we’ve reached the point where artists can now use them.”

In the case of “Jurassic Park,” Muren’s ability to create a stampede of dinosaurs on the computer convinced director Steven Spielberg to reinsert the scene into the script and put it on the screen. Even the ending was altered, Muren added, because some effects that were possible in the final month of shooting couldn’t be managed 10 months earlier.

“We need visionary directors and writers,” Muren observed, “because obviously , audiences respond to these pictures.”

This swift pace of change is producing opportunities for computer artists with an understanding of the filmmaking process.

“There are a lot of situations where people think computers do the work,” Greenberg said, “but the tools are becoming very interactive.” As a result, he added, “You want the artists to be technically astute and the computer technicians to become more artistic.”

Not only is the industry now looking for more creatively savvy technical talent, but there will be more chances to break into the business than ever before. More features are being forced to do post-production effects work on very tight schedules. So work is being doled out to a larger number of small companies to concentrate on particular effects. In “Last Action Hero,” Greenberg oversaw the work of six F/X houses, with his own company handling the digital compositing of images together.

“It’s a Burger King approach to doing things in modules,” Greenberg noted.

“There’s certainly a trend to splitting up the work with such short times,” Muren said. “There’s an advantage to getting the best price and sometimes the best quality.”

The most unusual twist in the computer revolution is who owns the final creation. Unlike photographers, who own their work, computer-generated imagery is a collaborative effort that can show up in a number of forms, from the feature film it was designed for to a video game.

“It’s the biggest single issue,” acknowledged Greenberg.

“Have a lawyer there at the beginning,” Muren quipped, “or your heirs will regret a decision. No one knows where this is going.”