November 2003

Working With "Non-Effects"

When is a visual effect not a visual effect? The answer is simple: When the audience doesn't notice it. Directors Jon Avnet, Spike Jonze, Jake Kasdan, Mark Pellington, John Stockwell and Randall Wallace explain.


Actress Kate Bosworth's face was digitally inserted onto expert surfer Rochelle Ballard for John Stockwell's Blue Crush

Everyone knows visual effects are used to make dinosaurs, martial arts battles atop eighteen wheelers hurtling down freeways and Terminators. But few people realize how often directors use visual effects in a more subtle manner, meant to pass without notice, but producing changes to the screen image that might not otherwise have been possible.

The Mothman Prophecies helmer Mark Pellington said, "An 'effect' with an 'e' is meant to have an effect with an 'a.' Your ultimate goal is to affect a scene or a movement in a way that affects people."

Often, visual effects are employed to produce or alter backgrounds that might not have been possible to capture on camera. For Red Corner, director Jon Avnet wanted extensive shots of Beijing, China, for a film whose topic, the Chinese judicial system, and star, Richard Gere, weren't favorites of the Chinese government.

"It was clear from the start we would never be able to shoot the whole movie in Beijing," Avnet said. "So we had to solve the problem going in: How do you do a movie when you can't be where you want to be?"

Avnet solved this by taking a trip to the city on a tourist visa and taking 35mm photos with a Leica still camera for use as background plates, augmented by a small amount of footage shot by a unit in Beijing. The flat plate images were developed into 3D models by Cinesite and, when combined with the real footage of the Gates of the Heavenly Temple and Tienanmen Square, made for a surprisingly realistic background. "The ultimate compliment came from the Chinese government, who got really mad at me for shooting all this stuff in Beijing — they couldn't figure out how I did it."

The upcoming, World of Tomorrow, directed by Kerry Conran and produced by Avnet, was shot with HD entirely without sets, all on blue screen, with all backgrounds generated as visual effects. "It's similar, in a sense, to what we did on Red Corner, where we're doing stuff to pass for other environments," Avnet said. But for the new film, which is set in 1939, "There's a difference between creating a historical world and creating a current one. There's a different level of scrutiny from the audience when creating a current background."

Using visual effects to replace backgrounds must be done with great care, said director Randall Wallace. "Audiences are so sophisticated and, as a general rule of filmmaking, anything that takes the audience out of the picture and starts making them see the process, instead of merge with the movie, is a bad idea."

Director Mark Pellington on the set of The Mothman Prophecies

As an example, for his upcoming Love and Honor, a period film to be shot in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wallace plans to shoot the city as it appears today, removing the modern elements digitally. "We'll have enough of the actual physical elements, so that it's more a shot that I'm making with my cinematographer and special effects people, rather than just digital effects people. They'll be part of the process, but they won't be the lead factor in the process," he explained.

Besides creating or re-creating backgrounds, directors also use VFX to create actions that human actors can't always perform. For Wallace's We Were Soldiers, visual effects were used to create a subtle, but poignant, effect on a dead soldier.

"We have a death scene in which we're seeing the face of the soldier from right above him as the life leaves his body. It was shot on a very dusty day, and it was very difficult for the actor to keep his eyes perfectly still for the length of that shot. We found that, with visual effects, we could make his eyes perfectly still, as they would be in death." The pupils were then dilated when the character died, as well. "It was something a real live person, obviously, wouldn't be able to do. But it didn't strike people as a visual effect. They were caught up in the story."

Director Spike Jonze employed visual effects tools in Adaptation to make slight performance adjustments when working with footage of Nicolas Cage as interacting twins Charlie and Donald, filmed, variously, with blue screen, split screen and motion control. Jonze said, "We found if we wanted to extend a beat, before one of them responded, to give an awkward pause, we would take one of the sides [i.e. footage of one of the twins] and roll it back a couple of seconds and then roll it forward again. Or we could create an overlap so that they could interrupt each other, simply by jump-cutting one of them a second or two. It gave us even more control over the performance, something that's hard when you're shooting twins in this way."

For his surfing film, Blue Crush, director John Stockwell had the challenge of making actress Kate Bosworth appear to be one of the world's top female surfers, accomplished by replacing real surfing champion Rochelle Ballard's face with Bosworth's. That task was accomplished with a CGI method used previously in James Wong's The One, in which Jet Li had to be seen fighting himself (actually a double on which Li's face was inserted).

(Top) Director Spike Jonze (right) on the set with Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (below)Jake Kasdan (seated right) directs Colin Hanks (left) and Schuyler Fisk in the comedy Orange County

"It was a challenge for Kate, re-creating the kinds of faces one would make actually getting barreled in a wave, which are very odd and feel forced when you're on a stage in Burbank," Stockwell explained. "But it worked well. I had a relatively unknown actress, and I think that added to a kind of suspension of disbelief. People could imagine that we had actually found a girl who could surf Pipeline."

Stockwell also used visual effects as another useful tool — removing characters that weren't needed. "We had a scene which was supposed to be a competition, where there are no other surfers in the water. In reality, there were 50 other guys out there surfing. So we were able to digitally remove the other surfers and take out jet skis."

For Orange County, director Jake Kasdan said, "We had a scene that we had cut out where the main character picks up a dog, and the dog is then with them the last 15 minutes of the movie. We ended up cutting out that first scene, and then digitally removed the dog from those following shots."

There are occasions when using visual effects may not be a good idea. "Even if you're doing things like crowd duplication, those things tend to not have a soul in them," notes Wallace. "To me, saying, 'We'll manufacture moments with visual effects,' that's just not as direct an emotional experience as I like to have when making a film."

For Blue Crush, Stockwell dropped an entire sequence that would have been entirely CGI. "We had plans for a sequence with a wave and a surfer, a sort of 360-degree shot that started under water and circled above, etc. It was meant to be our show-stopper moment," he said. "But after seeing early examples of it, I realized it was impossible to blend it with the actual shots that we got in the real environment. At the end of the day, the most spectacular shots were gotten by a guy with a pair of fins and a boogie board and a World War II era 35mm camera right in the impact zone at Pipeline."

Indeed, sometimes good old-fashioned filmmaking can produce the desired effect without having to resort to digital trickery. "One of the greatest gags in Mothman Prophecies is the appearance of an entity called Indrid Cold," said Mark Pellington. "I shot using smoke, out of focus, long lens and infrared film, creating this weird, pinheaded, freaky entity. People were asking, 'Oh my God — is that a CGI effect?' It was just an old in-camera gag."

"Sometimes the most complex effects can be accomplished with the most low-brow simple effects," Spike Jonze agreed. "I think whenever you can do it simpler, it's better. Or try to mix up the effects as much as possible, so you'll have a really sophisticated technique next to a crude technique. It makes it more seamless, because you're not suddenly jumping into the effects world."

Adds Pellington, "I figure a reaction shot is still the best visual effect."

Visual effects have increased the director's bag of tricks manifold, and, used with care, can enhance the audience's experience, particularly when they don't know it. "Moviemaking is a wonderful adventure of unfolding opportunities," Wallace said. "And the digital tools of being able to add or subtract help enhance that adventure."


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