Spotlight : May 1998

Boldly Trekking Into The Digital World
Commentary By Todd Vaziri

As technology moves forward, with more and more cycles of processing power available to the digital artist, the importance of digitally-created imagery in visual effects is greater than ever before. Today's software packages allow effects artists to create synthetic images that are impossible to produce in the real, physical world.

With the reliance on computer generated imagery growing, the question presents itself--will CGI be relied upon not only for fantastic creatures that otherwise only appear in our imagination, but for elements that have previously been recreated in a real, physical world? Put simply, the question is: "Will real-life models and miniatures become obsolete?"

Proponents of CG exclaim that miniatures are dead. That traditional modelmaking is archaic, tedious and doesn't allow you the freedom that the CG world allows. That the benefits of creating virtual worlds in the computer far exceed the benefits of creating a physical model. This ideology has been spouted since the inception of CG, and it hasn't come to pass. Certainly, CG has taken over the realm of character animation, but motion-control shot models are still a staple of the visual effects industry. Until now.

The news that the visual effects teams for the newest STAR TREK film will not build any physical spaceship models is highly significant. Although CG ships are nothing new to television series' like "Babylon 5" and Star Trek's
Images from STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. Above, the Enterprise E sails right past the camera, revealing the intricate detail of the massive vessel. For the above shot, the physical model was photographed.

The Enterprise gets caught in the Borg's time effect wake, with a blast of energy surrounding the ship. The Enterprise here is a computer generated model.

Also from FIRST CONTACT, the Vulcan ship that lands on Earth. Executed by VisionArt, the sequence extensively featured a computer generated spaceship.

"Voyager" and "Deep Space Nine," it is a giant leap for feature films--space sequences with ships created and animated entirely in the computer.

Space sequences are the bread and butter of science fiction, and the visual effects community. The traditional technique for creating these effects comprised of physical and photochemical processes. A physical model miniature would be built, photographed on a stage with motion control, then optically composited against a background starfield. Legendary effects films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and STAR WARS pushed the envelope of modern space sequences, with intense detail and intricate choreography for its ships.

Feature films have been slow to embrace CG as a new way to produce space sequences. Even in the late '90s, as CG is being used to produce nasty bugs and dinosaurs, models are still being used for space sequences. From STARSHIP TROOPERS to ALIEN RESURRECTION to THE FIFTH ELEMENT, huge miniatures were built and shot on soundstages with motion-controlled cameras. Beauty passes, matte passes, highlight passes--all the necessary photographic processes that have been done for years are still being done. Today, instead of optical composites, all the footage is digitally manipulated to produce the final shot.

Which is why the news that no physical models will be built for the newest STAR TREK film is so significant.

No feature film series has taken space sequences farther than the STAR TREK series. For its past two films, the STAR TREK series has dabbled with CG spaceships. While a physical model of the Enterprise D was heavily used in 1994's STAR TREK GENERATIONS by Industrial Light & Magic, an ElectricImage-created CG version was used for certain shots.

For STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, ILM used its CG Enterprise E more liberally, although a physical model was still built and utilized extensively. The choice between using CG or physical models for a particular shot is decided upon by various factors. One is the choreography of the action. If, in a single shot, the ship must make a 180 degree turn and zoom past the camera, it could get quite difficult to perform this move on the motion control stage, due to space limitations and mounting issues. Also, if the path of the ship is quite extensive, that is, if the ship flies from deep into the frame past the camera, it would be difficult to rig that much track to perform that camera move on stage. In these cases, the argument would favor utilizing a CG ship.

For example, as the Borg sphere emits a dazzling lightshow as it passes through a time-dimensional vortex in FIRST CONTACT, the Enterprise is swallowed in its path. The shimmering light effects envelop the ship. The effect of the lights illuminating the Enterprise hull would have been extraordinarily difficult to produce on stage. For this shot, ILM opted to use its CG Enterprise. Instead of slaving over a physical, real-world method to light the shot, the setting was moved to the virtual world, where creating light effects, such as the shimmering effect needed in that shot, is less difficult.

However, the case for physical models is strengthened for shots which are under close scrutiny, where detail and scale are of utmost importance. For FIRST CONTACT, an entire sequence takes place on the hull of the Enterprise, with three crewmembers in spacesuits walking on the outside of the ship. The actors were shot against bluescreen, while the ship elements were miniature models, holding onscreen for many seconds at a time. For shots of that immense length, miniature models hold up better than CG counterparts.

Two recent effects films took huge leaps in recreating spaceships in the digital world. The special edition of STAR WARS featured a great deal of new space sequences; X-Wing fighters, TIE fighters and Han Solo's Millennium Falcon were featured in all-new shots. In 1977, ILM utilized physical models shot against bluescreen to achieve the original shots. For the new 1997 shots, no physical models were built--every new spaceship shot
Two images from STAR WARS's Special Edition, both executed with computer generated spaceships.
featured CG ships. A great deal were actually animated and rendered on a Mac with ElectricImage. The textures and lighting needed to be extremely accurate, since shots of the CG ships would be cut directly with 1977 model elements. The CG shots are indistinguishable from the model shots.

For this year's LOST IN SPACE, a combination of CG ships and physical model ships were used to create the dozens of complicated space sequences. But the opening space dogfight with Matt Leblanc battling rebel terrorists was created entirely in CG. And it looked it. The animation of the camera and ships was over-the-top, with excessively clean and crisp textures and inconsistent lighting.

The overwhelming freedom that CG worlds allow artists can sometimes be taken too far, especially with camera animation. Audiences accept the possibility of these space sequences if there is some semblance of reality to them. Supervisors should ask themselves this question when choreographing space battles: "If I lived in a world where spaceships could do battle, how would I set up the action, and how would I photograph it?" The 'camera of God' syndrome is quite easy to come across in a virtual world, since there are no limits as to how your camera or subject can move. In the real world, photographing a real plane performing a barrel roll is a highly complicated process, due to the physicality of the action. One would have to photograph the action from a camera plane travelling at the same velocity, with a camera shooting the plane through a window. In other words, there are real-life limitations that are placed on the photographer and, hence, the shot.

Audiences turn off when they see 'camera of God' effects shots. Like the one in LOST IN SPACE, where Leblanc blows away his enemy. In a single shot, his ship is barely a speck in the middle of the screen... the camera flies at his ship at hundreds of miles an hour, then decelerates to mere feet in front of his cockpit, with Leblanc clearly visible. The camera continues to match Leblanc's velocity perfectly, keeping his ship neatly in frame. This shot, although containing a visual punch, is less effective than cutting the sequence in such a way where the audience believes that someone could have actually photographed that scene. Obviously, the reason the 'camera' was able to perfectly match Leblanc's velocity is because the camera and ship were CG elements that the animator can adjust to his or her heart's content.

With real-life models, such as the ones used in THE FIFTH ELEMENT and STARSHIP TROOPERS, the choreography is realistic because actual photographic limitations need to be addressed. Camera placement and movement, as well as lighting, are much more realistic when filmmakers have to deal with real lights and real cameras. The 'camera of God' syndrome, with the camera performing fantastic feats of physics and coordination, rarely presents itself with model photography.

To say the least, expectations are extremely high for the new STAR TREK film--visual effects enthusiasts are anxiously hoping that Santa Barbara Studios and Blue Sky|VIFX can take CG space sequences to the next level. If they pull it off without audiences realizing transition that has taken place, it could set a precedent for future science fiction film effects.

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