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'The Ring' Special Effects

(article courtesy of united media entertainment (

VFX Supervisor Charles Gibson on 'The Ring'
By Catherine Feeny
Nov 15, 2002, 17:44 PST

When visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson and director Gore Verbinksy worked together on "Mouse Hunt" in 1997, the chemistry was so right that they knew they must collaborate again. The two found their opportunity in "The Ring," the American adaptation of Japan's hit 1998 film "Ringu." The story, which centers around a cursed videotape and one reporter's quest to get to the bottom of the hex, is a leap from the mischievous capers of "Mouse Hunt," yet Verbinsky and Gibson tell it with aplomb. "The Ring" is a satisfyingly creepy film with alternately gorgeous and gruesome imagery.

Gibson, who parced shots out carefully among six or more studios, called on several old friends to help him establish the subtly eerie mood that the effects shots required. He spoke with VFXPro about who did what and the challenges that they encountered along the way.

How many effects shots are in the film?
About 200.

Who were the vendors?
Method Studio was the primary vendor, and they did a great job. Matte World Digital, Rick Baker, Asylum, Tippett Studios Rhythm & Hues and Pacific Title also worked on it.

I would not have guessed there were so many shots. What made up the bulk of the work?
Method is known primarily for their work in music videos and commercials. Not only did they do 30 or 40 key shots for the movie, but they also created the 'Ring' videotape, which was full of effects done at video resolution. They also did the shots of the ghost coming out of the TV and a lot of work on the well, which was digital in a number of shots.

The island in the film didn't exist. Matte World Digital did a beautiful shot where the camera flies up to a lighthouse and then over the island. The beginning of the shot was helicopter photography taken in Oregon. The last part of the shot was helicopter photography of Washington. The middle was CG. We shot a lot of reference and then they designed the island based on the needs of the film.

We started out intending to use a real lighthouse, but they ended up re-creating it in CG for better control. It was based on a lighthouse that we shot in Oregon.

Matte Paintings by Matte World Digital             Video Images by Method Studios

How about the mist in those shots?
That is all digital 3D mist. Matte World Digital also did a number of traditional matte shots as the ferry approaches the island. Those were paintings because we never found the perfect island.

When you are approaching a shot like that, do you take bids?
I have a really good relationship with Matte World Digital. I knew they could do the work. I look at them as creative partners, and we worked together from the start to make sure that we were going to create a shot that gave the movie what it needed. It was a moment in a claustrophobic movie where you had to have some scope. It had to be spectacular.

I did a very elaborate shot with Matte World Digital for "The Majestic" last year. They replaced the whole upper half of Graumann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and it was beautiful. It was similar to this in that it was a fusion of a VistaVision and 4 perf 35mm shots, blended together seamlessly.

This movie had a very specific mood and feel to it and it was really hard to produce that digitally -- to get the misty, gloomy tone. There needed to be a lot of back and forth. I was comfortable with Matte World. I knew the taste level was there.

Matte World also worked on the red maple tree that kind of becomes a character in the film. They did the establishing shot of the tree where the sun goes behind it, which was really gorgeous. They created moving sky paintings for the skies behind the tree.

Rhythm & Hues did all sorts of detail work on the tree. Their shots required elaborate composites because we were simulating short focal lengths and water on the leaves, trying to get them to feel as natural as possible. In contrast, the intense red color of the leaves was needed to help create a transition into a theatrically lit portion of the film. Finding the balance between those extremes was a big design problem.

The look of the film is very blue-green, and we had to find a way to bring the reds into the film without having them feel as if they were applied as an afterthought. So, on a shot-by-shot basis, we changed the rules: We would allow some color in the sky, or give some color to the light or to the leaves, or we would de-saturate the shot. We had to find a way to make the red leaves prominent because they initiated a lighting motif for the entire sequence.

Why did you need the tree to be digital?
We were looking for a specific leaf composition that didn't really exist in nature. Also, the backgrounds behind the trees were time-lapse. So it already had to be a composite. We knew we had to shoot a lot of layers and manipulate them to get it feeling organic, sort of like macro photography.

Video Images by Method Studios                   Well Shot, Method Studios

Did the cinematographer have input on those shots?
We showed him concept work early on. When he was satisfied that we all understood the look of the movie, it was just the director and me.

How much did you consult the Japanese film?
For visual effects, not very much at all.

Gore had a very different vision. His version of the movie called for a different approach to the effects. The Japanese movie was done for about a million dollars and there were a few digital shots in it that were pretty effective. But I saw a 7th generation VHS of the movie, so it was hard to see what was actually going on. The original version showed the ghost coming out of the TV, but I think that was more trick photography than a complex compositing effect.

How did you come up with what was in the video conceptually?
That was 100 percent Gore and his vision. He wanted an organic, complex, haunting collection of imagery that would stay with the audience.

The elements that had to be composited were carefully shot for absolute photorealism. We then added a layer of messy video distortion on top. So in some senses it was very technical and precise and in other senses it had this impressionistic, raw sort of feeling. We tried to do as much in-camera as we could with the lighting while staying true to the DP and the director's vision.

Method had so much to do with the creation of the tape. They are a very special company and the people there really influenced the visual effects approach to the entire film. Everyone there is incredibly artistic and they always are always pushing to come up with something new. It is unlike traditional effects studios, which tend to be compartmentalized. At Method, production is a wonderfully organic process and everyone contributes to the final product. As a result, the imagery is very rich and there is a lot of beautiful subtlety in their work that you don't see coming from some of the bigger studios.

What did they do with the well?
There was a short well on stage with a bluescreen at the bottom. They extended the well in a number of shots looking both up and down. There is also a flashback sequence where the well was completely CG -- we flew out and flew in. Anything that showed the full length of the well was done digitally. Some of the work was done in 2D and tracked in with Inferno.

Disintegration, Method Studios & Rick Baker          Disintegration, Method Studios & Rick Baker

How about the part in the well where the little girl's body starts to disintegrate into a skeleton?
Rick Baker designed that skeleton and also did all of the dead bodies and the look of the girl as a ghost.

For the scene inside the well Method used plates of a multiple stage Rick Baker decomposition effect. We shot the girl intact, then we shot the skeleton, followed by a lot of goo and slime and skin layers in between.

We turned that over to Method and they added this decaying erosion effect reminiscent of time-lapse photography. The idea was to say that all of the time that had passed was catching up.

Did you do pre-viz for this film?
We did animatics with Pixel Liberation Front for the sequences going in and out of the well. We also previsualized a really beautiful sequence that was cut from the film. It was an all-CG montage of the 'Ring' tape being created from a point of view inside the VCR. Some of that imagery sneaked its way into the trailer.

How about storyboarding?
A lot of the film was storyboarded, especially in the beginning. Gore likes to do his own thumbnails. So those ended up being what we worked from on the film, and he does those on the day of the shoot. They are pretty close to the final shots -- the whole film is actually there in his thumbnails!

What is it like to work with Gore Verbinski?
He is great to work with. He used to be an effects supervisor for commercials, so he is very easy to communicate with and extremely picky in the best sort of way. We had a great working relationship.

Sometimes it can be really depressing on a job when you have a director who requests changes that make things worse. Gore would come up with ideas -- sometimes quite late in the process -- but they always made the shots better and everyone knew it. "The Ring" is a very finessed type of film -- there was a lot of tweaking going on to make shots as close to perfect as possible.

How did you get the horse into the scene that takes place on the ferry?
We had to composite the horse in a number of situations. In some cases where he was rearing up, the horse wouldn't actually fit on the boat. So we created a background and photographed the horse as an element on stage. We went to a full 3D animation for the shot when the horse was falling in the water, and also where the horse is actually in the water. Those shots were done by Tippett Studios.

Did you have the horse's course drawn out, or did you determine where the cars were after you had the plate of the horse?
We blocked it out pretty carefully and worked our way through the sequence, bit by bit, getting the angles we needed. We shot the plates knowing that we'd fit the horse in later. The car that the horse crushed was real and we it rigged to move when the horse was standing on it.

Distorted Faces, Method Studios & Rick Baker       Girl Coming Out of TV, Method Studios

Were the flies in the movie CG?
We never shot a real fly for the movie -- we always used CG. Some of that work was done by Method when it was on the video screens, but when we did the full-on 3D character animation, we took that to Rhythm & Hues because we knew they'd do a great job.

Are you talking about the fly that Rachel (Naomi Watts) takes off of the video screen?
Yes. That was an incredibly elaborate shot. If you look at that scene closely, you can see that we start by looking at the monitor and then the camera ends up in the spot where the monitor was. We shot it motion control with the TV monitor on a track, so it would move and open up a space as soon as we panned off of the monitor. The camera would then occupy the space opened up by the moving monitor.

Were there other motion-control shots in the film?
We shot motion control for the ghost coming out of the T.V. We also shot a few repeated pan and tilts for split screens. We made good use of motion control.

Can you tell me how you went about creating the sequence where the girl crawls out of the TV?
We shot as many of those plates motion control as time would allow, because we wanted to be able to separate the girl out from the background for special treatment. She has a look as if she is still on video, black and white and a little bit transparent. We knew we would need to get a good clean background plate for that.

We built an elevated set where the ghost could walk up to the TV from behind and climb through. We had to notch out the back of the set so she could walk up into the proper composition. Then we had a surrogate object for the TV with greenscreen insides so we could separate her from the background.

We put greenscreen on the set wherever we wanted to isolate her and then we put the set back together with the real TV and added water puddles and reflection passes, to make it feel like she was grounded.

Because we had motion control, we could shoot her with the camera going in reverse to give her a weightless feel. You can see when she drops to the ground -- it has kind of an eerie feeling. The other action in the film plays running forward and we were able to mix her in seamlessly. Motion control really helped us play those kinds of tricks.

How about the moment where she actually breaks through the screen -- was that complicated?
Yes. She had to start behind the screen and feel like she was lit and appeared to be in the video that was playing. When she leans forward, we wanted to do it in a few stages. So we shot a pass of her leaning through, we shot another pass just for her hair, which snakes out in advance of her. The hair was shot backwards so it would appear to flow like water over the edge of the TV. We then shot a few passes of water spilling out of the TV and a couple of reflection passes on the TV screen. Since we could manipulate those independently, you could dial a look that would feel like she was behind the glass instead of in front of the glass.


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