Poof! Movie Magic

Think technology has transformed filmmaking? Hold onto your Raisinets. The summer movie season will bring some eye-popping, digitized, computerized extravaganzas that take the talkies to a whole new level.


The use of a firearm is frowned upon in most workplaces.


Not so at Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects firm founded by George Lucas.

In the final scene of the 1980s film Poltergeist, a suburban house that has been taken over by malevolent ghosts is swallowed into the ground. In order to create that effect, artists at ILM, in San Rafael, California, built a model house and a small yard that sat over a giant funnel. Each piece of the house was attached to a piece of monofilament that threaded down through the funnel and attached to a forklift. But when the forklift took off, time and time again, pieces of the house got jammed in the funnel’s neck. “Our solution was that we got three shotguns, and when the model jammed, we opened fire on it, blowing it to pieces so it’d fit through the funnel,” says Jeff Mann, who was a model maker at the time and is now ILM’s vice president of creative operations.

It has been a long time since anyone at ILM picked up a shotgun. Today, high technology usually gets the nod over handmade models and brute force. The latest tools enlarge the scope of what’s possible on the screen, helping filmmakers satisfy an audience that demands ever more spectacular visuals, bigger epics, and more believable animated characters. Because of ILM’s software advances in creating human-looking digital skin, a viewer watching the infant star in the movie Son of the Mask (a sequel to the Jim Carrey film The Mask) is hard-pressed to tell which shots feature a human baby and which ones feature a double made of bits and bytes.

As much as the latest cinema technology has transformed what’s possible for summer blockbusters, it has also opened up the field to new filmmakers working on tight budgets. Where once the standard for an ultracheap, do-it-yourself movie was Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, which cost $7,000 in 1992, doorman-turned-moviemaker Jonathan Caouette just produced an independent-film-festival-circuit favorite, Tarnation, on his iMac for less than $250.

But technology, for all its possibility, also feeds on itself: For every boundary-pushing stunt that’s now doable, a problem arises that needs to be fixed. More-realistic animated characters take more time to create, and efficiencies have to be wrung from elsewhere in production. And surefire bits of movie magic are quickly rendered obsolete. “Every year, the camera gets closer and closer to these digital doubles, and that makes it less forgiving of some of the tricks we’ve used in the past,” says Cliff Plumer, the chief technology officer at ILM.


Hollywood doesn’t want its software and supercomputers to steal the limelight–notice how the Scientific and Technical Oscars are routinely relegated to a two-minute snippet of the nearly four-hour Academy Awards telecast. And industry vets don’t want to overemphasize their importance, either. “We’re in the business of telling great stories,” says Bob Rogers, a producer and director. “The tools are secondary.”

That may be, but the tools at least merit a best supporting actor nomination. Just in time for this summer’s blockbusters, Fast Company went on location to meet three cinema-tech all-stars.

Bringing Up Baby >>

The hallways, offices, and break rooms at Industrial Light & Magic are full of cinema history. There, against a wall, is Han Solo frozen in carbonite, from The Empire Strikes Back. Hanging from a ceiling is a zany green goblin from Ghostbusters. There’s a bike parked in a corner of the model shop. Inside the milk crate hung from the handlebars is E.T., huddled beneath a blanket.

Founded in 1975 by George Lucas to create the special effects for Star Wars, ILM has won 14 Oscars for Best Visual Effects, and received 17 scientific and technical awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year’s crop of films include Son of the Mask, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Lemony Snicket, and Van Helsing. “What we do here hasn’t really changed since day one,” says ILM vice president Mann. “Every client wants something that hasn’t been seen before. What has changed is that the dollars you spend on effects today get you far more sophisticated effects than you got 10 years ago.”

To maintain its reputation as an innovator in cinema tech, ILM often brings in people and ideas from the world of academia. Steve Sullivan, director of research and development, came to the company after earning his PhD in electrical and computer engineering. Part of his job is “looking at the best tools out there in the market, and figuring out what we want to write ourselves and what we should buy off the shelf.”


Though it’s far more expensive to create effects software in-house, the firm frequently does this to try to stay ahead of competitors. One example involves the baby who stars alongside Jamie Kennedy in the forthcoming Son of the Mask. His on-screen image is a combination of real actors and digital doubles who can do such improbable things as leap out of a walker, do a midair flip, and stick the landing. To develop a digital stunt double for the actual babies who were to perform in front of the camera, ILM needed to learn how to create more natural-looking skin.

While attending a graphics trade show, the company’s engineers met with a group of Stanford researchers who had written a paper entitled “A Practical Model for Subsurface Light Transport,” which dealt with the way skin absorbs light. (Previously, skin had been reflective or flat, which is one reason why early computer-generated humans often looked like they were made out of plastic.) ILM, which already had familiarity with the researchers’ work, invited them back to headquarters to discuss their study further, and soon after that, engineer Christophe Hery began trying to incorporate the ideas into ILM’s software.

“You want to take the theory and put it in the software so that the artists will use it,” says Hery, whose office whiteboard is full of physics equations. “They need tools that are intuitive, because they don’t always want to understand the details of how it works.” The new software helped lend more realism to Son of the Mask. (This past February, Hery was part of a group that received a Technical Achievement Award from the motion picture academy for their work on realistic digital skin.)

Sometimes cost and complexity mean that movie magic still requires a measure of human ingenuity. “You can get a little crazy with the digital stuff, and it turns out that it’d be easier to just go on the back lot and blow something up,” says Plumer, ILM’s chief technology officer. Although the company earned an Oscar nomination for the digital waves it created in the movie The Perfect Storm, budget and scheduling reasons don’t always make it realistic to generate an angry ocean on a computer. “With Pirates of the Caribbean last year, we decided it was more effective to just build a huge water tank out back and quarter-scale miniature ships and shoot it all,” he says. “The result was terrific. It was real water, and it looked great on film.”

I Ought to Be in Pictures >>

Fade in on the exterior of Mikimoto, the jewelry shop on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Jonathan Caouette, a 31-year-old would-be actor and filmmaker, is in a suit and tie, working as the doorman. When traffic into the store is slow, Caouette makes notes on yellow Post-its. “I would write down ideas for scenes, or how a Joni Mitchell song would evoke a feeling in a certain montage,” he says. “I also had a tendency to mumble to myself, thinking about the footage I had in my mind’s eye. These superconservative people coming into Mikimoto would look at me like I was crazy.”


When Caouette got home each evening, he’d hole up in the small computer room of his apartment in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens to work out his passion. (His apartment isn’t far from the location of one of the first major movie studios, built in 1920 by the company that later became Paramount.)

Tarnation was the resulting film, and it’s about Caouette’s upbringing in Houston, where his mother, a former child model and diagnosed schizophrenic, was often institutionalized, and where he passed through a succession of foster homes before being taken in by his grandparents. He combed through a trove of videos and photos from his childhood, digitized many of them using his boyfriend’s four-year-old iMac, and edited them together using Apple’s iMovie software. (IMovie comes free with many Macintosh computers, or can be purchased for just $49.)

Caouette used whatever tools he could get his hands on. Since he didn’t own a scanner, he’d tape photographs on the wall and use his Sony video camera to take snapshots of them. Then he’d import those shots into iMovie. Total cost: $218.32. The two biggest parts of the film’s budget, Caouette says, were the Hi-8 videotapes he bought from Walgreens to store his footage once he’d finished editing (his computer’s hard drive wasn’t big enough to hold everything), and a $60 pair of angel wings used as a costume in several scenes.

With the encouragement of a friend’s roommate, Caouette entered the film in 2003’s MIX, a gay and lesbian film festival held annually in New York, where the or-ganizers raved about the “uplifting, heroic, and wholly unique cinematic experience.” Stephen Winter, the artistic director of the festival, persuaded Caouette to send Tarnation to the organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, the premier indie showcase held each January in Park City, Utah. When a Sundance rep called to tell him Tarnation was in, Caouette, who was screening his calls, didn’t answer the phone “because I was jumping up and down.”

After its positive reception at MIX, Caouette’s $218 movie became a bit more expensive. He had to edit the film down from two-and-a-half hours to 88 minutes before Sundance, and for this, he got some last-minute help from a co-editor who used a more expensive Avid digital-editing system. The Cannes Film Festival is likely next, followed by a limited theatrical release. That’s probably another $50,000 to make a celluloid print of the film, and $200,000 or more to secure the rights to the music Caouette used. “Getting from here to a limited theatrical run may end up costing half a million dollars,” Caouette says, incredulously.


At Sundance, other filmmakers wanted to know how he got there on less than $250. “There’s nothing mysterious about it,” he says. “IMovie is very easy. Of course, you have to have a sense of what you want to achieve.”

That’s Life >>

In Shrek, the ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) married the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). But if the animators and developers at PDI/DreamWorks, the special effects shop behind the 2001 animated hit, wanted to live happily ever after, they only had eight months between the completion of Shrek and the start of Shrek 2 to surpass the original.

“We wanted to increase the complexity, make the characters look even more real, and create richer backgrounds,” says Andy Hendrickson, head of animation technology at PDI/DreamWorks. (PDI, founded in 1980 as Pacific Data Images, is now the Silicon Valley-based computer-animation arm of the DreamWorks SKG studio.) “We wanted to improve the way we did skin, hair, clothing, and lighting,” adds Ken Bielenberg, visual-effects supervisor.

The 40 programmers at the PDI/DreamWorks group in Redwood City, California, developed new software that allows the 200 animators and artists to give characters more realistic facial movements, Adam’s apples where before there had been none, and neck muscles that appear and disappear when a character’s head turns. Human characters such as Prince Charming will now have more lifelike hair, and animals such as Puss in Boots, a feline assassin voiced by Antonio Banderas (with Shrek, below), will feature better-looking fur. It would’ve taken too long for PDI’s computers to “render,” or draw, such complex characters for the first Shrek.

The impact of these advances, though, was that “it takes longer to animate a scene,” says Lucia Modesto, a char-acter technical director supervisor. “So we had to develop ways of making things go faster.” Developers tried to create shortcuts for animators, with prebuilt male and female forms that they could use as templates to create specific characters. They also programmed features such as character hair to behave simply as real hair would without requiring additional instructions or commands.


Shrek 2 centers around Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon, but of course, there’s no honeymoon for PDI/DreamWorks. It’s already working on Shrek 3. “Computer-generated animation is still not good enough,” Hendrickson says. “And that’s what keeps us going.”