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‘Kombat’ s digital army

“Mortal Kombat Annihilation,” the sequel to 1995’s “Mortal Kombat” slated for release from New Line in early August, is one summer film promising an unusually heavy digital dosage. Even by the industry’s normal standards, “Annihilation” will be an ambitious f/x effort, with approximately 300 completely digital shots. That’s close to 100 more than in the original “Kombat” and far above the average for films in “Annihilation’s” $30 million budget range.

But filmmakers claim the film will impress effects fanatics not only because of its volume but also the type of digital work. The film will feature, among other things, an extended martial-arts sequence between two entirely digital characters and another lengthy battle between a live actor and a digital character.

“The special effects we are using in this movie will be more photorealistic than what we tried the first time, and virtually all of them will be 3-D digital effects,” says the film’s producer, Larry Kasanoff. “We also developed new motion-capture techniques for certain scenes and we processed the fight between two digital characters on DEC Alpha machines, which we think have traditionally been underutilized for special-effects work in the past.”

“Annihilation” also takes advantage of another industry advance: communication technology that allows filmmakers “complete connectivity with top technical people around the world,” according to executive producer and f/x supervisor Alison Savitch. She says producers assembled a team of individual animators and motion-capture specialists from around the world and then linked them up using Sprint’s Drums technology, a production tool that allows collaboration and real-time conferencing and viewing of clips by multiple participants at different locations.

“With this communication ability, we were able to pick individuals or facilities that we wanted, according to our specific needs and at a reasonable cost,” Savitch explains. “That meant we could utilize more than 500 people in digital facilities around the world.”

Improved detail

Producers say the end result will be a film that shows the special powers and movements of the “Kombat” characters with more detail and depth than was possible even two years ago. A key example is a fight scene between a digital dragon and a digital, six-headed Hydra.

“Digital characters have interacted before, but never in such a complex way as a martial-arts fight and never for such an extended sequence,” Savitch says. “By utilizing motion-capture to make the movements realistic, and processing the shots on DEC Alphas, we were able to create what we think is incredibly realistic digital character interaction.”

Another example is the fight sequence between the characters Jax and Motaro. Jax, portrayed by actor Red Williams, squares off against a digital Motaro, a creature that is half-man, half-beast. What makes the sequence so unusual is that “Kombat” filmmakers shot the live-action scene and recorded movement of real martial artists to feed into the computer model of Motaro all at the same time, on location in central Thailand. Traditionally, motion-capture sequences have been filmed only in studios and never simultaneously with the scene in which they will be featured.

The “Kombat” team hired motion-capture specialists from several countries under the leadership of William Plant (formerly of the Henson Creature Shop), and developed a methodology of shooting the scene and motion simultaneously, creating what Savitch calls “live-action motion-capture.” Plant’s team also oversaw studio motion-capture work used for other sequences.

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