Creating Digital Chills

Although The Ring Two features a variety of visual-effects shots, director Hideo Nakata was insistent that they blend seamlessly with the rest of the film’s images. Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, ASC, BSC and visual-effects supervisor Betsy Paterson of Rhythm & Hues worked together very closely to ensure that they would. “I think the most important thing a visual-effects supervisor can do on the set is develop a good relationship with the director of photography,” says Paterson. “Gabriel and I were in constant communication.”

In one tricky effects shot, Rachel’s son, Aidan, is sitting in a bathtub full of water, and the water suddenly flies up and away from him as though his body is repelling it. Beristain, Paterson and special-effects coordinator Peter Chesney worked out the details of the shot together: Beristain would shoot a plate of the boy in an empty bathtub, and then Paterson and her team would create computer-generated (CG) water using Houdini and some of Rhythm & Hues’ proprietary tools. Beristain would light the set with real instruments, and the effects team would create virtual lighting to backlight the water and create highlights. The trick was to make sure the lighting matched.

Paterson used digital and 35mm still cameras equipped with 180-degree fisheye lenses to photograph Beristain’s lights on set. The resultant images were then digitally stretched out into a sphere, which was used as a reference for the CG lighting.

But the bathtub shot posed a particular problem. “I set up lights in the ceiling over the bathtub, just as I would if the water were really going to start flying around the room,” says Beristain. “In order to really see the water, we needed to give it some backlight, and if water were really there, it would have provided a curtain of diffusion over the boy and would have looked just right. But there was no water, and if I used that much light on his skin he would be overlit, so I set up lights as though I were lighting real water, and Betsy photographed that as a reference. Then I turned off those lights and shot the scene without them. Betsy was able to put them back in digitally using the real lights as a reference.”

In another scene, Rachel and Aidan are suddenly attacked by a group of frighteningly bold deer that surround their car on an empty mountain road. After discussing the sequence with Nakata, Chesney developed an animatic by staging various shots with stuffed animals (standing in for CG deer) and Barbie dolls in front of a digital “lipstick” camera. Once Nakata approved the animatic, Paterson and Beristain worked out the live-action portion of the scene.

“We ran through one of the shots with a stuffed deer, and we noticed that one of the shots we thought we could do wouldn’t actually work,” recalls Paterson. Beristain elaborates, “The shot was from inside the car. The deer charges at the window, and the idea was to see the deer and the boy in the shot. But we discovered that in order to keep the camera on the deer, either the operator would have to pan off the boy or the deer would have to duck down into a completely unrealistic position. So we then figured out how to widen the lens and tilt the camera in such a way that it would work as we intended.”

  For every effect in the picture — including CG set extensions and motion-control photography — Beristain and Paterson collaborated closely to combine their expertise. “I’ve been on shows where it didn’t work like that, and then I got the brunt of it in post, when we had to clean up the problem,” says Paterson.

Adds Beristain, “So often the cinematographer is told to just do a shot and make some clean plates, and then the visual-effects team comes in and tries to squeeze everything into a visual effect. When you see those shots onscreen, you wonder how such a big project can have such pedestrian effects. Unfortunately, the reason is usually very simple: there was no communication.”

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.