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Fusing the art and science of Hollywood

By James Dacey

Few of us know at the age of seven precisely what it is that we want to devote our lives to. But so it was for Ben Morris in 1977 after he was taken along to his local cinema in Oxford to watch the original Star Wars film. Young Ben knew from that day that when he grew up he wanted to create fantastical new worlds through the medium of cinema. The only question he had was: how do I get there?

Morris was talking last night at a public lecture organized by the University of Bristol, from which he graduated in 1993. Morris spoke about how his academic training had involved a true fusion of art and science. He studied physics, art and maths at A-level, before heading off to college to take a foundation course in art and design. Then, at this point in his life plan, Morris realized that a career in special-effects production would also benefit from a technical understanding of the physical world. This led him to enrol on a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in Bristol.

In a fascinating talk, attended by several hundred people, Morris spoke of how his early work in the film industry had led on naturally from his studies in engineering. His final-year university project involved a study of animatronic puppets, and this knowledge helped him when he was hired as part of the team that created the puppet pig used in the 1995 film Babe. Morris said that while he has maintained his love of puppetry, the film industry has long-since shifted towards computer-generated graphics and so has his work.

Within a few years, Morris had already realized his childhood dream by working on an impressive array of blockbusters, including Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004) and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). More recently, he has been involved with the Harry Potter films, the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (2007) and Steven Spielberg’s latest epic, War Horse (2011).

With the aid of a giant screen behind his lectern, Morris showed us a few specific examples of his work, and he described how the effects were created. I was amazed by the amount of labour that can go into very short sections of film. One example that stands out in my mind is from the 2003 film Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (see the trailer above). The scene in question involves the prince becoming trapped in a sandstone palace that is rapidly collapsing into the surrounding desert.

Morris said that in creating this scene he and his team simulated up to 2.5 million grains of sand, having spent weeks carefully studying how sand flows. Their research included spending several days in a giant sandpit in Manchester where they triggered the collapse of giant piles of sand, and filmed the events at 125 frames per second. To get an idea of how sandstone architecture collapses, the team carried out a study of rigid body dynamics by observing the collapse of various smaller structures. The overall look of the scene is designed to possess the lightning of a Rembrandt painting. Then, of course, a few killer snakes are thrown into the sandy mix. The scene lasts a few seconds, but the creative vision is epic.

So, despite the mountains of patience required in the job, does Morris still recommend visual-effects production as a career? It is an unequivocal yes. “I’m still living the dream” he declared.

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