Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 7 (July 2006)

Classics Old and New


Karen Moltenbrey, Chief Editor
Chief Editor
Karen Moltenbrey

After all these years, I am still amazed when it comes to the power of computer graphics. It has the ability to educate, to make our lives more efficient and safe, and much more. Above all, it has the ability to entertain. The medium can turn the pages of a book into a cultural phenomenon, as was the case with The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the popular Harry Potter series.

Indeed, Hollywood has used many a novel—some best-sellers, some obscure titles— as the basis for feature films. This summer, author Dan Brown’s phenomena, The Da Vinci Code, finally made its long-awaited film debut. Some critics loved it; others did not. And some readers expressed their disappointment, as well. Most of the less favorable comments were reserved for the actors and their dry performances. Yet, fans of this book turned out in droves to see the novel’s intriguing plot unfold on the big screen.

While making the film, director Ron Howard’s goal was to stay true to the book. At times, though, this was extremely difficult to do. One of the more challenging scenes took place inside the ancient Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris . As Rainmaker VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear notes, Saint-Sulpice is both atypical and well known, and as a result, no other church could have been substituted for this scene without audiences raising an eyebrow. But, the Vatican would not allow film crews into the actual church. So, under VFX supervisor Angus Bickerton’s guidance, Breakspear and his group of digital artists re-created this magnificent structure in 3D splendor by building on a relatively standard method of mapping photographic textures onto 3D geometry (see “On Holy Ground,” pg. 62). The procedure worked so well that, according to Breakspear, audiences will think the scenes were filmed rather than created virtually— as Howard did when shown early tests.

Not only can CG turn a book into a film classic, but it also has the ability to transform what is already a cultural icon into one of even bigger proportions for the theater. This summer, Buena Vista/Disney used the medium to once again bring the fictional pirate Jack Sparrow to life in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a sequel to the 2003 blockbuster The Curse of the Black Pearl. Both movies, in addition to a third in production, are adaptations of the popular Disney theme-park attraction Pirates of the Caribbean. When the ride opened in 1967, it marked a high point in the development of audio-animatronics technology. Similarly, in Dead Man’s Chest, a novel technique involving the ability to capture the performances of several actors on location during principal photography rather than during a separate motion-capture session sets a new watermark for motion capture (see “Yo Ho Ho!,” pg. 16). With this treasure trove of new technology from ILM, animators can create far more believable CG character performances, and filmmakers can look beyond the previous limitations of physical location and time restraints when employing motion capture.

CG turned this animated property (by way of animatronics) into another smash, as it surpassed the weekend-opening box-office record previously set by Spider-Man. Disney, anticipating this reception, just updated its classic theme-park attraction to include Sparrow as the new hero of its high-seas ride. These are but two of the recent “novel” effects of CG.
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