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All Mac effects in blockbusters

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By Debra Kaufman
Set to open in early 2004, Mindhunters is director Renny Harlin’s latest foray into action-adventure. In this movie (starring Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, and LL Cool J, among others), graduating FBI profilers are sent on their last “test assignment” to a remote island where they become the targets of a serial killer and need to use all their skills to save their lives.
Mindhunters’ visual effects supervisor, Brian Jennings used all his skills to turn out the film’s effects shots. And what makes Jennings’ tale of even more interest is the fact that he did it all in-house with Apple Macintosh G4 computers and ten artists.
Originally, Jennings—who started his career as a computer animator and has VFX suped for Driven, Mimic, Scary Movie and The Faculty—was brought on to the film with the idea that there would only be 35 effects shots, with an accordingly low budget. “I know Renny, so I knew it would be at least 150 shots,” remembers Jennings. “And, as it turned out, we ended up doing close to 400.”
The 50-day shoot, in January 2002, took place in the Netherlands and Belgium. Standing in for the FBI training facility was a 1920s telecommunications building. For a police training town set on the island, filmmakers were able to shoot a real police training town, just outside of Antwerp.
The trick for Jennings and his VFX crew was to make the telecommunications building and the training town look like they were next to each other – and place both of them on the remote island. This was one reason why the number of effects shots skyrocketed. Another factor was working with the Dutch crew. “They’re not used to a film of this scale, and they don’t have the experience of knowing where to put trucks and peripheral stuff to keep it out of the shot,” he says.
Even with an increased budget, Jennings had to keep tabs on costs. Once the shoot was over, he calculated that it would be more cost-efficient to set up an in-house VFX shop than parcel the shots out to facilities, so he set one up in London’s Soho district and chose the Macintosh as the platform, having used it before for Driven. “I know the Macs are easier to operate – and easier for new people to learn,” he says. “There was a learning curve, but not as much as it might have been on another platform.”
The studio was set up with dual-processor, 1-gigahertz G4s for the artists, with an additional two G4s used as servers, hooked to a two-terabyte RAID. Software included Discreet Combustion, Adobe After Effects and NewTek Lightwave.
The first task was the design of the island, which was supposed to be off the coast of Virginia, with the look of sand dunes and scrub brush. Jennings got a sea chart and picked an island that was the perfect size, near where he grew up in New York. Taking that island, they laid out where the action took place. For the helicopter shots Jennings had to track the shots and pop in the training town as well as the natural elements. Lightwave was used to generate the 3D town, Artemis Tsunami was the software package used to generate water, and the layers were composited in Combustion.
In one scene, the actors go out on a jetty. The shot Jennings had to work with was a little pond in the Netherlands dunes near the North Sea. “The challenge here was to take out all the city background and create a natural break that goes out to the ocean,” he says. “And, since cinematographer Robert Gantz liked using wide angles, we had a lot to clean up – we had to get a consistent look throughout the whole scene.”
The VFX artists were in the same building as the film’s two editors, Neil Farrell and Paul Martin Smith, whose Avids were networked with VFX’s Macs. “We’d temp a shot in a couple of hours and get it to them,” Jennings says. “We had the nimbleness to knock something out quickly. It was a nice collaborative effort between editorial and effects.”

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