Seeing eye to eye

Visual effects supervisors are taking on a more collaborative role with technology-savvy directors.

In the climax of Universal's "Children of Men," lead character Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) gives birth to a baby girl in the squalid conditions of a refugee camp. The scene is gripping, both horrific and hopeful -- and it was made possible by a completely invisible digital effect, achieved by Framestore CFC in London.

"The baby had to be completely (computer-generated)," Framestore CFC director of visual effects Tim Webber says. "The actual shot is four minutes long, and we couldn't get the movement required from an animatronic."

Although "Children of Men" is best described as a dramatic futuristic thriller, it's chock-full of visual effects that are completely invisible to the ordinary viewer. Aside from the birth scene, visual effects facility Double Negative, also in London, provided nearly all of the other effects. Instead of a fancy explosion or a towering monster, Double Negative's role allowed director Alfonso Cuaron to tell his tale, located in a dystopian London and composed of extraordinarily long sequences.

"Alfonso wanted to achieve these incredibly long shots," says Double Negative's Frazer Churchill, who also acted as visual effects supervisor for the film. "We did a lot of work in joining various pieces of photography together using invisible transitions, which were key to making those shots work."

The technology behind both the baby and the invisible transitions wasn't groundbreaking in of itself. "We used all the standard techniques, not anything majorly new," Webber says. "What made it work was bringing together lots of small, new techniques, such as advances in skin manipulation tools."

Invisible effects started out as simple techniques of erasing the catering truck out of the shot or the wires holding up the stunt men. But as directors become increasingly savvy about digital effects -- after all, Cuaron directed 2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- they are collaborating with visual effects professionals on how to make the movie. "Alfonso has a good understanding of effects, and he came to us knowing what was possible," Churchill says. "Before, directors came to us a little frightened, not understanding our world. Now, even though they don't necessarily know how to do what they want, they understand the toolkit better, and it's allowing us to do more interesting things."

Films released in 2006 are rich in invisible effects, including Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers," Warner Bros. Pictures' "Blood Diamond" and Sony's "Casino Royale." The first two utilized invisible effects to, respectively, transform a black-sand beach in Iceland to resemble Iwo Jima, as well as transform South Africa and Mozambique into Sierra Leone's distinctive geography.

"After the boom of spectacular effects, that work began to dry up and then people discovered invisible effects," says "Blood Diamond" visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun, who says the film's 325 shots, all of them invisible, were completed by CIS Hollywood, Cos/FX, Flash Film Works, Illusion Arts, Look FX, Pixel Magic, Rising Sun Pictures and indie talent Brian Jennings. "Invisible effects enable movies to be made in a way they couldn't before. We are involved much earlier on in the decision-making (process). We can answer questions such as, 'How many extras do you need? Where do you want to shoot it?'"

In the case of "Blood Diamond," conditions were too dangerous to send a crew to war-torn Sierra Leone, where the action takes place. But in South Africa and Mozambique, Okun had access to various shots. "We can make things bigger, yet more cost effective, by not having to do things you would have had to do 10 years ago," he says. "Ten years ago, you would have had to be in Africa for two years, not six months, and had 1,000 people there.

"A lot of these types of films could actually be made here but look like they're made there by sending a small crew to shoot plates," Okun continues. "We can add scope and scale to any movie, on a budget, and directors are agreeing with (this way of working). It gives them more freedom (and) makes the movie look more expensive."

According to Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Michael Butler, the majority of "Flags" was shot in Iceland, which had a black-sand beach similar to the one at Iwo Jima. Nearly everything else -- ocean, sky and certainly the island itself -- was replaced in 450 digital shots (with Warner Bros. Pictures' "Letters From Iwo Jima," the count goes up to 700). In addition to set extension and replacement, the DD team also created thousands of digital Marines and boats.

"Our plan was to use live-action people and hardware in the foreground and midground and only add CGI behind them," Butler says. "We didn't have that opportunity and were required to replace CG content closer to camera." Butler used Massive's crowd-generating software and tweaked it to get very realistic results. "What you do with the software is create agents, which could be people or boats or vehicles, and it allows you upfront to give these agents intelligent capabilities, to run simulations of natural-looking behavior of large numbers of individuals."

Butler also used DD's in-house tool Engen to build a synthetic landmass representing Iwo Jima, including Mount Suribachi. "We needed to be able to fly over Mount Suribachi and Iwo Jima, and we couldn't get away with matte painting," he says. The trick was to combine survey data of Iceland with digital elevation maps. "It's never just one trick," Butler says. "It's always a hybridization, from trackers and surveyors to matte painters."

In order to turn Iceland into Iwo Jima, "Flags" required sophisticated rotoscoping. Butler reported that more than 20 rotoartists worked two to three months on one shot that lasted a mere five seconds. DD also created fake oceans. "We've been doing oceans for many years," Butler says. "But we hadn't done the crashing, rolling surf you see when you're on a beach. It turns out that it is a very complicated mathematical solution to emulate it, and we also had to be able to pull off specific white-water behavior, especially as it interacts with the LDTs (amphibious landing vehicles)."

In addition, DD created volumetric CG sand and pyro effects.
"It's typical to put a lot of energy upfront (to write specific software) and then reap the benefits when you have many of these shots to do," Butler says. "I was nervous going into this movie, knowing that we wouldn't have the luxury of very much greenscreen in terms of the ease it informs you in compositing early on. It meant a lot of rotoscoping and the technology behind it, but it's elegant, articulate work when it's done properly."

"Casino Royale" is another example of how the use of invisible visual effects has evolved. Visual effects supervisor Steven Begg reports that the film was originally scheduled for 80 effects, but it quickly ratcheted up to 580. "It wasn't scripted as an effects film," says Begg, who notes there are 100 wire removals alone in the opening chase sequence.

Not too long ago, the idea of creating 500 unplanned effects would have been impossible. "I think we were lucky that the kind of effects we were asked to do weren't the more sophisticated creature type of visual effects," Begg says. "They were complicated but not groundbreaking." The majority of the effects, 430 shots, went to Peerless Camera in London, with U.K. facilities Base Black, Cinesite, Double Negative, Fuzzy Goat and the Moving Picture Co. completing the remaining shots.

The budget increased somewhat, says Begg, but the schedule remained the same. "The problem with invisible effects is because they're not obvious in storyboards, (producers) think you don't have to budget them," he says. "Adding these visual effects also didn't add time to the schedule -- we just rolled with the punches."

Although the digital technology used in "Casino Royale" wasn't
innovative, what was unique to the James Bond film, says Begg, was the level of interdepartmental crossover. "I worked closely with the floor effects supervisor on the miniature work," he says. "That helped a hell of a lot to accelerate our schedule."

The splashy chases, crashes and explosions that are signature scenes in a Bond film put "Casino Royale" on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' list of seven films in consideration for achievement in visual effects, despite the fact that it is the only film on that list whose digital effects are invisible rather than spectacular. The other films -- Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," Fox's "Eragon," "Night at the Museum" and "X-Men: The Last Stand" and Warners' "Poseidon" and "Superman Returns" -- are all there by virtue of their very spectacular, obvious digital effects.

Will the Academy ever honor invisible effects? "No," Okun says. "The issue is that the Academy has many different areas of the filmmaking process to recognize. The Academy Awards are for advancement and outstanding achievement in a field, and that traditionally shows up in the big visual effects films." For visual effects pros, the consolation is both the admiration of their peers and the knowledge that the seemingly unending need for invisible effects will keep them busy.