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June 6, 2009




State of the Art of F/X

The State of the Art of Special Effects

Diana Giorgiutti supervised special effects on The Matrix.

Jurassic Park's credits indicate no fewer than four effects supervisors, each assigned to various aspects of the craft. While Stan Winston Studios was responsible for creating a believably articulated mechanical T-Rex and other dinosaurs in the film, Dennis Muren at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) oversaw the computer-generated work, termed "full-motion" dinosaurs due to their freedom from on-set manipulation. Animation expert Phil Tippett created stop-motion tests to lock the movement of the creatures, and physical effects veteran Michael Lantieri was charged with moving objects and dinosaur-related operations on the actual set.

Cinematic special effects are not a simple business, and with this year's arrival of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, questions about craftsmanship in special effects are coming to the forefront. The advent of digital technologies has its champions and detractors, but it is clear that computer-generated imagery, or CGI, is going to have a major impact on the way many movies are made. Perhaps the best evaluation of the current state of affairs in movie magic is through an examination of the craftspeople who are at the top of their respective fields-the special effects artisans themselves.

Hoyt Yeatman
Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for Dream Quest Images

"I equate the responsibilities of visual effects supervisor to those of an architect," says Hoyt Yeatman. "I interface with the director and director of photography, helping to create the storyboards and visualize what has been written by the screenwriters. From there, I work with the department heads at Dream Quest on the shots in creating the visuals for the film."

Just out of UCLA in 1977, Yeatman and two co-founders began Dream Quest Images in a garage. Their current complex in Simi Valley includes shooting stages, model and camera shops and a complete digital art department. In 1989, Yeatman won an Academy Award for visual effects based on his inventive miniature and underwater motion-control camera photography for James Cameron's The Abyss. Now Dream Quest is one of the top visual effects companies in the business, working as the official visual effects division of Disney Studios. Among their many recent triumphs was Armageddon, for which they created digital space shuttles and shot live-action asteroid miniatures, as well as Mighty Joe Young, for which Dream Quest created dozens of blue screen composite shots and a fully-articulated digital gorilla. "If you can imagine something, Dream Quest is a place where you can create it," Yeatman said. "We have the facilities, departments, and creative people who can visualize it with you. It does give a filmmaker an advantage to be able to [do all this] at one facility."

Yeatman is reflective about the nascent computer-based methods of achieving visual effects. "Digital technology has come into play extremely heavily here," he notes. "It offers tremendous control. When you're looking at a very large project, the debate is whether to make something a model or CG. Most anything can be done digitally, but I think there is still a magic and effectiveness of shooting models in smoke. It's really choosing your battles."

According to Dream Quest Vice President and General Manager Andrew Millstein, Dream Quest will continue to use a myriad of crafts including digital and more traditional physical production-model and miniature construction, motion-control photography, green screen photography-all of the facets of visual effects production possible in creating their work. "Typically, you do something digitally that you can't do practically," Millstein noted. "You look at digital as a solution to a particular problem, and you always try to use the best technique for the job. It is the projects that push the technology. When we started Mighty Joe Young we didn't have the technology to generate photorealistic hair. It was the project that drove us to create that technology."

The Matrix
Diana Giorgiutti
Visual Effects Producer

In The Matrix the directing team of Larry and Andy Wachowski has presented us with a disturbing and notably dynamic vision of our possible future. With seamless attention to detail, the film offers a wide array of visual effects, including digital work, prosthetic makeups, and a practical shooting innovation developed by the effects team.

"Basically, I was assigned to John Gaeta, who supervised all of the 415 visual effects shots, including 85 CG shots done at Manex in the Bay Area," said Diana Giorgiutti. She had been based in England to work on Lost in Space and a couple of James Bond films, but due to the lack of effects knowledge by The Matrix's Australian crew, she ended up coordinating all of the production's visual effects.

Among those completed at Manex were a striking 30-second fetus field shot depicting human baby pods being plucked and sucked up tubes to computer-controlled machine harvesters. Two Australian companies also completed post-production shots under Gaeta's supervision. One firm, Animal Logic, created the opening and closing image of The Matrix code, including Keanu Reeves' character entering the antagonist's body and breaking him apart; another company, D-Film, created an entire climactic helicopter crash into the side of a building.

Another amazing aspect of The Matrix's visual world is the use of a pioneering new film technique labeled "Bullet Time." The technology allows the actors on screen to freeze or considerably slow down in mid-air, with a 3-D camera move circling the action in place. Using this system, characters could fluidly jump, meet in mid-flight, and bend back to dodge bullets. According to Giorgiutti, the shots took about a week to set up. "Larry and Andy would work out with John what kind of moves they wanted on the subject with previsualization," she indicated. Even though there are only four Bullet Time shots in the film, they are so outstanding, it gives the film a totally unique presence. Undoubtedly, The Matrix will get the Wachowskis, Gaeta, and Giorgiutti considerable attention in the world of visual effects.

Deep Blue Sea
Jeff Okun
Independent Visual Effects Supervisor

"I'm able to take the best advantage of what the industry has to offer," Jeff Okun states of his position. "It helps that I know what can be done; I understand the cutting edge of what's going on-and I can offer that knowledge to a show without it costing them since I just wait until somebody else buys the new equipment. That strategy lets me stay out front with a minimal investment for the production."

For films like the current Deep Blue Sea, which will feature some 488 effects shots for the story of an oceanic facility attacked by intelligent Mako sharks, Okun's involvement in a project begins at the outset. "I design and offer up suggestions to the producing and directing team so that as they mold their script they can include really cool shots and effects that they wouldn't have thought they could afford." he noted. "You suggest a palette of tools, and you execute the designs everyone has agreed upon and follow through the post-production process where you bring those basic dreams to fruition."

Jeff Okun was Visual Effects Supervisor on Deep Blue Sea.
Overall, Okun sees the new technologies as offering freedoms to his field, noting that Deep Blue Sea was achieved with a variety of techniques. "I am finding that when you design a shot, no matter how much you talk about it and draw pictures of it, when it comes to be a finished thing, sometimes there's miscommunication and you have to go back and rework the shot," he said. "Just the act of putting a shot together makes you think of things that you never would have thought of before. We made our CG sharks do what the animatronic sharks were doing, and it just wasn't enough. We had the luxury to go back and take the CG sharks and make them do things that are just stunning. However, there is a tremendous advantage in doing it practically because then everyone can look at the shot in dailies and make their suggestions, and you can go back the next day and reshoot the scene until they're happy.

"The problem with CG work," he continued, "is that it takes forever to get accomplished. You're asking the director or producer to go on faith with you for a very long time. It must take its toll on their mental stability, especially when an entire movie is riding on the visual effects."

Clark Schaffer working on habitat Sphere.
Clark Schaffer
Models/Miniatures Art Director

"Grant McCune played an important part in the development of modern special effects," said Clark Schaffer of the owner of his workplace, Grant McCune Design. "He was part of the team that pioneered motion-control photography and miniature work for Star Wars, which won him an Oscar. He still has his facility in the building where ILM originated." Together with McCune and fellow shop supervisor Monty Shook, Schaffer's involvement in a film begins with the screenplay. "We will look at a script at the beginning, work with the film's art department and expand upon it," he described. "We translate any visions that they want into how we are going to incorporate models. By using sketches and mock-ups to communicate with the director, we design the shot, execute the build, and see it through to the shoot."

Making realistic set-piece models for numerous projects including Daylight, Batman Forever, and Long Kiss Goodnight, Schaffer and his team worked with effects supervisor Jeff Okun on 1998's Sphere, and the current Deep Blue Sea, creating a crucial underwater facility in miniature that was filmed with motion-control equipment at GMD.

Clark Schaffer's 1/4-scale tanker truck on Long Kiss Goodnight.
With the introduction of digital technology as a serious option to achieving effects, Schaffer and crew have taken note of some changes in the business. "More and more scenes are achieved strictly through computer graphics, if not heavily altered by them," he said. "However, over the last five years that has actually brought more work to us as opposed to taking work away, which a lot of people feared. We've been hired many times where computer effects artists take our miniature footage and eliminate our cables and add fire elements. As a result, we get this incredible shot that was made possible by the computer.

"The model is used to get the feel of reality, which is sometimes lacking in computer shots. Then the computer is brought in to enhance it. There's often a nice marriage between us as model makers and the computer technology. We produce the initial footage and the computer either eliminates tricks that we did or increases the feel of the model by adding elements." In the future Schaffer hopes that the traditions in his craft will prevail. "There's something magical about assembling an old piece of wood and plastic and tricking the world into thinking that they're watching a spaceship. From a romantic point of view, I'd hate to see that go."

Mark Setrakian
Animatronic Character Creator

After beginning his career at ILM in the mid-1980s, Mark Setrakian came to Los Angeles and worked on projects like The Blob and Gremlins 2. On the latter, he developed a relationship with makeup/creature legend Rick Baker, and now Setrakian creates mechanical effects for characters at Baker's Cinovation Studio. "There was almost no limit in how far you could go to get the best possible work done," Setrakian said of working for Baker. "Rick is a perfectionist, but it makes me feel good about going that extra mile to make the work look and perform better. Rick says, 'Here's what we want-make it really cool.' Then he leaves, and how I do something is really up to me. He gives an enormous amount of responsibility on the people doing the work, and I think the work is better as a result of that.

Mark Setrakian designed miniatures on Men In Black.
Among his many projects at Cinovation, including designing and puppeteering various gorilla heads for the recent Mighty Joe Young, Setrakian's favorite creation is likely the little green alien from Men In Black. "One of the reasons I was so pleased with that character is that the design came from a sketch that I did," he said. "An actual-sized tiny one was used on set and a three-times oversize model was later used for closeups, shot after principal photography was completed." Setrakian puppeteered and provided the voice of the little creature when he's revealed living inside the head of an erstwhile human facade, controlling his host from a tiny cockpit.

Of his detailed craft, Setrakian points to problems in maintaining his recent workload. "I think that what I do for a living is a dying art," he noted. "In the next few years, we're going to be seeing much less of my kind of work on screen and a lot more computer-generated characters. But the thing that made my relationship with director Ron Underwood on Mighty Joe Young so successful was that we would talk about the scene and do it right there on film. That's not really possible with CG. Being able to look at a character and interact with it-for an actor or director-is something that cannot be replaced by or imitated by a computer-generated effect."

Setrakian feels as though the artists who will be the most outstanding at CG work may ultimately be traditional creature sculptors and moldmakers who are now learning the tools and switching over to CG effects. "When you start to have people who are brilliant sculptors putting away the clay and starting to work on digital media, that means that you should start to see a much higher level of quality work in that area," he remarked. "I think of the computer as another type of tool, and the quality of the work that is generated by it is solely attributable to the person who is doing the work. If you have the best artists in the industry now using the computer, we should start seeing some pretty exciting work."

Dan St. Pierre
Animation Art Director

"Animation takes all the classic art forms and pushes them all together in place-drawing, design, color, composition, filmmaking, storytelling, and music," notes Dan St. Pierre of his milieu, one that has repeatedly brought him new responsibilities during his career at Disney, beginning with The Little Mermaid, and including the company's major animated features since. "It's about opening up so that you're only limited by your imagination. In animation, you have absolute control over every single frame of the film. We're now using digital technology to create shots and help tell the story better. On Tarzan, we created a technology to try to get shots that you can do only in live-action because of the limitation of drawing in 2-D."

When he started on Tarzan, St. Pierre was the head of layout, but he switched into the art directing role halfway through production. To execute the jungle environment in Tarzan, St. Pierre looked to Disney's key innovators to develop a new method of realizing an animated image. "I became frustrated that we weren't doing as much CG camera work as we should be," he noted. "We needed to break down that barrier between the digital world and the 2-D animation world. It couldn't be a gimmick; it had to be completely in service to the storytelling, and it had to be invisible to the regular audience. Somehow you had to feel as if you're really there in the African jungle."

The result, coined "deep canvas" by Disney artist/engineer Eric Daniels, is actually a software renderer which allows a background painter to paint brushstrokes in 3-D space. The software "remembers" where those brush strokes are so that, as the camera is moved, the background imagery stays in perspective. "Deep Canvas is like creating a 3-D painting," St. Pierre described. "When you begin to move the camera into the painting, you suddenly realize that you're going into the painting. You aren't limited by walking straight ahead, which is what we had in the 2-D animation world."

With the success of deep canvas in Tarzan, the 37th Disney animated feature, St. Pierre looks ahead with a desire for further progressive animation methodologies. "I would love to get more involved with breaking our stories out of the traditional routine-storyboard, layout, animation," he noted. "I hope we start to open up the possibilities for allowing live actors and animation to interact and to allow the worlds that they inhabit to become as fantastic as we would like them to be. Constantly, we'll be pushing the envelope, creating the need for new things, and making the best use of the current tools: the state of the art."

Todd Tucker
Special Effects Makeup Artist and Creature Creator

Originally planning to be a cartoonist when he moved to Hollywood from San Jose, Tucker now creates prosthetic makeups, creature suits, and puppets that are used for both film and television. "But when I showed Greg Cannom my portfolio he hired me that day and I started the following week."

Without any makeup effects shop background, Tucker found himself working as a sculptor, painter, moldmaker and fabricator over the next five years, on projects including Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Mask. "As the years went on, I became more involved in sculpting and designing the characters," he recalled. "Within four years, I became one of the shop supervisors and was heading up my own shows through Cannom Creations." During this time Tucker never lost sight of his boyhood dream. "I always knew that my final goal was to create my own stories and projects," he said. "That was my wish ever since I was a little kid-to follow in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Jim Henson and create worlds of characters."

Laboring at night and on weekends while he worked for Cannom Creations, Tucker wrote stories, created characters, and designed the production of "teaser" films for two of his projects: Wolvy, the tale of an over-the-top werewolf character, and Underworld, featuring a ghostly-white demonic character,

Luth. "They weren't funded," Tucker commented, "so I had to come up with money to create everything, film them and do the post-production. It became ongoing, nonstop work. I had to pull every favor I possibly could to achieve what I needed on an extremely limited budget." Tucker's packages for the two projects now include a three-minute short, a story synopsis, and pictures of the characters. He is currently pitching them to different production companies.

"The industry is going through a major change," Tucker said of his chosen endeavors in special makeup and character effects. "Computer graphics will continue to be a large part of filmmaking, but makeup effects will last for a while because they bring a certain realism to an actor or character."

For people who, like himself a decade ago, want to break into makeup professionally, Tucker recommends a path with equal parts persistence and self-education. "The best thing to do is to get as many books, instructional materials, and videos that you can get your hands on, and practice, practice, practice," he instructed. "Sculpt, paint, learn how to run foam, apply makeup-everything you can. Start building a portfolio of your best work. Once you feel confident that you have enough knowledge and talent, start presenting your work to different shops. But don't ever think that you're at a point when you can't learn any more."

Joe Viskocil
Miniature Pyrotechnics Supervisor

"It's the body of work that I suppose a lot of people are in awe of, says Academy Award-winning artist Joe ViskocilI. I'm going on 28 years, and I still can't get used to it." Viskocil has little reason to be that humble; his list of credits includes designing and creating the memorable explosions in Star Wars, both Terminator films, and Independence Day, the film that brought him the Oscar.

A huge buff of Saturday matinee serials from the early '60s, Viskocil met a model and prop maker, Tom Scherman, when he was a teenager. Eventually, Viskocil convinced Scherman to let him try blowing up a castle set for the early '70s cult classic, Flesh Gordon. "They couldn't really find anybody in Hollywood that did miniature pyrotechnics in 1971," he remembered. "I said to myself, 'there's where I can get my foot in the door,' so I started carving a niche right then and there that I wanted to specialize in something that nobody else was doing. I learned more in two weeks on a movie set than I did two years in college."

A few years later, Viskocil got a call from producer Gary Kurtz, who was making a movie called Star Wars. "I started off in a room 15 X 15 with a ceiling of about 12 feet," he related. "I came up with the zero gravity explosion process where I put the camera on the ground shooting directly at the ceiling. When the charge goes off, it looks like you're traveling through this explosion." With the success of his tests, Viskocil was charged with blowing up X and Y-wing spaceships, and using explosive elements to simulate the destruction of the Death Star space station.

In Terminator, Viskocil utilized 42 separate explosions to destroy a foot-and-a-half high by seven-foot-long model of a truck for the film's climax. "I'll do a picture for James Cameron anytime because he brings out the best in me," the pyrotechnician says. "The best way to get his respect is to fight back for what you believe in, but you better be absolutely goddamned right." Viskocil next worked for Cameron on True Lies, where he was responsible for blowing up the bridge. "It was the finest piece of work I've ever done," he said. From there, he was solicited to work for Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich on ID4, "the movie I was waiting all of my life for." In addition to the many dramatic chain-reaction blasts in the film, an innovative technique-the opposite of his zero gravity strategy-was implemented to simulate a tidal wave of fire. "We pointed the lens straight down toward the ground so that the fire would travel straight up and hit the camera," he recalled. "They showed the test to the brass at 20th Century Fox, and it got a total go for the film. Oddly enough, that test is in the finished movie."

On the encroaching use of digital explosions in films, Viskocil stands firm. "I don't feel threatened by CG," he said. "Everybody right now is in love with it, but once producers see how much a CG shot costs, they start to think 'well, what about doing it the other way.' On ID4, I had a budget of $1.2 million, and for a year's worth of work with a total of six guys, I did all of my effects for under $700,000."

Viskocil, who always emphasizes safety above all else on his sets, professes a clear love of his role in moviemaking. "The one thing that I really love about my work," he said, "is that I'm usually blowing up the thing at the end of the movie, when everybody is cheering." MM

Scott Essman wrote about digital screenwriting for MovieMaker #33, and will write about the influence of production designers in MM #35.


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MovieMaker Magazine

Magazine cover: July 1999This story was published in the July 1999 MovieMaker Magazine. The headline was:

Making Movie Magic / The State of the Art of Special Effects

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