Oscar recognizes a new era in motion picture special effects

The Associated Press

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. ─ Don't trust an all-gummy bear diet, a get-quick-rich scheme involving llamas and, above all else, anything on a movie screen.

Hollywood always has been a town fueled by make-believe, but what's unbelievable is how far the fantasists have come. Even what seems ''real'' in a movie these days ─ a scattering flock of birds, a fluttering moth ─ is often a computer-crafted substitute.

The technology has come so far the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in February granted branch status to its visual effects members ─ the first new branch in 42 years.

Three of 1994's most popular live-action films, ''Forrest Gump,'' ''The Mask'' and ''True Lies,'' showcased special effects considered impossible a few years ago. The visual effects teams from all three films are nominated for Academy Awards, and a look at their work offers a rare peek at the tricks of the trade.

The most eye-catching effects in ''Forrest Gump'' are the most self-evident: Gump (Tom Hanks) meeting presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. ''But in a big way, the success of 'Forrest Gump' is in the less-obvious effects. The archival shots were a third of what the movie is about,'' says George Murphy, part of the Oscar─nominated visual effects team.

Take the scene early in the film in which Forrest and Jenny hide from her father in a corn field. As the camera pulls back, a flock of birds takes off toward the horizon. It's a lovely, metaphorical shot ─ except it never happened.

Director Robert Zemeckis tried to use real doves, but they refused to follow his guidance (see if they ever work in this town again). Industrial Light and Magic effects specialists subsequently created a single dove on a computer, digitally copying it to make three dozen. The binary birds were animated, then laid over the shot of Forrest and Jenny, forming a ''digital composite'' image.

Audiences may say, ''How'd they do that?'' about the presidents, but most don't notice this deceit. It all looks genuine. ''It would have been the hardest effect several years ago, and it was casual in this film,'' Murphy says.

Forrest excels at ping-pong, even though Hanks didn't hit a ball on camera. Swinging in rhythm to a rapid-fire metronome, Hanks was filmed miming play. ILM added a blurred ball later. The Chinese flags in one ping-pong scene were inadvertently hung upside-down, and they were painstakingly righted through a special effect (called a rotoscope) that cut the stars out of the flag and flipped them.

There are dozens of other effects audiences aren't supposed to see. The actor playing young Gump couldn't run well, so in one sprint the actor's face was superimposed on a more athletic stand-in's body. The film's signature feather was guided by a fishing line that was electronically painted out of every frame.

The archival ''Forrest Gump'' effects can't help but call attention to themselves. That would be a disaster, however, for the effects on ''True Lies.''

''The whole goal of every effects guy is to do digital composites so well the audience is confused,'' says mid

''True Lies'' visual effects supervisor John Bruno, an Oscar-winner nominated for the third year in a row.

A full-throttle action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, ''True Lies'' used almost every arrow in the special effects quiver. Although the story is patently implausible, the film would not work unless it looked as if Schwarzenegger really was piloting a Harrier jet, blowing up a bridge and jumping off skyscrapers.

''We pushed the realism way beyond anything we thought we could do,'' Bruno says.

''True Lies'' director Jim Cameron insisted on a single-take shot in which Schwarzenegger's Harry Tasker climbs into a Harrier jet (which can take off vertically) and takes flight. There would be no room for a quick cut to splice in a real jet and pilot.

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