Building the Perfect Beast

Special-effects wizard Phil Tippett--creator of Starship Troopers' murderous bugs--envisions the digital future.

Computers weren't content to stay in the wings. In 1985 director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) was pondering how to nail down a difficult effect for Young Sherlock Holmes. He had a stained-glass window with a knight on it: He wanted the knight to jump off the window, march down the aisle and whack a priest with his sword. Levinson recalls poring over the storyboards with ILM visual-effects supervisor Dennis Muren and thinking, "We should see the stained-glass man come toward us and then [have the point of view of the camera] begin to counter-move so that we'd [end up] over his shoulder looking at the [priest]. We needed to get into the next generation of special effects to have those two things happen." To capture the action in a continuous move and countermove, Muren turned to Pixar, which was then George Lucas's computer-animation group; John Lasseter (who later directed Toy Story) was among those responsible for the effect. Levinson didn't dwell on it: "I got a rough look at ILM on a video screen when they were just doing early stages, and I thought, 'Wow, if we can get this to work, it will be a great little moment.' "

That stained-glass knight wasn't just a little moment--it earned pages of coverage in American Cinematographer magazine. This knight was also a giant frog in the small pond of mid-'80s computer graphics. Digital visionaries and animators alike saw him as a clue to the next direction--one that could change the relationship between special effects and the rest of movies.

During the golden age of Hollywood, effects sequences were often the lonely high points of epics, spectacles and fantasy or adventure films. They were isolated in their position in the movies and isolated in the way they were made. Typically, Tippett explains, "a production designer would call for a matte painting, a director would call for a dam bursting." That began to change in the '50s, when puppet masters George Pal (Destination Moon, The Time Machine) and Harryhausen developed enough clout to seize control of entire productions. In the '60s and '70s, a series of collaborative leaps--made by Douglas Trumbull and Stanley Kubrick in 2001; by Trumbull and Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and by ILMers like Muren and Tippett and Lucas in the Star Wars trilogy and beyond--brought special-effects teams and directors close together. And after Young Sherlock Holmes, filmmakers began to realize that the computer enabled them to weave the most whimsical or dangerous effects even more intimately into the fabric of a movie.

That hasn't happened yet: In 1997, effects are largely still a carnival attraction. Levinson compares the digital boom to the emergence of color television: "When the sets for the TV shows all had to be very colorful, game-show sets had panels with nine different colors. Everything went haywire and became garish. Each new invention basically gets abused in some fashion until good sense takes over."

Of course, Levinson doesn't hesitate to exploit the new technology when it's apt, as in the virtual-reality subplot of his Disclosure. Talking about his forthcoming underwater sci-fi flick, Sphere, he rhapsodizes about "a digital thing with jellyfish that's still evolving." He says, "We're trying to picture a school of these gorgeous, transparent, colorful jellyfish in a way that's just fantastically beautiful at the beginning, then eerie, then deadly; to have this tranquil, idyllic moment when a flashlight shines through them and they're illuminated, and then to have it go haywire. It's something you could never do with puppets."

But Levinson most looks forward to digital work that will support storytelling without calling attention to itself. As he points out, even his beloved sleeper Diner, whose charm derived from its evocation of '50s Baltimore, would be hard to produce in today's inflated film economy. Detailed digital sets could make more movies like it affordable.

Levinson's onetime collaborators at Pixar were the first to find a way to integrate digital effects into a feature organically--by making an entire film on the computer. Their pop phenomenon Toy Story took place in a digitally stylized Everysuburb that the mass audience instantly read as "home." The brilliance of the film was to accept the suburbanization of movies and to play with it instead of simply pander to it. The human characters in Toy Story are consumers--and the main characters, toys, are actually retail products, many of whom, like Slinky Dog or Mr. Potato Head, have commercial pedigrees. With Toy Story, Pixar's moonstruck wiseacres proved they bring self-mocking fun to their work. This movie marked the first occasion that a burger-joint product tie-in was more giggly than offensive. A direct-to-video sequel, Toy Story 2, is scheduled for 1998, along with Pixar's next full-scale feature: A Bug's Life.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bought Pixar from Lucas in 1986. But it always had a separate identity from the rest of the Lucas empire anyway. Lucas hoped to use computer graphics as one tool in his live-action movie workshop. John Lasseter and company aimed to create shorts and then features solely from computer imagery. To Orson Welles, the movie studio was the greatest train set in the world; to Lasseter, the computer is.

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