Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, soon in theatres, marks the latest in a rich history of films that have dealt with miniaturisation – that is, showing shrunken-down characters in a real-sized world.
Films such as Fantastic Voyage, Inner Space, Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Hook, The Indian in the Cupboard and Ant-Man are all ones that have used different visual effects techniques to go small. These techniques have ranged from forced perspective, over-sized sets, shooting on blue or greenscreen and of course digital means.
It’s now 20 years since James Cameron’s Titanic was released. Back in 1997, somehow the film made it through an incredibly challenging shoot, a tense studio environment, constant media scrutiny and a gruelling post-production schedule to become the then most successful box office hit of all time.
But Titanic was not without its challenges, especially in terms of visual effects. New ways of realising digital water, digital extras and combining these with live action and miniatures was ushered in for Titanic, principally by Digital Domain. In addition, a whole army of effects vendors also contributed to the film.
Helping to oversee that mammoth VFX effort was visual effects producer Camille Cellucci, who in this deep dive interview, shares with vfxblog how the director specifically asked her to work on the film, what VFX production meant 20 years ago, and how she managed to wrangle an appearance in Titanic itself.
A man falls from the poop deck, hitting the bronze hub of the starboard propeller with a sickening smack.
That line from James Cameron’s script for Titanic, coming deep into scenes of the chaotic sinking of the famous cruiseliner, might sound simple enough. But it would turn out to be the basis of one of the blockbuster film’s most memorable shots.
The man who strikes the starboard propeller, and then continues to spin wildly before slamming into the ocean below, forever became known in movie lexicon as ‘the propeller guy’. Bringing him to life and, sadly, death, would require a gigantuan effort from Titanic’s visual effects crew – principally Digital Domain – which combined live action, miniatures, digital doubles and digital water to realise the final ‘sickening’ moment.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Titanic, vfxblog talks to key members of the VFX crew to uncover a few remaining secrets about propeller guy, including how animator Andy Jones tackled the shot on his first ever feature film, how the elements making up the final scene were composited in an early version of NUKE, and the surprising truth behind whose face was used for the digital victim. Continue reading The secrets behind the life (and death) of Titanic’s propeller guy
Twenty years ago, the film release schedule was awash with CG and VFX-heavy projects. Industrial Light & Magic, which had had a hand of course in a number of these, further demonstrated a diverse visual effects skill set with its work on Flubber.
Brand new challenges for the studio came in the form of Flubber itself, which had to be both a transforming piece of sticky goo and a character with major personality, while also being reflective and translucent. ILM’s artists solved these issues in several ways, including taking advantage of Softimage’s MetaClay tools.
My recollection of music videos from the 1990s to early 2000s is that they were almost like the ultimate VFX showreel. Of course, this was at the same time that CGI was making headways in feature filmmaking, with music videos taking advantage, too, of advancements in digital effects, particularly compositing, to help tell their stories, often in quirky and unique ways. What better way to stand out amongst the crowd in music video promos.
One promo directed by Michel Gondry that has always stayed in my mind is Come Into My World by Kylie Minogue, released in 2002 and now celebrating its 15th anniversary. In it, Minogue strolls around the same Parisian intersection four times, each loop bringing a further duplication of the singer and the people around her.
To make that possible, the clip was filmed with a motion control camera on the street, with the meticulous rotoscoping and compositing led by Michel’s brother, Olivier Gondry. The two had been regular collaborators on some of the most memorable music videos from that time, including The Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar; at that time their post production company was called Twisted Laboratories. I recently got a chance to chat to Olivier, now an accomplished commercials director himself, to revisit how Come Into My World was made. Continue reading Olivier Gondry on the making of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Come Into My World’
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the other big sci-film of 1977. In a year without Star Wars, the film’s effects practitioners would likely have won the visual effects Oscar (they were, of course, nominated).
That’s because Close Encounters managed to use miniatures, motion control, optical compositing and even cloud tanks to tell a sci-fi story in an incredibly grounded way, paving the future for the kinds of effects that became so integral in Hollywood storytelling.
If you haven’t seen Close Encounters at the cinema, Sony Pictures is releasing a 4K re-mastered version on September 1st to celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary.
I’ve recently been able to cover the old-school effects in the film, twice. For Masters of FX, I talked to special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull. And for a VFX Vault article in VFX Voice magazine from earlier this year, Scott Squires dived into his cloud tank innovations and other work on the film (his story about being given “$20 in petty cash and asked to experiment with liquids in a 20 gallon aquarium” is pretty cool).
It’s so great to see these classic effects films have a new life, especially on the big screen where they were designed to be seen.
Ever since James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released in 1991, I’ve been reading about the many ways ILM, led by visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, had to basically invent new ways to realise the CG ‘liquid metal’ T-1000 shots in that film, of which there are surprisingly few. Tools like ‘Make Sticky’ and ‘Body Sock’ are ones that I’d heard referenced several times, but I’ve always wanted to know more about how those pieces of software were made.
So, over the past few months, leading up to the re-release of Terminator 2 in 3D, I’ve been chatting to the artists behind the technology who were there at the time. This was when ILM was based in San Rafael, and when its computer graphics department was still astonishingly small. Yet despite the obvious challenges in wrangling this nascent technology, the studio had been buoyed by the promising results on a few previous efforts, including Cameron’s The Abyss, and by the possibilities that digital visual effects could bring to modern-day filmmaking.
For this special retro oral history, vfxblog goes back in time with more than a dozen ILMers (their original screen credits appear in parentheses) to discuss the development of key CGI tools and techniques for the VFX Oscar winning Terminator 2, how they worked with early animation packages like Alias, and how a selection of the most memorable shots in the film – forever etched into the history of visual effects – came to be. Continue reading The tech of ‘Terminator 2’ – an oral history
I recently spoke to visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston about his work at ILM on Death Becomes Her for the 25th anniversary of the film. The interview received some surprising attention; the film might not have been a hit but the practical make-up effects by ADI and ILM’s innovative ‘digital wizardry’ both continue to be fondly remembered.
Another ILMer on the show, Alex Seiden (who had worked on Terminator 2 and would go on to contribute to Jurassic Park), contacted me with a super-fun story about his last minute work on Death Becomes Her’s end scene – where Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s characters are at this point only their heads talking to each other, after they both take a major tumble down some stairs at a funeral. The shot was a long one – over 20 seconds – and was filmed as separate motion control passes that needed A LOT of hand roto in a very, very short space of time.
Below, Seiden relates how he helped make that possible. But first, watch the scene.
“Ask any VFX artist about their worst shot and I bet they can tell you the shot name. On Event Horizon, M255 was that shot for me.” – Sue Rowe
Now a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, Sue Rowe was back in 1997 a sequence supervisor at Cinesite (Europe) on Paul W.S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror space adventure, Event Horizon. Here, one of her tasks included a challenging composite for a shot – named M255 – that melded motion control plates of a miniature Lewis and Clark ship in the film with live action principal photography.
For the film’s 20th anniversary, Rowe dives back into that monster of a shot and how she managed to pull it off, thanks to hours of work and sleepless nights. And she recalls a few other key memories from the production, one of which involved the clever use of cornflakes.
“Bob had said to Meryl Streep: ‘Whatever Ken asks you to do, no matter how silly, just go with it. You can trust him.’ Because she must have been thinking, ‘What am I? What is this stupid thing?’ – Death Becomes Her visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston.
By the early 1990s, ILM had already been innovating in digital visual effects in a major way with films such as The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then came along Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her. It would be released in 1992 and go on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, thanks to more innovation from ILM and practical creature effects by Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.
When Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One was released 20 years ago this week in 1997, it would be one of Boss Film Studios’ very last visual effects projects before founder Richard Edlund shut the effects company’s doors. The studio spectacularly delivered and destroyed a number of intricate miniature aircraft for the show. It also dived into several CG plane shots, including the scene of Air Force One crashing into the ocean, one that was perhaps not as spectacular.
That means that Air Force One is unusually remembered for both its intense and immensely watchable air-to-air sequences realised with models and live action photography, and for the final CG watery plane crash that did not meet the expectations of the filmmakers and the audience.
For the film’s 20th anniversary, vfxblog spoke to Edlund – the film’s overall visual effects supervisor (James E. Price was Boss Film’s VFX supe on the show) – to discuss the approach to the models and miniatures, the rise of digital compositing, the end of Boss, and that final crash shot. Plus, the interview includes a bunch of unique behind the scenes CG model frames from Boss’ digital aircraft.
Recently on vfxblog, I was able to speak to former ILM animation supervisor Randal M. Dutra about his work on The Lost World: Jurassic Park for that’s film’s 20th anniversary. I invited Dutra back to talk about his stop-motion contributions to RoboCop, which this week celebrates 30 years since its release.
On that film, Dutra was one of the animators of ED-209 at Tippett Studio (others included Phil Tippett, Harry Walton and Tom St. Amand). The enforcement droid was realized as both a full-scale puppet used on set and an articulated stop-motion miniature animated by the Tippett Studio crew, often against a rear-projected background plate advanced one or two frames at a time. Here’s Dutra’s thoughts on helping to make the ED-209 character so memorable. Continue reading Randal M. Dutra on ‘RoboCop’ and the stop-motion ED-209
Yesterday I posted an interview with Contact’s visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston about his work on the film, which is now 20 years old. This included the incredible mirror shot, and for that high speed compositing supervisor Sheena Duggal also weighed-in on how that shot was made at Imageworks.
Well, Sheena has now also provided me with a great behind the scenes run-down of the challenges Imageworks also faced for the beach encounter Jodie Foster’s character has with her father on Vega (or does she…). That scene made use of bluescreen photography and a virtual environment all pieced together from plates shot in Fiji, despite the restrictions of the vfx technology at the time.
Visual effects artists and aficionados are often asked which movie or shot was their biggest influence, a question that regularly evokes a response about films like Star Wars, Blade Runner or Jurassic Park.
Those films, of course, are all milestones in the VFX world. But in recent years, if that kind of question has come up in conversation, I have started noticing that the mirror shot in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact was being raised more and more – the one where a young Ellie races to the medicine cabinet, with the camera in front of her as she comes upstairs, only to reveal we have been watching her reflection in the mirror. Not only is it a shot considered a milestone in invisible and seamless visual effects, it is a scene that even VFX pros regularly admit they have no idea how it was pulled off.
“I’ve always told people that when you have a movie that’s fairly complicated be sure to have a talking pug dog in it, because then you can fix things after with the same pose.” – Eric Brevig, Men In Black visual effects supervisor
Twenty years ago, Barry Sonnenfeld delivered the quirky action sci-fier Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, to adoring audiences. It is a film also adored for its combination of practical and digital effects, mixing Rick Baker’s makeup and creatures through this Cinovation Studios, with Industrial Light & Magic’s CG and miniatures handiwork. Several other studios – practical and digital – also contributed.
To celebrate the film’s two decade anniversary, vfxblog spoke to visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig about Men in Black’s aliens, humans who are actually aliens, and about the range of models and miniatures used in the show. We also dive into the major plot changes and plot fixes enabled via visual effects, plus the secrets Brevig learnt from Sonnenfeld in making comedic moments. Continue reading ‘Men in Black’ and its crazy collection of real and CG creatures
The film might have a notorious place in the history of comic book adaptations, but Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, released in 1997, is notable for some innovative visual effects work. In particular, the ‘frozen in time’ moments arising from Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) blasting his ray gun on unsuspecting victims capitalized on photogrammetry, stereo imaging and still-new CG techniques.
This was the work of Warner Digital, led by senior visual effects supervisor Michael Fink and visual effects supervisor Wendy Rogers. Lead CG artist Joel Merritt brought to Warner Digital a technique he had already developed to help accomplish the ‘frozen moment’ shots – something that now might be called image-based modelling. With the film now 20 years old, vfxblog went retro with Merritt to find out more. Continue reading The forgotten freeze-frame moments from ‘Batman & Robin’
John McTiernan’s Predator is perhaps most fondly remembered for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line, ‘Get to the chopper!’ But it also featured some incredibly memorable optical effects, crafted by R/Greenberg Associates and overseen by visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek.
These included a distinctive camouflage effect wielded by the alien Predator creature (appearing also in a monster suit designed and built by Stan Winston Studio), a heat vision-inspired Predator POV look, and several other optical effects.
Despite the challenging nature of the shots, and the challenging jungle shoot, the work culminated in an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (the nominees were Joel Hynek, Robert M. Greenberg, Richard Greenberg and Stan Winston).
In this interview, Hynek details the optical compositing tests that led to the eventual camouflage effect, the ill-fated red-suit-in-the-jungle approach to obtaining plates, and the almost ill-fated attempt at using a thermal camera for the Predator POV shots.
You’ve got a character that needs to be desiccated and completely non-human in its position but has to be believably human in the way that it moves. Well, that’s motion capture in a nutshell. – John Berton Jr., ILM visual effects supervisor, The Mummy
In 1999, director Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy burst onto cinema screens with visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic. The film’s fun-natured approach to what had previously been a horror genre of ‘mummy’ films was welcomed generously by audiences. As were ILM’s VFX, which took advantage of new approaches to motion capture, particle sims and CG.
The visual effects supervisor was John Berton Jr., who would go on to supervise the film’s sequel, The Mummy Returns, and Men in Black II at ILM, before becoming a freelance supe on films including Charlotte’s Web and Bedtime Stories. He is now a visual effects supervisor at Lytro, exploring the world of light fields.
With a new Mummy film about to hit, vfxblog went back in time with Berton to see how ILM conquered then-new challenges and how visual effects were very much part of the storytelling process in Sommers’ adventure. And in a special bonus addition to this interview, ILM’s visual effects art director on The Mummy, Alex Laurant (now principal art director, Microsoft / Windows Experiences), has generously provided a wealth of concept art, storyboards and other imagery from his work on the show.
How Steven Spielberg came to adopt CGI dinosaurs for 1993’s Jurassic Park is an often-told story, including in several interviews I’ve done recently. Ultimately, the move from stop-motion to digital dinos paved the way for an explosion in CG characters in blockbuster movies.
That included Jurassic Park’s sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released 20 years ago this week, in which the director and visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic returned with even more photorealistic digital dinos.
One artist who was there on both films, straddling the stop-motion and CG worlds, was Randal M. Dutra. He was at Tippett Studio for Jurassic Park and heavily involved in early movement tests and the use of the innovative Digital Input Device (DID). Then Dutra moved to ILM to work as Animation Director for The Lost World. On the film’s 20th anniversary, vfxblog finds out more from Dutra about his dinosaur experiences.
‘You know, Mark, I don’t want to do these ‘fancy panning around and seeing the whole world shots’. I’d much rather set a camera looking down a street, having a cab rush towards me, and cut as it passes by, and then cut to a reverse of it passing by, and construct my film that way.’ – The Fifth Element visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson relates what director Luc Besson said to him about staging the film’s New York City shots.
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is now 20 years old, a fitting anniversary on the eve of the release of the director’s much-anticipated Valerian. Of course, Besson’s new movie is being made possible with major advancements in digital effects and animation. Back in 1997, the visual effects for The Fifth Element were realized with a masterful combination of motion control miniatures, CG, digital compositing and effects simulations by Digital Domain.
Perhaps most memorable are views of a future New York, complete with flying cars and a mass of new and old skyscrapers. The film was one of Digital Domain’s huge miniature shows released that year – the others being Dante’s Peak and Titanic – while also heralding the fast-moving world of CGI in the movies. vfxblog re-visits the work, both miniature and digital, with The Fifth Element’s visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson. Continue reading Multi pass and motion control: re-visiting the VFX of ‘The Fifth Element’