Effects teams raised the bar with digital character creations

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Autobot Optimus Prime, Flying Dutchman captain Davy Jones and an armored polar bear are among the key CG characters in the films that earned Oscar nominations for visual effects this year. The nominated films -- New Line's "The Golden Compass," Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and DreamWorks/Paramount's "Transformers" -- topped a competitive field of films that featured the likes of a CG Beowulf, "Spider-Man 3's" Sandman and house-elf Kreacher of "Harry Potter" fame.

Clearly CG character development has become an important element in filmmaking, and this year's crop underscores some significant technical developments as well as steep challenges that visual effects pros face.

One thing is certain: Motion capture, also known as performance capture, is here to stay. But other means of bringing characters to life, including 2-D hand-drawn animation, 3-D key-frame animation and stop-motion animation, continue to play major roles in the industry. And in some cases, productions will blend multiple character-animation techniques.

This activity is already having an impact on the sort of scripts being developed. "We are seeing a lot more stories that require digital characters to tell the story. I think the capabilities are becoming more known and more understood, so some of the things that a few years ago were difficult to do become easier to do," says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who won Oscars in 2003 and 2004 for the second and third "Lord of the Rings" films and in 2006 for "King Kong."

But with that confidence, filmmakers are asking for more and more, and that trend might come with a terrible price, warns Industrial Light + Magic's Hal Hickel, animation supervisor on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. "We are all afraid that sooner or later there is going to be a very high-profile film that is going to miss its release date. And nowadays with these colossal worldwide day-and-date releases, missing a release date would be a pretty gigantic blunder. None of us wants to be on that show, but we are expecting that it's going to happen sooner or later. The post schedules are becoming more and more and more unrealistic.

"It's inefficient, and you don't get the best work," continues Hickel, who won an Oscar for 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and is now nominated for "At World's End." "Directors are still cutting away ferociously on sequences that have already been turned over to the VFX people, so you end up with shots that were completed getting cut out and shots getting added at the last second. ... It's not a good way to make these kinds of movies."

The need for speed

In this climate, it is no surprise that a key area of development in the CG world is finding methods of accelerating the pace of creating CG characters.

"If you do one character, the next film they are asking for six or 10 ... but there is still a lot of work that goes into creating each individual character," Letteri warns. "It is not an automatic process. There is still a lot to think about -- skin, the eyes, the mouth, the muscle and the skeletons and how to bring a realistic sense of motion to a character.

"For us, going back to 'The Two Towers,' when we did Gollum, it was incredibly difficult. But by the time we brought him back for 'Return of the King,' it was one of the easiest things to do in that movie because we understood him so well. You can take some of that knowledge and apply it to the next generation of characters that you do. ... The more people understand how to make that work and how to be realistic in both emotion and a lighting sense, then the more you will see people asking for that because it becomes less of a big hurdle."

Animation supervisor Kenn McDonald, who worked on Paramount's "Beowulf" and the earlier performance-capture-based film "The Polar Express" (2004) at Sony Imageworks, related that even in the short time between the two films, the digital process went through significant change. "When we were making 'The Polar Express,' performances were shot on a 10-by-10-foot stage that could accommodate a maximum of three to four actors in the space at the same time."

In contrast, for production of "Beowulf," he says: "We were able to have horses galloping, and the space was about 30 by 30 feet. We were able to capture a full-body performance for 16 people at a time. At one point we had as many as 21 people. It's allowing us to stage on a bigger scale and be more efficient."

Even techniques such as stop-motion are continuing to develop. Notes Stephen Chiodo, founder of Chiodo Bros. Prods.: "Now digital photography speeds up production time. We don't have to wait for dailies."

Evolution

"I think the most remarkable change is that people are focusing more on the performances than they are on the technology," says Sony Imageworks president Tim Sarnoff. Citing the birth of the Sandman sequence in "Spider-Man 3," he adds, "For three minutes, it's character effects and a study of the character and the loss that that character had."

Of making the CG robots in "Transformers," ILM visual effects supervisor and Oscar nominee Scott Farrar says: "Michael Bay got the hang of it because he was made comfortable by the way (ILM animation supervisor) Scott Benza talked with him totally in terms of acting and performance. Michael knows how to direct actors. ... (Generally) you are seeing better and better performances because they are being done more from the realms of acting."

As for looks, this past year resulted in a lot of stylized characters in the movies, with less emphasis on the possibility of creating a photo-real CG human. "People seem to be less hung up on when we are going to cross that barrier," Hickel says.

Looking ahead, Paramount's "Iron Man," with Robert Downey Jr., is slated to open this spring and will include visual effects by ILM. For the film, ILM will replace Downey's body with a CG suit. Meanwhile, David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount), scheduled for a fall release, will feature a CG Brad Pitt aging in reverse.

"The Holy Grail of creating a CG human is still out there," Farrar says.
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