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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945;

Artists, scholars and engineers look at special effects

As several dancers performed on a stage, larger-than-life translucent figures pirouetted around them in spectral swirls of pink and turquoise. Backs arched, arms thrown wide, toes pointed, the numinous images were uncannily graceful.

"Before today I never would have connected special effects with my art," experimental filmmaker Paul Kaiser said about the figures that were projected from his laptop computer onto the high-tech screen in the Gates Information Sciences Building classroom. "But as a panelist suggested this morning, special effects can even be associated with religious moments, and for large numbers of us art took the place of religion in the past century."

Kaiser, who founded Riverbed digital-art studio and collaborated with choreographer Merce Cunningham to produce the haunting dance program BIPED, was one of 19 panelists who explored the many worlds of "Special Effects" on Feb. 11 and 12.

The fourth and final symposium hosted by the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia, the two-day program brought together humanists and engineers to trace the distinctive contours of the special-effects realms inhabited by philosophers, sociologists, physicists, anthropologists, artists, filmmakers and designers of computer graphics.

The discussions began with Cartesian reasoning and morphed into Michael Jackson videos, stopping along the way to consider religious epiphanies and miracles. Between panel sessions, Scott Bukatman, assistant professor of art, showed film clips of memorable special-effects sequences from such movies as 2001, The Ten Commandments and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Audience members and panelists still were asking fundamental questions about what constitutes special effects at the end of the symposium, which prompted Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature and director of the lecture and symposia series, to suggest that participants might want to form research groups for further study.

Professors on the humanist team, outfitted in coats and ties in de rigueur black, read from scholarly papers that addressed determinative propositions, hegemonic narratives, cultural binaries and linear modernizations. Augustine, Hegel, Foucault and Proust were counted among the saintly.

Practitioners from the more playful engineering team opted for jeans and spoke off-the-cuff about the, like, total coolness of motion capture, optical flow, image-based rendering and fluid dynamic simulation. Cultural icons included Homer Simpson, Antz, The Mummy, Titanic and Toy Story 2.

"I've been blown away by the completely different perspectives on the topic," Marshall Monroe, a theme-park veteran for Walt Disney Imagineering and head of Blue Sky entertainment ventures, hazarded as the symposium hurtled toward the concluding session late Saturday afternoon. "So I'm just gonna ad-lib and try to find some connections."

Noting the practical demands in his field "Pirates of the Caribbean requires fog 24 hours a day, and if the fog goes down, it bums out a lot of visitors" Monroe suggested that the test of good special effects is invisibility.

"They're so magic, so transparent, so seamless that no one even knows they're there," he said about his own favorites.

John Berton of Industrial Light & Magic, who supervised visual effects for The Mummy, said the last thing that he wants to hear about his work is something like "the movie was garbage, but the special effects were great."

"The most important aspect is telling the story the director wants to tell," Berton said as he introduced a series of video clips that showed how technicians combined digital painting with live-action filming to recreate the ancient city of Thebes, give direction to sandstorms and animate Imhotep, the computer-generated mummy.

"You're supposed to say, 'That can't be.' You're supposed to believe it, even if it's unbelievable."

Rob Legato, who won an Oscar nomination for his work on Apollo 13, said one of his proudest moments came the day he showed film clips of the movie in production to the astronaut who had co-piloted the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969.

"I'd picked a favorite shot from stock footage of the real launch, then imagined a camera panning and tilting, and embellished what I thought I remembered," Legato said. "Buzz Aldrin looked at the clip and said, 'Where did you get this stuff?' He believed it was the real thing."

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, agreed that the best practitioners tried to approximate reality, and he argued that films driven by special effects can feel like jarring roller-coaster rides. Like other speakers who attempted to bridge the gap between the arts and various technologies, Catmull said it is critical that the motion picture industry develop a culture "where artists and technical people are paid the same, receive the same stock options and are allowed to intermarry."

PDI (Pacific Data Image) fielded two panelists Carl Rosendahl, a Stanford alumnus who was executive producer for Antz, and Shawn Neely, who developed the morphing technique that has been used in a number of television commercials and music videos, including Michael Jackson's Black or White.

In comments about state-of-the-art special effects, Rosendahl suggested that the best computer graphics tools still are difficult to use, and Neely argued that the desired effects often "transcend the technology."

Tom Brigham, who in 1993 received an Academy Award for technical achievement for inventing the morphing technique, talked about the frustrations he encountered when he tried to articulate what he was searching for in the early years of his career.

"Basically I was trying to make one photo turn into another photo and the only reaction I used to get was a total blank stare, like 'Huh?' People were not aware of any unmet need."

But Brigham persevered and in 1981 developed a morphing program that transformed a woman's face into that of a cat.

The "whys" and "therefores" industry practitioners identified at the Friday evening film fest in Gates were explored by the academics who gathered on panels at the Cantor Arts Center to consider the history and philosophical implications of various kinds of special effects.

Philosophers Denis Rosenfeld, Hent de Vries and Wolfgang Welsch looked at the doubts and questions that are raised by the special effects of religious and cultural phenomena. Rosenfeld, professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, noted in his paper "On the Eucharist" that a "theologically exciting" special effect flowed from Jesus' intention when he said, "This is my body." De Vries, professor of philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, suggested that "the special effect should be understood against the backdrop of the religious tradition, in particular, the miracle." And Welsch, professor of philosophy at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, told several stories and conducted thought experiments that, he said, showed philosophical questioning has its own special effects and could "make us wonder if we, too, might be the products of someone else's dreaming."

The lone sociologist on the panels, Urs Staeheli of the University of Bielefeld in Germany, spoke about the globalization of popular culture and suggested that special effects represented a "disruptive function" in culture, a "means to emphasize narratives and make them more convincing."

Anthropologist Michael Taussig brought a wealth of tales to the symposium, drawing on 30 years of fieldwork on the hot and humid Pacific coast of Colombia. Although rain has been well represented by writers and filmmakers, he said, he was "perplexed by the absence of heat in movies set in tropical zones."

The history and spectacle of special effects were addressed by Samuel Weber, professor of comparative literature and critical theory at the University of California-Los Angeles, who looked at the stage and sound effects that pre-dated cinema. Thomas Elsaesser, professor of art and culture at the University of Amsterdam, revisited Fritz Lang's 1927 classic, Metropolis, and Buster Keaton's The Electric House. Jim Steinmeyer, an illusion designer who worked with magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield, traced the careers of two 19th-century performers who brought guillotine scenes, shipwrecks, earthquakes, levitations and spectral effects to the stage.

Vivian Sobchack, associate dean and professor of film and television studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, cast an analytical eye on the special effects that result from morphing techniques. Contrasting morphing and warping with Hollywood's cuts and long takes of previous generations, she said the former captivates viewers with its reversibility, its "inside-out" quality.

On the final panel, Roger Romani, associate professor of physics, demonstrated how light bends around black holes to produce a cosmic special effect. Avant-garde artist Krzysztof Wodiczko of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology closed the symposium by showing "fragments" of his work with nighttime projections on historic monuments, including a 14th-century city hall tower in Krakow, Poland; the Bunker Hill obelisk in Charlestown, Mass.; and a building near the atomic-bomb monument in Hiroshima.

"I use video and sound to animate symbolic structures and old monuments," Wodiczko said. "I do not attack them, but playfully appropriate them so they can become works of living history rather than sleeping relics of the past."

The projection of a woman's hands, slowly peeling a single potato as she told how her husband had beaten both her and her children, brought tears to the eyes of viewers gathered in the ancient public square and visibly moved viewers at the symposium as well.


By Diane Manuel

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