In what seemed like a smoothly executed dress rehearsal for the popular vfx pre-Oscar Bake-off, some of the field’s top visionaries gathered for an informal show-and-tell at this year’s Digital Studio summit, which took place on Election Day. Presented by iHollywood Forum, in conjunction with the American Film Market in Santa Monica, the day-long event focuses on how Hollywood, film and TV production are being transformed by digital technology.
Sony Pictures Imageworks president Tim Sarnoff (Spider-Man 2, The Polar Express), vfx supervisor Rob Legato (The Aviator, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), Digital Domain chairman and CEO Scott Ross (Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow) and vfx supervisor Darin Hollings (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) discussed the future of the visual effects universe and presented some arresting footage from their recent projects to a crowd of professionals and enthusiasts gathered at the Laemmle Theater for one of the morning’s super-sessions.
After a brief introduction by Visual Effects Society vice chair Jeff Ocun, Sarnoff discussed how Sony Imageworks’ performance capture technology and the process used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express have opened new doors for tomorrow’s filmmakers. "We didn’t create a new widget–what we did was change the process," he noted. "By taking all the other elements such as cameras, costumes and lighting out from the shoot, we’ve brought the director and the actor closer together. Actors can now connect to audiences more directly, in what seems closest to performance art as anything we’ve seen before."
He noted that the technology is evolving at such a fast pace that what audiences saw in Spider-Man 2 this summer was based on two-year-old innovations. Sarnoff said Sony Imageworks’ upcoming feature, Monster House, (directed by Gil Kennan, about three teens who discover their neighbor’s house is a living monster) is even more efficiently made than The Polar Express. The new feature was shot in 28 days, compared to Express’ 45-day-shoot.
He also pointed out that a team of 80 animators worked on The Polar Express, and dispelled the idea that the film is solely reliant on performance capture technology. "We used more animators on that project than anything else we’ve worked on," he said. "In a way, it doesn’t fit any of the usual categories, because it’s not purely vfx and it’s not just animation. In the final analysis, performance capture will be considered as just a tool in animation, simply an interface. What you’re going to see in the future is how visual effects will become one of the integral parts of the production. For example, we began work on The Polar Express seven to eight months before the final script was done. Every single pixel of that movie was done by Sony ImageWorks."
One of the highlights of the session was Rob Legato’s screening of some of the breathtaking flight footages from Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. One amazing sequence involves Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) crashing his plane smack in the middle of a residential Beverly Hills neighborhood. Legato went to great lengths to praise the majesty and beauty of shooting scenes in camera.
"For me, future is going backwards," said the Oscar-winning vfx director. "Of course, the computer technology helped me take 30 to 40 shots in a few hours, but once you see all these movies trying to top each other, all those huge CG-driven effects can lose their magic. It’s good to go under the top, instead of over the top. Use the technology to tell a good story, don’t overuse the tools and go towards the artistic side."
Legato then explained how he worked with legendary filmmaker Scorsese to realize the story of how Howard Hughes thought about his world and experienced life. "Scorsese is not considered a visual effects director," he said. "So he had no idea how to ask me what he wanted, so we acted like we could have shot everything back then, without all the technology. What the technology allowed me to do was to combine everything that I know as a cameraman and with computer pre-viz I can show a director like Scorsese what I wanted to do."
Among the numerous shots created for the period film are sequences of planes flying in the sky at every angle. "We built radio-controlled planes which actually flew and got shots of sequences that feel like real life. Every shot was inspired by shots in the  Hughes movie, Hell’s Angel. You mix and match live and CG and use every tool to tell a simple story and not over-dramatize it." And his advice for future vfx artists, "Use models. Shoot things outside. Do it in an informal organic way. Shoot things twice using accessible off-shelf items. Don’t try to overdo what others have done before!"
Digital Domain president Scott Ross then showed spectacular sequences from The Day After Tomorrow, and pointed to the interesting factoid that 18 of the 20 top box-office hits of all time have been visual effects-driven movies. "From the days of The Great Train Robbery, audiences have always been interested in films that take them to places they haven’t been before," he said. "And the other two on the list are animated movies!"
Ross then examined the trend of how fewer stars can open movies in Hollywood. "Sixteen of the top 20 movies of all-time don’t have a major movie star. These days, a good trailer is what really opens a movie." He then discussed how The Day After Tomorrow was able to generate huge box-office numbers without having a great script or stellar acting. "Incredible visual effects are what gets people’s butts in theater seats. Of course, audiences were laughing at the movie because it didn’t meet their expectations, but it still made close to 600 million dollars worldwide."
The Digital Domain topper then bemoaned the fact that visual effects professionals don’t get their share of financial rewards from feature works. "Although vfx are more powerful than A-level movie stars, we’re not compensated fairly," he said. "Most companies have to manage their finances leanly, costs are going higher exponentially, and because of the lack of adequate attention paid in schools to arts and sciences, we have to look at the other parts of the world to hire talent."
Ross said 40 percent of Digital Domain employees are non-U.S. nationals. "This offshore utilizing of talent is going to be an ongoing trend. George Llucas is opening studios in Singapore, and a great amount of animation and visual effects work is going to be concentrated in India, China and other areas in the Pacific Rim."
He closed his presentation by showing a spectacular clip of a CG person, created by his company. He also showed how his artists were able to digitally transform a 35-year-old back to his younger 20-year-old self by polishing his skin. This innovation could definitely peak the interests of many of Hollywood’s middle-aged actresses and action heroes, who are praying for better ways of looking youthful than weekly botox injections.
Darin Hollings wrapped up the session by presenting a riveting behind-the-scenes clip, showing some of the bluescreen work and CG wizardy used in the summer hit, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. "What makes this film unique is that it was an indie movie, shot on an HD camera in 26 days, with two days of pick-up work," he said. "We built a whole fx facility from scratch. Production designer Kevin Conran and director Kerry Conran are two guys who love old movies and comic-books. They made this six-minute short on their Mac computer, shot the bluescreen material in their home in Van Nuys and presented it to producer Jon Avnet and Jude Law as kind of a trailer for their vision. It might have been some rudimentary composite work, but it was their style and creativity that made it such a compelling piece."
To find out more about the event, visit www.ihollywoodforum.com.