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Cinesite Uses Digital Magic To Enhance Reality In Spy Game

(November 26, 2001)
Cinesite Hollywood rendered digital magic to enhance reality in two dozen shots in Spy Game, a Universal Studios film, directed by Tony Scott and photographed by Daniel Mindel. Cinesite's work included the enhancement of reflections in an interrogation scene, blowing out a grid of lights in a night landscape scene, and adding muzzle flashes, sparks, bullet holes, dust and debris.

In Spy Game, CIA operative Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is on the brink of retirement when he finds out that his protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested in China for espionage. No stranger to the machinations of the CIA's top echelon, Muir hones all his skills and irreverent manner in order to find a way to free Bishop.

As he embarks on his mission to free Bishop, Muir recalls how he recruited and trained the young rookie, at that time a sergeant in Vietnam, their turbulent times together as operatives and the woman who threatened their friendship. Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Lingenfelser says there are no blue or green screen shots in the film. A few explosions occur in the film, but they were achieved using practical, in-camera methods. According to Lingenfelser, the most complicated effects shot is in a sequence near the end of the film when Redford and his team blow out a lighting grid in China. Christian Wagner, the editor, found a shot of a helicopter following two other helicopters approaching the prison where Pitt is held.

"In the far right hand corner of the frame there's a land mass representing their destination," Lingenfelser says. "It was more dynamic than the original locked-off shot, but we had to add all the lights, and then take them out area by area. The lights were created as a matte painting by our art director, Lubo Kristoff. We then tracked the still frame artwork into this massive land piece to match the original camera work from the helicopter plate. We went through a series of test animations for shutting the power down in grids. There were lights of varying intensities and sizes, so we played with fading off some of the larger lights as well. It was important to give it a slight randomness to make it more real."

Another effects sequence involved five shots where Redford is being interrogated by his superiors in a glass-walled office. He gets a phone call and steps away from the oval desk, turning his back on his interrogators. The shots reveal to the audience that Redford is faking the call and watching the reflection in the window to see what his interrogators are doing. Originally the shot was done in camera, but it didn't have the impact Scott wanted.

"To make it more apparent, we composited footage of the oval table into the window, so it looks like a reflection," says Lingenfelser. "One tricky part was that the shots were handheld, and the window had vertical blinds that had a slight sway.

That meant the reflection had to be composited between each blind. We added diffusion to match depth of field using Cineon software. The closer-in shots needed more diffusion to really sell the shot." Cinesite also worked on a long dolly shot where Redford and Pitt run through a dangerous looking alley in Beirut.

Cinesite digital artists Oscar Castillo and Ted Andre added 3D particle animation squib hits and 2D bullet holes to the buildings. In another sequence, Pitt is forced by his captors to grab hold of an electrical grid that shoots off sparks. Part of the challenge was to make the size of the sparks seem the same in the wide and close-up shots, where they had to be larger in the frame. "Effects for reality films are some of the more challenging work that we do," notes Lingenfelser.

"They can help augment tension and bring realism to the story, but shouldn't call attention to themselves." With facilities in Hollywood and London, Cinesite provides a wide range of visual and physical effects, digital film mastering, digital film restoration, preservation and DVD services. Cinesite is a Kodak subsidiary and part of the company's Entertainment Imaging division. For more information, visit the Cinesite website at <

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