Lava is all you need

There was a time in Hollywood when just creating the image of a river of molten lava flowing over the landscape would have been good enough. But the filmmakers behind Fox 2000’s “Volcano” wanted more: They wanted the lava to act.

“It’s not only there, it’s the bad guy,” says Light Matters’ Mat Beck, who served as visual-effects supervisor for the film. “(Director) Mick Jackson was quite specific about that. He wanted it to act in certain ways in certain conditions. The fact that we got so much production value out of the miniature lava was a huge boon.”

The miniature lava was created by mixing a food product (“If you’ve gone to Burger World and had a shake, you’ve probably drunk it,” laughs Beck) with fluorescent and standard pigments, and topping it with a variety of materials to simulate the hardening crust. The mixture then was put on special lava tables that were built on platforms mounted on gimbals. With camera and lights anchored to the platforms, the entire assembly could be moved around to get the lava flowing in the desired direction and speed.

Footage of the live-action lava was passed on to the digital artists, who added such effects as heat shimmer, smoke, fire, ash and color enhancements. The result then was composited in with shots of miniature buildings, real cityscapes and the actors, with some shots requiring as many as 200 separate image layers.

One of the biggest challenges for the combined effects team was the knowledge that today’s audiences are more savvy than ever about things like special effects.

“People know what reality looks like, and while they may not necessarily know whether the heat ripple is missing or the ash is moving in the wrong direction, they can emotionally feel what is right,” says Adam Howard, digital-effects supervisor for POP, one of the effects shops that contributed to “Volcano.”

“And (the action) is happening in an area that is incredibly recognizable, so it has to be very believable. We’re dealing with people who are much less forgiving for something that doesn’t look real,” Howard adds.

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