The critics so hated last weekend's box-office smash "Mission to Mars" -- in fact, some were downright mean to director Brian De Palma's new-agey sci-fi pic -- they forgot to mention that the film's visuals, including the amazing special effects, are, ahem, out of this world. Two special-effects houses -- Dream Quest Images and George Lucas' renowned Industrial Light and Magic -- were needed for the more than 400 special-effects shots that invoke the scary Mars surface, the weightless space travel and the astronauts' spacewalk after their recovery-ship accident.
Reportedly costing close to $100 million to produce, "Mission To Mars" boasts one of the biggest sets ever built for a motion picture. The set, based just south of Vancouver, B.C., served as the vast (and blushing!) surface of Mars that the fearless astronauts played by Gary Sinise and crew must navigate.
The 55 Canadian acres serving as the Martian landscape were sculpted from sand dunes, then sprayed with a film of concrete-like material. In order to paint this huge area, crewmembers used fire hoses to spray about 100 gallons of environmentally friendly Mars red latex paint per minute. The filmmakers also shot landscapes in Jordan and the Canary Islands to deliver the Mars terrain.
Every exterior shot on Mars had to be digitally treated because the Martian sky doesn't look like the Earth sky. There was also the elaborate model work needed to create the spaceship miniatures and the creation of the star fields and planet Mars as seen in the deep-space sequences.
The Mars II Recovery ship required the work of 25 modelmakers. Construction of the elaborate 22-foot-long spacecraft took 10 weeks. But according to special effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman, the most challenging aspect of the film was the creation of the vortex -- a giant storm mass of terrifying dust and winds emerging from both natural and supernatural phenomena.
The space-walk sequence, giving Tim Robbins and his fellow astronauts a little more fresh air than they bargained for, had the actors suspended with wires, ropes and harnesses. These 170 live-action shots, requiring a blue-screen background to be later composited with sky, took 25 digital artists three months to render. De Palma wasn't fazed by the film's complexities. He's been a computer hobbyist for years and understands the technology and the processes. And that $100 million is somebody else's problem.
FIFTH FLOOR, ART FILMS! Recalling those old elevator operators at Macy's department store, AMC Entertainment, one of the country's largest theater chains, is designating the entire fifth floor in its soon-to-open AMC Empire 25 on Manhattan's 42nd Street to specialty/art-house films.
According to an AMC spokesperson, filmgoers with better taste than the rest of us will have about three to five indie and foreign films to choose from all on one floor.
When the Empire 25 opens April 21, it will be New York City's biggest megaplex. And just in case there are any Webheads, game freaks or tube fanatics who think that going out to theaters is dying, they should know that right -- and we mean directly -- across the street is Loews Cineplex's spanking new E-Walk complex of 13 screens.
Thanks to Hollywood's ever-oiled moviemaking machine and the worldwide explosion of cinephiles shooting features on the cheap with DV cameras, we're not worried about any screens going dark for lack of product.
And then there was 12. The Oscar camp has announced the dozen second-round qualifiers for the Best Documentary prize. And judging by the lineup, it doesn't look like the deciding committee is experiencing its usual "forgetfulness" when it comes to potential nominees.
The list is a virtual hit parade, including some of the year's most talked-about films -- from the absurd ("Mr. Death" ) to the sublime ("Buena Vista Social Club") and the farcical ("American Movie") to the serious "On The Ropes."
The following is the complete list:
"Amargosa" "American Movie" "Beyond the Mat" "Buena Vista Social Club" "Genghis Blues" "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." "On the Ropes" "One Day in September" "Pop & Me" "Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial" "The Source" "Speaking in Strings"
A committee of Academy members selected the docs. Final voting is currently taking place in Beverly Hills, New York and San Francisco where voters will screen the flicks before voting for five that'll earn official nominations. Overall, 55 feature-length docs were eligible for the 1999 competition.
Nominees for all 22 Academy Award categories - including Best Documentary -- will be announced Feb. 15 at 5:30 a.m. PST.
ALL HAIL NERDS: The unsung heroes of the movie business - tech heads, hardware geniuses, overworked engineers, etc. -- are getting their moment in the so-called limelight, too.
The Academy Awards folks are set to honor the behind-the-sceners for outstanding scientific and technical achievement in ceremonies March 4 in Beverly Hills. (Of course, unlike the movie-star types, the nerds will receive plaques and certificates, not shiny statues.)
Also, unlike the movie-star types, the nerds won't have to wait to find out if they've won. The Academy released its list of 12 techie awards Tuesday.
The following is a list of the recipients and their achievements.
Scientific and Engineering Awards:
Nick Phillips, for the design and development of the three-axis Libra III remote control camera head.
Fritz Gabriel Bauer, for the concept, design and engineering of the Moviecam Superlight 35mm Motion Picture Camera.
Iain Neil, Rick Gelbard and Panavision Inc., respectively, for the optical design, mechanical design and development of the Millennium Camera System viewfinder.
Huw Gwilym, Karl Lynch and Mark Crabtree, for the design and development of the AMS/Neve-Logic Digital Film Film Console for motion picture sound mixing.
James Moultrie, Mike Salter and Mark Craig Gerchman, for the mechanical design of the Cooke S4 Range of Fixed Focal Length Lenses for 35mm motion picture photography.
Marlowe A. Pichel, for development of the process for manufacturing Electro-Formed Metal Reflectors.
L. Ron Schmidt, for the concept, design and engineering of the Linear Loop Film Projectors.
Nat Tiffen of Tiffen Manufacturing Corporation, for the production of high-quality, durable, laminated color filters for motion picture photography.
Technical Achievement Awards:
Vivienne Dyer and Chris Woolf, for the design and development of the Rycote Microphone Windshield Modular System.
Leslie Drever, for the design and development of the Light Wave microphone windscreens and isolation mounts from Light Wave Systems.
Richard C. Sehlin, Dr. Mitchell J. Bogdanowicz and Mary L. Schmoeger of the Eastman Kodak Co., respectively for the concept, design and development of the Eastman Lamphouse Modification Filters.
Hoyt H. Yeatman Jr. of Dream Quest Images and John C. Brewer of the Eastman Kodak Company, for the identification and diagnosis leading to the elimination of the "red fringe" artifact in traveling matte composite photography.
NEW LOOK: The official poster for this year's Oscars has been unveiled -- and its so-called "exciting new look for the year 2000" is not as forward-thinking as one might expect.
The millennium-themed poster, designed by filmmaker/graphic artist Arnold Schwartzman for the fourth consecutive year, is based on the 1926 Fritz Lang classic "Metropolis," a flick set in the dystopian future (translation: bad days) of the 2000.
The inspiration for the poster (the encircling numerals, to be exact) can apparently be traced back to a sequence in the silent classic where a robot is brought to life by circles of electricity. No word from Schwartzman if the anti-authoritarian values of the Lang's film also informed his design.
Audiences can judge for themselves when 50,000 posters hit theaters and video retailers this week.