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Complex FX

Special effects-everything from plane crashes to acrobatic stunts to alien life forms-are now customarily computer generated, thanks to software tools like Pixar’s RenderMan, or like Maya, perhaps the most widely used application for 3-D imaging. The product of Silicon Graphics subsidiary Alias|Wavefront and a direct descendant of the program that produced the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park in 1993, Maya is esteemed by digital-effects teams not only for its comprehensive scope and power, but for its compatibility with the special-purpose “plug-ins” (mini-programs that interact with and enhance the main software) that special-effects departments often devise to meet particular needs on feature projects. It’s not unusual to hear visual-effects artists comparing the merits of, say, the ocean effects plug-in Imageworks devised to generate the breakers and swells in Cast Away and the one developed by Warner Brothers for The Perfect Storm.

Even more remarkable is the extent to which digital artists are using their tools to give life to animated characters. Every year brings improvements in the rendering of movement and organic textures like skin and hair. “We do almost all our modeling and character animation with Maya,” Sony’s George Joblove is explaining one afternoon as he escorts me past the darkened warrens of Imageworks’ animation floor, where the finishing touches are being made on Stuart Little 2 weeks before its scheduled release. He pulls aside a curtain to reveal a glimpse of a Maya artist working on a scene a few seconds long in which a complacent Stuart Little is suddenly snatched out of the frame by a set of talons. The scene plays over and over again as the artist refines the details.

“We have more than two dozen software engineers,” Joblove continues as we tour this particular nexus of the Hollywood Hills and Silicon Valley. At any given time, he notes, some might be deployed to work on the effects for a single film, others on software that the firm will use on dozens of projects. Some of these, such as code writers and database specialists, can be found in any highly computerized organization; others, the more artistic, have expertise that can only be found in a facility like Imageworks.

I ask which is more important, artistic talent or coding skills.

“We span the whole spectrum-people who are just engineers and couldn’t draw a stick figure, and others who are talented artists and never used a computer before they came here. And in the middle,” says Joblove, “are a few people working on shots who have a strong and deep understanding of the science and the software and the art.”

This precious breed is actually becoming more and more common in Hollywood, fueling a range of digital-movie companies from Efilm, which has developed its own laser recording technology for transferring digital images back to film, to Rhythm and Hues, where one specialty is animating unusual characters such as Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat-a mouthy piece of millinery that, in the judgment of the New York Times, had “more personality than anything else in the movie” (see “Digital Movie Stars). But it may be at Cinesite’s hangar-sized facility, a few miles north of Imageworks and not far from the corner of Hollywood and Vine, that the virtues of digital postproduction are most vividly on display-along with the difficulties.

The compromises begin in Cinesite’s scanning room, where technicians convert film images to streams of digital bits by playing a laser beam over the original frames. Because digital video images have an inherent “edginess,” film converted to video at the standard resolution (2,048 pixels wide by 1,556 deep, known as “2K”) tends to look somewhat soft focused. That failing can be overcome by scanning at 4K-roughly 4,100 pixels across by 3,000 deep-but this generates a data file so big that a standard feature film would take 12 full days to scan. The larger digital files also impose a huge cost in storage requirements and processing time. Since the difference in image quality is almost imperceptible in a movie theater, 4K is only used for the most exacting projects, such as the conversion of Fantasia and Apollo 13 for Imax presentations, where the giant screen would render even a minute loss of detail spectacularly visible.

After they leave the Cinesite scanning room, digital files continue along any of three production routes: to the insertion of visual special effects; to digital mastering, which allows color correction and conversion to DVD or video formats; or to the company’s restoration service. The special-effects artists, who must carefully integrate the computer-generated objects in a frame with the real ones, get much of the glory once a film’s publicity is under way. But the color timers and other professionals who oversee digital mastering probably contribute more to a film’s overall look. During mastering, Cinesite’s technicians use Kodak’s Cineon system to adjust color values to avoid distracting video phenomena such as banding, in which slight gradations of brightness create contour lines, and clipping, in which the detail within bright images bleaches out. By adjusting the brightness of digitized images to a logarithmic curve-compressing the amount of information at the dark end of the scale and expanding it at the bright end-the system “matches the eye’s perception,” explains Steve Wright, Cinesite’s technical director for 2-D.

Digital Movie Stars

Name Location Specialties Recent Film Projects Cinesite Los Angeles, CA Digital mastering, visual effects, film scanning and recording, restoration O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Band of Brothers, Traffic, Planet of the Apes, Pleasantville Efilm Hollywood, CA High-resolution scanning from film to digital, laser recording from digital to film From the Earth to the Moon, Batman and Robin, Contact, Titanic Sony Pictures Imageworks Culver City, CA Scanning, color timing, modeling, character animation Spider-Man, Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, Stuart Little 2, Charlie’s Angels Industrial Light and Magic San Rafael, CA Digital image acquisition, digital editing, visual effects Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, Pearl Harbor LaserPacific Media Hollywood, CA High-definition postproduction, conversion of studio films to DVD Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Lost in Space, Wag the Dog, Magnolia Pixar Emeryville, CA RenderMan character-rendering software, feature-film animation Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Pearl Harbor, The Perfect Storm Rhythm and Hues Los Angeles, CA Character animation, visual effects Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Men in Black II, The Sum of All Fears, Hollow Man, Babe

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