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Real illusions

Tech savvy films look better and cost lesser, says visual effects specialist Michael Earnest

Michael Earnest: Creating visual wonders

IMAGINE SHOOTING a feature film in candlelight or in a dimly-lit place and still getting all the details on the frame. Sounds improbable?

"It's quite possible," says visual effects specialist Michael Earnest. All you need is a High Definition (HD) camera. This camera captures details even in the lowest lighting conditions, something not possible with conventional cameras.

Earnest has worked in films like Jeans and P.C. Sreeram's Vaanam Vasappadum (shot using a HD camera).

"Many mistake a Digital Video (DV) for a HD camera. DVs can be used only for broadcasting, but the advantage in HD is that the output will be equivalent to the size of a conventional film. You don't have to scan the entire film for creating special effects, thereby reducing the time and cost of filmmaking," he says.

Earnest, who recently directed "Weedz", an English rap music video in HD format, however says that the choice of the camera ultimately rests with the filmmaker. "Spielberg's films stand out for visual effects, but he never uses a HD camera," he points out.

Tryst with graphics

Earnest's tryst with visual effects in films started with his maiden assignment as visual effects supervisor of Jeans, the first digitally scanned film in India.

"In Jeans, as graphics were used only for a small portion (four minutes), there were a lot of colour jumps (aberrations)," he says.

"Barring a few, filmmakers are wary of using graphics because of lack of familiarity with digital tools and concepts. Many of us are not even aware of High Dynamic Range Images (HDRI). HDRI makes the viewer believe that everything is real (though it is illusory)."

According to Earnest, people usually confuse special effects for graphics. "Special effects are done manually. But visual effects are totally different. Visual effects specialists play around with many layers and HDRI. The Independence Day climax sequence had 370 layers while the ship departure scene in Titanic had 645; each one completely different from the other."

And, it's not all that simple. A digital set has to be created for the shoot and the drawings copied and pasted in the same perspective."

Graphics come in handy for shooting scenes involving a large number of people. It can actually reduce the cost of filmmaking. "For instance, they used the crowd multiplication system in Gladiator. Without it, the film would have been a lot more expensive. Unfortunately, due to lack of awareness, Indian filmmakers think digital technology will increase costs. So, what are the prerequisites to learn animation?

"You have to know either acting, painting or any other fine art. The computer is just a tool. A bad artist with a good computer is still a bad artist," he points out.

An alumnus of Loyola College, Earnest has designed the syllabus for the Department of Computer Animation and Digital Visual Effects (to be started soon) of the college.


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