Fri, May 23, 2008 - Page 16 News List

It’s all smoke and mirrors with ‘Crystal Skull’

The newest Indiana Jones epic has fully embraced the most advanced digital technology, giving it a very different look from it predecessors

By Derrik J. Lang  /  AP , SAN FRANCISCO

In these hallowed halls, Indiana Jones almost seems out of place.

A banner with a two-dimensional cutout of the swashbuckling archaeologist swings through the lobby of Industrial Light and Magic, where life-size replicas of Darth Vader and Bobba Fett from `Star Wars stand guard.

The home of George Lucas’ visual effects company is a high-tech temple to everything from the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to the talking robots in Transformers. But Indy cannot take credit for the digital wizardry for which ILM has become famous over the last couple of decades.

Not yet, anyway. That is because he has not been around for 19 years, a time in which special effects has mostly migrated from sound stage to server.

The first three Indy films were gritty, sweaty and tactile affairs, largely because everything on-screen physically existed somewhere. Not so with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — though that was almost the case.

When first approaching the latest Indy, director Steven Spielberg considered dusting off his old-school approach.

“He thought maybe we should just go back to the way we did things before, like matte paintings on glass and things like that,” visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman said. “We entertained that idea for a little bit, but we realized we could serve the story better by using our digital tools.”

That decision ultimately led to a filmmaking innovation that brings the random reactions of a virtual world to the big screen, giving more control to ILM’s computers than ever before.

To the children romping outside at ILM’s in-house daycare located just past the lobby, the notion of a digital “environment” being responsible for much of what is on-screen will probably seem quaint someday.

But to the adult audiences who have glimpsed the latest Indy escapade, it is a big part of the reason this one looks so different from Jones’ last crusade.

Helman, who previously worked with Spielberg on Munich and War of the Worlds, was tasked with creating realistic-yet-fantastic environments and creatures for Crystal Skull, which finds Jones traipsing from New England to New Mexico, Peru and the Amazon. Working on the Indy franchise for the first time was a daunting task for the low-key effects guru.

“It’s horrifying to work on a movie that has this many fans, but at the same time, it’s an opportunity and a challenge,” Helman said less than a week before its release. “I think we were all very, very respectful of the other three movies but also to the fans. All the effects work that we’re doing are completely reality-based.”

That is if your reality includes a blooming atomic mushroom cloud, seemingly endless Area 51 warehouse, vicious monkey army, the City of Gold, thousands of man-eating ants and sundry otherworldly things.

All those locales and critters were created by Helman and his ILM team for Crystal Skull, making up the film’s 450 effects shots — not quite as many as the 600-plus in Transformers, but more than you might expect from a flesh-and-blood character from the 1950s.

About 300 artists and editors worked for eight months in post-production on a high-tech computer network at ILM’s offices inside the Presidio of San Francisco, a long way from the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom days, when Indiana Jones special effects mostly consisted of miniature sets and a few blue-screen mash-ups.

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