New computer technologies in the art of filmmaking are calling into question the old adage that seeing is believing.
More and more, as we gaze at the marvels glowing in darkness on screens that are growing larger and larger again, we feel a nagging sense of being misled. As the camera pans up over a towering entrance to Rome's Colosseum, as talking dinosaurs lumber across real landscapes, as Tom Cruise flies through the air from a motorcycle, the dazzling perfection of the technique seems an elaborate lie. Disbelief is becoming harder to suspend.
In the case of the summer's most successful movie thus far -- as of last Monday, ''Mission: Impossible 2'' had raked in $176.6 million in just four weeks -- the tricks only look unbelievable. John Woo works almost like a silent-movie director, and Cruise performs many of his own stunts, like a modern Buster Keaton. The motorcycle sequence, which almost broke the back of Cruise's co-star, Dougray Scott, culminates in a moment when Cruise catapults up to kick Scott in the chest. Woo shot this sequence with several cameras, using both slow motion and normal speed. Silent directors played with camera speeds the same way, though they cranked by hand.
''Gladiator,'' which has garnered $159.0 million in seven weeks, and ''Dinosaur,'' which has reaped $120.5 million in five weeks, both abound in computerized magic. Because of the current fascination with how things are done, television specials illustrate the making of such movies. Publicity materials explain the processes at great length. Star bios become mere blips.
For Ridley Scott's tale of ancient Rome, ancient and modern techniques combined to produce the spectacle. In Ouarzazate, Morocco, where the scenes at Proximo's gladiators' school were shot, more than 30,000 mud bricks were molded to construct the amphitheater. On Malta, where the Colosseum was built (with only three tiers rather than four, as in the Roman original), Arthur Max's crew built only the 52-foot-high first tier, and only a third of the circumference. John Nelson and Mill Film Ltd. in London did the rest with computer imaging -- though a special sunscreen, or velarium, was built for shadowing effects.
Like ''Gladiator,'' Walt Disney's ''Dinosaur'' blends the real world and computer-generated life. The animators jumped into computer graphics in a big way, building a new company called The Secret Lab to create more than 30 species of prehistoric creatures, from the 12-inch gliding lizard to the 120-foot, 100-ton brachiosaur. Roughly 3.2 million processing hours went into the equivalent of 70,000 CD-ROMS with 100 million individual files.
While the dinosaurs grew from designs to models to computerized animation, the backgrounds, on the other hand, are of this world. Two films crews traveled the world on an 18-month mission to photograph various terrains.
Computers also played significant roles in two recent releases: ''Titan A.E.'' from former Disney animator Don Bluth, and ''Fantasia 2000'' from the House of the Mouse (who figures in an old-fashioned animated sequence, ''The Sorcerer's Apprentice,'' voiced by the founder of Disney himself). Last Friday brought a different sort of animation, with the release of Aardman Animations' ''Chicken Run,'' whose fowls and humans have claws and feet of clay, as in ''Wallace and Gromit.''
Throughout the century they dominated, films have split into four categories. At one extreme is the newsreel, later the televised report, the recording of reality in real time. At the other end of the spectrum is the animated work, from cartoons such as ''Gertie the Dinosaur'' to ''Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,'' drawings joined together by the persistence of vision.
Allied to the first category is the realistic fiction film, comedy or drama, sometimes shot in studios, later on location, even in the streets. Related to the second is the spectacle, such as D.W. Griffith's ''Intolerance.'' Here, though, the people are costumed actors; the worlds created are fantasy. Yet the huge sets were -- and still are, to an extent -- real three-dimensional settings through which a camera can travel, track or crane like a free-floating human eye.
The great fabulist of the '20s, the heyday of the silent film and the first great era of Hollywood, was Douglas Fairbanks. For his 1922 ''Robin Hood,'' Fairbanks built a huge castle, the largest set ever constructed for a silent picture. Even so, a glass shot was used to make the castle of Richard the Lionheart look even taller.
This technique, a painting on glass photographed in register with a life-size setting below, prefigures the use of computerized images married to the action in a picture such as ''Gladiator.''
Miniatures, or models, have also been melded with larger settings to create an illusion of grandeur. The matte shot is another process for inserting actors into location scenes or trick shots. Filmed against black velvet, for example, the actor's image is superimposed on a background or mixed with a separate shot of, say, a monster or cartoon figure. Thus a Princess Leia can be fondled by Jabba the Hutt, or Gene Kelly can dance with Jerry the Mouse.
Besides special effects pioneer Georges Melies, who famously created the image of the moon with a rocket stuck in its eye, the progenitors of today's computer legerdemain are Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen, George Lucas and the less well-known Willis O'Brien.
Through O'Brien's amazingly sophisticated manipulation of stop-motion effects, dinosaurs roamed the Earth in 1925's ''The Lost World'' and a giant ape scaled the Empire State Building in ''King Kong'' in 1933.
Harryhausen continued the work of O'Brien, and the two worked together on ''Mighty Joe Young.'' Obsessed with mythical figures, model-making and stop-motion techniques, Harryhausen unfortunately too often worked on projects that bordered on camp, such as ''Jason and the Argonauts'' in 1963 and the star-strewn but hollow ''Clash of the Titans'' in 1981 (though the Pegasus is a marvel).
Disney, who moved from Mickey Mouse and ''Silly Symphony'' shorts to ''Snow White,'' full-length and in technicolor, later combined live-action and animation on such features as ''The Three Caballeros'' and ''Song of the South.'' After his death and such false starts as the pioneering 1982 ''Tron,'' a new generation regained pre-eminence in animation with such extraordinary hits as 1991's ''Beauty and the Beast,'' which impressively created the illusion of three-dimensionality in the computer-built ballroom sequence.
Later, the Disney company collaborated with the San Francisco-based Pixar on 1995's ''Toy Story,'' entirely generated by computer graphics. Director John Lasseter has pointed out that computers do not make the work go faster, but they do use smaller work teams -- 110 for ''Toy Story'' vs. more than 600 on ''The Lion King.''
Another San Francisco-area operation, however, is the true godfather of the new ways to dream. Lucas created ILM in 1975 to create the special effects for ''Star Wars.'' ILM has evolved into the foremost craft shop in the digital arena, even creating the dinosaurs for ''Jurassic Park.'' This, obviously, pushed Disney into investing $200 million in ''Dinosaur.''
On the other hand, Disney has reinvented itself as the fountainhead in a new era of special effects. The crowd scenes viewed from the cathedral heights in 1996's ''The Hunchback of Notre Dame'' showed the way for the multiplication of extras in ''Gladiator.'' And in films like ''Titan A.E.,'' former Disney hand Bluth begins to blur the line between animation and live-actor tales like ''Star Wars.''
Is the time coming, as Wired magazine wondered a year or so ago, when actors themselves will be replaced by computer-generated stars?
Is there a synthesized Tom Cruise in our future?
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