The Man Behind the Curtain

Pay much attention to the men and women behind the curtain...

There’s nothing forcing you to wait for DVD to learn all about the nitty-gritty production details of your favorite films anymore. What used to be after-thought featurette videos that showed up on special edition DVDs in varying levels of quality, have become powerful (and cheap) promotional tools that serve as one more way to get people excited. EPK or Electronic Press Kit crews are normal members of the set on most big-budget films these days, and since these pieces are being filmed and cut anyway, there’s no reason more and more of them can’t be shoved out the door before the movie gets released to drum up buzz. Today also saw the release of the 7 films that have made the latest cut for the Academy visual effects award…

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
  • Hereafter
  • Inception
  • Iron Man 2
  • Scott Pilgrim vs the World
  • Tron: Legacy

…so it’s as good a day as any to do some exploring in the tech side of movie-making.

The most detailed and hands-on look at feature film effects often come from the artists themselves. Now what we’re seeing is that with better hosting services, effects houses are no longer containing their portfolios and breakdowns to their own proprietary website players, but are loading them right up on YouTube and Vimeo to be easily shared by the masses. One of our videos today is the result of just that- popular effects houses showing off their work.

UPDATE: Apparently Digital Domain isn’t as progressive as we all hoped, as they’ve yanked the reel from YouTube, and some of the other working uploads are definitely not from them. This could be for a variety of reasons, but most likely is that they’re not yet cleared by Disney to have this material out there. I’m sure it will return online soon enough. There’s still plenty of cool stuff below though.

First up is a fairly detailed breakdown of Digital Domain’s work on Tron: Legacy. That one is a film that likely had upwards of a dozen effects houses of different sizes doing work, but Digital Domain is responsible for the more large-scale environments, motion-capture work, and action effects. You’ll see landscape builds, lightcycle animations, and a good look at exactly how they pulled off the much-focused-on facial effects for CLU, wherein a digitally captured Jeff Bridges performance was layered onto another performer’s body, and then manipulated to “de-age” him 25+ years.

Impressive as those particular breakdowns are, the overall effect in the film is less than convincing from where I sat in my big impressive IMAX theater, and the quality drops over the course of the movie with shocking consistency. That quality curve suggests they worked as hard and as long as they could on the effects we would see first (and that would be featured in the trailer) and the same attention could not be paid as time went on. I’m not going to play armchair VFX artist and presume to guess just what could have been done differently, but I do feel that such a key character shouldn’t have been hamstrung by an ultimately misjudged application of effects.

While often in service of a film I found disappointing, most of the effects in the film are top notch  and there are some excellent pieces of physical performance from the more acrobatic actors that were integrated very well. Check it out.

Next up is a VFX breakdown from Brainstorm Digital that’s been making the rounds the last few days. Focusing on the effects of season 1 of Boardwalk Empire, you can see just how far digital matte-work has come, and the boldness with which productions use them to imagine new worlds. Boardwalk was an especially well-budgeted show, but virtually any network show or cable program of note employ these kinds of set extension mattes. Shows like Monk, Burn Notice, and CSI are constantly manipulating backgrounds and environments in this manner so that they can film in the most convenient locations.

Naturally these aren’t always gold-standard blockbuster effects, but they were used in service of an extraordinarily well-written story to help create the details of a distinct time and place. This is exactly how effects should be used.

Finally I wanted to update you on the available Soundworks Collection pieces. I cover them often and you’re likely familiar with the format by  now, but the SC has been shaking things up a bit and generating some pieces focusing on music as well as sound design.

You’ll often notice that, come awards time, right next to the big flashy blockbuster films with bombastic action scenes that require explosive sound, are a few delicate and subdued “prestige” films. This is because the filmmakers that are most likely to take great care in story, scripting, and directing a film are often the ones most likely to pay great attention to their soundtrack. This is how a films like Black Swan and 127 Hours can stand toe-to-toe with something like Tron, which required impressive sound work in a more obvious way. These smaller entries are all great examples of films that presented their sound designers with both huge challenges and huge opportunities.

There’s still nothing this year that excited my ears quite like the ant crawling across the mutli-tool in Danny Boyle’s well-crafted 127 Hours, or the obviously present but thematically-loaded shuffling of wings that accompanied Nina every time she boards the subway in Black Swan.

Enjoy all of these videos, and remember just how much work and how many talented people it takes to put together these films we love. Remember to give us your thoughts on our shiny NEW MESSAGE BOARD or down in our great, new, troll-free, Facebook-connected, badass Comment System.