By Jason Caro
Oceans rise and cities fall in Deep Impact, thanks to Bill George and the talented team of Visual Effects technicians at ILM.
COMET Wolf-Beiderman is on a collision course with our planet. If it hits, Mankind will go the way of the dinosaur. A joint Space mission between Russia and America is launched to intercept, land on the surface and plant nukes. As co-visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, Bill George faces an equally challenging assignment - to bring the audience along on the Spaceship Messiah's journey. His own mission is to convincingly create this never-before-seen Outer Space experience in the new Dreamworks blockbuster Deep Impact.
Like so many of the new breed of effects pioneers, George's move into the industry was influenced by one movie in particular.
"I was a senior at High School when Star Wars came out and I went to see that movie and I was just totally blown away by it and liked it so much that in some way I had to express that liking. The way I did that was to build models of the X-Wing and the Tie Fighters."
Travelling from his San Diego home to Los Angeles Science Fiction conventions, he struck-up a friendship with movie model-maker Greg Jein, eventually leading to work on Star Trek - The Motion Picture.
In 1981 he joined ILM, building the prototype for ET's spaceship and subsequent projects have included modern Sci-Fi classics like Return of the Jedi and several of the Star Trek movies. Deep Impact posed a whole new set of challenges for George, since the brief from director Mimi Leder and executive Producer Steven Spielberg was always to create a serious disaster film that stayed as close as possible to actual science.
"In some ways that's a major challenge. What does the stuff look like? We were given directions that we want to be as realistic as possible. Well, there's a lot of speculation regarding what a comet's surface would be like and when you get to real science it would be like an incredibly foggy day, which is not very visually exciting.
"The surface of the comet is composed of dry ice which when hit by the sun vaporizes, so you've got this really dense, thick fog layer around the comet, which is the part we see from Earth - it's called a 'coma'. So we took some liberties regarding that and made it a little more visible. The description I gave my crew was, 'It's after a forest fire and everything is smouldering'."
The largest soundstage on the Paramount lot was the down-to-earth location where much of the comet surface action was shot and one of George's jobs was to supervise the numerous effects elements that would later be combined to form the chilly exterior of Comet Wolf-Beiderman.
"The ship itself was a very large motion-controlled model. The landing module was about six feet long. It also had fully articulated landing gear and all the thrusters were motorized, it had a full interior. That was shot in the traditional blue screen method. We also had some background landscapes that were built. It was actually a fairly crude model, but it's lit with very moody lighting. It looked very nice. So we have our motion-control elements which were fairly simple to composite together.
"The real challenging part was adding the background coma and the foreground snow. That was something that seemed so simple, just blowing snow in the foreground. But it looked like it had a life of its own. It had a tendency to look like bees. We were trying to use a technique where instead of animating each individual piece of snow, you would give it certain parameters - it moves this fast and then changes direction. But it always looked like they were conscious, it didn't look random enough."
Deep Impact images copyright Dreamworks SKG
Read the full feature on Deep Impact's special effects in Starburst #239