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Can Sets And Special Effects Co-Exist?

Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S.

Naysayers say movies have been over-run by visual effects. Artists, however, say everything seen on the screen starts with the lines created with the most standard tools available: a pencil and paper. The digital advancements would not exist without the basics.

Aimed at exploring how effectively visual effects collaborate with practical applications, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the VFX Convergence, an exploration spread over the course of three evening sessions. Each session focused on a particular discipline – storyboarding, makeup, and matte painting – and showcased how these particular disciplines have been adapted to the digital age. Masters of each craft, including previs pioneers Chris Edwards, founder of The Third Floor, Daniel Gregoire, President, Halon, Oscar- winning special effects makeup artists Rick Baker and Greg Cannom, art director Robert Stromberg and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, shared their experience with merging the applied and digital crafts. From the first presentation it became clear: the traditional applications both inform and are incorporated into the overall outcome of the film.

While storyboarding informs the layout of the film, and makeup informs the appearance of the characters, the matte paintings are responsible for the setting of the story. The final installment of the VFX Convergence focused on this often over-looked craft, beginning with a brief history of the matte painting. Co-moderated by Visual Effects Branch members Theresa Rygiel and Craig Barron (Visual Effects Branch governor), the session began with a clip of Georges Meiles “Trip to the Moon.” The man who was the first to experiment with film tricks and optical illusion also utilized painted backdrops to provide the illusion of a location, enhancing the film’s story-telling ability.

“In regards to matte painting, he got the ball rolling. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for this,” explained Barron. “He’s only known as the father of visual effects.”

Barron continued highlighting the history of matte painting with clips of Charlie Chaplin films, explain the silent comedian’s use of matte paintings referred to as “jeopardy shots” – paints that illustrated the edge of cliffs or clocks that were used for comic effect. Also developed during this period were “glass shots,” aspects of a set that were painting on glass and placed in front of the camera lens.

“These were the earliest and easiest ways to combine effects,” said Barron. “ However, there was always a delay because the director and the crew had to stand around waiting for the artist to finish painting before the shot could be done.”

Over time, inventions such as the optical printer allowed for the combination of matte paintings and live action to be merged on a studio setting. Directors also worked with the artists to find ways to improve efficiency of the matte paints, such as the creation of multiple plates where the background elements could be separated and reused (Mary Poppins) or photographically separating elements of a true location to modify it to better the story, such as extending a harbor so the buildings could be brought inland, as done in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

The digital age has allowed art directors to provide a set that lets the camera roam in ways a practical set or model could not. In Martin Scorsese’s period film “Casino,” the well-known establishments of the 1970s no longer existed. To allow the camera to roam through the city freely, miniatures were created, then digitized. In David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a panning sequence of San Francisco required a view of the city that could not realistically be captured by a low flying helicopter. Utilizing photographs of the city, a digital panorama was incorporated into the set, allowing an impossible activity to take place.

In recent releases such as “Hugo,” the digital set allowed actions that would be physically impossible to be filmed. Director Marin Scorsese wanted to incorporate a long, unedited panning shot early in the film that covered five locations and interchanged two different actors between the sets. Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato first prevised the shot. Working with art director Dante Ferretti, Legato’s team photographed the sets then built a virtual environment that allowed the unrealistic camera movement to become a reality.

Last year’s winner of the Visual Effects Oscar, “Life of Pi,” blended visual effects, photographic imagery and matte paintings to capture beautiful sunsets and expansive, cloudy skies. A great deal of the digital effect was in capturing the quality of the sky and realistically duplicating it on what would be the ocean’s mirror-like reflective surface.

Through the course of the panel it became evident that digital technology is providing a platform for art directors and film makers to create worlds that would not be physically possible to create. Despite this fact, however, there will always be a need for the practical applications. Actors like having something to look at and interact with, and directors like having a physical set they can use for blocking. Each panelist agreed that their ideas always take shape with a simple start.

“It always begins with a pencil sketch,” said Stromberg.

To learn more about events presented by the Academy of Television Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, please visit their website: