Holiday special effects

With plenty of eye-popping fare headed to theaters soon, competition for the best visual effects trophy is just getting started.

Capt. Jack Sparrow's soul isn't the only trophy tempting Davy Jones, the villain from Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." The creepy creation of visual effects supervisor John Knoll and his team at Industrial Light + Magic is considered by many to be a front-runner in what's shaping up to be a heated race for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' visual effects prize. Still, the path to awards-season gold will be anything but smooth sailing. Not only will "Pirates" be sparring with numerous other summer spectacles -- including Warner Bros. Pictures' "Poseidon" and "Superman Returns," Fox's "X-Men: The Last Stand" and Paramount's "Mission: Impossible 3" -- but an impressive group of year-end entries. Following is a look at the eye-popping films headed to theaters later this year -- and possibly the visual effects bake-offs come January.

Casino Royale

Visual effects supervisor Steven Begg might jokingly refer to Sony's "Casino Royale" as "Bond Begins" -- a reference to Warner Bros. Pictures' "Batman Begins," which relaunched that studio's action-adventure franchise last summer -- but the upcoming installment in the James Bond film series does usher in a new era for the suave superspy, with Daniel Craig in the starring role and a story line that details his first mission. With that in mind, Begg says he decided to take a back-to-basics approach to ensure that the film's visual effects didn't overwhelm the stunts, which were designed to be both awe-inspiring yet based in reality. "I think the last few (films) in particular had an air of unreality that contradicted the reality of the stunts," Begg says.

Begg collaborated closely with special effects and miniature effects supervisor Chris Corbould, a Bond veteran, on scenes including the opening sequence, which sees the spy chase villain Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) across giant cranes high atop a construction site. "There's some amazing stuntwork," Begg says. "We had safety wires on them just in case, so the bulk of our work in the sequence was wire and rig removal. There were also a few greenscreen shots, purely for convenience -- if they needed an extreme close-up of Daniel Craig or if we had very large drops underneath them."
The end result proved incredibly convincing, at least, according to Begg. "This is the most brutal James Bond ever," he says.

Charlotte's Web

When it comes to talking animals, realism isn't exactly the first word that leaps to mind -- a fact that made visual effects supervisor John Andrew Berton Jr.'s job that much more difficult when he took the reins on "Charlotte's Web," Paramount's upcoming live-action adaptation of E.B. White's beloved 1952 children's fable about "some pig" and his best friend, a barn spider. The film features a unique menagerie, with human characters like Dakota Fanning's Fern interacting with real and digitally created barnyard critters, and required a whopping 900 effects shots. "There were times where we'd go, 'That doesn't look realistic,' and then we'd realize, 'Do you notice the sheep are talking!?'" Berton says with a laugh.

But the challenges faced by Berton, animation supervisor Eric Leighton and the animators at Rising Sun Pictures, who created the film's heroine, Charlotte, involved not only achieving a consistent look among the real and computer-generated animals but ensuring that the end result would appear uniform even though the effects were split up among several key houses. Rhythm & Hues Studios did more than 300 digital mouth replacements on real animals, while Digital Pictures animated additional animals and Fuel International created baby spiders, among other tasks. "We wanted everything to look like it was part of the same tone," Berton says. "But to make a realistic spider -- they don't have a face, you know? We had to find that balance between realism and performance. We decided to give (Charlotte) more expression but still not go over the top where suddenly she's a cartoon."

In fact, the team reworked the initial character design to improve Charlotte's ability to emote. "We restructured her facial muscles to permit more expression," Berton says. "We made her two main eyes bigger and moved her six secondary eyes around to create a bit more structure to her face, which gave her more femininity."

Tippett Studio designed the film's only other entirely CG character, Templeton the rat. "We tried really hard not to make Templeton too anthropomorphic," Berton says. "We wanted him to look like a trained rat, not a computer character. He doesn't ever do something you don't believe is real. Except, of course, talk!"


Adapting Christopher Paolini's best-selling novel about a boy and his dragon, Fox's "Eragon" proved particularly complicated for first-time feature director Stefen Fangmeier, despite his extensive experience with mythical beasts during his previous career as an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor. For one thing, the female dragon, Saphira, is blue in the novel -- an unlikely color, even for a dragon. "You want to be true to the essence of her character from the book, but you still have to fit her into the scene," Industrial Light + Magic visual effects supervisor Samir Hoon says. "In nature, you don't see creatures that size that are vibrant blue. We had to come up with sophisticated rendering techniques of iridescence and scale patterns so she could be blue and still look like she belonged in the shots."

Secondly, Saphira communicates telepathically, but since the actress vocalizing the part hadn't yet been cast, the animators couldn't impart the unknown performer's mannerisms to the CG character. "It would've been better if we'd had a track, but we didn't," Hoon says. "We paid a lot of attention to her eyes to make them alive because they had to express a lot."

Finally, Saphira had to be animated from a hatchling to maturity, all the while interacting closely with Eragon (Edward Speleers); in two major aerial sequences, Saphira soars heavenward with Eragon on her back. The filmmaker shot those scenes against a bluescreen with Speleers on a saddle straddling a mockup of Saphira's torso and neck that sat atop a motion rig, which was driven by the movement of the animated character and later replaced with the digital dragon.

"We wanted to get as much realistic motion from the live action as possible," Hoon says. "For some shots, we used the Cyclops motion-control camera, so both the rig and the camera were locked to the animation and we could almost see the final shot in real time on-set. But there were other times where we've added more secondary motion or more sweeping camera moves. It was all about making Saphira's flight look sleek and fast."

The Fountain

Writer-director Darren Aronofsky's metaphysical tale of love and death, Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Fountain," might span thousands of years, but the filmmaker was determined to keep the film's most outre component rooted in the modern world -- at least as far as the visual effects were concerned. In one of "Fountain's" three interweaving narratives, the lead character (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) travels the galaxy in a clear, sphere-shaped spaceship that contains the mythical Tree of Life, but Aronofsky insisted that his psychedelic vision of the universe not be created using CG imagery -- which he thought would look dated -- but rather with optical effects that would give the film a timeless quality.

"It would've been so easy to say, 'Oh cool, we're going to make outer space on the computer the way they did in "Superman Returns,"' but Darren really wanted everything to be organic," visual effects designer Dan Schrecker says. So, he and his Amoeba Proteus colleague, visual effects designer and second unit director Jeremy Dawson -- both Aronofsky's college friends and his go-to effects gurus on 1998's "Pi" and 2000's "Requiem for a Dream" -- found a creative solution.

"We worked with Peter Parks (responsible for the film's optical effects), who does science macrophotography of reactions in petri dishes, and that's how we ended up creating all the outer-space footage," Dawson says. "There's something beautiful about the idea of shooting outer space that way -- the chemical reactions in that petri dish must be the same ones going on inside nebulas."

Afterward, Toronto-based Intelligent Creatures surrounded the shots of the spaceship set -- which had been filmed in front of a 180-degree greenscreen -- with a CGI bubble and then composited it onto the outer-space background. When Dawson and Schrecker finally saw the result of their labors, they were shocked by the film they'd helped to create. "This one is very heartfelt," Schrecker says.

Night at the Museum

It would be difficult to think of a visual effects obstacle that Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel didn't surmount during the years he spent toiling on the films in Peter Jackson's epic 2001-03 "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But Rygiel, also second unit director on the film, managed to find one in Fox's "Night at the Museum" -- namely, creating complex effects that would play well in a comedy. The film stars funnyman Ben Stiller as a night watchman who has to decide what to do when various exhibits spring to life, which meant that Rygiel had to animate not only a tyrannosaurus rex and a hoard of African animals but a virtual army of miniature cowboys led by Owen Wilson. With more than 400 visual effects shots required, several houses were recruited to finish the work: Image Engine Design, the Orphanage, Rainmaker and Rhythm & Hues.

Rygiel says he was determined to keep the action as photorealistic as possible, which required tremendous attention to detail. "We wanted the lion to act like a real lion, not a caricature, but hit its marks," Rygiel says. "You can easily build a (digital) dog and stick it out there, but it doesn't look real until you start working on the mucous membrane in the eye. Very subtle things bring characters to life hundredfold, and it was caring for all that that made these characters look real."

Another challenge facing Rygiel and his team was how to create realistic miniature environments for Wilson and his fellow toy cowboys and Roman soldiers. "We started with miniature sets, but when we got down into the microworld, there are depth-of-field problems," he says. "You need endless depth of field for our guys to appear 3 inches tall, so we decided to do the whole world in virtual. The environments were generally all 2-D matte-painting set extensions derived from the real dioramas. Then, we had our live-action guys in the foreground -- Owen Wilson and his compadres and the Romans. But the other 5,000 miniature soldiers behind them were all computer-generated using Massive (Software)."

In a strange way, however, "Night" was like going home for Rygiel. "It had that same cornucopia of effects as ('Lord of the Rings') all folded into a comedy," he says.

Pan's Labryinth

Director Guillermo del Toro and visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell first teamed up on 2004's "Hellboy," a comic-book-themed piece of action and eye candy with a budget in the neighborhood of $66 million. But when it came time for the pair to collaborate on Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro's gothic fairy tale, which had a budget much closer to $5 million, they had far fewer financial resources to draw from -- even though the production is, in some ways, almost equally ambitious considering its smaller scope.

Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s, the story follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who is taken to an abandoned mill to live with her mother's new husband. After she enters a garden maze, Ofelia finds herself transported into a new world inhabited by fantastic creatures and watched over by a faun named Pan (Doug Jones). "We had to really be conscious because we only had so many shots we could go all out on," Burrell says. "So, we could shoot what we wanted, but once we get into editing, we can't have it all. We were budgeted for 200 shots, but afterward, we were at 400-plus shots, so it was a give and take."

In order to make the shots more effective, Burrell says he and his team at CafeFX embraced the idea of dark, grainy imagery. Specifically, he used shadows to his advantage -- both to underscore the dark underpinnings of the fairy tale and to enhance the atmosphere onscreen.

"The lighting was very moody, and the creatures would go in and out of the lighting, and that created a nice template for us since our creatures weren't lit in the bright light," he says. "It helped us integrate our creatures into the environment -- like Pan, who would appear in the room coming from a shadow and exit into a shadow. So, it was an interesting entrance and exit device."

Bryan Roth contributed to this report.