Digital f/x dominate summer

CGI and physical effects combined in upcoming pics

If the hot pre-Memorial Day box office returns of “The Mummy II” are the prologue, then summer 2001 will be a smashing ride for this year’s iteration of big, f/x-driven tentpole pics. With nearly $120 million in “Mummy’s” first 10 days of domestic release, auds are signaling they’re ready to spend some coin on big-bang films — recession-talk, mixed reviews and 10-buck ducats notwithstanding.

Last summer, however, despite “Gladiator” starting things off with a clang, the biz saw its first summer year-to-year decline in a decade. All of which, won’t do much to calm some nervous stomachs over at the Mouse House that will reportedly end up plunking down north of $260 million to make and market the second big summer 2001 gamble, “Pearl Harbor.”

“There’s so much going on in many of the shots that computationally it couldn’t have been attempted a year ago,” says Eric Brevig, the film’s visual effects supervisor and second unit director.

The Michael Bay-directed film sharpens film effects’ cutting edge with a 40-minute second-act battle scene. The bulk of the shots feature a rapidly moving camera darting through a landscape of CG ships, men, explosions, fire and smoke. Because visual f/x shots can have 10-fold layers (even hundreds) that change frame by frame, the task of rendering them — the process that puts all the info together into a photo-sharp image — requires terabytes of memory, multigigabytes of processing power and a lot of time. Which, in an era of expanding expectations and shrinking schedules, is probably the most critical commodity.

“Every time we get more computing power we think: ‘Now we have enough,’ ” Brevig continues, “but we never do. We never break even.”

There not being hundreds of Japanese Zeros, American P-40s and B-25 bombers in existence to re-create the Pearl Harbor attack (and the subsequent James Doolittle retaliation bombing raid on Tokyo), helmer Michael Bay needed all the help he could get.

“If (the planes) didn’t look real, it wasn’t worth doing the film,” Bay said in a recent interview in Film & Video magazine.

To achieve its pyrotechnics, “Pearl” uses some 400 CG effects and 400 physical effects — those done the old-fashioned way with real objects and people. As with most spectacle films, critical sequences are a combination of the two. For a scene featuring the capsizing of the USS Oklahoma, for example, effects coordinator John Frazier built a giant gimbal to roll a 190-foot section of the re-created ship. Some 400 additional feet were added by computer to complete the boat, as were 150 CG sailors diving for safety.

“Combining the two techniques isn’t new,” says Brevig, “but it’s rare that they can work so successfully. There was no turf war on this project.”

With so much riding on summer movies (the majors mint an average 45% of their annual take May through September), secrecy is at a premium. This year, message control rules more than ever, says one veteran PR maven. While marketing machines are cranking out gauzy press releases, PR firms are battening down the preopening weekend hatches — screenings, production photos and in-depth interviews are largely off the menu. What can we expect to see in Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated “A.I”? How complex are the physical stunts and effects in “Tomb Raider”? “See you opening day,” is the answer to most ink-stained wretches.

“I can’t discuss what we’ve done on ‘A.I.,’ ” says the unfailingly polite Dennis Muren, a longtime f/x man for Spielberg. “If you look at our recent work (1999’s ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace’ 1997’s ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’) you can draw your own conclusions.”

“If we didn’t have the kind of technology and expertise we now have we couldn’t have made ‘A.I.’ for even $150 million,” Muren says. (The reported budget for the project that started its film life in the mind of Stanley Kubrick is $90 million.)

One thing is for sure: Part of the film’s storytelling uses puppets and animatronics from physical-effects whiz Stan Winston. Winston reportedly created a fully functioning robot character. In an interview in the June edition of Premiere, Winston said working on the project was the most intense and emotional experience in his professional career.

In large part, advances in off-the-shelf software and the proprietary versions written by the boffins at the likes of Industrial Light & Magic have allowed CG images to fully emerge from the darkness. The reason that much of the action in 1998’s “Godzilla” took place at night, for example, was because computer-generated f/x were then akin to the needs of an aging star– it needed dim light to hide its wrinkles, seams and imperfections.

In the upcoming family comedy “Cats & Dogs” (Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins), however, the CG animals and humans interact in the full light of day.

“We don’t need to hide the work anymore,” says helmer Larry Guterman.

The Warner Bros. pic offers a union of live action (real actors and sets), high-tech puppetry and CG images.

“The logistics were amazing,” says producer Chris de Faria. “We had 27 dogs and 33 cats working. Just caring for them required custom-designed kennels, training and exercising spaces, 27 trainers and hundreds of pounds of pet food every day.”

In many scenes, the real animal and its CG and animatronic versions are blended into a seamless mise en scene. “The technology has made it easier to put onto film what you dream about,” Guterman says.

CG work was done by Rhythm & Hues, Tippet Studio and Mill Film. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the animatronic puppets.

“We wanted to introduce live animals in a natural setting and then, through the use of puppets and computer animation, take the audience along an escalating path of credibility,” says de Faria.

“There’s a ‘Looney Tunes’ sensibility at work here,” adds Guterman. “By the time we show a dog leaping off a two-story building and onto a log loader driven by a cat, we want the audience to be OK with that.”