Building the perfect catastrophe

A special-effects wizard for "The Perfect Storm" talks about crafting virtual victims (and heroes) and the evolution of computer graphics, from morphing to "The Matrix."

By Michael Sragow
July 13, 2000 9:52PM (UTC)
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The most compelling vignette in "The Perfect Storm" depicts pararescue jumpers on a helicopter saving three people from an imperiled sailboat. It's an incident of offhand heroism both galvanizing and, briefly, funny: The high-seas saviors leap from choppers into monstrous weather and waves as if this feat were nothing more than a job. One of them even takes the time while treading water to introduce himself to the sailors in distress.

Though it lacks the careful detailing the episode receives in Sebastian Junger's book, this is the only sequence in the movie that expresses human valor and sacrifice with a tang and pang comparable to that in classic sea-set disaster pictures like "A Night to Remember" (which film lovers revere as the ne plus ultra of "Titanic" movies). It also has the authentic sweaty tension of men doing risky business sans heavy special-effects augmentation.


Or so it would seem. Actually, Marc Chu told me last week, computers generated the most dramatic shots of those stalwart figures dropping into the sea. And Chu should know. He's the Industrial Light and Magic computer-graphics artist who animated the jumpers and the storm victims.

Whenever an action extravaganza like "The Perfect Storm" is released, its promoters fill the entertainment media with Olympian views of movie magic wrought by faceless teams of miracle workers under the direction of masters like effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier (who also did "Twister").

But the indelible moments of a film like "The Perfect Storm" often come from craftsmen, like Chu, 29, who exercise their own creativity -- frame by frame -- sometimes in little-known areas. Understandably, the water and weather effects have gotten the sea lion's share of attention for "The Perfect Storm." Chu specialized in creating the computer-graphics humans.


Critics who complain that computer-generated effects have swamped the art of moviemaking might better ask why special effects are flourishing while other creative areas of mass moviemaking are shriveling up. ILM has thrived on a team ethic that aims for perfection while encouraging individual contributions, just like old-style Hollywood collaborative moviemaking. The problem with movies like "The Perfect Storm" isn't the lack of imagination of the special-effects artists and technicians but the lugubrious monotony of the direction and the writing.

Chu fit "The Perfect Storm" for three reasons. He could operate a needed piece of software (Maya); he was a character animator; and he knew how to manage ILM's creative "pipeline." That meant keeping track of the animated images from modeling through rendering and delivering them to the technical directors who would meld them with other computer graphics and live-action footage. Managing the pipeline is "basically file management," Chu says.

Under animation supervisor Peter Dalton, Chu and three others divided the animation on "The Perfect Storm" among the story's helicopters and planes, the boats and the CG-created humans. Chu's bailiwick became the CG sailors, jumpers and fishermen peppered throughout the 80-minute storm, whether in the aircraft or in the watercraft: ill-fated swordfish boat Andrea Gail, sailboat Mistral (in real life and the book, the Satori) and Coast Guard ship Tamaroa. "Usually," says Chu, "if you see a medium-to-far shot that has moving people, those are CG." That includes the long shots of George Clooney at his most valiant, wrestling with an out-of-control anchor.


Furthermore, says Chu, "in general, the digital-people shots are all CG. But the parajumper shots are live action combined with CG. In the foreground are live-action actors who were filmed in the water tank; then there are water extensions to the CG water, then a CG helicopter and a CG frogman jumper. That stuff turned out great. It was exciting. It looked sharp."

What method got it to that point? "It's just a matter of -- I don't want to say trial and error. But it really is combining elements, continually taking out what doesn't work and making what does work even better. With the jumpers, for example: Based on the angles of the live-action camera, you'd do a split between a live-action jumper and a CG jumper -- the live actor would jump out of the helicopter, and midway through the jump you'd switch to a CG person, but you couldn't tell because of little tricks of light we use and so on. You try to line up the live actor and the CG jumper as well as possible, and try to get the motion right for where his impact will be in the water. Maybe he's dropping too fast or falling too far to the left of the frame -- so you try to correct that. And you add in more movement to make him seem more alive. You don't want the scene to look like a mannequin dropping from the helicopter. You want to add enough subtlety of movement so that someone watching knows that what is dropping is remotely human."


How did Chu and his teammates meet the challenge of combining subtle movements with slashing action? "For a lot of close-up animating you do motion studies -- you get out of your chair and act out the part. You make faces in front of the mirror and lip-sync. You try to match expressions and emotions. It was a little harder on this show because we weren't often working in close-up, and you still had to be subtle and realistic. When the jumpers are about to rescue the people on the Mistral, and they open the helicopter door and look down, and they see the boat rocking back and forth and people on the deck holding onto the mast -- they were all CG people. It was only the close-to-medium shots that were live: When you see people a couple of feet tall on the screen, they're CG. The key was to try to get a realistic weight to them as they react to the waves. You had to figure out what a person would do in that kind of situation."

Did Chu perform his own physical experiments -- like setting up a wind fan in his cubicle? "No, I just did it all in my mind." In a way, he was like Junger writing the book: "Trying to envision what people would do in those circumstances. Then trying to block something in, seeing what works within a shot. Because you can do all kinds of great animation, but you don't want to overanimate. You only need to do what's going to be seen, because you know there will be all these other elements in the shot that people will also be looking at, like camera shake and mist."

The finished film contains two jumps that are fully live action from the chopper to the water and four that involve CG, as well as "a bunch of CG water shots where the jumpers are either floating or swimming."


Of course, Chu knew that "you can't just have somebody dropping out of a helicopter and landing in the water 100 feet below -- that would maim somebody pretty well." But he didn't realize until he watched a recent TV documentary that the chopper pilots would "dance with the wave to maintain the proper distance between the helicopter and the water, so when the jumpers jump out it would be no more than a height of 30 feet or something. If the pilots mistime it, that 30-foot jump can turn into 60 or 70, and the jumps would break your legs." The starkest jumps in the film, done with CG jumpers, would probably measure out to anywhere from 80 to 100 or even 120 feet. "Of course, the pilots do that dance when they have fuel; in the movie the pilots are running out of fuel, and it's so crazy out there they can't tell what's happening anyway."

Chu studied "tons of footage we had online of real rescues: the helicopters flying, the guys jumping out of helicopters into the water at 20 miles an hour. I'd never do that, it's insane!" But also, I venture, inspiring -- fans and nonfans of the movie alike have singled out this sequence as their favorite. "I just think it was a nice, small sequence that had its own dramatic feel aside from the main story," says Chu. "I think in any movie you work on, you kind of look for those 'hero' sequences, ones that have a lot of action or impact or visual appeal. But for me the whole movie was like that -- two-thirds of this picture is action-packed." (Other scenes with CG people included the men on the Andrea Gail trying to burn off flyaway riggings and board up their windows with plywood amid blinding rain and foam.)

Chu took "kind of a strange path" to ILM's computers. It was not, he says, what he was aiming for. He grew up on "Star Wars" and enjoyed watching special-effects movies and reading comic books. Like many creative kids, he built models and drew pictures and toyed with the idea of being a comic-book artist -- "doing anything artistic."


But only when he studied art, animation and multimedia at San Francisco State, and took a cutting-edge course in computer graphics, did he get a taste of what computer art could do: "I enjoyed it; it was new back then, and I found it kind of challenging and interesting to work with. It was different from anything else being done -- a combination of technology and art. But I didn't think I could make a career out of it. When I got out of school I was working on a Mac with software available on the market, doing graphic design, photo retouching and multimedia work." Then some friends told him positions were opening up at ILM for low-end Mac-based computer graphics. "ILM always had been feature-based; now it was trying to break into commercials."

At first Chu freelanced for ILM's commercials division. But that soon turned into a full-time job, with Chu happily moving into animation: "Making inanimate objects move and react to what is happening in live action" has always been a kick for him. He enjoyed being part of a "tightknit group that was very creative -- everyone had a word to say about how to make a shot better." He worked on a spot for Saturn's electric car that won a Clio for animation. "All the electric appliances in the commercial come to life: lamps, fans -- they all hop off the tables and gather near the sidewalk to look at the new car coming down the block, which is electric as well."

Still, though Chu was having fun, his temperament drew him to features. By the time he progressed to full-time moviemaking, he was the "on-site expert for morphing" -- the transformation of one human or humanoid face or form into another. Morphing was the special effect of choice from the early to mid-'90s. But Chu got so sick of it that he declared that he would morph no more. When asked what the flavor of this year is, he responds "bullet time" -- the combination of slowed or frozen motion and rotating perspective popularized in the fight scenes for "The Matrix."

The pioneering effects for "Perfect Storm" are so water specific, revolving around creating tumultuous seas rather than the calm ocean of "Titanic," that it's hard to gauge their potential influence. What was important for Chu was that ILM maintained its esprit de corps even during this grueling eight-month project, perhaps the toughest in the company's history. "Every day we'd go into dailies with the effects supervisors and review all the shots. Twice weekly we were doing transmissions with the director [Wolfgang Petersen] over a video connection when he was in Los Angeles, along with the director of photography [John Seale] and the editor [Richard Francis-Bruce]. We just got a lot of feedback about what was working within the cuts. Everyone put in their two cents about how to make a better shot."


"The Perfect Storm" fits into ILM's tradition of combining CG with live action. With his love for computer animation, Chu hopes the day will come soon when ILM does an all-CG feature, ` la Pixar (which, of course, started out as a division of Lucasfilm). But Chu doesn't buy the criticism that ILM's ability to make artificial footage look "real" limits the imagination: "What you're trying to do," he says, "is make the fantasy aspect come to life or feel more solid. You know dinosaurs can't interact with human characters, but they look real in 'Jurassic Park,' and that should broaden the imagination. The computer is a tool to create things on film that wouldn't normally be capable of being visualized."

Chu loves all kinds of animation, including the Plasticine puppet animation of "Chicken Run" -- though, he says, "I don't have the patience to do it myself." What's great about working at ILM, Chu says, is that animation and design giants of all kinds come there and give talks, from puppet-animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen and Warner Bros. cartoon whiz Chuck Jones to legend-in-the-making Brad Bird, who last year did "The Iron Giant." Plus, says Chu, "you have the whole model unit here -- that's what I really wanted to be a part of, but never thought I was talented enough. You can go there anytime and look at all the great models. And there are big stages where they do the model shoots and pyrotechnical shoots -- other facilities don't give you that combination."

Chu doesn't miss the ego gratification of having a more prominent placement in the credits. "I think if people within the industry see a shot you worked on and they liked it, that's the biggest satisfaction -- peer recognition. If a shot you worked on comes together and looks great, and you're showing it in front of people you work with and they love it, that's the biggest reward. It may be strange to look at a shot and go, 'I did those people in this shot,' but it's fun. That's what I do; that's my little claim to fame."

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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