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By Erez Reuveni
[reprinted with permission from MacDirectory Magazine]

While working at Industrial Light and Magic during the 1980s as a camera operator in the visual effects department, John Knoll and his brother began tinkering with what would eventually become Photoshop. After selling what went on to become one of the most lucrative graphics manipulation programs to Adobe, Knoll moved on to become one of ILM's top visual effects supervisors, working on movies like Mission Impossible, Star Trek Generations, Star Wars episodes one and two, as well as the digital facelifts the older Star Wars films received during the late 1990s.

John KnollIn his new film, Pirates of the Caribbean, Knoll and his team engineered scores of skeletal pirates using CG models, while also creating digitized boats and backgrounds to simulate ocean environs. "The shots we're doing for the Pirates movie are far more complex in terms of models and the number of characters and camera movements; things unthinkably hard a few years ago, but that are now in the realm of doable" says Knoll. His team shot real actors pantomiming the film's pirates for reference and then used that footage along with CG editing to flesh out the appearance of the pirates.

The pirates, who seem human by day, but when exposed to the luminescence of the moon, transform into tattered skeletons, could easily have been depicted so similarly as to make it near impossible to distinguish one pirate from the next. Instead, Knoll's team exerted great effort in order to differentiate each of the film's pirates when in skeletal, CG form. "For each character we did a design for what the character would look like as a tattered skeleton. They're intentionally trying to make them recognizable so you can recognize who's who."

Knoll's team of visual effects artists was successful in their efforts to create realistic skeletal characters for the film. CG modeling has evolved considerably over the past decade, allowing greater depth in a movie's special effects. According to Knoll, "for the same effects budget, you can get bigger, more sophisticated stuff compared to what you had before."

But while visual effects have definitely progressed since the days of hand crafted models and smoke and mirrors, some effects are still quite difficult to realistically create. "CG water in daytime is very difficult," notes Knoll. "Despite the success of A Perfect Storm, if you do that (CG water) in the daytime, it's hard to make it look good. For our seagoing ships - big wooden vessels - I'm either putting them into a live action plate, or shooting them in a tank in real water."

Much of the artistic work for the film was done using Macintoshes. "The original character design, all those studies were done on Apple computers in our art department, and our mat department - painting environments - is all Macintosh based," says Knoll. Additionally, while revamping the effects of the original Star Wars for its twentieth anniversary release in 1997, Knoll conducted a graphics experiment using a PowerMac 8100. "I was trying an experiment with just off-the-shelf software and I did something like 28 shots for the space battle using Aftereffect, Photoshop, and Electric Image," recalls Knoll. Regardless of the experiment using an older PowerMac, the effects in the twentieth anniversary release of Star Wars turned out quite well, demonstrating the power of an Apple equipped simply with off-the-shelf graphics programs.

The work Knoll did for the re-release of the first Star Wars movies was certainly exemplary. But while the refurbished films drew millions of viewers to theaters, they also raised important questions about the affect of re-releasing a film on a movie's content and place in history. The movies' film reels had certainly deteriorated over time, but restoring a damaged film and recreating the movie using new graphics and scenery are two different things.

Knoll remarks, "The negatives had been damaged in some shots and there was a lot of stuff that had to be done to make it (Star Wars) look like audiences remembered it looking like. A lot of the work that went into the Star Wars redos was just to try to make it look like what people remembered in the first place." Film negatives certainly deteriorate over time, making future viewings inferior in quality. Unfortunately, repairing a film for viewing by later generations provides filmmakers with a slippery slope of a philosophical question.

Knoll says, "When do you stop? The original idea George (Lucas) had was that we'd take the worst shots, some of which are so bad, and go and fix those. It's like cleaning a car. You find the dirtiest part, and you clean that up, then the part next to it looks dirty, so you clean a little more, and it's hard to decide when to stop."

Cleaning up a film for newer viewers certainly breeds creative ambiguities. A movie - its tone, feel, subject matter, and graphics - is as much of an artistic statement as it is a reflection of when it was made. "If you made the picture today," says Knoll, "it would certainly be different, because you'd use different technologies, and the sensibilities of society would be different and you'd have a different tone and feel just based on that."

In the future, Knoll hopes to recreate the science fiction genre on film. "I would love to work on a space picture where we could do something new and different with the look," says Knoll. Reinventing a film genre based on the stylizations and visuals of a few blockbuster films would certainly be an interesting and daunting task. Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean can be seen on DVD now.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Film images © Industrial Light & Magic, John Knoll photo © Adobe

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