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Bring On the Debris

You think real tornadoes are scary? The computer wizards behind 'Twister' cooked up nasty special effects that take the viewer into the eye of the storm. And beware of flying semis.

May 12, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is an occasional contributor to Calendar

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — A dissatisfied frown on his face, "Twister" director Jan De Bont watches a half-finished special-effects shot from his new film. "I think we need something else flying across the road," he says as the brief shot is projected over and over on a big movie screen here at Industrial Light & Magic headquarters. "It looks a little bare."

"Maybe some corrugated metal?" asks Stefen Fangmeier, the ILM visual effects supervisor on the movie. De Bont shakes his head. "What about a piece of fence?" the director wonders. "Or a metal gate? We need more debris."

Not to make light of De Bont's concerns, but when you see this shot in the finished version of "Twister," which opened Friday, you're not going to be distracted by some gate flying across the road. Your eyes are going to be glued to something bigger: an awesomely nasty, skyscraper-size tornado that shreds cornfields and tears up farmhouses like the Jolly Green Giant on a bender.

Eager to wipe that frown off De Bont's face, Fangmeier suggests inserting a lawn chair. "What about a mailbox?" De Bont wonders. "Could we have a mailbox flying by?"

Fangmeier shrugs. "What about a color TV?"

Here at ILM, anything seems possible--you're at the crossroads where the movies meet our imagination. This is the new frontier of digital cinema, where a host of young computer-animation wizards is inventing many of the captivating images that will thrill audiences this summer. Since September, not long after he finished shooting the $75-million film, De Bont has been commuting from Los Angeles to ILM's low-profile Marin County headquarters, where the George Lucas-owned firm has been creating "Twister's" 320 separate special-effects shots.

Using an electronic pointer that allows him to project a white arrow on the theater screen, the 52-year-old Dutch-born director focuses on a shot in which the tornado races toward co-stars Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, flexing its muscles by sending a powerboat careening past their heads.

"We're working on the age of the boat--it still looks a little too new," says Fangmeier, who heads a 70-person ILM team assigned to the film. "How about the hail--you like the way it's hitting the ground?" "Yes," says De Bont, running a hand through his unruly mop of gray hair. "It has a nice splash."

The next shot shows the tornado's winds whipping a row of trees along the road. De Bont says he likes the way the trees bend in the wind. It seems such an odd remark that I ask an ILM techie seated next to me, "Don't all trees bend in the wind?"

"Those are our trees," he explains helpfully. "Totally computer-generated."

De Bont takes a second to study the panoramic expanse of dark, brooding sky surrounding the tornado. "They did all the sky too," he says. "When I shot that scene last summer, it was completely blue--not a cloud in the sky."

One day as De Bont is leaving ILM, he stops to admire a "Twister" poster tacked on the door of a production office. The faces of Paxton and Hunt, the ostensible stars of the film, are nowhere to be seen. The poster is dominated by a fearsome tornado, set against a black sky, its funnel cloud reaching down to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting landscape.

De Bont points to the tornado--"the star of our movie."

Not that Arnold Schwarzenegger has anything to worry about, at least not for a couple more years, but the new stars of Hollywood's high-roller summer movies are the special effects. Ever since the digital dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" exploded at the box office, studio executives have been packing their summer film slates with the kind of big-bang action or fantasy films that have just as much appeal overseas as in the United States. And just as "Jurassic Park," "Casper" and "Toy Story" passed the $100-million mark without relying on any A-list movie stars on screen, this summer offers more films, including "Twister," "Independence Day" and "The Frighteners," whose buzz comes more from splashy digital effects than from movie stars.

With so much riding on special effects, companies such as ILM and Digital Domain have become key players in the filmmaking process. In fact, when De Bont and his Amblin Entertainment production team finished shooting "Twister" last summer after 98 days in the tornado belt of Oklahoma and Iowa, their work was barely half done. An equally complex part of the film's production has been unfolding on computer screens here the past seven months.

Once known for its CIA-like secrecy (with offices concealed in a nondescript building still bearing the sign of its long-departed previous owner, the Kerner Optical Co.), ILM has a relaxed, college-dorm atmosphere. The bathrooms are unisex, lunch is takeout sushi. The largely thirtysomething techies wear jeans, T-shirts and work boots.

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