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MOVIES : They Put Their Best Face Forward : So you thought the dinosaurs of 'Jurrasic Park' were pretty amazing? The faces behind 'The Mask' say they really had to stretch themselves to create the high-tech animation for Jim Carrey's new comedy. Here's how they did it.

July 24, 1994|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Jim Carrey, the loose-limbed, rubber-faced star of "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," is, quite decidedly, a physical comic. But even Carrey might have trouble pulling off gags that call for his skin to turn green, his eyes to rocket out of their sockets and his tongue to unscroll atop a nightclub table.

Of course, with a little help from the physics-defying computer animation department at Industrial Light & Magic, Carrey can, and will, do anything for a laugh.

In "The Mask," which opens Friday, Carrey's contortive brand of slapstick and ILM's high-tech computer effects have been combined to create an explosive blend of comedy and fantasy. Made for less than $20 million, the New Line production ranks as a modest film against pricier competition at the summer box office. But in using cutting-edge computer animation to make the very human Carrey as squashable and stretchable as any "Looney Tunes" favorite, "The Mask" aims to offer some of the summer's most striking movie moments.

"Jim Carrey is an elastic man to begin with," says director Chuck Russell. "And now, I think he's proud to have achieved a personal career goal by becoming a living cartoon."

The comic stars as Stanley Ipkiss, a helpless, hapless bank teller whose days are a disheartening series of humiliations. When Ipkiss gains possession of the ancient cursed mask of the title, he discovers that by donning it, he is transformed into a green-headed, zoot-suited, wisecracking phantom. The film also features newcomer Cameron Diaz as Stanley's love interest, comic Richard Jeni as his best buddy, Peter Greene as an ultra-creepy villain and Peter Riegert as a continually befuddled police detective.

To achieve the mind-bending sequences, effects supervisors from ILM were on the set throughout the shoot to advise Russell and monitor Carrey's action. When live-action shots were completed, they were sent to the ILM headquarters in San Rafael, north of San Francisco. There, the same computers that were used to create the true-to-life dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" were used to re-create the kinds of cartoon gags made famous in the '30s and '40s by pioneering "Looney Tunes" directors Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.

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Taking a quick break from his increasingly busy work schedule, Carrey still hadn't seen the finished cut of the film, but he says he can't wait to see how ILM has enhanced his antics.

"This was a really fun character for me. I've been describing him as 'Fred Astaire on acid.' It's going to be really odd and really interesting to see what I'm doing in the finished film. But, frankly," he says with a laugh, "I don't think I'll see myself doing anything I haven't imagined myself doing before."

If that's the case, then Carrey has a formidable imagination. When Stanley turns into the Mask, he can spin himself into a tornado, pull a barrack's worth of armaments out of his pocket or sprout a wolf's head in order to whistle at the object of his desire. And though the Mask character tends to make things difficult for evildoers, he's no white-knight crime-fighter. To avoid being captured, he can use his compelling singing voice to turn a battalion of cops into a frenzied conga line.

The computer crew at ILM couldn't have been happier with the work. While the T. rex and velociraptors of "Jurassic Park" were groundbreaking, technical tours de force, the actual animation work was often grueling. The freewheeling spirit of "The Mask" offered the high-tech cartoon-lovers at ILM a chance to get back to their animation roots.

"This was loose," says visual effects producer Clint Goldman. "We could go crazy. The craziest we could get in 'Jurassic' was when we had the T. rex chomping on the lawyer. That was fun. But 'crazy' on 'The Mask' meant multiplying Jim Carrey's head by three and giving him four-foot bulging eyeballs. That was a lot more fun."

"After 'Jurassic,' I was almost ready to pack it in," says director of animation Steve Williams, a six-year veteran of the ILM computer graphics department. "But 'The Mask' was completely refreshing.

"What we could do with the dinosaurs was limited by the laws of the natural world, but 'The Mask' was textbook cartooning. We got really excited watching the dailies. It was a lot more fun spending a year watching Jim than it was spending two years seeing how accurately we could make the butt of a giant reptile jiggle."

Carrey was equally excited about working with ILM and says he felt he was among kindred spirits the first time he met Goldman, Williams and their staff:

"I've always loved Tex Avery stuff. I went up to ILM before we started shooting to see what they had in mind, and I found these guys sitting around, watching cartoons like a bunch of children--just giggling and pointing. It was amazing. I said, 'God, thank you for putting me where I belong.' "

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