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Article – Defectors Say Church of Scientology Hides Abuse

They signed a contract for a billion years — in keeping with the church’s belief that Scientologists are immortal. They worked seven days a week, often on little sleep, for sporadic paychecks of $50 a week, at most.

But after 13 years and growing disillusionment, the Collbrans decided to leave the Sea Org, setting off on a Kafkaesque journey that they said required them to sign false confessions about their personal lives and their work, pay the church thousands of dollars it said they owed for courses and counseling, and accept the consequences as their parents, siblings and friends who are church members cut off all communication with them.

“Why did we work so hard for this organization,” Ms. Collbran said, “and why did it feel so wrong in the end? We just didn’t understand.”

They soon discovered others who felt the same. Searching for Web sites about Scientology that are not sponsored by the church (an activity prohibited when they were in the Sea Org), they discovered that hundreds of other Scientologists were also defecting — including high-ranking executives who had served for decades.

Fifty-six years after its founding by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, the church is fighting off calls by former members for a Reformation. The defectors say Sea Org members were repeatedly beaten by the church’s chairman, David Miscavige, often during planning meetings; pressured to have abortions; forced to work without sleep on little pay; and held incommunicado if they wanted to leave. The church says the defectors are lying.

The defectors say that the average Scientology member, known in the church as a public, is largely unaware of the abusive environment experienced by staff members. The church works hard to cultivate public members — especially celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of the cartoon scoundrel Bart Simpson) — whose money keeps it running.

But recently even some celebrities have begun to abandon the church, the most prominent of whom is the director and screenwriter Paul Haggis, who won Oscars for “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.” Mr. Haggis had been a member for 35 years. His resignation letter, leaked to a defectors’ Web site, recounted his indignation as he came to believe that the defectors’ accusations must be true.

“These were not the claims made by ‘outsiders’ looking to dig up dirt against us,” Mr. Haggis wrote. “These accusations were made by top international executives who had devoted most of their lives to the church.”

The church has responded to the bad publicity by denying the accusations and calling attention to a worldwide building campaign that showcases its wealth and industriousness. Last year, it built or renovated opulent Scientology churches, which it calls Ideal Orgs, in Rome; Malmo, Sweden; Dallas; Nashville; and Washington. And at its base here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it continued buying hotels and office buildings (54 in all) and constructing a 380,000-square-foot mecca that looks like a convention center.

“This is a representation of our success,” said the church’s spokesman, Tommy Davis, showing off the building’s cavernous atrium, still to be clad in Italian marble, at the climax of a daylong tour of the church’s Clearwater empire. “This is a result of our expansion. It’s pinch-yourself material.”

As for the defectors, Mr. Davis called them “apostates” and said that contrary to their claims of having left the church in protest, they were expelled.

“And since they’re removed, the church is expanding like never before,” said Mr. Davis, a second-generation Scientologist whose mother is the actress Anne Archer. “And what we see here is evidence of the fact that we’re definitely better off without them.”

‘Bridge to Total Freedom’

Scientology is an esoteric religion in which the faith is revealed gradually to those who invest their time and money to master Mr. Hubbard’s teachings. Scientologists believe that human beings are impeded by negative memories from past lives, and that by applying Mr. Hubbard’s “technology,” they can reach a state known as clear.

They may spend hundreds of hours in one-on-one “auditing” sessions, holding the slim silver-colored handles of an e-meter while an auditor asks them questions and takes notes on what they say and on the e-meter’s readings.

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Categories: BACKSTORY, NEWS STORY

Wesley Snipes Tries to Redeem Himself in 'Brooklyn's Finest'

For Wesley Snipes, ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ is no stretch

Wesley Snipes

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / February 12, 2010)

By Steven Zeitchik >>>

March 5, 2010

When most of us last saw Wesley Snipes, he wasn’t in his usual position as a hero on a movie screen. Instead, he was inhabiting a far less savory role, starring as both a news headline and late-night punch line.

Back in 2006, Snipes was brought up on enough tax-related charges to keep a fleet of IRS agents busy for years: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, aiding and abetting the making of a fraudulent claim for payment and willfully failing to file a number of tax returns. He was acquitted on all felony counts but found guilty on several misdemeanor charges and sentenced to three years in jail; he is currently appealing, and is out on bail and free to travel for work.

But one of Hollywood’s most compelling subjects is now attempting a comeback — in the peculiar way that only he can — with “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a bloody ensemble crime drama directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”). In the Overture Films release, which hits theaters Friday, Snipes plays Cassanova Valentine, a former drug kingpin who’s trying to go straight but whom the feds are determined to bust anyway, using an undercover cop (Don Cheadle) to do the deed.

“Part of what makes the character work is that it’s immediately identifiable in the arc of my career,” Snipes says. “And in the arc of my life.”

IRS controversies aside, the Cassanova role serves as a bookend of sorts to Snipes’ iconic Nino Brown character from “New Jack City” (1991). The difference is that instead of the megalomaniacal crime lord he played in that urban classic, Snipes’ new character sits at the other end of the pipe, a man who’s lived too hard and seen too much to want anything but out. It’s a small part, but one that illustrates the movie’s twin themes of redemption and one’s inability to escape the past.

The Cassanova part is Snipes’ first mainstream theatrical movie in six years. But in his inimitably quirky way, the 47-year-old actor says he isn’t necessarily using his turn in the film, or the curiosity factors about the parallels to his own life, to land studio parts. Instead, his grand ambition these days is to become a . . . Web animation producer?

On an unseasonably warm February day at a beach-side restaurant in Santa Monica, Snipes isn’t exactly dressed for a dip in the pool. Dressed in a hat that’s cocked Andre 3000-style, a black sweater and bespoke leather coat, Snipes bites into a hearty meal of sausage and eggs, though, since this is Wesley Snipes, there is an unexpected touch as he drinks the very un-action hero beverage of hot chocolate.

Snipes’ story would be improbable enough even if the last four years didn’t happen. A classically trained theater actor who made his early mark two decades ago in comedies such as “Major League” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” Snipes got a boost from Spike Lee, who cast him in “”Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues,” then won a professional golden ticket as Hollywood made him a go-to action star in studio vehicles such as “Passenger 57,” “Rising Sun” and eventually the “Blade” trilogy.

Then, four years ago, it all went south. After his high-profile tax troubles, Snipes became an unlikely poster-child for the anti-tax movement and was essentially ostracized by Hollywood. Fuqua acknowledged in an interview that casting Snipes in “Brooklyn’s Finest” was a struggle because some financiers were worried about his legal status. But the director says he was determined to put Snipes in the film because while watching the television reports of his tax trouble he was struck by how “it paralleled so perfectly” what happens to the Cassanova character. “I didn’t want a guy who yells and screams. I wanted someone you feel fear but also sympathy,” Fuqua says. “And then I saw Wesley going through what he was going through and I thought ‘This is a guy who’s living it right now.’ “

So it’s probably not surprising that Snipes sounds a little aggrieved with how the last few years have gone. But his tone is more complex, at once penitent and defiant, humble and grandiose. He bows at the end of the interview, like a martial-arts fighter — which, oh yes, he also happens to be — and thanks a reporter for his time.

“You try to be liquid, try to be like water, like Bruce [Lee] says,” when asked how he’s been coping with the criticism. “Some things you just let flow around you, some things you just redirect back.” Then he sharpens the knives. “Sometimes you just sit and be patient and wait, and if you sit by the river long enough sometimes you see the bodies of your enemies floating by.”

Thoughtful, articulate and flagrantly theatrical, Snipes is too savvy to place blame on anyone but himself. But it’s clear that he feels Hollywood was too quick to judge him and still believes the government made an example of him.

In a gesture at once sincere and conscious, he shoulders the blame — sort of. “Going through the trial woke me up to the significance of what I do,” he says. “[The government] said it was the largest and biggest and most important tax case. And I thought ‘Really? What am I missing here? Why would you say that, just because I make movies?’ That was a wake-up call.”

Snipes tried not to let those troubles get in the way of work, though the kind of work he’s been doing won’t get him invited to the Oscars any time soon. Snipes has been off in Africa and Asia making movies for people who, in some cases, in Snipes’ words, “use filmmaking like they’re selling toasters, toothbrushes or henna on the beach. You read some of what the fans are saying, things like ‘Why is he now doing the B-movies?’ and I was like ‘My man. That’s not my preference.’ “

Fuqua decided to take a chance on him as a drug dealer opposite a host of cops in “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Snipes is part of the interlocking puzzle that has Richard Gere as a burnt-out cop on the verge of retirement, Ethan Hawke as a desperate officer trying to pilfer cash from an arrest to help his family and Cheadle’s undercover officer trying to attain a promotion (and thrust into the morally questionable position of ratting out Snipes’ Cassanova despite the pair’s long-standing friendship).

With the part, Snipes says, “it’s good to be welcomed home.” And Cheadle said in an interview that Snipes has “got a real good soul, and he should get more shots” because of this film. But Snipes said he isn’t really that interested in studio parts. Instead, he’s developing a series of Web animation shorts called “Omandi Mech 5” that he “wants to scale out like ‘Transformers’ or ‘Star Wars,’ ” although, after watching one, those comparisons feel like a bit of a stretch.

Turning to
his personal life, Snipes can sound almost monkish. “I’m at a really good place. I’ve reduced a lot of the stress in my life. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of things. The light was turned on and a lot of the cockroaches started spinning. I swept them out the door. And sometimes you just have to throw things out because they carry a certain energy. Reboot. It’s time to reboot.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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Categories: ACTORS, BACKSTORY

Cool Story – Elvis Presley and Nixon in the White House

January 14, 2010 Leave a comment

COLUMN ONE

Picture of Elvis and Nixon is worth a thousand words

Elvis Presley's visit to the White House

FAST FRIENDS: President Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office in 1970. Presley requested the meeting in a five-page letter to the president.

By Faye Fiore

January 14, 2010

Reporting from Washington – The National Archives is like a safe-deposit box for America’s really important papers — the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the $7.2-million canceled check for the purchase of Alaska, the picture of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office.

Copies of that photo — the president in his charcoal suit, the king of rock ‘n’ roll in his purple velvet cape — are requested more than just about any of the archives’ treasures, including the Constitution.

Yet the story that led to their improbable meeting on Dec. 21, 1970, is as little-known as the picture is famous. In honor of Elvis’ 75th birthday last week, one of the president’s men, Egil “Bud” Krogh, and one of the king’s most trusted friends, Jerry Schilling, met for the first time in almost 40 years at the National Archives to recount the day Elvis came to Washington. A crowd waited in the frigid cold for a seat. (Even in the imperious capital, Elvis can still pack a house.)

It wasn’t the glitzy birthday party other cities threw, no giant birthday cards, all-night film festivals or flashy displays of the white jumpsuit called “Snowflake.” An Elvis exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery is more Washington’s speed. As was this forum, which offered an hourlong window into a simpler time, before Watergate or terrorist attacks, when the world’s most famous man asked the world’s most powerful one to grant him a wish, and got it.

The story begins Dec. 19, 1970, at Schilling’s home in the Hollywood Hills. The phone rings. A voice says, “It’s me.”

Elvis is at the Dallas airport on his way to Los Angeles and wants Schilling to pick him up at LAX.

“Who’s with you?” Schilling asks.

“Nobody,” the king says.

It should be noted that Elvis was a man who almost never did anything alone. He wanted at least five guys around him just to sit and watch TV. So Schilling is understandably concerned, all the more so when Elvis proceeds to recite his flight number and arrival time, which is akin to the queen doing a load of laundry.

Schilling heads to the airport and takes Elvis to the singer’s mansion on Hillcrest Drive in Beverly Hills. The next morning, it comes out that Vernon, Elvis’ father, and Priscilla, his wife, were bugging him about how he spent his money. This aggravated the king, so all by himself he got on the first plane going out, which happened to be bound for Washington. Things did not go well.

For starters, a “smart aleck little steward” with a mustache discovers Elvis is carrying a gun — it was his habit to carry at least three — and informs him he cannot bring a firearm on the airplane. Elvis, unaccustomed to being told what to do, storms off and is chased down by the pilot: “I’m sorry, Mr. Presley, of course you can keep your gun.” Elvis and his firearm reboard.

Upon arriving in the nation’s capital, Elvis decides he wants a doughnut. While waiting for his order, he encounters some unsavory types who notice his five big gold rings and three necklaces.

“That’s some nice jewelry,” one thug says.

“Yeah, and I aim to keep it,” says Elvis, raising one leg of his bell bottoms to reveal a snub-nosed revolver strapped to his right ankle.

At some point, Elvis has enough of this traveling alone stuff and heads to Los Angeles, intent on returning to Washington with one of his Memphis Mafia, namely Schilling.

Schilling, who first met Elvis playing football when he was 12, is accustomed to odd requests from the king. But this one is particularly weird because Elvis is bent on going to Washington but won’t say why. Still, because “you don’t say no to Elvis,” Schilling agrees to go, even though it means missing a day at his new job as an assistant editor at Paramount, which took him a year to get.

They book two first-class seats, but still need cash, and it’s a Sunday night in 1970. No ATMs. Elvis’ limousine driver, Sir Gerald, arranges for a check to be cashed at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Schilling writes one for $500, which Elvis signs. Before they leave the house,Elvis, a history buff, takes his commemorative World War II Colt 45 revolver off the wall, bullets included, and stows it in his bag.

They cash the check and head for the airport. A small group of soldiers on leave from Vietnam for Christmas are on the same flight, and Elvis wanders back to coach to talk with one of them. Soon he is back up in first class, nudging Schilling, “Hey man, where’s the $500?”

Schilling knows what’s coming. Elvis is an unusually generous man. After learning that Schilling was a year old when his mother died, Elvis bought him the house in Hollywood so he would “always have a home.” He still lives there today.

OK, so Elvis is on the plane, asking for the $500.

“Elvis, we’re going to Washington. That’s all we’ve got,” Schilling cautions.

“You don’t understand. This man’s been in Vietnam,” Elvis says, then heads straight to coach and gives the soldier all their cash.

While he’s back there, though, Elvis bumps into George Murphy, a song-and-dance man turned U.S. senator from California. They chat for awhile, and Elvis comes back to his seat asking for stationery, which a stewardess gets him. Elvis, who has written only three letters in his life, all while stationed with the Army in Germany, sits down to write the fourth, to the president of the United States.

“Dear Mr. President, First I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley.”

In five pages, Elvis explains he loves his country and wants to give something back and, not being “a member of the Establishment,” believes he could reach some people the president can’t if the president would only make him a federal agent at-large so he can help fight the war on drugs.

“Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. . . . I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent. . . . I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not to [sic] busy. Respectfully, Elvis Presley.”

He asks the president to give him a call at the Washington Hotel, Room 505, where he will be staying under the alias Jon Burrows (a part he played in one of his movies). He provides six private numbers that any one of his fans would have killed for, to his homes in Beverly Hills, Palm Springs and Memphis, as well as three lines for his manager, the Colonel.

The plane lands before dawn and they get in a limo Sir George had arranged before they left, which is a good thing because they have no money. Elvis wants to personally deliver the letter to the White House. “I don’t think this is such a good idea,” Schilling says, noting the hour.

Next scene: The limo pulls up to the northwest gate. Elvis gets out and hands his letter to a security guard, who sizes up this guy in a cape. Schilling, realizing that in the dark Elvis looks a lot like Dracula, jumps out and explains. The guard agrees to deliver the letter to the president. Elvis and Schilling retire to the Washington Hotel to wait.

Early that morning, th
e letter finds its way to the desk of Dwight Chapin, special assistant to the president. After a moment of head-scratching, he decides this meeting has to take place. Nixon had already tried to enlist Hollywood’s help in fighting the war on drugs by approaching luminaries such as Art Linkletter; Elvis is a definite step up.

So Chapin fires off a memo to Krogh, which Krogh dismisses as a practical joke. Deciding to play along, he calls the hotel, asks for Schilling and is impressed that Chapin has found someone to impersonate an Elvis lackey.

The more they talk, however, the more Krogh realizes this is no joke. He shoots a memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, suggesting this could be a real boost for the drug war effort, which isn’t going so well.

“You must be kidding,” Haldeman scribbles in the margin before approving the request. The meeting is on.

Krogh, a big Elvis fan who “never went on a date without him,” makes sure he’s in the room. “This is history,” he thinks to himself.

White House schedulers find five minutes at 11:45 a.m. for Elvis, who, on time for once, enters wearing tight purple velvet pants, the matching cape, a white pointy collared shirt unbuttoned to reveal two enormous gold chains, and a belt buckle the size of Rhode Island.

At 12:30 p.m., the president meets the king. Elvis is taken by the eagles on the ceiling, and Krogh has to give him a little steer toward Nixon.

Soon, though, Elvis is pulling out pictures of his wife and baby, along with photos of assorted police and security badges he has collected over the years. The allotted five minutes pass, and they’re still going, bonding over their lowly beginnings — poverty, challenging childhoods. They commiserate about the burdens of fame, what a hard gig Vegas is (which, weirdly, Nixon seems to know about). Elvis offers to help Nixon fight the war on drugs and restore respect for the flag. Nixon admires Elvis’ big cuff links.

Then Elvis asks for what he’s been after all along, a big gold badge to add to his collection, the thing that would make him a federal agent at-large for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He had tried to get one from an agency head but was turned down, which is why he decided to go straight to Nixon.

“Can I be one?” Elvis asks his new friend.

“Well, federal agents at-large — we just don’t have those,” Nixon stammers.

“I’ll look into it,” Krogh promises.

Elvis is crestfallen, visibly wilted under the weight of all that gold, a man who could have anything — cars, women, houses — except the one thing he wants most.

Nixon takes one look at him and caves.

“Get him the badge.”

Elvis is so excited he gives the president a big hug.

“Will you meet my friends?” he asks. Schilling and Sonny West, another of the Memphis Mafia who somehow showed up at the hotel that morning, are waiting in an outer office.

“Come on in, you guys,” Elvis says cheerfully. He introduces his rather tall friends to Nixon, who sizes them up, hands on hips, and says, “You got a couple of big ones here, Elvis.” They all pose for pictures.

Then it’s time for gifts. Elvis pulls out the commemorative Colt 45 he had taken from his wall and carried into the White House, to the dismay of the Secret Service. (“We’ve got a little problem here; Elvis has brought a gun.”) He presents it to Nixon.

The president moves over to a drawer of presents he keeps on the left side of his desk, its contents organized in order of increasing value: golf balls, pens, paperweights in front, and way in the back, 16-karat gold pendants, lapel pins and brooches. Nixon peruses the drawer with Elvis peeking over his shoulder. He pulls out gifts for Schilling and West.

“You know, Mr. President, they have wives,” Elvis says. Nixon goes back for more. Elvis motions to the 16-karat stuff. (Schilling’s wife still has her brooch.)

It’s time to go. The two men agree their meeting is best kept a secret. Nixon is sinking in the polls, Elvis is working on his comeback, and neither of their constituencies was likely to understand. The Leader of the Free World and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll say their goodbyes.

For 13 months, the secret is safe. Not a security guard or a staffer, not any of the men with whom Elvis shook hands or the women he kissed when aides took him down to the White House mess for lunch afterward, breathe a word.

It wasn’t until columnist Jack Anderson got hold of the galleys of a memoir by Deputy Narcotics Director John Finlator that the news broke: “Elvis Presley, the swivel-hipped singer, has been issued a federal narcotics badge.”

Epilogue: Nixon resigned from office under threat of impeachment 3 1/2 years later, on Aug. 9, 1974. When he was subsequently hospitalized with phlebitis, Elvis called to wish him well.

Elvis died at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977, of a heart attack; 14 prescription drugs were found in his system. Nixon later noted in his friend’s defense that those were not illegal drugs.

Schilling wrote a book, “Me and a Guy Named Elvis.”

Krogh wrote one too, but “The Day Elvis Met Nixon” is mostly pictures. He also spent four months in prison for his role in the White House plumbers scandal.

Chapin served nearly eight months and Haldeman 18 months for their part in the Watergate coverup.

The commemorative gun is on display at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.

The badge, specially prepared by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs with Elvis’ name on it, hangs in his home in Graceland, on the Wall of Gold.

faye.fiore@latimes.com

Denise Kostbar contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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Categories: BACKSTORY

Backstory – How Much TV is Actually Green Screen? This Video shows you how much is phony

January 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot, it turns out! This corporate video from the “virtual backlot” magicians at Stargate Studios, reveals just how much of what we assume are TV location shoots are actually filmed in front of green screens. Why bother shooting Ugly Betty sidestepping a reporter and bumping into someone on the street when you can build a to-scale replica covered in green material, then digitally add an extra being jostled by a phantom Ugly Betty in post? Voila! The illusion is seamless! Watching this, I was reminded of an old sketch from Late Night with David Letterman in which Mark Hamill cracks an egg into a bowl; then a video spoofing those Star Wars making-of featurettes reveals that the egg was rigged with several tiny explosive charges, and Hamill had actually just mimed cracking it in front of a blue screen. Get it? It would have been easier just to shoot him cracking an egg! (But not as cool.) (And if anyone can find that video, I’d be much obliged.) Anyway, here’s the video. Et tu, Hiro Nakamura? Et tu? [via Paul Scheer]

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Categories: BACKSTORY, VIDEOS

Backstory – The Making of 'Avatar'

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment
December 15, 2009 | By Scott Essman

Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) make final preparations for an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.

Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) make final preparations for an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.

James Cameron’s long-awaited epic fantasy Avatar is definitely “titanic” in size and scope. “It’s got a big story—that’s where it starts,” said producer Jon Landau, who also produced Cameron’s last film, Titanic. “Jim created a story that called for a world that did not exist. The technology did not exist before Titanic. The technical hurdle was creating the closeup. In the center of our world, we have CGI characters—and movies are all about the closeup.”

For these characters, created through a complex process beginning on stages at Playa Vista and ending up largely at Weta Digital in New Zealand, Cameron and his crew realized that the success of the movie rested on the believability of the creatures, the native inhabitants of the alien world, Pandora. “You don’t get involved in the motion of the world,” said Landau. “You get involved in the characters. We needed emotive and engaging characters.”

One of the breakthroughs in Avatar was the advent of a new type of performance capture system in which live actors were translated into digital characters through a system in which cameras were attached to the actors’ heads via a helmet device that would record the actors every facial movement. “Instead of going with what people did in the past, we instituted e-motion capture,” said Landau. “Instead of reflective markers, we used an image-based capture on a frame-by-frame basis. On the visual effects end, it’s intensive. But we created a paradigm for them to focus on the hard stuff.”

After six months of “e-motion” capture, running from April to September 2007, the material was compiled by editors Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua, plus Cameron himself, who—as in Titanic—is a credited as editor on Avatar, and sent to Weta for assembly onto the creatures—10- foot tall blue beings called the Na’vi.

“We committed to Weta in January of 2007,” Landau explained. “In the movie, there will be 3,000 visual effects shots. In comparison, Jurassic Park had 50 visual effects shots.”

Certainly, there have been shows that have had more visual effects and were just as challenging as Avatar, but Weta was ideal for this particular project according to Landau. “Avatar is relatively confined,” he said. “We were limited to studio filming. We created it a whole different way. Looking where Weta was going as a company—image-based facial captures—we turned over templates of sequences where we wanted facial capture. They were open to all of this.”

During and after the facial capture process, with Joe Letteri supervising Weta’s work, Cameron and the editorial team stateside used a sophisticated system of interacting with their New Zealand counterparts. “We do a live interactive video conference with them where they are viewing one of three streams right from our Avid, or they could see us, and we could see them,” Landau explained. “They are running in sync with us. Throughout this, we used the Avid as our tool for viewing visual effects. We can put things into editorial cut sequences with multiple video streams—say take 1, 3 and 5. We put those all in sync in our Avid.”

Of course, Avatar did not only involve computer-generated imagery. Subsequent to the image capture portion, Cameron went to New Zealand to soundstages and a backlot in Wellington where Peter Jackson shot scenes from Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

From October 2007 to February 2008, Cameron shot his live actors on sets using parts of the team from Jackson’s film, including Richard Taylor who supervised special props and equipment, plus the team from the late Stan Winston’s studio, who created makeup and mechanical devices.

Of note, Winston’s work with Cameron went back to the original Terminator in 1984. “The live-action side was all studio-based filming,” Landau confirmed. “We used that stage for cost reasons and proximity to Weta and craftsmanship—we found great artists. Richard Taylor built our weapons and tanks. A very small part of the show was shot using greenscreens.”

Following physical production in Wellington, Cameron returned to California for several months of virtual cinematography, using a camera that he co-created, where the director could create shots in the digital world of Pandora using any angle he wished. “In production, we had two different phases—performance capture to get the actors, and virtual camera to see what they were doing in the environment,” Landau explained. “We did not spend the time during performance capture to do the camera coverage. It was all about the actors. Then, with our virtual camera, we would do coverage and edit those sequences in a template level. This was the action of the sequences, and performances that Jim wanted, and then Weta would work on those sequences.”

In comparing their last production to this new one, Landau crafted an interesting technological analogy. “When we did Titanic, we turned to existing real-world solutions to raise and lower the ship,” said Landau. “Here, it felt a little more like NASA felt when Kennedy said ‘we’re going to the moon.’ Our moon is Pandora and we had to figure out how to get there. I think it’s an evolution, just like when Jim did the pseudopod in The Abyss.

On this movie, we had to come up with terminology. We visited Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson who are doing TinTin [with some of the same processes used on Avatar] and people are using our terminology. Hopefully, they will evolve it, and there will be new tools to use.”

Another crucial element of Avatar is the 3D camera system that the production utilized— though in theaters Avatar will screen both in 3D and traditional 2D. “Hopefully, 3D is the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae,” said Landau. “For us, 3D is about creating a window into a world. Technology is what enables exhibitors to create high-tech 3D. Our goal is to have the 3D disappear and not notice it. We want to create an illusion of a window into a world. We will only come out in Digital 3D and IMAX 3D. Technology services stories. Here, we were able to adapt this technology and apply it to this story.”

Surely, many eyes will be on Cameron as this is his first film in 12 years and Cameron’s crew is well aware of this though they feel Avatar is a natural step for the director. “I think Jim is uniquely qualified to make this movie—you had to have a vision to work on this virtual production stage and make the camera movement seem natural to filmmaking,” Landau said. “He did not want visual effects to overcome the filmmaking. Jim himself has the great balance of
a technological understanding and story. He brings that into directing. He brings that technology to the story. He always pushes the envelope and on this one, it pushed back. It was the most challenging.”

Will Avatar ultimately serve as a new type of filmmaking, which other directors will strive to imitate? Landau isn’t concerned. “I think Jim doesn’t look to set bars,” he said. “He looks to conquer his own challenges. He looks for challenges that motivate him. It’s all about passion. When you set it high in front of you, you find the passion to achieve your goals. The story is first and foremost. He found a way to utilize technology to tell a story that would not otherwise have been told.”

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Categories: BACKSTORY, VIDEOS

Shooting 'The Abyss': The day James Cameron nearly died

December 19, 2009 Leave a comment

As I mentioned the other day, I've been reading "The Futurist," Rebecca Keegan's new book, which offers an in-depth look at the trials and troubles and tantrums that have marked James Cameron's 25-plus years in the movie business.

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With "Avatar" already poised to have a huge opening weekend, Cameron should be feeling as if he's on top of the world again, the opposite of where he was during the making of "The Abyss," a troubled production that ended up being his biggest flop.

During the "Abyss" shoot, Cameron spent much of his time filming underwater in a giant concrete bowl in South Carolina that held 7.5 million gallons of water. (The tank was so big it took the crew five days just to fill it with water from a nearby lake.) While doing underwater filming, all of the actors had safety divers (known on the set as "angels") who would hover nearby, wearing long fins, able to swim over and provide air if anything went wrong. But Cameron had no angel. He was also weighted with an extra 40 pounds of equipment so he could walk around the bottom of what was known as "A Tank" with his camera. The filmmaker could go for roughly 75 minutes on a single tank of oxygen. Since he tended to get absorbed in his work, he told his assistant director to alert him when he'd gone an hour without a new fill.

One day, a few weeks into production, Cameron was talking Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio through a shot when he took a breath and got no air. Startled, he checked his pressure gauge, which read zero. He was out of oxygen. The AD had forgotten to give him a warning alert. With all of his extra weight, and no fins, there was no way for Cameron to swim to the surface. His helmet microphone was still linked to the underwater PA system, so Cameron called out to underwater cinematographer Al Giddings, who was filming nearby. "Al…Al…I'm in trouble."

Giddings, who was nearly deaf from a diving-bell accident 20 years earlier, didn't hear him. Cameron tried to rouse his support divers, using up the rest of the air in his lungs, saying, "Guys, I'm in trouble." As Keegan writes: "Cameron made the sign for being out of air, a cutthroat motion across the neck and a fist to the chest. Nothing. At the bottom of a 7.5 million gallon tank, in the dark, thirty-five feet from the surface, Cameron really was in trouble. He knew he had to ditch his rig or die."

Up in the control room, the sound effects mixer realized something was amiss when he heard the sound of Cameron's helmet being popped off and all the expensive electronics inside flooding with water. By feel, Cameron located the release of his buoyancy vest and slipped out of it, beginning what divers call a "blow and go," a free ascent to the surface. Cameron blew out a stream of bubbles on his way up, kicking like mad because of his ankle weights.

Finally, a safety diver named George came to Cameron's rescue, stopping him about 15 feet from the surface, as he was trained to do, shoving his backup regulator into Cameron's mouth. Cameron purged, then inhaled, but the backup regulator was broken, so Cameron simply inhaled more water. Figuring he'd done something wrong, he tried again, inhaling more water. Choking, about to black out, he tried to pull away, but George, assuming the director was panicking, held him even tighter, trying to make him breathe on the regulator.

Finally, Cameron did what any great action director would do — he punched George as hard as he could, right in the chops. Stunned, George let Cameron go, allowing him to quickly swim to the surface without blacking out. He managed to reach the dive platform and drag himself out of the tank. The result? As Keegan writes: "By the end of the day, [Cameron] had fired George and his AD. And he ordered the divers at the surface to fish out his helmet and fix the microphone so he could get back down in A Tank."

In Hollywood, the show must go on.

Posted via web from MovieDriver – Hollywood Teamster

Categories: BACKSTORY, MOVIES, PRODUCTION

Movie History – This is the Ape Figurine someone paid $200 Grand for..

November 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Back in 1933 there was this little movie called King Kong. While not an epic award-winner, the film instantly became a legend for stunning special effects and arguably the most iconic Hollywood monster of them all. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ve no doubt witnessed the scene, where the large ape grabbed Fay Wray’s Anne Darrow and carried her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he fought off planes and machine gun fire to be with the unwilling object of his affection.

MSNBC
reports that the specific metal skeleton used in that iconic scene has sold for approximately $200,000 at a Christie’s auction in London. Talk about a killer find! The 22-inch figurine was originally “covered in cotton, rubber, liquid latex, and rabbit’s fur,” but being over 70 years old, that covering has rotted away to reveal what you see above — a collection of metal, rivets, and screws fashioned into an ape skeleton.

While there’s a whole lot of great computer-generated effects out there, I can’t help but feel a pang for the good old days of tangible creations and miniature models. They gave an added sense of realism to special effects-laden filmmaking. You can check out the scene (colorized) after the jump.

Posted via web from MovieDriver – Hollywood Teamster

Categories: BACKSTORY, NEWS STORY