Comic-Con Showcases Hollywood CGI
July 29, 2009

Comic-Con Showcases Hollywood CGI

SAN DIEGO, California—In an effort to generate buzz for a slate of films that stretches all the way to fall 2010, Hollywood brought out some of its biggest directors and hottest stars. More than 126,000 attendees flooded downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp District and Conference Center for the 40th annual Comic-Con International. The talk of the show focused on VFX-laden blockbusters such as Marvel Studios’ Iron Man 2 and Summit Entertainment’s New Moon, CGI-driven stories like Summit Entertainment’s Astro Boy and Warner Bros. Pictures’ Where the Wild Things Are, and stereo 3D films including James Cameron’s Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and Walt Disney Pictures’ TRON Legacy.

Comic-Con has been designed as a non-stop series of panels held in cavernous halls that hold over 6000 fans, many of whom camped out for days to be the first to see clips from upcoming movies. The Con, as it’s referred to by the faithful who make the annual pilgrimage, also features Hollywood celebrities on these panels, which adds to the excitement.

When it comes to 3D filmmaking, Cameron’s Pace Fusion camera system, which he originally developed with Vince Pace to film the underwater documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (see “Atypical Stereo,” July 2003), was on display throughout the four-day event. In addition to Avatar, a groundbreaking new sci-fi epic that’s been in development for four years, both New Line Cinema’s The Final Destination in 3D and TRON Legacy employed the new technology.

“Our Fusion system has improved in kind of the user interaction,” says Cameron. “We have a lot more bells and whistles to support you in the live-action moment and right through the whole post pipeline. The cameras that we used on Avatar are significantly different then what they used on Final Destination. I think it’s more in the user interface. A lot of the stuff we learned on the prior stuff in our documentaries went into our Avatar experience. But Avatar was the first time we really got to play big-league ball with the system, and I think a lot came out of it that Vince Pace put into upgrading the system for other filmmakers to use.”

Robert Zemeckis, who has been a pioneer of performance capture, was on hand to show the first scenes from his 3D take on A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey in eight roles. He says new techniques utilized in this film perfectly replicate the human eye and erase the issues that have appeared in previous films.

“The uncanny valley is a term coined for robots…for audio animatronic dolls,” says Zemeckis. “I don’t think it was ever intended to be used for cinema. Cinema is all illusion. I see a lot of uncanny valley in everyday movies. You see it when you have a mediocre actor trying to remember his lines. I see it in prosthetics, which is the only tool we’ve had until the invention of digital cinema to age an actor. You look at it and it’s kind of real, but not quite. It’s an artistry thing. It has nothing to do with the art form we’re birthing here. Don’t strangle the baby in the crib.”

Burton, who flew to San Diego to promote his March 2010 take on Alice, says he is using just about every technique out there to bring his vision to life.

“With the technology, there are lots of different ways to do things,” says Burton. “We mixed things together to find our own way to do this…by using pure animation and using the actors in mysterious ways.”

Back in 1981, Steve Lisberger and a team of filmmakers set out to create a video game world using computer graphics technology with TRON. Next fall, the long-awaited sequel hits theaters. Lisberger was on hand, along with Jeff Bridges and the new cast, to show an exclusive clip of the new 3D CGI spectacle at the show.

“We’re doing a lot of things we can’t talk about now,” says Lisberger, producer of TRON Legacy. “We’re doing three or four things in this movie [that have] never been done before, and we’re doing them at the same time. Next year at Comic-Con, you’ll see things you’ve never seen before.”

The world of TRON has continued to evolve, but on its own, like an island. The story will focus on the journey of Flynn’s son to find his father, who is still alive in the world of TRON. Cameron contends that of all the films at Comic-Con, he was most looking forward to seeing how TRON Legacy was coming along. That feeling was shared by many fans, especially since Disney built a replica of Flynn’s Arcade (see pictures) just down the street from the conference center for anyone to play ’80s classics. The arcade also featured a backdoor that revealed the new Light Cycle that will be featured in the film.

While 3D dominated Comic-Con, CGI played a major role in other films, including the October release of Astro Boy.

“With modern-day GCI technology, we’ve been able to expand Astro Boy’s universe,” says director David Bowers. “The CGI gives you the freedom to move the camera. It just really allows you to be more expressive and just takes it to a bigger canvas. In terms of Astro Boy’s story, I’ve always said that in animated movies, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re doing it in stop motion, or 2D, or CGI, or even shadow puppets, or whatever you want to do your animation in, as long as the story and the characters are compelling enough to make you watch it.”

Beyond movies, video games had the largest showing ever for The Con, in part because E3 was moved up to June this year. Several publishers, including Sega, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft, used the venue to debut new games like Need for Speed: NITRO and Iron Man 2. The developers of the 2010 action game Bayonetta flew in from Japan. Activision showcased both the action-packed Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and the first-person shooter Singularity at an evening party. And Ubisoft had Cameron, producer Jon Landau, and actress Sigourney Weaver on hand for its Avatar game party. Weaver makes her video game debut in the new 3D game, which was developed by Ubisoft’s acclaimed Montreal Studio.

Comic-Con has evolved into a pop culture phenomenon that’s about much more than just comic books. And given the success, and growth, of the show over the years, that’s not about to change.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game business for more than 15 years for outlets such as The Washington Post, Wired Magazine, Reuters, and AOL Games.


TRON Legacy Flynn's Arcade at Comic-Con. Photos by Eric Charbonneau/Le Studio/Wireimage; courtesy Disney.