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Mayhem, on a Budget

Here's how 'Final Destination' held costs while trying to enhance realism.

March 16, 2000|MATT COLTRIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

High school students are blown out of a burning airplane. A young man's head rolls--and not as the result of corporate downsizing. A woman displays an alarming lack of care with her kitchen cutlery.

"Final Destination," opening Friday, delivers a frightening variety of mechanical and visual effects--many quite realistic and unsettling--without the movie costing an arm and a leg.

The New Line Cinema release, about a group of high school students who mysteriously meet violent deaths one by one, combines the newer technology of computer-generated imagery (CGI) with old-fashioned mechanical special effects on a relatively sparse budget, in the low $20-million range.

By comparison, "The Haunting" (1999) cost about $80 million to make, and "Scream 3" terrorized its young cast on a $40-million budget. Although "Final Destination" has no pricey young stars like the "Scream" trilogy, it still wreaks fiscally prudent havoc well below Hollywood's $53-million average production budget.

Its terror is often created with the set-'em-up and knock-'em-over combo of subtle fear and in-your-face gore. Creepy shadows on the wall here, a young woman standing too close to a bus there. Gently billowing curtains one minute, an exploding house the next. Leaking bathroom water with a mind of its own, an occupied car severed by a train.

How did they get so much bang for their buck?

"Today in movies, everyone is relying on CGI because it's the new toy," says director James Wong. "But in our movie we went back to the physical effects to make it distinctive, and it made us shoot in a smarter way."

Creating a Blend of the Physical and Digital

Mechanical effects are usually less expensive than CGI, but they offer somewhat less creative flexibility than effects created on a computer, so a combination is usually used. Wong and his team filmed as many mechanical effects as possible to minimize the need for CGI, but 218 scenes were still fed through the computer to punch up the fright factor.

The combination not only costs less, but the filmmakers say they think it looks better.

"The physics that occur in the mechanical world are very difficult to reproduce in the digital world, so a blend is the best way to get the most impact out of the shot," says Ariel Shaw, visual effects (CGI) supervisor on "Final Destination."

"When [CGI] works in combination with mechanical effects, it has more of an organic feel to it," says Terry Sonderhoff, the movie's special effects (mechanical) coordinator, who worked closely with Shaw and production designer John Willett. "The line is blurred. It's harder to tell."

"Final Destination" is the directorial debut for Wong, who produces NBC's "The Others" with partner Glen Morgan, with whom he's worked on TV's "The X-Files" and "Millennium." (Wong and Morgan co-wrote the screenplay from a story by Jeffrey Reddick, a New Line marketing assistant.)

The movie opens with students from a high school French class heading to Paris. Or so they think. Just before their plane takes off, a student, Alex (played by Devon Sawa), has a premonition that the aircraft will explode just after leaving the ground. He scrambles off the plane, urging everyone to follow him back into the terminal. In the ensuing confusion, six others also disembark.

Moments later the plane indeed explodes in midair, and the six stunned survivors are left to wonder if Alex is clairvoyant or a murderer. Each survivor has cheated death, but not for long, as fate catches up with them one by one in both subtle and elaborately gory ways.

For Wong, creating entire scenes with only CGI was impractical, and he didn't think it would have increased believability anyway.

"Unless you spend a gazillion dollars, there are so many details you can't create [in a computer] that you think you can," said Wong, an Emmy nominee for the one episode of "The X-Files" he directed. "There's so many things about the [movement] of people that you can't even imagine."

For the exploding-airplane sequence, scenes of pandemonium filmed in a mock interior section of a 747 were later spiced up with fire and CGI to complete the illusion of terrified teenagers who probably wish they'd signed up for Spanish.

"We built an arm that tore the hole in the side of the plane and removed it later [digitally]," said Sonderhoff. "Then we had a steel arm under the plane and it loops around and grabs onto the seat. It has pneumatics and cabling on it, and it whips the [stunt] person out quite violently."

During the fire inside the plane, the camera focuses on one particularly unlucky passenger.

"I built a reverse head, from the outside in," says Sonderhoff. "I used a mold of a head and I laid in a latex skin, a layer of wax, some veins and eyeballs and a skull. We mounted it on a steel post. I have a 10,000-horse jet engine and I'll let you guess what we did next."

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