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Safety in numbers

F/x standouts' mantra appears to be more is more

Special effects studios like to continually raise the bar, and the work in 2004’s tentpoles doesn’t disappoint.

Companies broke ground with advancements in digital water and other natural elements, as well as hair, skin and cloth to create more photorealistic characters and digital doubles. But this year’s real visual standouts adhered to the mantra that more is more when it comes to wowing auds.

Consider the large cast of CG monsters that appear in “Van Helsing,” the thousands of digital robots that run rampant in “I, Robot” and the multiple forms of virtual weather that rage through “The Day After Tomorrow.” In addition, the number of f/x shops that are credited with work increased on this year’s crop of effects-heavy pics.

Over the next several weeks, a committee from the visual effects branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will choose seven pics to compete at the annual bake-off, where members will vote on and decide the three noms that will move on to bid for Oscar gold.

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (Universal)
F/x shops: Industrial Light & Magic, Pacific Title and Art Studio, CIS Hollywood
F/x supervisors: Pablo Helman, Mark Kasey
What’s notable: The seamless integration of digital imagery with physical on-set stunts and action on the film’s set pieces. High points include a near miss with a computer-generated train during an escape sequence in a Berlin subway station, and a highly destructive car chase through the streets and tunnels of Moscow.

THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (Universal)
F/x shops: Rhythm & Hues, Hammerhead, New Deal Studios, Double Negative
F/x supervisors: Peter Chiang
What’s notable: The creation of extensive digital and model settings, including spacecraft, the environments of the Necromongers and their mother ship, the Basilica; the hellish planet Crematoria, and its subterranean prison, the Slam; the cities of planet Helion; and the ethereal Aereon (played by Judi Dench) who appears translucent when she moves.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (Fox)
F/x shops: Digital Domain, ILM, Hydraulx, Dreamscape Imagery, the Orphanage, Ring of Fire, Yu+Co, Zoic Studios
F/x supervisor: Karen Goulekas
What’s notable: The catastrophic depiction of global warming, including photorealistic sequences of multiple tornadoes that tear through Los Angeles, the breakup of an ice shelf in Antarctica and massive storms seen from space. Breakthroughs in digital water are evident in the flooding of New York and resulting devastation. Also scoring points are an extensive opening fly-over sequence of a completely CG Antarctica; digital wolves, snow and blizzards; an oil tanker that floats through the streets; and a deep-freeze sequence as a new Ice Age overtakes Gotham.

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (Warner Bros.)
F/x shops: ILM, Framestore CFC, the Moving Picture Co., Cinesite, Double Negative
F/x supervisors: Roger Guyett, Tim Burke, John Richardson, Stephen Hamilton
What’s notable: CG characters including the haunting Dementors (that include breakthroughs in digital cloth); Professor Lupin’s alter ego, the werewolf; and Buckbeak, a half-horse, half-eagle creature known as the Hippogriff (featuring new developments in digital feathers). Also impressive are the digital and miniature locations and settings of London and Hogwarts; the Knight Bus, a shape-shifting triple-decker purple bus; and the balloonlike inflation of Aunt Marge.

I, ROBOT (Fox)
F/x shops: Digital Domain, Weta Digital, Image Engine, Rainmaker Studios, Pixel Magic
F/x supervisors: John Nelson, John Berton
What’s notable: The thousands of digital robots that seamlessly interact with real and digital humans; pic’s emotional CG star, known as Sonny, who’s featured extensively opposite Will Smith; CG backgrounds and futuristic Chicago cityscapes; car chase sequence through a tunnel.

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (Paramount)
Lead f/x shops: ILM
F/x supervisor: Stefen Fangmeier
What’s notable: Fantasy pic’s CGI double of Sunny, the baby, as well as huge digital environments, set extensions and miniature model work, in addition to innovations in on-set lighting technology. (The entire film was shot on indoor sets, even the outdoor scenes.)

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (Paramount)
F/x shops: WOT, Rising Sun Pictures, the Orphanage, ILM, Hybride, SW Digital, Cafe FX, Pixel Liberation Front, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Riot, Ring of Fire, Luma Pictures, Gray Matter FX
F/x supervisors: Scott Anderson, Darin Hollings
What’s notable: Entire pic was shot without the use of sets or locations, and instead used bluescreens and 2,000 computer-generated shots to create locations from the Himalayan Alps to New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, and sequences of the Hindenburg III docking at the Empire State Building, fighter planes flying through the streets of New York, giant robots marching down Sixth Avenue, the Royal Air Force’s mobile air strips, an underwater battle, and Dr. Totenkopf’s villainous island lair and rocket set piece.

SPIDER-MAN 2 (Sony)
F/x shops: Sony Pictures Imageworks, Edge FX, Radium, Zoic Studios, Barbed Wire
Visual f/x designer: John Dykstra, Scott Stokdyk
What’s notable: Vast improvements from the first pic in the digital doubles of web-slinging Spider-Man and the photorealistic virtual sets and canyons of New York he swings through. The performance of Doc Ock’s CG tentacles that act as arms and legs on a live-action Alfred Molina, as well as the thesp’s digital doubles. Standout sequences: the fight on top and onboard a runaway train, and the bank and clock tower battles.

VAN HELSING (Universal)
F/x shops: ILM, Illusion Arts, Weta Digital, Digiscope, Pacific Title & Arts Studio, Zoic Studios, CIS Hollywood
F/x supervisors: Scott Squires, Ben Snow
What’s notable: Nine CG creatures created for the pic including the Wolfman, the Vampire Brides, the Hellbeast and Mr. Hyde that boast breakthroughs in digital hair, fur and skin. Digital sets of 19th-century Transylvania locales like Castle Dracula, extensive use of more realistic digital doubles, and the skin-ripping and bone-growing transformation of the werewolf stand out.

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