Grand Illusions

EVERY DIRECTOR WANTS HIS ACTORS to look just right, and Jan De Bont's no different. That's why he's up so early this Sundayjust 12 days before his $85 million "Twister" blows into theaters. Location shooting in the Oklahoma heartland ended months ago, and actors Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton have moved on to other projects. But the real stars--those roiling, raging tornadoes--still need their final touchups. They didn't come from some Weather Channel video, but instead are pure digital inventions. You and I use a PC to doodle. Here at Industrial Light & Magic in northern California, the country's premier special-effects house, they fool Mother Nature. Today, De Bont is tweaking the final 69 seconds of shots for his windy epic. ILMers call the scenes "CBBs," for "could be better." De Bont wants more dust and debris in a closing sequence, some tree leaves removed in another. Seated around him in a screening room are 60 Generation FXers. Their job: give De Bont the perfect shotsby tomorrow morning. Correcting one blemish might take a computer-graphics artist all night. Bytes! Camera! Action! Is your monitor plugged in?

It's summer-movie time in America. As usual, this year's crop offers the good, the bad and the Schwarzenegger. And more than ever, they feature wild special effects. The magic stretches our imagination, even as some of the story lines test our patience. From hurtling cows in "Twister," to an exploding White House in "Independence Day," to a beast with the voice and brow of Sean Connery in "Dragonheart," special effects give filmmakers amazing tools to create artificial reality. They come from high-tech software, old-fashioned model makers and just plain wacko fire freaks.

"Twister," opening this Friday (summer starts early this year), is the latest offspring of the marriage between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. A long, long time ago--1977--"Star Wars" begat the new era of fantastic effects. Matte paintings and miniatures had been around for generations, but George Lucas's crew taught a computer how to play nice with a camera, so that spaceships, planets and other elements could be added seamlessly to the same shot. In 1982, "Star Trek II" produced the first sequence ever generated by a computer--the creation of a planet. Three years later came the first 3-D digital character--the "stained-glass man" in "Young Sherlock Holmes." Then came the computer-graphics (CG) revolution: the pseudopod slithering through "Abyss," the metallic cyborg in "Terminator 2" and the T. rex that razed "Jurassic Park."

Now it's tornadoes, the latest figment of a computer's imagination. Amblin Entertainment wouldn't even green-light the movie until ILM produced a prototype of a believable twister in January 1995. It's one thing to request a digital dinosaur and not get it; the director can always settle for a robotic model instead. But there's no substitute for a fake tornado, unless you count the cheeky mix of cotton, dust and spinning canvas from "The Wizard of Oz." In "Twister"--the story of high-risk storm-chasers trying to get scientific data on tornadoes--ILM wound up making 25 minutes of storm scenes. It's not easy, says effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, "because a tornado has to look more real than a dinosaur."

For verisimilitude, each frame of tornado had to contain millions of chaotic particles--some being born, some fizzling out. Once "drawn" at a high-power Silicon Graphics workstation, the tornadoes--along with CG hail, barns, tractors and skies--had to be combined on film with real actors and location footage. Don't try this on your laptop; "Twister's" shots take up 17 trillion bytes (equivalent to about 12 million floppy discs) of memory. ILM's bill to the studio: about $15 million. That's a lot more than the costars got.

"Dragonheart," opening May 31, won't get the press hype of "Twister"; fairy tales set in the 10th century usually don't. Yet Draco, its computer-generated costar, is a spectacular combination of photorealism and animation. He's an 18-foot-high, 43-foot-long creature, who, according to the breathless production notes, joins Dennis Quaid "in a heroic battle to free a country held in an iron grip by its tyrannical leader." ILM's Draco makes the denizens of "Jurassic Park" look primitive. He gets 22 minutes of screen time, he appears in the tricky lighting conditions of daytime and he chats up a storm. Pity Quaid, who never got to see him until post-production. "There was no dragon there," Quaid recalls. "I had to talk to tennis balls on sticks." Wasn't that difficult? "I've worked with some actors who've given me less."

If "Twister" and "Dragonheart" represent state-of-the-art FX, "Independence Day" proves that microchip technology isn't everything. Opening July 3, Roland Emmerich's film is "E.T." on a bad trip. Aliens bent on total annihilation invade Earth. The movie is a chance to see mayhem on a grand scale--entire cities destroyed, air battles between 15-mile-wide spaceships and puny fighter jets, and a Wall of Destruction that engulfs everything in its path. CG has its place--for enhancing flames and rocket fire. But the bulk of the special effects were made the old-fashioned way: with miniatures, puppets, pyrotechnics and photographic sleights of hand. "In Hollywood, when a new toy comes along, everyone wants it," says producer Dean Devlin. "But computers aren't always the way to go." "Independence Day's" effects cost more than "Twister's," but it has many more shots.

Four camera crews and 30 model makers worked for more than a year in the same Los Angeles hangar where Howard Hughes assembled the Spruce Goose. The trick was to build models at the correct scale with just enough detail, then film them at just the right speed. Best shot: the White House getting toasted. Using 20 different charges, they blew up a 12-foot-long plaster replica, complete with tiny pieces of furniture inside so the debris looked authentic. "Understanding vision and perception are everything," says effects supervisor Volker Engel. But working on a real set, instead of inside a computer, has certain liabilities. You have to do explosions outsidein this case, in the parking lot. "We couldn't do any pyro after 8 because two old ladies up in the hills complained," says Engel.

Not all special effects this summer are in your face. Paramount would prefer you not realize Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible" was able to do his daring stunts in the finale only with the aid of an ILM computer to "paint out" the guide wires. And then there's "The Island of Dr. Moreau," the remake starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer due out in October. Digital Domain, one of ILM's rising competitors based in Los Angeles, is creating the strange creatures that the movie demands. But they just found out about the "B.V.D. shots" that need fixing. It seems Marlon didn't quite fit into his costume, and the top of his undies are showing in the back. A few computer strokes, costing only tens of thousands of dollars, will clear up the problem. It's an offer even Brando couldn't refuse.

Go to "Independence Day" to see why those aliens blow up the White House. But how did the filmmakers do it? A short guide to becoming a movie pyromaniac without doing damage to anything but the budget.

Is that Socks on the portico? First, you build a 12-foot scale model out of plaster. Put some real green plants in the foreground, making sure you keep proper perspective. Add mood lighting and some tiny pieces of funiture inside.

Doomsday machine: The gigantic alien spacecraft is another miniature, added later to the film plate. No rig the White House with explosives--not dynamite, but powdered gasoline. You'll need 20 different charges just for the window.

Ka-blooey! There are actually three separate explosions. The windows go first, then the big bang, then the fireball. Filming at just the right speed helps make things look bigger. And remember, you only get one try. We don't have a trailer full of these.