Kramer: fx sorcerer. Noah Berger.
Kramer: fx sorcerer. Noah Berger.

Lights, Camera, Magic

Computer Graphics expert Ed Kramer
Writer: 
October 1, 2004
Edward A. Kramer came face to face with the monster, and experienced not fear, but clarity.

The year was 1999. The monster was a mummy with 300-year-old flesh hanging off its bones. Kramer '77, a computer-graphics sequence supervisor for George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, was working on lighting the mummy for the upcoming feature film in which the creature was to have a starring role.

"I was all of a sudden hit by this feeling," Kramer recalls. "I remembered when I was a kid and was into all these monster magazines. What was on my screen was exactly like what was in my magazines. I thought, 'Oh my God, I actually grew up to do the kind of thing that I thought was so cool.' "

If you saw swarms of scarabs in The Mummy, tornadoes in Twister, sixty squirming puppies in 101 Dalmatians, the rock monster in Galaxy Quest, the werewolf in Van Helsing, or just about anything to do with water in The Perfect Storm, you saw Ed Kramer's work.

"It's kind of fun to be able to mention something and have somebody say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that!' " he says, sounding like a kid who's found a permanent home in a Never Never Land for computer geeks. "My whole career, I feel like I've been living on the edge of the latest and greatest all the time."

Convincing computer-generated imagery, or CG, calls for a programmer's mind and an artist's eye. For someone like Kramer, who has that combination in spades, it's a heckuva way to make a living. What he does is technically complex and evolves rapidly as new methods are invented, but in a nutshell: He takes the background that the film director has shot, adds an object that was never there, and makes it look real.

Sometimes that involves making a giant kick up dust as he walks or tornadoes twist across the horizon. At other times, it means creating lighting on a monster or a boat deck that matches the lighting in the background shot. Or it involves compositing, pulling together all of the computer-graphics elements and integrating them seamlessly with the background. 

The result is what moviemakers hope will help usher moviegoers into the suspension of disbelief that keeps them riveted to their seats. When Dracula bares his fangs in Van Helsing, your blood pressure shoots up. When a 200-foot wave looms over the boat in The Perfect Storm, your heart leaps into your throat.

Kramer works out of ILM's headquarters building in San Rafael, California, just north of San Francisco. Walking through the building is like taking a tour of the history of the feature-film special-effects industry. ILM has been doing special effects since 1975 and the making of the original Star Wars movie, released in 1977. Visitors are greeted by a life-size model of a Storm Trooper; around the next corner is Darth Vader standing next to R2-D2. ILM is considered one of the leaders in the advanced digital-effects industry. The company pioneered, among other things, the development of motion-control cameras and optical compositing. It has won fourteen Academy Awards for visual effects and sixteen more for technical achievement.

A huge amount of the work that ILM does is what Kramer calls "practical effects"--things like miniature sets or models that exist in the real world. But Kramer's work in computer graphics concerns the "unreal" world. In Van Helsing, he covered the werewolf in computer-generated fur, gave the vampire brides flowing hair, and helped the digital "double" for the star, Hugh Jackman, do the stunt work that the flesh-and-blood actor never could have achieved.

Some of the movies Kramer has worked on have big-bang special effects--tornadoes, exploding comets, tumultuous seas. "The first killer wave you see in The Perfect Storm, the huge wall of water--that was my work," he says proudly. Basically, the more complex and realistic-looking it is, the tougher it was to do. The Perfect Storm is a perfect example. Computer-generated boats had to float with believable buoyancy, mist blowing off the top of waves had to look wispy, and objects flying off the boat and splashing into the sea had to have weight and trajectory. Kramer and dozens of others used special software to make the scene come to life in a believable, photo-realistic way.

"The human eye knows what's real and what isn't," Kramer says. "If I look at something and it doesn't look quite right, I have to figure out, well, what about that is not looking right? Is it the scale? The density? Does it need to be more particulate?"

"The mist coming off the tops of waves is a pretty good example. There's a whole new technology called 'particle systems' that allows us to animate millions of infinitely small particles. And we animate them using basically the language of physics: things like gravity and wind and turbulence," he says. "No one had ever done anything even approaching what we did on Perfect Storm. It was totally uncharted computer-graphic technology. This was the first time that computer-generated water had to mix seamlessly with real ocean water."

In fact, he says, he has yet to work on a movie and rely solely on known techniques, even those already invented by ILM. "There's never been a project where we've said, 'We have all the technology to do that.' That's why people come to ILM. A great deal of the groundbreaking work is done here. In some shows, every single shot, we have to develop new techniques. That was true of The Perfect Storm. And The Mask. When Jim Carrey turns into a tornado--ILM had to invent ways to do that."

Not surprisingly, the same holds true with the movie he's now working on, a sequel to The Mask called Son of the Mask. However, he says, it is too early in the production stage for him to be able to reveal any specifics. For this latest project, Kramer is a "sequence supervisor," overseeing teams of computer-graphics artists known as technical directors. He himself started as a technical director when ILM hired him back in 1994. He was put to work doing the CG equivalent of working with a needle and thread. "The first thing I did at ILM was 'sock' an elephant," he says, referring to the technique of using special software to stitch together a computer model by removing all the seams and cracks in the image. "We were able to realistically show muscles and fat working under the surface of the skin of the elephant. When the foot hits the ground, it ripples through his chest," he says.

"And immediately thereafter I had to sock a monkey."

Kramer socked things so well that he was promoted to sequence supervisor in 1998 and now oversees the work of an average of ten technical directors on any given film. On a typical day, Kramer wanders from desk to desk, looking over shoulders, sharing software tips, and answering questions. "The paradigm of special effects here at ILM differs from the stylized, fully computer-generated techniques of Pixar or Dreamworks," he says. "Here, we have to invent techniques to mix computer-generated effects with live-action footage shot by the director, where the audience sees them side by side. Whether it's vampires, dinosaurs, Dalmatian puppies, or 200-foot ocean waves, our technical and artistic challenge is to create images that look so photo-realistic that you can't tell where in the frame the real footage ends and the CG begins."

Still of the night: Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing

Still of the night: Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing. Industrial Light and Magic; ©2004 Universal Studios; All Rights Reserved.

Back at his own desk, with the mouse and monitor, he works on lighting in test frames. "During the day, you give to the computer a file that has all the scene-description information--everything the computer needs to know in order to create the final picture," he says.

"The computer knows what all the geometry looks like--the shape of things, like the shape of the dinosaur in The Lost World: Jurassic Park; it knows the images that are on the surface, the scales, toenails, and that kind of stuff. Then it knows the intensity, the direction of lights, and where shadows are supposed to fall. If, for instance, the jungle has a lot of leaves that are creating mottled shadows everywhere, the dinosaur has to have the same kind of shadows on his back as he walks through."

In what's called "look development," sequence supervisors like Kramer also figure out how characters look and move. For The Mummy, he researched how to animate thousands of squirming little bugs all at the same time, each with its own unique animation. He also developed the reflective look of the scarabs through the use of "shaders" that tell the computer how the surface of the bugs would react to light in terms of things such as color, shininess, and shadow. Basically, every kind of surface has a shader, says Kramer, "so you could have the same light falling on a man's face and his clothing, and it reacts totally differently because of the skin shader or the clothing shader."

At the end of the day, Kramer will set his computer to "render" or create the entire sequence. Although the computer's memory is "in the terabytes," Kramer says, referring to a unit of data-storage capacity that is equal to more than 1,000 gigabytes, it takes all night for the computer to pull together all of the information that Kramer has fed into it over the course of the day. While he sleeps, the computer "is actually looking at every pixel on the screen and figuring out what color that pixel should be based on the information it was given. It does that for every frame, and there are twenty-four frames for every second of screen time. And each one of those frames is made up of hundreds of thousands of pixels."

The next day, Kramer will look over the results with the visual-effects supervisor, and together they'll pinpoint blips in the sequence that need more work. Depending on the complexity of the sequence, he, and the computer, will repeat the process "forty, fifty, 100 takes, until the director says, 'That's a final. That's in my movie.' We may have something we think looks great but is not what the director wants. The ultimate arbiter is in the director's head."

When Ed Kramer was an undergraduate at Duke, his future line of work didn't even exist. Which is probably okay, as he chose Duke over his other top options, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, because the university boasted a nationally recognized program in psychology, his intended major. He loved people, he says, loved finding out what makes them tick. He had a knack for science and math and was fascinated by things like personality studies and the physiology of the brain and visual system. In his senior year, he became interested in how memory works, and completed an honors thesis, "A Reinterpretation of the Literature on Human Memory," under the guidance of psychology professor William Bevan M.A. '43, Ph.D. '48, Hon.'72.

His parents, he says, were sure their son was destined for a star career as an expert in psychology. But as immersed as he was in a field he loved, Kramer says he felt that something about the path he was following wasn't the right fit for him. It had already dawned on him when he was taking a class in abnormal psychology. "I decided I didn't want to spend my entire career in the company of clinically sick individuals," he recalls, somewhat apologetically.

There were clues he could go any number of directions. One was his sense of humor. "Ed is dedicated to making the world a funnier place," says Earl Vickers '78, who shared a room with Kramer at York House. "If necessary, he would pour a glass of water on his head to make people laugh. Fortunately, this is not always necessary."

Kramer was also known for a propensity to empty his dorm-room trash can, glue the contents to the wall, and call it art. In fact, he says, "I was always the artist. I did a lot of artwork for the high-school yearbook and newspaper." At Duke, he frequently contributed drawings and advertisements to The Chronicle. After graduating, he founded and ran a one-man advertising agency with three clients, all stereo stores in Durham.

It was a fun gig, he recalls, but he soon became restless. With a childhood buddy, Kramer set off on a three-month cross-country trip. The two chose a route that took them from Atlanta, Kramer's hometown, through the Deep South states and out to California. "We had no itinerary, so we were just stopping wherever we thought would be interesting." On impulse, they stopped in Austin, Texas, "just to see it."

On a similar impulse, Kramer wandered into the film school at the University of Texas and struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be a professor of film theory. The professor and Kramer got to talking about philosophy and psychology and how it all related to film. He asked Kramer whether he'd ever considered going to graduate school in filmmaking.

Kramer thought about all the hours he had spent organizing Cable 13, the university cable TV channel. He and his roommate, David M. Frey '76, had founded the station, and Kramer had been in charge of the on-air graphics for the shows the station produced. He thought about all the basketball games he had videotaped using a thirty-pound Video Porta-Pak, of all the times he had threaded the three-quarter-inch tape through the reel-to-reel machine. He thought of the video-switching technology he had mastered to run three cameras simultaneously during the games.

"I took the application with me," Kramer says. "I think I filled it out when we were in Vegas. When I got to San Francisco, I called my parents and they said, 'Did you apply to film school?'

"I said, 'Well, yeah.'

"And they said, 'Well, you've been accepted.' "

"The first killer wave you see in The Perfect Storm, the huge wall of water--that was my work."

"The first killer wave you see in The Perfect Storm, the huge wall of water--that was my work." Noah Berger.

At film school, Kramer soaked up everything he could about movies: directing, lighting, editing, screenwriting, film history and criticism. He also discovered computer animation. Much to his delight, he found that animation gives the creator total control over every aspect of the filmmaking process. "I kind of philosophically looked at it as an extraordinarily high art form because of the auteurship it afforded," he says.

Kramer persuaded the university to create a course in animation. That took some doing, as the field of animation was still in its infancy and looked, to the serious filmmaker, like child's play, or at least a colossal waste of time. Once the course was in place, he got himself hired as the graduate teaching assistant for the course.

Using punch cards on the physics department's computer, he created animation for a children's news program on Austin's public-television station. The work became his master's thesis production project. No one, not his parents, not his film-school instructors, not even Kramer himself, could have predicted what the field of animation would become. It was 1980, and the field was about to explode.

He listened to Ronald Reagan's swearing-in ceremony the day he drove out of Austin, degree in hand. Back home in Atlanta, he tracked down a copy of the premiere issue of Computer Pictures magazine, the first magazine about the field of computer graphics, now defunct, and sent his rèsumè to all ten computer-graphics companies mentioned there. Responses came back fast and furious. People with experience in computer graphics and a master's degree in film were rare indeed. A company in Los Angeles sent a letter saying they were interested, but wanted to meet him. He decided to go for it. The best he can figure, he follows his instincts, and the cosmos cooperates. "It's not just chance or fate," he says, "and it's not just perseverance. It's where chance and fate intersect with perseverance. I follow my instincts and then happen to have the serendipitous events that take place. But it's all while I've been following a road."

He arrived in L.A. on New Year's Day, 1981. He had an interview at the company that had sent the letter, and with three others. In the end, he chose Image West. They worked in video, not film. Kramer reasoned he already had experience in the medium, and at five projects a week, he could fatten his portfolio more quickly than he could in film (four or five projects a year).

Kramer threw himself into the work, racking up eighty to 100 hours a week on the Scanimate, an analog computer that "looked really sci fi," he recalls. Only seven of the machines existed, and he was one of only about twenty people in the world who could program it.

Riding the wave of a soaring industry, he spent the early 1980s creating computer images for the 1982 World Series for NBC, ABC's Wide World of Sports, and the Rose Bowl and logos for Hitachi and the 1984 Olympics. This was sports graphics in its infancy, a long way from the animated play-by-plays, stats charts, and yellow first-down markers seen today on ESPN and other sports channels.

By the mid-1980s, visual-effects companies were multiplying and clamoring for talent, and Kramer was in heavy demand. As the digital wave gained speed, he kept piling more video work into his portfolio: computer graphics for the CBS Evening News, ABC Sports, HBO, Cinemax, Lifetime Cable Network when it went on the air on 1985. He was working sixty-hour weeks in New York when the space program called.

A self-described "outer-space nut," Kramer went into orbit. NASA wanted him to create a computer-graphics film about an unmanned mission on Mars. It didn't matter that the job was temporary, he says. "If NASA called and said, 'Come work at the space center,' wouldn't you drop everything?" He worked with aerospace engineers. He wandered through the mission-control room. He went to the swimming pool to watch astronauts practice maneuvers to simulate weightlessness.

"I could look at moon rocks at lunch!"

A short year later, his NASA contract ended, and he went back into commercial video work. It was 1988 and the next four years were "when I honed my skills," he says. "Those were really the years where I got good. And those were also years when computer graphics became increasingly sophisticated." Kramer did CG work for blue-chip clients such as TBS, CNN, Coca Cola, and the Atlanta Olympics. In 1992, he worked on a ride film--that early 1990s amusement where viewers sat on a moving platform and viewed imagery projected around them. The project not only offered interesting computer-graphics work, it also led to work on his first feature films, Stargate and Clear and Present Danger. "You remember in Clear and Present Danger, they drop that smart bomb? I did the smart bomb. I built it in the computer, I lit it, and I made it fly through the clouds on its way down."

After a decade of sixty- to 100-hour weeks in video, Kramer says, he finally had his foot in the door to the movie industry. He got the call from ILM in 1994, and has been there ever since. "It was right after Jurassic Park and The Abyss had come out. Both of those were jaw-dropping, eye-opening events in special-effects history. No one had ever done such realistic computer-generated work. I was making flying logos that, if they looked like beveled glass and gold, the client would be happy. And along came this stuff that looked incredibly real, and it was dinosaurs. There's a big leap between flying gold logos and dinosaurs," he says wryly.

Dinosaurs it was. Among other things, Kramer was soon working on The Lost World: Jurassic Park and then two of the Star Wars movies, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. And boy is he having fun. What else can you say about a man whose voicemail greeting says, "Hi, you've reached Ed Magic at Industrial Light & Kramer"?

Looking back now, he says, it all fits together. In CG-speak, he's socked his life. The monster comic books, the gut-level computer-science courses, the science-fiction class at Duke that his parents dismissed. "My parents were lamenting, 'Oh my God, why are you wasting your time on something so trivial?' And here I am working on Star Wars."

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