Not everyone in our exclusive group of Secret Science Nerds has a background in hardcore academia. Some of them in fact have made lasting contributions to various branches of science through their body of work or dedication to charitable organizations. The subject of today’s profile is one such contributor. Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, whose latest film Allied opens this today, may not have grown up with an eye for science, but his artistic tastes have made him one of cinema’s greatest technological trailblazers.
If nothing else, Zemeckis’ conception of and contributions to Back to the Future would automatically land him among our Secret Science Nerds. We’re currently smack in the middle of the 30th anniversary of the film trilogy that famously features a mad scientist and his unwitting sidekick who travel backwards and forwards through time with the help of a souped-up DeLorean. The script for the 1985 hit was originally conceived by Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale, and it was their collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic that brought the film’s time-traveling scenes to life. ILM animator and supervisor Wes Takahashi pioneered the effects for the Clock Tower lightning bolt and DeLorean time slice sequences; he talked to FX Guide about the process of coming up with concepts that would envision what the “two Bobs” wanted to see. The film would go on to win an Oscar for “Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing” and a Saturn Award for “Best Special Effects.”
After the success of the first Back to the Future film and before the inevitable sequels, Zemeckis tackled an even more ambitious project: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The painstaking process of blending live-action scenes with animated characters was a daunting one — Terry Gilliam passed on it, saying “This is too much work. Pure laziness on my part.” VistaVision cameras with motion control technology were used for the live-action filming with rubber mannequins acting as stand-ins for the animated characters; the scenes were later composited with animation. ILM added a month to the production schedule in order to film the blue screen effects of the animated Toontown. Another 14 months of post-production followed since all the animation was done through the use of cels and optical compositing, well before computer animation and digital compositing were commonplace. Detailed layers of lighting effects further complicated the process, but the filmmakers were rewarded with Oscars for “Best Film Editing”, “Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing”, and “Best Effects, Visual Effects.”
Zemeckis then took on the black comedy Death Becomes Her in 1992, another of his technically complex films that would win an Oscar for “Best Visual Effects” thanks to ILM’s computer-generated neck-twisting, skin-stretching, and hole-through-the-abdomen effects. But it was Zemeckis’ 1994 film Forrest Gump that would cement his status as a special effects wizard and dramatic storyteller. The extensive use of ILM’s visual effects expertise to incorporate Tom Hanks’ title character into archival footage, create the crowd at the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., and “amputate” Gary Sinise’s character’s legs earned the film another Oscar in that category, just one of the six that Forrest Gump would take home.
In 1999, Zemeckis became a proponent of shooting on digital film. A few years later, he would create the first all-digital capture film, The Polar Express. He used performance-motion-capture technology dubbed Imagemotion (TM) which necessitated the use of nearly 200 plastic “jewels” attached to Tom Hanks’ body so that 70 cameras could record his every move, which were then replicated by computers to produce a more lifelike animated image. In 2007, Zemeckis took this technology a step further into the realm of 3D filmmaking with Beowulf, followed up in 2009 with A Christmas Carol. Despite the films’ technological achievements, they did not receive the same level of awards attention Zemeckis’ earlier films had.
Zemeckis has returned to solely live-action films in recent years. 2012’s Flight featured a gut-wrenching visual effects sequence while 2015’s The Walk took advantage of visual effects to take Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s high-wire-walking Philippe Petite to dizzying heights. Here’s hoping Zemeckis’ technological envelope-pushing days are not behind him and that we have many more years of his cutting-edge filmmaking to enjoy. Maybe he’ll even warm to virtual reality…
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Images: Paramount Pictures