Effect-ing

The film world lost one of its top special effects artists late last year when Stephanie Powell suffered a fatal heart attack on December 5. Powell was a long-time visual effects supervisor--and Mac user--whose work can be seen in a host of films, including The Devil's Advocate, Waterworld, and The Flintstones. Before her untimely passing, Powell spoke to Macworld about the part Macs play in creating movie magic and how Mac OS X could mean a starring role for the platform.

Q: How long have you been working with Macs?

A: I was involved with Steve Wozniak when he was still working at Hewlett-Packard. He designed some computer systems for me, and then when he built his first Apple II, he called me up and he said, "I built a color computer." I said, "Sure you did," and hung up on him. Then he called me back and said, "No, I really, really did." So he brought it down here and we sold the first ten circuit boards ever. In fact, a friend of mine still has circuit board number one. To say I've been involved with Apple for a long time is an understatement.

Q: How do you use Macs at your company, Out of the Blue Special Effects?

A: We have an iMac as our main machine for our accounting. For business correspondence, I'll use my PowerBook. I'll also use it for accessing the Internet. I do a lot of pre-visualization for the movies that I work on--3-D rendering or blue screen rendering. There's also breaking down scripts, budgeting . . . everything that's needed for the motion picture work that I do.

Q: What's your most recent project?

A: I just finished eight months on a show call Myth Quest, a new series on PBS.

Q: Where do you see the special effects business heading in the next few years?

A: It's exciting, especially now that OS X has become a reality and is working much, much better. You'll start seeing more and more high-end software porting over to the Mac OS, programs from companies like Discreet Logic. And that'll be good for everybody. It really is all about software. We've seen Maya come over. Having Flame or Inferno software would make it easier for me to work on my own, without always having to go to a [post-production] house.

Q: What programs figure the most in your day-to-day work?

A: I mostly use Strata 3D for my 3-D work. I use Final Cut Pro for doing some rough cutting of the visual effects. Nikon digital software to get photos out of my camera. Photoshop, Illustrator... I'll use those programs at least once a day. Then, there's Microsoft Word...there's really a bunch of software.

Q: Is there anything you wish your computer could do, that it can't do right now?

A: There's not that much more I need. I'm getting ready to move up to a G4 Powerbook. That'll allow me to burn DVDs on an external DVD burner. They pretty much got it all down. Mr. Jobs calls it a digital hub and it's working. It's working rather well. I use a lot of external FireWire drives; I think I've got about 200 gigs out board that I use. I digitize off of Betacam, VHS, [3/4-inch videotape], digital cameras, doesn't make any difference -- it just comes in like magic. If you would have asked me that question ten years ago, that's what would have been my big thing: figure out a way to do video.

Q: Walk me through the process of planning a special effect for film? How do you show the director what the special effect will look like?

A: What I'll do is have the editors give me the blue-screen elements and the background plates of the shot. I'll precomposite for them and do various versions of the composite to show the director what kind of choices they can make. Sometimes I'll add an effect with Photoshop. Sometimes we'll get into a situation where we'll have to build a miniature. I'll build everything out in Strata 3D and plot it all out so that I can show the director and the cameraman and say, "This is what we need."

Q: Of all the work that you've done, is there one effect that you're most proud of?

A: I'd say it'd probably have to be the Devil's Advocate scene at the very end where the sculpture comes to life and starts moving. That'd probably be it.

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