About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Alien – 35 Years On

Alien Poster 1979Everyone remembers their first time. Mine came when I was fourteen years old, in the darkness of a cinema on the south coast of England. The experience was gripping, deeply immersive, and accompanied by the sickly-sweet smell of popcorn and the occasional blood-curdling scream. Yes, I’m talking about that moment familiar to any movie geek: the first time I fell head-over-heels in love with a film.

Why? What did you think I was talking about?

The film that captured my heart all those years ago was Ridley Scott’s seminal deep-space horror Alien, which had its first US theatrical release 35 years ago this month. Twentieth Century Fox are celebrating the anniversary throughout 2014 – here’s what Jeffrey Godsick, president of Fox Consumer Products, has to say about their planned merchandising programme:

As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of one of the most successful film franchises of all time,  we are thrilled to introduce an array of commemorative products across different categories in partnership with iconic brands including NECA, SEGA and many more. In addition to the highly anticipated release of Alien: Isolation™, hardcore fans can finally add Lieutenant Ellen Ripley to their Alien collections as we welcome her NECA figures into the family of officially-licensed merchandise. Many other exciting first-time and limited edition products will also be released to celebrate this exciting milestone.

35 years! Jeez, where did the time go?

Alien first hit the screens in 1979, but it must have been early 1980 before I experienced my popcorn-and-screams rite of passage (in those days, we Brits frequently had to wait months for the latest blockbuster to cross the Atlantic). I saw Alien again on its subsequent re-releases – including a memorable double feature that paired it with John Carpenter’s The Fog. I’ve watched it countless times since on both VHS and DVD, and you know what? It’s never failed to work its magic on me.

Filming the Space Jockey

Production designer Michael Seymour suggested that the space jockey be mounted on a rotating platform so that only a small portion of the background wall would need to be constructed.

So why do I love Alien so much?

One reason, I’m sure, is the impressionable age at which I first saw it. Many of my abiding movie memories were made in the 1980s, when I spent endless summers scrunching my gangly teenage body into sticky seats and gawping at the wonders unveiled on the screen. The films of that era were the myths of my youth: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Gremlins, Back to the Future … I loved them all then, and I love them all still.

Alien was extra-special because it was the first film I anticipated with the boundless enthusiasm of the true film fan. Before seeing it, I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, and devoured the tantalising text and eye-popping pictures of The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross. By the time the big day came, I was stoked.

At fourteen, I was too young to be admitted into an X-Certificate programme. So I got my dad to buy the tickets and sneak me in past the signs suggesting that epileptics and pregnant women might want to give the show a miss (yes, really). Did my big coat and surly attitude convince the cinema staff I was eighteen? Almost certainly not.

Did I care? I’ll give you one guess.

Alien mechanised head by Giger and Rambaldi

The mechanical alien head was sculpted by HR Giger and mechanised by Carlo Rambaldi. Much of the rich detail was obscured by a smooth translucent shell (absent here) which covered totally the upper portion of the head.

As well as captivating me from atmospheric start to nail-biting finish, Alien also introduced me to the world of visual and special effects. For the first time in my life, I understood there were people who actually did this stuff for a living. After seeing the film, and armed with this knowledge, I loaded up my bookshelves with yet more behind-the-scenes goodies. Pride of place went to Giger’s Alien by HR Giger and issue #1 of a magazine you may have heard of, called Cinefex.

No sooner had I started to appreciate visual effects than I found myself looking at them with a critical eye. Why did the Nostromo seem to judder as it moved across the screen in the two opening shots? Could it be that the shutter speed was set too fast, reducing the motion blur and making the image strobe? Why are there no stars in that section of space the ship is moving through? Oh, I see, it’s so they can do a simple double exposure and not have to bother with traveling mattes.

Ridley Scott and Facehugger

Ridley Scott briefs John Hurt as one of the effects technicians drapes animal intestines from the alien face-hugger, one of three dummy models made by Roger Dicken.

I also found myself appreciating the way the visual effects integrated with the rest of the movie. Gasping at the gorgeous wide shot of the alien derelict, I judged that some of its power must come from the artful timing of the reveal, following as it does a claustrophobic jumble of hand-held shots as the three astronauts stumble through the bleak, bonelike terrain. And, for all the effort that went into creating the various incarnations of the titular creature, you barely see it on screen … and yet still it leaves a lasting impression.

My wife rolls her eyes when she catches me getting all analytical like this. She wonders how I can enjoy a film when all I want to do is take it apart. I explain that spotting the joins is part of the enjoyment.

We agree to disagree.

And I continue to dissect movies, with an delight that began 35 years ago, when the lights went down, and the camera started that slow pan across the curve of an alien world, and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score crawled down the back of my neck and set its claws deep into my spine. A delight which has lasted ever since.

Alien – I thank you.

Do you remember the first time you saw Alien? Did it affect you in the same way it affected me? Maybe there’s another film that triggered your strange obsession with visual effects – or with films in general. If so, what is it, and just why did it get under your skin?

Alien photographs copyright© 1979 by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Production still unit photography by Bob Penn.

F is for Frames

Cinefex - "F" is for "Frames"In the VFX ABC, the letter “F” stands for “Frames”.

In the June 1926 edition of American Cinematographer, pioneering cinematographer Carl Gregory wrote an article entitled Trick Photography Methods Summarized. In it, he divided visual effects into fifteen separate categories.

Here’s a condensed version of Gregory’s list:

  1. “Straight cinematography – a series of frames taken at the approximate speed of sixteen exposures per second”
  2. “Slow motion – in which the taking rate is considerably increased”
  3. “Time condensation – decreasing the taking speed to such an extent that movements which take place slowly appear to occur in a few seconds”
  4. “Trick crank or one picture turn”
  5. “Reverse camera – the showing of pictures in reverse order”
  6. “Masks or mattes – enhancing the illusion of scenes observed through a keyhole, telescope or other familiar orifice”
  7. “Stop camera and substitute – one of the oldest and most familiar of trick devices”
  8. “Fade and dissolve – similar to stop camera, but a gradual instead of abrupt change”
  9. “Double/multiple exposure – for dual roles, visions and ghostly”
  10. “Glass work – a variety of simultaneous double exposure”
  11. “Simultaneous double exposure by means of mirrors and prisms”
  12. “Double printing – making a composite negative by duping from two or more specially prepared positives and masking devices, or in making a special positive from two or more negatives and then duping the result”
  13. “Traveling matte – figures in action may be superimposed against any background without being necessary to build any sets at all”
  14. “Projection printing”
  15. “Other mechanical devices too numerous to even attempt their listing”

Gregory’s list – fascinating to visual effects historians for any number of reasons – splits neatly down the middle. Items 1,2,3,4,5,7 and 8 describe methods that are dependent upon the movement of film through the camera. The rest (with the exception of the catch-all 15) describe a range of compositing techniques.

In other words, half the tricks in the early VFX artist’s magic box were concerned with frame rate.

Carl Louis Gregory, Yellowstone, 1914

Carl Louis Gregory, Yellowstone, 1914 – image by Frank Mt Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives

Frames On Film

At this point, I should probably explain the antiquated moviemaking system that prevailed before digital cameras appeared on the scene (and which many filmmakers still favour). Once upon a time, all films were made using, well, film – clear strips of celluloid impregnated with photosensitive chemicals. Sprockets in the camera engaged with regularly-spaced holes in the celluloid, moving the film along in a series of jerks.

After each jerk, the film came to a brief halt. A shutter (mechanically linked to the jerking mechanism) opened, allowing light from the camera lens to fall on a designated rectangle of film. After a predetermined time, the shutter closed, and the film jerked on.

At the time Gregory was writing, film moved through the camera at around 16 jerks per second. When the talkies came along, the demands of sound recording upped the jerk-rate to 24 per second; this has remained the industry standard ever since.

Frames In Early VFX

Carl Gregory’s focus on frame rates is entirely consistent with the thinking of the day. In 1926, moving pictures were an emerging art form, with much attention being paid to the mechanics of their production (some might say nothing’s changed). It was only natural for imaginative cinematographers like Gregory to experiment with their new-fangled contraptions.

I can hear the conversation now:

Look, sixteen jerks a second creates the perfect illusion of fluid movement.

Right, but see what happens if I crank at thirty-two jerks a second, and project at sixteen. Look! Everyone’s walking in slow motion!

Neat! What happens if you crank at just eight jerks?

Haha! Now they’re all jittering around like clockwork toys!

Ooh, check this out. If I crank just one frame, then wait a while, then crank another, I can speed up the movement of this blooming flower, thus shedding light on a natural process previously unobservable by the human eye.

I can do a similar thing to make this model dinosaur trample a caveman!

What should we call this technique? How about “stop motion”?

Nah. “Stop motion” is when you stop the camera, substitute one thing in the picture for another, then start cranking again.

Like that film you made when the actor turned into an umbrella stand?

Right. Let’s call it “trick crank” instead.

Yeah. That’s much more likely to catch on.

And so on.

Gregory’s list illustrates the way visual effects techniques are dependent upon – and indeed driven by – the technology of the day. Back in 1926, that technology was dominated by the jerky passage of a celluloid frame through a mechanical camera movement.

But that was ninety years ago. How have things changed? Are visual effects artists still fascinated by frame rates?

Frames Today

Frames are still the building blocks of cinema. But they don’t hold quite the same sway as they used to. In 1926, an animator might have brought a dinosaur to life using trick crank animation, painstakingly composing each individual frame by hand. Modern dinosaur animators are more likely to think in terms of keyframes – critical poses that might be one, two, four or more actual frames apart – and leave their software to calculate all the intervening frames (inbetweens).

Alternatively, animators might derive the movement of an object based on a spline – or mathematical trajectory. In this case, all they’re concerned with is how long an object (or part of an object) takes to move from point A to point B (and most likely on to points C, D and E), together with its attitude and acceleration as it departs one point and approaches the next. In this case, until render time, frames are essentially irrelevant.

The same applies to sims. For example, an FX artist might use a fluid simulation to generate a tsunami. Frames don’t matter much until it’s time to output the scene, any more than a live action camera operator would pay them much heed when pointing his lens at a real-life tidal wave (let’s face it, he’d more likely be planning his escape route once he’d captured the catastrophe on film).

All the same, even in this digital age, movies are still captured, rendered and projected as a sequence of discrete frames. Ultimately, each individual frame is a vital part of the whole. What’s more, given the tools now available to the visual effects artist, each individual frame can be massaged to the nth degree.

In other words, frames still count.

More Frames

Whether you’re a visual effects artist, a film aficionado, or just an eager fan, you’ll probably know about high frame rates. Put simply, HFR means more jerks per second (not that a digital camera actually jerks, but you get the picture). Like it or not, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy has unleashed 48fps upon the world. With James Cameron poised to deliver Avatar 2, 3 and 4 at 60fps, it looks like high frames rates aren’t going away any time soon.

For the visual effects artist, having more frames creates more work. It also means you get to work with a broader palette, providing more opportunities to craft the subtleties of a moving image to a degree not previously possible.

To illustrate, here’s Weta Digital animation supervisor David Clayton, talking about animating Gollum at 48fps on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey*:

If we were to animate a blink at 24 frames per second, we’d have two frames down, maybe hold the blink for one, and then relax the blink off over three frames. At 48 frames per second, that would take four frames down, and then maybe hold for two, and then maybe six or seven frames back up. So something that used to take five frames, now takes ten, which means we can break down any movement into smaller, more detailed parts.

Goblin King animation rig - The Hobbit - Weta Digital

With “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, the high frame rate allowed Weta Digital to introduce extra subtleties into the performances of their digital characters, including the goblin king, performed by Barry Humphries.

Is this broader palette always better? Of course not. But it exists, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that frame rate – along with all its associated advantages and disadvantages – is no longer an imposed restriction but an artistic choice.

It’s no coincidence that one of the earliest proponents of high frame rates was a VFX professional. During the 1980s, Douglas Trumbull developed a 60fps system called Showscan. While Showscan failed to reach the theatrical market, it found a home in theme park rides, and paved the way for the future developments that are beginning to crystallise around us.

No Frames

What if you could get rid of frames altogether? Is such a thing possible?

Frameless image capture records moving images not as a series of frames, but as a continuous stream of information. Light passes through a lens to fall on an array of sensels (as with any digital camera). But, instead of recording the data as a sequence of individual frames, the camera software records the output of each sensel as a continuous waveform. Thus the sample rate – or frame rate – of the camera becomes irrelevant.

The concept of frameless image capture is presented here in Frameless, time domain continuous image capture by Henry Gordon Dietz, Univ. of Kentucky (United States).

Then there’s the idea of adaptive frameless rendering, as presented by Ben Watson, David Luebke, Abhinav Dayal, and Cliff Woolley at the 2005 Eurographics Symposium on Rendering. Instead of slavishly updating motion picture images one frame at a time, this process continuously samples a scene and prioritises what gets redrawn according to a range of criteria. Typically, a area of the scene containing fast motion will be redrawn more frequently than one in which the scene elements are static. In theory, it’s a little like a video compression algorithm. In practice, it’s a step away from the tyranny of the individual movie frame.

This video explains how adaptive frameless rendering works:

The above concepts are yet to gain a foothold in the film industry at large. But their very emergence is evidence that fundamental change may be on the horizon. Which raises an interesting question:

Are the days of the frame numbered?

Conclusion

I’ve barely scratched the surface of frames. If you want to dig deeper (and why wouldn’t you?) there’s no better place to start than this video, in which a panel comprising Bruce Jacobs, Mark Schubin, Larry Thorpe and – of course – Douglas Trumbull embark on The Great Frame Rate Debate (Part 1):

For links to the rest of this debate, visit the PBS Quality Group YouTube channel.

I’ll leave it to Carl Gregory to round things off. It’s impossible to read his 1926 list of the fifteen visual effects methods without wondering what an equivalent list might look like today. Would it feature physics simulations and 3D geometry? What about motion capture, photogrammetry, digital matte painting or rotoscoping?

Whatever might be on that list (we’ll have to leave compiling it for another day), Gregory makes one statement that’s as true today as it was in 1926:

The trick photographer leaves no stone unturned in seeking to produce the desired effect and any device which lends itself to his use is considered his legitimate ally.

Below is an online version of Carl Gregory’s American Cinematographer article from the Media History Digital Library (unfortunately, Gregory’s introduction is on page 9, which didn’t get scanned, but if you zip forward to page 16 you’ll be able to read the bulk of the article without any problem):

*Quote taken from There and Back Again by Jody Duncan, Cinefex #132.
Image from
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros Pictures. All rights reserved.

Dragon Smackdown! “Game of Thrones” vs “The Hobbit”

The Great Cinefex Dragon Smackdown

Dragons are taking over the world.

Well, that’s how it seems to me. With Game of Thrones dominating the TV schedules, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug just out on Blu-ray, it’s a wonder we haven’t all been burned to a crisp.

All these dragons set me off asking a whole bunch of questions. For example, both GoT and The Hobbit are adapted from best-selling novels, so just how close have the visual effects artists come to accurately portraying the dragons as they were originally written?

Another thing I’m dying to know is this: if you pitted the various dragons against each other, which one would win?

To help me find the answers, I’ve drafted in the following experts:

  • Joe Bauer (visual effects supervisor on HBO’s Game of Thrones)
  • Jane Johnson (George RR Martin’s UK publisher and former Tolkien publisher. Writing as Jude Fisher, Jane is also author of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Visual Companions)
  • Elio M. García (one half of the team behind the George RR Martin fansite Westeros.org)
  • Kirsten Cairns (from the Tolkien fansite TheOneRing.net)
  • Jody Duncan (Cinefex editor in chief and author of the Songs of Ice and Fire article on the VFX of Game of Thrones)
  • Joe Fordham (Cinefex associate editor and author of the Pete’s Dragon article on the VFX of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

Before we hear from our panel, let’s quickly remind ourselves about the dragons they’ll be talking about.

Smaug

Smaug is the chief villain in JRR Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. Known for hoarding gold, he’s described as a “greedy, strong and wicked worm”. His armoured coat of jewel-encrusted scales appears impenetrable, although rumour has it even the mighty Smaug has an Achilles heel …

Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion

In George RR Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (better known to TV viewers as Game of Thrones), dragons were long thought to be extinct. Then Daenerys Targaryen hatched three dragons which look set to grow … and grow …

"Game of Thrones" Series 4 Dragon

Season Four of “Game of Thrones” will offer many more shots of the dragons, now significantly bigger and aggressive enough to challenge Daenerys’s control.

Dragon Smackdown – The Hobbit vs Game of Thrones

So, let’s get down to it. It’s smackdown time!

How do the dragons in the film and TV adaptations match up to your own personal vision? Is Smaug the dragon you always imagined? How about Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion?

Jane Johnson
I’m sure everyone has their own mind’s eye view of the word “dragon”. Mine probably comes as much from Beowulf and Robin Hobb as it does from JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin. And it’s rare that any interpretation of characters on the screen, whether big or small, match your own imagination. But I think in each case the dragons are mightily impressive, which is not surprising given the immense talent of the creative teams behind each enterprise. Having said that, Daenerys’s dragons in the HBO series more closely match my personal vision than Peter Jackson’s Smaug, which is bulkier and more immense than the way Tolkien draws him. But a “wyrm” would have been far less awe-inspiring inside Jackson’s massive treasure hall: Peter’s film version of The Hobbit is deliberately more gargantuan than the original story, everything taken to the max.

Elio M García Jr
I think the dragons in Game of Thrones are very close in appearance to those in the books. They’ve grown perhaps a bit less serpentine than Martin suggested, as they’ve remodeled them through the seasons. But they’re still quite close. Viserion and Rhaegal could perhaps be a bit more vivid in color, and of course Viserion is more of a bronze color than the cream which is supposed to dominate, but those are quibbles.

Kirsten Cairns
I absolutely LOVE PJ’s Smaug. I was worried about how they would manage to bring the Magnificent One to the screen, but they totally nailed it. I didn’t really have a personal vision of Smaug, although I was a big fan of the Rankin Bass Hobbit film when I was little, so I’ve always that Smaug in my head. Plus I love Tolkien’s own illustrations, so there were several images of Smaug that were with me whenever I read the book.

Were you surprised when Peter Jackson turned Smaug from a four-legged dragon into a two-legged one for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug? Do you think it was the right decision?

Jane Johnson
I think in the context of the movie, which has to amaze and thrill in 3D and on an IMAX screen, a slithery, wormlike dragon like ones in the Anglo-Saxon literature that inspired Tolkien would have looked inadequate. And to have only back legs would have made him, I think, less menacing. Peter Jackson’s Smaug can move fast on four limbs, and can grasp things – and people! Much scarier if you’re Bilbo or Thorin.

Kirsten Cairns
I didn’t really notice it. Smaug’s front arms/wings have such a leg-like function. I mean, he still kind of seems like a four-legged creature to me; his wings just happen to be attached to those front legs. Works for me. (Also, I don’t recall Tolkien ever specifically saying he is four-legged; he always drew Smaug that way, of course, but whilst he refers to “all his limbs” and to his wings, he doesn’t state in the book that the wings are separate from the limbs. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong on that!) So I think it’s fine for everyone – including Jackson and his team – to reimagine their own version of the Greatest of all Calamities!

Tell me one thing you think is really cool about the dragons in each of the shows.

Elio M García Jr
The fact that they’re getting across personalities among the three dragons in Game of Thrones is quite an impressive feat.

Kirsten Cairns
In the book of The Hobbit, I love how cunning Smaug is – how awesome is it for a monster to TALK to the creature they want to kill? He’s like some kind of evil genius, playing games which his victims; the Hannibal Lecter of the dragonworld!  In Jackson’s movie, I love that Smaug is genuinely terrifying. I couldn’t get enough of seeing that dragon on the big screen – his leering, cruel face was so frightening.

Jane Johnson
Smaug’s voice is great. Benedict Cumberbatch had given the monster such personality. With Dany’s dragons the best is yet to come: they’re not full-grown yet and we haven’t seen them at their scariest. It will be quite a challenge for the HBO team to create dragons who represent the most terrifying weapons in what is otherwise largely a realistic medieval world. But they seem to me so very realistic, which is an amazing achievement for CGI on a TV budget, even given the size of the production budget. And, as far as I’m aware, George RR Martin is very happy with them.

How do you think JRR Tolkien would have reacted to Peter Jackson’s version of Smaug?

Jane Johnson
I wouldn’t presume to know! It’s actually an impossible question to ask: it’s all about context and believability on the big screen, seeing the achievement of creating the dragon within the spectrum of modern cinema effects. And since Professor Tolkien passed away in 1973 he wouldn’t have had that context unless he was still with us.

Smackdown time! It’s Smaug against a tag team of Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion. Who wins and why?

Joe Bauer
Great question! Smaug would have no problem smashing our season 1-3 dragons. Season 4 trio could heat individual parts of Smaug up pretty well, though I fear they wouldn’t survive a full-on mighty blast from the Tolkien dragon. Season 5-size GoTs would narrow the playing field considerably and, by season 7, I fear Smaug would be out-gunned. His long serpentine neck could be thought of as a boxer’s reach and he’s way smarter than our guys, but in sheer brute force the tag team would eventually wear him down. A Season 7 Drogon vs Smaug smackdown would be thrilling to watch!

Jane Johnson
That’s hardly fair is it, three against one? Smaug is a massive flying flame-thrower, a terrifying fire-drake. But Dany’s dragons are fast and manoeuvrable. If a single arrow can bring down Tolkien’s dragon, what chance would he stand against three of his own kind? I know who my money’s on …

Elio M García Jr
I’m afraid that battles among dragons in the world of Ice and Fire are generally decided by whichever is biggest and strongest. Unfortunately for Daenerys’s three dragons, they have a LOT of growing left to do. Smaug would consider them snacks at this point.

Jody Duncan
I’d put my bet on Smaug to win that fight, for three reasons: (1) He’s bigger than all three of the Game of Thrones dragons put together (at least for now); (2) The Game of Thrones dragons have been spoiled by an over-indulgent mother (I mean, really, hand-feeding them pieces of braised meat?); (3) Smaug has a bigger budget behind him!

Kirsten Cairns
Oh, Smaug would win, easily.  Dragons have got smaller with each successive age; Smaug, a Third Age dragon, is nothing in comparison to Ancalagon the Black, from the First Age. (In George RR Martin’s world, too, the dragons we meet seem to be smaller than the more ancient ones whose skulls are seen in the Red Keep.) I think Smaug is closer in size to those mighty dragons of forgotten times, so the three little ones in Game of Thrones would be no match for him. They might annoy him, snapping round his ankles, but he’d soon shut them up. It would be like a Great Dane dealing with three chihuahuas!

Joe Fordham
I’m not an expert on Game of Thrones. But I will say, for sheer feistiness, Vermithrax Pejorative (created by Phil Tippett for Dragonslayer), or Harry Potter’s Ukrainian Ironbelly (created by Double Negative for Harry Potter 8) may have given Smaug – or the Game of Thrones dragons – a run for their money.

So there it is. Smaug is the winner, largely by virtue of his overwhelming size. Once they reach maturity, however, I reckon his Game of Thrones competitors might just have the edge. Thanks to all the panelists for taking part!

But wait! What do you think? Can there ever be a fair fight between these four fabulous fire-breathers? Who really is the greatest dragon of them all?

In the great dragon smackdown, which wyrm wins?

Cinefex 137

Visual effects for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by:

Visual effects for Game of Thrones by:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug photographs copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros Enteratinment. All rights reserved. Game of Thrones photographs copyright © 2011-14 by Home Box Office. All rights reserved.

VFX Nation Welcomes You

VFX Nation Welcomes You - courtesy of Cinefex

The year is 2025. You’re a visual effects artist working on the latest big-budget blockbuster, and it’s time to start your day’s work.

Once you’ve silenced the gentle chimes of your morning alarm, you scan the ubernet headlines. The ubernet knows better than you what stories will catch your eye, so there’s no need to browse. Everything’s just there on your smartwall, exactly where you need it.

Two coffees later and you’re all set. Your Oculus IV headset materialises a keyboard in front of your eyes; a coded flick of your wrist unlocks it. You enter your passport details and allow the headset to scan your retina.

The instant your identity is confirmed, your smartscreen opens a three-dimensional window on an aerial view of a vast ocean. You swoop through clouds, descending rapidly towards a tiny green dot adrift in the sea. The dot grows bigger, becomes an island. The terrain is verdant green; snow-capped mountains rise in the interior.

You land at the island’s main terminal. An ubernet avatar greets you, checking your credentials a second time.

“Nice to see you again,” the avatar says. “VFX Nation welcomes you.”

You walk the short distance to your familiar office. It overlooks the sea. The view is to die for. Your colleagues greet you with friendly avatar smiles. In meatspace, they’re scattered around the globe, citizens of their own nation states and resident in their own time zones. But the ubernet has united them all here, in this common space, each artist travelling on an exclusive VFX passport.

How does this happens?

It happens because you and your colleagues are all citizens of an independent political entity, a virtual territory unfettered by international boundaries and laws. In VFX Nation, you work together to create visual effects for smartscreen theatre productions, Ultra-HD homeshows and multi-user Ocularena events.

Despite your diverse backgrounds, you are all together, here and now, working enthusiastically towards a common goal. Making magic in a virtual world.

You are citizens of VFX Nation.

If you think the above sounds far-fetched, think again. According to a major new survey, we can look forward to many such extraordinary changes in the coming years. The internet will penetrate so deeply into our lives that we’ll no more think about its functioning than we do about the flow of blood around our own bodies.

By 2025, data will be all-pervading. It will also be accessible in ever-more remote parts of the globe, to the point where traditional business models will start to break down. So too will concepts of sovereignty and national identity. New virtual nations will begin to form, built not around geographies, histories or ideologies, but around common interests and shared goals

In such a world, the concept of VFX Nation will be more than a geek’s wet dream.

It will be an inevitability.

At least, that’s what Elon University’s Digital Life in 2025 suggests. Here’s what internet pioneer David Hughes has to say in the survey report:

All 7-plus billion humans on this planet will sooner or later be “connected” to each other and fixed destinations, via the Uber(not inter)Net. That can lead to the diminished power over people’s lives within nation-states. When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish. Being replaced—over another 50 or more years—by self-organizing, trans-border people-groups.

Still sceptical? Well, it’s happening already. In this article for StudioDaily, Peter Plantec discusses the state of the art with regard to managing VFX artists remotely, using software like cineSync Pro, Shotgun, SyncSketch and Frankie. Plantec neatly summarises the benefits of such systems thus:

Sequence clips are uploaded to the cloud (or shared in real time over the net) and scheduled sessions allow all concerned to tune in to the clip discussion. Most allow the supervisor to make notes right on the clip, in note files, or even on stills from the clip that are stored online or downloaded. All concerned individuals with a digital key can access the notes and clips and even add to the discussion.

Cloud-based sharing? Individual digital keys? A virtual collaborative environment? Sounds like the foundations for VFX Nation to me.

Okay. But every country needs an economy. So what commodities does VFX Nation trade in? What resources does it possess? What’s its major export?

The answer’s obvious: visual effects, of course.

“But ‘visual effects’ is an abstract concept,” I hear you say. “You can’t put a digital matte painting in a crate like a bunch of bananas. It’s all just binary bits whizzing down a high-speed pipeline.”

Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the extraordinary odyssey of Daniel Lay – AKA VFX Soldier – as he fights to redefine the very definition of the term “visual effect”, you’ll know that binary bits are just as tangible – and taxable – as, well, bunches of bananas. Digital products (such as for example, the creative output of a digital effects facility) are commodities just like everything else.

VFX Soldier’s latest report from the front line includes this quote from an interview he did with Buzzfeed:

The MPAA and the [International Trade Commission] have confirmed our position that digital products are goods, their electronic transmission are effectively imports, and the Tariff Act applies, which contains not only strong anti-piracy provisions, but strong anti-subsidy duty provisions too.

So what about the end products that are made using this essential raw material known as visual effects? Are feature films compatible with the virtual sensibilities of VFX Nation? You bet your boots they are. In this recent article for Variety, David S Cohen reports on the following prediction made at the Technology Summit on Cinema in Las Vegas:

The hope is for a future where technology doesn’t limit filmmakers, where cameras and screens can reproduce almost anything the eye can see, where networks make collaboration effortless – in short, a future where filmmakers choose their own boundaries rather than being hemmed in by hardware and software. But in that future, theaters may become the lowest-quality way to view content, trailing Ultra-HD TV and Internet devices that leave UHD eating their dust.

While this vision is as cautionary as it is inspirational, the language should be familiar to all those hoping for a ticket to VFX Nation: “a future where filmmakers choose their own boundaries,” is the assertion.

So what about the studios? There’s no sense in filmmakers and artists marching into the future if the suits don’t march with them. And studio executives aren’t exactly renowned for being forward-thinking, are they?

Or are they? As reported by Devin Leonard in Business Week, Disney-owned Marvel Studios have just announced a release strategy that looks as far ahead as 2028. That’s three years after 2025, the date to which Elon University’s survey looks ahead. By then we’ll have more than just the foundations of VFX Nation in place – the borders will have been marked out and the building work will be well under way. In Leonard’s article, Disney CEO Robert Iger has a seemingly endless list of potential future superhero projects:

Iger would like to replicate the success of The Avengers with other Marvel teams. He says Marvel could potentially spin off members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which include Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon, in their own features. In November, Disney announced a deal with Netflix (NFLX) to create individual TV shows about Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones. They will join forces in a fifth series called The Defenders. Iger and Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, recently met with the Marvel team to talk about new heroes who will be introduced in Age of Ultron and could be spun off in their own films as well. Iger declines to name them. “The possibilities are endless,” he says.

2025 is just eleven years away. Where will you be then? Will you be trudging to work down the same city street along with the rest of the commuters? Will you be packing your suitcase in a faceless hotel room, just another pixel gypsy on an endless trek from one subsidised territory to another?

Or will you be turning up at passport control on a remote island in a virtual sea, a citizen not only of your own homeland, but of an independent republic whose constitution was written exclusively for you?

Will you be a citizen of VFX Nation?

Celebrating Cinefex – Tickets Available!

Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you love visual effects? So do we! To share that love, we’re staging our very own celebration in Los Angeles on May 16th 2014.

Celebrating Cinefex is a special evening of conversation with Cinefex founder and publisher Don Shay, Cinefex editor in chief Jody Duncan, and visual effects supervisors Craig Barron and Jeffrey A. Okun.

We’ll be at a beautiful venue: the Billy Wilder Theater, located in the Hammer Museum in Westwood, LA. Tickets are available right now for just $10. We’ll see you there!

Thanks to UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Visual Effects Society for hosting the event. Image by Benjamin D. Esham via Wikimedia Commons.

Seeing Double – Twinning in the Movies

"Orphan Black" poster imageWhat’s the best visual effect of them all? Which camera trick brings everything together to make a perfect whole – conceptual elegance, technical expertise, editorial sleight of hand, dramatic performance? Which cinematic illusion wins the grand VFX prize? My answer may split opinion.

It’s the twinning effect.

I know. You’re scratching your head in puzzlement. How is creating twins more impressive than blowing up a planet? Does a pair of chatty clones really beat a ninety-foot robot grappling a multi-tentacled mutant from another dimension?

Yes. And yes. Let me tell you why. But first, let me explain what I’m talking about.

By “twinning”, I mean the process whereby a single actor plays two or more roles in the same film. For the performer, it’s a delicious challenge. For the visual effects artist, the challenge comes with the shots where both (or multiple) incarnations of said actor appear on screen at the same time.

"Orphan Black" clone strangling scene

One of the latest productions to use this time-honoured trick is the TV series Orphan Black, the second season of which begins its run on BBC America later this month. In the show, Tatiana Maslany plays a woman who encounters several cloned versions of herself and becomes caught up in a deadly conspiracy, in a remarkable performance that saw her nominated for a Golden Globe. Orphan Black’s visual effects are by Intelligent Creatures; according to visual effects producer Che Spencer, their mandate was “to push the effect and not settle for what was easy.”

Watch an Intelligent Creatures breakdown video of the extended “clone dance party” from the Orphan Black season 2 finale (including a surprise unaired ending):

We’ll hear more from Intelligent Creatures about Orphan Black in a moment, including a breakdown of one of Season One’s most daring multi-clone shots. Before then, let’s take a brief look at the history of the twinning effect.

Old-School Double Acts

A good early example of twinning is the 1944 Bing Crosby musical Here Come The Waves, in which Betty Hutton stars as identical twins Susan and Rosemary Allison. The film uses a fairly standard range of twinning tricks including a body double with her back to the camera, and judiciously-placed split screens.

"Here Come the Waves" trailer image

In many of the shots in Here Come The Waves, it’s easy to spot where split line is (the binary Betties are generally positioned on opposite sides of the screen, with plenty of empty set gaping between). Some shots – such as the one where both characters leave the stage after a dance number (at 1:45 in the clip below) – make effective use of a moving split, allowing the twins to occupy the same physical space, albeit after a small but convenient time interval.

For some journalists of the time, such trick photography was akin to witchcraft, as evidenced in a contemporary article from May 29, 1944 by Frederick C. Othman of Associated Press – here’s an extract:

This piece is going to be complicated; it involves two Betty Huttons and how can anybody expect you to understand what’s going on, when the writer doesn’t exactly understand himself? … The boys are making with the double talk about split screens and synchronous recordings. … If one Miss Hutton is a squillionth of an inch off her marks when she gets out of her chair, the other Miss Hutton is a blur. And, of course, vice versa. That’s because of the split screen (says Othman, who has only the vaguest idea of what he’s talking about).

Olivia de Havilland faces herself in "The Dark Mirror"

If Here Come The Waves exemplifies the early frivolous use of twinning techniques, The Dark Mirror, released two years later in 1946, is its shadowy counterpart.

In the film, Olivia de Havilland plays twins Terry and Ruth Collins, both suspected of murder and both possessing an alibi for the night the crime was committed. While this psychological melodrama uses similar techniques to Here Come The Waves, director Robert Siodmak exploits its darker themes with shots like the one at 1:20 in the clip below, in which moody lighting is used to conceal the use of the ever-reliable body double.

Before we run forward in time, let’s quickly wind the clock even further back to 1937 and take a look The Prisoner of Zenda, in which Ronald Colman plays both the king of Ruritaria and his English lookalike.

The Prisoner of Zenda contains an early example of twins not only appearing side by side, but also physically interacting, in a shot where the two Ronald Colmans shake hands. This quote from David O. Selznick’s Hollywood by Ronald Haver*, makes the intricate matte work used to pull the shot off sound deceptively straightforward:

The camera shot through a plate of sheet glass that had been taped to cover the area of the double’s head and shoulders. After exposing the action, the film was rewound in the camera, the plate glass was retaped to cover everything except the area of the double’s head and shoulders, and Colman changed costumes and stood in. Colman’s head and shoulders were then photographed in perfect register with the double’s body.

Attack of the Clones

Throughout the 20th century, there was a regular flow of twinning films, most of which relied on these familiar visual effects techniques – perhaps most famously when a young Hayley Mills played identical twins in The Parent Trap (1961). Then, in 1988, came a matched pair of twinning films that upped the ante and doubled the stakes.

The first was Big Business, which starred Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two sets of identical twins. The second was David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), in which Jeremy Irons played twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both films made a bold leap by using motion control to introduce camera moves into their split-screen shots.

Jeremy Irons doubles up in "Dead Ringers" (1988)

Luckily for us, when dissecting the revolutionary visual effects of Dead Ringers in Cinefex #36, Don Shay demonstrated a little more understanding of the twinning process than Here Come The Waves reporter Fred Offman did back in 1944:

The most difficult of the motion control setups was a reverse tracking shot of the twins walking towards camera. To compensate for normal arm and body sway, Film Effects of Toronto had to develop matting sequences that constantly shifted the split from side to side. And since diffused splits of varying widths were required – depending on background light levels – different splits were dissolved in and out as the scene progressed. From start to finish, the shot required four separate split-screen mattes – each with an average of four dissolves.

Once the Pandora’s Box of motion control twinning effects had been opened, there was no going back. From Back to the Future II through Multiplicity to Adaptation and beyond, filmmakers have experimented with ever-more elaborate ways of duplicating the talent. In The Social Network, Lola raised the bar higher than ever when they created the Vinklevoss twins by mapping Armie Hammer’s face on to that of fellow actor Josh Pence. Read all about how they did it in this excellent article at FXGuide.

These recent refinements mean filmmakers can now do proper justice to that staple of science fiction: the clone story. In The City of Lost Children, Pitof/Duboi presented us with more copies of Dominique Pinon than we knew what to do with. More recently, Moon pitted Sam Rockwell against, er, Sam Rockwell, in a stunning variety of clone scenes that showcased not only Rockwell’s acting chops, but Cinesite’s invisible digital effects.

In planning Moon’s judiciously-used clone shots, director Duncan Jones studied both Dead Ringers and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.  “[Spike] told me that when you’re working through scenes, you need to choose which character really leads the scene, and shoot that one first,” Jones remarked in Estelle Shay’s article Moon Madness (Cinefex #118).

Sam Rockwell checks his counterpart's temperature in "Moon"

The same article has the following to say about the above Cinesite split-screen shot in which “Sam1” feels the forehead of “Sam 2”:

In the hero pass, Rockwell as the ill Sam1 performed to a stand-in serving as Sam 2, with a C-stand used to record the position of the double’s left shoulder. In the second pass, Rockwell performed as Sam 2, aligning his shoulder with the marker and using his body to occlude that of the double. A third pass allowed for the removal of extra lighting, cameras and floor markers, and the shadow cast by the C-stand and opposing action. In post, Cinesite attached the double’s arm to Rockwell’s Sam 2 through careful rotoscoping and warping of clothing.

Orphan Black

All this talk of clones brings us neatly back to Orphan Black and Intelligent Creatures. Early on, the show’s producers told visual effects supervisor Geoff Scott that the budget wouldn’t allow for motion controlled camera moves, prompting Scott to explore other ways of taking away the curse of the locked-off twinning shot. In the end, however, motion control won the day, as described here by the Intelligent Creatures team:

Before production began we considered many different techniques from simple handheld camera moves to repeatable slider rigs, but ultimately it came down to a full motion control system.  In fact, we shot the scene from the pilot where Sarah meets Katja on two different motion control rigs before settling on what became the go to rig for the series – the Super TechnoDolly. The first of its generation, the TechnoDolly is a robotic camera system, essentially a smart Technocrane. It allowed us to create movements of unlimited length and complexity, and more importantly, repeat those moves with incredible precision. We shot the entire scene with Tatiana playing Sarah alongside a stand in actor to work out blocking and eyelines. Then we repeated the scene with Tatiana alone following carefully placed eyeline markers. Finally, Tatiana changed over to Katja and we did the whole thing over again. The passes were later combined in compositing using Digital Fusion to create the seamless effect.

The TechnoDolly proved adaptable enough in operation to give the director flexibility on set, and – crucially in a show where ADR needed to be kept to an absolute minimum – it was near-silent in operation.

Orphan Black uses every trick in the twinning book to help create Maslany’s various clone characters, from old-school over-the-shoulder shots to complex composites involving moving cameras and selected body parts from one actor stitched on to those of another.

With each episode the challenges grew. The one main request was that once an episode the clones would touch. Sometimes we had as many as three clones in the room all interacting with each other, delivering dialogue and making eye contact. We used the Super TechnoDolly for these really complex movements in order to maintain image integrity and repeatability. In the penultimate episode, we had one clone pour wine for two others, and another hug one in a deep embrace. As the episode continued we saw clones strangling each other, head butting, and eventually shoot the other. In a single episode we had a season’s worth of visual effects.

The Intelligent Creatures team is adamant that the general lack of attention drawn to their work on Orphan Black is in fact a great compliment:

The truest testament to our skill is how little the audience notices it. If people can immerse themselves within the plot enough to forget that this shot was done with VFX, then our jobs are done. We used visual effects to help do what the show’s creators intended to do: tell a story. The rest might as well be magic.

Watch the Intelligent Creatures sizzle reel for their work on Orphan Black:

Two Are One

There’s one twinning technique I haven’t discussed here. That’s because it puts visual effects artists out of work. I’m talking about those rare occasions when the director needs to double up the lead actor … and that actor just happens to have a real twin.

The example that springs into my mind (and probably into the minds of most regular Cinefex readers) is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which the shape-shifting T-1000 makes a last-ditch attempt to fool John Connor by mimicking his mother’s physical form. Director James Cameron placed the two Sarah Connors on screen simultaneously not with visual effects, but by drafting in actress Linda Hamilton’s twin sister Leslie. (Cameron used the same trick with twins Don and Dan Stanton, who played Lewis the Guard and his deadly doppelganger respectively.)

Audiences who don’t realise that Hamilton and Stanton are twins undoubtedly assume they’re seeing a camera trick, which only underlines just how tough it is for any visual effects artist to take on the twinning challenge. Why is it so hard? Because the audience knows.

They know the famous actor they’re seeing doesn’t have a twin. They know it’s a trick. When presented with a twinning effect, the average Joe Schmoe in the second row will put down his popcorn, sit forward in his seat and try his damndest to spot the join, even if ordinarily he has no interest in VFX whatsoever. Nowhere are the creators of visual effects placed under greater scrutiny than when they’re giving birth to twins.

And that’s why, of all the illusions a filmmaker might choose to put on screen, the twinning effect is undoubtedly in the running for my all-time number one.

Season 2 of Orphan Black premieres on BBC America on April 19th 2014. Watch the trailer now:

*Published by Bonanza Books, 1987, quote sourced via The Ronald Colman Appreciation SocietyMoon image copyright © 2009 Lunar Industries/Sony Pictures. Orphan Black images copyright © 2014 Intelligent Creatures/Temple Street Productions.

That’s No Moon!

Elysium over Earth

Big Dumb Objects. Science fiction is full of them. You know what I’m talking about – those super-giant floating constructions that loom large in your spacecraft’s viewport and just keep looming … and looming … and looming …

The Death StarThe most iconic BDO in the movies is probably the Death Star, that planet-busting weapon of the Galactic Empire that was surely too big to be a space station.

The first sighting of the Death Star by the crew of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars is a masterclass in how to wow a cinema audience with a sense of rapidly changing scale. Here’s how it works:

  • Start the BDO small in frame and then just keep closing in
  • Show the BDO dwarfing something whose scale you already know
  • Pattern the BDO with successive layers of increasing detail – a thousand large panels are composed of a million smaller ones, which in turn break down into a billion tiny articulations
  • Direct your actors to adopt the patented BDO “Look At The Size of That Thing” facial expression
  • Hire a top-drawer composer to write the perfect bombastic BDO score

Sadly, as BDOs go, the Death Star is rubbish. Once you get past the tractor beam, all you find inside are endless corridors filled with clueless stormtroopers too dumb to duck when they go through a door. Ultimately, it’s just a great big corporate headquarters.

The true BDO is something else altogether.

The term Big Dumb Object was probably coined in 1981 by writer Roz Kaveney, in her essay Science Fiction in the 1970s. Kaveney was using it to describe the ultra-massive structures that appear in the novels of science fiction writers like Arthur C Clarke and Larry Niven. Let me tell you, those guys really knew their BDOs. For example:

Rendezvous With Rama - Arthur C ClarkeRama – the awesome centrepiece of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama – is a vast, space-going cylinder 34 miles long and 12 miles in diameter. Glued by centrifugal effect to the inner surface of this rapidly-spinning craft, Clarke’s astonished human explorers find themselves looking up at an extraordinary landscape of alien cities and cylindrical seas. (Morgan Freeman is apparently interested in bringing this classic SF story to our screens, as reported by HitFix.)

"Ringworld" by Larry NivenRama is just a baby compared with Larry Niven’s Ringworld. This circular ribbon of superstrong material, with a sun set neatly at its centre, has a circumference of around 600 million miles. If you want to imagine this gargantuan world on which the horizon curves constantly upwards, think Elysium … but on an unimaginably vast scale. Yet even Ringworld is dwarfed by Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville – a spherical shell that completely encloses its parent star. The mind-bogglingly enormous inner surface of Orbitsville provides as much potential living area as five billion Earths.

BDOs can get weird too. Author Stephen Baxter created gigantic, glowing, time capsules called Sugar Lumps; in EonGreg Bear brought us the Stone, a giant asteroid containing a pocket universe that appears to go on forever; in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke brought us the legendary black monolith that opens a gateway to the distant stars.

Only recently have the movies started to show us objects resembling the true science fiction BDO. What’s behind this emerging trend? Well, visionary filmmakers for one. Unbelievably good visual effects for another.

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion delivers an impressive BDO in the form of the Tet, a 60 mile-wide pyramid that turns out to be something other than what it seems. Both the Tet’s geometric design and its enigmatic intent are straight out of the kind of novels I’ve described above.

The Tet - Oblivion

Then there’s Elysium, the Eden-like space station constructed exclusively for Earth’s elite in Neill Blomkamp’s film of the same name. The “spoked wheel” concept came courtesy of legendary visual futurist Syd Mead, and recalls the inspirational paintings of Chesley Bonestell.

For visual effects artists on both films, depicting the vast size of these space structures proved a tremendous challenge. The Tet’s smooth, ceramic design forbade the traditional use of madly-encrusted detail to create a sense of vast scale. And, while the scene in which Jack Harper’s bubbleship approaches the enormous pyramid recalls the classic Death Star approach, the team at Digital Domain had to cheat the scale of the tiny craft simply to make it visible against the Tet’s overwhelming bulk.

With a diameter of around 25 miles, the Elysium space station is somewhat smaller than the Tet. Realising it through visual effects, however, was just as big a deal. The station structure is packed with so much complex detail that, in any one scene, VFX facilities Whiskytree and Image Engine found themselves wrangling up to 200,000 assets and ten trillion polygons of geometry.

What really excites me is the next step. Given the success of these recent BDOs, I think it’s time visual effects facilities rolled up their sleeves and showed us something really big!

Let’s take Ringworld as an example. My rough calculations suggest its structure has over one trillion times the volume of Elysium. That means one trillion more assets, and one trillion more polygons. I reckon those poor guys at Image Engine will need to upgrade their render farm before tackling that behemoth.

Even assuming you can build the damn thing, how do you compose your shots? Do you go for a lengthy power-of-ten approach, letting the camera linger on a steadily-advancing wall of detailed superstructure? Just how big can you get your BDO in the frame, and just how tiny can you get your approaching shuttle, before the two cease to exist in the same space? Do you ignore the fact that space is a vacuum and use atmospheric haze to provide a much-needed sense of aerial perspective?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’m optimistic that pretty soon someone’s going to provide them. Yes folks, the space epic appears to be prepped and ready for a spectacular relaunch. In July 2014 the Wachowskis hurl the incredible-looking Jupiter Ascending on to our screens. If you’re one of the few VFX fans who hasn’t seen the trailer yet, here’s your chance:

Then in August we’re going to meet the Guardians of the Galaxy. Later in the year comes Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-awaited Interstellar, while 2015 will whisk us back to a galaxy far, far away for Star Wars VII. Which brings us right back to where we started. Will JJ Abrams bring us a new Death Star? Will any of the above films fill our screens with the kind of BDO I really want to feast my eyes on? I don’t know.

But I’m going to be first in the queue to find out!

Now it’s over to you. What are the BDO scenes that really dropped your jaw to the floor? And is there any limit to what visual effects artists can do when playing with scale?

Just how big can a Big Dumb Object really be?

Elysium image copyright © 2013 Columbia Pictures. Oblivion image copyright © 2013 Universal Pictures. Death Star image copyright © Lucasfilm Limited.

E is for Eyes

E is for EyesIn the VFX ABC, the letter “E” stands for “Eyes”.

When a character appears on a movie screen, which part of their face do you look at first? The eyes, of course.

You can’t help it. As a human being, you’re programmed to make eye contact, whether the person in front of you is flesh and blood, or just a fiction of jostling pixels. Like the proverb says: “The eyes are the mirror of the soul.”

I reckon that’s true, but the quote I really want to share comes from the writer G K Chesterton:

There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect.

Chesterton’s words feel right for the movies, don’t you think? At its very best, cinema is an art form that bypasses the brain altogether and engages directly with the emotions. And how do we read emotions in other people? You guessed it: through their eyes.

For a visual effects supervisor, creating a synthetic character with believable eyes is a monumental challenge. I’m sure you can think of a few movies where they pulled it off. And even more where they didn’t. Below is a still from a film in the former category: an animated short featuring some truly incredible eyes. The film is called Madame Tutli-Putli and, if you’re anything like me, your two responses upon seeing the title character will be (1) “Wow, look at those eyes” and (2) “Uh, hold on … what exactly am I looking at here?”

Madame Tutli-Putli

Have you worked out how they did it yet? Don’t worry, I’ll put you out of your misery a little further down the page. Before then, let’s take a closer look at a few visual effects that have left me, well, wide-eyed.

I really wanted the eyes to be very important … something of a cross between the eyes of Einstein, Sandburg and Hemingway.

That’s what Steven Spielberg said about the design of ET, the world’s most famous squishy alien, and one of cinema’s most engaging animatronic creatures. ET’s amazing eyes were constructed by the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA and Beverly Hoffman of Ocular Prosthetics. Yes, while the little guy with the glowing heart may have been the product of movie magic, his eyes were genuine medical marvels.

The Eyes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

One of the earliest artificial eyes ever discovered belonged to a woman who lived in what is now Iran during the Proto-Elamite period (around 2900 BC). This ancient prosthetic consisted of a clay hemisphere plated with gold and held in place with gold threads. Later came the first glass eyes, and ultimately the sophisticated acrylic models in use today. The long history of this well-established medical discipline – and the expert skills of its practitioners – means that traditional creature creators like Carlo Rambaldi (the man who made ET) know exactly where to look to find the eyeballs of their dreams.

Gremlins Eye MechanismIt’s one thing getting eyes to look good. It’s quite another getting them to perform. For Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Chris Walas created a suite of giant-sized animatronic “superfaces” to bring Gizmo and his diminutive buddies to life. These foot-wide mogwai faces were more than big enough to accommodate the complex cable controls needed to drive their elaborate expressions. But inside the smaller life-size heads, things were tight. Walas had just 2-3 inches of room in which to squeeze all the mechanisms required to drive nose wiggles, mouth open-and-close, gross head movement, ear movement … not to mention that critical articulation of the eyes.

Digital tools mean it’s now possible to create artificial eyes for movie characters that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Mind you, that word “almost” is a problem. We’ve all stared across the “uncanny valley” – that perceptual gulf which means a set of animated eyes that’s nearly right is, in fact, precisely wrong enough to give us the crawling creeps.

The Eyes of Gollum

Perhaps the first digital character to reach the other side of the uncanny valley was Gollum, as featured in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We first see Gollum’s eyes in The Fellowship of the Ring, flashing briefly in the mines of Moria with that eerie retinal reflection effect familiar to anyone who owns a cat. It was in The Two Towers, however, that Gollum really came into his own, with Andy Serkis’s motion-captured performance being flawlessly translated into digital form by the team at Weta Digital.

It’s easy to forget how much work the animators did on that show – after all, you can’t paint mo-cap dots on an eyeball, right? And let’s not forget all that fiddly rigging which means that, for example, the eyes of Treebeard in the same film included a “’sticky’ eyelid control, so as the eye looked right and left, the lids would distort across the corneal bulge and follow with a slight delay.”

The Eyes of Neytiri

Whichever way you look, there’s no getting away from the seductive power of eyes. Richard Baneham, Weta Digital’s animation supervisor on Avatar, sums it up neatly:

As an audience, when we see a piece of film, we immediately lock onto the eyes of a character and try to determine what the character is feeling emotionally.

Critically, if you really want to draw your audience in, your character’s eyes have to resemble those of a human. Even if they’re an alien. Here’s Avatar producer Jon Landau describing the development of the Na’vi designs: “We had everything from a Cyclops version to a multi-eyed version of the Na’vi at one point, but eventually we went back to a much more traditional [binocular] foundation … If we wanted the audience to relate emotionally to these characters, there needed to be familiar touchstones.”

Madame Tutli-Putil

All of which brings us nicely back round to Madame Tutli-Putli. I defy you to look into her haunting eyes without feeling that essential emotional connection. So who is this curious woman, and how was she created?

Before I tell you, take a look at the movie itself (depending on what territory you’re in, your browser will display either the trailer or the complete film. There’s a separate download link further down the page.):

Madame Tutli-Putli is a short animated film written, directed and animated by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski. Described as “an exhilarating existential journey”, it follows its titular heroine on a nightmare train ride through a strange landscape, in the company of an array of sinister fellow passengers.

The film’s characters are brought to life through the venerable process of stop-motion. However, their eyes are as real as yours and mine. As described on the website of visual effects artist Jason Walker, the film uses “a remarkable production process whereby live action human eyes were added to almost 20 minutes of stop-motion animation, in a manner that was perfectly seamless and completely unobtrusive.”

The animation came first. Then live-action of actress Laurie Maher was shot to match. The live-action footage was then meticulously resized, retimed and tracked to the puppet head, with special attention paid to the shadows and reflections present in the original animated scene. For a step-by-step analysis of exactly how this painstaking work was done, read this excellent article on the Creative Planet Network.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, the resulting effect is astonishing. Here’s a before/after video comparing the raw animation to the finished thing:

In the VFX ABC, “E” is for “Eyes”. They’re the hardest thing to get right with any synthetic character – animatronic, digital or otherwise. Am I right? Tell me if you disagree.

And if there’s a set of cinematic eyes that’s, uh, caught your eye, tell me about them too. I’d love to cast my eye over them. I mean give them an eyeball – sorry, get them in my sights. Oh … you know what I mean. Focus in on them. Take a look. Have a peek …

Gee whiz. Those eyes sure do follow you around, don’t they?

All quotes from Cinefex magazine unless otherwise stated: #11 – Turn on Your Heartlight by Paul M. Sammon; #19 – Never Feed Them After Midnight by Paul M Sammon; #120 – The Seduction of Reality by Jody Duncan.

Do You See Ghosts?

The ghost of Santi - "The Devil's Backbone"

For the visual effects artist, there are few challenges more blood-curdling than that of putting ghosts on the screen. Why is it so scary a task? Because there’s a powerful argument to say you shouldn’t see the ghosts at all.

Take The Haunting. In the original 1963 version of this classic ghost story (adapted from Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel The Haunting of Hill House), there’s not a spirit in sight. Nevertheless, thanks to a clever screenplay by Nelson Gidding and masterful direction by Robert Wise, the film is terrifying. Restless camerawork, sharp editing and sound design, plus a light scattering of practical special effects (a bedroom door buckles as an unseen presence presses against it; a spiral staircase closes up like a telescope) all crank up the tension to snapping point.

Now consider the 1999 remake, with its full-frame phantoms and in-your-face ectoplasm. A whole host of ghostly goings-on play out right before your eyes, leaving nothing to the imagination. The result is an overblown mess that’s distinctly short on scares. Which version do I prefer?

I think you can guess.

Hill House - "The Haunting" (1963)

One of the first ghosts to materialise on the silver screen appeared in The Mistletoe Bough. In this 1904 adaptation of a traditional tale, an unfortunate bride accidentally locks herself in a trunk during a game of hide-and-seek on her wedding day. Years later, the trunk is opened and her skeletal remains are discovered.

Towards the end of Percy Stowe’s nine-minute film, the distraught groom has a close encounter with the ghost of his dead bride, who promptly fades to nothing in his embrace. The camera trick responsible for this effect should be transparent (pun intended) to anyone with a working knowledge of lap dissolves. What’s startling is how effective the illusion remains even after 110 years.

"The Mistletoe Bough"

Stowe’s disappearing bride established a golden rule for movie ghosts: they look just like ordinary people, until some critical juncture in the narrative where they fade from view. Pick any film from Topper to The Fog and you’ll find the rule applies (with a few exceptions, of course).

Then, in the 1980s, filmmakers began to explore more fully the ghostly potential of visual effects. Remember all those wispy wraiths from Ghostbusters, Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark? They were all the result of clever composites, artful animation, and that thing I call the “silk-in-a-cloud-tank” look. Nor had the old lap dissolve illusion been forgotten, just refined with films like Ghost, for which ILM combined on-set motion control with some neat optical wipes to create the illusion that poor old Sam Wheat really was on another astral plane.

But is seeing the ghost ever truly scary? If real horror is psychological, isn’t it always more effective to use other cinematic tricks like editing and sound to give your audience the heebie-jeebies? Until recently, my answer has always been, “Yes! Less is most definitely more!” But one filmmaker has convinced me that sometimes it really is good to see dead people. His name is Guillermo del Toro.

"The Devil's Backbone"

Take The Devil’s Backbone. I first watched this stunning film on my own at home, late at night, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. Not only does del Toro’s heartbreaking tale hit all the classic ghost story beats, it also serves up one of cinema’s most memorable spooks in the form of Santi, the drowned boy. Santi’s unsettling appearance – a concoction of cracked porcelain skin, animal eyes and barely-seen bones, all enveloped in a drifting miasma of mote-filled blood and water – is a subtle combination of make-up by DDT, and digital enhancement and animation by Telson.

A few years later, Del Toro was executive producer on Andrés Muschietti’s Mama. With its uneven pacing, the film’s not as polished a piece as The Devil’s Backbone, but it too delivers an unforgettable spectre in the form of the titular Mama, a twitching, deformed phantom with a tragic past.

The character of Mama was brought to life by French contortionist Javier Botet, who’s seven feet tall and suffers from a connective tissue disorder called Marfan syndrome, which allows him to move his body in extraordinary ways. Botet’s performance was enhanced by DDT’s prosthetics and digitally manipulated by Toronto-based Mr. X Inc. under the supervision of Aaron Weintraub.

Santi and Mama are both examples of ghosts that couldn’t have been put on screen before the modern age of visual effects. While solidly driven by actors’ performances, they rely on digital delicacy and finesse to bring them to life. Uh, I mean death. Ghosts are fragile things, you see, and just one wrong breath can collapse them into a cloud of vapour.

They also represent two very different approaches to visualising the spirit world. While Santi is centred and still, Mama is the embodiment of chaos. Yet my reaction to both these ghosts was the same. Their appearance raised my heart rate and brought me out in gooseflesh. And the visual effects did what every good illusion should do.

They made me believe my eyes.

In Curt Siodmak’s 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain, the protagonist Dr Cory resists the mind-mangling influence of the disembodied cerebellum by reciting the following tongue-twister:

He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts

So how about you? Do you insist on seeing the ghosts? Do you like your spooks screeching into the camera lens in all their ghastly, gory glory? Or should the spirits remain resolutely off-screen? And just what does a ghost look like anyway? A mangled animatronic corpse? Your favourite actor dusted lightly with talcum powder? Or an undulating combination of cloth and fluid sims deep-comped into a mist-shrouded graveyard?

Everyone has a favourite phantom. What’s yours?

Now Showing – Cinefex 137

Cinefex - From The Editors Desk - Issue 137

Yes folks, the latest issue of Cinefex is now showing! Issue #137 features in-depth articles on the visual effects of The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugGame of ThronesRoboCop and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a fan of robots or romantic fantasy … or just a sucker for a fire-breathing dragon.

Before we fire up the projector, here’s Cinefex editor Jody Duncan with her thoughts on what it took to bring this latest issue to your screens.

Jody Duncan – From The Editor’s Desk

One of the many delights of my job is that, every three months, I am presented with tangible evidence of the Cinefex team’s labor. The issue is there, completed. I feel it in my hands. I smell the ink. My eyes wander over the photographs. There is a sense of closure, of a process completed – even as we throw ourselves into the next issue and start all over again.

Each issue of Cinefex is its own story. There are struggles – securing timely studio approvals for behind-the-scenes photos; chasing down that interview with the special effects supervisor who is currently incommunicado in Madagascar; making sense of 100,000 words of transcript; convincing advertisers that supporting Cinefex is as good for them as it is for us.

And there are joys. Issue #137 introduced me to visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer. Over a long and wonderful lunch, I talked with Joe about the visual effects work on Game of Thrones. But the conversation turned to other subjects, as well – the current state of the visual effects industry, prominent visual effects artists we had known since they first started in the business, movies we loved, and life itself. Every so often (and more rarely than we would like) we “click” with someone. I clicked with Joe, and made a friend.

Covering the new RoboCop brought the surreal sense that we had covered the original just yesterday! For his extensive coverage of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Joe Fordham interviewed the creative geniuses at Weta Digital, and Weta Workshop’s Richard Taylor – hands-down the most courteous and warmest person in the industry. Smaug is our cover-boy this issue – and that’s a highlight in itself!

As this issue rolls out, we are in the middle of producing Issue #138. More struggles, more joys, more stories. Stay tuned!

Thanks, Jody. I think we’re ready to roll. So everyone, please take your seats and turn off your smartphones. If you have to eat popcorn, do it quietly. You at the front: take off that unnecessarily tall hat. Oh, and above all, enjoy the show!