Spotlight : December 1997

Looking Back at 1997
Commentary by Todd Vaziri

Reader-Submitted Lessons
Read some of the lessons of 1997 submitted by VFX HQ readers.
A few things we learned about the visual effects industry in 1997:

  • Industrial Light & Magic did not dominate. 1997 saw only a few ILM-exclusive shows this year, including LOST WORLD, MEN IN BLACK, and the STAR WARS special editions, which means that they probably won't be taking home another Oscar for Best Visual Effects. They spent most of the year gearing up for the new STAR WARS trilogy, and bailing out other projects (TITANIC, STARSHIP TROOPERS, CONTACT).

  • Cinesite has bad luck with release dates. The release dates of three of their big 1997 productions, HARD RAIN, SPHERE and VIRUS were pushed back into 1998--not because Cinesite didn't deliver on time, but because studio execs are, well, studio execs. As one intelligent person put it, "Studios greenlight crappy films and when they finally realize they've paid for giant piece of shit, they push it back." Cinesite was still able to flex their muscles with DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, AIR FORCE ONE, TITANIC and SPAWN.

  • The East Coast was quiet this year, with the exception of Blue Sky's 20 shots for ALIEN RESURRECTION. After Mass.Illusion's fine work in last year's ERASER, they were all but silent.

    POP Film gets wet with CG water for THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE.

  • Compositing prowess continues at POP Film and CIS Hollywood, with each of them kicking major digital ass. While POP was massaging pixels for TROOPERS, VOLCANO, DEVIL'S ADVOCATE and others, CIS was quietly sprucing up TITANIC, CONTACT and countless others. It seems that these two houses always get the job done, no matter what is thrown at them.

  • Ken Ralston and Robert Zemeckis could represent the finest, most exciting supervisor/director relationship in Hollywood. With each new project, they push visual effects to new levels. With all of the innovations created for the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy, ROGER RABBIT, DEATH BECOMES HER, FORREST GUMP and CONTACT, who knows what their future will bring?

  • Sony Imageworks finally broke through and produced some consistent, exciting work. After a lifeless 1996, they made ANACONDA, CONTACT and STARSHIP TROOPERS. But their workforce fluctuates up and down like a yo-yo; along with Digital Domain, they binge on talent for big projects and then purge once their work is done.

  • Any film Jan De Bont makes will have tons of visual effects and lots of laughs, albiet unintentional. But then again, we may have already learned that in 1996. I can already hear the commercials... "Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt and Scott Baio star in Jan De Bont's TWISTER 2: THE REVENGE, featuring all new tornado effects, witty banter between the stars, lots of buildings blowing up, and a cameo of a flying cow."

    One of the 100 better shots from SPAWN [Banned From the Ranch].

  • SPAWN was probably the year's most interesting effects film. With a relatively low budget, filmmakers were able to pump out 400 effects shots; 100 of them were terrific, 200 adequate, and 100 were unworthy to be associated with the aformentioned 300. The film also marked the first time the three major names behind the film (director, producers) were all visual effects veterans.

  • Tippett Studios is here to stay. They rocked the world with their bugs for TROOPERS. Let's hope they can keep up this kind of momentum.

  • Digital Domain bounced back from a lackluster 1996 to produce THE FIFTH ELEMENT, DANTE'S PEAK and TITANIC. Too bad so many people who worked on those films are no longer at DD to celebrate.

  • Santa Barbara Studios made a big splash at SIGGRAPH, demonstrating their terrific work on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS. Look out ILM, you're not alone anymore. In the world of CG character animation, PDI, Tippett, SBS, Dream Quest, and Blue Sky|VIFX are on your heels. And let's not forget VisionArt and Centropolis, promising some kickass animation for GODZILLA.

    Magmarama: above, DANTE'S PEAK; below, VOLCANO.

  • Volcano movies came and went. Although both DANTE'S PEAK and VOLCANO contained some great work, American audiences yawned. Just wait until next year, when lava bombs aren't blowing out of volcanos, but are being launched at our planet.

  • A decade and a half of great work doesn't guarantee survival, unless you have extremely large bags of money to back it up. One of the classiest, most respected men in the industry, Richard Edlund, learned that this year, and the effects industry will sorely miss Boss' innovation and fine work.

  • But then, even if you have large amounts of capital, lack of foresight can do you in. Just ask the former employees of Warner Digital Studios. Warner Bros. execs pulled the plug on WDS when they woke up and realized, "Hey! It costs a lot of freakin' money to operate a digital effects house. Who'da thunkit?"

  • Paul Verhoeven shouldn't be given nine figure budgets ever again. Plus, supervisors should run away when he comes knocking on their door. Sure, he inspires terrific, groundbreaking effects work to be accomplished, but his films are certainly not worth them. (See also TOTAL RECALL for another blown opportunity to create a truly epic sci-fi effects picture)

  • The death of miniatures still hasn't occurred. Just ask the awesome miniature unit on VOLCANO, or the folks who built the 45 foot long Titanic model, or the Thunderstone crews that made a gazillion spaceship models for TROOPERS...

  • ...but CG replaced models in many ways this year. Every new space shot from the STAR WARS special edition featured CG spaceships--no physical ships were built. CG modelers and animators from TITANIC claim that there was virtually no need for miniatures for the 'at sea' shots. And as for character animation, can we agree that 3D computer generated animation has completely taken over? Need proof? THE RELIC, ANACONDA, THE LOST WORLD, MOUSEHUNT, STARSHIP TROOPERS, GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE, ALIEN RESURRECTION, FLUBBER, MEN IN BLACK... oh, you get the idea.

  • CG characters' animatronic counterparts suck. Wait, let me rephrase that. Animatronic counterparts of CG animation do not believably bridge the seemingly widening gap of realism. In 1991, we bought it when CG and animatronic versions of T-1000 were intercut with each other. But when the animatronic baby Stegasaurus

    The wreckage of the TITANIC, by Digital Domain.
    appears on screen in THE LOST WORLD, just after we saw three massive CG Stegasaurus' walk past the camera, we didn't buy it for a minute. (See also ANACONDA.) This is not animatronics' fault--I don't know whose fault it is. But today's audiences can tell the difference.

  • The visual effects world needs TITANIC to do exceptionally well at the box office. After the relative U.S. box office failures of STARSHIP TROOPERS, ALIEN RESURRECTION, BATMAN & ROBIN, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, the volcano movies, and the Stinker of the Year SPEED 2, studio executives and the news media are looking at TITANIC as the last big hope for $100+ million effects films. If it does well, look for the greenlighting of plenty of more high profile effects films. If it sinks, we may only have the the new STAR WARS trilogy to look forward to in 1999.

    Lessons Learned by VFX HQ Readers

    You must have an all around great movie to make it a classic. When I see great effects, I am blown away, while the person next to me that knows nothing about effects is only stunned for a second. The whole film must be spectacular for those people to love an effects filled film.

    Lucas Stone

    The effects trend that I see in the future is reminiscent of what's happening in the music industry: the small studios with little budgets might start to make a sizeable dent in the industry. I think films like SPAWN are starting to prove this theory.

    Shawn Lee Fratis

    I learned that London effects houses are on the rise in the 'global' effects industry. I worked at Cinesite London for 6 weeks on LOST IN SPACE. Cinesite is one of many London facilities working on the the film. And not to mention the body of work done in London in 1997 for films like EVENT HORIZON, THE AVENGERS, PINNOCHIO, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, etc.

    Kevin Lingenfelser

    No matter how good the effects are for a film, they can always be rendered worthless by low grade fimmaking. Also, filmmakers are so worked up about what they CAN do with CGI, instead of what they SHOULD do with CGI.

    Jeff Spross

    I learned that the future of visual effects, even with all the layoffs and the competition and the bullshit, is brighter than ever. Cynics beware. I think 1998 is gonna teach us even more.

    Rick Cortes

    I learned that Ellie's trip to Vega was four of the most exciting and beautiful minutes I've ever experienced in a movie theater.

    Chris Clifford

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