Nuanced characters. Skin-crawling villains. Jaw-dropping cinematography.
These are just some of the ingredients that compose a memorable film. There are also skilled actors, snappy dialogue and expert storytelling.
If a movie’s story is its heart and the actors, sets and locations its flesh and bones, then the computer-generated images are its clothes.
Sometimes, those clothes are gaudy, over-the-top or downright unnecessary—covering up a film’s lack of substance.
But other times, computer-generated special effects created by master designers using groundbreaking techniques fit a film just right. And the result is a spectacular combination of depth and dazzle that knocks moviegoers’ socks off.
The following films are the latter. They include some of the year’s most innovative and downright spectacular effects. Here, we take a look at the 3D professionals and techniques that made them possible.
Throwing Out the Rulebook: Pixar and Monsters University
Pixar has a reputation for refusing to play by the rules. The animated film studio routinely creates smart, soulful movies that appeal to children and adults alike. And they’re not afraid to throw out worn-out story ideas (and entire movies) that don’t work.
But the company took throwing out the rulebook pretty far, even for Pixar, on its latest film, Monsters University. The sequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc., Monsters University follows the previous film’s protagonists, Mike and Sully, on a new adventure. The story wasn’t the only thing that was new:
Pixar’s production staff decided to throw out the old digital lighting system used on every Pixar movie since Toy Story was released in 1995.
The previous system required designers to manually insert shadows, reflections, light sources and other lighting elements into each scene of a film.
The new system, however, mapped out the behavior of digital lighting in advance (a process called ray-tracing), creating dynamic lighting that responded to changes in the digital environment much the same as it would in the real world.
This system is called Global Illumination, and it generates richer shadows and more realistic lighting effects.
It also generated controversy. Many Pixar designers had to relearn skills and techniques to use the new system. But it all ended well: the process helped the design team redefine how 3D movies are made, both at Pixar and other production companies.
And that’s what the world of 3D is all about: taking risks and constantly learning in order to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
To find out more about the amazing accomplishments of the Monsters University team, see this article and video on The Verge.
Part Man, Part Machine: Iron Man 3
The third movie in Marvel’s wildly successful Iron Man series follows superhero Tony Stark as he deals with the aftermath of last summer’s superhero flick The Avengers.
Each new Marvel movie tries to one-up the previous film, and Iron Man 3 is no exception. Tony Stark still uses his Iron Man suits to save the world, but this time, there are dozens of them flying around, splitting into pieces and attacking bad guys.
With more suits than ever on film, the movie’s team faced some serious design challenges: how to preserve the film’s realism, while making a legion of robotic suits perform impossible feats?
Their solution was one Tony Stark would love: combine the realism of physical models with the spectacular power of computer effects. In short, combine manpower with machine power.
The film’s designers built physical Iron Man suits, but parts of these suits or certain scenes containing them were created using advanced CGI techniques. The result were on-screen hybrids that both looked real and did things no physical machine could do.
The Super 3D Design Effects of Superman
Superman returned this year in a film reboot of the classic superhero story. But just because the Superman franchise is 80 years old doesn’t mean the hero can’t learn some new tricks.
He does exactly that in Man of Steel—thanks to some very talented digital designers.
The Man of Steel team used groundbreaking animation and simulation techniques to create the on-screen technology of Superman’s home planet, Krypton.
The film’s designers also used computer-generated film techniques to digitally “capture” physical locations. This enabled them to virtually shoot new scenes in these locations—even if they were thousands of miles away.
Superman may be used to leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, but we’re pretty sure the strides his digital designers took are even larger.
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Photo Credit: Daniel Leininger on Flickr.