Film: Who wants reality at the movies?

The grandaddy of screen monsters is back in town. James Mottram talks to the actor Jean Reno about playing number two to a giant digitised lizard, while Joseph Gallivan asks whatever happened to good old rubber puppets
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The Independent Culture
CAN YOU stomach another movie where the heroes sprint hand-in- hand away from a fuzzy digital fireball? Or someone scampers up a jetty pursued by a mushy grey tidal wave? The sort of movie where the hero always wins through, regardless of physics?

The impending Godzilla movie is another such hopeful blockbuster - a monster fantasy that strives after perfect photo-realism.

The movie's creators, director/writer Roland Emmerich and producer/writer Dean Devlin, were so pleased with the way the digital space ships and fighter planes turned out in Independence Day (or ID4 in Hollywood-speak), and how cost-effective it proved, that they set up their own digital effects studio, CFX (Centropolis Effects) to keep the talent together. CFX has grown from a staff of 10 to more than 100, and has become one of the hottest special effects houses around (they did all the Godzilla graphics).

The President of CFX, Steve Purim, a supremely confident young animator- turned exec, addressed the crowd at a midtown Manhattan lecture theatre last week.

Most of them were from the industry - men with frameless glasses, women in black. The future of film-making. The charming Purim talked about his battles with Emmerich who, based on his experience making Stargate, hated digital effects and wanted to do all of ID4 with models and then composite them (a process like blue screening on television).

The result was that for the F18 fighter plane flights through the Grand Canyon in Independence Day, Purim made both the model composite sequences and the computer-generated version, and showed them back-to-back. The director admitted the digital version was superior.

So by the time they were writing Godzilla in their Mexican hideaway, Purim said, "Roland and Dean were calling us saying `What if Godzilla swam? What if he jumped? Can we do that?'" Purim assured them that almost anything was possible, right down to having the monster run along the Brooklyn Bridge and get tangled in the cables. All digitally, all without puppets. He drew the line at hair though. Hair is hard to "matte" - to match to the background.

His chief supervisors, two Germans called Carolin Quis and Steffen Wild, then took up the thread. Their main concern was the "pipeline", the technical processes film-makers use to create the images. It takes time to do wireframe models on screen, then "render" them, (this takes a lot of time and computing power - roughly 30 hours per shot), then add texture, expressions etc. (Fur, it seems, is the hardest thing to do.)

To speed up the pipeline they played with combinations of the best software and hardware available - stuff with names that sound like movies themselves: Flint, SoftImage, Tornado, Storm and Houdini.

At this level, animators can customise the programme so that Godzilla's virtual "skeleton" moves with its skin naturally, or so that he moves more slowly than those around him, to make him appear heavy.

Taking us through the different stages of making one scene where Godzilla's giant foot crashes down on the back of a yellow taxi right outside Grand Central Station, Wild showed how they did a "pass" for each layer of information: a lighting pass to get the shadows right, an iridescence pass to get the correct sheen of the water running down the monster's knobbly skin. (Teeming rain and fog are a good way of covering up any inconsistencies of lighting or outline.)

All pieced together, it looked impressive, like someone had worked hard to make it look natural. But ultimately, the point seemed to have been missed.

Godzilla does look like a large lizard. He is "animated" and lithe - all those things they strove for. But one has to wonder, why fight such a long tradition of artificiality?

At Godzilla movies, children suspend their disbelief, while adults chuckle, wondering how hot it was for the little Japanese man in the rubber suit, and where his eyeholes were.

Godzilla's eyes were meant to portray the look of a nuclear mutant hermaphrodite who has just had his nest of babies blown up by the Air Force, but that didn't quite come across.

Quis and Wild's concluding remarks were that the film industry is moving towards total digital sets, but they were careful to note the limitations. "In the end it will always be about human actors conveying emotion."

It sounded, however, like a hopeful but not very heartfelt piece of humanism at the end of a techno love fest. If this is the best there is in digital effects, Godzilla proves nothing. You still look for the joins.

Meanwhile, the people at CFX already have their next project lined up. It's the tale of Stuart Little, a mouse. It'll be interesting to see how they handle all that fur. JG