(Digital Artist/Painter at Cinesite)

- How did you get involved in THE 13TH WARRIOR?
- Well, at the time, I was working at Cinesite Digital Studios, a division of Kodak that does visual effects for the film industry. I was employed as a "painter", which actually means that I removed dust, dirt, wires, bungee cords, etc. from the frames, using a program similar to Photoshop (although a bit more specialized). Several scenes came into Cinesite that needed touchups of one kind or another, and I was assigned to work on a few of them.
- When exactly and how long did you work on this project?
- Oh, geez... Let me see, when did the movie come out? August 1999, right? (In the US, anyway)... So I must have been working on it in late 1997, early 1998. I'm afraid I can't remember exact months, sorry.
- What did you know about this project when hired?
- Nothing, actually. My father was actually reading the book, "Eaters of the Dead," when they brought the show into Cinesite. (At the time, THE 13TH WARRIOR was still named after the book.) I borrowed the book from him when he was done, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
- Weren't you surprised by the association of Disney with a movie first called EATERS OF THE DEAD?
- No, not really. Remember that this is a Touchstone film, a division that Disney created to handle adult films without having them associated with the Disney "family" image. Besides, the book performed well on the best-seller list, so there were probably several studios bidding on the property.
- What exactly did you do on this show?
- I worked mostly on the special effects for the film, so I wasn't on the set or anything. I worked on the "town under siege" scenes (the first fight sequence with the Neanderthals, especially the scenes where the enemy is breaking through the walls to attack the heros inside) and the "Cave" sequence, where the heros were in the Neanderthal caves swinging around. I did a lot of wire removal, paint, etc.
- What is (usually) the task of a Digital Artist?
- It depends on what kind of artist you are. I was a painter, which means I went frame to frame and removed (or occasionally added) items. In 13TH WARRIOR, I was taking out the wires that supported the actors/stuntmen during stunts where they're required.
- Exactly, on what particular shots did you work?
- Two sets of shots. The first is during the first attack of the Wendol. There are a couple of scenes where they break through the walls to attack Ibn and the Vikings inside the main hall. The attackers are backlit, with clouds of smoke and dust around them, and were swinging in on ropes and wires. I did two of those scenes. The second scenes were at the end of the film, when the Vikings and Ibn are invading the cavern of the Wendol. There is a sequence where they have to swing across a chasm and land precariously on another rock; the actors were, of course, wearing wire harnesses and suspended from wires. I worked on one or two of those shots as well.
- Could you please elaborate on the wire removal technique?
- Sure. During stunts where flying/jumping/swinging/etc. is the action, the stuntmen (and sometimes the actors) wear a body harness, attached to high-tension wires or bungee cords, that are connected to a rig off-camera. These wires are visible to the camera, especially when they are moving. The sequence of film is run through a film scanner (at Cinesite, we used a Kodak scanner called a Lightning) and recorded as digital data. This data is put on the hard drives as a series of files, one for each frame. First, we created a movie using these files, that we can watch on the computer to determine what sort of challenges each shot will present. Finally, we load up the first frame and go to work copying small bits of the frame over the wire to make it disappear. This can be done either by copying data from directly next to the wire on the same frame, or by "revealing" the image from the identical location in the next frame. Revealing is an especially useful technique when the wire is moving across the scene and the camera has little or no movement.
- What is the main difficulty of wire removal?
- Continuity. To make a scene look like there was never a wire there, the frames have to appear virtually identical. Any small differences in the appearance of the frame will create a "pop" from frame to frame when you're watching the movie. Camera moves help to mitigate this issue, but dirt, dust, water, smoke/steam, fire, etc. all make it more difficult. For instance, the first two shots I worked on, where the Wendol burst through the walls of the main hall, were filled with smoke. Trying to remove the wires from inside the smoke, while still maintaining the natural motion and appearance of the smoke, was very difficult. On the other hand, the wires in the cavern scene were often difficult to see anyway because they were up against black or very dark backgrounds, and they were dark as well; and when they were crossing in front of rock formations, the rocks were fairly easy to replicate from other frames. There are scenes in the cavern sequence where the wires pass over water, but I don't think I worked on those particular scenes. Nevertheless, I remember them being difficult.
- Aren't there automated wire removal techniques?
- Yes, but they only have limited effectiveness. In a scene where there is a chaotic, natural motion - like smoke - automated techniques tend to look choppy. At Cinesite, we had an automated ballbuster program used to remove the motion tracking markers from green-screen shots, but nothing for wire removal.
- Can everything virtually be removed from a shot?
- Well, you could paint an entire sceen black. That would take everything out, but it wouldn't be too fun to look at! (laughs) No, seriously - pretty much anything can be taken out, depending on how the scene is shot. I've seen entire human beings removed from shots. Tire tracks in dust, harnesses on people and animals, you name it. At some point, however, it becomes easier to rotoscope the portion of the frame(s) you want to keep, and use a compositing program to add it to another frame(s) to achieve the proper effect.
- Could you give me some examples of things removed from shots?
- On the movie UNDER SIEGE II: DARK TERRITORY, there was a shot where one of the film crew moved across the scene directly in front of the camera. It turned out that they needed that take (reason unknown), so one of the other painters at Cinesite had to remove him. That was a heck of a job; his first pass resulted in a "predator" effect (named after the movie of the same name) where the shape of the man could be seen rippling across the screen. He got it out the second time, though. I hate to say this but I've forgotten his name...
While working on the film SPHERE with Dustin Hoffman, there was a series of shots where sea snakes attack one of the divers. These snakes were models, shot with pool-cue sized rods controlling their heads, and they each had an antennae-tendril thingie that drooped off their chins like a long tongue or skinny beard. We removed the rods and, after the VFX supervisor and the director [Barry Levinson] looked at the film, they decided that the chin trailers had to be removed too, as they looked like the remnants of wires. So we did the whole series of shots again.
- I assume all the shots you worked on were designed to have something removed from them, right?
- Yes. On THE 13TH WARRIOR, all the scenes I worked on were known to have elements (the wires) that would have to be removed. I imagine that this was known even before they shot these scenes, although I don't think any real consideration was made as to the consequences of planning a scene like that. Remember that, in those days, the digital revolution in special effects was still fairly new, so many production personnel didn't understand what was required in that field. I think that's changed over the last five years. I did work on shots in other movies, however, that were "emergency" fixes, because someone on set didn't think of a problem before it occurred, or needed to be changed because of some decision later in the production process.
- What software did you use?
- Cinesite, being a Kodak company, primarily used a Kodak program called Cineon. Part of the Cineon package is a paint program called Spice, and that's what we used. It's similar to Photoshop in many ways, but without all the tools, brushes, etc. and specifically designed for film work such as this.
- I know they filmed some whale sequence with the actors and a mechanical whale, which was planned to be combined with shots of some real whale the second unit did, and, allegedly, they didn't use this sequence in the final cut because they couldn't manage to match the background lights of the two footages. Have you heard anything about this?
- No, I'm sorry. That decision must have been made by the EATERS production before it ever came to Cinesite. It's a shame, too, I missed that sequence when I saw the movie. (It's in the book.)
- I have also heard about some "bird attack scene" (apparently, Ibn was attacked by CG crows when discovering dead bodies in the farmer's hut)...
- I think I remember some of the 3D artists doing a shot where the camera zooms into Antonio Banderas on the boat, and then pulls out again; everything except the actors was CG. But I don't remember any crows.
- So you didn't work on scenes that were not included in the final cut, did you?
- No, all the scenes I worked on are on screen. In fact, very little of the material that I worked on for Cinesite was left on the editing room floor. Producers don't particularly like to spend that much money on a shot and then not use it!
- Finally, what was your biggest challenge on this project?
- Oh, the smoke, definitely! I worked for days just on those two shots. Ugh!
- How did you feel about the finished version of THE 13TH WARRIOR? Were you satisfied creatively with the final result?
- Yes, actually, I was. The film wasn't a huge hit here, and I was always sort of unhappy about that. It seems to me it had all the elements to make it a big hit, and it stayed true enough to the book to satisfy me. I enjoyed it thoroughly. In fact, when you contacted me about this interview, I went back and watched it again, and it held up quite well.
- Last but not least, have you heard anything about the dispute between producer Michael Crichton and director John McTiernan?
- No, I didn't. That sort of thing rarely funnelled its way down to us. I know that they're both enormously talented individuals, though, and I imagine that there would be a bit of conflict between two people with such strong vision if they didn't perfectly agree on everything.
- Anything you would want to add about your experience on this show?
- Well, I should point out that I was only one of several painters, including Jerry Pooler, our supervisor, and a team of compositors and 3D artists that worked on the special effects at Cinesite. My four scenes were just a part of the work that we did... It was, as always, a team effort!


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