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.