The Highs and Lows of Future Special Effects : Movies: Character-driven stories are dominating due to a recession mentality. But summer releases will pack plenty of visual ingenuity.


Mars needs Arnold. To pass through interplanetary Customs in a scene from last year’s sci-fi blockbuster “Total Recall,” Schwarzenegger’s secret agent, Doug Quaid, is encased in the persona of the Fat Lady.

But the disguise begins to malfunction. An ear ejects from the head, the whole of which, startlingly, opens like a stack of Cubist panels, revealing the hunted Quaid. The head recombines in the air above him and levitates. Our hero lobs the grotesque shell into the agog guards’ hands, whereupon it advises them to expect a surprise--then explodes. Ker-Boooom!

Such humanoid amazements people the film, courtesy of cable- and radio-controlled “replicants” sometimes fitted with computerized lip-syncing. But creature work was only one power at director Paul Verhoeven’s disposal.


The $60-million Carolco release is a meteor shower of pseudo-holograms, computer-graphic skeletons, moving miniatures and artists’ backgrounds. The Motion Picture Academy is honoring “Total Recall” with an Oscar for best visual effects, presenting it in the form of a special achievement award.

The recipients are visual-effects supervisor Eric Brevig of Dream Quest Images, character and creature effects inventor Rob Bottin, Tim McGovern of Metrolight Studios for computer imagery and Dream Quest’s Alex Funke for miniature photography.

“Besides the effects being so varied and visually strong,” says Brevig, now with LucasFilm’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), “we were especially concerned about the subtleties that tell audiences what is real and what isn’t. They come to the theater knowing that everything they’re going to see is fake, and there’s a certain pleasure in discovering the flaws. It’s my job to pull it off seamlessly and make it as fun for them to be fooled as possible.”

Verhoeven hired 250 people to create 200 effects shots for the production over a period of almost two years. Like everything else in the movie, that cost a lot of money. And budgets are an anxious topic in Hollywood right now. The film industry expected better returns on the supposed blockbusters of last summer, while the profits generated by such “intimate” movies as “Home Alone” and “Pretty Woman” have turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“There is a trend right now to cut costs and get back to relationship- and character-driven movies,” observes Renny Harlin, director of big-budget blowout “Die Hard 2.” “Maybe the audience is getting tired of meaningless movies that rely solely on effects.” As producer, Harlin is finishing “Rambling Rose,” a $6-million project.

“There’s likely to be fewer big-ticket movies going into the pipeline,” says Don Shay, editor of Cinefex magazine. “The recession mentality has replaced the blockbuster mentality.”

Special-effects designers say their industry had a slack fall. Dazzler productions were noticeably sparse among Christmas releases, and spring movies are expected to follow suit. “There has been a drastic reduction in what’s coming down the pike,” says Keith Shartle, executive producer at Dream Quest. “There was a rash of scripts that came to us last year that never got produced. I attribute that to the studios’ waiting and analyzing how the summer box office went. It seems that there’s going to be fewer produced for a while.”

But even in the midst of a move away from blockbuster thinking, effects movies are almost obligatory during the warm months. Summer 1991 may shape up as a season of ingenuity, if not pyrotechnics. “Most of the pictures we’re doing won’t make audiences gasp,” says Shartle, “but the effects will make it possible to tell marvelous stories.”

Indeed, the summer pipeline is full of movies that go to great lengths to have their stories told, among them Disney’s “The Rocketeer,” directed by former ILM producer Joe Johnson, and Tri-Star’s time-travel epic “Hudson Hawk.”

These are big, but Carolco’s “Terminator 2,” another Schwarzenegger vehicle, is bigger. Producer-director James Cameron is said to have a personal marketing slogan for the film: “It will mess you up permanently.” Cameron’s “The Abyss” took the Oscar last year for ILM’s groundbreaking computer-generated water pod as well as Dream Quest’s elaborate miniatures and underwater photography; ILM has quadrupled its corps of computer artisans to meet the needs of the script. Negative costs may reach $88 million, according to trade-paper gossip--$15 million for the star and $17 million for the effects.

Most summer projects were in the works long before Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg back-to-basics memo appeared. Executives are tight-lipped about their plans, but even if they have another soft summer, effects movies have built up good credit over the last 15 years. Notwithstanding the new kid on the block, “Home Alone,” eight of the top 10 box-office movies of all time zap viewers with awesome visual fraud. Nine of 11, counting “Ghost.”

“ ‘Ghost’ wasn’t known to be an effects movie, but it had 130 shots,” says Richard Edlund of Boss Films, who oversaw much of the process. “You couldn’t tell that story any other way.” Adds Harlin: “ ‘Ghost’ is a good example of a character-driven movie that recognizes that people still want dreams and illusion.”

“If effects movies go into a down cycle, it won’t be for long,” says B. J. Rack, co-producer of “Terminator 2.” “Special effects are usually part of a huge concept, an idea that transports the audience. There will always be those fantastic stories. ‘Home Alones’ are a wild card. A good special-effects picture always makes some money.”

It may seem that special effects are a relatively new wrinkle in filmmaking, introduced with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” or Lucas’ “Star Wars.” In fact, Hollywood-style illusionism predates the movie business. Magicians were using some of the same strategies--dummies, trick photography, smoke and mirrors--to con wide-eyed audiences in the 19th Century.

“ ‘Star Wars’ was the Renaissance of effects,” says Richard Edlund. “Now we’re in a sophisticated, mature period.” Edlund is busy on “Alien 3” and his own “Solar Crisis,” an ecological drama about a trip to the sun. It exploits innovations in fire-simulating software and new techniques in photomicography--filming through a microscope.

“You don’t have to be making an extravaganza to use effects,” he says. “They simply support your story. Writers have learned to draw freely on what we can do. Effects have become part of the very grammar of film.”