LOS ANGELES—A leading team of CGI experts hand-selected by blockbuster producer and director Michael Bay has pushed the limits of what can be accomplished with special effects and digital imaging by creating a computer- generated best-director Oscar for the 43-year-old filmmaker.
The $125 million project, funded entirely by Bay, has been called one of the most ambitious CGI undertakings to date, dwarfing even Bay's most ambitious efforts in his 2007 robot-action film, Transformers. A crew of nearly 200 technicians working for nine months on a 15,000-square-foot soundstage was required to realize the director's wildly imaginative fantasy world.
"Viewers are going to be blown away by how believable-looking we've been able to make Michael Bay accepting the highest award in film appear," said senior technical director Zsolt Krajcsik, who also worked with Bay on the 2003 film Bad Boys II. "The podium, the backdrop, the sense of creative achievement that hangs about him—it's all so vivid and detailed that you'd swear it was real."
Added Krajcsik, "When you see Michael thanking his talented cast and crew and raising the Oscar above his head, it's going to be hard to believe it never, ever happened."
In order to create the illusion of filmmaking achievement, Bay was first filmed in front of a green screen while being presented a "dummy" award, a green cylinder roughly the size and shape of an Oscar statuette. Technicians next analyzed a real Academy Award borrowed from Ben Affleck, whom Bay directed in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, in order to build a digital model. The team then took the raw motion-capture footage of Bay accepting the dummy award and painstakingly rotoscoped the digitally rendered Oscar into every frame.
The CGI team also took great care to make the scenery match flawlessly with the new digital footage. Not only did technicians create a 3-D computer model of the Kodak Theatre, where the 2008 Academy Awards will be held, but they also engineered a startlingly lifelike audience. The computer-generated crowd was designed using advanced artificial intelligence software, which allowed the digital actors to behave as individuals and respond to each other and their surroundings as if Michael Bay were actually standing before them, being honored by his peers and the Academy. Using this program, thousands of meticulously detailed figures seemed to laugh, applaud, and cry at appropriate moments in Bay's 15-minute-long acceptance speech.
The same technology, which features a sophisticated cloth-simulation application, was used to create Bay's digital tuxedo.
"There is no way this would have been possible five years ago," Krajcsik said, later admitting that CGI technology is still decades away from making an Academy Award win for Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner look plausible.
While the production is a testament to recent technological advances in the field of CGI, the human aspect of the project also proved extremely challenging. As part of his intense preparation for the role of an acclaimed director, Bay said he interviewed several Academy Award winners, including Steven Spielberg and Marisa Tomei.
"This was a world that was completely foreign to me," said Bay, who spent months practicing the choreographed motions of holding the statue aloft and kissing it. "I tried to get a sense of what it would actually be like to hold an Oscar for the first time, and not just the emotions involved, but the actual heft and tactile feel of accepting the award."
Meryl Streep, who commanded a $5 million salary for her role as the presenter of the Oscar, said the production was the biggest challenge of her career.
"To put yourself in that mental place, in a world where something like this would be possible, it's just indescribable," Streep said. "Standing in front of that greenscreen and trying to make it look as though I actually believed what I was doing was the most difficult thing I've ever attempted as an actor."
The completed production will debut on ABC during the Academy Awards in a seamlessly integrated advertising block Bay purchased that directly precedes the presentation for best director, and has already garnered considerable buzz for its purportedly mind-boggling visual effects.
"We'll just have to wait and see if it lives up to the hype," Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert said. "However, if the special effects team has succeeded in making Michael Bay getting anything above a People's Choice Award seem even remotely convincing, then this has Oscar written all over it."