MOVIES : Voyage to the Next Dimension : With the visual effects process Introvision, film makers can transport actors to settings limited only by the imagination
Entrenched in the soft dirt of dense jungle outside Hanoi, a tank and anti-aircraft gun rake the sky with rounds of flak. A low-flying A-6 Intruder, red-ribboned with tracers, drops a bomb. Suddenly, a hot white flash bursts behind the anti-aircraft gun, hurling chunks of earth and jagged shards of metal outward.
Two boys running for their lives along a towering wooden train trestle spanning a deep gorge. A locomotive barrels down on the boys, nipping at their heels, snorting angrily in fire-belly bursts of steam. The trestle is too long, the train too fast. The massive locomotive looms up behind them, about to crush the boys between the steel rails, when they reach the end of the trestle and tumble off the track to safety.
A man strolling in a busy office, navigating his way through a corporate sea of blue blazers and wagging tongues as he talks to us. Without warning, all action in the room freezes into a still photo--except for the man, who continues wandering among the people and furniture, telling us about the advantages of a phone system. He finishes his pitch. The room unfreezes and the action resumes.
The three scenes above have one thing in common--they were all shot inside the same 100-square-foot area of a sound studio. A jungle scene in Paramount Pictures’ war film, “Flight of the Intruder,” the perilous train scene from Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me” and the Clio Award-winning commercial for AT&T; were all accomplished with Introvision, a visual effects process that has been fooling movie and TV audiences for a decade.
The system can transport live-action actors to virtually any setting imaginable and allow them to step inside their surroundings. Actors move around within a three-dimensional, illusory landscape, stepping in front of, around and behind objects that are not really there.
“Basically, the technique lets you create a foreground and a middle ground in front of a background that you’ve already shot,” said director John Milius, who directed the $30-million “Flight of the Intruder,” which opens Friday. “You can shoot miniature explosions and things like that, and then put real people in front of the explosions.”
Director Dick Lowry, whose TV movie “Miracle Landing” last year re-created the midair disaster that ripped the top off Aloha Airlines Flight 243, said: “We had airplane parts, luggage, heavy steel items and metal flying at passengers, and, in fact, they’re weren’t. But visually you look at it on film and you cannot tell.”
Introvision is not in the business of producing mind-blowing, alien-zapping, phosphorescent special effects. Instead, the system relies on sleight of hand to deceptively fool audiences. “There’s no such thing as reality in film,” Introvision owner and president Tom Naud said. “Motion pictures are nothing but a succession of still pictures. Once you understand that, you can unlock all kinds of mysteries.”
Shooting actors in front of a fake backdrop is nothing new. The earliest attempts used the famous “carousel,” which allowed actors to ride dummy horses or cars while the countryside rolled along behind them. What audiences didn’t see was the man just off-screen cranking the large cylindrical painted backdrop that revolved behind the actors. A more effective process was rear projection and front projection. For those, a previously filmed background scene was projected onto a screen and rephotographed with actors standing in front of it.
Introvision distinguishes itself by using a dual front screen projection system that not only places images behind, but in front of the subject as well, allowing the actors to walk around in a three-dimensional space. It was Introvision that shoved the little girl down the slippery glass atop a skyscraper in “Adventures in Babysitting,” dropped Sylvester Stallone from the ceiling of a cave in Israel with a fireball bursting behind him in “Rambo III,” and sent Weird Al Yankovic fleeing from a boulder in an Indiana Jones parody for the film “UHF.”
“Introvision is best used for shots that would otherwise put the actors in a lot of jeopardy,” said film director John Avildsen, who used the process to make Ralph Macchio appear to scale down a precarious cliff in “Karate Kid III.” “I think they’ve built the best mousetrap. Imagination is the only limitation. I think they have their act down so you can do most anything a script calls for.”
Naud claims he can shoot grand-scale scenes for far less money and in less than half the time required for the traditional method of constructing elaborate sets or traveling to exotic locales and mounting full-scale productions. Savings come from not having to build sets at all--a miniature model, a painting or even a still postcard-sized photograph can create a world that actors can step inside and inhabit.
When Lee Iacocca stood before the Statue of Liberty in 1984 in TV spots requesting funds for its reclamation, a congressman reportedly criticized his frivolous waste of time and money. But Iacocca didn’t brave the icy cold of Ellis Island. That job belonged to the Introvision crew who went there to film the background shot.
“I fear nothing, because I know what I’m talking about,” Naud said. “Introvision is the production technique of the future, because we solve the problem. We don’t create Band-Aids to fix it.”
Naud was relaxing, sipping coffee in his office in Introvision’s Hollywood production complex, a network of old converted warehouses. Naud, 64, began his career as a TV reporter in 1952 and later worked as a writer, producer and TV packager. Because of his flamboyant style and evangelical commitment to Introvision, he has been described as both an entertainment pioneer responsible for advancing film technology and an enterprising huckster out for a buck.
Naud is publicly tight-lipped about the origins of his system, but he readily uses flashbacks to explain why he believes Introvision is the future. “In the early days, filmmakers realized that there were many shots they could not make,” he said. “So they created these Band-Aids as a short-term solution to fix the problem. Matte painting composites, optical painting composites, blue screen, rear projection and front projection--those conventional techniques have serviced the industry for decades,” he said, with a sweeping gesture. “But they’re limited.”
One of the staunchest supporters of Introvision is production designer Bill Kenny, who used the process on the big-budget Sylvester Stallone films “Rambo III” and “Lock Up.” “At first, I had a hard time convincing Stallone to use Introvision because he doesn’t like opticals,” Kenny said. " But I told him, ‘Listen, we can do these exotic action films and you’ll never have to leave Hollywood again.” Director Sam Raimi created an illusion that placed two actors, Liam Neeson and Colin Friels, nearly 1,000 feet up a steel skyscraper for the climactic fight sequence of Universal’s $18-million film “Darkman,” a comic-book fantasy that was a sleeper hit last year. In truth, Raimi’s scarred hero and the villain were battling it out among steel girders on the sound stage, with a miniature skyscraper serving as the background shot.
“I look at it as putting actors in a front projection sandwich,” Raimi said, “which is different than the normal front projection system where the actor is always in the foreground of the background (shot). Introvision creates a world that allows the actors to seemingly interact with their artificial surroundings.
“In this case,” Raimi said, “I didn’t have the ability to bring my actors atop an 80-story skyscraper because of the dangers involved and the difficulty in obtaining insurance. Then there was the cost factor. It had to be faked. The question became, what is the best way to fake it?”
Introvision’s work is often so subtle that audiences have no idea they are seeing a visual effect.
In the Academy Award-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” a low-key character drama, a historic home that shows the passage of seasons and years is a crucial transitional device. The exterior of the house was shot on location in Atlanta on a dry day in May. Later, Introvision supplied the seasons, placing the house in rain and a snowstorm.
For Burt Reynolds’ 1989 comedy caper “Breaking In,” director Bill Forsyth needed a simple, three-second shot of an airplane buzzing a house near an airport. He turned to Introvision.
He tried scouting suburbs outside Los Angeles International and other major airports.
“We wanted the house to be virtually on the runway threshold,” Forsyth said. “The airplanes near the real airport were much too high for the impact we wanted. So Introvision came to Portland to the house we were using for interiors, shot the house, shot a plane at the airport and put them together.
“Basically, they helped me get a realness into the movie, rather than an unrealness,” Forsythe said. “I don’t like movies with special effects, and I don’t use them in my movies. You can’t detect Introvision when it’s used properly.”
Hollywood has been slow to warm up to Introvision, despite its technical achievements. The system is something of an orphan in the visual effects community. Most of the industry relies on a conventional process that involves filming actors in front of a blue screen and overlapping those images with background footage shot separately. The blue disappears, creating the illusion that the actors were filmed against that background. The limitation of a straight blue-screen shot is that the actors are always in the foreground.
Naud has alienated many of his contemporaries in the field by hyping his system as the only game in a town that is bursting with new film technologies. He also dismisses the widely used blue-screen method as an inferior technique.
The Introvision owner flatly rejected an Academy Award presented to his company for technical achievement in 1988 because he said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences failed to grasp his unique system and its potential. He bristled at their definition of his work as “a refined application of front projection to film.”
But while Naud promotes Introvision as a revolutionary process, others say such a technique has been around for a long time and that there’s good reason it is still waiting for the revolution. One engineer said that the system is based on a design patented 39 years ago by Will Jenkins and that a process similar to Introvision was created and patented in England by engineer Jan Jacobsen in 1968.
“Introvision is claiming that it’s a wonderful new thing, and it’s an old, old idea,” said Jacobsen, 74, who now lives in Germany.
Visual effects artist John Eppolito claims that he and Les Robley discovered Introvision in the mid-'70s when the two set up shop in a garage on Melrose Avenue and started testing new front-projection designs using a film clip from “The Wizard of Oz.” Eppolito was amazed when a friend of his looked through the lens and saw Eppolito on the yellow brick road, inside the picture, behind Judy Garland.
Eppolito debuted his unnamed process professionally in the late ‘70s in a Super Bowl TV commercial in which a Ford Futura drove around on another planet. Impressed with what he saw, Naud bought the prototype system in 1978 from its shareholders with the exception of a small share that Eppolito says he still holds today. Naud named his new company Introvision and put the process to work with small assignments on the 1980 comedy “First Family,” which featured Bob Newhart, and Disney’s “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” starring Lily Tomlin.
Introvision’s major break, however, came in 1981 with the science-fiction thriller “Outland.” The composite process was used extensively in Sean Connery’s climactic gunfight on the superstructure of the massive space refinery--which was all a model.
For those scenes, Connery was merely climbing a ladder leaning against a blank white wall in Introvision’s Hollywood studio.
“When we started out as the new kid on the block, we had to prove ourselves over and over again,” visual-effects director William Mesa said. “And they were ready to jump on us and kill us for any little mistake. It was difficult. Nobody wanted to take a chance on us because nobody wanted to take the fall if it didn’t work.”
Introvision has come a long way, despite occasional resistance from the film industry. “Our biggest problems are that, one, we can create anything (and) two, we are cost efficient,” Naud said. “And three, we are time efficient. That’s our marketing problem, because the guy who comes in and says he can do anything is a nut. But we’ve been delivering time and again.”
Introvision’s most ambitious project was to have been “Total Recall,” the elaborate science-fiction adventure starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that grossed $100 million-plus last summer. The film was originally set to go into production in Australia with director Bruce Beresford three winters ago. Introvision had done major preparation work on the film and was going to have equipment and a crew on location.
But when producer Dino De Laurentiis’ young studio, DEG, ran into financial problems, the project was halted and the rights were sold to Carolco Pictures, which wanted to do the movie with Schwarzenegger. The new director, “RoboCop’s” Paul Verhoeven, decided not to use Introvision, opting instead for Dream Quest Images, a special-effects company in Simi Valley that uses computer-driven cameras and the conventional blue-screen process.
“I think, generally speaking, that blue screen is better than any kind of projection shot,” Verhoeven said. “It’s more controllable. You don’t have to worry about everything being just perfect on the set. Introvision is good if you know exactly what you want beforehand. If we had gone with Introvision, it would have forced us to have all our elements available at the moment. And we needed the flexibility to change our minds during production.”
Naud insists he told Carolco that “Total Recall” would go at least $20 million over budget if the company went with blue screen. “Total Recall,” budgeted at $40 million, came in at a reported $60 million to $70 million.
“Just before they left for Mexico to shoot ‘Total Recall,’ Carolco asked us if we would work on solving the problems in the movie’s second half because by that time they were aware they were going to have serious problems with blue screen,” Naud said. “Having had a conversation with Mr. Verhoeven, who was very firm on what he thought he knew, we decided to pass. They didn’t pass on Introvision, Introvision passed on them.”
A Carolco spokesperson said that producers at Carolco did meet with Naud before Mexico, “but it was just a cordial meeting. Nothing was definitely proposed.”
Dream Quest’s Erik Brevig, who supervised special effects on “Total Recall,” maintains that blue screen is a more adaptable process. “Introvision did ‘Oh God, You Devil,’ and they did some very tricky stuff showing two George Burns on one screen,” he said. “We did ‘Big Business,’ with Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler each playing themselves and a twin sister. We had a lot of moving camera shots, with all four characters walking around each other and handing things back and forth. You’re freer to do that by filming and then going back frame by frame to add the mattes. If you do that with Introvision, you’re forced to make your trick work live. It’s sort of like the difference between doing stage magic in front of an audience versus trick photography, where you can play with the film and change the final image.”
Naud remains confident, shrugging off Introvision’s doubters. “Introvision is the hottest company in the industry right now,” Naud said. “People come in here and it’s like finding gold on the ground.”
He lists Introvision’s current clients: Universal’s comedy “Welcome to Buzzsaw” starring Matthew Broderick, the romantic thriller “If Looks Could Kill” starring Richard Grieco for Warner Bros., director Raimi’s “Army of Darkness,” director Beresford’s 17th-Century period piece “Black Robe” and Stallone’s futuristic “Isobar.” Introvision is also developing five films of its own.
“Motion-picture producers have action needs that are far beyond the capacity of these Band-Aid visual effects that are being used today,” Naud said. “They try to stretch them, but they don’t stretch. They have limitations that are clearly defined. Introvision is a production technique that, when understood, can create anything you want. Just imagine it.”
HOW INTROVISION WORKS In a scene from the upcoming movie “Flight of the Intruder,” combat footage using a miniature tank and small explosives is shot and developed into Introvision photographic plates (top right). The live actors are then shot inside the empty Introvision sound stage, as if they are in the midst of a battle scene (large photo, above left). This footage is combined inside the camera with the footage using the miniature tank and explosion. The result (bottom right) is a seamless matte that is difficult to discern from a live-action stunt. If you look closely, the actor who was standing on the ladder in the sound stage now appears to be standing inside the tank.