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A quest for fire reinvented

What marks the adaptation of `Ghost Rider' is a burning desire for believability.

February 04, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

A full head of hair on a man of a certain age can be as hard to find as 380-thread-count sheets at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota. When the scalp begins to look a little threadbare, some disguise the deficiency with comb-overs, while others dabble in plugs, pharmaceuticals and rugs. Rarely is the image-conscious leading man willing to torch his fading crown for the sake of a tent-pole drama.

In his latest starring role, as Johnny Blaze in Columbia Pictures' big-screen adaptation of the graphic novel "Ghost Rider," opening Feb. 16, Nicolas Cage not only allowed writer-director Mark Steven Johnson to light his head on fire but also let the filmmaker and visual effects crew char and desiccate one of the hardest-working mugs in modern-day movies.

"He is fearless, he really has no ego, and he does not mind looking silly at all," Johnson says of the fiery scenes in which Cage transforms from stunt motorcyclist Blaze to hell-on-wheels vigilante Ghost Rider. To pull off the critical visual effect, the director enlisted the computer graphics gurus at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the same award-winning team behind that other Marvel Comics hero Spider-Man. After dreaming up innovative new CG and practical effects tools for the film, Imageworks delivered 600 "Ghost Rider" visual effects shots, 200 dedicated solely to blazin' Johnny.

Not knowing in advance what Sony Pictures Imageworks' human-to-CG effect would look like on-screen, the actor was told to simulate the sensation of having his bones super-heated from the inside as his flesh and skeleton dry out and bits of hair and fat pop and explode like tree sap.

"Our work is all driven by his performance," says Kevin Mack, Imageworks' visual effects supervisor. "He was agonizing, jumping, writhing, screaming and bugging his eyes out, which we had to match."

Johnson says the challenge was avoiding that "melty face, wax look," seen most memorably in 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The effects team's duty was to devise a more realistic fire simulation than ever before seen on-screen. Imageworks called point man Patrick Witting, a digital artist with a PhD from Stanford University in computer programming. It took about a year to develop, but Witting built a suite of tools based on computational fluid dynamics.

"Everyone says fire and water are hard to re-create on-screen, but I didn't know it would be this hard," Johnson admits. "We really wanted fire to be an extension of the person. I didn't have the luxury of an actor hidden in a Spidey costume."

In addition to developing state-of-the-art fire, Mack enlisted Ervin Kos, an Australian interactive lighting engineer.

"It was critical for us to have interactive lighting on set," Mack says. "Our first test showed it would be really important to have real light on the shoulders and lapels of his costume that didn't have to be replaced or re-created in the computer."

Based on Mack's specifications, Kos built a green Lycra ski mask and high-collar fabric band for Cage (and his stunt double) implanted with paper-thin LED lights. The reflections more efficiently and authentically sell Ghost Rider's metamorphosis than a series of CG replacements could, Mack says.

But no matter how well the effects crew helps Cage in his transformation from human to dark hero, it will be up to audiences to generate real heat for "Ghost Rider" at the box office. Johnson had lousy luck when his first superhero feature, "Daredevil," opened the same weekend in 2003 when a snowstorm shut down the East Coast, eating into the film's early box office returns. The director's fingers are crossed that unseasonably warm weather takes hold across the nation when his latest hero rides into theaters in less than two weeks.

"A warm winter weekend could be the only upside to global warming," he jokes.

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