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‘Spawn’ of a New Era : Studios Turning to Mix of Houses for Modest-Budget Effects Films

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Special effects have become standard in movies, and not just for “special effects movies” like “The Lost World” and “Men in Black.” Nowadays, visual tricks are used to create scenes in most mid- to high-budget studio films.

The upshot is that special effects are getting both more and less expensive.

At the high end, each “shot” of five to seven seconds can easily cost an average of $100,000 from a top special-effects house such as George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. Multiply that by 100 or more shots for an effects-laden movie, and you get special-effects budgets commonly in the $12-million to $15-million range for big movies today.

But for smaller-scale work, prices in some cases have come down. Companies of five or 10 people working out of a garage

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are able to produce high-quality effects using Macs and PCs.

Movie makers commonly use a mix of expensive and less-expensive effects to achieve their goals. The biggest films in recent years typically have used eight or 10 different effects firms. A prime example is “Spawn,” released Friday by New Line Cinema to a strong opening. “Spawn” features more than 400 effects shots, executed by 22 different companies around the world. Industrial Light & Magic created the movie’s big “money” shots; about 50 people at ILM worked on the film over seven months.

But the filmmakers--all trained at ILM--also used companies such as Vancouver’s Core, where four workers within a couple of weeks churned out shots of a motorcycle’s transformation. In Japan, Media Studio dedicated about three weeks and five workers to creating dream-sequence transitions. They worked on Macs, PCs and Silicon Graphics workstations and sent their work to the filmmakers via the Internet.

The effects industry runs on “911 calls,” as firms farm out work that ends up taking more time than anticipated. That’s one reason nearly every special-effects house has struggled financially: it’s an extremely unpredictable business.

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Enter a new type of filmmaker: former special-effects creators who can move easily between the digital and analog worlds. Former ILM-ers Mark Dippe (pronounced “dippay”) and Clint Goldman are the director and producer, respectively, of “Spawn.” Supervising the effects and directing second unit for the comic book-based movie was Steve “Spaz” Williams, who still works at ILM in San Rafael.

The three thirtysomethings think their kind of expertise will lead to a new kind of movie: the modestly budgeted effects film.

The box office seems to indicate there’s a market for their vision: “Spawn” grossed $21.5 million over the weekend. It was second only to Sony’s Harrison Ford juggernaut “Air Force One,” which had a budget twice that of “Spawn.”

Coordinating the work of 22 special-effects houses into one film was a challenge, the men said. But Goldman, Dippe and Williams knew the business well. “It’s a small field and we’ve been in it for years, so we know everyone and what they’re good at,” says Goldman.

A third of the “Spawn” budget went toward effects, a huge percentage compared with most films--though a few (such as New Line’s “The Mask”) have had a similar ratio. More than half the effects shots were delivered about two weeks before the movie’s debut, as New Line was loath to spend more until it had seen a sample of the effects.

Says director Dippe: “Because of my background, on the fly I can decide how I can achieve something. I can instantly tell if I can avoid a long hassle trying to film something that I can easily do in post-production.”

That was important in keeping the “Spawn” budget to a relatively modest $45 million. Boasts Goldman: “Our budget was roughly half of ‘Men in Black’s'--and we have as good or better special effects.”

“Spawn” won’t produce the same box-office bonanza that “Men” has, but Goldman contends there is an opportunity for computer-savvy movie makers to create smarter, cheaper effects movies.

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Several factors kept the “Spawn” budget in check. First, despite “Spawn” being the hottest comic book in the United States, creator Todd McFarlane sold the rights to New Line for $1 in exchange for creative input and merchandising rights. McFarlane’s “Spawn” action figures have already become a top-selling toy line.

There were also no $10-million stars to pay. The best-known actors in “Spawn” are Martin Sheen and John Leguizamo, neither of them mega-paycheck actors.

The film was originally green-lighted at $20 million. “When we showed them what we had done--each time we’d screen the latest effects Spaz was working on--they’d give us another go-ahead for more money,” Goldman says.

Williams--a dog in the movie is also named “Spaz"--created the film’s most impressive special-effects creature, the reptilian Violator. Williams had plenty of practice with the type: He created the T. Rex in “Jurassic Park.”

Goldman squeezed an extra $1 million out of the budget by cutting a week’s worth of shooting off the original 70-day schedule. The money went toward creating a “digital hell” from Santa Barbara Studios, an 8-year-old effects house with expertise in CGI, or computer generated images. The devil plays a critical role in the film, as the main character makes a Faustian pact to return to Earth. The filmmakers at first had tried to create Hell using specially created puppets, but that looked like . . . well, like hell.

Santa Barbara had to do the work in six weeks, an almost unheard-of turnaround. The filmmakers then faced the task of integrating the work of different effects houses into seamless scenes.

“You have no idea how difficult that is, to line up shots together and get them to mesh,” says Goldman wearily. It’s as if two different directors had shot different action scenes, which have to be laid on top of each other to create a sequence that meshes in terms of perspective, lighting and timing.

Goldman, Dippe and Williams see revolutionary changes coming in the film business. Williams has a gleam in his eye as he describes young auteurs within a few years being able to create and distribute movies via computer.

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Declares Goldman: “The movie business will continue to be democratized by the use of technology.”

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The Making of a Monster

New Line Cinema paid preeminent special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic $8.5 million for a total of 85 “shots” in the movie “Spawn.” If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that it took more than 70 people and nearly 11 months to complete the work. “Spawn” special-effects supervisor Steve “Spaz” Williams of ILM explained the laborious process of creating the movie’s ultimate monster, the reptilian Violator.

1. “First, we created [with Chatsworth-based KNB Efx Group, which also did makeup for the film] a 24-inch poly-resin model and an 11-foot metal and rubber model that was used in a few of the practical shots.”

Time and manpower:

3 1/2 months, 20 people

*

2. “We took the small model and sawed it up--its legs, arms and head. We took it to Cyberware in Monterey, where they used a Cyberware scanner to shoot a vertical laser. A camera collects the impression and turns it into data, which goes into a computer. The next day, we got a data tape to take back to ILM.”

Time and manpower: Two days, five people

*

3"At ILM, we rebuilt the model on the computer; we fit the parts together like Legos. We built the armature for the character and worked out movements, like joint rotations. Then, we ‘painted’ the computerized model and gave it texture.”

Time and manpower:

2 1/2 months, 20 people*

*

4. “Finally, we start animating the character, making him ‘act.’ After we complete work on a shot, we have to transfer it to regular film stock; at that point, we have to make the shot blend in with the rest of the scene by changing the lighting or adding fake ‘grain’ to match the other footage. ... I turned in the last shot on July 21.”

Time and manpower:

4 1/2 months, 30 people*

* Includes full-time and part-time workers


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