Viz Kids

From the aliens of Mars Attacks to the flying debris of Twister, today’s hottest special effects are created by graduates of Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab.

December 1996By Comments

CHILLINGLY REALISTIC ALIENS, scenes of mass destruction, dazzling visual effects: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, which hits theaters this month, has all the makings of a holiday blockbuster. The science fiction farce based on the Topps trading cards of the sixties also features some well-known earthlings, among them Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, Michael J. Fox, and Tom Jones. And don’t miss Aggie exes Tim McLaughlin and Mary Beth Haggerty in key supporting roles—though you won’t see their names lit up on any marquee.

McLaughlin and Haggerty (who received their master’s degrees from Texas A&M University in 1994 and 1995, respectively) get some of the credit for bringing the movie’s computer-generated Martians to life. They work as technical directors at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a top special-effects company based in San Rafael, California, that has won Academy awards for its work on such films as Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2. For Mars Attacks, the Aggie alums helped create the aliens digitally; McLaughlin’s job was to make sure the sophisticated computer models used to construct, color, and light them were technically correct, while Haggerty focused on the positioning and brightness of the lights and the shadows.

McLaughlin and Haggerty aren’t the only recent A&M grads to make the unlikely leap from Aggieland—famous for cranking out farmers and veterinarians—to the fantasyland of Hollywood. In just the past four years, more than thirty students in an unusual graduate program in visualization sciences at A&M’s College of Architecture have been snapped up by special-effects and animation companies. Clusters of students who learned the ropes at A&M’s Visualization Laboratory (known as the Viz Lab) now work at Walt Disney’s CGI Group; Rhythm and Hues, which created the talking animals in Babe; Pacific Data Images, which is partly owned by Dreamworks SKG, the studio formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen; and Pixar Animation Studios, best known for its work on Disney’s Toy Story. Other groups of ex-students work at Blue Sky Studios in New York (which did the animated cockroaches in Joe’s Apartment) and at Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon, a company whose California raisin commercials set the standard for clay animation. Recent credits for Viz Labbers include computer-generated special effects in films such as Twister and Jumanji, animated projects such as Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and commercials featuring the Coca-Cola polar bears and the talking M&M’s.

For all their success, however, few of the Viz Lab veterans planned careers in the entertainment industry. “I never thought about a job in the film business,” says McLaughlin, an environmental design major who grew up in Longview. “Those were for people out in California.” And certainly not for people from a school not traditionally identified with the creative arts. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find something like this program at A&M,” says Matthew Brunner, a 1993 grad who is the director of digital production at Will Vinton Studios.

The A&M architecture professors who conceived the Viz Lab didn’t expect it to become a hot training ground for Hollywood special-effects whizzes either. They started the two-year program in 1989 to give architecture students hands-on experience in design, video, and computer graphics. McLaughlin and Gayle Ayers, for example, entered the Viz Lab to design “virtual walk-throughs” of buildings for would-be clients. “You build up the design [in a computer] and fly a camera through it,” says Ayers, a Lubbock native who is now a director at Will Vinton Studios. “It wasn’t very interesting or challenging.” But around the time the first students were graduating from the Viz Lab, Hollywood was cranking out movies that relied more and more on computerized effects. In particular, 1993’s Jurassic Park demonstrated the potential of computer-generated imagery. “The ability to depict so realistically dinosaurs that don’t exist anymore really opened people’s eyes,” says Donald H. House, the Viz Lab’s academic program coordinator.

It made sense, really, that recruiters from the entertainment industry would come calling at A&M: Few schools offer advanced programs that combine design and computer science. As a result, Viz Lab students have had a 100 percent job-placement rate. “You pretty much get hired as soon as you hit the streets,” says Brunner. About half the students leave before they even write a thesis, lured by starting show biz salaries of up to $50,000 a year. “We can’t get everyone graduated—not because they’re flunking out, but because they’re getting these jobs,” House says. It has also become harder for students to get into the program; this year, only 14 students were chosen out of 45 applicants. Enrollment is tight so that each student can have access to the lab’s equipment, which includes $10,000 to $100,000 Silicon Graphics workstations, a studio for capturing video images, and a roomful of production and editing machines.

The sudden clamoring for special-effects talent is the product of a fundamental change in the way movies are made. Once upon a time, studios shot movies, developed and edited the film, and delivered it to theaters. But film production today is increasingly done with bits and bytes rather than a movie camera. While in the old days film relied on location scouts to figure out where to shoot, digital production allows backgrounds or entire scenes to be generated wholly or partly by a computer. A real person or set can be photographed and the image electronically pasted into a computer-generated background or into older footage, as was done in Forrest Gump. And while traditional animation used to rely on a progression of sketches, which were photographed frame by frame and then run through a projector to create motion, in digital animation those sketches are more simply—and cheaply—scanned into a computer and colorized.

The secret of the Viz Lab’s success is an array of powerful software tools. At the start of a project, a designer might use a computer to build a “rough render,” a basic form without much detail, and then apply a texture map, a software program that puts on the digital “skin”: muscles, hair, scary green alien scales. A texture map lets the designer cheat and construct the figure much faster than by drawing each individual muscle or hair. ILM designers, for example, used texture maps to create the dinosaurs’ skin in Jurassic Park; they had a tougher challenge working up the monkeys and lions for Jumanji, since monkey hair and lion manes have more intricate detail. Using a technique called inverse kinematics, the designer can define a skeleton inside an animated figure and use another program to instruct the computer how the joints will work together; thus an animator can move, say, an arm by pulling on a hand. There’s also a program that allows a figure or scene to be lit by moving a digital point of light and adjusting its angle and brightness to create the desired effect.

The Viz kids are a close-knit bunch who often work all night on projects at the lab, which never closes. The program has an unusual mix of students: Some have degrees in art or computer science, but others majored in everything from physics to the classics. Randy Hammond, a third-year student who expects to get his degree this month, studied chemistry as an undergraduate; Anne Woods, a second-year student, was a journalism major; and Bill Sheffler, a first-year student, studied environmental design at A&M’s architecture school. Over lunch on a typical day, they talk about—what else?—movies and special effects, picking them apart detail by detail. “We can systematically suck the magic out of any film,” Woods says with a laugh. “I put movies in the tape player and watch them frame by frame.” What movies’ computer-generated effects do they admire? All mention Toy Story and Terminator 2, which they agree was brilliant in its rendering of the liquid shape-shifting villain that Arnold Schwarzenegger battles. “You could see the reflections change with its every movement,” Sheffler says. But the students also agree that special effects have their limits. They’re still impressed by the lighting, shading, and compelling plot of a classic like Citizen Kane. “You can have a well-rendered and well-lit model, but you still have to understand the story,” Hammond says.

That dose of reality is refreshing but necessary. In the reel world, technical directors and animators may spend months working on a single character or creature, only to see their work end up as seconds or minutes in a finished project. “I spent an entire semester to produce ten seconds of animation,” says Hammond. McLaughlin, who was a developer and a technical director for different special effects on Jumanji, worked for months on the lion’s rippling muscles and skin around the rib cage. His architecture training actually came in handy in constructing a realistic lion. “I relied on the eye I developed in architecture to try to get all around and inside the creature,” he says. Haggerty was one of about seventy ILM employees who spent months working on visual effects for Twister that amounted to mere minutes of screen time. But what minutes they were. Some of Haggerty’s digital lighting and computer-generated flying debris ended up in the dramatic sequence at the movie’s end, when Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton try to outrun a tornado and dodge flying fence posts; they finally strap themselves to a pipeline as debris whirls around them. “You’re trying to simulate a controlled chaos,” Haggerty says. “If you take too much control, it looks staged. It’s balance that you’re trying to achieve.”

Though entertainment is the hot industry of the moment for Viz Lab vets, A&M has purposely resisted gearing the program in that direction. “We’re constantly fighting the perception that we’re an animation school,” says William Jenks, the lab’s director. “Our goal is a broad-based understanding of the three-dimensional, virtual environment and to involve a viewer fully in the richness of motion, detail, and audio.” In the future the program’s faculty expect more graduates to go into publishing, medicine, architecture, and archaeology. That’s just fine with some critics in the architecture school, who grumble that the program’s students are gravitating too much toward Hollywood. “There was some griping and complaining at first,” says House, “but it really is a star program.”

And even if A&M’s special-effects wizards barely see their names roll in the list of credits, stardom has other rewards. McLaughlin was playing soccer at an ILM Fourth of July celebration when the star of Jumanji joined the game. “So I was kicking shins with Robin Williams,” McLaughlin says. “I don’t think I’d be doing that back in Texas.”

Kathryn Jones has written for the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News.

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