Digital and Not-So-Digital Effects

[Special Effects for Spots Excerpt from Post Magazine]

January 20, 1997

Not all special effects solutions are best accomplished in the digital realm, as Evan Jacobs, executive producer at Culver City, CA's Vision Crew Unlimited, reminds us, "The mistake a lot of people make is thinking digital can solve every problem in a cost effective way. A lot of times it's easier to get the shot in-camera."

Jacobs is partnered with technical director Jon Warren and creative director Doug Miller in the two-year-old company which specializes in physical visual effects such as miniatures, mechanical effects and motion-control photography. Their work is evenly divided between feature films and commercials; they also did shots for the CBS Titanic miniseries.

Plymouth's Shakers spot called for Neon, Breeze and Voyager vehicles to shake on a road-tester as an inspector tries to trace the source of a squeak (which turns out to be his shoes). The Vision Crew team worked with effects-savvy director Terry Windell of A Band Apart, with whom they had frequently collaborated at Boss Film to devise a digitally controlled, full-size pneumatic rig to shake the vehicles. "The clients thought it would be a nightmare to do this, but it worked perfectly," says Jacobs.

Vision Crew also worked with Windell on a pair of Dodge spots. Dodge Avenger's Underside plays off an image of the underside of the car which does not immediately appear to be a reflection. The spot involved putting the car on a motion control rig and rotating it around, but the car equipped with a real engine proved to be too heavy for the rig. So Vision Crew built a mock engine for the vehicle with a simplified design which better matched the aesthetics of the spot.

A 48th-scale model was the solution for a spot directed by Yariv Garber of Moxie Pictures, Los Angeles, for the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. "They were going to use an architectural model for the beauty shots because the hotel isn't done yet and they wanted control over the shoot," Jacobs explains. "But the model was solid wood and hard to light. And building it digitally was very complex." So Vision Crew constructed a 13-foot-tall model and digital "was used for what it's meant for-composites and Flame effects." Vision Crew created dramatic water splashes for Duracell's marlin Fishing spot, directed by Propaganda's David Kellogg and featuring the plastic Putterman family. "water splashes aren't done well in 3D," Jacobs notes, so Vision Crew turned to real water splashes lensed at a pool and later composited into the spot. "Digital Domain output computer information so we could sculpt a fish, yank it out of the water and our splashes would conform to the model," Jacobs explains.