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ILM: Pushing the FX envelope

Is there a difference between the digital effects you'd do for what I would call a captive audience, meaning that they're sitting there kind of chained to it, and effects for the movie goer?

TA: Yeah, I think so. And hopefully I'm not interpreting incorrectly, but with World of Warcraft or something, you're creating a much larger environment that's more free form. You're allowing people to explore in it and make their own decisions, so you sort of have to build for all angles.

You also have to create an environment that people will be able to sit in for hours and hours on end. Often what we do here at ILM is sort of build to camera – so we're kind of like a movie set or a theatre where you go behind the set and all you see is boards. When you're sitting at the computer, you have to think about it from all angles. Now what that means is you can't get as much detail as you might get with film.

And again, that's changing. I mean, video games are getting way better looking and much higher end. But you have to pick a level of detail that you can achieve for the size of your environment and how much you want people to be able to explore. And we don't do it in real time. We don't have to let people choose. The director gets to choose where they want people to go and then we dress for that angle.

Do you think LucasArts and ILM will some day merge and become one company creating both assets?

TA: I think we definitely have a goal to be working together and making games that are better and making films that are better – and maybe some day those will converge and we'll have a new media type that nobody's seen yet. In terms of immersion, I think what games have going for them is the whole online experience, actually interacting with people and making friends online. It becomes much more of a social thing versus going to a movie, where you're not talking with people, you're getting more of a story.

I think some video games recently have been pretty amazing at conveying story while letting you play. Uncharted is a good example of that where you almost feel like you're watching a movie while you're playing the game because they're putting you into the major drama.

You mentioned the term 'hard-surface model'. Can you describe what that means?

TA: That's typically something that doesn't have a deforming surface, like a car or a spaceship. We could blow those up or dent them or whatever, but typically we refer to hard surfaces as anything that you wouldn't normally see deforming. We have modelers that specialise in hard-surface modeling and modelers that specialise in organic modeling. They're different skill sets – the ins and outs of organic creatures versus hard surfaces where you're dealing with how surfaces curve and catch the light.

What's the future for effects? You mentioned fire and water. Is one of the challenges mixing two different renders?

TA: I think so, definitely. I also think large-scale environment work is a challenge for the future. Being able to realise large environments in the computer would be extremely helpful for a lot of shooting or cinematography. If you have to go on location for three months to shoot in a jungle, it's going to be really expensive. Some day we could create that in the computer.

Then you can give the director more flexibility to change camera angles and that type of thing. I'm not suggesting that we just do everything on the computer because there's something about having a cinematographer looking through the lens, understanding the beauty of a shot and how to shoot it. If we could some day get everything on the computer, you'd have to figure out some way to get the cinematographers and directors to be able to apply their craft to it.

Where are we on conquering 'the uncanny valley'?

TA: As an industry, we tend to fall into the valley a lot. Over the past few years, there have been moments where I've looked at an effect and been like "oh my, I had no idea that that was fake". An example is the baby from Lemony Snicket.

We did a full CG baby and there are a few close-up shots that really are amazing. But then there's a couple of other shots of the baby where you can tell that it's not quite there. So as an industry we do hit it, we do get to that reality point, though we fall into the valley. It's a little hit or miss; there's no formula for it yet.

Is it that you think it looks real on the computer screen, but then when you see it in the movie theatre it looks different?

TA: Our team aren't afraid to ask questions. We have a whole art department who help the artist and effects supervisors try to figure out why something's not looking right. There are many checks and balances in place for us to try to put out the best most realistic looking product that we can.

If you have somebody running across the screen and you're watching it this big versus this big [motions small and big with hands], it makes a difference to how you perceive how fast that object is moving. So being able to view it at different scales is really important.