Thanks to the digital revolution, Hollywood filmmakers are getting more bang for their buck – literally.
Creating the kinds of on-screen explosions, gunfights and animation moviegoers have come to expect from Hollywood is becoming drastically less expensive, as the industry adopts powerful new software that can deliver more spectacular effects to audiences at a fraction of what they cost even a decade ago.
Experts say the technology behind consumer products such as the smartphone is helping to drive the change. Independent directors, small studios and even film students are gaining access to high-quality software that allows them to create massive tsunami waves, fiery explosions, terrifying zombies and other stunning visual effects straight from their laptops.
The Financialist spoke to industry experts and filmmakers, who told us where the biggest changes are happening in the wild world of visual effects and how this digital leap is creating on-screen excitement at a much lower cost.
For years, lighting was one of the most difficult and expensive visual effects to bring out on the big screen. Now, filmmakers no longer have to wait until the light is just right to film the perfect scene, but rather can make extensive adjustments in post-production after a movie is filmed. Programs like Katana, a much buzzed-about lighting software developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks, has been used to create lighting effects in movies such as “Spider-Man.”
“It allows you to light an image and adjust where you place the lights in the scene rapidly,” Randy Lake, the general studio manager of Sony Pictures Imageworks, tells The Financialist. “It’s almost like you’re on set.”
Here, Sony Pictures Imageworks Chief Technology Officer and Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Bredow and others show how a lighting software called Katana can bring images to life.
Nature and the Elements
Industry insiders say sophisticated software that mimics nature saves studios tens of thousands of dollars on scores of projects that otherwise would have had to be filmed on location.
“The way that hair grows; the way that cloth blows in the wind – there’s a lot of subtlety with nature, so replicating things like hair, fur, fire or the way moss grows on a tree is one of the hardest things you can do,” says Rob Powers, president of special effects software developer LightWave3D.
LightWave’s unique imagery software has been used to create visual effects on the AMC series, “The Walking Dead,” 2012’s “Skyfall,” and dozens of other high-profile projects.
This short clip of a spider scuttling across the screen shows just how lifelike some of LightWave’s images can be.
On YouTube, filmmakers show off how they use digital effects to give a scene more texture. Here, one such video offers a before-and-after look at just how much colder a scene can appear once the actor’s breath is visible – even if that air puff is a visual effect created after filming.
Some experts say the days of creating on-set explosions may be coming to an end.
“If you do explosions as a special effect on set, the cost is the same as it’s always been because you have to actually blow something up,” Danny Mooney, the co-president of Deep Blue Pictures production company, told The Financialist. “There are union rules, and it gets expensive very quickly.”
“But if you’re doing visual effects in post-production, it is way more accessible to do explosions that look incredible, and a normal viewer would never be able to tell that it’s not real. It’s become pretty sophisticated.”
This video from LightWave gives a behind-the-scenes look at what animators see as they create explosion effects. LightWave’s Bullet Dynamics system, the company says, allows moviemakers to “easily, and very quickly explode any of your models.”
“It used to be that if you wanted to create a sophisticated visual effect, you had to invest in a large infrastructure,” said Maurice Patel, a senior entertainment industry manager at Autodesk, which produces the popular Maya animation software used in films such as the Harry Potter series.
“You needed very powerful computers and vast amounts of storage,” Patel said. “In the early 1990s, 2 gigabytes of space would cost you $20,000. Now an iPhone has more than that. Think about that.”
THE FOLLOWING VIDEO IS ONLY AN ANIMATION. Film students at Centre NAD in Montreal created the dramatic scene through purely digital means for a 3D Animation and Digital Design class.