Sometimes, brilliance is a successful backup plan. For Jim Rygiel, a three-time Academy Award winner, the plan was to become a commercial artist. But in 1980, when he graduated with a master of fine arts degree from the Otis Parsons School of Design, the only job the Wisconsin native could find was with Pacific Electric Pictures, one of the first outfits to use computer animation for advertising.
Computer animation was in its infancy, but Rygiel became one of its first superstars, winning Clios for his wizardry in ads for the Sony Walkman and General Motors' (GM ) Geo Prism. In his 23-film career, he has created battleships for Star Trek: Insurrection, developed ethereal images for the hit film Ghost, and supervised visual effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for which he won his three golden statuettes.
Rygiel recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Los Angeles Bureau Chief Ronald Grover about creating computer magic for the big screen.
Q: What were digital effects like when you got started in this business?
A:The industry was nonexistent. The film industry wasn't accepting the new media. Everything was with models against a blue screen. It was in advertising, where the costs weren't so high, that you were seeing innovation.
Q: What changed all of that?
A:There was a crossover in the late '80s and '90s. Tron [Disney's (DIS ) 1982 science-fiction film] was the first to use computers. That got a lot of folks' notice. And on The Last Starfighter [Rygiel's first film, in 1984], we went even further, using the computer for compositing, putting spaceships against a blue screen. But you still felt like you were crossing the Great Plains in a covered wagon. It's like anything else: If you stick with it, things will improve.
Q: Was there one guy who was the most innovative of them all?
A:It was probably Jim Cameron. He was the one who saw the beauty of creating effects, and he was the one to push it with a creature made out of water for The Abyss (1989) and all the effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). He really set the pace for the rest of us.
Q: And now?
A:Now directors and studios realize what a viable part of the industry the computer is, how the effects can be so important to the story. Those were blockbuster breakthroughs.
Q: What's your role in creating that story?
A:My first job as a special-effects supervisor is to give the director what he wants. But sometimes, you try to steer him. If he wants it one way, you say, "Sure, that would be fine, but look how much better [it will be] if we do it this way." Directors want the best shot they can get, and my job is to think outside the box for them and to convince them they can make it even better. And if the audience loves the movie and doesn't mention the special effects, that means that I've done my job.
Q: What was most challenging about Lord of the Rings?
A:Everything about that project was totally unique. In hindsight it looks like nothing, but we had 500 [special effects] shots, and that's a lot. And we had to make every one of them look natural, not like they came from a computer. Whether it was the fiery hair on top of the Shadow Balrog or the fearsome Cave Troll it couldn't look like it came out of a computer.
And then when we created Gollum, the job was to make it look almost human, but not so human that you couldn't tell it was a creature. Getting it just right was the toughest thing.
Q: Will we ever see computers create real-life human actors?
A:I hope not. I don't see why we should. I can create a Humphrey Bogart that will look like Bogart, act like Bogart, sound like Bogart. But what made Bogart so special is what he had inside. You can't create a soul from a computer. And I don't think we should try. If you want to have Tom Hanks in a film, you ought to go out and hire Tom Hanks.