From the acid-dripping monster in “Alien 3” to the helicopter umbrella of “Batman Returns”; from the crazed tanks of “Toys” to Meryl Streep’s twisted neck in “Death Becomes Her” to the upside-down rats in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” special effects are alive and well in the movies.
There’s more coming up in 1993, with Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Action Hero” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” leading the way.
With the revolution in computer generated images (CGI; see story, page 26) well under way, filmmakers still use every trick in the cinematic tool box to create effects.
For the dog-like creature in “Alien 3,” Oscar-winning effects supervisor Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios had to come up with a fearsome alien that was highly mobile.
“It was the ultimate attackdog,” Edlund says. Rejecting the stop-motion approach popular for screen creatures since “King Kong,” Edlund chose to use a rod puppet technique in conjunction with a motion-control camera. A man-in-the-suit creature was used for close-ups.
In one memorable scene, the film cut to a close-up of the alien’s head dripping acid, panned off onto the face of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and then panned around until suddenly the alien appeared in the frame in full-figure.
Actually, it was a shot of Tom Woodruff in the alien’s head, then Weaver and then the camera panned to an empty set. Later, the rod puppet creature, made to one-third scale, was photographed and the images were composited optically. Matte paintings and miniatures were used to create the environment of the planet in the film.
All of “Alien3” was composited optically, Edlund says, with the exception of one shot at the end of the picture that was handled digitally.
Just before the creature explodes, a crack appears in its head. “It’s a close-up that we did on our stage here in post-production because it was an additional idea,” says Edlund. “We see the head cra-ck but it’s almost a subliminal cutbecause there’s so much happen-ing. It just lends credence to fact that the alien’s gonna blow up.”
For the shot prior to that, where the alien is covered with lead and the lead splashes up in the foreground, Edlund dropped a bowling ball into a bucket filled with methycil (the nontoxic goop film-makers use for slime) with aluminum flex in it .
“We did all these weird set-ups to get the elements that were needed and then put them together into this kind of Dagwood sandwich of a shot,” he says.
On “Batman Returns,” however, much of Boss Film’s work was digital. That still left plenty of challenges for the film’s mechanical effects supervisor, Chuck Gaspar, who had to rejig the batmobiles to make them more jet-like and who also devised the Penguin’s umbrella.
The umbrella’s cloth had to fly off in pieces leaving the spokes of the radial frame free to spin like a helicopter rotor in order to carry the Penguin (Danny DeVito) away.
For the effect, DeVito stood on the handle of the umbrella, which was made of steel, and was strapped in a harness connected to a bar that ran from the actor’s waist back through the doors of a church that were just ajar. “It was a levitation unit using counterweights for more control,” says Gaspar. “We did a similar thing turning Sigourney Weaver 360 degrees in the first ‘Ghostbusters.’ We just picked him up and the camera stayed with him so you never saw the bar.”
Barry Levinson’s effects-filled fantasy, “Toys,” employed every trick in the book and then some, under the supervision of veteran visual-effects supervisor Clayton Pinney.
“‘Toys’ is probably a once-in-a-career show where you have that much,” Pinney says. “We had 54 effects people working on it; 20 sculptors and 22 mold-makers. We had 24 different toys sculpted up from tin toys to 2-foot high. Two of them were animated, three of them were set-dressing pieces, and four were breakaway pieces.”
Pinney intercut some of those pieces onto some of the actual mechanical toys so they could be moving around when they blew up. He used 37 different tanks, some with screens, turrets and lights working independently. He had five tanks with gas guns that were interchangeable and five that actually launched rockets.
“That was just the toy end of it,” says Pinney. “We had five carousels in the toy factory with giant animated heads; and a room called the vomit lab, for which we used 317 individual cubes all in sequence that had to line up at the end. It was like four or five movies’ worth of gags in one.”
For a sequence involving a toy helicopter, a real remote con-trolled, gas-powered machine was used with stuntmen, but it was too dangerous to be used near star Robin Williams.
“Safety factors wouldn’t allow them to have a 5-foot-whizzing rotor blade flying next to Williams,” says Hoyt Yeatman, of Dream Quest Images, who helped with the sequence. “Those scenes were done in miniature using motion control and blue screen, and then digitally composited.”
Pacific Data Images (PDI) created a memorable four-minute sequence for “Toys” in which four paranoid generals sit in the middle of a field discussing war. They are viewed through security monitors on which they appear only as skeletons.
Carl Rosendahl, one of PDI’s producers, says they used a tech-nique called performance anima-tion: “We take a performer and putthis electronic suit on him and as he acts, one of our computers captures the motion information of how he moves.
“We’re able to use that to control the motion of the computer-generated skeletons so they have a very natural, human motion to them,” adds Rosendahl.
PDI also created the Busby Berkeley-like dance sequence for the toy tanks at the end of the picture, using computer generated images derived from the actual models.
“That was virtually impossible to shoot live because you’d need 30 or 40 tanks, all radio controlled with operators synchronized perfectly,” Rosendahl says.
“For the overhead shot, we built models of the tanks and set up the choreography right in the computer. What you see on the screen when you see the Busby Berkeley portion is 100-percent computer generated, but it cuts in with the live action perfectly.”
Other unforgettable images were created in Bob Zemeckis’ black comedy, “Death Becomes Her,” particularly involving Meryl Streep’s twisted neck that left her head on backwards, and the hole in Goldie Hawn’s stomach. Both were rendered by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.
Streep’s sequence involved the actress performing her scenes backwards with a blue-screen mask on her head. Two small white squares of tape were put on the back of her head to represent her eyes so that co-star Bruce Willis had something to play off.
“We shot those scenes with a motion-control live-action camera setup,” says ILM’s Ken Ralston.
Once they had Streep’s body walking around with no head, ILM then took the film and, frame by frame, plotted out every little move and nuance that Streep should be doing with her head while she was speaking dialogue to Willis.
Then, to shoot her face and dialog, they put the actress in a chair rigged up with marks all around it. “Based on what I could see by studying the film frame by frame, I would spin this chair around to hit certain points,” says Ralston. “Like, every 12 frames it would be at a specific mark, to give Meryl a rough idea of where she had to be during each cut.”
Streep sat in the chair in front of a blue screen, with a blue-screen outfit from her neck down, and with very precise timing, she had to listen to a playback of Willis’s dialog and deliver her own.
They then combined her head movements with the body shots, using the computer graphics’ system, matching the moves frame by frame. Finally, they had to blend her head into her body by creating a computer graphic, twisted-neck piece that also had to be matched frame by frame.
The neck piece itself was a three-dimensional, full-size sculpture, done by makeup artist Kevin Haney, that was scanned into the computer.
“It wasn’t like creating some blob from another world, something we’re not used to seeing,” says Ralston. “This was a person with a very minor problem, in a way: her head’s on backwards. And I noticed during the show that after a while , we got so used to that image that it didn’t look like there was anything wrong with her.”
Such sophisticated techniques were far removed from the deliberately old-fashioned effects in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
Aiming for a period feel, special-effects director Roman Coppola employed such gags as 50-50 mirrors (half-transmission, half-reflection) and in-camera backwinding.
One example was the scene in which Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is on a staircase and sees rats walking on the ceiling. “That would be a candidate for a quick optical split screen, but we chose to do that in-camera,” says Coppola.
“We exposed the film with the rats with the camera turned upside down and black velvet beyond them, and then we turned the camera back, backran the film, keeping count of the numbers and where the rats were, then Keanu came down the stairs. Basically it was a split-screen gravity trick that we did in camera.”
Old tricks never die, but new ones are being invented every day. As a result, filmmakers are reluctant to talk about upcoming movies. Great secrecy surrounds “Jurassic Park” and “The Last Action Hero,” although both are expected to break ground with computer-generated images.
Elsewhere, Peter Moyer, digital visual effects supervisor for the Post Group, is busy on “Warlock II,” making motorcycles and daggers behave as if they had minds of their own.
In British Columbia, explosives’ specialist Gary Paller of Paller Special Effects is blowing up churches and houses the traditional way as effects coordinator on Castle Rock’s “Needful Things,” from the Stephen King thriller.
Peter Chesney, mechanical effects designer on many Coen Brothers films, is making people fall out of buildings and creating a pair of 16-foot wings for angel Charles Durning for the Coens’ upcoming film, “The Hudsucker Proxy.”
“I made a complicated steel armature with a lot of electric motors to time everything so he can fold up his wings, unfold them and flap them about. Then we covered them with real duck and turkey feathers,” says Chesney. “We modeled them after photographs of a hovering dove landing in slow motion.”
Creature and makeup effects specialist Tony Gardner is creating a cat that actually talks for Disney’s “Hocus Pocus.” There’s a real cat in the picture but then five or six different mechanical cats take over.
“One of them takes five people to operate and has some 40 motors that operate just the front half of its body alone,” says Gardner. “A computer graphics’ house is doing the face for extreme close-up dialog.”
Richard Edlund’s Boss Films’ crew hasbeen busy keeping Sylvester Stallone safe while seemingly placing him in precarious situations for his mountain-climbing thriller, “Cliffhanger.”
Effects supervisors Neil Krepela and John Bruno worked on the film using an elevator rig, which is a 60-foot-high, motion-control system.
“It was actually lifted in and pinned to the side of the Alps, vertically, and rigged with a motion control camera that can pan, tilt, and rise and fall as fast as a person can fall for the first, I guess it’s 32 feet,” says Edlund.
“All these shots are put together as one, so it looks like one fluid scene, and all the edges of the mountains blend in, it’s just a hideously difficult shot, but hopefully one that will help the director induce the audience to rip the armrests of their seats,” Edlund says.