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Hollywood overboard?

Thanks to technology (and the Hollywood tradition of follow-the-leader), audiences may leave theaters a little waterlogged this summer.

By Stephanie Cook BroadhurstStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2003

If you're heading to the movies this summer, you may want to bring a life jacket. A wave of Hollywood films with nautical themes will be crashing down on theaters, starting at the end of the month.

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Along with all of the sequels and superheroes, swells of seafoam will tinge the big screen courtesy of a half-dozen or so films, including Pixar's 3-D fish tale "Finding Nemo," DreamWorks' "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," and Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean."

One reason for the tide of ocean films is the success of seafaring pictures such as "The Perfect Storm" in 2000 and "Titanic" in 1997. Another is technological advances that make it possible to leave audiences waterlogged for a fraction of the former cost. (The movies' budgets range from $60 million to $140 million, compared with $200 million for "Titanic.")

"The temptation [for studios] to rediscover this kind of storytelling is so great because the technology allows you to ... not make it look like it was filmed in a bathtub," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. " 'The Perfect Storm' and 'Titanic' were the dress rehearsals for the reemergence of this type of filmmaking. They were successful and demonstrated that it could be done well."

He says the trend reflects an industry follow-the-leader approach seen almost every year. (Remember "A Bug's Life" and "Antz," or "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano"?)

Hollywood also has released more family fare over the past several years, and most of these aquatic films are aimed at children. Stories about a journey or quest into the unknown - whether it's the high seas, faraway lands, or outer space - are beautiful to look at and appealing, especially to young people, says Jim Farrelly, a professor of English at University of Dayton in Ohio. "They offer an escape. It's an outgrowth of adventure-based films, like 'Lord of the Rings.' "

But big-splash films aren't guaranteed to succeed at the box office, says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations in Encino, Calif. Filmmakers may find the theme to be extremely cinematic, but "the writing, acting, and marketing all have to be there," he says.

The infamous "Waterworld," which cost $175 million, lost money in the US and barely floated a profit after it was released internationally. Last year, "Treasure Planet," which combines nautical and space themes, cost $140 million and sank at the box office. And with so many ocean films debuting just weeks apart, there's a risk they could drown each other out.

So why is Hollywood pouring money into them? For one, international distribution and DVD sales can help pad any loss, says Christopher Ames, provost at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. "The video market is huge for the children's films, which helps minimize risk."

CGI turns on the water

Filmmakers have come a long way since "Moby Dick" and "Captains Courageous." These films were shot using small tanks and boat models, Ames says.

Today, computer effects and wave and fog machines allow studios to literally control the weather. And in animated films, CGI lets artists show more water on screen than ever before, creating vivid panoramics and tiny droplets compared with the days when water scenes were laboriously hand-drawn, frame by frame, in films like "Pinocchio."

Animators for "Finding Nemo," which debuts May 30 and is about a fish's journey through the Great Barrier Reef to find his missing son, combines Pixar's high-resolution animation with 3-D. Almost every scene has water, which posed a challenge not only to make the ocean look real - but to keep the underwater coral-reef backgrounds moving with the currents, says Oren Jacob, supervising technical director for the movie.

Making "Nemo" would have been "prohibitively expensive five years ago," he says. "Today, computers are faster. We have a better understanding of the theoretical physics of water."

To accurately animate the sea, "Nemo" creators studied the behavior of water and wrote algorithms based on the physics of its movement. "We looked at how toilets flush, sprayed a garden hose up in the air, gently poured a cup of milk into a calm fish tank of water to see how it mixes," Jacob says.

Then they programmed their equations into the same software used to create Sulley's hair in "Monsters Inc." This gave artists a fine palette with which to form detailed sprays or large swells, he says, although some scenes took almost a year to perfect.

For DreamWorks, creators of the hand-drawn and computer-animated "Sinbad," debuting July 2, the line between digital and live-action films is blurring. "We see Sinbad as a great big fantasy movie - we think of it in more live-action terms. We see films like 'Spider-Man' and 'Lord of the Rings' as inspirations," says Patrick Gilmore, director for the movie.