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Friday, 6 July, 2001, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Q&A: Oscar-winning digital trickery
Gladiator scene
The Colosseum shots in Gladiator helped win an Oscar
By BBC News Online's Tim Masters

Russell Crowe walks into a Colosseum packed with tens of thousands of spectators baying for blood...

These days the special effects movies are getting so good, it's sometimes hard to spot they are special effects at all.

One UK company that is leading the field in this respect - and which won an Oscar this year for its work on Gladiator - is Mill Film.

Mill Film's
Mill Film's "Gladiator" Oscar
Launched in 1997, it has UK bases in London's Soho and Shepperton Studios, and also Los Angeles in the US.

Mill Film "rebuilt" not just the Colosseum but the whole of ancient Rome for Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning epic.

Its other projects include Tomb Raider, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, A Knight's Tale and K-19 The Widow Maker.

BBC News Online spoke to Mill Film's chief executive officer and co-founder Robin Shenfield to find out more about digital effects past, present and future.

The Oscar statuette is proudly displayed in a glass case in the foyer. What's been the impact of winning the Oscar for your work on Gladiator?

It's been an extraordinarily huge reaction - it's the most famous award in the world, except perhaps for a Nobel prize.

The impact for us was immediate - Gladiator has been generating business for Mill Film since the beginning of 2000.

It's a massive landmark for the UK industry.

Was there one particular scene in Gladiator that stands out for you personally?

I think Gladiator set an aesthetic standard for visual effects. The real impact of the effects work in Gladiator is not how clever it is but how invisible it is.

Russell Crowe as Maximus in Gladiator
Russell Crowe as Maximus in Gladiator
There was one difficult shot that took three months plus to do - when Russell Crowe and the other gladiators first enter the Colosseum.

The camera moves off them and the two tiers containing 3,000 extras, and shows a computer-generated environment of the whole Colosseum populated by 20,000-30,000 people.

That was an immensely difficult shot to do.

What sort of challenges did you face working with the effects in Tomb Raider?

There are two really big hero sequences when Angelina Jolie is in combat with opponents who are computer generated - I think they are fantastic sequences, but it's so difficult for us beecause we don't see the whole movie.

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft
Tomb Raider: Special effects fest with Angelina Jolie
It's very much in the Indiana Jones mould - she's got tremendous presence.

We actually had a team at Pinewood alongside the director doing "previsualisation" - designing sequences before they are shot.

It gives the director a moving storyboard - and it gives our people greater exposure to the real world of production.

Ultimately the end result of that does show on screen.

Are there still times when a director wants something that can't be done with special effects?

The answer is rarely no, but it might not be a simple yes. It's an interactive process. The adage that most things are possible given enough time and money holds true. It probably wasn't true 10 years ago.

Robin Shenfield
Robin Shenfield addresses the Mill Film staff on his return from the Oscars
Will there be a time when modern FX will look dated?

This year is the anniversary of Kubrick's 2001 - and it's still very much a landmark. It still holds up extremely well. As does Star Wars - it's ultimately about what's a good piece of filmmaking.

How are things going with Harry Potter?

Mill Film is involved in big way - we've had a team at Leavesden Studios helping with production. I was a fan before it even came near us.

Any reader would see the books are full of special effects. But I don't think there's anything in that book that can't be done.

What other projects is Mill Film involved in?

Cats and Dogs - a talking animal film with Toby Maguire and Susan Sarandon.

The first job Mill Film ever did was Babe - and it takes the whole Babe thing a step further in applying personality and character.

Our primary job has been to work on the dialogue of the two lead dogs.

What movies like Cats and Dogs and Tomb Raider are beginning to show is that the quality of animation is getting better and better.

But will all this lead to computer-generated people and backgrounds, with no need for real actors?

The smart thing to do with computers is not to try to emulate actors as "syn-thespians", it's to do something different, which is why Shrek is so impressive.

I don't think it's ever really creatively stimulating to try and copy. It's much more interesting to do something that's setting new ground.

See also:

28 Jun 01 | New Media
Q&A: The man who made Lara
26 Mar 01 | Film
Crowe leads Gladiator to glory
26 Mar 01 | Film
Oscars 2001: The winners
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