Unleashing A Storm

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It howls like a werewolf. It kills with the brutal indifference of Dracula. Like a rabid dog, it rages and spits. Like Diane Sawyer, it never sleeps.

We speak of the storm--the title character in The Perfect Storm, the adaptation of Sebastian Junger's 1997 nonfiction best seller that opens this week. We do not speak, however, of the $140 million film. For more on that, you, along with the Warner Bros. executives, can read the critics or check out the box-office grosses after opening weekend. (You'll know them; they'll be the ones with the gnawed-down fingernails and little voodoo dolls bearing a striking resemblance to the July 4 competition: Rocky, Bullwinkle and Mel Gibson.)

No, here we speak of the storm, because it may be the most ambitious cinematic undertaking since Sylvester Stallone tried comedy. For most of the movie, it conspires to destroy the Andrea Gail, a 72-ft. swordfishing vessel that sailed from Gloucester, Mass., on Sept. 20, 1991, into a meteorological hell. After looming ominously in the distance for a while, the storm moves in for the kill, drowning a rescue worker, swallowing a helicopter, attacking a freighter and upstaging George Clooney, who stars as the Andrea Gail's captain, Billy Tyne. Let it be said right up front that Clooney is a terrific actor, a funny guy and a sexy movie star (he and co-star Mark Wahlberg never looked better, by the way, than they do here), but even director Wolfgang Petersen--who was drawn to the project because of his interest in the characters--concedes that the storm is the movie's major player. "It is massive; it is gigantic; it is something made from nightmares," says Petersen. "It is the bad guy of all bad guys."

But is it perfect? We'll answer that question in the last paragraph. For now, let's say that it is something of a milestone in filmmaking. Although computer-generated images, or CGI, have been around for a couple of decades, Petersen's film is traveling the highest plane of the state of the art. Using weather reports, scientific formulas and frequent flights of fancy, a team of artists at Industrial Light & Magic, the prolific special-effects house behind Terminator 2 and the Star Wars franchise, has rendered the roiling seas and crashing waves almost entirely on computers (no miniature boats were used, and the film's actors and crew spent only three weeks shooting on real ocean water). The Perfect Storm also leads the charge in this summer's digital bonanza, which includes Dinosaur's realistic talking reptiles, Titan A.E.'s beautiful 3-D space-scapes, and the casts of computer-generated thousands in Gladiator and The Patriot. And that's not all. See Kevin Bacon disappear in The Hollow Man! See Eddie Murphy dance with himself in the sequel to The Nutty Professor! See Rocky and Bullwinkle act with Robert De Niro! See Rebecca Romijn-Stamos turn blue in X-Men!

"You couldn't have had Dinosaur without [digital] technology," says Andrew Millstein of Disney's ambitious new special-effects division, the Secret Lab, which is computer-generating puppies for its upcoming 101 Dalmatians sequel. "As technology evolves, it's going to unfetter our imaginations." The Perfect Storm, in fact, is a perfect example of a story told in a new way thanks to digital know-how. Says visual-effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier: "Here we are really creating the whole environment of the movie."

Fangmeier, like Petersen, hails from Germany and both speak with hefty accents, but the director didn't hire the f/x (Hollywood parlance for special effects) wizard out of Teutonic solidarity. Petersen tapped Fangmeier because of his impressive, all-digital work on Twister. Still, there were no guarantees; while water has been digitally drawn before (notably in Titanic and Waterworld), The Perfect Storm would require a level of simulation that had never been attempted. On Warner Bros. soundstage No. 16, a shipping vessel doubling for the Andrea Gail was harbored in a large tank 22-ft. deep (the same tank where Spencer Tracy sailed in The Old Man and the Sea 42 years ago). In front of a blue screen, mounted on a gimbal, the Andrea Gail tossed and turned while the actors (in addition to Clooney and Wahlberg, the boat's crew includes John C. Reilly, Allen Payne, John Hawkes and William Fichtner) employed their craft amid wind machines and torrents of pelting water. Meanwhile, just up the California coast at ILM headquarters in San Rafael, near San Francisco, animators awaited footage so it could be digitally plugged into the computer-generated storm.

Since the gimbal could turn the boat only so much, the ILM crew had to jostle it further after scanning footage into the computer. And since no miniatures were used, "for a very wide shot," says ILM's associate effects supervisor Doug Smythe, "the boat would be computer-generated as well." At times, so were the actors. During a sequence in which Clooney climbs an outrigger to cut loose a flailing stabilizer, a CG double was created for certain camera angles. (Basically, when you're not seeing Clooney's face, you're seeing a digital dummy.)

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