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BEYOND `ARMAGEDDON' : SIMI VALLEY COMPANY TOILS IN OBSCURITY DESPITE CREATING DAZZLING MOVIE EFFECTS.

Byline: Dave McNary Daily News Staff Writer

Four and a half weeks before ``Armageddon'' was due in theaters, The Walt Disney Co.'s top movie executive and the movie's producer and director decided something was missing from the action epic.

They turned to a small company in Simi Valley for help.

Members of Dream Quest Images immediately began working seven days a week to make the deadline for ``Armageddon,'' pressured by the knowledge that the Bruce Willis-Ben Affleck action-adventure was one of the most anticipated movies of the summer.

Four and a half weeks later, Paris was in ruins.

``We came up with destroying Paris because of its emotional impact and the fact that it's flat with recognizable monuments like the Eiffel Tower,'' said Hoyt Yeatman, one of the visual effects supervisors at Dream Quest Images.

In fact, scenes of DQI-created Gallic devastation - viewed over the shoulders of a pair of gargoyles on the Notre Dame cathedral - became a key part of the revamped ``Armageddon,'' which went on to take in more dollars at the nation's box office than any other movie released in 1998.

DQI executives are particularly proud of having delivered such a complicated package, which included computer-generated images, pyrotechnics, modeling, sculpture and satellite mapping, in such a short time frame.

``The best part of DQI is that it's very diversified,'' said Richard Hoover, another visual effects supervisor. ``We're not just a computer graphics facility but a one-stop shop. We're trying to do A-level work.''

Despite its ability to create never-before-seen special effects and the fact that it's owned by Disney, which bought the firm for an undisclosed amount, DQI is largely unknown outside of the industry. Its 200 employees work in an anonymous business park just off the Ronald Reagan Freeway; a Costco warehouse sits nearby and is really the only thing that draws traffic to the neighborhood.

But the industry certainly knows DQI. It's already won Academy Awards for special effects in ``The Abyss'' and ``Total Recall.'' And its creations in ``Armageddon'' and Disney's ``Mighty Joe Young'' are under consideration for Oscars this year.

(In fact, on Tuesday three of the seven semifinalists will be named Oscar finalists. The others: ``Babe: Pig in the City,'' ``Godzilla,'' ``Small Soldiers,'' ``The Truman Show'' and ``What Dreams May Come.'')

There's no sign of those past glories at DQI's headquarters, which bristles with top-end computers including a network of 100 Silicon Graphics workstations along with stages for creating digital characters out of little more than imagination.

DQI is currently working on Disney's major summer live-action movie, ``Inspector Gadget,'' along with several other Disney projects. Yeatman estimated that about 85 percent of DQI's work is for Disney but said his company is not automatically rewarded all the effects work for Disney films.

``Even though we're a Disney subsidiary, we're a company unto itself,'' he said. ``People assume we're mandatorily given the effects work on Disney movies but it's often up to the directors, who may have past relationships with other houses. We have been fortunate to stay very, very busy.''

It's not easy work. Hoover, who began working on ``Mighty Joe Young'' in early 1996, noted that one of the stumbling blocks in creating a believable 9-foot gorilla was capturing nuances of performance and expressiveness. ``The slightest visual hitch will shatter the illusion of reality,'' he added.

In this case, DQI programmers spent almost a year writing a program that would give realistic movement to Joe's 3.5 million hairs, along with creating facial animation systems and a skin-shader technology for the parts not covered by fur. In all, DQI created 23 computer-generated shots of digital Joe, including climbing a Ferris wheel and smashing a Mercedes-Benz.

Despite the outward absence of glitz and glamour, DQI has become one of the world's half-dozen top players in the increasingly important business of supplying jaw-dropping special effects to Hollywood studios. That roster includes George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, Sony's Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues, Digital Domain and Cinesite; also gaining prominence are Pixar Animation and Pacific Data Images for supplying the computer-generated insects in ``A Bug's Life'' and ``Antz,'' respectively.

With hundreds of ``boutique'' productions houses able to offer low-ball services, though, there is a pervasive concern that a shakeout is coming similar to that in 1997 when Boss Films closed and Warner Bros. eliminated its digital effects department. Alarms are constantly sounded about how tough it is to succeed in the effects business as studios pull back on big-budget projects and how a massive consolidation is inevitable.

It is clearly a high-stakes game. Special effects can help deliver major box office, such as in ``Titanic'' or ``Armageddon,'' which generated about $80 million in profits for Disney. But having special effects is no guarantee, as in ``Babe: Pig in the City,'' which cost $90 million to make but grossed only $18 million domestically.

Tom Atkin, executive director of the Sherman Oaks-based Visual Effects Society, points out that producers have significantly more choices nowadays with close to 300 houses in the United States and an additional 100 overseas.

``My opinion is that the golden age of visual effects has been tempered by the equation having changed,'' Atkin said. ``Until recently, demand always has exceeded the supply. But now the public has become more sophisticated so that effects can no longer carry a film and the novelty has worn off. So at the studio level, they're not green-lighting as many big-effects movies as they used to.''

But the betting among industry trackers is that DQI and most other major players will remain a key ingredient in delivering must-see, big-screen entertainment.

``The little guys can play the game of delivering the frames you need for a scene at low cost but a large chunk of what producers need is asset management - that is, keeping track of all the pieces, especially the ones that are being subcontracted out,'' said analyst Joseph Butt Jr. of Forrester Research in Boston.

Butt believes the next few years will be rough but robust. ``The business is clearly here to stay because public acceptance of the spectacle of visual effects in movies is here to stay.''

FLATTENING PARIS

PACOIMA - The destruction of Paris by the killer asteroid in ``Armageddon'' actually occurred in the northeast San Fernando Valley last spring.

But that's the punch line, no pun intended. First, the setup:

The ``Armageddon'' sequence begins when a nuclear detonation inside an asteroid propels a massive chunk of debris toward Earth.

To give the asteroid and space a realistic look, Dream Quest Images engineers wrote a program to portray gases and another program, based on photos from the Hubbell telescope and astronauts, to render stars accurately.

Crews flew to Paris to film images of the City of Lights while effects specialists at DQI headquarters in Simi Valley used satellite information to map out key buildings over a ``virtual layout'' of the French capitol.

DQI artists also sculpted reproductions of gargoyles at the Notre Dame cathedral and DQI's model department built a set on an indoor stage so that the destruction sequence would play out from the gargoyles' viewpoint.

A pyrotechnics team laid out the equivalent of three cases of dynamite at Hansen Dam in Pacoima, then set off 84 charges at intervals of five-thousandths of a second.

Hoyt Yeatman, who had been supervising the effects on ``Mighty Joe Young,'' set up the shot logistics, matching Parisian sun angles to the light at Hansen Dam.

The result was the ``earth tsunami'' burying Paris.

- Dave McNary

DQI employee dead from fall

POINT MUGU - Jeffrey A. Burks, a special effects employee at Dream Quest Images, died Thursday.

The Newbury Park resident died of massive blunt-force trauma when he fell 35 feet from an off-limits area of Mugu Rock while taking pictures, the Ventura County Coroner's Office said Friday.

- Daily News

CAPTION(S):

6 Photos, 2 Boxes

PHOTO (1--Color) Hoyt Yeatman, left, and Richard Hoover of Dream Quest Images display items used in special-effects shots for ``Armageddon.''

Tom Mendoza/Daily News

(2--6--Color) no caption (Scenes from the the movie ``Armageddon'')

BOX: (1) FLATTENING PARIS (see text)

(2) DQI employee dead from fall (see text)
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 8, 1999
Words:1353
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