Monday, January 26, 2009

SPARK FX '09: Dennis Muren and Harrison Ellenshaw...

Click images to enlarge...

Amy Parker from VancouverFilm.Net sends us this exclusive report...

At the weekend SPARK FX '09 event in downtown Vancouver, award-winning visual effects wizards Dennis Muren and Harrison Ellenshaw were on hand to talk about their craft.

Lectures were sold out in anticipation of 9-time Oscar winner Muren's appearance, who is noted as the first Visual Effects Artist to be honoured with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, Muren personally arranged the original "Star Wars" feature film "Trilogy' to be showcased on the big screen @ the Vancity Theatre for a rare showing Saturday night.

As a last minute thought, Muren decided to change his topic for discussion to “Six Challenges for Every Effects Shot.

"The idea,", he said, "is to bring more to the table than pushing’s to bring a feeling..."

The six challenges Muren discussed were:

1. New visible ideas - things you haven’t seen before

2. Emotional reaction - if you feel it, hopefully the audience will too

3. Correct purpose - the director needs to have a vision and be able to communicate it to everyone involved.

4. In the director’s style - it should fit seamlessly with the film

5. Look real

6. Want to see more - is the audience left wondering if there is more to be seen?

Some of Muren's favourite examples of 'original visuals' included scenes from "Terminator 2", "Jurassic Park" and "The Matrix".

When looking for shots that resonate, shots that connect with the audience, Muren looks to real life, with a vast collection of photos, artwork and internet images that he feels speaks to the viewer.

He shared some pictures with us, then a few videos of a hedgehog eating a carrot, giraffes running through fields in Africa and a wild rhino bumping into a car.

For Muren, these samples from nature help SFX artists add realism of movement, reaction and physicality to their 'creations'.

“Some people say everything’s been done," Muren said. "Well, I totally disagree with that..."

Muren stressed the importance of knowing the 'purpose' of the shot, ie. Why is it in the film? If the shot isn’t important - stop! Save your time, energy and money. Put all of your energy into getting the 'emotion'.

Muren’s next job is to match the director’s style. According to him, about one third of directors have a distinct style. If your shot seems like it fits the rest of the movie, it will seem more real.

"George (Lucas) is about one shot, one thought," he said.

"While Steven (Spielberg) bookends his dream sequences..."

Muren said that Realism is also important for achieving quality special effects. It’s not just about the quality of the shot itself but whether or not the audience thinks it could be real. According to Muren, the more the audience is drawn into the story, the more money the film will make.

Muren then screened more videos of animals gone wild, including elephants, ostriches and lizards. Then he showed the corresponding shots of the different dinosaurs from "Jurassic Park", noting the similarities.

Muren’s sixth and final point was the significance of making the audience want to see more. This curiosity is attained with the use of fog, smoke or by only capturing part of the action in the frame.

Throughout the lecture, Muren mentioned so many fantastic movies that he worked on, including "The War of the Worlds", "Terminator 2" "A.I." and all the "Star Wars" films.

When asked what was the worst film experience he ever had, Muren said it is a film where the director doesn't know what he wants.

In his opinion, a poor final product is due to the lack of a singular vision.
Ticket holders were also treated to a talk given by Harrison Ellenshaw, who began his career as a matte painter in the 1970’s and became a Visual Effects Artist and Designer for both I.L.M. and Disney.

Ellenshaw’s lecture was titled, “What if David Lean had CGI?”, screening scenes from Lean's "Ryan’s Daughter" and "Lawrence of Arabia".

Like Muren, Ellenshaw stressed the gravity of knowing the purpose of every shot, as too many shows depend on the importance of dialogue and back-story.

“It’s all about visual," Ellenshaw said.

"No one says, ‘Hey honey, let’s go down to the multiplex and listen to a movie.’ ”

Ellenshaw talked a bit about Disney's "Tron", admitting that a lot of the success of the effects in that movie were due to the fact that they had no idea what they were doing.

When he played a scene from "Tron", he asked the audience to watch and see where the 'CGI' was. I think most of us were surprised to discover afterwards, that there was no CGI in "Tron". The effects we saw were from backlighting, live action and animation, designed to look like computer-generated images.

Someone in the audience asked Ellenshaw if he felt that CGI had reached its saturation and if he then thought that story-telling would again re-emerge.

Ellenshaw countered that Visual Effects are all about telling the story. That’s why you have to ask, “Why is this shot here?”

"Film is a two dimensional medium," he said. "Eventually it will move beyond the screen. We will be plugged in and it will play in our heads....”