Jim Carrey, the loose-limbed, rubber-faced star of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” is, quite decidedly, a physical comic. But even Carrey might have trouble pulling off gags that call for his skin to turn green, his eyes to rocket out of their sockets and his tongue to unscroll atop a nightclub table.
Of course, with a little help from the physics-defying computer animation department at Industrial Light & Magic, Carrey can, and will, do anything for a laugh.
In “The Mask,” which opens Friday, Carrey’s contortive brand of slapstick and ILM’s high-tech computer effects have been combined to create an explosive blend of comedy and fantasy. Made for less than $20 million, the New Line production ranks as a modest film against pricier competition at the summer box office. But in using cutting-edge computer animation to make the very human Carrey as squashable and stretchable as any “Looney Tunes” favorite, “The Mask” aims to offer some of the summer’s most striking movie moments.
“Jim Carrey is an elastic man to begin with,” says director Chuck Russell. “And now, I think he’s proud to have achieved a personal career goal by becoming a living cartoon.”
The comic stars as Stanley Ipkiss, a helpless, hapless bank teller whose days are a disheartening series of humiliations. When Ipkiss gains possession of the ancient cursed mask of the title, he discovers that by donning it, he is transformed into a green-headed, zoot-suited, wisecracking phantom. The film also features newcomer Cameron Diaz as Stanley’s love interest, comic Richard Jeni as his best buddy, Peter Greene as an ultra-creepy villain and Peter Riegert as a continually befuddled police detective.
To achieve the mind-bending sequences, effects supervisors from ILM were on the set throughout the shoot to advise Russell and monitor Carrey’s action. When live-action shots were completed, they were sent to the ILM headquarters in San Rafael, north of San Francisco. There, the same computers that were used to create the true-to-life dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” were used to re-create the kinds of cartoon gags made famous in the ‘30s and ‘40s by pioneering “Looney Tunes” directors Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.
Taking a quick break from his increasingly busy work schedule, Carrey still hadn’t seen the finished cut of the film, but he says he can’t wait to see how ILM has enhanced his antics.
“This was a really fun character for me. I’ve been describing him as ‘Fred Astaire on acid.’ It’s going to be really odd and really interesting to see what I’m doing in the finished film. But, frankly,” he says with a laugh, “I don’t think I’ll see myself doing anything I haven’t imagined myself doing before.”
If that’s the case, then Carrey has a formidable imagination. When Stanley turns into the Mask, he can spin himself into a tornado, pull a barrack’s worth of armaments out of his pocket or sprout a wolf’s head in order to whistle at the object of his desire. And though the Mask character tends to make things difficult for evildoers, he’s no white-knight crime-fighter. To avoid being captured, he can use his compelling singing voice to turn a battalion of cops into a frenzied conga line.
The computer crew at ILM couldn’t have been happier with the work. While the T. rex and velociraptors of “Jurassic Park” were groundbreaking, technical tours de force, the actual animation work was often grueling. The freewheeling spirit of “The Mask” offered the high-tech cartoon-lovers at ILM a chance to get back to their animation roots.
“This was loose,” says visual effects producer Clint Goldman. “We could go crazy. The craziest we could get in ‘Jurassic’ was when we had the T. rex chomping on the lawyer. That was fun. But ‘crazy’ on ‘The Mask’ meant multiplying Jim Carrey’s head by three and giving him four-foot bulging eyeballs. That was a lot more fun.”
“After ‘Jurassic,’ I was almost ready to pack it in,” says director of animation Steve Williams, a six-year veteran of the ILM computer graphics department. “But ‘The Mask’ was completely refreshing.
“What we could do with the dinosaurs was limited by the laws of the natural world, but ‘The Mask’ was textbook cartooning. We got really excited watching the dailies. It was a lot more fun spending a year watching Jim than it was spending two years seeing how accurately we could make the butt of a giant reptile jiggle.”
Carrey was equally excited about working with ILM and says he felt he was among kindred spirits the first time he met Goldman, Williams and their staff:
“I’ve always loved Tex Avery stuff. I went up to ILM before we started shooting to see what they had in mind, and I found these guys sitting around, watching cartoons like a bunch of children--just giggling and pointing. It was amazing. I said, ‘God, thank you for putting me where I belong.’ ”
“The Mask” is loosely based on a comic book of the same title developed by Dark Horse comics in the early ‘80s. The title character was originally conceived as a slightly less malevolent takeoff on Batman’s perennial nemesis the Joker, and the stories in the comic books were often quite dark. New Line bought the film rights to the comic book and, after a couple of years of unsuccessful development, approached Russell about signing on to the project. The director was grabbed by the basic theme of the tale but wanted to make a film with a much lighter tone.
“I loved the idea of this mysterious mask that completely transforms whoever puts it on,” he says. “But I wanted to set the story in a more colorful world. I wanted to create the tone of the old musical comedies, because I saw the Mask as a very musical character. He’s a little hallucinogenic, and a little 3-D, but there’s a musical-comedy energy to everything that he does.”
As director of “Nightmare on Elm Street III” and the remake of “The Blob,” Russell had experience evoking chills from his audiences, but comedy has never been far from his mind--this is the man who had Freddy Krueger erupt out of Dick Cavett and attack Zsa Zsa Gabor. He also produced the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School” early in his career, and it was in planning that film that he discovered the charms of a young comic named Jim Carrey.
“I’d seen his stand-up work and thought he was phenomenal,” Russell says. “I kept wondering why nobody had used him in movies yet. I wanted to use a comedian for a part in ‘Back to School,’ but it was the part of a college professor and Jim was too young to play that. We ended up using Sam Kinison. When I started scripting ‘The Mask,’ I had Jim in mind even before I knew whether I could get him or not. When he read the first draft I worked on, he said, ‘It looks like it’s written for me.’ I said, ‘You’re absolutely correct.’ We were in sync from then on.”
Carrey’s only worry about the project was that the heavy effects might crimp his comedy. In all of his scenes as the Mask, he needed to wear a prosthetic head designed by makeup effects artist Greg Cannom. And because most of his shtick would have a computer-generated payoff, any comic improvisations on the set would have to be tailored to ILM’s capabilities. But he discovered that Russell and ILM were equally prepared to let him run wild.
“My main concern was about having a little freedom,” Carrey explains, “especially since I was coming from ‘Ace Ventura,’ where I got to cut loose. That’s the best method for me--I like to spew and go out on wild tangents and let the director guide me as to the appropriateness of something. Chuck had my scenes pretty well worked out, but after the first week of shooting, things changed completely. New Line was getting dailies that weren’t on any page of the script. They put a little pressure on Chuck at first, but then they started liking the new stuff even better than the stuff that had been planned.”
“When the makeup and the costume came on, he really did become the Mask,” Russell recalls with a laugh. “I think he even surprised himself sometimes with what he came up with. . . . I never had to pump Jim Carrey up, although I will admit to feeding him a few extra cappuccinos at the right time of night.”
The director was happy to discover that his computer animators could ad-lib just as well as his star
“One day we decided that in a nightclub scene, the Mask should offer his love interest a cigarette and blow her a heart-shaped smoke ring--sort of a Pepe le Pew maneuver,” Russell says. “We came up with that on the set, Jim did his part, and then ILM went ahead and ran with it. Both of their talents came together to create this nice, off-the-cuff comic moment.”
As images and action sequences were created by the animators and sent to the director for approval, a unique language was created.
“ILM and I now know the difference between a zip and a zing , Russell says. “It got that specific. And we were often getting into these very serious discussions about which scenes in the movie needed extra ‘face wobble.’ ”
Throughout the shoot, the biggest problem that Russell and ILM encountered was not in matching the animation to Carrey’s movements but in making sure that the animation hit the right lighthearted, comic tone. They discovered that when some cartoon gags were applied to a human in photo-real fashion, the effect could be horrific rather than comedic. That was particularly true of the transformation scenes.
“In the shots where the mask is going on Jim’s head or coming off it, there’s a lot of interaction between this thing that’s totally synthetic and computer-generated and his real skin,” says visual effects producer Goldman. “For that to look natural, and have a sense of fun to it and be scary but not too scary--that was some pretty tricky work for us.”
“There was always the danger of being grotesque,” Russell says. “When you do what we called the ‘Awooga face,’ and the jaw drops and the eyes pop and the tongue rolls out, it could be a scene in a monster movie. I wanted this film to have a dangerous edge, but I wouldn’t let it get grotesque.”
Williams, the director of animation, was a little more willing to let things look ugly: “I think Chuck and I had a little bit of the old Lennon and McCartney tension,” he says with a chuckle. “I wanted eyeballs to bulge grotesquely, and he usually wanted a less shocking image. He always had to pull the animators back a little bit in terms of how graphic the image was. But once we had the right tone, he encouraged us to go completely nuts.”
Williams said he hopes the future may bring another chance to get gross. “Maybe if there’s a sequel, I’ll get to put more veins in the eyeballs.”
New Line founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert Shaye said he looks forward to seeing Carrey don the mask in further adventures. Carrey, who was paid $450,000 for “The Mask,” was signed after the wild success of last spring’s “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” for a “Mask 2,” reportedly for as much as $10 million. The film has already spawned a forthcoming animated TV show, an album (on which Carrey makes his recording debut, with a rendition of “Cuban Pete”) and a line of toys, and when the film was presented to international distributors at the Cannes Film Festival, the response was enthusiastically positive.
“One of the things that has helped a lot of studios thrive, and has certainly helped New Line, are the so-called tent poles,” Shaye says. “I’d be happy to see ‘The Mask’ become one of ours. I’m just amazed that if we had made this film two years ago, we probably would not have had this kind of quality special effects you see in the film today, because they weren’t affordable or even available.”
Russell also sees the making of “The Mask” as a triumph of good timing. “Because of the success of ‘Ace Ventura,’ ‘The Mask’ has gone from being described as ‘a movie starring the white guy from ‘In Living Color’ to ‘a Jim Carrey comedy,’ ” he says. “And I think people will see in this film that Jim can be just as charming an actor when he’s Stanley Ipkiss as he is a comedic madman when he plays the Mask.”
Shaye says that if the manic Mask does become a franchise player for New Line, there is always the chance that he may meet up with the stars of the company’s other tent poles--the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” series.
“Universal did that kind of thing, and we’re not blind to the possibilities,” he says. “If Universal could have Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, maybe Stanley Ipkiss could meet up with Freddy and Jason.”