A cast of hundreds of special effects

Special to The Times

TWENTIETH Century Fox's droll comedy "Night at the Museum," which opened Friday, is definitely a numbers game: 108 minutes, $120-million budget, nearly 500 visual effects.

Set in a gag-filled American Museum of Natural History, where exhibits are reanimated after dark, the film stars Ben Stiller as a baffled night guard with Robin Williams, Dick Van Dyke, Ricky Gervais, Carla Gugino, Owen Wilson and a seemingly endless number of effects in supporting turns. Jim Rygiel, a three-time Oscar winner for his work on Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was the man overseeing the visual effects artistry for director Shawn Levy.

"I normally would freak out about a picture the size of 'Night at the Museum,' but after 'Rings,' now I know how and what can be done," says Rygiel, who handed the show over to visual effects producer Ellen Somers in its final days so that he could prep the effects in the "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" trailer scheduled to run in front of "Night at the Museum" this weekend.

Rygiel and Fox postproduction execs tapped visual effects shop Rhythm & Hues to animate the film's dinosaur and taxidermied animal exhibits in addition to diorama scenes featuring thousands of figurine-sized cowboys and Roman soldiers at war.

Rygiel says blending real life and fantasy in "Museum" often came down to principal photography. Enter Stiller, who played an active role in the creative decision-making on "Museum."

Studio comedies tend to render evenly lighted and bright, high-key scenes (think: "Wedding Crashers" or "Old School"), but Stiller envisioned a stylized air of darkness and mystery.

The filmmakers took visual cues from Guillermo del Toro's tiny and little-known foreign horror film "The Devil's Backbone," a ghost story set in a 1940s-era Spanish orphanage, shot by Guillermo Navarro in 2001.

Navarro, Del Toro's longtime cinematographer, who had just wrapped "Pan's Labyrinth," was a logical fit having previously photographed CG-intensive "Stuart Little" and "Spy Kids."

"Navarro's lighting definitely helped," Rygiel says. "To me, what makes things look real is when CG creatures move in and out of those pools of darkness and light. It ties them into the real world."

The first suggestion that something is amiss in the museum occurs when a T. rex disappears from its pedestal in the lobby. In a series of quick takes it transitions from a 2-ton menacing monster in the shadows to a prancing puppy wagging its tail in the light.

Rhythm & Hues, which has an open-door policy when it comes to employees' dogs, had more than enough real-life references for animators working on Rexy to draw from, says Dan DeLeeuw, the shop's visual effects supervisor.

But tricks of light can cut both ways.

"If you look at a real T. rex skull, there are a couple of holes near the eye sockets that made it hard to read where the actual eye was on-screen," DeLeeuw says. "So we modified his bone structure.... But you know how kids obsess over their dinosaurs? We were terrified kids would be storming out of the theater because Rexy wasn't perfectly anatomically correct."

Apparently, the visual effects branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was not at all put off by the movie's anatomical incorrectness. This month, the branch short-listed "Museum" for Oscar consideration with six other films for achievement in visual effects for the 79th Academy Awards.

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