When most people think of digital effects, what comes to mind is dinosaurs, aliens, space battles and magical beings — an array of creatures and things that don’t exist, brought to convincing life through the work of digital artists and animators.
But there’s another side to digital f/x, where the digital artists are busy re-creating people and objects that exist in real life. Why bother? Because the tools let filmmakers overcome the limits of camera and film. CG camera techniques allow directors to get shots that would otherwise be impossible to capture.
Take the “Hell’s Angels” sequence in “The Aviator” for example. Sony Digital created a fleet of CG biplanes to re-create Howard Hughes’ original aerial choreography.
Hughes, of course, was able to do the same moves with real planes, long before the invention of digital f/x — at enormous expense and at the cost of three pilots’ lives. But Hughes could only have dreamed of doing what “Aviator’s” effects team did: have the camera swoop within inches of soaring planes, dart within their wings and struts, and bore headlong into the propeller of an oncoming fighter.
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In fact, the CG camera has become a very common tool. Helmer Robert Zemeckis made memorable use of it in “What Lies Beneath,” when the camera goes through the floor to shoot a prone Michelle Pfeiffer. David Fincher used it liberally in “Panic Room.”
It pops up in almost all of this year’s f/x kudos hopefuls, from aerial shots of Manhattan in “The Day After Tomorrow” (impossible to shoot live with post-9/11 flight restrictions) to Will Smith’s high-speed showdown with a truckload of robots in “I, Robot.”
But effects pros and filmmakers say that the technique must be used with great care or it will backfire.
A CG camera can move in any direction at any speed and go anywhere in a scene, but a real camera has limitations, and audiences are aware of those restrictions, explains Roger Guyett, visual effects supervisor on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
“People watch so many films, and television is so much of a part of our consciousness that we are aware of what’s possible,” he says. “If you step outside that realm you have to be careful about how you use those tools.”
A move that goes through a physical object, like a wall, calls attention to itself. A move that’s too fast feels like a videogame. So part of the challenge is to make the CG camera behave like a physical one — mostly. Sometimes, that means adding imperfections.
“I always want to make it feel like a real camera operator’s operating it, put in the proper amount of noise and the proper amount of human stuff,” says John Nelson, visual f/x supervisor on “I, Robot.”
“A real cameraman’s follow action is about three, four frames after the action. It’s not perfect, and that seems human. So don’t zero with it and don’t lead it, let it lead you a little bit, and that feels more real.”
Nelson, like most effects pros, says, “If you can shoot it, shoot it, because you’re going to get the reality.” So it’s not unusual for filmmakers to try to go live first, then opt for CG camera if that fails.
“Spider-Man 2,” for example, features a shot of the wall crawler running down an alley and leaping into the air, with the camera matching the move. But the wire work for the stuntman proved difficult, and when the camera tried to match the leap, stuntman and camera soon collided. Result? An injured stuntman, a broken camera and a lost night of shooting. “At that moment, it became a digital shot,” says a Sony insider.
Likewise on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Harry’s fall from his broom during his quidditch match never worked out live. “Even a stuntman can’t act unconscious,” says effects supervisor Bill George, “and then the fabric isn’t moving the way it should because of the safety. They had a guy jumping off the rafters into a big inflated bluescreen, but it looked like a long swan dive, not a guy falling a thousand feet.”
Aerial sequences in general lend themselves to CG camera. Even a seemingly simple aerial shot, like the move down the entire height of the Empire State Building in “The Day After Tomorrow,” would have been impossible with a real camera; even if there was a crane tall enough, it could not have been lowered fast enough.
Jonathan Rothbart of the Orphanage, which did that CG move, says, “The only (other) way to do that would be to do a miniature set and do it with a motion-control rig on a miniature set. We did it with CG because of the freedom that (lead effects supervisor Karen Goulekas) wanted. You want the flexibility to make it work and not be locked down to any particular motion. Having a digital camera allows you that freedom, which is what directors want these days.”
Like many technological advances, though, there’s a downside to that freedom. Yes, filmmakers can do anything with a CG camera, but that doesn’t mean they should, say the effects pros to whom Variety spoke.
Aside from avoiding the videogame look of some CG moves, Bill George says, “One of the things that keeps us looking more real are limitations.The classic example is ‘Jaws.’ The dang shark never worked, they kept trying over and over again, it was originally a monoster movie, but becauase of the disaster of the shark neve rworking, it became a suspense film and it transcended what it was meant to be.”
George worries that something gets lost when filmmakers don’t have to push to overcome practical limitations. “A lot of our really successful filmmakers, if you look at their really early films, where they’re really struggling and they don’t have the best actors and they don’t have the big budget, those are their best films. That’s where the real creativity happens.”