July 7, 2006

Digital Superman is in league all his own

By Anne Thompson

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Superman Returns"
director Bryan Singer wasn't kidding last July when he promised
6,500 fans at Comic-Con "lots of spectacle" and "one of the
largest films Warner Bros. Pictures has ever made."

In the year since, the director has backed off his initial
budget estimate of $250 million; the studio is claiming $209
million. But add the film's $60 million in development costs
(not to mention summer-level marketing spending sure to top $75
million), and $250 million is a relatively modest number.

While Singer and Warners based their would-be blockbuster
on a strong story and characters, they knew that reviving the
DC Comics franchise required rocko-socko visual effects.
Today's FX spectaculars are expected to expand the boundaries
of anything that has ever been done before. In this regard,
"Superman Returns" delivers -- 20 percent to 25 percent of its
budget was allocated to its elaborate effects, says veteran
visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson ("The Fifth Element,"
"Peter Pan").

The digital technology deployed on this iconic comic book
adventure was light years away from the effects "Superman
Returns" producer Jon Peters remembers using on 1989's
"Batman," which used old-fashioned storyboards, not today's
animated previsualizations. And, as Peters recalled at
Comic-Con, on the first "Superman" in 1978, director Dick
Donner had to hide the cables carrying the flying Christopher
Reeve; he couldn't paint them out. "It was very challenging
back then," Peters says. "This 'Superman' delivers things never
seen before."


Although experienced in working with effects on the "X-Men"
series, Singer turned to such techno-visionaries as Peter
Jackson, George Lucas, Sam Raimi and James Cameron for counsel
on how to meet the high expectations set for "Superman
Returns." "It's nice to have long conversations about these
things so we can key off each other about these technologies,"
he says. "So when we jump into the pressure cooker, we realize
we're doing our best at any given moment."

The director started off by convincing Warners that
"Superman Returns" should be the first movie to use Sony and
Panavision's new 12.5 million-megapixel, single-chip Genesis
digital camera, which enabled Singer to shoot lengthy takes in
a retro visual style. As befits a massive, 160-minute movie,
the effects are, as Singer promised, "huge." More than 1,500
effects shots take Superman into the depths of the ocean,
through flaming tunnels, into outer space and above a baseball
stadium as he carries a plummeting Boeing 777 to a soft

While there are many amazing sequences in the movie -- a
yacht split apart by rising crystal formations in a raging
storm was created by Rhythm & Hues, one of 10 FX houses on the
picture -- the toughest challenge by far was the digital

Previous digital characters to beat were Sonny, the star of
"I, Robot" and, of course, "The Lord of the Rings"' Gollum. But
Superman is not a robot or a corrupted hobbit. He is all too
human. So Singer turned to the digital character creators at
Sony Pictures Imageworks, who had fashioned the Spider-Man that
careens around Manhattan (covered by a hood and face mask) as
well as the digital Doc Ock, who falls into a watery grave in
"Spider-Man 2."

Better still, SPI had just imported VFX star Andy Jones,
the lead animator on "I, Robot" and "Final Fantasy." Also at
SPI was supervisor Stetson, who got his start 20 years ago
working with FX pioneer Douglas Trumbull ("2001: A Space
Odyssey") and made his name in the world of miniature
photographic effects. Stetson had begun working with Singer on
a planned remake of "Logan's Run" and quickly moved over to
"Superman." The supervisor worked closely with Jones and SPI's
Richard Hoover to prepare several hundred digital flying shots,
including several key close-ups of Superman, that are among the
most memorable images in the movie.


In one, Superman (Brandon Routh) stops above Lois Lane's
house and sheds a tear as he realizes she has a happy home
life. (The close-up of the eye with tears is a live-action

"The image of Superman hanging in space high above the
globe was inspired by an Alex Ross illustration from the
graphic novel ('Wizard: Alex Ross Millennium Edition'),"
Stetson says. "We called it 'The Listening Post.' I wanted to
make sure that we found this one moment of him hovering over
the Earth in his protective state. We go into his ear to see
him listening."

At movie's end, Superman loops around Metropolis, swoops
high above the Earth and splays his arms, smiling at the
camera: all digital Supe -- with a few live shots mixed in.

Singer believes in blending the CG shots with sophisticated
cable systems, greenscreen rigs, miniatures and CGI.
Interestingly, Singer filmed Routh's underwater scenes the
old-fashioned way -- in a tank. "I always trying to blur the
line between digital effects and digital characters and real
actors," he says. "So the audience doesn't ask, 'Is that a
digital character?"'

To create a digital Superman, SPI's FX wizards did two
lumaspheric scans of Routh, before he worked out for the movie
and after. They placed him inside an insular ball and bounced
light off his face and body so the computer could reproduce a
3-D computer model of Routh from his pores to his tongue and
the little hairs on his ears. "There are moments when you can't
tell the difference between Brandon and not," Singer says. "We
have hair, eyes, face and air moving at high speeds. And then
there's the darned cape. Even with the real Brandon, we had
little green men behind him holding his cape."

Says Stetson, "There was a lot of careful planning and
artistry in the animation. They worked out how the cape and
hair respond to wind and gravity. I was more worried about the
face. The cape was very directable." The cape actually got in
the way of the flying scenes with Superman and Lois Lane, which
are mostly wirework mixed with two or three shots of the
digital Lois. "The cape hid more than we wanted to hide."


But even the best-laid previous plans didn't always work
out. When a greenscreen sequence of Superman gently lifting the
shuttle into orbit wasn't the long shot the editors wanted,
Stetson got it done. "Bryan lets me do my job, he lets stuff
come to him," Stetson says. "But he has a very critical eye."

When the live shot of the kryptonite-sapped Superman
turning and falling off a cliff into the ocean to escape Lex
Luthor didn't look right either, Singer turned to the SPI FX
wizards, who combined the digital character with environments
created by London's Frameworks-CFC.

With a mercurial director like Singer, who likes to keep
his options open, Stetson had to be flexible. During the
shipwreck sequence, for instance, Superman was supposed to rip
off the door to rescue Lois and her family, until Singer said,
"That's lame. Superman wouldn't do that. He'd haul the whole
boat out of the water."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter