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Year’s trends in effects: Creation of virtual worlds

Computer-generated environments important for realistic, period pieces

The year 2000 was not one in which visual effects changed dramatically, but many in the industry feel that it was a time of ongoing flux.

“As a profession, it’s a bit like quicksilver,” says Jonathan Erland, president of Composite Components Co. “If you put your finger down on some of it, it just wriggles out from under it.”

One major trend was toward the creation of entire onscreen worlds.

“The environment can get as wild as one might imagine, and I do think that’s going to increase as time goes on,” says Patty Blau, senior vice president of production at Industrial Light & Magic.

Visual effects supervisor John Nelson used computer-generated environments for “Gladiator,” and he believes that the use of such for period pieces and realistic settings will be as important as it is for the more surrealistic worlds of science-fiction epics.

“It’s getting subtle,” he says.

Because f/x can be used so widely now, the size of projects continued to increase in 2000.

“The scope of the projects is so much larger than it ever was,” says Blau. “Big pictures used to be 100-125 shots; big pictures are now 600-800 shots. You really need to proactively manage these projects. You really need a strong supervisor and production team and animation supervisor, if it’s appropriate.”

Yet some productions are going without visual effects supervisors at all, instead using the supervisors at various facilities, or asking visual effects producers or visual effects cinematographers to serve as de facto supervisors.

But, “it doesn’t seem to work really well,” says Nelson. “If you look at the movies that did not have dedicated supervisors, I think it shows.”

Blau says that certain movies, especially those at the front edge of technology, require a consistent vision, which is best served by one visual effects supervisor and one facility.

“Some pictures need a greater continuity of look,” she says. “It’s very much project-driven, as well as production team-driven. Something like ‘The Perfect Storm’ — I don’t think you could have farmed that out.”

Big facilities, she adds, have the necessary tools and staff to develop the most advanced techniques.

Mike Fink, who supervised the effects for “X-Men,” this year left the freelance life for a full-time gig as a visual effects supervisor at Cinesite, partly because he felt that creatively he would be able to do more breakthrough work.

“As a freelance supervisor, research and development is totally dependent on the length of time you’re on the show, the budget of the show — those kinds of things,” he says. “If you’re at a facility, you can push experimentation.”

Fink believes that the most important new technologies for the next few years will be image-based modeling and rendering, which he used for a few key scenes in “X-Men.”

For Nelson, the biggest development is his sense that filmmakers are thinking differently about visual effects.

“The medium is beginning to age, and people are beginning to look at it and use it in a more subtle way,” he says. “The more cutting-edge, interesting things are people who are combining real photography with (computer graphics), so you really don’t know where the blend is. And they’re doing it at an appropriate part of the story. There are going to be these people who are really gifted storytellers, who are going to see CG as their secret weapon.”

Erland, too, hopes that filmmakers will soon learn how to better use the visual effects tools at their disposal.

“In many respects, what we’re technically capable of doing has outstripped our ability to comprehend how to use that capability effectively in an art form,” Erland says. “But obviously, time will resolve that. We will have writers and directors and producers coming up with filmmaking visions to match what the filmmakers’ capabilities have become.”