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article imageComputer-Generated Special Effects Reel In The Movie Fans

By Christian Sokolowski     Aug 15, 2000 in Technology
Munich (dpa) - Wild laser battles with exploding spaceships, talking toys and dinosaurs that are far from extinct: All of these popular cinematic special effects are generated using computers.
Thanks to constantly improving technology and powerful computers, special effects appear more lifelike than ever - and things are only getting better. "Initially, digital effects were very expensive," says Jochen Schuetze, a veteran movie critic with the Hamburg-based magazine "cinema."
Ironically, commercials have long led the way in their use of digital, computer-generated special effects. One recent example is a 1997 spot by Ford featuring the deceased Hollywood star Steve McQueen driving one of Ford's new European models, the Puma.
The clip was based on images from the movie "Bullet," which were copied and superimposed on material showing the new car. The clips containing the new car had to match exactly the camera angle and lighting of the scenes from "Bullet." The result is indistinguishable from reality.
The computer now allows special effects experts to contrive cinematic scenes that are far longer than previously possible - and thanks to advancing computer technology, costs are going down, not up.
"The first longer digital scene was in 'Mission Impossible', when Tom Cruise jumps from a helicopter to a train right before a tunnel approaches," says Schuetze. "The scene is only a few minutes long, but when it was made, it cost quite a bit of money. Today, that same effect would cost only half as much. Perhaps, when our children are grown, they will be able to create this level of realism with their computers at home," Scheutze jokes.
Photorealism is the hottest trend in computer effects for films today. The goal of photorealism, as the name suggests, is to make special effects - essentially creations of the imagination - look indistinguishable from real life. Even a completely fictitious spaceship from the remotest reaches of space must look as realistic as possible.
"The only limitations today are time and money," says Thomas Mulak, production manager with the European special effects company Effectory, located near Berlin, Germany. "The customer decides what we do. We create the digital effects on the basis of the story and check the script for where and when our work is needed," Mulak says. "With today's computers, we can do anything: animated characters, dinosaurs, and enhancements to sets and buildings."
For one recent film, Effectory fashioned submarines and created an underwater world that, on screen, looks like the real thing.
"We developed custom software to render fabrics and surfaces as realistically as possible," says CEO Thomas Zauner. "In one scene of a recent TV film, a ship in a lock is hit by a rocket, and it bursts into flames. We created that scene with our computers. You can see the water splashing, the cement rupturing, and the ship breaking apart," Zauner says. The entire scene, from start to finish, was done virtually, with the computer.
In the U.S., two movies are appearing which also include digital scenes: "The Storm," a movie by Wolfgang Petersen based on the novel by Sebastian Junger, as well as "The Patriot" by Roland Emmerich. The company MagicMove, based in Munich, created the effects for "The Patriot."
"The movie takes place at the time of the War of Independence, in South Carolina," says CEO Sebastian Cramer. "Our task was to add period houses to the sets. We had to create models of historic buildings and ships and insert them into the footage in such a way that the audience can't tell them apart from the real thing." In one scene that takes place in Charleston, for example, missing buildings were added using the computer.
Buildings are one thing, but the very latest in the world of computer effects is the creation of completely digital actors.
"Although it's very difficult, it should be possible," says Zauner. "In longer shots, you can still see a difference between an actual actor and a digital one. Apart from the appearance, the way a human moves and the voice are critically important - and hard to reproduce," Zauner adds. "It will be some time before we can create those things realistically."
The movie "Gladiator" by Ridley Scott required a digital actor. During the shoot, actor Oliver Reed died of a heart attack. So some scenes were completed using the computer. "The technology used to create digital actors is referred to as morphing,'" says Jochen Schuetze.
"Humans can spot an unrealistic motion," says Scheutze. "That's the reason animations work best with animals. Digital human actors still require some more work. But it's just a matter of time."
But the time will come. In fact, one Hollywood-based company is already planning ahead and has licensed the rights to Marilyn Monroe for 200,000 dollars. The company plans to use the deceased star in future movies. Says movie expert Schuetze: "At some point we will see a love scene between Marilyn Monroe and Harrison Ford, even though she was dead long before he made his first movie."
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