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Techno-Geek Directors Who Changed Filmmaking Forever

For most of my life whenever it came to watching movies, er sorry…I mean “films,” (ever since film school I learned that “movie” is as derogatory a term as calling a little person a midget) I would place them in two categories: Films I absolutely had to see in theatres; and films I’d wait to watch at home.  My decision process has always been simple; any films involving robots, dragons, aliens, superheroes, natural disasters, wars, zombies, wizards, James Bonds or any film who’s title begins with the word “Star” or “Bourne,” I’ll watch in theatres.  Films depicting regular humans doing regular human stuff, i.e. dramas, suspense thrillers, comedies, dramadies, and any movies with the word “Wife” or “Notebook” in the title, and I’ll wait until the dvd comes out.

(I’ve also created a subcategory called “Romantic comedies I secretly want to see but won’t rent unless a girl I’m with suggests it.”)  Basically, the more awesome special effects are involved, the better chance a film has of getting me into a theatre.

The following directors have all employed the latest and greatest special effect technology to produce some of the most memorable moments on the silver screen.  In some cases they’ve gone as far as inventing new technology and filing techniques, and in all cases they’ve inspired filmmakers in their wake

James Cameron

james cameron

If ever there was a director whose name alone puts butts in theatre seats it would be this man. Over the last 15 years his films have grossed over $1 billion, with titles like The Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies and Titanic under his belt. Whether or not you’re a fan of these films, you cannot deny that Cameron’s marriage with technology and storytelling has provided movie-goers some of the most spectacular special effects ever to explode across the silver screen.  And by the way…he’s Canadian!

liquid terminator

Intrigued by technology and special effects since day one, James Cameron dropped everything to become a filmmaker after watching George Lucas’ masterpiece Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time in 1977. Seven years later he aligned his visions with those of Stan Winston, the ten-time Academy Award-dominated special effects supervisor and owner of Stan Winston Digital, a partnership that would earn Best Visual Effects Oscars for Aliens and Terminator 2.

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To help him sink the Titanic, Cameron hired the visual effects and animation company Digital Domain (The Fifth Element, I Robot,What Dreams May Come, Speed Racer, Star Trek, Transformers 1 & 2, to name a very few), who’s cutting edge technology breathtakingly snapped the ship in half, bounced a few digital humans off the boat’s giant propellers, and earned themselves the Best Visual Effects Oscar, one of eleven picked up by the film.

Which brings us to his latest and most anticipated project, Avatar.  While the rest of feel like we’re barely keeping up with technology, Cameron has literally been waiting for the technology to catch up with him.  The script for Avatar has been sitting on a shelf for the last fifteen years, remaining diligently patient until digital animation and motion capture technology advanced to a point where it could properly bring the planet Pandora, it’s native inhabitants the Na’vi, and the genetically engineered Avatars to life.

How this changed filmmaking

During an interview with BusinessWeek, Cameron describes how new real-time virtual cameras gives directors the freedom to “direct [computer-generated] scenes as I would live-action scenes. I can see my actors performing as their characters, in real-time, and I can move my camera to adjust to their performances.”  They have also elevated motion capture to the level of “emotion capture.”  No longer needing to glue hundreds of sperical markers to their faces, actors can now wear fitted skull caps equipped with a tiny camera.  The information recorded is then processed through software which “interprets the movement of the actor’s face, pupils, and eyelid responses…”

Why See Avatar in Theatres?

Two words.  Actually, one number, one letter and one word:  3D Projectors.  Avatar was originally set to release in May, but the date got pushed to December 18 so that theatres could equip themselves with enough 3D projectors to accomodate a film shot with new stereoscopic cameras co-developped by Cameron himself. Imagine that!  Most filmmakers only dream of having their movie distributed to major theatres; and like small and medium businesses having to upgrade their Sharepoint hosting services to stay ahead of the competition, right now theatres have to make upgrades to handle Cameron’s movie.

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Cameron and his Avatar team have developed such cool and advanced toys that George Lucas, Stephen Spieldburg and Peter Jackson have all been hanging around the set during production, already dreaming up ways to incorporate  virtual cameras and 3D technology into their upcoming projects.  You can almost picture three of film technology’s greatest innovators getting the call from Cameron, briefing them on what he’s been up to, and all of them responding “Now this I’ve gotta see!”

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

In 1993 Peter Jackson partnered up with producer/editor Jamie Selkirk, special effects and prop-master Richard Taylor to form Weta Digital, the digital division of Weta Workshop (of which Taylor was already the creator) for the film Heavenly Creatures.  Getting a taste for special effects and CG animation, Jackson jumped from the thirty digitally manipulated shots in Heavenly Creatures to 540 in The Fellowship of the Ring, and again to 1488 in The Return of the King.  If the fact that each installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy took the Oscar for Best Visual Effects isn’t already impressive enough, even non-fans of the film would convert if they watched the hours upon hours of bonus DVD features, demonstrating how Peter Jackson, the entire special effects team, and Weta Workshop as whole, evolved and became more technologically advanced with each film.  Applying their new found knowledge for special effects, Jackson and Weta Digital would go on to claim yet another Oscar for King Kong.


How this changed filmmaking

The epic battle scenes for Lord of the Rings gave birth to a computer program known as MASSIVE, which stands for Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment.  It is basically a program which allows you to create thousands of characters who can all act as individuals in relation to their CG surroundings.

To create a photorealistic environment as accurate to 1933 New York city for King Kong, Chris White, the computer graphics supervisor for the film created a software called CityBot.  Maps of New York were used to help digitally create over 90, 000 3D buildings, while removing all the ones built after 1933.  The software also helped them “bring the city to life with traffic, boats, working chimneys, factories, and el trains.”

New York 1933

The animation of the creature Gollum would also improve on CG characters, using subsurface scattering for the first time to achieve skin tones, a subdivision surface model, and the most advanced performance caption technology, earning the team an Academy Award for the Scientific and Technical achievement for creating Gollum.

Since pioneering sensational effects for LOTR and King King, Jackson and Weta Digital helped produce District 9, and are scheduled to create a 3D version of Tintin with Steven Spielburg, as well The Hobbit in two parts, all to begin in 2011.

The Wachowski brothers

Wachowski bros

I’ll never forget the first time I watched Trinity rise into the air, leather all a-glistening in her crane pose, everything in the room goes still while the room itself seems to spin around her, she kicks…he flies…a wall explodes.  Fan-freaking-tastic.  This was probably the first time a movie actually got me out of my seat in a theatre, just so I could say “holy s***” while standing.

YouTube Preview Image The Matrix is one of those films you wish you could go back and watch again for the first time. One of the reasons being you received a formal introduction to the special effect known as “bullet time.”  While the technique had been used before, the Wachowski brought it to a completely new level with The Matrix, helping them earn the 1999 Oscar as well as the BAFTA for Best Visual Effects.

How this changed filmmaking

Aside from the fact that many films would go on to spoof the bullet time effect popularized by The Matrix, the technique would evolve and pave the way for new effects like virtual cinematography (computer generated characters and environments), and the use of still-cameras would eventually be replaced with technology known as “Universal Capture.”  This is a process where high-definition cameras record scenes from multiple perspectives continuously and synchronously.  This allows  directors to view a scene from any viewpoint in post production, the images captured can be rendered digitally with CG backgrounds, and 3D models of the recorded subject can be created.

George Lucas

Frozen Lucas

It’s very difficult for me to discuss George Lucas in a positive light, and not because I couldn’t stand 89% of the new Star Wars trilogy, or even because he and Steven Spielberg somehow managed to make a really, really bad Indiana Jones movie.  It’s tough to say good things because of what he and his CG-addicted fingers went back and did to the original Star Wars trilogy.  You want to enhance the colors?  Fine.  You want to digitize the sound and make the explosions bigger? Fine.  But the last thing the originals needed were uncool, out-of-place, lame looking digital creatures, just to say to the world “Hey! (tosses piles of cash into the air) look what I can do now!”

Lucas then and now

That being said, it’s impossible to talk about techno-geek directors who’ve changed filmmaking forever without George Lucas and the special effects department over at Lucasfilm.

Ever since its inception in 1975, Industrial Light & Magic has led the way in model making, computer-generated imagery and digital animation, earning “16 Best Visual Effects Oscars and 23 additional nominations. It had also received 20 Scientific and Technical Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of the critical role their advances in technology have played in the filmmaking process.”

How this changed filmmaking


Here are a few of ILM’s accomplishments since Star Wars IV:

1982: First completely computer-generated sequence (the “Genesis sequence” in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
1989: First computer-generated 3-D character, the pseudopod in The Abyss
1991: First partially computer-generated main character, the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day                                                                                                                                                                           1993: First time digital technology used to create a complete and detailed living creature, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which earned ILM its thirteenth Oscar.                                        1996: First completely computer-generated main character, Draco in Dragonheart                                                                                                                                                                                                                2002: First feature film completely shot and exhibited in digital HD video in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
2003: Used most extensive projects and animation techniques yet to create a large, human-like, green monster in Hulk
2004: Helped create amazing real looking natural disasters in major cities in The Day After Tomorrow.
2006: Develops “iMocap” system, which uses computer vision techniques to track live-action performers on set. Used in the creation of Davy Jones and ship’s crew in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2009: The most complicated visual effects done in entire ILM history on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’s character “Devastator”

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg

Despite the $3.3 million budget for the visual effects of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielburg didn’t incorporate any CGI do to the fact that it would have been too expensive at the time.  Sixteen years later he would direct Jurassic Park, whose collaboration with special effects wizard Stan Winston and the newly developped digital technology over at Industrial Light and Magic would help take home the Oscar and a BAFTA for its revolutionary visual effects.  Jurassic Park came out nearly twenty years ago, but I’ll never forget sharing the wonder with the film’s characters as they saw “live” dinosaurs for the first time.

Close Encounters

Since then he’s directed visually stunning films like Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds, the latter of which in my humble opinion began Spielburg’s path towards the dark side.  To help him  create a digital storyboard for War of the Worlds he borrowed most of the folks who worked on the new Star Wars films over at ILM.  If I were Spielburg’s parents I would have told him he can’t play with George Lucas anymore.  Because despite his techno-geek tendencies, Spielburg films have always maintained a certain realism and authenticity, despite the use of special effects for fantastic and extra terrestrial themes.  World War II vets claimed the only thing missing from the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan was the smell.  But when he teamed up with Lucas for  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the overuse of CG animation made the whole film seem, well fake.

How this changed filmmaking

Time discusses Spielberg’s influence on the film industry:

“Spielberg’s most important contribution to modern movies is his insight that there was an enormous audience to be created if old-style B-movie stories were made with A-level craftsmanship and enhanced with the latest developments in special effects.  Consider such titles as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Jurassic Park. Look also at the films he produced but didn’t direct, like the Back to the Future series, Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Twister. The story lines were the stuff of Saturday serials, but the filmmaking was cutting edge and delivered what films have always promised: they showed us something amazing that we hadn’t seen before.”

I realize there are many directors out there who’ve put some amazing films on screen, particularly when it comes to visual effects.  In fact J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek immediately comes to mind.  There have also been incredible advancements in animation technology which have helped filmmakers produce eye-candied treats like Coraline and Up.  The only reason I didn’t write about them is because they have all used the companies and technological toys produced by the aforementioned pioneers.  Please feel free to include directors you believe have contributed greatly to pushing the boundaries in the special effects department. Because at this rate, as home theatre systems become more and more sophisticated, and Hollywood keeps producing more and more colossal disappointments, movies that are anything less than absolutely mind-blowing will be played in front of empty seats.

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