Magazine article American Cinematographer

Effects, Mattes, Models for the Golden Child

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Effects, Mattes, Models for the Golden Child

Article excerpt

While the increasing demand for ever more sophisticated special effects extravaganzas have honed the craft to a fine pseudo-scientific edge, the films themselves, with few exceptions, have remained stylistically wanting. Because the camera was virtually held captive, locked down, a helpless spectator recording the action but not participating in it, the special effects film has perversely been capable of transporting an audience to the limits of the filmmakers' imaginations, while limiting the ability to tell the story cinematically. Nowhere has this deficiency been more noticeable than in the field of stop-motion animation, a technique which early in cinema history hit its peak in films like King Kong and Mighty foe Young - the work of master animator Willis O'Brien. Later efforts by the likes of Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth have also advanced the techniques of stop-motion animation, but the camera has still remained virtually static.

The Golden Child, with effects by Industrial Light and Magic, is a cinematic blend of stop-motion animation with live foreground and background action. It was ILM who first opened up the ever burgeoning field of special visual effects with revolutionary work in Star Wars, and in the decade since, have continued to push the limits of this demanding filmmaking arena. Taking all of their contributions into consideration, returning control of films to the filmmakers may be the greatest single one of all - thus far.

The Tondreau system, developed by Bill Tondreau, is essentially a live-action motion-control system which enables any camera move to be recorded on floppy disc; where the information is stored for playback later at the ILM facility, and can be repeated exactly ad infinitum. Kim Marks, one of the ILM cinematographers who photographed Golden Child's stop-motion effects, explains: "The Tondreau system is a field recorder head whose information is recorded on an IBM floppy disc. We can plug that information back into our computer here using the whirlhead adapters to film our models. In Golden Child, Eddie Murphy's demon opponent appears in a lot of scenes where the script requires earthquake-type moves. Using the Tondreau System, we could place the demon onto our shaking live-action plate and make it appear that he's shaking too. It doesn't look like he's shaking against the plate; he's locked into the background and that added some dynamics to those shots."

Ken Ralston, Golden Child's visual effects supervisor, is the man responsible for recognizing the potential value of the Tondreau system to add more life to the demon sequences, and he says he's "delighted" with the result. "Otherwise," he admits, "I'd probably be selling hot dogs on the corner. If it hadn't worked it would've been a disaster!" Tondreau had originally developed his live-action motion-control system for use in an upcoming ILM feature, Roger The Rabbit - which will incorporate elaborate eel animation with live-action backgrounds, but when Ralston realized the opportunity to revolutionize stop-motion animation effects for Golden Child, he and Tondreau jumped at the chance. "Our tests for Roger The Rabbit were going along so well that I just dove in head first and said, "Great, let's use it on Golden Child," Ralston recalls. "It was a scary decision because it was a prototype - it's still a prototype in some ways. It was like initiation by fire. We were still doing our tests up here while we were shooting our plates down there in L.A., and it was a race to get everything set. We had our fingers crossed all the time, but we pushed the system as far as we could. It still needs to be developed a lot more. It's gone through a lot of huge changes because the initial live action system had to be refined and developed for the stop-motion shots. It's gone through a helluva lot of changes, starting with the first shot. Everyday, something else would change or we'd have some suggestions and Bill - who's been terrific - would change the software programs. …

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