When Digital Technology Revolutionizes Film Special Effects

Which of the worms of the sands Dunesexplosive cascades Death can wait or cobweb Spidermanwill win the 2022 Oscar for Best Visual Effects on Sunday, March 27th? One thing is for sure: no matter who wins, digital special effects will remain in the spotlight.

The Oscar Academy has been awarding this award since 1939, long before the pixel era. Cinema combines the tricks of the theater and photography. Fashion originates from the director and illusionist Georges Méliès (1861-1938), at the turn of the 20th century.as well as century. Then for decades matte painting (“drawing on the hiding place”) takes center stage. It involves applying scenery or set pieces to a glass plate that is filmed at the same time as the scene. Alien ship in the sky? Drawing.

loaded with sensors

Techniques are developing, we are starting to use film decor. Chases and sea crossings are embodied in the studio, and videos of highways or raging waves are projected in the background. Problem : “Effective decor is of poor quality because it was filmed, designed and filmed again”describes Jean-Baptiste Massouet, lecturer at the University of Rennes 2 and historian of digital technologies in cinema.

→ PORTRAIT. The Great Illusion by Georges Méliès

Despite some improvements, the real “solution” consists of green screens and post-production keying. Instead of filming the chase at the same time as a rear-facing footage of the highway, it is filmed in front of a green screen, which is then replaced with a footage or digital creation from scratch. “Computer graphics have been around since the 1970s, and Worldwest (Michael Crichton, 1973)who used it to mimic the point of view of a robot”recalls Réjean Hamous-Vallee, a sociologist at the University of Evry-Val-d’Essons and special effects specialist. “But this technique really became popular in the 1990s when Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). »

Progress does not stop at decorations. The actors themselves find themselves in tight-fitting lycra, wearing sensors. “Motion capture” as well as « performance capture ”, two equivalent methods allow them to digitally transform into werewolves or hobbits (characters invented by J. R. R. Tolkien). “Easier to put on a prosthesis or make uprecognized by the expert. But digital post-processing allows you to add blood effects to the wound, as well as erase wrinkles, which is impossible with makeup. »

The scenes were filmed in a cylinder with a diameter of 22 meters.

More or less successful. The failure of a recent film cats (Tom Hooper, 2019) with people disguised as cats is a good reminder that digital sometimes makes monstrous what theatrical make-up makes acceptable. In this game, “it is better to assume completely different and imaginary beings”, evaluates specialist Jean-Baptiste Massouet. Reliability is also achieved by adding flaws such as “Blur” (blur).“Adding blur between images paradoxically makes the movement of a digital creature more realistic”clarifies the spec.

Disney, long a big consumer of green funds with its superhero sagas, has decided in 2019 to go back to basics, or almost back to basics. No more long and meticulous overlays, everything is displayed simultaneously with the shooting of the scene on the set. The décor created by Industrial Light & Magic is digital and scalable, thanks to the combination of two tools: video game software such as Unreal Engine, which makes universes more real than life, and LED screen walls (Light-Emitting Diode, LED screen ) that represent these universes.

For Series The Mandalorian (Jon Favreau, 2019) so most of the scenes were filmed in a 22m diameter cylinder. With the exception of the floor, everything was just successive screens that displayed the desired decor. The actors develop in the middle of this fence, and the position sensor is placed on the camera on the set. Every time it moves, every time it zooms, Unreal Engine generates the appropriate view, and the LED screens display it.

“Corridors where battle scenes are played out exist only in digital form”says Pascal Pinto, screenwriter and authorSpecial effects, two centuries of history (Bragelonne, 2015). “They were modeled and then displayed on LED walls. And when the director decides to lower the camera to the height of the trunk, the display adapts instantly. Surprisingly, the viewer does not understand what is shown and what is true, he clarifies.

“Know How Far to Go”

The main constraint is that all 3D set and special effects must be designed prior to filming so that the computer can instantly perform display calculations as the camera moves. In return, all post-production disappears or nearly disappears. “With this system called StageCraft, 90% of the scenes shot could be used directly for The Mandalorian »considers an expert who foresees a wider use of this technique in the coming years.

→ CHRONICLE. Cinema: sensory darkrooms

By instantly and constantly creating the right environment, the system avoids problems with light and reflections. The shadows on the metal armor of the intergalactic bounty hunter match the scenery exactly. “On a green background, the reflection can leave a greenish tint, for example on a white dress, which can then be difficult to remove in post-production.describes Pascal Pinto. There is no such problem. The light is always right, and you can shoot twilight for five hours! » No more depressive actors playing in front of a big nonentity. No need to imagine a grandiose citadel or a deadly explosion, everything is displayed in real time.

Whether these digital effects will age in the eyes of the viewer remains to be seen. “Our gaze becomes accustomed to the codes of timeJudge Jean-Baptiste Massouet. With each evolution, the previous one seems obsolete. » However, some scenes created using models or costumes stand the test of time better. “The viewer is much more tolerant of reality, models and animatronics. (puppet robots, Ed), slice Réjean Hamus-Vallee. The whole talent of a director is to know where to go and choose the best technique for such and such a scene. » The computer is not everything.


Special effects or visual effects?

SFX. Abbreviation special effectswhich could be translated as “special effects”, refers to physical special effects produced on set, such as makeup, prosthetics, animatronics (animated creatures).

visual effects. Abbreviation Visual effects (“visual effects”) refers to effects added digitally using a computer, most commonly in post-production. This is, for example, replacing the green background with another image.

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