Face Off: Summer Effects

Believable CG characters are finally ready for their close-up

Related: Disney pic is a unique stereoscopic 3-D production

Brad Pitt has again set the standard for movie stardom.

But it's not his boxoffice draw that's impacting the business. The visual effects work that created a believable digital re-creation of the actor in December's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" represented a giant leap forward in what's possible onscreen -- and effects houses worldwide are racing to keep up.

" 'Benjamin Button,' in terms of full CG character work, raised the bar to (what is now) the accepted level," says Christian Robertson, managing director of film at London-based FX house Moving Picture Company. "As a business, we need to be able to match that and surpass that. Client expectation is 'Benjamin Button' and the audience's expectation is 'Benjamin Button.' "

Those expectations are being tested in a major way with the summer's tentpoles. The warm-weather releases include significant advancements in several areas, but CG humans are perhaps the most intriguing.

Digital doubles are nothing new, of course. Fake humans populated James Cameron's "Titanic" back in 1997, both on the decks of the doomed oceanliner and in the frigid North Atlantic.

Since then, digital doubles have been seen at a distance and in action sequences where it would be too dangerous for an actor or stuntperson. But increasingly, digital doubles are ready for their close ups. In some cases, a lead character might have a digital double where moviegoers might least expect him.

"They're getting closer and in your face," says Ben Snow, Industrial Light + Magic's visual effects supervisor on Warner Bros.' "Terminator Salvation," which opens Thursday and utilizes several digital doubles.

"The biggest advance is the resolution we can get," says Robertson at MPC, which worked on July's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" for Warners. "We are able to now get very close, high-resolution detailed models of characters."

Actors might bristle at the thought of being supplemented in a scene, but Robertson believes the developments should come as good news for directors.

"It gives the director a greater range and more time to think about a sequence and work it out," he says. "It allows him to really work on a performance."

Digital doubles involve various technologies that continue to be refined, including lighting systems, hair simulation, cloth simulation, rendering, skin shaders and motion capture systems.

MPC has been experimenting with the Contour motion capture system from Mova, which relies on a phosphorescent paint instead of markers and was one of the mo-cap technologies used in "Benjamin Button." "The speed of turnaround is great with that technology," Robertson says.

Like doubles, digital makeup is an old concept getting new attention lately. Effects gurus put the technology to subtle use "Benjamin Button" and deployed it to eye-popping effect (literally) for the Two-Face character in last summer's "The Dark Knight."

"There are limitations in what (physical) makeup can do in the way it moves," ILM's Snow says. "It doesn't feel like muscles moving over flesh. Also, physical makeup can only add, it cannot take away. This is where dual makeup is coming in.

"As CG can more accurately re-create humans, the balance is starting to tip toward CG," he adds. "The technology of physical makeup has improved, but digital is improving at a faster rate. The problem for VFX is cost. You pay per shot."

Digital makeup will be a key component in "Terminator Salvation," director McG's addition to the venerable action franchise. Here, digital makeup was used to create actor Sam Worthington's Terminator character, as well as for wounds on other characters.

To add to the realism, advances in CG lighting were essential.

"It allows highlights on skin to look more natural and helps extend the believability," Snow says. "This film has a contrasty look and harsh lighting environments, which is traditionally very brutal on CG. We improved some of our lighting techniques and a new energy-conserving light system that made our assets more robust to take the lighting to the bright desert and to darker scenes."

That allowed effects gurus to deal with harsh lighting environments and make the highlights on the characters appear more realistic.

The CG Terminator characters were designed to look very mechanical and lack personality, but they still had to deliver a performance.

"McG wanted large, looming, scary robots," Snow says. The movie includes several new Terminators, including Harvestor, an 80-foot robot that catches people; and Hydrobot, a snakelike bot that lives in the water.

For Michael Bay's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," opening June 30, ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar was tasked with melding the CG Transformers into a live-action environment shot in part with Imax 65mm film cameras.

Here, lighting was again a key component, as well as managing the audience's ability to take in all the moving objects before their eyes.

"The audience at times has trouble seeing what's on the screen if there is too much motion," Farrar says. Especially in the large Imax frames, "we tried to vary the percentage of motion blur, with a little less motion blur than might be mathematically correct."

Moviegoers also will witness the evolution of digital crowds in the summer. It has been a few years since an artificial intelligence-based crowd simulation software called Massive was developed and first used to create the enormous armies of Middle Earth in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Today, crowd systems are commercially available. But "they are restrictive," says visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin of London-based Double Negative. "Because they are designed to generate crowds in every possible situation."

Double Negative -- whose credits include the summer's "Angels & Demons" from Sony and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" -- has enhanced its crowd technique, one that relies on motion capture and key frame animation. "We choreograph the crowds and create interaction," he says. "It gives the artists creative control so that we see the digital crowds reacting to events."

Just as there have been advancements in human renderings, fluid simulation software systems are making great strides in generating such elements as CG fire, smoke, water, steam and explosions.

This is an area that has been gradually improving. In 2008, Academy Sci-tech honors for work in this area went to teams from FX houses ILM, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues, as well as developers of software tools RealFlow, Maya and Flowline.

ILM's continued development will be evident in "Terminator," which will feature elements like molten metal.

Double Negative has also been working on its fluid simulation system, dubbed Squirt, which was first used in prototype form on "The Dark Knight" and last summer's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."

"Now it is mature," Franklin says, adding that it was developed with assistance from students at Stanford University. "Complexity is the key to selling realism. We can simulate a wider range of fluid, such as air."

Looking at the lineup of summer tentpoles, there will also be more shots that are highly data intensive and fully CG. Robertson notes some advantages of a fully CG shot: "You can preview it. You can start working on it while in production. You can control a lot more. And the technology is such as you get a result that would have been too ambitious a few years ago."

Effects artists are quick to point out that their work will never be able to fully replicate an actor's emotional performance.

"It doesn't replace what you get from actors," Robertson says. "It's all about innovation. Ours is a technology business and we'll always be coming up with new ways of making things quicker and cheaper -- and that ultimately look better."