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What's real and what's fake? A guide to movie F/X

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Faking It

 
Here’s how special-effects experts made the impossible look real in ”Men in Black II,” ”Star Wars: Episode II,” and other big movies — an excerpt from Entertainment Weekly’s Aug. 16, 2002, cover story

Entertainment Weekly’s Aug. 16, 2002, cover

 
When it comes to movies, you simply can’t believe your eyes, no matter how realistic the image or situation. Spurred by rising computer power at lower costs and software that can reshape an image literally bit by bit, the digital-enhancement revolution is spilling over from F/X spectacles into the cinematic mainstream as unstoppably as that synthetic tidal wave in ”The Perfect Storm.” It’s not just a new tool for smoothing out flubs — it’s also a way to create settings and characters from thin air. And every year, technicians pound away at the limitations on what can be affordably fiddled with.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a few big movies that used digital doctors to solve problems, paint fantasy worlds, and, in some instances, devise remarkably realistic characters.

BEFORE (top) and AFTER
 

STAR WARS: EPISODE II — ATTACK OF THE CLONES

THE SETUP Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), arriving on the planet Geonosis with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to rescue Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, inadvertently disturbs a horde of beelike workers in their sleeping chamber, falls onto a droid-factory assembly line, and nearly gets boiled by molten metal.

BEFORE Writer-director George Lucas decided to add the 10-minute sequence late in production, but hey, he’s the boss. That meant that Ben Snow, effects supervisor of Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (the industry’s largest, most innovative house), had to figure out the facility’s parameters fast. ”It was scary,” says Snow. ”I thought, This will be very complicated.” So it was. For a shot of the Geonosians sneaking up on Amidala and Anakin, the actors were shot against an easily removed bluescreen on a soundstage in Australia. But Lucas didn’t like how he’d positioned them, so back in California ILM artists would have to shift the composition, moving Amidala and Anakin to the right — the better to draw the audience’s eyes to the Geonosians behind them. For the conveyor-belt scuffle (pictured), Portman grappled on a set in London with a stuntman who was later digitally Geonosianized.

AFTER The Geonosian chamber is in fact a miniature set, and the bee people are computer-animated. And all those subsequent shots of the droid-making machinery (bottom)? They’re partially models (the far background), but mainly they’re computer-animated, with designs inspired by a visit to a real car factory near the ILM offices.

imageCredit = ‘Star Wars-Episode 2: The Attack of the Clones: © & TM/Lucasfilm, Ltd.’;

BEFORE (top) and AFTER
 

A BEAUTIFUL MIND

THE SETUP Afflicted with schizophrenia, mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe) puts his infant son in a bathtub, turns on the water, and almost lets him drown.

BEFORE ”You can’t just put a baby in a bathtub full of water for a movie,” says Digital Domain’s Claas Henke, a compositing supervisor. Well, you can if you have someone propping up the baby’s head, which is what was done when director Ron Howard shot close-ups of the infant. (The hands were later digitally erased.) But Howard also wanted his camera to race into the bathroom and zoom down on the boy, simulating the perspective of Nash’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) rushing to save the child. Unlike the close-ups, this shot would have required scrubbing out the entire body of the Professional Baby Head Holder — too difficult. So Howard shot the baby in an empty tub and commanded Digital Domain thusly: ”Make me water.”

AFTER ”It’s always hard to create interaction with water,” says Henke. Luckily, he didn’t have to: Howard had a separate shot of the tub full of water — sans kid. Henke meshed the two shots and animated the waterline so only the knees, hands, and nose were exposed. Additional 3-D animation created the proper lighting, underwater distortion, and ”meniscus effect” — shadows on the flesh where the body breaks the surface. And in case you were wondering, Henke and colleagues were concerned about the boy’s immodesty. ”We kept wondering, Do they want us to cover that up?” says Henke, laughing. ”Nope. It’s supposed to look real.”

imageCredit = ‘A Beautiful Mind: Universal Pictures ‘;

BEFORE (top two frames) and AFTER
 

MEN IN BLACK II

THE SETUP Frank the pug wasn’t the only creature to get mouthy in ”MIBII”: Jeff the worm, an all-CG ghoulie, menaces Will Smith’s Agent Jay during a subway ride. Director Barry Sonnenfeld collaborated with the creatives at ILM.

BEFORE The team started with a basic Jeff model and then kept refining it. ”Barry wanted it to have six rows of teeth,” says animation director Tom Bertino. ”And they needed to rotate in different directions.” Sonnenfeld also knew he didn’t want Jeff to patter forward on inchworm feet. ”We looked at elephant seals throwing themselves at cars. It’s a living.”

AFTER The toughest part was Jeff’s mouth, which swings open at four places. ”He can hinge to the bottom, to the top, and to the two sides simultaneously,” Bertino says. ”That’s properly creepy.” The final shot was a three-in-one deal: Footage of subway tracks formed the base; over that was placed the CG Jeff; and finally Smith, shot on bluescreen. The action of Jeff opening his mouth was ”dirtied,” so that all four hinges didn’t open at once. ”That’s what makes it believable,” says Bertino. ”If you can believe in a 600-foot bag of suet running through a subway.”

imageCredit = ‘Men in Black II: Columbia Pictures’;

BEFORE (top) and AFTER
 

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS

THE SETUP Sorry, double-clutchers. The truth is, much of ”F&F’s nighttime street-racing scene was done digitally. Director Rob Cohen wanted to shoot the two-minute sequence with free-range camera moves — a physical impossibility since ”four cars are coming down the road at over 100 miles per hour, and the camera has to pass right next to and between them,” says Bill Taylor, coowner of Illusion Arts, which did this effect. ”There’s just no way you could do a shot like that safely.”

BEFORE IA computer-scanned real cars to create skeletal models. But before these ”wire frames” were ready to roll, they needed virtual makeovers.

AFTER The models were digitally ”painted,” that is, the entire outer surface was added by CG artists. Once that surface detailing was complete, authentic reflections were layered on by using a separate, live-action film element collected from the surfaces of the real cars on which the models are based. Thanks to a bit of preferential treatment, Vin Diesel’s wheels (left) handle better than the rest of the field. ”We put a hell of a lot of shake into the [digital] composites,” says Taylor. ”But because Diesel’s character has this Zen experience at high speed, everything around him is smooth.” Then came the hard part: creating a 270-degree backdrop for the action, so the perspective could fluidly swing around to almost any given angle at any given moment. This panorama was achieved by shooting street footage with a six-camera rig normally used in creating theme-park attractions, then ”seaming” it all together. ”It was a great pleasure to read a review saying how refreshing it was to see a movie that wasn’t loaded with visual effects,” Taylor says, laughing. ”Of course, that just means we’ve done our job.”

imageCredit = ‘The Fast and the Furious: Universal’;

BEFORE (top) and AFTER
 

A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

THE SETUP Orphaned robot David (Haley Joel Osment) meets up with a ”mecha” male gigolo (Jude Law), and off they skitter to the dazzling, Oz-like adult playground of Rouge City, which writer-director Steven Spielberg described as ”what happened when Las Vegas got so rich and powerful it bought Camden, N.J.”

BEFORE Spielberg, like most directors, does storyboards of big effects scenes in advance. But what he likes best is the freedom to walk around the set and come up with camera angles and improvs. So ILM effects guru Dennis Muren and a technical team came up with a new way to get ”real-time” effects as the camera moved around during shooting. While the lens was aimed at empty blue backdrops, an infrared sensor on the camera picked up coordinate-defining markers on the ceiling (kind of like a grocery store scanner reading price codes), providing a continuous and shifting measure of their spatial relationship to the camera. A little number crunching, and presto — on another monitor, Spielberg could instantly see a rough version of the finished shots.

AFTER As Gigolo Joe describes Rouge City’s wonders, you can hardly tell they involve a deftly sandwiched mix of real actors and real extras on a full-size set piece, matched up with miniature sets of the honky-tonk emporiums plus garnishes of additional CG buildings and neon signs overhead. Since even the actors know what they’ll be gesticulating at in the final shot, the pantomime improves with this method. ”You can now shoot in bluescreen and you don’t have to use your mind’s eye as strongly,” says Muren. ”You know what you’re going to get.”

imageCredit = ‘AI: Warner Bros’;

BEFORE (top four frames) and AFTER
 

SPIDER-MAN

THE SETUP How to make webmaster Tobey Maguire look like he’s crawling up a building? Director Sam Raimi had two demands: that Spidey’s moves look like they were ripped from the pages of the comic and that the camera stay with him. ”We came up with the idea that Spider-Man has his own stunt cameraman, much [like] if you watch a skydiving competition,” says John Dykstra, the visual-effects designer. ”We thought the camera should follow him up the wall.”

BEFORE With Raimi’s edicts in mind, the Sony Pictures Imageworks team decided the shot should be completely unreal, so they created a CG character with moves Maguire couldn’t pull off. The buildings and background had to be CG also, says Dykstra, ”to have the [camera work] be as flexible as the character. We simply couldn’t move the camera that way in the real world.”

AFTER A CG Spidey has been created, within a CG city — with Maguire’s CG mug. ”We had to make Tobey’s face, which is tricky,” says Dykstra. In other shots, Maguire’s face is ”pasted” onto a CG body. In this shot, the team scanned the actor’s visage, recording his skin’s texture and color. ”We project the images of the face onto a three-dimensional model, and we stitch them together so they become seamless.”

imageCredit = ‘Spider-Man: Columbia Pictures’;