When Size Doesn't Matter

David Chute is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Some people who love movies regard the rapid progress of special effects technology over the past decade as a threat to the medium's very soul. And when you see a picture like "Godzilla," it's tough to disagree. Are some high-tech movies getting made now simply because they can be? Almost certainly. But is it inherently impossible to make a soulful film that pulls out all the stops, technologically speaking?

Joe Dante is a filmmaker better equipped than most to ponder such weighty issues. His newest high-tech special-effects picture, "Small Soldiers," is due in theaters July 10, a major undertaking involving antagonistic squads of toy action figures, the brush-cut militant Commandos and their "monster" foes, the Gorgonites, that come to life and duke it out. Dante has operated dangerously close to the cutting edge of SFX evolution for almost 20 years, and he hasn't lost his soul yet.

Dante's very first solo directorial effort, for mentor Roger Corman, was the $600,000 1978 "Piranha." The state of the art would soon be redefined by the youthful effects crew that cut their teeth on that film: Jon Berg ("Return of the Jedi"), Chris Walas ("The Fly"), Phil Tippett ("Starship Troopers"), and Rob Bottin ("Seven"). Subsequent Joe Dante projects included "The Howling" (1978), "Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1982), "Gremlins" (1984), "Explorers" (1985) to "Innerspace" (1987), SFX extravaganzas all.

Even by Dante's standards, though, DreamWorks' "Small Soldiers" is a prodigious challenge, the most ambitious exercise of digital computer graphic imaging (CGI) animation ever undertaken by the wizards of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the most experienced and highly rated visual effects outfit in the industry.

It didn't make the job any easier, really, that the figures are supposedly only 12 inches high, lethal toys accidentally outfitted with adaptive military computer chips. On the big screen, everyone (and everything) is larger than life-size.

"Small Soldiers" is clearly a movie that is being made at least partly because it can be. "I'm sure it couldn't have been made this way even five years ago," Dante agrees. "The technology just didn't exist." The crucial question of course, is whether the new tools are being used to enhance a project that is worth doing for other reasons.

"Small Soldiers" could be a better bet than most. Joe Dante's sensibility is just about perfectly adapted to making something engaging and amusing, even emotionally involving, out of toy-box projects. He loves movie trickery and has consistently made witty and expressive use of it. Even from the few available snippets of "Soldiers" footage, it's clear that he has contributed his distinctive brand of visual self satire, a film style that has been described as "cartoon surrealism." Dante is a master caricaturist of glossy pop-suburban Americana. As one critic observed, "He seems to make his movies and the Mad magazine parodies of them at the same time."

Besides, even the movie's premise raises questions about giving high-technology a soul infusion. The title creatures are machines that achieve a form of sentience, struggling over the course of the film to approximate human consciousness. For Dante, "The fun of the picture is watching these characters gain personality."

"Small Soldiers," in fact, could be called the dark side of "Toy Story." These are toys that turn upon their creators, with extreme prejudice.

The transformation occurs when a toy company is absorbed in a hostile take-over by a munitions firm specializing in computerized "smart" weapons, and the divisional wires accidentally get crossed. The result is two rival groups of supposed playthings driven by military software.

"No matter what gets in their way," Dante says, "all the Commandos want to do is destroy the Gorgonites. And when human beings become allies of the Gorgonites, they also have to be wiped out."

Even when they were just plain toys, the Gorgonites were the ultimate underdogs: they had been programmed to lose. "It was determined by the toy company," Dante explains, "that the Commandos would be much more attractive heroes if they always won, so they needed an enemy that always lost. The idea is that by overcoming this internal obstacle, as well as all the obvious external ones, the Gorgonites gain courage, like the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz."'

The humans caught in the middle of this conflict include a couple of suburban teenagers, played by Gregory Lewis Smith (Sport in "Harriet the Spy") and Kirsten Dunst, and their befuddled parents: his are Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson, hers Wendy Schall and the late Phil Hartman.

Key vocal performances are supplied by Tommy Lee Jones, as Commando chief Chip Hazard, and Frank Langella, as Gorgonite leader Archer. Dante also hired all the surviving cast members of "The Dirty Dozen" ("except Charles Bronson, who turned us down") as additional Commando voices--a characteristic flourish for the pop-oriented filmmaker, even if few members of the youthful target audience will recognize the distinctive vocal stylings of Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Clint Walker and Trini Lopez.

Although the film depicts pitched battles at the baseboard level, Dante insists that "Small Soldiers" is not that scary: "It's not like 'Gremlins,' which had critters going into microwaves and blenders. 'Small Soldiers' was originally a very sentimental fable about a toy-maker who dies and puts his heart into his toys, and the child he could never bond with when he was alive bonds with the toys."

After "Gremlins," Dante swore he would never take on another miniature-creature film. (He made an exception for the 1990 "Gremlins" sequel, he says, because the studio offered to let him do "anything he wanted.") "Small Soldiers" won him over, he says, partly because puppet technology, too, has made huge strides: "The difference between the 'Gremlins' puppets and these new guys is the difference between a typewriter and a fax machine."

The Commandos and the Gorgonites, and the puppets that represent them, were designed by the trend-setting Stan Winston Studio in Van Nuys, with input from the toy professionals at Hasbro. Here, amid the chrome fixtures and track lighting, some of the most memorable big-screen icons of the past decade--the gleaming silver endo skeleton of the Terminator robot; the mouth-breathing "Predator"--are mounted in displays that reproduce scenes from their films, like dioramas at the La Brea Tar Pits.

"People think of computers as tools that have replaced mechanical effects," Winston says. "What they forget is that our work has been computerized as well. We use computers in the design and production of tiny machine parts that make the movements much more delicate and sophisticated."

Winston's handmade animatronic puppets use computer controls to create smoother movements--and to record. Actions that could previously be filmed only a frame at a time, by stop-motion animators, can now be played back in real time, on the set, in the presence of the actors. The CG animators then have to match the look, the lighting, even the personalities of the live action puppets.

Dante agrees: "The designs hadn't been finalized when I came on the picture, so I did get a chance to have some input. But Stan's stuff was already so good that it wasn't like I had to take it apart and put it back together again. Hasbro was actually very helpful, too, in terms of introducing qualities into the designs that were 'toyetic.' That's a term the toy guys actually use."

The task of transforming Winston's puppet designs into fully ambulatory CGI characters fell to the San Rafael firm founded by George Lucas in 1976 to execute the effects for "Star Wars" and its sequels. Recently, Industrial Light & Magic turned out the rampaging T. rex in "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World."

"Small Soldiers," however, called for 13 major humanoid CGI characters and dozens of bit players, a grand total of 250 effects shots with up to 80 distinct moving figures in some sequences. (The swarming alien insects in "Starship Troopers," while more numerous, were virtually identical.) Just one of "Small Soldiers"' central characters--Archer, leader of the Gorgonites--is by actual count 62 times more complex, in terms of both design and range of movement, than the "Lost World" T. rex.

In the last weeks of post-production, though, the major obstacle hasn't been mechanical but temporal: Daunting amounts of dubbing and SFX work remained to be completed. "We expect to get 50 finished effects shots in the final week," Dante said, "and we hope we don't get 49."

But in this respect, too, the new technology is an almost magical boon: "When Robert Zemeckis was making 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit,' he had to fly from Ireland to the Bay Area to visit ILM a couple of times a week. I've been up there exactly twice."

Dante's close collaboration with the ILM magicians has been accomplished almost entirely by remote audio-video hook-up, from a wood-paneled conference room in executive producer Steven Spielberg's sprawling hacienda on the Universal lot. Producer Michael Finnell, editor Marshall Harvey and several others line up along one side of a big conference table, and a huge TV monitor on the other side is switched on.

The image on the monitor is split horizontally, with Dante and company on top. This is the live signal that an attached video camera is at this very moment transmitting northward to Marin. The lower image shows ILM-based animation supervisor David Andrews and his colleagues, live from San Rafael. Then the two images recede toward the top and bottom of the screen, and in the space between, videos of scenes in progress are displayed. The footage comes in various stages of completeness, from the most preliminary to the nearly final. The filmmakers discuss the footage in real time, indicating problem areas with an electronic pointer.

The earliest phase, the "pencil animatic," looks like sketches drawn on paper and pasted onto the film footage--which is essentially what happens, once the sketches have been scanned into a computer. In the second stage footage, the "wire frame" phase, the surface of the figures is a grid of points and lines; they look like mock-ups shaped from chicken wire. The "gray scale" phase fills in the surface segments, but in a glossy shade of gray, like unpainted plastic model kits. An almost-final phase has color added but a lot of texture still missing.

During one session last month, Dante assessed an almost finished shot of a squad of Commandos leaping to attack a small boy. One of the miniature maulers seemed to be brandishing a bayonet, and Dante shook his head. "It should be a fun pummeling kind of thing," he says. "There shouldn't be a feeling that we're going to cut back and see a sliced-up kid." The bayonet, said editor Harvey, would be erased by the time they saw the footage again two days later: "Once the images are in the computer it's just a matter of positioning and scaling them in various ways."

In some cases, the turnaround is almost too fast. One shot came back from ILM with a few frames missing, too short for precise editing. The glitch was quickly remedied, but a miscommunication led to a double reverse repair: while ILM was restoring the missing frames, the editors in L.A. were shortening the sequence. (Dante elected to go back to Plan A, the longer ILM version.)

Often at these remote sessions, Dante is pleasantly surprised by unexpected embellishments added by the animators, and incorporates the fresh inventions into a scene.

In one case he actually snipped out a piece of established action to make room. Needless to say, the animators were delighted. According to visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, "Joe has been easy for us to work with because he loves what we do and he knows what we bring to the film."

Dante says flatly, "I don't hire people to not contribute to the process. It would rob me of the fun I have getting up in the morning and thinking, 'I wonder what interesting things are going to happen today."'

The nerve center of Industrial Light and Magic, tucked away behind a corporate logo on a back street in San Rafael, feels more like a college computer lab than a high-tech film production operation, a maze of dark corridors decorated with posters and graffiti, with digital components stacked high on every available surface.

Ogling all this hardware, a reporter keeps wanting to talk "programming," assuming that a lot of what we see on screen in ILM's projects is preset and automatic, a form of higher mathematics. The animators resist, politely steering the discussion back to questions of art and creativity.

"This is pretty much all manual labor," says Fangmeier, "in the sense that somebody actually builds the wire frame model one point and one line at a time, and fills it in, and then the colorist goes in and literally paints it. And even later on, when the animator does the posing, it's basically exactly like stop motion with a puppet--not every frame, in the old way, but key frames, and then the computer interpolates the frames in between, and can play them back."

Animation supervisor Tim Hudson, a sculptor with little computer experience when he was recruited by ILM, proves Fangmeier's point by putting the imposing leonine face of Gorgonite leader Archer up on his screen, and then changing its expression from belligerent to quizzical with touching and pulling motions of a mouse--a process that really does look like somebody smooshing the features of a soft model. You half expect to see clay stains on Hudson's fingertips.

What seems to have happened over the years is that the process has been refined to make the virtual digital models behave more and more like physical ones. In a sense, to make the process less computer-like.

"We have had other projects, like 'Twister,' " Fangmeier says, "which were a terrific technical challenge. 'Small Soldiers' is not technically so difficult. The challenge is bringing heart and charm to the characters."

"Joe [Dante] recognizes that working with an animator is like working with an actor. If you start taking out what comes naturally and forcing the actor to be somebody they're not, you get a terrible performance."

One hurdle confronting these actor-animators is how mobile and expressive a plastic toy can plausibly be, even after it has "come to life." The body language of the Winston puppets, as sophisticated as they are, is still a little on the stiff side--as they should be, considering that these are not living creatures but plastic toys. The CG versions called for some restraint from the animators.

In the end, however, the slight rigidity of the figures became the key the animators needed to the touching awkwardness of entities straining toward, but never quite achieving, the fluidity of organic human behavior. "We played a lot of it for humor," Andrews says, "because the question isn't really 'Who are these people?' but 'How do these people get their consciousness?' They are kind of a blank slate, so we can project anything on there provided it's believable in context."

When you first clap eyes on the small soldiers, it's natural to assume that the ones that look like freaks and monsters are the bad guys. If you think about Joe Dante's past work, though, it seems obvious that the macho Commandos could never be the heroes.

"No," Dante confirms, "the outsiders are always my favorite. Back to the early Corman days, my movies are always about people who don't fit in. I think a lot of movie directors were outsiders when they were younger. I didn't have a particularly bad childhood. My father was a golf pro and I went to school just like everybody else. But I did find a lot of attraction in going to the movies, more so than any of my friends."

In "Small Soldiers," the outsider label applies both to the creatures and to the young humans who bond with them. "The nonhuman pals in 'Gremlins' and 'Small Soldiers' appeal to kids who wish their dogs could talk to them. Kids love toys and these are toys that talk back. If you had a stuffed animal that suddenly came to life, that would be Gizmo, the cute and cuddly creature in 'Gremlins,' the one that bonds with the kid."

There's an element of sadness in this "imaginary friend" theme, Dante believes. "I can look at a favorite movie like 'Harvey' and see a very serious, sad movie about a guy who's totally disillusioned with the kind of life he's lived. There's James Stewart talking about why he chose the name Harvey for his invisible rabbit companion, and a doctor asks, 'Didn't you ever know anybody named Harvey?' and Stewart says, 'No, I guess that's what gave me such hopes for it."'

The fullest expression of Dante's personal commitment to movies is probably "Matinee," a 1993 comedy about a schlock director, George Woolsey (John Goodman), modeled upon the master showman William Castle. Woolsey's roadshow attraction, "Mant!" ('Half man! Half ant! All terror!'), dazzles a movie-crazed kid in a small town in Florida in the 1960s, at the paranoid height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"That was a very personal movie to get to make," Dante admits. "It was doubly autobiographical, because I was the same age as the kid in the movie at the time of the Missile Crisis, but I also now have become George Woolsey."

On the face of it, this is an odd assertion: Woolsey peddles the cheesiest kind of entertainment with all the passion of an evangelist. He actually seems to believe he's doing people some good, brightening up their drab lives. The character is part rip-off artist, knowingly snookering the rubes, and in part a deluded buffoon, falling for his own line of virtuoso b.s. What does it tell us about a filmmaker's self-image that he considers this character closely autobiographical?

"I'd like to think that Woolsey's enthusiasm for what he does is similar to what I have," Dante explains. "To get excited over whether his next picture should be called 'Alligator Girl' or 'Galigator.' The thing that's great about being a movie director is just to be able to make things happen that didn't exist the day before. You see it in Tim Burton's film 'Ed Wood,' which is a great movie about filmmaking. He's just so happy to be there. If you don't feel that, you shouldn't be doing it.

"If you want to look objectively at what either Woolsey or Wood is doing, it's not great art. But it's their art, and the fact that over the years people have been able to look at Wood's stuff and say, 'You know, there's something there.' This is a guy who stamped his personality, such as it was, on the material, such as it was, that he was working on. And that's all that you can really ask from any filmmaker."

There may also be an element of nostalgia here, for the days when a filmmaker could set himself as a one-man band. Dante's mentor Roger Corman was one of the last pure specimens of that species. Moviemaking today is overwhelmingly bureaucratic and collaborative. Injecting a big studio movie with even a trace of real idiosyncrasy can be a day-in, day-out struggle.

For Dante, "If you can't make a movie that you would want to go see, then you are doing it wrong. Either you're letting somebody force you into decisions you don't believe in, or you shouldn't have taken the job in the first place, because you're just wrong for it."

Dante says he enjoys what he's been doing. But the filmmaker also feels hemmed in by his association with splashy event projects full of precocious kids and their SFX-generated buddies. His resume includes a long, frustrating list of "grown-up" projects that he came within a hair's breadth of making over the years, including "Little Man Tate" (eventually helmed by Jodie Foster), and a new version of Jack London's classic adventure saga "The Sea Wolf," with Tom Hanks in the title role. The lost project that Dante calls "the heartbreaker" is "Termite Terrace," a script by Charles Haas ("Matinee") about the gifted eccentrics who created the great Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s and '50s, with central characters based on Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. It could have been an ideal bridge from Dante's life-long interest in pop culture and animation to more mature character-oriented material.

"There used to be a lot of variety in the kind of pictures that were made," he says, "and now there seems to be so little. I've done several things for cable TV recently, because you can do things there that you can't do in features. I did a political satire called "The Second Civil War" for HBO. There were no special effects to speak of, just actors acting. And there's a place for that!

"The trick is to get considered for something when you, quote, 'don't do that sort of thing.' You make the movies they will let you make. There's a suspense script going around right now that I would love to do, but then one of the guys behind it says, 'Well, yeah, he's pretty good, but he's never done a picture like that."'

The irony is that if "Small Soldiers" is as good overall as its bits and pieces suggest--if, that is, Joe Dante has done his job as well as he possibly can--his problem with typecasting is likely to get worse before it gets better.

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