Film Reviews

Cause and FX

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Sragow: What would you point to as an effects breakthrough that changed how people looked at movies?

Morris: I may not have the appropriate distance because I was involved in the creation of The Abyss, but there's about 90 seconds of that pseudo-pod character onscreen. You've got this water thing acting in a unique way, and I had never seen anything like that in a show before. That was a testament to Jim Cameron's imagination as a director, to come up with an idea like that, and a testament to the computer-graphics people here to figure a way to pull that off in a reasonably convincing way. I saw that film with just a regular audience; they were so quiet when that thing popped on the screen. The sense I just got all around me was that awe of "What is that?" I sat there and thought, "Wow, there's something really neat here." I felt similar moments in other films after that--Terminator 2, Death Becomes Her, certainly Jurassic Park, Twister. When I go into dailies and I see something that makes me go, "Whoa, what is this?"--typically, when I've had that reaction, the audience has it, too.

I kind of think it's okay for there to be cool moments that excite people, that are maybe an end in themselves to some extent.

Sragow: What do you get out of your collaborations with people who come out of traditional arts and crafts, like Phil Tippett? (Among Tippett's creations are the volcanic flying reptile of Dragonslayer, the elephantine Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Lately, his Tippett Studio created the murderous bugs in Starship Troopers.)

Morris: The value of all the good practitioners of the old arts is that they bring a sense of character and of story and of composition and of good filmmaking skills. Whether Phil Tippett's making scary characters in a RoboCop or whether he's making scary aliens in Starship Troopers, it's got this gritty, gnarly edge to it. Directors who are characters and curmudgeons instill that in their films, and abuse all of us who are in blast radius of them, but nonetheless kind of get that in there.

Sragow: How much of an influence is Lucas himself on what you do?
Morris: He is the chairman of the board of Lucas Digital. He has ideas about directions he wants to see this company go; the day-to-day, month-to-month decisions that get made he's less involved in. But as a client, he has a huge shaping effect on us, as any strong client does.

For the Special Edition Star Wars work, he was an active client; now he's become a large client with the Star Wars prequel work, which has taken up between 25 and 35 percent of the facility base here.

So as a client, he's been an innovator in the ways of using effects, unlike many other people; he's very unintimidated about doing big effects pictures, he doesn't give it a thought. If he decides he wants a marching army of aliens, he'll just say, "I want a marching army of aliens here. Figure it out."

Sragow: What are the next films that you feel will have a distinctive ILM signature on them?

Morris: A small-scale thing that I was quite impressed with was the work on Flubber. It being a remake [of The Absent-Minded Professor], it didn't seem to have the potential for innovation, but some of our creatives here have taken the Flubber character and done some work on it, particularly a dance sequence that's in the film. . . . One of our animation directors, Tom Bertino, said, "This is great, this could be wonderful," and I thought, "Okay, I'll trust Tom." And he went way beyond anything I could have guessed.

Of course, the Big One on the horizon for us is the Star Wars prequel. It has such a range, it touches on all the big digital areas--character-animation development, creating digital sets and environments, digital props--to serve what's really a solid story that has a different edge from the earlier Star Wars films. It's got a real neat look and design, mature, interesting, elegant.

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Michael Sragow