Movies have the power to innovate, and for every 10 films about talking animals, there is one that somehow managed to change the course of filmmaking history. We’re not talking about movies that broke ground by tackling serious issues like gender politics, or environmental issues, or whether Dewey Cox walked hard enough. No, we’re talking about movies that invented new ways of making our screens come alive with everything from (checks notes) huge space bugs to horny ducks. Man, movies are the best ...

The Wire Work In Howard The Duck Led To Movies Like The Matrix and Terminator 2

In keeping with the universe’s inherent fondness for irony, it turns out that George Lucas’ widely panned ‘80s Marvel adaptation about a duck with an abnormally large head and an even larger sexual appetite was, to everyone’s surprise, kinda groundbreaking. And no, we’re not referring to the fact that it probably holds the record for the most duck puns in movie history. Nor are we talking about the fact that there has never been such a suave, sarcastic character with eyes deader than whatever trended on TikTok a week ago.

Universal Pictures

Not this guy.

The movie — where “quack-fu” basically means assaulting people with whatever prop is nearest — ended up creating a special effects technique that would change action movies forever. After all, visual pioneering was Lucas’ whole thing and the reason he founded the Industrial Light & Magic company (ILM) when he set out to make Star Wars in the '70s. ILM would go on to both invent and innovate a myriad of movie techniques, with one of them spawning from the scene in which the tie-enthusiast waterfowl gets sucked out of his apartment and into space.

The duck-in-chair-flight sequence was filmed using steel wires that pulled both the puppet and the chair through built walls and sets, but when the time came to remove those wires in post-production, the FX team was stumped. Up until then, there were all kinds of ways to remove wires from the footage. Camouflaging was often used, and teams sometimes even painted over the wires on the actual film. At first, the ILM lab thought they could simply use Vaseline (another common method at the time) to blur the wires out, but in this specific sequence, it just wouldn’t work. 

Enter the ILM Graphics Group, who, at the time, had just created a program called LayerPaint that preceded Photoshop in letting users draw in raster graphics on transparent layers over actual footage. This allowed them to use their digital laser scanner, upload the frames in sequence, and mix textures and colors into each frame to cover those pesky wires. It worked beautifully, and the new revelation rippled throughout the industry, with studios replicating the technology to be used in their own films. Back to the Future Part II used the technique in its hoverboard scenes, Terminator 2 in that bike jump, and The Matrix in, well, most all of its action sequences.

Death Becomes Her Featured Groundbreaking CG Skin Technology That Would Later Be Used To Make Jurassic Park

The cult-classic and most underrated Bruce Willis movie that sees Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn go from youth-seeking maniacs to mascara-running undead maniacs had some pretty gnarly effects — what with Hawn sporting a giant hole in her stomach and Streep’s neck turning into gum.

The film is truly historic, and not only because it features Willis in a satirical comedy alongside Isabella Rossellini. (Sometimes, we can have nice things.) The 1992 movie was awarded for its use of incredible CGI in the Oscars’ special effects category because it was the first time CGI was used to create human skin and distort an actor’s body on film. 

Back then, the technology to make someone’s neck go around like a car doing donuts didn’t yet exist, and the movie’s special effects team ended up using an early version of Photoshop to create the desired effect. The film’s visual effects art director Doug Chiang told Yahoo Movies in an interview in 2017: “Most of the art departments were still very traditional, in terms of pen and ink and markers … (In Photoshop) I could mimic with high fidelity the actual look that could be executed in computer graphics, in terms of the number of highlights, the number of wrinkles, how much bruising. And so it really transformed design to the next level. We were designing and creating imagery that looked very much like the finished product.”

Practical effects were used, too. In the scene where Streep walks one way while her head faces another, Streep had to wear a blue bag on set. She’d then do the same walk in front of a blue screen to capture what her head was actually doing.

This innovative use of technology to alter humans on screen was later applied to every major movie, from Jurassic Park to Harry Potter to the de-aging effects we’ve seen in films like Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and The Irishman. And to think, it’s all because Streep’s character got pushed down some stairs because she wouldn’t stop saying the word “flaccid.”

We Got Star Wars Lightsabers Thanks To Koko The Clown

There’s a great featurette on YouTube where George Lucas and company explain how difficult it was to create the lightsaber effect back when Rotoscoping was still developing as an animation technique. (You can watch it below.)

Today, Rotoscoping — the technique in which animators trace over footage frame by frame — is used everywhere, but back in the ‘70s, filmmakers were still figuring out how to effectively incorporate it into their live-action films. At least they had it, though, and that is all thanks to animator Max Fleischer who invented the technique when he created his iconic cartoon character, Koko the Clown.

Fleischer was working at Popular Science Magazine in 1915 when he decided to come up with a way to make animation smoother and less jerky, as it very much was at the time. He wanted to emulate people’s natural movements, so he did what any person would do: He asked his professional-clown-by-day brother Dave to put on a clown suit (tailor-made by the Fleischer brothers themselves because some people are just super multi-talented), get up on a rooftop, and dance around in front of a white sheet while being filmed.

Max then used the Rotoscope prototype he built in his apartment to trace the film footage, frame by frame — a project that took him almost a year to finish and resulted in around 2,500 individual drawings of the clown. It was a solid start to a collection that Fleischer then used to create his iconic Koko animations.

When Fleischer’s patent expired in 1934, others jumped at the opportunity to use this technology and create all kinds of new ways to better capture animation on film. Walt Disney used it for its 1937 feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and eventually, films like Mary Poppins and even Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds used Rotoscope to composite scenes because this was a time before blue and green screens existed. Naturally, this all eventually led to 3D motion capture and almost every superhero movie we have today.

Of course, the Star Wars folks didn’t just use Rotoscoping to trace and create lightsabers. They also used it to remove wires from film footage, illustrating the ever-evolving revolution of technology.

From The Lord Of The Rings To Game Of Thrones, All Large-Scale CGI Battles Today Can Thank Starship Troopers

Last week I wrote about the wonderfully strange, extremely misunderstood movie (at the time) that is Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, in which a fleet of brainwashed youths believe that the most honorable thing one can do with one’s life involves shooting and killing and repeating, ad infinitum. The film was a box-office dud, no thanks to its huge budget, but it ended up making the history books as the first movie to feature a large-scale CG military-style battle of such magnitude. 

The impressive work was designed by Tippett Studios — the same studio that teamed up with ILM to work on Jurassic Park and who’d get an Oscar nomination for their special effects in the movie where everyone showers together because war-hungry fascists apparently have no other desires.

Say what you will about the movie, but those bugs still hold up today, and it took 300 artists and technicians (hired from various other studios to help Tippett Studios out) to digitally create the rad-looking warriors. The film ended up consisting of 500 special effects shots at a time when no film had yet done more than 200. So much was the work that went in here that the release had to be shifted from July to November just to get it all in tip-top shape. We’d say it totally paid off.

Given the fact that the movie bombed at the box office but clearly inspired guys like Peter Jackson to go for those large-scale CG battle sequences just goes to show that innovation doesn’t need immediate profit to stand the test of time. 

Zanandi is, regrettably, still on Twitter.

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