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Guided Imaging : Is It Digital or Is It on Location?

July 30, 1996|CONNIE BENESCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a Touchstone Pictures film crew needed to shoot a bounteous cornfield in Northern California for a pivotal closing sequence in "Phenomenon," director Jon Turteltaub didn't fret when a bona fide harvest didn't flourish off-season. He turned to experts at Sony Pictures Imageworks, who digitally enhanced the crop on their computers.

And when Paramount Pictures had difficulty obtaining access to a Catholic church for "Primal Fear" because of the unflattering portrayal of a murdered archbishop, staffers at Dream Quest Images came to the rescue. For the crime scene, they digitally created a religious edifice by adding on to a real-life building.

Breakthroughs in digital technology are revolutionizing the way filmmakers think about where to shoot movies. With digital wizardry, filmmakers can make the action appear in whatever location they desire, without even going there.

Directors no longer need to rule out a scenic site simply because it contains a pesky telephone cable or other such blemish. They simply digitally remove such eyesores. And if vital elements are missing, they can add them.

So far, studios haven't drastically cut back on actual location work. But for futuristic and historic movies, in particular, filmmakers are relying more heavily on digital magic and less on actual locations.

At the same time, digital technology is making it easier for location scouts and managers to view sites on a computer without ever leaving the office. (When they do check out potential filming spots, location experts often need to bear in mind that the site ultimately will be altered digitally.)

But the digital movement has its complications. The ability to manipulate images is raising troubling questions about copyright and trademark laws.

In the meantime, most insiders are hailing the digital onslaught.

"The technology clearly will allow more work to be done in the studios using digital techniques and actors with a blue-screen backdrop," said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

This may benefit an entertainment town such as Los Angeles. "In the long run, it will reduce the need to go on location for all of your shots," said Counter, noting a substantial upswing in work on sound stages around town.

Despite the increase in digital-effects work, most industry insiders say filmmakers almost always will long for the incomparable beauty of live-action shots on location.

"I'm not worried about digital effects totally supplanting on-location shooting," said Leigh von der Esch, president of the Assn. of Film Commissioners International and executive director of the Utah Film Commission. "For the [best] feeling and mood, isn't it easier to get a performance in a real setting rather than in front of a blue screen?"

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who considers the island of Alcatraz a principal character in his film "The Rock," believes digital technology will spice up unusual location shots.

"The effects that layer on top of the location will become cheaper and will look very real," Bruckheimer said, adding that "The Rock" features a digitally enhanced explosion on Alcatraz and a computer-generated segment where F-18 fighter planes appear to speed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. "Had we done these prior to digital effects, it would be enormously expensive and the quality wouldn't be nearly as good."

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More and more, particularly for science-fiction and historic films, locations are being invented on computer.

"You can't have a 15-mile spaceship move in over the major cities and destroy those cities," said Tricia Ashford, digital effects supervisor and producer for "Independence Day." "Those environments had to have been created digitally."

VisionArt is taking the digital process even further. It is computer-generating all exterior space for its sci-fi thriller "Omega Factor," which will be shot nearly entirely at Santa Monica Studios, its parent company.

"By building an environment digitally, we can design it exactly the way we want," said Josh Rose, VisionArt executive vice president. "If we were going to shoot on location, we would have to mold our design around the existing cavern."

Sometimes what you see on screen wasn't shot anywhere near the location of the movie's setting.

"It's becoming less important to take the people to locations," said Jon Farhat, visual effects supervisor for "The Nutty Professor," which includes a scene in which Eddie Murphy and Jada Pinkett are ostensibly at the beach. "We had to [digitally] bring the beach to them."

Digital Domain President and Chief Executive Scott Ross said that "the only reason to use visual effects is if you can't do it any other way." To that end, his company is now using computer-generated water and people, a digital cruise liner and scale models to realistically stage James Cameron's "Titanic," a romance set against the 1912 shipwreck.

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