Magazine article American Cinematographer

A View from the Kitchen

Magazine article American Cinematographer

A View from the Kitchen

Article excerpt

Despite all of the electronic and computerized magic of modern special effects, some of the most impressive for COSMOS were created "by hand"

These seem to be feverish times in the special-effects business. Ever-more complex motion control systems are springing up all over the place. Enough camera track is being laid to start a decent mass transit system. Computers are being wired into servomotors and video screens. And the stunt pilots of vector space are off and flying. It seems that the film business is being infected by its sister industry in Los Angeles, the defense industry, with a consuming fascination with "high technology". And like the defense industry, it seems only capable of conceiving projects on the most massive scale, complete with tight security, cost overruns, and an increasing reliance on sophisticated hardware rather than human ingenuity and skill. Of course, it's exciting that these machines can create magnificent new visual effects (and perform certain routine operations with great efficiency) but this should not eclipse the fact that there are still some things better done by human beings using their hands.

For example, of all the deservedly celebrated STAR WARS effects, none surpassed the clinging electricity bolts that paralysed R2D2 (shown during the Academy Awards ceremony). This effect was simply animation, hand-drawn by the late Adam Beckett.

So when my partner, Judy Kreijanovsky, and I signed on to produce a variety of effects and animation for COSMOS it was a pleasant surprise. They (Greg Andorfer, Susan Racho and Jon Lomberg) were interested in producing a mixture of hand, mechanical and electronic imagery; and they were comfortable working with individuals as well as corporate entities. Judy and I approach animation as a cottage industry: our studio, the Cartoon Kitchen, is a Mom and Pop operation in our home. Yet our work has to stand alongside that of Paramount's Magicam, Universal's Hartland, JPL's computer animation group and other megabuck studios.

There are distinct advantages to working at the scale we do. For one thing, we were able to produce about 5% of COSMOS'S effects footage while consuming less than 1% of their effects budget. When the same hands design the scene, lay out the animation, paint the eels and operate the camera, it lends an efficiency to the operation and a unity that, I believe, is reflected in the final footage. There is another important advantage to working as a general animator with a simple, adaptable animation stand. When you've invested heavily in specialized equipment, you have bound yourself to a specific style of effect. In order to amortize the machinery, you have to apply the same solution to every problem. Form follows hardware; and, voila!, the "streak" is now the most overused effect since the invention of the zoom lens.

With our set-up we could shift around between (and usually blend within a single shot) a variety of techniques: eelanimation, light-effects, model work, kinestasis, painting-under-the-camera, rotoscope travelling matte work, and "human-interfaced motion-control" (where we used a programable calculator to work out all the settings for complex moves and then operated the camera digitally-that is, we used our fingers). So it might be interesting to mention a few specific problems that came up on some shots and the solutions that were found:

The Black Hole: G reg Andorfer asked us to animate a Black Hole or more properly the "accretion disc", the collection of gas and stellar trash that orbits around the hole on its one-way trip to nowhere. Greg insisted that our Black Hole should rival that of a somewhat better-known animation studio which had just released a $20,000,000 film centered on a Black Hole effect. Suggestions that were made on how to render the effect ranged from spinning paintings at acute angles under the camera, to rotoscoping ink being flushed down a toilet. These model techniques have the advantage of convincing photographic realism, but the drawback is that you must settle for a simplified mechanical analogue of a complicated and subtle phenomenon. …

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