Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 4 (April 2002)

E.T.'s New Look

By Barbara Robertson

When E.T. phoned home in 1982, the space ship sent to retrieve him did so without the help of computer graphics. At that time, CG visual effects were nearly as alien as was the odd little extra-terrestrial three-toed botanist himself. Twenty years ago, E.T.'s space ship was a stage model, not a NURBS model.

Bill George, a relatively new employee at ILM in 1981, built the prototype for that space ship. This year, as visual effects supervisor at ILM, George has come full circle-leading an effects team for the re-release of Steven Spielberg's E.T. And this time, computer graphics played a big role-from the first scenes of the space ship landing to the last good-byes. "We ended up redoing all the effects from the first film," says George. "Of course, there were only 40. It was a very small movie, a very low budget film."

That low-budget film became the fourth top-grossing movie in the US, earning over $700 million at the box office. So why touch it? To fix shots that bothered Spielberg.

For example, in space ship shots, the team brightened the ship, replaced static, miniature trees with real bluescreen trees that reacted to the force of the ship's landing, added low-lying smoke, and recomposited the scenes using Discreet's Flame, matching colors more exactly to the live-action footage than before. For some scenes, they even filmed new kids to add action.

The team also brightened E.T.'s performance. In the original, E.T. was an animatronic or a person in a rubber suit. The team selectively improved the performances by replacing part or all of those E.T.s with digital replicas. For example, Spielberg wanted to give E.T. more emotion in a hilarious scene in which E.T. wears a dress and a wig. The team did so by replacing the original face with an animated digital version.
Described as a cross between a penguin and a root vegetable, with internal organs that are revealed when his heart glows, the digital E.T. took 1.5 million triangles to create. For facial animation, some 150 blend shapes were sculpted, according to ILM se

"We decided that E.T. was feeling embarrassed, so we had him look around the room to divert attention," says Colin Brady, animation director. Most changes to E.T. were for similar reasons. "We pushed the extremes," says Brady. "Where he was cute, we made him cuter. When he was sad, we made the scene more emotional."

In addition, they gave E.T. mobility. Instead of sliding through the forest on tracks, the digital E.T. runs. That mobility allowed Spielberg to revive a bathroom scene cut from the original. "In the original, E.T. sat on the floor like a lump," says Brady. Using footage from the cut scenes, they painted the puppet out and put a digital E.T. in. Now, E.T. balances his belly on the edge of the tub and wiggles his feet.

"A lot of people had reservations about tweaking this film and I was one of them," George says. "This is more like a restoration. It's taking what was there and updating it.

"But," he laughs, "it's not a low budget film now."

Barbara Robertson is Senior Editor, West Coast for Computer Graphics World.