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State of the Art of F/X

State of the Art of F/X

Articles - Directing

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

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

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

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

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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