eXistenZ: Special Effects

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The other stars of a Cronenberg movie are his viscerally unique and unusual special effects creatures. "They're the kind of creations with which the actors can interact and bring alive on the set, like the ones I did many years ago with The Fly, Naked Lunch and Videodrome. eXistenZ is closer to those movies, especially because of the levels of reality theme," says Cronenberg.

"The pod is definitely a character in the picture," says Special Effects Supervisor JIM ISAAC (The Fly, Naked Lunch, Arachnophobia), whose team included Creature Effects Supervisor KELLY LEPKOWSKY (Flubber, James and The Giant Peach, Total Recall) and Makeup Effects Designer STEPHAN DUPUIS (Scanners, RoboCop, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), who won an Oscar for his work on The Fly.

"Jennifer is so great when she uses the pod. She really takes it and holds it, it's hers. She's very protective about it. It's like her little pet and that's the feeling we want," says Isaac. "We wanted this very sweet little pet that goes through all kinds of things during this story - it gets burned, it's afraid, it gets threatened and shorted out. You want to feel sympathy for it through Jennifer. It's almost a vehicle for her emotions. The pods have a fleshy soft core, a spine and organs covered by skin, and are all animatronic," says Isaac, who always tries to make his "creatures" actor-friendly.

"The special effects team's work is mind boggling," affirms Leigh. "The pod is like another character and quickly became very similar to my dog, so I felt protective of it. It moves and feels good to touch; makes sounds and responds to you. Jim and Kelly made the pod really alive for me. All of the special effects have been like that. You're never reacting to something you don't see and it's doing exactly what the audience will see. That's the way David always works and it makes it so easy on the actors as well as being so much fun because - like eXistenZ - you're part of this world that's completely invented, but is also completely real."

Says Isaac, "Our goal is to create moments and characters that are totally seamless to enhance the story." He emphasizes, "The pod was difficult to design. It took us months. He explains the design process. "In collaboration with David, we ask 'what is the pod, what's the emotional impact we want from the pod? Do we want it to be gross, do we want people to go 'eew' or do we want people to like the pod, want a pod and want to cuddle with a pod? That's the direction we went.

Dupuis said, "The pod evolved over three months from a Baboon head, to the Picasso stage to the final Salvador Dali melting watch state - smooth, fleshlike, suggestive of something organic and abstract." Dupuis' description caused Art Director Deverell to comment, "It's organi-tech!"

When Cronenberg viewed the first pod test shots, he enthused, "They're pod-sitively beautiful."

Another brilliant Cronenberg invention, which plays through the film in different forms, is the gristle gun. Constructed from bone, it can be cocked and loaded, using human teeth as ammunition, and was specifically designed to pass through metal detectors. "This was the simplest to design," recalls Isaac. The next most difficult design was the two-headed mutant which started out as a two-headed praying mantis. But as we moved away from insect technology, it evolved into in to an amphibian. The team became so fond of the various mutant amphibians, they christened them with such evocative nicknames as Cronenbug, Flipzilla, Nessy, Assbass, Micky D, Super Sperm, Dragon Fish, Mega Maggot, Cabbage Creature and Todpole.

For the first time ever, Cronenberg is departing from his usual "in-camera" style to add advanced computer-generated effects during post production. Alliance selected the Toronto-based visual effects company Toybox to work with Isaac developing visual effects, motion control shooting, 3D animation and high end film compositing using a Domino, Cineon and Inferno.

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