The famous mirror shot in ‘Contact’ was almost something else entirely

CONTACT_MIRROR_V3
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

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.

Contact is now 20 years old, and its visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston sat down with vfxblog to revisit its fine effects work, which was primarily done by Sony Pictures Imageworks, and ranged from the invisible to the fantastical. In the process, I learnt something about that mirror shot I’d never heard anywhere before. Continue reading The famous mirror shot in ‘Contact’ was almost something else entirely

‘Men in Black’ and its crazy collection of real and CG creatures

MIB_V1
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

“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 forgotten freeze-frame moments from ‘Batman & Robin’

BATMAN_ROBIN
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

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’

‘Predator’ is 30: VFX supe Joel Hynek recalls the days of optical compositing, thermal cameras and *that* red suit

PREDATOR_V1
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

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.

Continue reading ‘Predator’ is 30: VFX supe Joel Hynek recalls the days of optical compositing, thermal cameras and *that* red suit

Before you see Tom Cruise’s ‘The Mummy’, re-visit the digital make-up, mocap and other VFX innovations from the 1999 film

THE_MUMMY_V1
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

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.

Continue reading Before you see Tom Cruise’s ‘The Mummy’, re-visit the digital make-up, mocap and other VFX innovations from the 1999 film

‘The Lost World’ turns 20: Animation director Randal M. Dutra reflects on those early days of the digital age

Lost_World_V1_Full
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

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.

ANIMATIC-2
Dutra animating the T-Rex attacking the Ford Explorer for the “T-Rex Main Road” Animatic. July/August, 1992.

Continue reading ‘The Lost World’ turns 20: Animation director Randal M. Dutra reflects on those early days of the digital age

Multi pass and motion control: re-visiting the VFX of ‘The Fifth Element’

FifthElement_AidanRoberts
Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

‘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’