20 years ago today, ILM changed everything with a movie you might not expect
What if I told you "Casper" was an important film in movie history?
Twenty years ago today, Universal released "Casper," and it did okay. It was not a critical hit, and it was not a box-office sensation. But in its way, "Casper" was revolutionary, and at the time, I was absolutely fascinated by the movie and, more specifically, by the ILM work in the film.
In late 1994 and early 1995, I was dating/living with/engaged to a young woman who was working in marketing at Universal. She was about as low on the totem pole as she could be, but excited about what she was doing and excited about the various films she got to work on. Because she had to basically immerse herself in each of the films she was working on, that meant I had that same opportunity. I remember reading three scripts in particular during her time there that got me curious. One was for "Dragonheart," which was still in the early stages of development and set for a 1996 summer release. One was for "The Frighteners." And one was for "Casper."
All three of them read like enormous technical challenges that would require some leaps forward from where we were at the time, and in all three cases, that's exactly what happened. You could argue that while that is not a slate of blockbusters, those three movies all represented Universal pushing the envelope in ways that continue to ripple through the blockbuster movies being released every summer.
"The Frighteners," whether you like or love or hate that film, was an important moment for WETA Digital, and if they had not made that movie, there's a very good chance they would not have been ready to make "Fellowship Of The Ring." Because WETA was doing their own thing on the other side of the planet, though, "The Frighteners" exists as this side pocket sort of revolution. It was the other two Universal films that summer that leaned heavily on the talents of ILM, and considering "Jurassic Park" was released in the summer of 1993, we're talking about a pretty massive leap forward that had to happen in two short years.
After all, while CG got the lions share of credit for the impact of "Jurassic Park," that film had a grand total of 75 visual effects shots. Everything else was accomplished live on set. There are 30-second commercials that have 75 CG shots these days. That's nothing. And for "Casper," one of the things that made the film seem like such a near-impossibility on the page was that there were at least four major characters in the film that were completely CG from start to finish. And while "Jurassic Park" was directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the arguable masters of modern mainstream fantasy, "Casper" was entrusted to Brad Silberling, who had up until that point worked exclusively on television.
There were almost 40 full minutes of Casper as a character, requiring him to act and interact with Christina Ricci, and Dennis Muren was put in charge of the digital effects team on the film. It took 15 months for ILM to accomplish all of the character animation in the movie, and at the time, they were turning out an average of five to eight shots a week. Total. There were 350-plus visual effects shots in the finished film, and Silberling actually walked into the production at the last minute when Alex Proyas dropped out. That means you had a guy who had no effects background shooting one of the most technically difficult visual effects films since "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and all while trying to create something no one ever had before, a fully-digital lead character in a film.
I had a chance to talk "Casper" with Silberling once, and he told me how utterly he relied on Muren and physical effects coordinator Michael Lantieri, who was the one who had to figure out how to show the impact of Casper and the other ghosts on the physical world, something his work on "Roger Rabbit" must have helped with enormously. When "Casper" came out, I ended up seeing it four or five times, and honestly, I couldn't tell you much about the film today. I was just fascinated by what the movie said about the future of visual effects, and how clearly it represented a turning point. One of the weird truths of our business is that real innovation can happen anywhere, and you can end up with a film that is utterly forgettable and also an important milestone.
There were several interviews that Silberling gave at the time of the film's release where he referred to the way "anyone can do this," meaning that his inexperience with effects made no difference one way or another to the making of the film. I don't think that was true of effects-oriented movies before that point, but I think it's become more and more true, with giant blockbuster filmmaking feeling more and more like a modular experience, a group of inter-connected units all working towards a similar goal. I've heard people speak dismissively of directors on action films, giving all the credit to the second-unit director or the fight choreographer or the cinematographer, and I've seen films where it feels like no one was talking to anyone, where everyone was making different movies.
The truth is that experience does matter, of course, and that in film, you are constantly building on what other people have done. I mentioned "Roger Rabbit" a few times in this piece, and that's because without that film's existence, "Casper" would have been completely impossible. Forget how they accomplished the character… the actual process of shooting the films on-set was remarkably similar, and that's because you had the same physical effects team and you also had the fiendishly brilliant Dean Cundey shooting those films. By the time he stepped onto the set of "Casper," he had shot "Death Becomes Her," "Back To The Future Part III," "Back To The Future Part II," and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in a row with Zemeckis, all moves where Cundey was helping to rewrite the actual vocabulary of how special effects were filmed. Between creating characters out of thin air, doubling a single actor two or three or four times into the same scene, and then transforming two of Hollywood's biggest leading ladies into actual Looney Tunes-style cartoons, Cundey had created a tool box involving computers, cameras, and animation that allowed for Silberling to step in, bringing his own feelings about death and youth and grief to this moldy comic book property, and simply make his film without getting swallowed alive by this enormous technical challenge.
When you look at "Casper" now, it feels dated, certainly, but the thing that is most remarkable about it is how much it does right on a technical level, and how painless a milestone it was for an industry that shreds the envelope pretty much every time there's an envelope. "Babe" won the Oscar for visual effects that year, and I think it was important for Rhythm & Hues to beat ILM and send a message about how smaller houses could bring a magic of their own to the various industrial lights that seemed to be driving more and more of the movies being made.
But make no mistake… ILM changed our industry 20 years ago today, just one of the many times they've done that. If you haven't picked up the latest WIRED, you really should. There's a lovely cover story this month on the 40 years that the effects titan has been turning out the impossible, and while I don't think they pay enough attention to the strange sort of lightning rod moment of "Casper," it's a great overall look at the studio's significance and artistic impact.