Rick Baker’s ‘Steampunkenstein’

For anyone who loves monsters, Halloween is like Christmas – especially if you work in the makeup effects industry.

Many artists work year-round dreaming up new creations and working in the privacy of their home studios to design their own fantastic creations to spring on their colleagues as Halloween parties roll around the end of October each year.

Silvia and Rick Baker as Steampunk Bride and Monster

Silvia and Rick Baker as Steampunk Bride and Monster

2013 has already seen some great ones, especially at Cinovation Studios in Glendale, California, where makeup effects maestro Rick Baker recently transformed his studio into a gothic horror graveyard, in partnership with MAC Cosmetics, with whom he has recently launched a horror-themed makeup line in three flavors – entitled ‘Bride,’ ‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Zombie.’

It was a wild evening, full of bizarre and glorious creatures by many of the industry’s finest. Star of the party was Rick’s own creation – a his and hers ensemble for himself and his wife, Silvia, entitled ‘Steampunkenstein.’ Rick shared a few images of his work with us, and answered a little Q&A for Cinefex Facebook fans.

What a wonderful makeup, Rick! Can you tell us what was your inspiration for this odd-looking creature?

My inspiration was my wife – she wanted to be a ‘steampunk Bride of Frankenstein,’ so I had to make something to go with that.

We’ve seen a lot of your beautiful digital renderings and 3D conceptual work online in recent years. Did you do concepts for this piece in ZBrush, or did you sculpt straight into clay?

Steampunkenstein2I started, stupidly, in clay and did not do a ZBrush rendering. I didn’t want to be tired of the design by doing a ZB first, but making major design changes in Monster Clay, as I did many times, was time consuming and many times I would wipe out the previous day’s work.

Was there any ‘kit-bashing’ – fabricating practical model kits, or working real machine parts into the sculpture – in the machine-like parts?

Yes, I kit bashed. I found some gears in our machine shop and made a quick lab putty mold of them and pressed out clay ones. It was the same for some of the ornamental stuff.

A couple of mutual friends gave me some hints how you put the piece together. Your Wolfman collaborator David Elsey mentioned that his wife, Lou, helped a little in fabricating your costume, as well as doing the gorgeous Steampunk Bride makeup on Silvia, and makeups on the other MAC models at your party. How did you build your costume, especially that machine-like hand?

I started the costume with a huge leather coat that I bought ‘on sale’ as it wasSteampunkenstein3 defective. I made it fit me by adding grommets and such and just started building from there. The hand was an old Greystoke mechanism, which we called ‘mechanical extended finger gloves.’ I painted and added bits to it.

I know Robert ‘Freight Train’ Freitas molded the piece for you; and he told me it was a ‘glue-less’ makeup. That seems amazing to me, for such an intricate-looking piece. What did Rob mean by that? Did you self-apply the whole thing?

Having been in the situation before where I make up my family first I didn’t want to have to rush through my make up as I have done many Halloweens before, therefore I decided by making a mask I could spend time painting and finishing it before the day. So, I made it as a slip latex mask as I knew I had about seven hours of make up to do on other people, my daughters, that day. The chin is cut out of the mask and my beard sticks out. I designed sculpted cast and painted the mask – but, yes, Rob Freitas made the mold, which was a difficult one to do. After I finished the sculpture and started thinking about molding it, I got scared to do it myself. I thought that I needed an expert like Rob. He made a fantastic mold.

Congratulations, Rick, and thanks again for sharing. It was a beautiful piece, and you and Silvia made the perfect couple. Happy Halloween!

Rick Baker's sculpture, almost finished.

Rick Baker’s Steampunkenstein – the sculpture, almost finished. Image courtesy Rick Baker.

The Elixir of Life

Audrey Hepburn in Galaxy Commercial by Framestore

Image copyright Sean Hepburn Ferrer, AMV BBDO, Luca Dotti

Framestore have brought Audrey Hepburn back to life.

The iconic film star was resurrected in “Chauffeur”, a TV commercial for Galaxy chocolate, directed by Rattling Stick’s Daniel Kleinman, that aired in the UK earlier this year. To perform the miracle, Framestore created a 3D model of Hepburn and used it to replace the head of an lookalike actress. The CG Hepburn was built using film and photographic reference, and had in excess of 70 separate muscle movements. The work is stunning at every level – modelling, tracking, rendering, comping – and undoubtedly represents what Framestore VFX Supervisor William Bartlett describes as “the edge of what’s possible”.

As we all know, what’s barely possible today will become commonplace tomorrow. The convincing digital recreation of a human being on screen may still be difficult, but visual effects artists are steadily building a bridge across the “uncanny valley” – that hard-to-define region in which an animated character looks almost perfect, yet still creepily unreal.

The bridge is nearly complete.

With that in mind, here’s a short list of films that might be showing at your local movie theatre just a few years from now …

“Indiana Jones and the Resurrection Engine”

The new Indiana Jones adventure sees everyone’s favourite archaeologist caught up in a race against time to stop the Nazis getting their hands on a mysterious ancient artefact (again). The story takes place in 1937, just a year after the events of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and – wonder of wonders – Indy looks just as young and fit as he ever did. How has this been achieved? Did they find a younger actor to play the iconic role? No. Did one sip from the Holy Grail really give Harrison Ford that much of a boost? No again. The septuagenarian Ford acted out his scenes on a motion capture stage, after which his performance was used to drive a digital model of his own younger self. Thanks to a patented Arthritic-2-Athletic physical enhancement algorithm, Ford was even able to perform all his own stunts!

“Forrest Gump” – starring James Stewart

People have long been comparing Tom Hanks to Jimmy Stewart. Now’s your chance to see the two actors go head to head. Innovative digital techniques have enabled visual effects wizards to replace Hanks frame by frame with an accurate digital double of Stewart. Every aspect of Hanks’s performance has been mapped to a library of facial expressions collated from Stewart’s entire film catalogue. The Blu-ray edition will include a special “Tom/Jim” menu control, enabling you to switch instantly from one actor to the other. Casting a role is now like a box of chocolates: just take your pick!

“It’s a Wonderful Life” – starring Tom Hanks

(see above)

“Washington”

After her Academy Award-winning turn as the UK’s first female Prime Minister in “The Iron Lady”, Meryl Streep is taking on another monumental historical role. In Steven Spielberg’s latest biopic, she’ll be playing America’s first President, George Washington. Streep’s performance will be motion-captured and mapped on to a 100% accurate CG model of Washington recreated using paintings and engravings from the period. Forget prosthetics. Forget gender. Simply applaud the performance of a great actress translated on to the authentic features of a man who died over 200 years ago! (Also featuring John Goodman as Martha Washington.)

Far-fetched? A couple of years ago I might have said “yes”. Not now. The only question remaining is the one posed by Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park”. When challenging John Hammond’s successful resurrection of extinct dinosaur species, Malcolm says:

“You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, that you didn’t stop to think if you should.”

Thankfully, digital doubles of deceased historical figures are unlikely to tear down the fences and go on the rampage. And, unlike a certain carnivorous plant, Framestore’s very own “Audrey 2” probably won’t develop a taste for human flesh.

All the same … should we?

Note: Due to international copyright restrictions, video in the above links may play only in certain territories.

A is for Animation

A is for AnimationWelcome to the first post in a series looking at the ABC of VFX. We have 26 letters to get through, so let’s make a start with “A” for “Animation”.

It’s nice to begin with an easy one. Everyone knows what animation is. It’s (1) drawing a picture (2) putting it under a camera (3) exposing a single frame of film (4) drawing a slightly different picture (5) putting it under the camera (6) repeating until (a) your fingers bleed or (b) your eyes fall out.

Except that’s not everything …

Sometimes animation means posing puppets and moving them incrementally in the time-honoured tradition of stop-motion. If you want to include replacement animation, it means swapping fractionally different sculptures one after another to create the illusion of fluid change.

Except it’s not like that any more …

The modern animation toolkit contains IK handles, blend trees and all that lovely data from the motion capture volume. Animation is no longer about a series of discrete poses but the infinitely editable trace of an object as it moves along a three-dimensional path. In fact, the whole concept of the individual movie frame might soon be a thing of the past if frameless rendering ever takes hold.

Okay. So there are lots of different animation techniques out there. Some new, some old. Fundamentally, however, animation is concerned with just one thing, isn’t it?

Movement.

Except it isn’t …

To explain: the word “animation” comes from the Latin “animus”, meaning “spirit” or “lifeforce”. So “animate” means “give life to”. An animator’s objective isn’t just to move things from one side of the screen to the other. It’s to breathe life into them. When you get right down to it, all animators are actors.

Except they’re not …

You might need an animator who can act if you want a couple of grumpy trolls to start a fist fight. But animation isn’t just about character work. What about all those tireless effects animators labouring to generate fireballs, fountains and all kinds of bad weather? Effects animation doesn’t require personality. It’s just a bunch of dumb objects obeying the laws of physics, right?

Except it’s not …

Everything has character. The thing you’re animating might be a thinking, breathing creature with complex motivations and a very large axe, or it might be the spectacular plume of lava thrown up after yet another inconvenient meteor has struck a distressingly active volcano improbably laced with high explosives. It doesn’t matter. Both have what really lies at the heart of all animation: soul.

Heart. Soul. Breathing life. Surely that’s something we can all agree on, isn’t it?

Except it isn’t …

What about that motion capture volume we mentioned earlier? When it comes to mo-cap, it isn’t the animator imbuing the character with spirit, it’s the actor. You know, the poor sap wearing the dot-festooned leotard. All the animator has to do is make a few tweaks to their digitally recorded performance.

Except …

Rats. I really thought this was going to be easy. Every time you think you’ve got a grip on animation, it slips right through your fingers. The only way to resolve this is to go back to the beginning, to the world’s first animated feature: Snow White.

According to an article in the January 1938 edition of Popular Science Monthly, the Disney artists who worked on Snow White created “more than 1,500,000 individual pen-and-ink drawings and water color paintings”. The article goes on to say, “Since this cartoon required an average of twenty-two individual painted cels for each foot of completed picture, 166,352 finished paintings were exposed to the camera.”

What it boils down to is that animation is a discipline that demands painstaking craftmanship and one heck of a lot of patience. And you can take that one to the bank.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity runs about eight minutes longer than Disney’s Snow White. I imagine both films sent a similar number of animators to the medic with bleeding fingers and throbbing eyeballs. But is this year’s hyper-real space drama as much an animated feature as its venerable cartoon predecessor? Or is it something completely different? Perhaps, even, something entirely new?

“A” is for “Animation”. As for what “animation” really means … do you know?

Cinefex Review: Europa Report

It’s a tricky business choosing stories to cover in Cinefex magazine.

Studios prefer our editorial to coincide with the releases of their movies, some of which are very far from finished when we start hounding the filmmakers. And it can be a high-wire act to predict what films are worth covering. Sometimes we strike out, covering real stinkers. Occasionally, we’ll delay coverage if we figure it will be worth the wait. Once in a while, we have to let some gems pass us by.

What follows is a little taste of a movie that didn’t make it into the magazine, a peek behind the scenes into our review process, featuring a rather cool little film as I presented it to Don Shay and the team. As our readers will know, we don’t review movies, we write about how they are made; but this is my report, so to speak, on Europa Report.

(I’ll spare you my intro, where I described my unsuccessful attempts to hook up my TV to a streaming video link; I only mention that here to set the scene…)

In spite of iTunes, Europa Report was a fine movie. It was intelligent and gripping, beautifully shot, claustrophobic, but clever and effective in its use of documentary-style cameras and editorial structure. The filmmakers never placed random cameras in improbable places to conveniently capture the action. They set up the rules and stuck toeuropa2 them, so you get the hang of the technique without it being distracting or annoying. The whole gag of ‘found footage’ – if it works  is to use the first person camera perspective to make the audience imagine more than they’re seeing. That worked pretty well, and it was a good fit to the story.

The story was quite simple. Six astronauts on an international, independently financed mission fly to Europa, the ice-caked moon of Jupiter, seeking life believed to exist under the frozen surface. Bad things happen to them. This is the story of what happens, as pieced together by mission control.

europa1The filmmakers allow us time to get to know their characters  Embeth Davitz, from Schindler’s List, is impressive as the tough spaceship pilot; Sharlto Copley from District 9 and Elysium plays a biological scientist, and provides a welcome touch of humor; Michael Nyqvist from the original Dragon Tattoo is an effectively sinister senior scientist on the edge of a nervous breakdown  so by the time the chips start falling, you feel for them. It gets quite heartbreaking at one point.

Visual effects are very naturalistic. The film plays with real science, and the credits include a long list of real space science imagery resources. Jupiter and Europa look like the real thing, and the shots of the spacecraft are flawless. For instance, there are no God’s eye views of the ship in space; it is always seen from cameras mounted on the europa4ship, or from astronaut’s on-board cameras, with the extreme depth of field and stark contrasts of real in-flight space photography. Space is mostly black (at least, on my laptop). And they use sounds in a Kubrickian way, from the astronauts’ perspectives, which is very dramatic.

On board the ship, the living quarters spin, thus creating an area where the space travelers (and audience) can orient themselves. But the cockpit and work areas are zero-g, where people bounce around very convincingly. It’s not as showy as Apollo 13, but I guess they could not afford the Vomit Comet, and it’s intelligently done.

Once we get to Europa, the ‘less is more’ approach applies again. We rarely see the surface except through portholes, exterior probes and astronaut cameras. As the threat builds to a slow reveal of what they find down there, it’s convincing, and quite scary, but europa3I felt the interest is maintained by focusing on how the characters react and interact, and their psychological breakdown. This is not a monster movie, although there is a monster in it. And (spoiler) we do get to see it.

The tension and the drama, and the technical execution, were all well done; although I have to say was hoping that it might amount to just a little more. It was not as satisfying as Moon, which I am sure this film will be compared to  like Duncan Jones’ film, this is a refreshing dose of adult science fiction, done apparently on a shoestring. But it is a good and solid bit of filmmaking, and it most certainly overcame the shortcomings of its online presentation.

My recommendation: An intriguing genre piece, and well worth a look. The visual effects, while well executed, are by design limited in scope. The real interest here, and what most impressed me, is the way the filmmakers knew how to use those effects.

Director: Sebastián Cordero. Writer: Philip Gelatt. Producer: Ben Browning. Production design: Eugenio Caballero. VFX supervisor: John Bair. Vendors: Phosphene – VFX supe John Bair; Method Studios – VFX supe Jim Rider; Look Effects – VFX supe Jeff Wozniak; Perception – VFX supe John LePore; Quadratic Optical – VFX supe Brendan Taylor; additional effects  Nat Jencks. Studio: Wayfare Entertainment. Distribution: iTunes / Magnet Releasing. Release date: (VOD) June 27 / (theatrical) August 2. Running time: 89 minutes.

What’s In a Name?

Visual Effects Supervisor“Visual effects”… isn’t it a rather ordinary name for a discipline built on limitless imagination, artistic endeavour and technical excellence? As names go, isn’t it a bit … dull?

It wasn’t always called visual effects. Back in the early days, the techniques used by film pioneer Georges Méliès to create his cinematic fantasies were so closely tied to their theatrical roots that they were inevitably referred to as “tricks” or “illusions”. When audiences saw them, they gasped. These weren’t visual effects. They were magic.

According the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the term “special effects” first appeared in 1926, in the credits of What Price Glory? Mind you, it took a while to catch on: in 1933, Willis O’Brien’s screen credit on King Kong was the rather prosaic “Chief Technician”.

Once the term became generally accepted, the Academy started dishing out Oscars for Special Effects to the top practitioners in the field. But here’s a thing: the original award was a portmanteau affair for both visual and sound effects. Winners of this included Mighty Joe Young in 1949, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 and Ben-Hur in 1959.

This state of affairs lasted all the way up to 1962, at which point sound and vision finally parted company. For the next ten years, worthy artists received golden statuettes in a whole new category: “Special Visual Effects”. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, there was a growing distinction between visual effects (generally created in post-production) and special effects (practical gags that happen in front of the camera).

Confused? Hang in there.

In 1972, with the big studios shutting down their in-house effects shops, the Academy’s Special Visual Effects category was scrapped. For five years, the discipline was paid lip service via catch-all Special Achievement Awards. Then, in 1977, Star Wars exploded on to our screens, rebooting the whole industry and winning the very first Oscar for what had finally become plain old “Visual Effects”.

For better or worse, the term “visual effects” is the one that’s stuck to this day. But is it any good? Are there any visual effects supervisors out there who would rather have fewer syllables in their job title? Granted you can shorten the descriptor to VFX, but acronyms are for multinational corporations, not dedicated creative innovators.

So what’s the alternative? If modern effects  are all about creating physically plausible models of the real world, why not call the whole business “simulation” instead? Hmm, then all the people working in the business would be simulators. Sounds like something you’d ride at the fair.

I have a soft spot for an expression I stumbled over (where else?) in an old issue of Cinefex. In 1916, German film pioneer Paul Wegener envisioned “a new pictorial fantasy world” made possible by advanced imaging techniques. The term he coined for this vision was “optical lyric”.

Will the Academy ever give out an Award for Optical Lyrics? Probably not. But at least it’s a name that evokes the sense of wonder of those early days. It makes you think of Méliès. Just by saying it aloud, you could dust a movie set with magic.

In an industry that’s experienced more than its share of sea changes in recent years, maybe it’s time to open the debate about what label it carries. Is there anything in a name? I think so.

What should visual effects really be called?

We’ll Fix It In Pre-Production

We'll Fix It In Pre-ProductionWill post-production soon be a thing of the past?

According to Kim Libreri of Lucasfilm, the answer to that question is “yes.” As reported by The Inquirer, Libreri recently delivered a presentation to BAFTA’s Technology Strategy Board in which he outlined a possible future in which visual effects are added during a film’s production shoot. Motion capture technology, combined with high-speed game-engine rendering, will permit a director to generate, on set and in real-time, exactly what will appear on the screen in the movie theatre.

Will it happen? Almost certainly. In fact, it’s happening already. Take Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, which made innovative use of the new Ncam system. Mounted under the main camera, Ncam’s scanner first builds a 3D model of its surroundings. Backgrounds and assets created in previs can then be added on the fly, delivering a precomposed image straight to the director’s monitor. Speaking in Cinefex 134, Emmerich said, “This kind of system is the future. Ncam is now my favourite tool.”

In the case of White House Down, the previs elements were ultimately replaced in post-production. As systems like Ncam become more sophisticated, the quality of the material captured on set will only improve. Sooner or later, it will be indistinguishable from anything that could be achieved in post-production.

So will we soon be conducting a post-mortem for post?

I don’t think so. I think directors are going to love the new process – why wouldn’t they? What they see is what they’ll get. But post-production is where films are built. That doesn’t just mean visual effects – what about the fundamental craft of editing? What about sound design and scoring? Like any creative work, films evolve in the making. If you ask me, post isn’t going away any time soon.

But I do think things are going to change. When this trend really does take hold, it’s going to shift the workload for visual effects facilities from post to pre-production. That means they’ll need longer lead times – easy to say, not so easy to implement. It may also mean visual effects become more closely integrated into the production process, and that has to be a good thing. Wouldn’t every VFX supervisor prefer to be a creative collaborator than a bolt-on extra?

Here’s a final thought for all those die-hards grumbling that this is just another nail in the coffin of old-school effects. Back in the earliest days of cinema, a matte artist would set up a big sheet of glass in front of the camera and paint the background right before the director’s eyes. Hanging miniatures – the original set extensions – were modelled in the workshop and mounted on rigs just inches from the lens. In both cases, when the director looked through his viewfinder, he saw the finished shot.

Once upon a time, everything was done in camera.

In the future, it looks like it will be again.

Smooth Moving Spaceships

Everyone has a favourite spaceship. Let’s face it, one of the reasons we like a good sci-fi movie is to ogle the hardware, right?

But beauty’s more than skin deep. As every visual effects afficionado knows, it’s not enough for an interstellar hot-rod just to look pretty. Motion pictures are all about – you guessed it – motion.

Here’s a Top 3 list not of my favourite spaceships, but my favourite moves.

Smooth Moves - The Empire Strikes Back1. Millennium Falcon approaches asteroids – The Empire Strikes Back

It’s a no-brainer that Han Solo’s pirate ship should be on this list. But she’s such a smooth mover that picking just one shot from an entire saga is a real challenge.

The shot I propose comes right at the start of the asteroid field chase sequence, just after Han’s opined that the Empire would be “crazy to follow us.” The shot’s square-on from the side, with the Falcon flying right to left, gaining a little in the frame. Deploying one of her trademark drunken rolls, she veers hard to port to avoid a spinning rock, swoops right up to the camera until she fills the screen, and shocks approximately half the audience into jumping violently enough to hurl their popcorn in the air.

On paper, it’s just a throwaway editorial beat. In practice, ILM’s effortless wielding of the motion control camera combines with John Williams’s triumphant score to create the cinematic equivalent of a sharp intake of breath before the exhilarating rollercoaster plunge.

Smooth Moves - Aliens2. Dropship exits SulacoAliens

Some spaceships mean business. Ships like the dropship from Aliens. It looks its absolute best in the audacious shot that comes at the climax of the “prep for drop” sequence, during which the Colonial Marines get psyched for planetfall. You know, the one where that futuristic Apache doesn’t just exit the Sulaco‘s hold … it plummets.

This dynamic shot was produced by Brian Johnson’s company, Arkadon, using a 100-foot motion control track. Conceptually, it’s a stunner. The camera starts off looking straight up at the Sulaco while the dropship plunges towards it. A rapid track and pan enables the streamlined craft to perform a close fly-past before powering away from camera and diving into the planetary atmosphere.

Technically, the last few frames are creaky, with visible matte lines and shaky tracking of the background plate marring the comp. I can forgive that. At its heart, this is a dizzying, celebratory shot, perfectly timed to ram the narrative unashamedly into a higher gear.

Smooth Moves - Apollo 133. Command Module falls towards Earth – Apollo 13

Sometimes (often in fact) less is more. Of all the gorgeous space shots produced by Digital Domain for Apollo 13, my favourite is the one that heralds the final re-entry sequence. It follows the moment Tom Hanks tells his fellow astronauts it’s been a privilege flying with them.

The shot begins with the Earth’s limb occupying most of the frame,with just a sliver of starfield visible top right. As the camera performs a gentle roll, the command module enters from camera right and drops away in a smooth, straight line towards the centre of the screen. Barely three seconds long, you could say the shot performs the same “take a deep breath” trick as the Empire shot. You could also argue that it resembles the Aliens shot in that it features a ship falling towards a planet.

But the Apollo 13 shot is chalk to their cheese. No high-octane thrills here, just the simple message that here is a shining silver capsule with three living souls trapped inside. The tiny craft looks impossibly vulnerable before the immense face of its parent world. And it’s falling …

Every shot tells a story. The ones on my list tell theirs supremely well. Now it’s over to you. Can you come up with moves that are smoother than mine?

GRAVITY

The Cinefex staff had the opportunity to see an IMAX 3D screening of “Gravity” last night. I won’t risk spoiling the film by commenting on its content; but, I will repeat what Don Shay said as we stood outside the theater afterward: “Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a game-changer. This is one of those films.” Indeed. It certainly changed my perception of stereoscopic filmmaking. I’ve never been a 3D enthusiast. Even when it was done superbly, as in “Avatar,” it left me uninspired. “Yeah, yeah, look at the firefly things floating toward me. Saw the same thing in that old Michael Jackson flick at Disneyland years ago. When do we get back to the story?” For the first time last night, I felt what a 3D experience can be — especially in IMAX. I wasn’t just watching these characters in space; I was there, with them. It ratcheted the film from tense to harrowing. My palms are still sweating, just as they did when I was a little girl and watched grainy black and white footage of real-life spacewalks. It made me nervous, as all I could think was: What if that cable breaks? I wanted those astronauts back in the cocoon of their spacecraft as soon as possible. Those thoughts and feelings were intensified as I watched “Gravity” last night. It is a beautiful, awe-inspiring film, with a subtle and moving performance by Sandra Bullock. It is a game-changer.

Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

Superman looks ridiculous.

I’m not talking about the whole underwear-on-the-outside thing. Nor that curly bit of hair that always hangs down over his brow. I’m talking about how he looks when he’s flying across a movie screen. I’m sorry but, however well it’s executed, the visual effect of Kal-El zooming through the skies is just fundamentally wrong.

Before all you Supie fans clench your Kryptonian fists and punch me through the nearest wall, I should probably qualify that statement. The shots I specifically take issue with are the classic “speeding bullet” ones. You know, the shots where our hero is racing along in a prone position with one or both hands thrust forward. The shots that make it look like the poor sap’s been shot out of a circus cannon.

The shots that work better are the ones where Superman is landing or taking off, and especially the ones where he’s just kind of hanging around. The very best shots in Man of Steel are those where he looks like an angel.

I have a theory about why this is.

When I was young, I often dreamed I could fly. But not once did I adopt the speeding bullet pose. Instead, I floated. I drifted. I was thistledown on the wind. I believe this rapturous fantasy of flight is not only commonplace, but deeply rooted in the human psyche. It may well derive from the kind of out-of-body experiences enjoyed by shamans in ancient societies. Now let’s factor in the angel idea. Many religious stories have images of people taking to the air, often in a state of rapture. Unaided human flight has nothing to do with blasting through the stratosphere. It’s a vision, a delirium.

In short, it’s a real trip.

That’s why I think Superman looks great when he’s all floaty, and mildly absurd when he’s doing his impression of a cruise missile. Unlike Iron Man, who just looks cool.

“Aha!” I hear you cry. “Why the double standards? What’s Tony Stark got that Supie doesn’t?”

First, he has a suit. There’s nothing magical about Iron Man’s ability to defy gravity. He’s not a god. He’s a pilot. We instinctively know this, so when he makes with the aerobatics, we instantly buy into what we’re seeing. Second, Tony holds his arms down by his sides. This makes him look like a skydiver. We know skydivers really exist, and again we buy the illusion.

Of course, what I’m touching on here is a much bigger issue, namely: “How do you go about making a visual effects shot look convincing if the underlying concept is essentially absurd?” Oh, and by ‘convincing’ I don’t mean artistically and technically beautiful (heaven knows Man of Steel is positively bulging with shots fitting that description, including the speeding bullet ones I’m lambasting) – I’m just talking about shots that look right. But I think I’ll save that argument for another day. Right now, it’s poor old Kal-El that I’m worried about.

As I see it, Superman has two choices. He can work on his “angel” routine and commit to swapping speed for floatiness. Granted he may not always get to the bad guys in time. Granted a few more innocent bystanders may get iced. But, when the Man of Steel does eventually arrive to save the day, at least he’ll look awesome.

Supie’s other option is to give Tony Stark a call. I’m sure they could work something out. After all, Stark has plenty of spare suits. Kal-El with afterburners? Now that’s what I call a superhero!

So how about it? Do you believe a man can fly?

Warning! May Contain Monsters

Warning - May Contain Monsters

Why are you here?

It’s a profound question. But don’t panic – I’m not going to get bogged down in all that “I think, therefore I am” nonsense. I just want to know why you’re here. As in here reading the brand-new Cinefex blog.

To help you get to grips with this tricky existential question, I’ve devised a simple checklist. Using it couldn’t be simpler. Just scan the items and make a mental note of every one that applies to you. Ready? Set? Go!

  1. You like robots, monsters, dizzying cityscapes and anything that explodes.
  2. You’re able to use the term “subsurface scattering” in everyday conversation.
  3. You always stay in your movie theatre seat until the last credit has rolled.
  4. Your online avatar has spent most of this year tinted green.
  5. You’ve just about worn out the frame-by-frame viewing button on your Blu-ray player’s remote control.
  6. You always look for the join where the live action meets the matte painting.
  7. You know at least 10 different quotes from Star Wars.
  8. Your friends are always telling you to shut up about how the shot was done and just watch the damn film.
  9. Your blood runs cold whenever you hear the phrase, “We’ll fix it in post.”
  10. You know where the zipper is in the back of the monster suit.

How did you score? If just one of the above rings a bell, the Cinefex blog is the place for you. If you identify with all ten, I hope you’ll settle in and make yourself comfortable, because I reckon we have a lot in common.

So, now you’re reading the blog, what can you expect to find here? Well, stuff about visual effects, obviously. I’ll be here with a new article every Tuesday. Cinefex publisher Don Shay nabbed yesterday’s inaugural slot (well, it is his magazine, after all), but as a special launch bonus I’ll be here all through this week, with a new post on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, before settling into my regular weekly routine.

My plan is simply to ramble on (as only a good geek can ramble) about whatever’s caught my fancy in the VFX universe. It’s a big universe, one that not only boasts a rich, romantic past, but also holds the promise of some quite astounding miracles still to come. As for what’s happening here in the present, well, that can get pretty exciting, too.

It’s a fair bet some of the articles will feature robots. Others will undoubtedly contain monsters. From time to time, I may even throw in a little subsurface scattering. If you get tired of all that, we’ll take a flight over a dizzying cityscape or two.

Very occasionally, something might explode.

Wait a second. Rewind. We never did answer that opening question, did we? Why are you here? Now’s the time to tell me. Whether you’re an active VFX professional or a movie-obsessed couch potato, I’d love to know what it is about visual effects that makes your pulse race … or maybe your blood boil. Just post your answers in the comments box below. Don’t be shy – you’re among friends.

In the meantime, I’m going to try and get out of this suit. Wouldn’t you know it, the zipper’s stuck again …