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Invisible tricks of the trade

Marauding dinosaurs, exploding buildings and wind-blown cows are the kinds of spectacular images that have proclaimed the digital-effects revolution to moviegoers, though many feel the biggest digital impact on Hollywood is in the creation of images so subtle and commonplace that the audience never is aware of their existence.

Dubbed “invisible effects,” these cinematic gotchas! often are a source of great delight to the visual-effects artists. “I think you could relate it to a good closeup magician who is doing card tricks right in front of you,” says Carl Rosendahl, president of Pacific Data Images. “You’ve just fooled the audience to such a degree that they didn’t even know they were fooled, and, hey, that’s fun!”

A large percentage of invisible effects work involves digitally erasing safety cables and support rigs from stunt scenes in order to make the stunt look much more dangerous than it was to perform. Occasionally, other unwanted elements, such as century stands, microphones and even misplaced crew members need to be removed from a scene after it has been shot. Frequently dubbed “fender and body work,” this element removal is becoming increasingly common.

“As much as we like to gripe in post about sloppy mistakes, the reality is (the filmmakers) are going supersonic, and when you’re going that fast, there’s a lot of things you don’t see,” says John Van Vliet, president of effects house Available Light Ltd.

Even things the filmmakers do see sometimes need work. In the case of “Kundun,” Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film about the early life of the Dalai Lama, digital matte painters at DreamQuest Images are transforming scenes shot in Morocco into a convincing representation of Tibet. Similarly, the final shot of the angelic comedy “Michael,” depicting downtown Chicago was really lensed in Austin, Texas, with a digital composite of the Windy City subbing for the real thing.

Creating such artificial backgrounds is not a new concept in film. Optical mattes and glass shots have been around almost as long as film itself. But the advent of digital techniques has enhanced the process, allowing effects artists to craft 3-D backgrounds that allow for camera movements. A good example of this is the satellite relay station seen in Universal’s “McHale’s Navy,” a set built completely in cyberspace by VisionArt Design and Animation.

“There are three different stages of the satellite being built, and those are scenes where they were using a hand-held, very shaky camera, so it was a tracking nightmare,” says VisionArt’s Josh Rose. But he expects the audience to fully accept the final result. “For the actual satellite in space, the audience will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a special effect,’ because it’s an animation, but this particular set piece is something they would probably assume was built as a set.”

Many of this summer’s big action pictures contain a wide array of invisible effects, along with the more show-stopping examples of digital magic. For Touchstone’s “Con Air,” effects artists at DreamQuest Images crafted a high-powered sequence involving a plane crash in Las Vegas, which was done by combining miniatures, full-size mock-ups and digital compositing (with a fully computer animated “flying” Corvette thrown in for the ride). For shots utilizing a large-scale mock-up of the airplane, safety concerns demanded that the rapidly spinning props be digitally animated — no easy task, according to DreamQuest’s David Goldberg.

“You have to get the amount of blur right,” he explains. “We actually ended up having several layers of elements to create the correct blur; one was a blurred disc and another was the blurred blades of the prop, but they weren’t necessarily in the correct spin rate.”

And as if creating a convincing blur wasn’t enough, the artists also had to avoid the “wagon-wheel” effect, a common optical illusion whereby a rapidly spinning wheel appears to stop in place, then slowly rotate backward. “Even though it’s a natural photographic effect and you see it all the time, it does tend to draw attention to itself,” Goldberg says, “and we wanted to make sure we weren’t drawing attention to the propeller for any reason.”

Digital propeller animation also features in a sequence from Fox’s “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” in which Jason Patric attempts to jam the propeller of a hijacked cruise ship with a docking rope.

The only elements in the shot that were real were the water, a mock-up of the ship’s hull and actor Patric. “(Director) Jan De Bont did not want to do any kind of greenscreen or bluescreen and then add the water; he wanted the actor in that environment,” says Bert Terreri, visual-effects supervisor for Rhythm & Hues, which handled the shot.

Because the force of a real ship’s propeller would have sucked in the actor and turned him into, in Terreri’s words, “a bunch of blood and guts,” the effects team animated not only the prop but also the rope Patric drags toward it, as well as enhancing the “performance” of the water itself. “There is very little activity under the water with a real propeller,” says Terreri, “so we’re adding turbulence, bubbles and doing some things regarding distortion and cavitational issues that gives the water some threat.”

The sky’s the limit

For Warner Bros.’ “Contact,” adapted from the book by Carl Sagan, computerized “reality manipulation” was employed to maintain continuity over a sequence shot at the VLA radio telescope site in New Mexico. “Because of our wild shooting conditions, our continuity was all over the map,” says Ken Ralston, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, who served as senior visual-effects supervisor for “Contact.” “The weather killed us, so we’re going back in and changing it enough so that the skies and colors and times of day all seem roughly the same.”

Ralston’s sentiments are echoed by Laurence Siske of C.I.S., a post-production house that also worked on “Contact.” “Because our jobs usually focus on explosions and other bigger-than-life effects, we really enjoy working on subtle beauty fixes and compositing photorealism,” Siske says.

In addition to the film’s major visual effects, and the numerous examples of reality tweaking requested by director Robert Zemeckis (“the way Bob makes his movies, there’s an awful lot of manipulating reality in subtle, oddball ways,” Ralston notes), the “Contact” effects team also composited dozens of monitor images that run throughout the picture. “The shots look like a TV that’s just on in a room, and these are with elaborate camera moves and reflections from the sets,” Ralston says. “You would never guess it was something we did.”

Such digital enhancement work is becoming so commonplace and convincing, in fact, that some filmmakers seem to be considering it just another aspect of post-production. “What is happening a lot on these films is that people are looking at (scenes) afterward and going, ‘It could be great if we could do this, or if we add this, or if we take this out of a sequence,’ ” notes Pacific Digital Title’s Joe Gareri. “It’s becoming part of everyday life now in features.”

Gareri was asked to add the image of an airplane flying overhead into a scene of Warner’s “Fathers’ Day,” to punch up a transition that was not working.

Gareri goes on to say that a whole new arena for computer wizardry is opening up — digital makeup and hairstyling. “It’s becoming quite the thing,” he says. “We’ve done a number of things where we’ve removed mustaches on women. I’ve been asked recently to bid on removing cellulite from a lady’s legs. It’s amazing the kinds of things you get asked to do digitally these days!”

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