In Hollywood, tech gets a Perfect Ten

Computer-generated special effects have set the Hollywood box office on fire. Nineteen of the top twenty grossers of all time are powered by software

If you looked at the Hollywood list of all time Top Ten grossers till say 1990, then you had comedies like Home Alone, romances like Pretty Woman and Westerns like Dances with Wolves. Sci-Fi gatecrashers were Star Wars and ET.

However the nineties came and changed the rules of the game. If you didn’t have special effects then you didn’t stand a chance at the box office. A look at the current Top 10 grossers and how they relied on 3D computer generated imagery (CGI).

1. Titanic (1997), $1.8 billion
Director James Cameron founded visual effects company Digital Domain, which powered the Titanic. While the actual sinking of the real-life Titanic was explained on the computer in the movie, even the reel-life Titanic was fully computer generated. The unit relied heavily on Linux (which since then has become the staple fare for Hollywood) and more than 500 high-powered CPUs with more than 5 terabytes of disk space.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), $1.1 b
Weta Digital was involved in thousands of detailed shots that required years to complete. And it kept getting more and more intense with every film in the trilogy. For example while LOTR 2 used more than 750 shots, the number crossed 1500 in LOTR 3. While Middle Earth was computer generated, so were many other characters like Gollum and even the Eye of Sauron. Other scenes were taken from real video shoots which then went through a lot of post-production compositing.

3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), $976 million
Flying brooms. Magical ceilings. Wizard’s chess. Wands and magic. Let’s face it; Harry Potter could never have been pulled off without heavy help from compositing software. The exciting game of Quidditch was mainly played in front of a blue screen and even the sound effects were computer generated. This was most difficult as such a game doesn’t exist and it had to be imagined entirely. The film also featured fabulous creatures like the giant three-headed dog Fluffy, a mountain troll, centaurs and unicorns. For the sorting hat both computer animation and a hat puppet were used.

4. Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999), $926 m
George Lucas once said that he waited till technology became sufficiently advanced to make the prequels. Well the nineties provided him with the perfect platform and he made Episode 1, which is still the biggest Star Wars grosser of all time. In this movie, actors and acting took a backseat as it was all about Darth Maul with his two light sabers, the computer generated Jar Jar Binks (who proved to be a major irritant for fans), an underwater world and an epic war on Naboo which featured thousands of androids.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), $925 m
In LOTR 2, computer generated Gollum came into his own and there were great Middle Earth battle scenes. The production department had to double their compositing unit team. In some of the battle scenes only the main characters were shot while the entire scenes with all their elements were created on the computer.

6. Jurassic Park (1993), $920 m
This was the first special effects movie that almost touched the $1 billion mark. It was made by none other than Steven Spielberg, who had already come out with Inner Space and ET. Till now CGI was used sparingly in certain movies. In this one, it was used throughout. Industrial Light and Magic succeeded in creating realistic fearsome large moving dinosaurs which got better and meaner in the Lost World and Jurassic Park 3.

7. Shrek 2 (2004), $881 m
DreamWorks SKG’s Shrek was probably the first movie fully made on Linux. That HP chose to use this movie in one of its ads shows you how much IT and Hollywood have become integrated. And the team is getting into higher and higher resolution models. From 2D models with the pencil, animators have firmly switched to 3D models with the mouse. Shrek 2 has a scene which features 6000 citizens and the crowd is pretty dynamic. Light and shade have also been presented realistically.

8. LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), $870 m
LOTR 1 had more than 500 compositing shots and also won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. However both the number and quality of shots got better and better as each part of the trilogy was unleashed.

9. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), $866 m
In the second installment of Harry Potter, two of the key characters were computer generated. One was Dobby the house elf and the other was the basilisk, a fabulous giant snake featured in the climax of the movie. A flying car also added to the fun.

10. Finding Nemo (2003), $865 m
This goldmine of a movie was the tale of two fish, Marlin and his son Nemo, who get separated from each other in the Great Barrier Reef. Pixar admitted during release that this was the toughest movie that they had made till date. Upto 50 animators were used for which fish had to be studied in great detail. The range of expressions that finally went into all the underwater characters was simply amazing.

If you look beyond 10 too, then it’s still animation and effects all the way upto number 19. Forrest Gump (and even that had a few CGI scenes) breaks the tech-trend at a lowly 20th position. So is this the future? Will good acting and Hollywood superstars take totally a backseat and will the man on the computer rule film-making?

(This article appeared in Living Digital magazine in September 2005)

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