Just what is it that's so powerfully liberating? It's what Digital Domain calls "3-D tracking" and what Industrial Light & Magic calls "match moving" -- a proprietary software-based process known more generally in the industry these days by the pet name "camera reconstruction." Formally, it falls under the auspices of computer vision technology -- a field of research largely dedicated to space, robotics and medicine. Its filmic role has been to turn the unimaginable into the completely believable.
For example, when Industrial Light & Magic director Bill Timmer captured a surfer riding the notoriously turbulent Hawaiian waves last year for a spot called "Wheat Surfer," he didn't have to worry about the traditional constraints of digital productions. Thanks to recent advances in compositing techniques, directors no longer have to establish reference points on location so that two or more scenes can be seamlessly united in the same frame. This was especially helpful in "Wheat Surfer" -- a :60 for Allegra and DMB&B/New York -- as well as in the filming of Titanic, because establishing reference points on moving water has always been difficult, if not impossible.
The Allegra spot, which features a windsurfer seemingly surfing across a wheatfield, marked the first time a scene shot wild (the surfer was captured via hand-held camera) used natural rather than imposed reference points, allowing Timmer to shoot whatever he wanted. The more manageable California wheatfield, on the other hand, was shot via motion control.
The Terminal Man
Match moving first reached a level of maturation when James Cameron and ILM introduced his malleable CG assassin in Terminator 2, a move of historic proportions in terms of film language. Never before had a CG life form appeared so real. It allowed fleshed-out wire frames to walk among the living. Because of its proprietary nature, this compositor's art has been, and still is, a guarded creative secret -- made more difficult to understand by its many names.
This camera reconstruction process requires the digital marriage of two or more plates into one photorealistically accurate composite. It must account for space, movement, tracing and camera placement, and then, along with other post services, it must balance shadows, hues, granular differences and minute inconsistencies.
This has, until the past several years, required the precision of motion control setups, cameras rigged with encoders, or reference points such as trash cans placed on snowy mountains or brightly colored tennis balls that would be painted out in post. The rigorous demands of five years ago meant that everything had to be fixed around the cameras, rather than letting action play free. That's gradually changed; Flame, Henry, Softimage, Hammer Head and 3-D Equalizer all feature off-the-shelf tracing.
Recent advances -- not in the software itself, but in the greater fluency of artists and operators to coordinate and triangulate the points on each respective plate -- have liberated the camera so that much of the live action can be shot quicker and freer.
At ILM it's fondly referred to as the "invisible magician." ILM's Joe Johnston, who directed the Saturn "EV1" spot for Hal Riney & Partners using match moving, says, "In the past the problem with adding any hint of an effect meant locking a camera down or putting it on a repeatable track system, which was very restrictive. People have thrown those systems in the dump. Now it's hand-held. This means you don't have to spend three more hours on the set, when a digital effects operator will do it."
Senior software engineer Doug Roble wrote Digital Domain's 3-D tracking package when the shop opened in '93. It was first employed in True Lies, as well as the award-winning "Jeep Snow Covered" spot for Bozell/Detroit. "It was used on every shot in Titanic," Roble says, "but it hasn't significantly slowed motion control productions down. They're still really big here, but you never see it on a stage. Actors and directors don't want [the rigs] on the set."
There are other ways of stabilizing pictures, notes DD's Wook. "In JFK, the Zapruder footage was run through a motion control printer," he says. "They probably would have completed it 10 to 20 times faster with our system. Today we're capable of tracking extreme phenomena such as roiling water."
Director Meiert Avis of Windmill Lane Productions recently wrapped a visually arresting :30 called "Tennis e Oltre," for Sergio Tacchini in Italy. It features an ice skater playing tennis with Goran Ivanisevic, and it required the use of Windmill's camera reconstruction software. Avis says, "You can shoot as many moves as you want; the actors do what they want and then you refine things. It's a great way of suspending disbelief, but I'm not looking to be a director who specializes in it. It's good only if it helps the story."
He adds that his instinct is to simplify things. "Today there are so many spots that are deconstructed, so many car dealer ads looking like Nike spots. This is a relatively new way away from that."
Avis also recently completed "Theme," an Oldsmobile spot for Leo Burnett, that combines, via camera reconstruction, footage of the Golden Gate Bridge with shots of a car against a background of fireworks.
Other recent examples of the technique include "Coyote," for Pontiac and DMB&B/Detroit, which debuted on last month's Super Bowl. The spot marries 2-D characters -- the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote -- with live action. Directed by ILM's Steve Beck (see story on page 29), it features a real car in a traditional cartoon environment.
Digital Domain recently faced a much different problem concerning cars when Campbell-Ewald/Detroit wanted to recycle its '96-'97 Chevy Blazer campaign for '98. This required the insertion of new computer-generated models into the live action of the older commercials. The process, similar to rotoscoping, combined photorealistic CG trucks in two :30s, "Roads" and "Obstacle."
Director Eric Saarinen of Plum Productions recently employed camera reconstruction using a Henry, without the benefit of proprietary software, in "Roller Blade," a :30 for Dell computers and Goldberg Moser O'Neill. Footage shot from a helicopter is composited with hand-held freestyle shots, featuring a "roller blade testing facility" that looks like Area 51.
The surreal-made-real approach pioneered in T2 gave Hollywood the upper hand as a digital leader. At the time, most agencies were more content with a product-made-anthropomorphic strategy that had Lifesavers and Listerine bottles, gas pumps and vacuum cleaners all gyrating like the Rockettes at a digital Christmas. But gradually, the agencies are catching up. The stunning success of Titanic will no doubt inspire them further toward the increased use of