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Hybrid Visual Effects Techniques: Hollywood Trends

by Scott Essman

As evidenced in films including The Wolfman, the new modus operandi in visual effects production for feature films includes a hybrid of techniques and the use of several vendors to service all of the needs of a genre film. To execute the 2010 Wolfman’s “transformation” sequences, most memorably featured in the confines of a Victorian mental institution, the film’s visual effects supervisor Steven Begg utilized both traditional and computergenerated artists. Makeup effects creator Rick Baker was tasked with realizing the full Wolfman makeup in which star Benicio Del Toro is completely covered in prosthetic appliances and yak hair.

Thus, to seamlessly transition from the visage of Del Toro in restraints as a normal human being to the complete Baker lycanthrope makeup, Begg enlisted his effects vendors to complete the various stages of Del Toro as his face changes, his fingers bend, and his heels extend outward.

On The Wolfman, Begg gained the services of effects vendors The Moving Picture Company and Double Negative, with Rhythm and Hues being brought in for additional shooting to complete a sequence in which the full Wolfman rampages around London. For the transformation work, CGI artists had reference material from Baker who had created samples of what the character would look like at various stages of turning from man to wolf. MPC and Double Negative also internally had their own supervisors who would report to Begg for final looks.

This utilization of multiple vendors using myriad types of effects is not new in studio filmmaking. For 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Stan Winston Studio created numerous puppets, full-size prop-like creatures, portions of robot bodies, and makeup effects to create likenesses for protagonist terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger and villainous liquid metal policeman Robert Patrick. But Industrial Light and Magic, supervised by senior effects master Dennis Muren, were brought on board for all full-motion Patrick shots, especially those which featured the character in rapid movement.

A very similar template was implemented for 1993’s Jurassic Park. Again Winston created dinosaur parts, limbs, heads, puppets, and full-size immobile creatures while Muren and ILM created the now legendary fullmotion computer-generated dinosaurs. One interesting note for Jurassic Park was that Phil Tippett, who was originally going to create the moving dinosaur shots with go-motion puppet technology, stayed on the film as a dinosaur supervisor, directing the animation of all creatures based on his original animatics. Why this wholly successful technique was not continued in big-ticket films remains a question.

Other films since have followed suit. For 1998’s Mighty Joe Young, Baker created gorilla suits for young and mature Joe, plus a full-size giant robotic gorilla while DreamQuest created a CGI Joe used for his various moving sequences that could not be fluidly executed with Baker’s suit (Baker’s robotic gorilla, much like Stan Winston’s Tyrannosaurus Rex was too large to move foot position, though both creatures’ heads and arms moved, with pivoting bodies). When the workload proved too great for DreamQuest on Joe, ILM received a “911 call” as they often note, in which they are brought in to rescue a film with an abundance of visual effects shots too large for one vendor. Since that time, most visual effects-heavy films call upon a number of vendors to complete a large amount of shots more than one company can handle in a timely fashion.

Director Roland Emmerich formed his own visual effects facility, Centropolis FX, and gave the company most all of the work in his 1998 version of Godzilla. Oddly, Emmerich had hired Patrick Tatopolous to realize Godzilla suits, props, and a giant robot (albeit not full-size) along the lines of Jurassic Park and Mighty Joe Young. However, possibly due to Emmerich’s attempt to inflate the value of his effects firm, Tatopolous’ work on the suit and giant robot is scantly featured in the film. Most of what remains from the massive effort behind the practical effects work done on the film is in the “babies” sequence at Madison Square Garden. Ironically, Centropolis FX shuttered soon after this release.

Certainly, in the last ten years, there has been less reliance on practical effects and a greater reliance on computer generated technologies. But, in addition to Wolfman, recent films Iron Man and Iron Man 2 both prominently featured a practically-made Iron Man suit, created by Winston’s team on the first film and in the reformed Legacy Effects following Winston’s death in 2008. As such, not only is the key character in an effects film often created by a practical effects artist such as Baker on Wolfman, the designs for other types of effects are often based on the practical artist’s initial concepts.

Until proven otherwise, this approach appears to be the standard that will continue to be used in the industry.

Scott Essman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]

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