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October 2014
Issue: March 1, 2002

Hart's War: a digital odyssey

BURBANK - The gritty, realistic MGM feature Hart's War seems an unlikely movie to highlight its visual effects, but that is precisely why it is such a good example. The 80 or so effects shots are virtually invisible. There are no nine-foot aliens blasting laser guns or slick space ships zooming across the sky, but instead, realistic CG and scene enhancements that seamlessly blend into the live action.

"The grand scope of the piece was the biggest challenge," recalls John Van Vliet, visual effects supervisor for Hart's War. "They wanted to stage this dogfight over the prison camp and crash a full size airplane into the camp, filled with thousand of guys watching and trying to get out of the way."

Designing the shots was critical to making them both look good and keeping everyone safe. They had storyboards, but non-moving images do not convey speed and timing. "It looks great as a still, but you have to realize that the plane is moving 200 miles an hour and only takes up 17 frames," explains Van Vliet. So he had 3D animatics, previsualizations, of the dogfight and crash sequences made to work out frame by frame what needed to happen to make the shots work.

Van Vliet then selected two boutique LA shops with strong portfolios, Pixel Magic (www.pixelmagicfx.com) and Area 51 (818-238-9660) to create the major effects shots. Each shop used a combination of well-known software packages such as NewTek's LightWave and Aura, Eyeon Cold Fusion, Pinnacle Commotion and Adobe After Effects.

Area 51 got the majority of the invisible effects. "Two thirds of the visual effects on Hart's War was creative body and fender work," comments Van Vliet wryly. "If you do a great job, no one knows you were there." Area 51 did things like removing cables, fixing the sky, adding muzzle flashes and dropping CG bombs. Tim McHugh, Area 51's president and founder, says the project was interesting because even though the producers came back from Prague with lots of footage, real planes, real explosions, they still decided to use digital technology to enhance the footage and manipulate the film on a frame-by-frame basis.

Where Adobe After Effects really came to the rescue was after the film wrapped. "We discovered we needed this one shot of the munitions factory and we didn't have it," says Van Vliet. "When I make a tour of the set I always take a lot of photographs." The 3D module, a new one featured in AE 5.0/5.5, allowed Area 51 to take Van Vliet's still image, cut it up, make a multi-plane composition and build the shot instead of sending a crew to Prague. "That saved them a ton of money," Van Vliet says proudly.

When it came time to put together the dogfight sequence, Pixel Magic not only provided perfectly detailed CG replicas of a Messerschmitt and P41 Mustang, but loaded them with expressions and rules programming so they became "smart" models. Animating them was more like making a realtime movie of flight simulators in a PlayStation game. "We made the computerized version of the airplane follow the dynamics and physics of the real airplane," says Ray McIntyre Jr., VP and visual effects supervisor at Pixel Magic. It was also a plus that McIntyre is a pilot. "I know very well what these planes can and cannot do. Having that knowledge of how an airplane flies really helped achieve realism in our CG planes."

In a very real way the enhanced visual effects on Hart's War were not completed until the film went to Cinesite (www.cinesite) where it became part of a growing list of feature films to be timed digitally instead of optically.

The reason for this, says director of photography Alar Kivilo, was that he and director Gregory Hoblit wanted the entire film to have a consistent look all the way through. Hart's War's scene-to-scene color correction used a blue-gray, blue-green palette to create a cold, lonely mood.

Randy Starr, VP of business development for Cinesite says the big advantage of the digital intermediate process is that you have a level of control over color that does not exist in traditional color timing. "You not only have control over individual colors so you can desaturate colors, increase contrast levels, but you can isolate sections of a scene and control the color in just those sections."

Cinesite scanned out the cut negative on their Thomson Spirit DataCine as 2K files, leaving holes where the digital effects went. Pixel Magic and Area 51 provided digital files that were cut into the digital master during an online edit session at Cinesite. The digital intermediate process saved a generation by not having to first transfer the digital files to negative then back again. This achieved a more seamless integration of the digital effects with the original photography.

Regardless of the capture medium a few things are clear: Boutique visual effects shops will be doing more visual effects, and more sophisticated visual effects, on more feature films. They will be built on desktop computers running off-the-shelf software packages, moving away from big companies, expensive dedicated machines and proprietary software. What was once a cumbersome process, optical timing like optical effects, will eventually become obsolete, succumbing to the superior and precise level of control of the digital intermediate technology. Taken together, and with ongoing improvements, the casual and expert filmgoer is destined to experience a new level of verisimilitude that will provoke the question, to paraphrase an old audio tape slogan, "Is it real, or is it visual effects?"