How visual effects gave birth to non human celebrities !

15 March 2017

There might be many reasons why you prefer to watch a movie. The cast list might have attracted you, the director might be one of your favorites, one of the technicians might be someone you had been following for a while or simply the general positive reviews might have given you a go. All these and some others do matter, but it will not be totally wrong to say the cast list might have a slight edge over the others. All of us have our own choice of favorite actors. We watch every film of theirs regardless of anything else because we love watching them on screen. And throughout the world, there are many fan favorite heroes. But here is the beauty of cinema. Other than actors with flesh and blood several animated characters in films became our beloved ones too and in some films they scored mighty above everyone else. So let us have a look at some of such heroes… The Digital Heroes.

You have seen actors shifting their gears across films. Some films they make you cry and in the very next he or she will make you laugh out loud. An actor who played a daring cop in one film might be a coward nobody in the next. Well.. There is same level of fluctuation for some of the animated characters too. Have a doubt? Ask Dragons for they have seen it all! They have been ferocious, they have been stupid and they have been our pets! In 1977, came a darling pet like dragon, who could make himself invisible. Named Elliot, the Dragon was the only animated character in the movie Pete’s Dragon directed by Don Chaffey. Produced by Walt Disney, the film is the first in which Disney’s original team of animators were uninvolved. The animators decided to make Elliot a little oriental than occidental because oriental is more associated with good. Using Sodium Vapor Process the animators were able to composite up to three scenes together. Interestingly enough, Elliot was not particularly graceful when it came to flying. He was a bit paunchy!

Image Courtesy: Intofilm

In 1988, director Robert Zemeckis came up with a film, which later in 2016, the United States National Film Registry Library of Congress selected for preservation stating the reasons being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’. The Film ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ had a stimulating timeline for its story world that mixed real life and cartoon characters. Roger, the Rabbit instantly became a fan favorite and even his dance move became popular in the early 90s. His dance was similar to the running man dance but done skipping backwards while flapping the arms. For the film, the live action scenes were captured using Vistavision cameras installed with motion control technology. Rubber dummies were used during rehearsals of animated characters in order to guide actors where to look when acting with imaginative characters. The properties held by animated characters were shot on set using robotic arms or they were manipulated using strings. Computer animations and digital compositing were still things of the future and hence the animators and layout artists had to draw animated characters with reference to live action footage. The film went on to receive three academy awards, one each for sound effects, visual effects and film editing. Based on the toontown that appeared in the film, Walt Disney Imagineering began to develop Mickey’s Toontown for Disneyland in 1991.

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One question every human being would have asked is ‘what happens after death’? Science, Religions, Philosophers have all given various explanations on the topic. But as far as filmmakers are concerned, this is an exciting topic to ponder. Spirits and ghosts have now become too common in movie that we may not scare if a real ghost appears before us! And the ghosts are other creatures that require careful visual effects and animation. Interestingly, the first film to have a fully CGI character in a lead role was also a ghost film titled ‘Casper’. Directed by Brad Silberling and released in 1995, it was based on the Harvey Comics cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost. With the theme of death, the Casper in the film had a darker shade compared to the comics and cartoons. Its CGI effects were considered very advanced at the time and the performances of its lead actors Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci were heavily praised.

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For Digital heroes to feel real, their voice plays an essential part. It is the voice that indeed gives them the life and Dragons who have been around for some time cannot settle for something less than a sublime. They couldn’t have found a better companion to carry their voice than the actor who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth the Second in 2000. Draco, the sly, intelligent, royal and sarcastic dragon in ‘Dragon Heart’ spoke in the voice of Sir Sean Connery and it is no surprise that two decades down the lane, the dragon still works like a charm. This 1996 film directed by Rob Cohen had ‘The Industrial Light and Magic’ to oversee the visual effects and they used Sir Connery’s facial expressions to animate Dragon’s face to match with his lip curls and speech patterns. The ILM team also worked on the actual look and design of the dragon as well as storyboards, blocking and the timing of action sequences. Director Rob Cohen’s idea for Draco’s design came from the traditional Chinese guardian lion which has a lion like elegance and fierceness. He also drew inspiration from boa constrictor, a large snake in tropical America and horses. During sequences with Draco and actor Dennis Quaid, the visual effects team used a “monster stick” – a pole with a bar and two red circles at the top as a reference to Dennis where the eyes of Draco will be. 

As the technology began to prosper one of the most demanding conditions for digitally created characters was to have a resemblance of human in them. One of the best characters that came close to a human without being a human was Caesar, the Ape from ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, the ‘Rise’ released in 2011. Since the Apes were meant to be real, the producers decided not to use actors in ape suits for the film and Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in New Zealand created the apes digitally in almost every case through performance capture. Perfection is what every professional seeks for and thus for the accurate animation, the team received detailed models with skeletons, muscles and nerve tissue layers. Since there were cast models of Ape’s heads and limbs it enabled the texture department to reproduce skin elements such as pores and wrinkles. The adjust the difference between human and ape facial muscles, the animators modified a new facial system adding dynamics, ballistics and secondary motion. The character and the films were widely well received which bottom lines Caesar’s believability and effectiveness. 

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Another dazzling product of motion capture was ‘King Kong’ which released in 2005. Director Peter Jackson was just nine years old when he saw the 1933 King Kong Film and he credits the film as his primary inspiration to be a filmmaker. For King Kong, it was Weta Digital who once again supervised the visual effects. Jackson had decided very early on that he did not want Kong to behave like a human and so he and his team studied hours of gorilla footage. In the beginning stages of animation, photos of silverback gorillas were also superimposed on Kong. To envision Skull Island, which is inhabited by dinosaurs and fauna apart from Kong, the designers imagined what 65 million years of isolated evolution might have done to them. Peter Jackson has expressed his desire to remaster the film in 3-D at some point in the future.


Image Courtesy: King Kong

But King Kong in all it’s mastery is still not the best of Peter Jackson’s works. Probably he is more famous as the creator of one of the most successful film franchise ever. The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy series were nominated for a total of 30 awards and it won 17 of them. The entire series had 2730 special effect shots! And in this series, the world witnessed one of the best computer generated characters ever. Gollum. Forget visual effects and if there is a competition for the best film characters ever, Gollum might still be leading that race. There is one thing that the best of characters always does. It instills in us different set of emotions. Be it sympathy, fear, anger or compassion Gollum has given it us all. Aside from lifelike CG work, Gollum also owes credit to the amazing multi talented performance capture artist Andy Serkis. Serkis was also the performance capture artist for Ape in the Rise and Dawn of Planet of Apes and King Kong. Using motion capture, movements and facial expression of Serkis were transplanted onto Gollum to create one of the most realistic CG character ever on screen. Once again it was Weta Digital who undertook the visual effects supervision. The team actually had an early working prototype of Gollum ready before Serkis was bought in to do the voice of Gollum. After watching the intense facial expressions Serkis used, the team decided to scrap the first model and start over again. The team had 964 control points on the model of Gollum’s face, giving them a detailed control of his facial movements. Unlike other facial animation systems the team did not use musculoskeletal system to create Gollum’s expressions but instead created them by hand. 

Talk about almost anything related to films, it will be impossible to conclude it without mentioning the name James Cameron somewhere. With a career spanning over three decades, he has been one of the most celebrated filmmakers ever. His passion and thirst for perfection is a quality that everyone desires. Who else would wait 15 years to see his dream project come alive! And since Avatar came alive in 2009, though aliens, the blue skinned sapient humanoids have become one of us! That is what good visual effects can do. One of the Na’vi characters that stood out was Neytiri. Interestingly, one of the inspirations for the look of humanoids came from a dream Cameron’s Mother had told him about! Cameron himself described the film as a hybrid, full live action shoot in combination with computer generated characters and live environments. A variety of innovative techniques were used in the production of the film including a new system for lighting massive areas like Pandora’s Jungle and a modified method of capturing facial expressions, enabling full performance capture. Skull caps with a tiny camera positioned in front of the face were designed for each actors and then the information collected about facial expressions were transmitted to computers. According to Cameron, this method allowed him to transfer 100 percent of physical actors performances to their digital counterparts. The Weta Digital who already had made it a hobby to be part of the iconic films in history, supervised the visual effects for Avatar too. 

Avatar movie, Avatar VFX, Srushti VFX

So it is not just live action heroes that have made box office numbers spinning. Digital heroes know how to too. With technology increasing in a speed that is competing with light, we surely can hope for more and more astounding digital heroes!. Einstein once said imagination is powerful than knowledge because knowledge has limit, imagination doesn’t. With technology growing and becoming affordable, imaginative brains are flourishing like never before. Thus, the future looks bright for digital heroes. Live actors may have limitations but digital heroes don’t! They can be anyone and they can do anything!

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