Special effects have never been so special. This summer's movies carry visual effects -- known as FX in Hollywood -- to places not possible even last year.
Those places are just as likely to be Camelot or a boy's toy cupboard as outer space. While everyone knows they're watching FX in "Apollo 13," "Judge Dredd" and "Casper," they are less likely to expect them in "First Knight" and "Braveheart."
It may not surprise audiences to learn that the rockets in "Apollo 13" are models that were digitally inserted in the picture. They might not suspect that the same is true of the city of Camelot in "First Knight."
In "Judge Dredd," we know Sylvester Stallone's fantastic ride on a flying motorcycle has to be fake. And even children watching the palm-size Indian crawl on a boy's hand in "The Indian in the Cupboard" know it's fantasy, however real it seems. But we might not suspect that most of the English army that Mel Gibson battles in "Braveheart" is not really there.
"This is the best summer for the best overall effects in the movies that there has ever been," said Diane Pearlman, visual effects producer for Mass. Illusion, a Massachusetts company that did the effects for the action hit "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and the visually stunning "Judge Dredd."
In 1977, "Star Wars" changed the way Hollywood looked at both the summer season and visual trickery. Since then, studios have been in competition to create bigger and better event movies to wow thrill-seeking summer crowds.
" 'Star Wars' was when, suddenly, computers hit cameras," said Joel Hynek, the visual effects director for Mass. Illusions. "From ['Star Wars'] on, there was a rapid rise utilizing everything physical you could add a computer to. . . . Then the next quantum leap was digital."
"Judge Dredd," a disappointment at the box office although it is packed with thrilling visual tricks, offers prime examples of cutting-edge technology that couldn't be seen just last summer. Computers are a principal reason.
They make possible Mr. Stallone's eye-popping flying cycle chase through a futuristic cityscape, which is a combination of digital images and detailed models made by computer-controlled lasers.
When you watch Mr. Stallone and co-star Rob Schneider zipping around on that flying cycle, see if you can spot when real actors are used, and when what you're watching are digitally created copies of the stars, made by adding the stars' faces to computer-created stunt bodies.
Other cutting-edge effects are used in "Casper," which had visuals by Industrial Light & Magic, the George Lucas company that did "Jurassic Park" just two summers ago.
"When you look at 'Jurassic Park,' effects are on screen for [a total of] six or seven minutes," said "Casper" director Brad Silberling. "We've got 41 minutes of effects, almost half the movie.
"The average effects-shot length in 'Jurassic' is no longer than four to five seconds," Mr. Silberling said. "In 'Casper,' we've got shots that go 45 seconds to a minute, while the camera is changing perspective. We have 45- to 50-second monologues [by the movie's four ghosts] without cutting away."
In one amazing "Casper" shot, set atop a lighthouse, the camera stays on the friendly ghost for almost a minute, without cuts, moving from wide-shot to close-up and circling around him. The length of the shot, the intricate camera movement and the detail of the talking ghost were virtually unattainable before. The quality is so good, it all looks real.
In another scene, Casper serves breakfast to real people. Few viewers will guess that the bacon, eggs and pancakes are as phony as Casper.
"It used to be, you'd go to movies and you'd know how everything was done," Mr. Hynek said. "Now there are so many ways of doing things, you really don't."
Rob Legato, effects supervisor on "Apollo 13," was thrilled when astronaut Buzz Aldrin asked where director Ron Howard found the stunning footage of a Saturn V rocket blasting off. Mr. Howard didn't find that footage; Mr. Legato's team made it.
"The spacecraft are all models," said Mr. Howard. "Digital Domain shot that [launch] against a blue screen and moved the camera past the spacecraft model, so you get a feeling of motion. Then they put the fire in digitally. Then they painted in the ground."
"Apollo 13" effects were done by film director Jim Cameron's new company, Digital Domain, which also did "True Lies" and "Interview With the Vampire."
Still photographers have long used techniques to make scenes darker or put the moon over an ocean view. Now it's possible to do the same thing convincingly in moving images, too. The sunrise behind the rocket about to lift off in "Apollo 13"? Fake. The oil slick and fire on the water in "Free Willy 2"? Artificial.
The weather you want
If the weather is good and you want rain, create thunderclouds. If the day is overcast and you need blue sky, add it. You can even -- and they did -- make Batman's cape flare perfectly.
Increasingly, effects are being used to fool viewers in movies that have no science fiction or fantasy. In "Braveheart," director Mel Gibson had 1,700 Irish Army volunteers as extras for the massive battle scenes. In scenes in which the massed armies were shown from a distance, digital trickery was sometimes used to increase that number up to five times.
Director Jerry Zucker also used digital enhancements in battle scenes for "First Knight."
"In the night battles, there were a couple of shots where there was a gap without any men," Mr. Zucker said. "We put in more."
Digital effects were much more important in shots of a beautiful Camelot. Mr. Zucker wanted the city to look new and pristine and huge, so an old castle or a full-size set was out of the question.
"When you see the horses and riders coming into Camelot, the causeway and the lake are real," Mr. Zucker said. "But everything above the outer wall is a miniature. It fills an entire studio, so it's quite big, but it's still miniature."
The miniature was filmed and digitally deposited on film with the real facade. Computer-generated flags and smoke also were added. Suddenly, Camelot was a believable, living city.
Often, what a computer can take out of a movie is as important as what it can put in. For "The Scarlet Letter," due this fall, Mass. Illusions' main task was "cleanup" work, such as digitally removing telephone wires and other modern artifacts from the finished film.
The ability to remove digitally anachronisms such as modern buildings or inappropriate signs can save a film millions of dollars and weeks of work, building or finding perfect sets.
One irony of the advancements in FX is that sometimes they look more real than reality.
"We have done shots where the producer looked at it and said, 'That's too perfect,' " Mr. Hynek said. "You realize if that was really photographed, it would be so hard to film that the camera would have been shaking or there would be lens flare.
Effects houses will sometimes add "camera artifacts" (imperfections that would occur if the scene were shot by a camera), so the audience won't be conscious that it's computer-generated. In some "Judge Dredd" scenes, Mass. Illusion added camera flare (lens reflection spots) and camera shake to the image to make it seem natural. Digital Domain used similar tricks in "Apollo 13."
The top of the curve for special effects is nowhere in sight. "Next summer we will see things we couldn't see this summer," Mr. Hynek said.
Mr. Silberling agreed.
"Given enough time and money, you could do just about anything, or will be able to soon."