Pursuit of perfection

While 2006 saw impressive innovations in visual effects, some of the year's best work was the result of artists pushing existing technology to its limits.

A rampaging T-rex skeleton, a tentacle-writhing Davy Jones, a flying dragon and a soaring Superman all took center stage in 2006's most spectacular visual effects work.

Visual effects shops relied on the steady incremental improvements of existing software and hardware along with a healthy dash of innovative technologies to end up with the year's crop of "wow" effects.

Innovative technology used for Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" came out of the shooting methodology for the first film in the franchise, 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which motion-captured the costumed pirates on the set (and used the information to create their skeletons).

"(Director) Gore (Verbinski) and I felt very strongly that having everyone present on set was the No. 1 requirement," Industrial Light + Magic visual effects supervisor John Knoll says. "When the performances are captured on set as opposed to a mocap stage, the director works with the actors in the exact same way (as they do on set): They're lit and framed the exact same way, and the editor can cut it as always."

To do so, ILM created the iMoCap system, an on-set motion-capture system. "It uses footage from the film camera and additional 'witness' cameras and a special set of image-based tracking marks on the actors, with a snazzy bit of in-house software," Knoll says. "One of the constraints was that it had to be robust. The software is smart in dealing with the abuse of input and understanding human motion. It enabled the performances to be much better than we could have gotten any other way."

Some of the best effects weren't the result of new technology but the perfection of an existing one. The flying sequences in Warner Bros. Pictures' summer actioner "Superman Returns" were created by Sony Pictures Imageworks (other facilities that worked on the film include Eden FX, Framestore CFC, Frantic Films, Lola Visual Effects, the Orphanage, Rising Sun Pictures and Rhythm & Hues). "Having (star) Brandon (Routh) onscreen and intercutting with our (computer-generated) Superman is really what set the bar," visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson says. "A lot of effort went into matching a human rather than replacing him."

To create the CG Superman, SPI pushed the limits of the digital double, with attention to subtleties like properly applying the effects of gravity to the character to avoid a weightless appearance. "One of our benchmarks, besides a believable cape, costume and stuntman, was making his face able to express and speak," SPI visual effects supervisor Rich Hoover says. "That was way beyond a stunt double."

Hoover's team finessed existing facial expression tools and matched the under-the-face bones and muscles to match Routh's face. "You really need to find out what makes that actor that actor, and if you generalize anywhere, it shows up," Hoover says. "It gets down to being very precise and very honest to the real actor."

With visual supervision by Jim Rygiel, Fox's late-December release "Night at the Museum" featured 350 effects from R&H, with additional effects work from Rainmaker, the Orphanage and Lola Visual Effects. R&H created the rampaging T-rex skeleton as well as all the other stuffed animals that come to life in the film. "The museum is a character, and it couldn't have been realized without visual effects," R&H visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw says. Bringing the dioramas to life posed some new challenges. "You're trying to integrate 3-inch-tall characters into the world," he explains. "The trick is that you're blending together images that have been shot with the focus set at different points." To finesse the marriage, says Deleeuw, a combination of digital matte painting and compositing techniques were used.

"Museum" also used Massive -- the crowd-generating software that provides each agent with artificial intelligent behavior -- for the diorama sequences that feature battles. "It's a great way to get a lot of different characters to interact quickly," he says. "You can define behaviors for everyone, so they pick out who they play automatically."

Fox's May opener "X-Men: The Last Stand" was another movie that featured a long list of visual effects companies, but the majority of the effects were created by the Moving Picture Co. and Framestore CFC in London, as well as Weta Digital in New Zealand. Motion Picture Co. executive director of film Michael Elson describes a scene where, after Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is killed, an entire room disintegrates. "Lighting is the key to selling an image within a CG environment," he says. "The ability to really nail down real-life lighting within a CG environment is so much better because, with global illumination techniques, we're using real light."

For the December Fox release "Eragon," ILM created an entirely computer-generated dragon, Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz), the main character in the film. "It's always a challenge to create a character that has to act, deliver lines and interact with actors," says ILM's Samir Hoon, who served as visual effects supervisor along with Michael McAllister. Weta Digital contributed shots for Saphira as well. Other contributing effects companies on the film were Cafe FX, CIS Hollywood and Furious FX.

"Eragon" also made use of a groundbreaking motion rig designed and built by VFX Co. in London. The challenge was to integrate shots of the real-life Eragon (Edward Speleers) with the CG Saphira when they physically interact. The rig enabled Hoon to drive its hydraulic arms using the actual animation files for Saphira, guaranteeing an exact match. "This is the first time something like this was done, to have the actor be in sync with the animation," says Hoon, who says the rig was used for 150 shots.

Spectacular effects are high-ticket items and, as such, fewer visual effects artists get a chance to work on them. For those who do, artistic satisfaction is the reward. "Spectacular effects happen less often," Knoll says. "But one of the things I like about the more over-the-top visual effects is the response they get -- that they were flippin' awesome."