Hollywood being a star-making machine above all else, it was not surprising that the buzz on 2000’s release of Cast Away was all about the weight Tom Hanks gained and then dropped to give life to his character’s years of privation. The real magic behind the film wasn’t revealed until much later-that the island peak over which the hero clambered was a mud pile overlooking a California parking lot, and that much of the tropical environment seen on screen, from breakers to mountaintop, had been fashioned inside a computer.
Reliving the production, George Joblove breaks into a delighted grin. “Any shot that had ocean or sky in it,” says the senior vice president for technology at Sony Pictures Imageworks, which created the visuals, “was pretty much a special effect.” The film’s software-generated scenes not only featured action and compositions that would have been impractical and expensive to shoot on location, but also contained elements such as windstorms and enormous waves that are virtually impossible to create in the real world.
That a tropical island could be manufactured so seamlessly out of pixels and algorithms testifies to the ascendancy of digital technology in Hollywood, where it has all but superseded the optical and photochemical manipulations that were state of the art as recently as 10 years ago. It’s no secret that 3-D digital processing is responsible for some of the grandest effects of modern blockbusters, beginning with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and leading up to the careening space runabouts of Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones. But what’s more remarkable is how thoroughly digital technology has taken over film editing, color adjustment and other components of the so-called postproduction process-including the subtle alterations, such as the erasure of television antennas from period backgrounds and support cables from acrobatic stuntmen, that lend verisimilitude to everything from drawing-room pieces to psychological dramas.
“We call them invisible effects,’” says Joblove, speaking from an office that overlooks the six-hectare Sony Pictures Entertainment studio complex in Culver City, CA. “Most are things you shouldn’t notice and shouldn’t know about, things that shouldn’t draw attention to themselves.”
Indeed, without most moviegoers’ noticing, digital technologies have been slowly supplanting film-based processes that have been used since the 1920s. Imageworks’ vice president of marketing and communication Donald Levy estimates that the movie industry now spends roughly half a billion dollars per year on visual effects-almost all of them digital. At many postproduction houses chemistry labs have given way to programming carrels in which computer science graduates write algorithms that will eventually simulate the wash of waves on a beach or the separation of a Saturn V rocket from its Cape Canaveral gantry-artists working in code rather than pen and ink.
And today there is scarcely a film lab in Hollywood that does not offer digital services-up to and including the restoration of archival films-to its industry clientele along with traditional developing, color timing and print services. One of the fastest-growing business lines at Technicolor, which pioneered the first two-color photochemical process in 1916, is the digital scanning of film prints in order to insert visual effects. Kodak, which sells some 80 percent of all the film stock used in U.S. movies, has hedged its bets by opening Cinesite, a Los Angeles- and London-based subsidiary that has become one of the most important and innovative purveyors of digital services-such as digital editing, special effects, and the creation of digital master copies of negatives and prints-to moviemakers.
But while large-scale digital modification of images is already rife in Hollywood, it has its limits. Clean digital files and hidden microchips haven’t quite replaced reeking photochemical emulsions and temperamental celluloid stock, and the unalloyed enthusiasm many filmmakers felt for the new technology just a couple of years ago has evolved into a mature assessment of it as one tool among many, both novel and traditional. Directors and cinematographers who have worked in the new medium have generally found that its flexibility, while valuable, also comes at a steep cost.