Technology Today, June 1997

Special effects, IMAX made for each other


You've heard this line perhaps every single time someone else has seen a new film: "To appreciate it, you've got to see it in the theater." The reasoning is simple ­ when you see a movie in the theater, "it is big." Big picture, big sound, and quite often, big special effects.

The words, "big special effects" take on an entirely new meaning with the film currently showing at the new 600 seat Imation IMAX Theater at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. "Special Effects," as it is simply called, is definitely "special," and anything but "simple." Living up to its IMAX predecessors, it is the ultimate cinematic experience.

The film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short at this year's Oscar ceremonies, and it's my guess that it would have won hands down if seen by voting members the way it was originally intended. With the mere handful of IMAX theatres around, combined with the bulk of films eligible for nomination, producers are often forced to ship out videocassette versions of their films to academy members. Even then there is no assurance that the film will be viewed. Oscar or not, this is one film that should not be missed.

The IMAX experience

If you haven't ever experienced the wonder of an IMAX film, the screen is the size of a six-story building. At nearly 10 times the size of a standard theater screen, the image literally envelops you with its picture clarity and sound, easily making it the truest of cinematic experiences ­ an experience that makes you feel like an actual participant.

The IMAX experience is borne out of the same elements as a normal film, including a projector, film stock, sound tracks and sprockets, but much, much bigger. And while films we see in theaters are struck on 35mm negatives ­ the same size of the film you put in your camera ­ IMAX films are shot on stock 10 times that size. The only disadvantage associated with them is that they are time consuming and cumbersome to shoot, so it's unlikely that you'll see a feature film out in the IMAX format anytime soon. At 45 minutes running time, "Special Effects" alone consists of five miles of film.

Produced by Nova, the PBS series, "Special Effects" chronicles the history of the craft, and also bears witness to history in the making. By gaining access to the set of the then work-in-progress, "Independence Day," we get to see behind the scenes work on the infamous White House obliteration by Earth's unwelcome visitors.

Other films chronicled include an original and modern-day take on the classic, "King Kong;" the Robin Williams hit, "Jumanji" and new scenes filmed specifically for "Star Wars: Special Edition." And as if he doesn't appear larger than life on the court already, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal is featured in a segment that goes behind the scenes of his genie movie, "Kazaam."

'Star Wars:' making 'Effects' special

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, filmmaker George Lucas revolutionized the special effects industry with the creation of his company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), to provide effects for his then "tiny" film called "Star Wars" (his budget, at less than $10 million, was a mere pittance by Hollywood standards). Today, the implementation of special effects in a film is commonplace. In fact, it's so much of a standard operating procedure, that as viewers, we feel at times as though we are almost past the wonder of it all.

That is, until you see a film such as the release of any of the "Star Wars: Special Edition" films. For those of us who are old enough to remember the first time the trilogy came out, we also recall how much in awe we were from the very first opening shot ­ where in pursuit of a Rebel Blockade Runner ship, an Empire Star Destroyer (pictured above) enters the screen from overhead. From that point forward, we knew we were in for something special.

One of the greatest advancements at the time, in the technological sense, came with the utilization of computers in the film making process. Of course, they weren't yet being used to generate images (now a Lucas staple), but rather to control camera movements. The preciseness of the procedure made possible all of the dogfight scenes we have fondly grown accustomed to, and introduced Hollywood to a new age of moviemaking in the process.

"It became immediately apparent, that all future films, not just science fiction movies, would somehow be influenced by this new technology," recalled WCCO-TV anchor/arts and entertainment reporter Bill Carlson, who covered the opening of the film in 1977.

Perhaps the only thing that topped the memorable opening scene in "Star Wars," was to see it again on the big screen in 1997, as "Star Wars: Special Edition" was released. That was the thinking at least until I saw "Special Effects," where the opening scene was recreated for the IMAX experience. The moment was breathtaking.

The irony for those who create great special effects, is that they, outside of the movie industry, get little credit for their tasks. Whether on stage or film, the objective for a performer or filmmaker is the suspension of disbelief. If an effect draws too much attention to itself, the illusion is in danger of becoming shattered for the viewer. Movies, after all, are one of the best and most easily accessible places to escape from the doldrums of everyday life.

When talking about a true visionary such as Lucas, it's a no-brainer to say he knew exactly what he was doing when he was staffing ILM. Did he use "The Force," perhaps, to employ special effects artists that would change the face of movie making forever? Consider the achievements of these star pupils: Ben Burtt, who actually directed "Special Effects," went on to win four Academy Awards for his sound design on the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films. In "Special Effects," Burtt prominently features his colleague, visual effects wizard Dennis Muren, a winner of seven Oscars for such films as "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi," "ET: The Extra Terrestrial" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

Another vital part of the "Star Wars" mix was the first cameraman for optical miniature effects, Richard Edlund, a native of Minnesota. Not only did his work on such films as the "Star Wars Trilogy," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Poltergeist," "Ghostbusters," "2010," "Die Hard," "Ghost," "Multiplicity" and several others so far earned him four Oscars and several more nominations. He also founded in 1983 BOSS Film Studios, a well-respected film and special effects production house in Marina del Ray, CA. Edlund also serves on the board of governors of the American Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, is chairman of the visual effects branch, and co-chair of the Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards Committee.

While the craft has served Burtt, Muren and Edlund well, there is an element to their success in the craft that cannot be created in a special effects lab or by today's standards, on a computer screen. That element is called "patience," which Edlund talked about with Bill Carlson in a 1983 interview that followed the release of "Return of the Jedi."

"It's very boring to watch us create scenes, because sometimes it takes a whole month to just do one shot," Edlund said. "It very tedious work, and often times, the audience is not aware that you spend two years creating 15 to 20 minutes of film."

Looking at the big picture, however, that's time well spent.

Along with fellow entertainment reporters, Bill Carlson and Nancy Nelson, Tim Lammers is a writer and co-producer of the multi-media project, "Minnesota Focus on Entertainment."

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