Experts predict the future

By Sam Dallas

In the not-too-distant future, audiences could actually play a part in the outcome of a film, Lightstorm Entertainment’s digital effects supervisor predicts.

“Like those old books – if you say yes, turn to page 76; if you say no, turn to page 55,” Nolan Murtha tells a panel of special guests, including INSIDEFILM.

“I think that being able to alter the outcome of the movie will get people to go back and see it again.”

He says people would see different outcomes, like what video gamers currently experience.

“People go back and re-play a game as the same character but they make different decisions that affects their experience,” Murtha says.

“…I think that would be a very cool experience and it could be a very niche thing.

“There will always be the traditional narrative but I think that could be a very exciting prospect for filmmakers to explore in the future.

“Like with Avatar – why not have the good guys die?”

Murtha joined an impressive expert panel in Sydney in late June, which comprised of Weta Digital animation technical supervisor Shawn Dunn and Industrial Light and Magic Singapore studio supervisor Mohen Leo.

To put them into perspective, Murtha and Dunn were both instrumental in their work for Avatar, while Leo’s company was the principle visual effects studio for Iron Man 2.

The discussion was part of an Autodesk “Blockbuster Tour”, which saw them tell the globe about what audiences and filmmakers can expect from technology in the future.

“I don’t think we’ll ever replace actors,” Murtha says of the talk that has generated since blockbuster Avatar was released.

“We’ll reach a point where it’ll be extremely hard to distinguish the virtual actor from the live actor but you still need the live actor to perform that role.

“Everything you saw on Avatar was performed by an actor – their face, their body motion, their posture, everything except the ears or the tail.

“[Avatar director James] Cameron himself will tell you we’ll never want to replace the actor – we really want to replace the process of them sitting through 3-4 hours of makeup to look like some other type of character – or some creature or whatever it is.”

Murtha gave the example of Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (who played Gollum), saying his emotions were “pure” as it was a real person behind the digital character.

Leo says he thinks dead celebrities will be cast in movies, such as Marilyn Monroe, as it’s just another alternative to traditional makeup.

“It used to be that if you wanted to have Marilyn Monroe in your movie, then you would find an actor that kind of looks like her and then do the makeup – or if you want an actor to look 20 years younger or 20 years older you’d use makeup,” says Leo, who has also worked on Terminator Salvation and Transformers 2.

“What’s actually exciting is that we are now reaching a point where technology is no longer a limitation.

“It’s not so much a matter of ‘I have this idea – can it be done or not?’, but certainly there are budgetary concerns, there are scheduling concerns, but I think we’re really getting to the point where filmmakers can do almost whatever they can imagine.”

And of course without the Internet who knows how things would be different today.

Weta, in New Zealand, is so far away from Hollywood but thanks to new communication avenues – such as video conferencing – it’s like the big players are all in the same room.

“Video conferences are essential…seeing the other person is a big part of it. There’s a level of communication when you see the other person’s face which doesn’t come across in an email,” says Leo who started his career at ILM in 1996 as a technical director.

And companies based in various locations across the world can work together; for example when Los Angeles’ offices close for the day, Singapore’s can take on the work.

Leo says this was crucial when working on Iron Man 2 because the final battle scene with Mickey Rourke was changed dramatically two months before final delivery.

And Murtha says more than 1600 people worldwide worked on Avatar on three continents.

3D technology has obviously skyrocketed in recent years but Dunn believes filmmakers need to do it right or not at all.

“Avatar was really successful ’cause Jim spent a huge amount of time actually doing the stereo portion of it,” says Dunn, who has had almost 20 years of success in CG.

“If you actually shoot it and understand how to shoot it, it’s a really successful way of doing things.”

The experts all agreed 3D could not be considered as an after-thought.

“I say the same about 3D that I do about visual effects and CG content – making movies that rely on that as the gimmick is the complete wrong attitude to have,” Murtha says.

Murtha says a lot of care and consideration was taken with Avatar, making sure the “experience” was still there in 2D just as much as it was in 3D.

“I don’t think people walked away from Avatar saying ‘that was a CG movie’. People walked away and talked more about the experience,” he says.

“That was our goal – it wasn’t to stick things in their face but to…bring the audience in.”

They agree 3D is a thing of the future but not so much in the living room at home.

“From an American perspective, I can’t imagine a Superbowl party where you have 30 adults walking around with glasses on and watching something for 4-5 hours,” Murtha says.

But Leo added people will embrace it if it adds to the experience.

One thing is for certain: the more and more directors learn the technology, the more and more they’ll be in control for the entire feature and therefore, movies and their audiences will benefit.

This is an expanded version of the article that appears in the September issue of INSIDEFILM. For more IF FX, check out this month's edition, which includes articles on Inception, Griff the Invisible and Cops LAC.