Effects created by computers are extra-special

July 30, 1995|By Louis B. Parks | Louis B. Parks,Houston Chronicle

Special effects have never been so special. This summer's movies carry visual effects -- known as FX in Hollywood -- to places not possible even last year.

Those places are just as likely to be Camelot or a boy's toy cupboard as outer space. While everyone knows they're watching FX in "Apollo 13," "Judge Dredd" and "Casper," they are less likely to expect them in "First Knight" and "Braveheart."

It may not surprise audiences to learn that the rockets in "Apollo 13" are models that were digitally inserted in the picture. They might not suspect that the same is true of the city of Camelot in "First Knight."

In "Judge Dredd," we know Sylvester Stallone's fantastic ride on a flying motorcycle has to be fake. And even children watching the palm-size Indian crawl on a boy's hand in "The Indian in the Cupboard" know it's fantasy, however real it seems. But we might not suspect that most of the English army that Mel Gibson battles in "Braveheart" is not really there.

"This is the best summer for the best overall effects in the movies that there has ever been," said Diane Pearlman, visual effects producer for Mass. Illusion, a Massachusetts company that did the effects for the action hit "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and the visually stunning "Judge Dredd."

In 1977, "Star Wars" changed the way Hollywood looked at both the summer season and visual trickery. Since then, studios have been in competition to create bigger and better event movies to wow thrill-seeking summer crowds.

" 'Star Wars' was when, suddenly, computers hit cameras," said Joel Hynek, the visual effects director for Mass. Illusions. "From ['Star Wars'] on, there was a rapid rise utilizing everything physical you could add a computer to. . . . Then the next quantum leap was digital."

"Judge Dredd," a disappointment at the box office although it is packed with thrilling visual tricks, offers prime examples of cutting-edge technology that couldn't be seen just last summer. Computers are a principal reason.

They make possible Mr. Stallone's eye-popping flying cycle chase through a futuristic cityscape, which is a combination of digital images and detailed models made by computer-controlled lasers.

When you watch Mr. Stallone and co-star Rob Schneider zipping around on that flying cycle, see if you can spot when real actors are used, and when what you're watching are digitally created copies of the stars, made by adding the stars' faces to computer-created stunt bodies.

Other cutting-edge effects are used in "Casper," which had visuals by Industrial Light & Magic, the George Lucas company that did "Jurassic Park" just two summers ago.

"When you look at 'Jurassic Park,' effects are on screen for [a total of] six or seven minutes," said "Casper" director Brad Silberling. "We've got 41 minutes of effects, almost half the movie.

"The average effects-shot length in 'Jurassic' is no longer than four to five seconds," Mr. Silberling said. "In 'Casper,' we've got shots that go 45 seconds to a minute, while the camera is changing perspective. We have 45- to 50-second monologues [by the movie's four ghosts] without cutting away."

In one amazing "Casper" shot, set atop a lighthouse, the camera stays on the friendly ghost for almost a minute, without cuts, moving from wide-shot to close-up and circling around him. The length of the shot, the intricate camera movement and the detail of the talking ghost were virtually unattainable before. The quality is so good, it all looks real.

Fake food

In another scene, Casper serves breakfast to real people. Few viewers will guess that the bacon, eggs and pancakes are as phony as Casper.

"It used to be, you'd go to movies and you'd know how everything was done," Mr. Hynek said. "Now there are so many ways of doing things, you really don't."

Rob Legato, effects supervisor on "Apollo 13," was thrilled when astronaut Buzz Aldrin asked where director Ron Howard found the stunning footage of a Saturn V rocket blasting off. Mr. Howard didn't find that footage; Mr. Legato's team made it.

"The spacecraft are all models," said Mr. Howard. "Digital Domain shot that [launch] against a blue screen and moved the camera past the spacecraft model, so you get a feeling of motion. Then they put the fire in digitally. Then they painted in the ground."

"Apollo 13" effects were done by film director Jim Cameron's new company, Digital Domain, which also did "True Lies" and "Interview With the Vampire."

Still photographers have long used techniques to make scenes darker or put the moon over an ocean view. Now it's possible to do the same thing convincingly in moving images, too. The sunrise behind the rocket about to lift off in "Apollo 13"? Fake. The oil slick and fire on the water in "Free Willy 2"? Artificial.

The weather you want

If the weather is good and you want rain, create thunderclouds. If the day is overcast and you need blue sky, add it. You can even -- and they did -- make Batman's cape flare perfectly.

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