Under the Top
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 1 (Jan 2005)

Under the Top

Looking at effects films over the past few years, one could say that visual effects are following a kind of Moore’s Law, double in quality and quantity nearly every year. One example that would support this notion is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whereas the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, contained roughly 480 effects shots, the second, The Two Towers, included nearly twice that many (920), and the third, The Return of the King, doubled the number again, featuring some 1800 effects shots in all. Moreover, the effects grew more complex in each release. Comparing the battle scenes in the films, for example, we find that the armies in the first one featured 70,000 digital warriors, while by the third, they had nearly quadrupled to more than 250,000.

Where do we go from here? Will directors and special effects artists be compelled to populate crowd scenes with millions of characters instead of merely hundreds of thousands in an attempt to one-up their predecessors and satisfy the moviegoing public? Have we already passed the point of diminishing returns in such uses of visual effects? I hope not. But in some cases, less could certainly be more.

Consider the final battle in The Return of the King, in which hundreds of thousands of Orcs, Wargs, Rohans on horseback, and huge Mumakils clash on the plain of Minas Tirith. Scenes like these may be convincingly photorealistic and much like the author JRR Tolkien envisioned when he wrote the tale back in the mid 1950s, since the story was, after all, a fantasy-and perhaps the greatest one ever told. But even so, film audiences were likely forced to make a conscious effort to suppress disbelief, which can take some of the magic out of an experience rather than add more to it.

Of course, not all filmmakers are in a visual effects arms race. For example, take visual effects producer Rob Legato, who won an Academy Award for his work on the film Titanic, and whose latest work is featured in the new Sony Pictures Imageworks film The Aviator, about flyer/filmmaker Howard Hughes. Legato, a cinematographer by training, decided to shoot as much of the movie in camera to go “under the top” rather than “over to top” in terms of effects, he says, “and try to do something that your brain believes is real.”

To that end, Legato used 25-foot scale model planes, that actually flew, and photographed them from a helicopter. For some scenes, Legato used computer-generated planes and camera moves, but with the same the goal of re-creating how Hughes would have been able to photograph a particular scene. “I wanted to get at the heart of what really happened without putting my signature on it or embellishing it,” he says.

“Remember in the 1960s and ’70s when the zoom lens came out?” Legato asks. “It became so overused that it lost much of its appeal.” But now after we’ve all grown up with it, it’s being applied so effectively you often don’t even know when it’s being used, he says. “Likewise, in the CG world, we sometimes see a film that will use technology to get down to the basics of just telling a good story and not try to impress people with the tools they are using to tell it.”

Legato says he doesn’t know if audiences will like The Aviator or not, since the effects are not intended to be more elaborate than those in, say, the last big aircraft effects movie from the same era, Pearl Harbor. But it will be interesting to see if by taking a step back he can move the art of filmmaking forward.

Phil LoPiccolo