Indiana Jones and the digital FX

'Skull' crew was challenged to create 'work that matched' the earlier films

Indiana Jones' return to the big screen after 19 years underscored how much visual effects have evolved.

When the first three Indy films were made in the 1980s, the visual effects were done optically. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" marks the first time sophisticated digital techniques were used in bringing the story of the archaeologist-adventurer to life.

"There were many challenges," visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman said. "One was working on a movie that had so many fans and coming up with work that matched the other movies. That was something Steven Spielberg wanted from the beginning."

To accomplish this, Helman and lead visual effects house Industrial Light + Magic, which also created the effects for the first three Indiana Jones films, used a wide variety of effects. "We used a lot of techniques, not just the computer," he said. "It's a combination of things that make the scenes believable. The idea was to be on location as much as possible and then augment (with visual effects) to finish telling the story. … We always started with principal photography, then we had miniatures, computer-generated elements, practical elements."

The chase in the jungle is an example of how the digital tools were used.

"They shot as much in the jungle as they could," associate visual effects supervisor Marshall Krasser said, adding that bluescreen of the actors was lensed separately. To complete the shots, ILM advanced its compositing techniques through the development of what was essentially a drag-and-drop jungle.

"We had a library of plants and stuff (CG and photographed elements) to drag and drop into position. … We matchmoved vehicles and dragged vehicles into environments." The system helped the vehicles interact with the environment, for example, by digging up debris.

"We even added bugs flying around in some of the shots to sell the sense of realism," he added.

The climactic sequence inside the heart of a temple was one of the most challenging.

The movement of the chamber in the scene occurs through a combination of CG and miniatures. For it and other scenes in the film, ILM developed a software application called Fracture that allows the user to break surface objects in a realistic manner.

"We didn't want the effects to be visible, to overshadow the events that were occurring on the screen," Krasser said. "We've trained an audience of critics." (partialdiff)