Huge special-effects feats feed stories in 'U-571' and 'T-REX'

Moviemakers have always loved machines and monsters. In particular, they love whatever makes their machines and monsters the biggest, loudest, and most realistic around.

Two of the latest big machine-big monster films, "U-571" and IMAX's "T-REX: Back to the Cretaceous," are no exceptions. Whether it's putting you inside a leaky diesel submarine as it gets depth-charged by the Nazis or sending you back 65 million years to come face to face with a momma tyrannosaurus rex and her babies, these two films are straining at the edge of the technological envelope.

For starters, the largest gimbal in movie history was used to lower the vintage subs for "U-571" into a 400-foot tank and to simulate the motion of being pummeled by underwater explosions in the World War II epic.

Since most of the movie takes place at sea where storms are fierce, the production team also built the largest rainmaking cranes in movie history.

"It's a massive engineering feat," says "U-571" director Jonathan Mostow, who adds that no matter how complicated the technology, the point is to serve the story. "There's no substitute for making audiences feel like they've experienced the real thing," he says.

The film also sets a standard for its sheer dedication to verisimilitude. The "S" class submarines used by the United States Navy dated from World War I and were older than many of the young men who served inside them. None exists today, so Mr. Mostow was forced to construct one, as well as a 600-ton, full-sized seagoing German U-boat used in the film.

Vice Admiral Patrick Hannifin, a technical adviser for the movie, served in the US Navy for 35 years, commanding diesel and nuclear submarines. He points out that audiences are more accustomed to seeing the sleek interiors of a modern day nuclear sub than the old, rundown, and "quite leaky" wartime subs.

"The biggest stretch for these actors," says the admiral, who at one time commanded all US and NATO subs in the Mediterranean fleet, "was learning all the routine things an underwater crew would take for granted."

At one point in the film, the S-boat commander casually dons a rain slicker and bonnet to look through the periscope. "It was very realistic for the boats to leak badly," he says, "even at 150 feet and especially around the periscopes."

Dinosaurs might take a greater leap of faith for audiences than leaky subs, but once you've seen a T-Rex lunge full-bodied off the screen and into your lap, it's going to be hard to sit still for a mere two-dimensional experience.

That's what the IMAX filmmakers are hoping as they move the big-screen, 3D experience out of the science and natural history museum settings that gave this format its early support and put it squarely into the suburban megaplexes. The filmmakers hope to draw audiences with state-of-the-art technical advances ("We tried to get Industrial Light and Magic to do some of these effects, but they couldn't," says executive producer Andrew Gellis), and good old-fashioned storytelling and movie stars.

The biggest challenge was to present three-dimensional, completely computer-generated, photo-realistic dinosaurs on the large-screen format for the first time.

"No one had ever done it before, so we had to invent it," says Mr. Gellis, who points out that previous dinosaur films such as "Jurassic Park" combined puppetry and animatronics with computer-generated images. IMAX's stereo viewing doesn't allow for such cutaways.

The IMAX format contains 10 times the visual information of a standard film, so actors cannot be mixed in with stunt doubles. The film cost $15 million to produce, one-third of which went into the budget for the dinosaurs.

"All cinema is becoming more and more environmental," says director Brett Leonard, capable of taking people places they've never been and never will be. "[Our format] is a transcendent medium."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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