Imagine: The vast city of Poseidon, the capital of Ancient Atlantis, stretched out before us. The time is approximately 30,000 years ago, and Atlantis is at the apex of its achievement as a civilization. We see commerce, large anti-gravity vessels called valixes ascending and descending, many sailing ships of all kinds, small anti-gravity personal craft and land vehicles, as well as crowds of pedestrians.
Canals and exotic buildings surround an enormous pyramidal structure which dominates the landscape. Scattered throughout are hanging gardens, parks, and gigantic statues of Poseidon and the various gods and goddesses of the city. Now imagine the same scene thousands of years later with most of the structures and statues in disrepair, badly weathered, and under heavy rain-soaked skies, a giant tidal wave bears down upon it. Then again imagine remnants of the city seen underwater during our present time.
Today, such scenes in a feature film or for television are not only possible technically and artistically, but in the hands of the right directing, producing, and effects team, can be much less expensive than they once were, just a few years ago. When The Last Star Fighter, the first film to use computer 3-D models instead of actual miniatures, was made, the required super Cray computer hardware by itself cost the production approximately million. Nowadays, however, the necessary hardware is available at a tiny fraction of the old costs. Two things have happened to make this possible.
1. Digital compositing technology has grown by leaps and bounds, replacing older forms of compositing by optical methods.
2. Major advancements in software have improved computer modeling and 3-D animation.
The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, for example, look frighteningly real when combined seamlessly with the live actors. Furthermore, the digital compositing tricks are so good and impressive nowadays that Tom Hanks, as Forrest Gump, can be made to shake hands with former presidents, one reason the film took this year's Academy Award for special effects. All of this is important because scenarios such as the one above can now be produced, because costs are within bounds. Also, when recreating scenes such as the last days of Atlantis with the myriad artistic and technical challenges, the result could effectively convince audiences they are actually there, and not put them off with the tell-tale tricks of the past.
As much as I once admired old-style Hollywood producer George Pal for his Atlantean efforts, I'm sorry, but they never worked for me. There was very little variety and everything looked like, well, like models. The advent of personal computer software and hardware in the professional entertainment marketplace has had a revolutionary effect. Pioneered by the Amiga personal computer and Lightwave 3-D software from New Tek, were breathtaking but inexpensive special effects. Television shows like Babylon 5, Robo Cop, Seaquest, and Unsolved Mysteries, are among those to exploit the technology. Jaws have been dropping in executive suites all over Hollywood as it has become apparent that the lowly Amiga, with its inexpensive software, can indeed do broadcast quality animation. Budgets have dropped, too. In feature films, George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic company, originally put together for Star Wars, led the way for much of the technology we're talking about, especially advances in digital compositing.
A curious thing has happened on the way to the marketplace for the 20th anniversary reissue of Star Wars. Quoting Lucas: The digital technology that ILM pioneered in films like Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump allows me to revise a few scenes which bring the movie closer to my original vision. As reported in Cinescape (Feb. 1995) magazine, his plans include adding or enhancing key sequences outside the famous cantina and in the Tatooine Dunes, among others. New shots of digitally realized creatures, vehicles and droids are expected to be integrated. Of the scenes likely to be added to the movie, the restoration of a lopped confrontation between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt (who didn't make his first appearance until six years later in Return of the Jedi) has received the most attention. As originally scripted and filmed, Solo runs into a humanoid Jabba after being hired as a taxi driver by Luke and Ben Kenobi. After Jabba bickers with Solo over why the maverick pilot dumped a shipment he was carrying for the intergalactic black marketeer, the scruffy glutton agrees to give Hans a chance to repay him for the lost cargo.
So, what do Babylon 5, Seaquest, and Robo Cop (the TV series) have in common? Special effects on PCs (Amigas) which are better than the stories. Now let's hope the stories can catch up.