Those who wonder about society’s ambivalent attitude toward its children will be relieved to know that children aren’t yet dismissed entirely as special effects. At least, not according to Stefan Fangmeier, who oversaw all the effects for ILM, and who recalls fielding a call, early in preproduction for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events from director Brad Siberling. As Fangmeier recalls, Siberling said “I’m concerned about the 18 month-old girl—is it possible to do her CG?”Fangmeier said that if they had proceeded he would’ve argued against it since, he felt, there’d be that “uncanny valley” effect—referring to the phrase coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe a human tendency to empathize with machines until they become too human-like, at which point the weird pod-people-like differences of the robot become pronounced, and observers start to get repulsed for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on. This is often given as the reason reactions to the virtual, human-but-not-quite cast of The Polar Express elicits mixed responses, at best, from viewers.Fangmeier figured too many people would ask the same question that he did when running his CG Sunny tests: “why doesn’t that look right?” But the virtual groundwork wasn’t for naught, for when the very real Hoffman twins, Kara and Shelby, were cast as the single Sunny, Fangmeier had developed a multicamera, still photography system to scan numerous facial expressions and angles, “eight cameras surrounding her,” he notes, arrayed in pairs of two, to find three-dimension points. “You can get expressions very easily” with such a digital catalog, he observes.And they did—enhancing (or is that tweaking?) the performances of the wee Hoffmans. “There was Gollum, there was Hulk,” Fangmeier opines, and now there is an “18 month-old girl in front of the camera with a fou-fou dress.”But, unlike the slinky ring-bearer or raging green behemoth, there were only 20 or so shots of “face replacement,” from the eyes on down, for Sunny. “All of our R&D efforts were focused on getting Sunny right.”So that character role might be considered a kind of “cyborg” performance—half human, half machine. But Fangmeier wasn’t just worried about getting Sunny’s expressions right; there was a larger “expressionism” at work.Indeed, he pronounces this the “best looking film I’ve ever worked on.” Its dark-and-stormy look was courtesy of production designer Rick Heinrichs, and called for getting away from locations, to a deliberately designed look. “A whole movie like that on interior sets just isn’t done anymore,” Fangmeier says, but this one was, adding, in his estimation, “a certain nobility to the images.”Part of that “nobility” came from using forced-perspective sets: “The front of the locomotive is 10 times larger than the rear,” he says, of the dare-we-say signal set-piece with a train barreling down on the Baudelaire orphans, all of it designed to “adhere to the scale of the rails it was traveling on.” Yet more nobility came from judicious use of blue screen, especially in the Lake Lachrymose scenes with Meryl Streep’s Aunt Josephine character.Not only was there a lot of painted backdrop, but those aforementioned indigo screens were coupled with “a lot of shots with the kids on a platform”—the very platform threatening to crash into the sea as the house is sheared apart by gale-force winds. Yet, though the house eventually collapses around them, crashing into the sea—and the titular orphans only barely escape—the sequence “was not as violent as other film sequences I’ve done.” Then again, this is a man who’s worked on Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and A Perfect Storm.In spite of that pedigree, not only is Fangmeier willing to pronounce this film the best looking of his resume, but he starts considering its very designs and effects in a larger, deeper context. There is, he declares, a “sort of theatrical sense” in the film, continuing that “The World’s Deadliest Viper”—citing a CG reptile used during the film’s Billy Connolly-driven Uncle Monty sequences—is, in fact, “ a metaphorical design.”And to think it looked like a snake!But, in fact, the snake’s design was cribbed from appealing aspects of other serpents, a kind of amalgam, much like Sunny herself, who—perhaps not coincidentally—winds up cuddling with the scaly, legless coil of digits in one of the film’s key scenes.But even though Sunny’s performance may be “enhanced,” and the snake itself exists even beyond the reach of anything imagined by Eve back in Eden, a viewer isn’t immediately struck by the fact they’re looking at effects—an awareness that immediately dawns on you when watching a T. Rex run through the rain in Jurassic Park, for example. “Some films push your nose in that,” Fangmeier says, referring to effects which call attention to themselves—which couldn’t be, in other words, anything other than an effect. But “with this film, it was so great to integrate” those effects into the story itself. “Beauty was the thing.”“I never got that enamored with technology,” Fangmeier insists, perhaps surprisingly, given his resume. And he also insists that effects supervisors—even those in the employ of ILM—can’t be afraid to insist “maybe this technology is wrong” for a given shot, a given film. Or a given toddler performance, as he steers it away from the wholly computer-created into something with a flesh-and-blood basis.Perhaps it’s the Dickensian mien of the stories, but Fangmeier says he approaches his work “not as a techie, but as an artist.” Especially one looking to help create a memorable Series of Unfortunate Events, rather than just another series of special effects.
Written by Mark London Williams