Visual-effects masters put the magic in ILM

Fresh off two Oscar nods, Industrial Light & Magic lifts the curtain on the technology that may earn it its first Academy Award in the category it pioneered. Photos: The ILM magic Photos: In the shadow of 'Star Wars'

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--With its two visual-effects Oscar nominations Tuesday, Industrial Light & Magic appears poised to win its first Academy Award in 13 years in the category it pioneered.

And for the two ILM animation specialists nominated for their work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the nods look likely to reward animation work that their peers are applauding as groundbreaking.

In particular, the kudos for visual-effects supervisor John Knoll and animation supervisor Hal Hickel are mostly coming as a result of the work they did animating the Davy Jones character. In fact, the character was entirely computer-animated, a feat that has some in the industry standing back in awe.

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"Davy Jones was 100 percent CGI," said Aaron Muszalski, a former ILM artist who now teaches at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. "True, the animations were derived, at least in part, from the tracked data of the actor's performance, but the resulting imagery was totally synthetic. It's simply amazing, really. John Knoll (and Hickel) really deserve this Oscar."

At ILM on Wednesday, Knoll, Hickel and others gave CNET News.com an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the company's motion-capture facilities and data center. They also discussed the making of Dead Man's Chest; the forthcoming third installment in the franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; and future technologies the company is creating.

One major component of the work on Dead Man's Chest that earned Knoll and Hickel their Oscar nomination was ILM's motion capture technology.

"Even (computer graphics) mavens were fooled into thinking that Davy Jones was (actor) Bill Nighy wearing makeup and rubber tentacles," wrote Animation Magazine in its post-Oscar nominations reviews of the year's best visual effects. "The fact that he's 100 percent digital should send this billion-dollar box office baby all the way to an (Oscar) nomination."

For Hickel, the progression to his most recent Oscar nomination--he was also nominated for his work on 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl--has taken him through the halls of two of the best-known companies in the animation business.

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Video: ILM's brilliant pirate master
John Knoll oversees the gruesome characters and supernatural transformations in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

He started his animation career at Pixar Animation--where he worked on Toy Story, among other films--before ending up at ILM in 1996.

Knoll, on the other hand, has been at ILM since 1986 and has worked on 24 films. But in addition to his high-level work as a visual-effects expert, he also has the distinction of creating--in partnership with his brother--Photoshop in 1987.

The Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest isn't Knoll's first; he has received three others, as well. Like Hickel, he was nominated in 2003 for the first Pirates installment, and was also nominated in 2002 and 1999 for the first two installments in the Star Wars prequels sequence.

Further, he has become known among peers as someone who has a discerning eye for exactly what is needed to fix a shot.

"Instead of saying 'the spaceship doesn't look right there' or 'the spaceship is too far down,' he might say 'raise the screen left spaceship a bit, maybe 30 pixels or so,'" said Muszalski. "And sure enough, you'd go back to your desk, and darken the sky by 18 percent or move the spaceship 30 pixels and it would be exactly right. Like exactly. Uncannily."

Michael Sanders, an ILM digital supervisor who worked on the second movie and is currently working on the third installment, explained that the company's motion capture technology--in which actors wear clothing fitted with sensors that are picked up by special infrared cameras and which produce a digital rendering of an actor's movements--has gone beyond that of its competitors.

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In part, Sanders said that's because ILM has found ways to be more efficient with its technology, getting full motion capture capabilities out of 40 cameras, where other companies use many more.

Down the road, the technology promises to give directors like Gore Verbinski of the Pirates franchise the ability to see, in real time and while they're filming live action, what the animated characters based on actors wearing motion capture suits will look like.

That, Sanders explained, is because ILM's proprietary technology will be able to instantly translate information captured by special cameras through computers and produce animated images based on pre-production work on the characters that directors will be able to see through their lenses.

Sanders said that technology is likely a couple of years away.

The upshot of the rapid pace of technological progression is that ILM is getting presented with more and more advanced challenges for the films it is hired to work on.

"This all leads to directors and scripts that are more aggressive," said Sanders. "They all want to outdo each other. They say, 'pie in the sky,' and we say, 'Yeah, we can do that. In six months.'"