"Special Effects: Titanic and Beyond"
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"I think it will allow the view to experience things he's never experienced before".
"We're synthesizing reality".
Behind the scenes, special effects gurus are breaking the rules and creating a world where anything can happen.
"We have to fake out the entire environment".
"95% right is wrong".
The art of illusion meets the science of perception in "Special Effects, Titanic and Beyond".
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NARRATOR: In 1997, Hollywood rebuilt the doomed ocean liner Titanic. This time, the ship truly is unsinkable. Unsinkable because it isn't really there.
There's an evolution underway in Hollywood. Films are being made not just on a set, but inside the computer. Digital technology has created a new generation of special effects that were not possible just ten years ago. The dinosaurs of The Lost World. The fantasy characters of Flubber. The elaborate space battles of the Star Trek films. The same super computers used to track the Pathfinder Mission on Mars now create digital characters and synthetic environments for the movies.
But no matter how advanced the technology, it's no match for the human eye.
MATT BECK: The art of visual effects is the art of what you can get away with, which means you really have to study a lot about how we perceive the world in order to find out how we can trick our perceptions to make something look real when it isn't.
NARRATIVE:Today's special effects films are made with brand new tools. But the tricks they rely on are timeless. Underlying the art of special effects is the science of how the eye and brain see the world. At the movies it's all a matter of perception.
Cinema itself is a special effect, because the movies don't really move. What we see she is really a series of still photographs flashed so quickly that the eye knits them together into a single moving image.
A hundred years ago with these motion studies, Eadweard Muybridge was one of the first to bring photographs to life. Motion pictures were on their way, and so were special effects. Magic acts and camera tricks gave the new field its start. But soon the effects grew more elaborate.
By 1923, Moses could part the Red Sea for Cecile B. DeMille, because the Red Sea was made of two miniature slabs of Jello. King Kong terrorized New York City from the top of the Empire State Building, even though he was only 18 inches tall. Metropolis put the future of the city on a table top. And even Gone With the Wind made Tara just a little more grand with the help of paintings on glass placed in front of the camera.
None of these effects would be possible were it not for the way we make sense of the visual world. At San Francisco's Exploratorium. V.S. Ramachandran.
RAMACHANDRAN: "People sometimes think of vision as resembling a movie camera where there's a lens and it casts an image on the light sensitive film, which would be analogous to your retina. But in fact, vision is completely different because there's a great deal of active processing in the brain even when you're looking at the simplest visual scene. When you look at the visual scene you see a single picture. In fact, there are many attributes to the scene that is form, or shape. There is color. There is the relative depth or the distances between objects. And then there's the fact that things may be moving or stationary.
It's now becoming more and more obvious that in the brains of primates, including us humans, we have separate parts of the brain specialized for these different attributes.
NARRATOR: Up to 30 different areas of the brain help us to process color, light, form, motion, and depth to create a single picture of the world. In all, one-third of the brain is involved in vision. Fortunately for the special effects film maker, even with all that brain power, our eyes can be fooled.
Director James Cameron is a master of on screen deception. On this Los Angeles sound stage, Cameron is in the process of shooting one small piece of the most expensive movie ever made—Titanic.
Titanic included more than 450 effects shots and won 11 Academy Awards, including best visual effects. In pursuit of historical accuracy for Titanic, Cameron went to great lengths and depths.
CAMERON: This film started in its inception with a trip to the real Titanic. And everything after that had to come up to that level—had to come up to that level of realism and dedication and passion.
You go through this little tiny hatch and you get into this thing, and they bolt it closed and you're down for anywhere from 12 to—our longest dive was 17 1/2 hours. And you're freezing and you're cramped in this little tiny space and you're looking out through a little plexiglass window. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life.
But the fact that we were able to come back with this quite a rich harvest of film images and video images from inside the ship—and we literally saw things that no one has seen since 1912, since that ship went down. We went inside and explored the inside. So then we integrated that into the fabric of the film that we're making.
NARRATOR: But even James Cameron couldn't afford the real Titanic. Instead, he built a series of models, including one of the biggest in movie history. It sits in a specially designed pool on a beach in Mexico. At over 700 feet long, it's a 90% scale model of the real thing, and every detail is accurate. Every detail that will appear on screen.
But the big ship can't sail. This smaller 45-foot model is needed for shots that show Titanic at sea. It will hold more than 40,000 rivets on the hull. This attention to detail is what makes the model convincing once it's painted.
All of the effects in Titanic are designed so they won't be noticed at all.
LEGATO: "The goal now in these particular types of films, like Titanic, is that you don't really want to be seen as an effect because it pulls you out of the movie. It's well, that was a fake shot or a trick. So you don't believe the scene that is taking place. And now, in particular, because we have the ability to do it, you can do things that look quite seamless and create a shot that would (a) be too expensive to get, or take too much time, or just be physically impossible, couldn't get a camera where a camera wants to go, that sort of thing. So the idea that you could do a shot and do it with such subtlety that the audience is not aware that a trick was done will make you believe the story more, and that's ultimately the goal. And especially in films like these where you don't want to show the spectacle of a special effect. You want to show the effect of the grand boat at sea".
NARRATOR: The Battle of Manila Bay in 1899 showed some of the first miniature ships on screen. Many years later, film makers Albert Smith and J. Stuart Blackton gave up the secret of their success.
By 1953, the models had grown much larger. This Titanic went down in the frigid back lot waters of 20th Century Fox. But how do any of these miniatures succeed in making us believe they are real? These two ships appear to be different sizes until one ship is moved up and a line is added to suggest the horizon. This creates the illusion of depth. And now the ship on the right appears not smaller but farther away. Details like water, sky, and atmospheric haze complete the picture of two ocean liners at sea.
But judging the size of an object also depends on what we see around it. With a little more information it's a whole new picture. It's this dependence on context that allows miniatures to appear full size on screen. These football size submarines grow before our eyes when the surroundings are changed.
Some scenes in Titanic call for the life-sized actors to appear on the 45-foot miniature ship. This effect will be accomplished with the help of a photographic trick. The railing and background surroundings are painted in a uniform color. In this case, green. First, the film is developed showing the actors against the green screen background. Next, the green color is removed. The actor's outline is made into a silhouette. That silhouette is fit onto the shot of the model ship to make a custom-sized window for the image of the actors to slip into place.
Today's shot features Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Nucci. It's the director's job to help the actors imagine that their studio set is really Titanic at sea.
CAMERON: "I think that the director has to be really on his game when you're dealing with effects because you've got to keep it alive for the actors. And sometimes the actors will be playing to a green screen, or they'll be in a situation that is so unreal for them compared to what it would really have been like. On this film what we've tried to do is put the actors in a real setting first before we do the effects so they have some contact with the scene. So they've really been up 50 feet in the air on the bow of the ship in a strong wind next to the ocean being able to look out and see the ocean horizon; they feel like they've been on the ship. Now we put them in this green screen rig, they can recreate that through—since memory, or whatever their process is, they know what they're doing.
NARRATOR: Just before filming the actors notice a problem with the railing. It feels too low. If this detail is wrong the effect will be ruined. Removing the small platforms should bring the actors to the correct height. But Cameron wants to check it against a scene shot on the big ship weeks before. With the platforms removed, the team is confident they've got it right. Special effects shot 31 is ready to roll.
That takes care of the actors. Now to make the model ship appear to move. It sits stock still while a motion control camera sweeps across it from bow to stern. On screen, without anything to compare it to, our eyes can't tell whether the camera is moving or the ship is. The elements of the shot are now ready to be combined. Actors on the railing. Model ship. Computer generated water. And nine more seconds of Titanic are complete.
Titanic represents the state-of-the-art in special effects. But the basic principles haven't changed in a hundred years. Mechanical effects are tricks staged for the camera, like the revolving background in this Mack Sennet comedy—an early parody of movie making. Airplane engines mounted on automobiles created a cyclone for Steamboat Bill, Jr. Buster Keaton did the rest on his own.
For the silent comedy, "The Playhouse", Keaton used visual effects combining two or more elements separately to construct a completely new image. When visual and mechanical effects are used in the same shot almost anything is possible.
A specially built 35-foot muslin stocking played the twister in The Wizard Of Oz. It was combined on film with the flying farmhouse—only 3 feet high. We're led to assume that the house is full- size because—well, because houses are big.
RAMACHANDRAN: "In interpreting the visual image the brain has to resolve ambiguities. And in doing so it uses all sorts of assumptions, built in assumptions about the world. And because it uses all these assumptions which we can investigate in the laboratory and discover, you can also trick the visual system. And this is what you call a visual illusion.
This is the Ames Room. It's a grotesquely deformed trapezoidal room. But the astonishing thing is, if you look inside the room the room will look completely normal and the walls look parallel and everything seems fine. The reason is that the brain has a built-in assumption of rooms are usually parallel. This is something we've grown up with all our lives, and this assumption is so strong that it completely overrides the fact that people are actually changing sizes, even though in the real world, obviously, people don't change sizes like balloons. Here you're willing to see that because the assumption of parallel walls is much stronger.
Now people generally think of visual illusions as curiosities which are used to titillate the senses. But in fact, they're much more than that. They're illustrating very important principles underlying the functional organization of the visual system".
NARRATOR: But while the scientists may look to special effects to see the mind at work, the film maker is concerned with holding the audience. And when it comes to attention-getters there's nothing like an explosion.
There's more to on-screen explosions than just blowing up things. Much of this vintage destruction was created using miniature sets and miniature explosions. It's a technique still in use today.
This office building already shows signs of destruction long before the explosives are put in place. The 22-foot model will appear to be a 172 foot skyscraper in the movie "The X-Files".
In the pre-dawn darkness, the final countdown has begun for this special effects crew. For months they have been planning a carefully choreographed explosion to create an illusion of mass destruction. As shown in the crew's test footage, the billowing fireball will rush at the camera. In the next shot, FBI agents Scully and Mulder arrive at the scene and survey the damage.
Here's how that shot looked when it was filmed with actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in downtown Los Angeles in front of a real building. The green screen will make it possible to place the actors in front of the model after the explosion takes place.
HUNTER: "We'll be intercutting from the live action to our model almost directly, so we have to make sure that we maintain a direct match. The number of windows, the louvers, the color tone, etcetera. But, because our model depicts the building blown up, or post destruction as we like to call it, we've put a lot of detail on calendars, desks, chairs—all sorts of small details were produced in 1/8th scale, which is the scale of the model to help us sell the idea that this is the fully decked out office building that now has been blown up.
It's built into sections sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, and it all interlocks together. And on the backside are a series of charges that will separate the model into pieces. And what they're doing now is they're filling the cracks so that as the pieces come apart we're putting in a little dust and debris. So the cracking will send a little cloud of debris up and enhance the effect a little bit".
NARRATOR: Mat Beck is the visual effects supervisor on the X-Files. He's responsible for seeing that all these tricks add up to a realistic looking shot.
MAT BECK: "We're synthesizing reality, which means that once you take responsibility for making it up you've got to make it all consistent. So the sun has to be in the right place, and the camera has to be in the right place, and the speed has to be right, and the smoke has to move in the right direction all to tie in with what was shot before. So there's a lot of little stuff to worry about because 95% right is wrong".
NARRATOR: For the effect to be convincing, the patterns of light and shadow on the model must be the same as they were on the real building.
MAT: "The original shot was shot around four o'clock in the afternoon on a building in downtown L.A., and the sun was lighting its left side but not hitting its front. So we came out here with a bunch of computers figuring out—this was a month ago—figuring out where the sun would be this morning at 7:30 and oriented the building appropriately so that it would be lit the same way. So, fortunately the computers were right because it would have been a real drag if the sun were in the wrong spot; it's really hard to move that thing".
NARRATOR: Sunlight and shadow are important factors in the way the eye and brain interpret the visual scene. Since the sun casts its light overhead, objects are normally lit from above. So if an object in the field casts a shadow in the wrong direction, our brain immediately senses that something is amiss. The job of blowing the model up, or making the model appear to blow up, belongs to the pyrotechnicians.
O'CONNOR: "People tend to think that you're just demolishing things, or destroying things, blowing things up. And frequently, we're creating the illusion that we're destroying things, especially in miniature because we can't just blow them to bits. And even with full scale special effects everything is generally completely pre-engineered so that the explosions are there as a visual effect and you're not doing that much physical damage. You may be cutting specific pieces, but particularly in miniature you're working with an illusion and it has to look bit.
In order to create the illusion of one large explosion, we'll use many, many charges. And in this particular case we're going to build it out of a series of seven charges all tied together. Those go in the first quarter second, so it should appear as one solid fireball rising, but we'll actually be looking at about seven charges all tied together, then followed by two more quick ones".
NARRATOR: The explosion will take just a few seconds, but it will be filmed in slow motion. Another trick to make the model and the explosion appear bigger than they are.
MAT BECK: "This is miniature, and that building is supposed to be about 170 feet tall and is really only about 22 feet tall. And if the fireball really were 170 feet tall it would move at a certain speed. But because it's much smaller everything happens faster. So we slow it down and we make it look bigger".
NARRATOR: All that work for an explosion that on the set doesn't look all that impressive. But what matters is how it looks on screen.
Slowed down and filmed from two different angles, the small onset effect is on its way to becoming a lethal explosion.
The next step is to fit it into the rest of the film and make it look like it belongs there. The explosion filmed on the set is combined with the scenes filmed on the street. This shot is trimmed. And a foreground building is added for a finishing touch. In the completed film, it's hard to tell what's real and what's not.
MAT BECK: "An audience sitting in the movie theater, they may not know anything about visual effects but they'll look at a shot and they'll say that looks phony. And they may not know why, but their eyes are telling them something is wrong".
NARRATOR: The art of getting it right is so difficult that over the years there have been only a handful of special effects masters. For example, puppet maker Marcel Delgado built several elaborate creatures for Willis O'Brien's King Kong. O'Brien filmed and moved each puppet one frame at a time for 55 weeks straight before his masterpiece was complete.
Ray Harryhausen refined O'Brien's stop-motion technique in more than 20 fantasy films. From Earth Versus the Flying Saucers to Clash of the Titans, an amazing feat given that he could often film no more than one shot in a day.
The special effects wizard behind The Wizard of Oz was Arnold "Buddy" Gillespie. Gillespie's career would span 40 years and 130 films.
For this scene from Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, Gillespie used the visual trick of rear screen projection. With the bi-plane projected behind him Cary Grant was safe in the studio.
This dream sequence by Linwood Dunn from the 1942 film Cat People was an early demonstration of the multiple imaging technique called "Compositing".
Dunn's work on classics from Citizen Kane to the original Star Trek series on television made his innovation the optical printer the visual effects tool of choice for 60 years. But in recent years, the special effects industry has turned from printers, projection, and puppets to embrace a completely new tool—the computer.
In one generation, the craft of special effects has been utterly transformed. This is Siggraph—a convention held once a year for the global computer graphics industry. Companies now vie for the attention of Hollywood with the latest technology. But twenty years ago, only a few computer scientists were interested in using the computer to make pictures.
JIM BLINN: "In the early days, there were only about a hundred of us who knew or cared what computers could do with pictures. What's happened over the years is that the price of computer technology has gone way down; the amount of memory has gone way up. And so it got to the threshold where it now becomes interesting to a lot of people in a lot of industries, like the special effects industry. So now everybody is getting into the act".
NARRATOR: Originally, computer graphics was a tool for scientists and engineers. Pioneers like Ed Catmull, then a graduate student at the University of Utah, dreamed of using the new medium to make movies. Catmull's first project was to animate his own hand. State of the art in 1972.
Several software breakthroughs later, Catmull led the technical team that created Toy Story, the first complete film to be made from the digital bits and bytes of computer code.
CATMULL: "I thought it would take about ten years before we could get to the point where we could do a feature film. I was just off by a factor of two. It took twenty years instead of ten. But the problems that we felt we had to face we did correctly identify up front. They weren't just technological problems. There were also problems of how do we work with artists, and there were economical problems. And if you ignore the economics or the relationships then you might have these interesting technological solutions, but they are of no use.
The watershed year was 1991. Terminator 2 came out, which made extensive use of computer graphics. When Jurassic Park came out and was successful, the computer fundamentally and the very foundations changed the way everything was done in Hollywood".
NARRATOR: Fantasy is one thing, but Jurassic Park showed that computers could create living creatures—dinosaurs that seemed real. To make this scene, live action shots are combined with dinosaurs that exist only in the computer. Finally, there is a tool to match the film maker's imagination.
MUREN: "You had eighty years of moving puppets around with constraints on them that didn't allow us to fulfill a vision. The physical world was very difficult to manipulate around to make these images. And now, with computer graphics you can do just about anything you can imagine".
NARRATOR: Jurassic Park included a number of special effects first, including this digital facelift.
MUREN: "We were setting the shot up and we were doing it with the stunt girl. And I said to Stephen, You know we could do a face replacement on here because we can shoot a scene with the girl. The actress safely harnessed there. And then the stunt girl falling down. If we just have the girl's face showing briefly. So we shot it that way with the stunt girl falling down, raises her face up, puts her face down, and so she's looking right in the camera when she looks up. Then we got the real actress and just harnessed her there and had her raise her face up and down real quickly, and just did a little cut and paste, like you do on a word processor or on a computer. But we're doing it with images".
NARRATOR: And in this scene it looks like the dinosaur eats actor Martin Ferrero. When in fact, the dinosaur is digital and the actor is replaced by a computerized stunt double—right here.
MUREN: "I think the technology really peaked—or had the "shock in the new" we call it, about four years ago with Jurassic Park and T-2. Right around that time there were new things people had never seen. Now we're really into a refining. The work is getting better, but we're really learning how to use the tool now to create performances. Not just to create objects that move around, or dinosaurs that move, or whatever, but to create things with much more character than we were doing before. So it's like the Stradivarius was just invented—now we're learning how to play it".
NARRATOR: They get plenty of practice since virtually every big Hollywood movie includes computer effects, like Flubber starring Robin Williams. Flubber is based on the Disney classic The Absentminded Professor featuring Fred McMurray and his flying Model-T.
In 1961, the car was made to fly by setting it on a mechanical rig in the studio. Now, the machinery is more elaborate but the technique is basically the same. In the original film, Flubber, the anti-gravity goo created by the professor, was hand drawn frame by frame. For closeups a rubbery prop was used.
In the new film, Flubber is a computer generated character that changes shape on a whim. At ILM, the company that began with Star Wars and created the digital dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, Flubber is a different sort of challenge.
BERTINO: "The first thing we had to do was determine just what Flubber is and exactly what the physical properties were supposed to be—how much bounce, how much squash and stretch, how much splash. And we found ourselves doing a lot of research with actual products on the market that had certain types of viscosity and studying them and how they reacted to various kinds of punishment".
NARRATOR: The art department made preliminary sketches of Flubber in different poses. From there, Flubber entered the virtual world of the computer. Every computer character begins with a wire frame representation. From this digital base the surface qualities are added in a process called "texture mapping". Usually, the animators create a skeleton inside the wire frame. This one is from Jurassic Park. The virtual bones help hold the computer character's shape when it moves.
But Flubber needed flexibility. A new plan was called for.
ALEXY: "We set our structure more along the lines. Instead of like a rigid bone, we set it more along the lines of our spine—our human spine, which is flexible and can move and rotate in almost all directions. And that seemed to be the most flexible way that we can get Flubber to act. See how it stretches and squashes and all that? That gives us much more control. And you couldn't get that kind of fine control out of a skeleton".
NARRATOR: Once the technique was in place the team set about to create a fantasy sequence of Flubber dancing the Mambo. This living room parquet will become Flubber's dance floor. The walnuts are standing in for the digital star during filming of what's called the live action background plate.
KARPMAN: "The animation is timed to music and it's very precise. And this Flubber has to replicate at certain frame ranges. And the move is a very difficult move. And lighting is the biggest challenge and trying to not have the camera shadow all over the place because our lens is resting right on the floor. So it's like, What were we thinking when we designed this shot? I don't know. But we'll get it. We'll get it".
NARRATOR: This is what the camera sees when the background plate is complete. Now the trick is to re-create this scene inside the computer.
KARPMAN: "When you shoot something with a real lens, you have four walls and a floor, and we want to re- create that move exactly in the computer. Because if we have to do computer animation and it's supposed to marry into the real life set that we shot, we have to get a computer camera to totally mimic the camera that was on the real life set. So here's our background plate. Here is a wire frame model; you see that we have each die lined up. There's also the table leg, and then the couch isn't represented with the model. Here's the two pictures married. The wire frame over the background. And if you notice the floor planes line up. That's a big thing for us to get—the floor planes, and some geometry over in the corner. And once the match move is done and it matches the plate perfectly then we hand that scene file over to the animator. And now he has a complete correct world in which to animate to".
ALEXY: "We did this little cheat where instead of actually having the one Flubber replicate and just sort of toss off from each other, we actually hid them underneath the floor. So, as soon as one Flubber actually landed the one that was supposed to come up next actually rose up from the floor and took off. And we basically get this nice little wire frame".
NARRATOR: Flubber was shaping up so the team started testing colors, including purple, orange and pink. But green proved the most eye catching—if it could be properly lit.
KARPMAN: "That wire frame is a surface. We have to light that surface just like you would light this in a real world. But we not only have to be able to have a rim light, we have to have the surface see through to what's behind it. So it's much more tricky. We call that refraction. So there's refraction, and that's what you see through the object. Like this, you can see through to me. And this you can see through to me. And you have reflection. So we have to fake out the entire environment. We've got to make sure that it refracts the floor, it refracts other Flubbers, and it also has to reflect the environment of the room. It's got to reflect the floor, reflect the walls, and reflect the lights. We do all sorts of things to that surface and it's all controlled by math. I mean, all those little X, Y's, and Z's that you had in school—Oh my gosh, suddenly they all apply".
NARRATOR: After months of work and the hundreds of hours it takes the computer to translate all the math to images on film, Flubber is finally ready to Mambo.
KARPMAN: "I'm amazingly pleased with the result, and I'm very happy we totally went for it".
NARRATOR: On location in Mexico, the crowds waving from Titanic are real. Or are they? Even for a $200 million dollar production, it isn't practical to use extras all the time. At Digital Domain, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato has asked a team of animators to create computer generated extras. Because they will be seen in long shot the digital extras will not require much detail. But the way they move will be critical. Detecting true biological movement is one of our sophisticated visual skills.
RAMACHANDRAN: "The brain is very good at extracting regularities from nature. And one of the most striking examples of this is our uncanny ability to extract biological motion, an ability to perceive biological motion. And a striking way of demonstrating this is to simply put spots of light—LEDs or luminous spots of light—on a person's joints and ask the person to walk in a completely dark room. If he is standing still all you see is a bunch of spots. But as soon as he starts walking he comes to life. And suddenly you see all the spots moving and the brain extracts the regularities, and using the information about relative movement it correctly deduces this must be a human being is walking. And this ability we think is probably acquired in early childhood, but it could equally well be innate".
NARRTOR: Our skill at detecting the person within the lights can be turned to the film maker's advantage. A technique called "performance capture", first developed for medical research, is now a regular feature of computer generated effects ranging from computer games, to movies like Titanic.
BUSTANOBY: "The nature of these characters, they have to be human beings. They have to look like they're alive, they're in the shot, they actually exist. And that's a very tall order to make it look real.
End This SideBUSTANOBY: "So really, the only tool that made sense was to use performance capture and the technology that goes along with that. We typically will have the performer wear a lycra suit, a black suit, with velcro on it. And we'll then attach what we call markers. They're basically a little smaller than ping-pong balls, but they reflect light back to the camera's arrayed around the performance area. Markers are on the joints—the elbow, the wrist, knees, and ankle. And the computer can then assemble all these pictures together from each camera and triangulate the position of the joint.
NARRATOR: The performer's movements are faithfully carried into the digital realm. Even in this primitive state the movement is recognizably human.
BUSTANOBY: "What we're doing now is we're taking the marker positions and we're going to connect them obviously by—the hip bone is connected to the knee bone, and the shoulder bone to the elbow, etcetera. What that does is start to define a skeleton. Every character that we do we have an internal skeletel structure which then gets wrapped in the digital skin. And this is really the start of that process".
NARRATOR: With the real human movement as a base, the animators can go through their normal process of building a wire frame figure, which is then lit and shaded to create a digital extra. In the finished film, fewer than twenty actorws performed the movements for the hundreds of digital extras like these that pass by without notice. This enlargement allows a closer look at the computer generated cast. And the actors aren't the only computer effect. Here, the smoke, the water, even the flag on the back of the ship were created inside the computer.
Titanic is one of the most successful films of all time. A milestone in the history of special effects. And perhaps a sign of things to come. The dream of an artificial human is the stuff of science fiction. This special effect was featured in Fritz Lans' Metropolis. But with digital extras commonplace, the race is on for a synthetic actor—a special effect so realistic that it could pass for a real human being.
MORRIS: "There are a lot of computer graphic artists who see the creation of a human character as their holy grail. And a lot of people have focused a lot of time and energy on creating that. And I do think it will happen. It has happened in lesser forms already".
NARRATOR: An early example was James Cameron's Terminator-2. Here, the digital villain morfs into real actor Robert Patrick. This computerized skeleton is built from the unmistakable movements of Michael Jackson. But how close is the computer generated actor to reality?
ROSS: Back a couple of years ago, I said that yes you can have synthetic actors as long as they were bald and they were naked, because hair and clothing are very, very difficult. Well, in that period of time, we have been able to deal with clothing. We still have not, however, been able to deal with hair in a photo realistic way. There have been attempts at it, whether it was Jumangi and with us on the Island of Dr. Moreau. But the attempts have not really lived up to having a full head of hair and all of the refraction and reflection that takes place with wind blowing through it, and it's not there yet.
NARRATOR: This Star Trek computer game is one step on the way to a synthetic cinema. Every frame, including the actors, built inside the computer. Clearly, there's a long way to go, and reality remains an illusive goal.
ROSS: "I think we'll see a continued growth in character animation, various types of synthetic characters, various types of digital locations, digital props, digital set pieces, and it will become much more a part of just a standard vocabulary of cinema.
MCKENNA: We will be able to duplicate reality so that we don't have to go all over the world. I think that it will be a tool that will allow the view to be able to experience things he's never experienced before".
KLEISER: "Twenty years! I don't know what they'll be like in two years really. It's moving so fast and the capabilities are so astounding that we're bending our brains just to come up with next year's ideas. That's way to far for me to even think about".
NARRATOR: Dramatic story telling and a growing mastery of film technology has driven the movie industry for a hundred years. And yet, regardless of the technology, the movies will always depend on the human special effect of visual perception.
RAMACHANDRAN: "Of course, I am delighted that this illusion exists because I love going to the movies".
SPONSOR: So, you want to be in Fixels? It takes a lot more than fancy computers. Meet the wizards of special effects on NOVA's Web site.
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SPONSOR: And, to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos.
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Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation dedicated to education and quality television.
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A child sacrifice. A frozen maiden. The famed Ice-Man. Unearth the truth. Ice Mummies—a NOVA mini series coming soon.
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