Make It More Religious

ILM, Industrial Light and Magic, was quite the place to be in the mid-eighties. During the decade starting with Star Wars it had provided the visual effects for a vast majority of the top ten grossing films of all time. One of the key players behind all of that, of course, was Dennis Muren. We were fortunate to be able to work with him on Young Sherlock Holmes because working for Dennis is fun, professionally satisfying, and very educational.

Of course Dennis is also a great student. He learned about the promise of computer graphics from the Lucasfilm Computer Division's so-called "Graphics Group", the core team that would eventually form Pixar. With CGI now commonplace it's hard to realize that in 1984 it was still mostly a laboratory curiosity. Only a few CG shots, starting with Ed Catmull's own digitized hand in Futureworld, had been used in features up to that point.

Even Tron only had fifteen or twenty minutes of CG. Don't forget that none of the Star Wars films had any CG at all beyond Larry Cuba's Death Star briefing display in the first film and the "hologram" of the later Death Star that the Computer Division did for Return of the Jedi.

While we were working on YSH Dennis wanted to study the CG in The Last Starfighter, so he got a print and had it loaded on the rock-and-roll projector at ILM. It was an impressive effort. While there were some shots that had obviously been done at lower complexity than others, a few of the hero shots were so good that Dennis said, "I'd completely buy that as real".

One of my biggest lessons came when a scene rolled by that was a master shot of a large hangar bay full of starfighters. Dennis suddenly called, "Wait!" The projectionist paused the film on a frame. Dennis was already using his pointer to trace rapid circles all over the screen, and I was squinting to see what was wrong with the shot. His eye for detail was legendary (though he also knew when to say, "Forget it, nobody will see that").

"Where am I supposed to be looking?"

The lightbulb was going off in my head. Dennis went on to explain that a shot had to be designed in a way that directed the viewer's eye. There was no contrast, just a frame full of busy details, all about the same value. Suddenly I saw that there was nothing specific to see, no one thing to draw my attention. In a later post I'll write about the obsessive degree to which Pixar directs the viewer's eye. That lesson from Dennis was probably where it began.

Years later I flashed back to that day when I saw the first space battle scenes in The Phantom Menace. But I digress.

I think Starfighter gave Dennis some hope that these Computer Division guys were going to be able to deliver a usable Stained Glass Knight. There was more than a little trepidation about going that route since that kind of character, integrated into live action, had never really been done before that. In fact, it almost wasn't done this time.

Our first attempt was completely rejected by director Barry Levinson. The script called for a knight in a stained-glass window to come alive, alight in the church, and frighten the poor priest so badly that he would panic, dash outside, and promptly be trampled by the horse drawn wagon that someone just knew would be passing by at that moment. The perfect murder!

The first design had the window break into colored shards, floating blades of rippled shower-door glass that gathered in the air to form a three-dimensional Roman centurion. It had all been modeled, animated, lit, and roughly composited into the scene, and we were all pretty happy with it. It seemed quite menacing. But it didn't work for Levinson, so very late in the game our keen-edged Roman was scrapped and a whole new design had to be executed.

 

 Stained Glass Knight, Take 2

Stained Glass Knight, Take 2

Of course not only the Knight was redone, but that required a whole new window. When John Lasseter painted the texture map for it he included our initials in the ribbon-like scrolls near the bottom. You could barely read them in the theater, so they'll never be seen again unless the movie is rereleased in Blu-ray. On DVD our Easter egg is a smudge. 

The tilt-up from the Knight's hands to his face was the first-ever rack focus CG shot in a feature film, and it remained the only one for many years. Rob Cook figured out a way to render depth of field (see the update, below) and pitched the shot to Dennis. He went for it, and it got coded up, but the computational requirements were insane. I hand-carried two disc packs (a whopping 350 Mb each) to CCI in Orange County where I spent two solid weeks using borrowed time on two of their best computers to render the last 130 frames of the shot.  Meanwhile, up in San Rafael, Bill Reeves was computing the rest of it.

When we showed him the first test Dennis, who usually gives insightful notes very quickly, spent an uncharacteristically long time watching the screen. "Hmm. That's interesting." He said that real lenses zoom slightly when racking focus because the focal length of the lens is actually changing. Our perfect computer lens didn't breathe.  "We can put that in." "No, leave it. That's how lenses should work, but it's not how lenses do work. I kind of like it." Rob later calculated that the field of view change that particular rack focus would have produced a change of perhaps 6 pixels in a 1500-pixel wide image. That's less than half a percent, but Dennis sensed that it wasn't there. Of course, that breathing was carefully added to the lens package on WALL•E many years later. But back to our story. 

All of this should make it clear why we were so nervous when it came time to screen the result for Levinson. We had already started over again from scratch once. There really was no time to make major fixes, and probably no time for even minor ones. We sat on the back row of couches in the old Kerner screening room, listening to the ratchety growl of the projector as the film rocked and rolled, back and forth, back and forth, while Muren, Levinson, and a producer sat silently in the row ahead of us.

Finally, Levinson spoke. 

"I dunno. Can you make it more... religious?" 

The panicked glances on the back row probably looked like a scene from a Three Stooges short, but with a lot more Stooges. We searched each other's faces for an answer. What the Hell did that mean?

And then Dennis showed why he now has a hall closet full of Oscars. Calmly, he waved us a subtle shush with his hand and shot a "don't worry" look over his shoulder.

The very next day the shot was screened for Levinson again. He loved it. Dennis Muren is Dennis Muren because he knew that "religious" translated to telling Optical to put two more steps of diffusion on the glow element pass. The rest, as they say, is history. 

When we convened with him in the lobby of the Cinema in Corte Madera after the crew screening of the finished film, we were trying to come to grips with the feeling that maybe the movie wasn't as good as we all hoped it would be. Dennis had another lesson for us. 

"Sometimes you can get so close to a movie as you're making it that it makes perfect sense to you, but the audience goes 'huh?'" Keeping objective distance is possibly a film director's most important and difficult skill, and it's something John Lasseter excels at. But we wouldn't really reap the benefits of that skill in full for another ten or so years yet -- when we made our own feature film.

 


Update: 

I have corrected the rack focus part of the story based on input from Rob Cook himself, who wrote to me about the experience of realizing what the renderer, Reyes (Renders Everything You Ever Saw) would be capable of doing:

Depth of field was part of Reyes from the very beginning. I was working alone in the office one night when it suddenly dawned on me that the stochastic sampling principle could be used not just for anti-aliasing and motion blur, but also for many of the thorniest problems in rendering: depth of field, soft shadows, glossy reflections, etc. I remember sitting there and being struck first by how incredibly powerful this one simple technique was and then by how odd it felt that I was the only one who knew it at that moment. The next day other people at Lucasfilm would know about it, and the following year everyone in graphics would know, but the rest of that evening had a kind of eerie solitude about it. I know other people who have had such moments, and I'd heard a few of them talk about it, but it was surreal to be experiencing one myself.

I remember how excited Rob was about it when he explained it to me, which was probably within just a few days of his epiphany. Sometimes I think my experience in that Graphics Room on the second floor of the old C Building was akin to being there the day Ook and Og ran into the cave yelling, "Ooh! Look what I invented! The wheel!" 

Lagniappe:

Ralph McQuarrie got the accolades for production design on Star Wars, but Thomas Kinkade did all the heavy lifting.

There is absolutely no subtext implied by linking a gallery of abandoned toy factories to a post about the old ILM building on Kerner. 

Which, in turn, does not mean that's why I feel like listening to a sad clown