TED 2008: John Knoll on movie visual effects

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA. This morning's session is "How Do We Create?") Presenter: John Knoll, inventor of Photoshop and visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic.

Img 0267

John compared how visual effects were made for movies from the 1950s with contemporary movies. He showed clips from Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and clips from Pirates of the Caribbean.

The process hasn't changed that much. You start off looking at the script, have discussions with director, and decide what needs to be shot using visual effects: anything you can't just go out and shoot, anything that doesn't exist, anything that's too expensive, too dangerous, or just not possible.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea used miniature ships in a studio tank (about 200 ' x 200', a few feet deep). The last pictures that used this techniques was Tora! Tora! Tora!. The tank method works pretty well but the scale of the water doesn't work well. Droplet size is wrong.

For Pirates, Knoll also built a tank, but came up with ways to split in full-size water droplets. Adding full scale water in background really helps.


  1. As I recall, one of the old tricks was to mix naphtha and water and use that in the tank. The naphtha mostly fractionates to the top and has a smaller droplet size. Frighteningly dangerous in eleven different ways by today’s standards, one need hardly add.

  2. I have to speak up on this one.

    The use of miniatures in film making is not completely dead and gone. It is still possible to get better results, for less money, using old school techniques. Have a look here:
    for some photos of the model ship used in Underworld 2. This was built and shot by Fantasy II Film Effects in Los Angeles.

    One of the tricks for shooting water miniatures is to use a BIG model (the ship shown is about 30 feet long). If the model is no less than one quarter the size of the full scale structure it can be completely seamless. The Underworld ship was smaller than quarter scale (in fact, there was no full scale ship… only the model and some sets), and if you pay attention to the bow wake in the traveling shots you can see the scale problem, but I would argue that the problem is less noticeable, and the whole shot more realistic, than a CGI ship and/or water would have been.

    I did the explosion of the Underworld ship, working closely with Gene Warren to design the sequence. It was done in one take with multiple cameras. The only digital enhancement was the composited addition of a person in the foreground of one of the angles.

    Similarly, none of the traveling shots used digital effects. The helecoptor flying over the ship was an RC model flying over the ship model, and the rippling of the water from the prop wash is beautiful!

    The true artists in visual effects are the ones who know when to use miniatures and when to use digital techniques… and when to combine then. It’s knowing the tools. Do you reach for a wrench or do you reach for a screw driver? If you’re trying to turn a screw with a wrench you’re gonna’ have poor results!

    Unfortunately, many of todays film makers only know digital techniques. This has given way the slew of crappy looking CGI extravaganzas that we see today. It is often assumed that it will be easier, cheaper, and better looking to go completely digital, when usually only the first of those may be true (as the second unit crew members often say, “If it was easy, first unit would have done it!”).

    There aren’t many people still doing miniatures these days. Gene Warren at Fantasy II, the Skotak brothers from 4Ward, and Michael Joyce with Cinema Production Services are the ones who come to mind.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with all of them, and particularly with my “friend and mentor” (there’s a story behind that phrase), Joe Viskocil, arguably the best there is at miniature explosions (I’m second best). He blew up the death star in Star Wars, the marshmallow man in Ghost Busters, the White House in Independence Day, the tank truck in Terminator, and Mount Rushmore in Team America. There are some behind-the-scenes photos from a few of these projects in the gallery section at hutchfx.com.

  3. I thought that LOTR pioneered a lot of CG. That’s how they were able to keep to a relatively modest budget.

  4. >>Wasn’t Lord of the Rings heavily dependent on miniatures?

    Yes, it was. I think it’s a pretty good example of what can be accomplished with the skillful combining of miniature/live action/CG elements. Plus, it was fantasy, so even if a lot of it looks CGey, it fits as a style choice.

    Another example of that is The Fifth Element. They used lots of miniatures, combined with digital effects. Some of the stuff screamed CG, but they picked a style similar to the graphic novel origins of the story, and they stuck with it. That works for me.

  5. I understood the miniatures to have saved them a shitload of money over CG.

    After CG hit Hollywood big time, a whole host of talented miniaturists were thrown to the dogs. Stupidly. There is lots you can do cheaper, faster and better with miniatures. CG is just another tool, it shouldn’t be considered a end-all/be-all.

  6. >>I thought that LOTR pioneered a lot of CG. That’s how they were able to keep to a relatively modest budget.

    Again, you are assuming that CG is always cheaper than live action. That’s not true.

    I once spent more than a week shooting broken glass and spark elements to be composited into the tunnel sequence of I Robot. Setting up a shoot like this was obviously expensive, but it would have cost a fortune to model and animate all of the individual sparks and pieces of glass (and it wouldn’t have looked as good).

  7. Great post HutchFX! As a one-time miniature modeler (Robocop 2 for Tippett) and huge fan of motion picture miniatures, I’m pleased that so many filmmakers are returning to more miniature work wherever it’s practical/cost effective.

    I worked at Lucasarts in the days when it was next door to ILM and I loved seeing the insanely talented modelers’ work when I could wander over for a look. Some of those multi-million dollar spaceship models were breathtaking! Fortunately my job at the time required a few visits to the LFL archives and I photographed the hell out of just about every old SW model there was. It was a mindblowing thrill for a model geek like me!

    Jurassic Park was the death knell and the model business died a slow death over the decade of the 90s. Luckily, digital compositing and matchmoving techniques advanced quickly and are letting a new generation of craftsmen carry on a great film fx tradition, even if in a reduced capacity.

Comments are closed.