Movies 2.0: Digital Effects Magic Explained

Category: 300 News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: January 1, 2007 | Publication: Popular Mechanics | Author: Tom Russo
Publication/Article Link:http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/industry/4206983.html?page=1

In today's digital Hollywood, cameras capture scenes in bits, not frames—and computer wizards conjure up everything from impossible beasts to cliff-top battlegrounds. Film is dead. Long live the movies.

Unlike most digital creatures, which are created almost entirely in postproduction to react to the movements of a movie's live characters, the movements of Eragon's dragon, a central character, were choreographed by animators before the cameras started rolling. The dragon's motion was uploaded to a high-tech mechanical bull ridden by an actor on a blue screen stage. "The result is that you get more realistic body language from your actor," says Samir Hoon, the movie's visual-effects supervisor for ILM. "Even if the dragon is just waddling along, you're trying to capture as many nuances as possible."

Character Building
New technology also is allowing directors to meld CGI and live action in fresh ways. In last summer's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, ILM's image-based motion-capture, or Imocap, software helped animators turn actor Bill Nighy's face into a squiggling mass of octopus tentacles for his role as the villain Davy Jones. Until recently, motion-capture work on characters such as Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy tended to interfere with acting. A performer charged with creating a digital character's movements had to work in a spandex suit on a motion-capture stage with a minimum of 16 cameras sampling his movements.

In contrast, Imocap let Nighy work on the set with other actors. "We wanted Bill to be able to do his performance opposite Johnny Depp and everyone else, without any constraints or weird processes getting in the way," says Pirates animation supervisor Hal Hickel. The result was a kind of digital makeup that accentuated Nighy's character rather than covering it up — the tentacles moved naturally (or, perhaps, supernaturally) with his facial expressions.

Motion rigs and makeup are old moviemaking standbys that are being reinvented in the new, digital environment. Much the same could be said of 3D effects, which were introduced as a novelty in the 1950s. Today, digital 3D formats such as IMAX 3D and Real D are bringing the funny glasses back as a way to differentiate the theater experience from what's available through increasingly sophisticated home entertainment systems. Moviemakers are using software to take existing 2D footage and reformat it for stereoscopic projectors. For the recent 3D re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, all of the puppets in Tim Burton's 1993 film were digitally rendered at a slightly shifted angle compared to the original footage. When the finished product is run through the Real D projector adapter, the viewer's left eye sees the original movie footage, while the right eye takes in the new material.

There are a slew of 3D epics in the works. Movie-tech pioneer James Cameron (Titanic) is working on the big-budget sci-fi features Avatar and Battle Angel; director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) is working on a 3D Beowulf; and George Lucas — ever the digital revisionist — has stated plans to re-release the Star Wars trilogies in 3D.

Moving beyond "Cut!"
Cinematographers are the film era's last holdouts. As the people most directly responsible for the color, texture and clarity of the images onscreen, they tend to be conservative. Many still prefer the richness, highlights and grain of film over the cleaner, harsher look of digital image recording. But today other cinematographers say they are drawn to the capabilities the technology provides. Industry veteran Dean Semler, an Oscar winner for Dances With Wolves, has used Panavision's digital Genesis camera on his last three projects: the Mel Gibson-directed Mayan epic Apocalypto, and the two Adam Sandler comedies Click and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Cinematographers have long used low-res video playback to check their work on the set, but the images on film often look quite different. Digital moviemaking solves that problem. "There's a huge comfort factor in looking at an image you know is going to look the same way it is on the screen," Semler says.

For directors, less cost pressure means more creative freedom, and compared to film stock, digital tape is almost free. "Sometimes you roll for an hour without cutting, because you can," director Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids) said at a recent panel discussing Grindhouse, a horror film he is codirecting with Quentin Tarantino. "You find moments there that you might lose otherwise." Rodriguez, who often doubles as his own cinematographer, shot his last two movies digitally. "I feel like I'm wasting film if I mess up a line or if something's not coming together," said Rodriguez's fellow panelist, actress Rose McGowan. But when she voiced that worry on the set of Grindhouse, she said, "the entire crew and Robert started laughing — 'That's old school!'"

Smoke and mirrors
The technology breakthroughs that made dinosaurs and big waves a few years ago have eddied into mini disciplines with ever-rising levels of virtuosity. "Effects have gotten more evolutionary rather than revolutionary as time has gone on," says ILM's Hickel. One area that is seeing continuing incremental advancement is element and particle simulation — rendering water, fire, smoke and dust with greater fidelity. For the February comic book action flick Ghost Rider, lead actor Nicolas Cage's head is replaced by a skull exploding with digital flames designed in a tweaked version of Maya software. "Our hero doesn't have any eyes or lips or a tongue, so he can't form words, and he doesn't have any expression," says director Mark Steven Johnson. "You can't tell when he's sad or vengeful. So I really wanted the fire to have a personality, to make up for what we didn't have."

During Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s, filmmakers used entire guilds of set decorators, matte painters and other artisans to help create movie magic. Today, boutique digital-effects shops perform similar tasks. "God is in the details," Dykstra says. "You get into this business of who's producing the most realistic skin, or the most realistic sky, or the most realistic field of battling armies. The ability to create images that are indistinguishable from reality has truly opened a Pandora's box. In a good way."

Hybride, the outfit simulating wolf drool for 300, is best known for rendering stylized digital backdrops, like those it created for Rodriguez's 2005 movie Sin City. That film's dark comic book atmospheres melded the live action of the movie with the raw visual approach of graphic novelist Frank Miller, who also wrote the book upon which 300 is based.

To design 300's digital backdrops, Hybride artists needed to combine obsessive attention to detail with a deliberately artistic — as opposed to realistic — visual aesthetic. To blend footage of the actors into the surreal backgrounds, the artists employed a complex process. First, 3D tracking was used to map out virtual camera angles to correspond to the real camera's movement. Once the virtual and real camera angles were matched, the computer-generated imagery was "shot" from the right angle and dropped into a scene, ensuring that warriors won't be hidden by the enemy, the terrain or the odd lethal projectile.

The process was just the first step in a branching and converging stream of CGI work that included modeling sets, modeling characters and rigging them for animation, then adding texture and lighting flourishes to all of it. In a downstairs conference room at Hybride's headquarters, effects artists review a shot that's nearing completion. On a small movie screen, the Spartan king cradles a young war casualty, his somber troops clustered around them. In the background, digitally rendered flames flicker on smoky, expressionistic, combat-ravaged digital hillsides.

"We've asked [Hybride] to give us art, not just reality," says director Zack Snyder. "It's hard because it's subjective. One man's art is another man's screw-up." To that end, work on the digital wolf continues. In a number of shots, the wolf still shows up as a wire-frame construct; in others, he looks like some bizarre alabaster lawn ornament — the fur has been left off for the time being to allow the artists to focus on the movements of the animal's musculature. Watts is on that case, but he's also finessing other fine points, such as making sure the creature's breath is shown, highlighting the scene's frigid conditions. "Wars have been waged over the breath," he jokes. "The stuff that we argue about is so beyond the realm of what normal people ever worry about." In the new digital age, every pixel counts.

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