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New Indiana Jones Film Has High-Tech Effects

May 23, 2008

George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) is a high-tech shrine including everything from the talking robots in “Transformers” to the “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs. It’s a temple where life-size replicas of Darth Vader and Bobba Fett from “Star Wars” stand guard over an Indiana Jones banner with a two-dimensional cutout of Harrison Ford that seems almost out of place as it swings through the lobby.

ILM has become famous over the last 20 years for digital special effects that have migrated from soundstage to servers during that time. But the Indiana Jones films can’t take credit for the digital wizardry for which ILM has become known, because they haven’t been around for 19 years.

“Indy’s” first three films were physical, gritty and sweaty, in large part because everything onscreen physically existed somewhere. But this is not true with the latest film, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, although it was almost the case.

When first approaching the latest Indy film, director Steven Spielberg considered using his legacy approach.

“He thought maybe we should just go back to the way we did things before, like matte paintings on glass and things like that,” visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman told the Associated Press.

“We entertained that idea for a little bit, but we realized we could serve the story better by using our digital tools.”

The decision ultimately drove an innovation that brought the random reactions of a virtual world to the big screen, giving more control to ILM’s computers than ever before.

To children playing outside at ILM’s daycare center located near the facility’s lobby, the notion of a digital “environment” being responsible for much of what’s onscreen might someday seem old-fashioned. But to adult audiences who’ve seen the latest Indy film it’s a big part of the reason this one looks so different from its predecessors.

Helman, who previously worked with Spielberg on “War of the Worlds” and “Munich”, was asked to develop realistic-yet-spectacular environments and creatures for “Crystal Skull,” a film that finds Jones trekking from New England to New Mexico, Peru and the Amazon. Helman, a low-key special effects expert who also worked on two of the “Star Wars” films, found working on the “Indy” franchise a daunting task.

“It’s horrifying to work on a movie that has this many fans, but at the same time, it’s an opportunity and a challenge,” said Helman, in an interview
with The Associated Press at ILM’s offices less than a week before the film’s release. “I think we were all very, very respectful of the other three movies but also to the fans. All the effects work that we’re doing is completely reality-based.”

That’s assuming your reality includes a vicious monkey army, a blooming atomic mushroom cloud, an endless Area 51 warehouse, the City of Gold and thousands of man-eating ants and otherworldly things.

All those settings and creatures were created by Helman and his ILM team for the new film, making up “Crystal Skull’s” 450 effects shots, which is still not quite as many as the 600-plus in “Transformers” but more than one might expect from a physical, rough-and-tumble 1950s character.

For eight months, about 300 artists and editors worked in post-production on a high-tech computer network at ILM’s offices in San Francisco, a long way from the previous franchise films, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Temple of Doom”, when “Indiana Jones” special effects were made up primarily of miniature sets and a few blue-screen mash-ups.

“The only reason why they weren’t using computer-generated effects back then is because they weren’t invented yet, but they were using the most up-to-date technology at the time,” said Helman, who completed work on “Crystal Skull” in mid-April.

“So it only follows that we would do the same thing now.”

In the film’s biggest action sequence, Jones and friends battle Russian soldiers and play hot potato with the “Crystal Skull,” all while twisting their way through a fertile Amazonian jungle in military vehicles.

“The script calls for a virgin jungle, but there’s not one we could safely run four vehicles through,” said Helman.

“We could’ve approached it in a more modern way on a big stage with a blue screen, but that’s not the way we did it. We basically shot it the same way we would’ve shot it 20 years ago.”

Spielberg filmed the \ scene on dirt roads in a less dense Hawaiian jungle. Helman traveled to Argentina, his birthplace, and Brazil to capture images to craft the junglescape, including one of a looming cliff where part of the chase takes place.

At the ILM offices, Helman and his team meshed the Hawaiian footage with the Brazilian and Argentinian imagery, and added large swathes of flora using a new digital-effects method. The result is a fictitious jungle with its own look, layout and laws of physics that only exists inside ILM’s servers.

“The whole film for us has been really big on particle simulation, which is creating an environment inside of a computer and telling the computer the rules of the world,” said Helman.

“You give the computer this gravity, this mass, this amount of wind and see what happens.”

This meant that instead of crafting individual movements for every leaf and vine that Indy and his friends careened through, visual effects artists were able to ‘drag and drop’ virtual vegetation pre-programmed to react to the actors’ movements and vehicles’ presence. While a requisite for video games, the application has only now come full circle in films.

Helman said the filmmakers took some liberties with the laws of physics, such as more gravity, more mass, and more wind to “make it more cinematic.” The result is a highly specific chase scene far different from Indy’s legendary escape from a giant rolling boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

It’s only one of the many effects Helman and his crew created for the film.
However, the film’s signature accessories are the one thing he insists didn’t receive a computer-generated revision this go around.

“We did not generate whips or hats,” he said with a smile.

“Let me tell you that.”

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