Sunday, July 04, 2010
From the Vault: Animator Steven Williams
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 29, 1994
When Steven Williams, chief animator for the special effects firm Industrial Light & Magic, began working on the T-Rex for Jurassic Park, even the experts at his company said it was impossible. The Toronto native did it anyway and the team at ILM, the company started by Star Wars creator George Lucas, ended up creating all the dinosaurs instead of just the five or six herd shots it was originally hired to do.
The Mask marks a welcome departure for Williams from the realistic effects of Jurassic and Forrest Gump to more cartoon-like visuals.
In The Mask, Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura, Pet Detective) plays Stanley Ipkiss, a mild-mannered bank employee who finds an ancient mask that transforms him into a fun-seeking, physics-defying creature.
"Doing something like The Mask is kind of a nice deviation because it's more like doing a cartoon and ... that was a lot more entertaining than making the ass of a reptile jiggle for two years."
Because The Mask marked a departure for ILM, many of the crew were anxious to become involved in the film, which is reminiscent of the style of famous cartoon animators like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett.
"The interest, which was attractive, was that it had all the Avery-type things in it and then I found out Jim Carrey was going to be in it and he's a biological cartoon anyway. All we did was pick up where he left off."
The deviation from the type of work Williams has been used to was a relief, since he has concerns about possible misuse of the technology.
"What scares me about it is the projects that we're getting now ... We're becoming a birthing shop over time. We're not really an effects shop. We're being asked to inject personality into what they hope will be stars without addictions or morals or even requiring paychecks or trailers. It will happen. People who say there will never be digital characters just don't know what they're talking about. Man is just obsessed with trying to duplicate himself synthetically. The computer's a bad attempt at it, to begin with."
Williams doesn't know what made him see the light about the technology's possible misuse, but he knows he was being driven by blind curiosity to get ILM to the point it is today.
"I don't know why all of a sudden I got religion about the whole thing, because I was so driven to try. Lucas, I think, has kind of built a bit of a machine that's out of control, a monster of sorts. He wanted the best, he got the best. The only reason I'm scared is 'cause I know it's going to happen and I haven't been wrong yet when it comes to anticipating."
Williams sees infinite possibilities, including replacing Arnold Schwarzenegger's body on screen once his body starts to deteriorate in real life. However, he can also envision others being able to use the technology to fool people, giving the example of Saddam Hussein engineering a film that looked like the U.S. president was punching out Hussein's wife.
"We will never, ever shoot Cleopatra-type shots again with 150 or 1,000 extras; we'd just replicate them. That's the easiest example right there."
An example of that this summer was in Forrest Gump, where crowds were replicated to make a peace rally in Washington look huge. This type of technology will eventually involve conflicts with the acting community, though some actors have already had themselves digitally scanned into computers.
"If you can take any image and freeze it in time, you can duplicate it, from an actor to a rock. Again, you're only dealing with a certain spectrum of colors and it's just a matter of time. "Ariflex is testing cameras that do not shoot directly to film but shoot directly to memory, to run like decoded files. ... The real power of this is that we can now start using pre-stored images of characters, mountains, rain and we're piping it through the view plane, the camera, so the whole post-production process becomes pre."
In theory, the technology that allows Tom Hanks to shake hands with President Kennedy in Forrest Gump could be used to recast any movie ever made.
"It will happen. It's a bad thing. The most powerful weapon in the house is the television, unfortunately. I get mothers coming up to me saying 'I bought my 7-year-old son a Macintosh. Isn't it wonderful?' and I say, 'No. Take it out in the backyard and bury it. Give him a block of wood and a knife. He'll learn a lot more.'"