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TED2008: Delighting the Eyes

Good morning from Blogger’s Alley at the TED conference. I’m here today with Michael Parekh, Mark Frauenfelder and Bruno Giussani. We’re some of the few people in our seats before there’s anyone on the stage – on the third day, we’ve all figured out that this is an endurance sport, and we’re all mainlining free coffee and snack food from Google, trying to keep up.

Jay Walker takes the stage briefly. He’s got an astounding library, which he calls “The Library of the Imagination”, and he’s been showing amazing items from it before some sessions. The item today is the library itself, an amazing MC-Escherlike maze of shelves, walkways and collections. Evidently, some lucky TED attendee wins a tour in one of the contests later this week.

Someone who’s familiar with dazzling people on the screen is John Knoll. Not only is he an award-wining special effects specialist, he’s also one of the original developers of Photoshop. He offers us an amazing class in the techniques used to create special effects in modern movies and their relationship to much older techniques.

You use special effects, he tells us, when you want to shoot something that doesn’t exist, that’s too expensive to film (a huge mansion that doesn’t exist, too dangerous to let an actor perform, or simply not possible – we see a group of men overwhelmed by thousands of giant rodents. To see the contrast between current techniques, he shows us excerpts from the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and his work on the three Pirates of the Caribbean films.

To establish time and place in 20,000 Leagues, artists used matte paintings, detailed paintings on glass that were in the foreground, in front of the action. This gives a very detailed, but static picture. Knoll explains that mattes are used today, but they’re layers of flat mattes, each with a bit of texture. This allows a camera to zoom through the space, looking like 3D, but it’s actually “two and a half D”. These mattes are now behind the action, not in front.

To shoot ships at sea, the classic technique is shooting models in a tank. Knoll tells us that studio tanks are quite small – about three feet deep, with ships abut 20 feet long. To make Pirates of the Caribbean, the art directors used one real ship, repainted to look like a pirate vessel, and two sets floating on barges. The problem with models is droplet size – water spray looks huge agains the side of a model. So Pirates films use lots of real water in the foreground around model boats. This involved sending out “wake boats” with the real boat – we see wonderful footage of a pirate ship and two boring-looking motor boats.

Creatures can be a huge problem – we see a tentacled monster in 20,000 Leagues that looks terribly unrealistic. Walt Disney saw the dailies of the creature and demanded a change – the director reshot the scene at night, making it more dramatic and less unreal-looking. Knoll makes it clear that he never wants to challenge the director’s vision – he simply wants to make things happen.

This can get pretty involved. To shoot two ships swirling in a malestrom, he created a huge computational model of a whirpool,then bent it down into a funnel, added hydrodynamics models to create wakes and then put ships into the foreground. It’s an amazing amount of work to create a very memorable image.