We’ve all heard the phrase “movie magic.” But if you’re a filmmaker, making the magic can be a technical and financial challenge. In their book, Filming the Fantastic with Virtual Technology, special effects gurus Mark Sawicki and Dr. Juniko Moody provide the history, technology, and instructions on how to combine live actors, miniatures, and virtual sets to create magical movies.
The book explores the subject from three aspects. It grounds you in the history of special effects, gives you an intensive immersion into the technology, then follows up with a series of case studies to prepare you for what to expect.
The authors take us back to the beginnings of film making to describe techniques used in such classics as King Kong (1933). This is not history for history’s sake, but so that we can understand the trade-offs and compromises needed in the filmmaking process.
I know more about filmmaking than most people, but the book continually surprised me. I learned that some of the processes I thought I totally understood were much more complex and difficult than I thought. Not only do the authors go back in time, they trace the development of the processes through popular films including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park.
As they trace the history, they give credit to the individuals who combined their creative and technical prowess to develop the cameras, techniques, and software needed to take you to Middle Earth or Jupiter.
Getting Your Nerd On
The bulk of the book contains a series of chapters in which the authors examine in depth the tools available now to make your film. These include performance capture, camera tracking, compositing, and use of game engines – such as Unreal Engine – to create virtual sets.
The illustration at the top of this review, which appears on the book’s cover, shows all of these. You see the performance of the actor in the white coat being filmed against a green screen. Next to that, the actor with light sensors attached to his outfit captures movements which animate the giant robot. Finally, the filmmaker includes both characters on the Victorian London street, which exists only in a computer.
Yes, it’s complicated, but the book explains it well.
The authors also explore issues more on the creative side such as “the uncanny valley”. That’s the uncomfortable feeling viewers get if a virtual character doesn’t seem right, such as Tom Hanks’ character in Polar Express. They contrast this with how real Gollum seemed in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and examine the differences.
Maybe you’re not Universal Studios or Warner Brothers. Can you still make magic? Yes, and the authors walk you through a series of scenarios beginning with what you do if you have no money. If you have a small budget, they explain what enhancements you can make. They carry this up several levels so you can find the virtual technology which fits your budget and knowledge level.
The next section provides case studies showing day-by-day breakdowns of how a production should go, and what to do when things, as they almost always do, go wrong. To help you get even deeper into what others have encountered, the book contains a link to a series of free online case study classes.
They finish up looking at, or maybe through, Virtual Reality, like Oculus, Augmented Reality, like Pokemon Go, and the various combinations and syntheses of these.
They’ve Got This
Do the authors really know their stuff? Yes.
Mark Sawicki began as a clay animation hobbyist in high school, attended USC film school, then co-produced and did special effects for a low-budget feature, The Strangeness. That led to working for Roger Corman and later the Tom Hanks’ mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998). He proceeded to work regularly as a head cameraman and VFX specialist on many feature films, including X-Men and The Dark Knight Rises.
Dr. Juniko Moody also went from USC film school to work for Roger Corman. Later, moving on to Warner Brothers, Sony, and Disney, she contributed to Innerspace, Batman Forever, and Dinosaur. While at Dreamworks she transitioned to corporate training, and discovered the joy of teaching. This led her to return to academia and get her Doctor of Education degree.
If you need a dinosaur in your next film, or just want to understand how that’s done, this is the book for you. Focal Press publishes Filming the Fantastic with Virtual Technology. You can also get it in digital or hard copy at all the usual sources.
(Photos courtesy of Focal Press.)