Films

BLOW-UP

In Hollywood it’s raining ninja cats, spy dogs—and pyrotechnics from Winnipeg

Brian D. Johnson July 9 2001
Films

BLOW-UP

In Hollywood it’s raining ninja cats, spy dogs—and pyrotechnics from Winnipeg

Brian D. Johnson July 9 2001

BLOW-UP

Films

In Hollywood it’s raining ninja cats, spy dogs—and pyrotechnics from Winnipeg

Brian D. Johnson

I don’t usually get excited by explosions in movies. Kaboom. Fireball. Stuff goes up, stuff comes down, and my mind turns to thoughts of global warming. But the explosion in Swordfish, a thriller starring John Travolta as a high-tech thief, is something else. It occurs in the first few minutes of the film, and after it everything else seems anti-climactic, with the possible exception of Halle Berry lying naked in a chaise longue. Travolta’s villain is holding 30 hostages in a Los Angeles bank, each wrapped with plastic explosives, ball bearings and electronic detonator collars. When a triggerhappy cop shoots one of the bad guys, a female hostage gets loose and is blown to kingdom come. Filmed in super slow motion—what the makers of The Matrix dubbed “bullet time,” capable of capturing a bullet in flight—the explosion is stretched over 42 seconds on screen. We see it as an unbroken panorama of cars and bodies flying through the air, a storm of ball bearings and shattering glass—as if

the camera were moving through the explosion, surfing the shock wave. As carnage goes, it’s not gory; it’s beautiful. And this is carnage Canadians can be proud of: it was made in Winnipeg.

The footage that served as the raw material for the Swordfish explosion was shot in California over a period of three days, with multiple arrays of more than 180 still cameras firing in programmed sequences. But the task of plotting the sequences, and weaving the bits and pieces into a computer-simulated whole, was done by a small Winnipeg-based visual effects company, Frantic Films. Fifteen Frantic employees took eight months to compose the shot for Warner Bros., which spent almost $5 million on the explosion—roughly the cost of two modest Canadian features.

Ken Zorniak, the 30-year-old co-founder of Frantic Films, created the company four years ago with partner Chris Bond. Recalling how he landed the Swordfish contract, he says, “We hopped in the car, threw a cou-

ple of computers in the back and headed down to L.A.” Their fledgling company, which now has 21 employees, outbid Hollywood’s special-effects giant, Industrial Light and Magic. By then, Frantic already had a reputation, having won an Emmy nomination for making digital snow in the 1999 Stephen King mini-series, Storm of the Century. Simulating winter might come naturally to someone from Winnipeg. But with the explosion in Swordfish, Zorniak says, “We’ve shown that we can do a much wider range of things than snow. It’s definitely the largest bullet-time effects shot ever done.” And basing all the digital work in Winnipeg was no handicap, he adds. “When you can ship stuff back and forth with FedEx and the Internet, it doesn’t really matter where you are.”

Movies, of course, create their own reality. While the whiz kids at Frantic Films were doing their bit for mankind by helping to blow up a hostage real good, at the other end of the creative spectrum, Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin has been raking in awards for his six-minute masterpiece, The Heart of the World, a whirlwind melodrama, edited at a dervish clip with 727 cuts. If the Swordfish explosion is an exercise in expanded time, Maddin’s micro-montage is a miracle of compressed time, like a novel etched on a grain of rice. Most filmmakers edit on a computer system, but Maddin, 41, says he assembled his film “with just Scotch tape and a splicer.” And he deliberately left all the tape and dirt and crayon marks on the final print, which looks like a silent-film artifact—a time bomb from a lost era.

Filmmaking in Canada is such an incongruous business. For Zorniak, it means shipping pixels across the Internet. For Maddin, it’s not unlike being a medieval engraver. And for Atom Egoyan, it meant creating an Armenian Turkish village, circa 1912, a stone’s throw from Cherry Beach in Toronto. Anyone cycling the city’s waterfront IJ bike path last month could have glimpsed Egoyan directing crowds of local Armenians dressed as peasants in an utterly convincing village square with replicas of clay and dirt buildings—the set for Ararat, a film within a film about the genocide ofTurkey’s ethnic Armenians in 1915. You could see men in fez caps playing board games, market women shopping for dried figs, children scampering through the dust. And

poking out of the blue sky, the CN Tower.

It’s amazing that all these scenarios—the $120,000-per-second explosion for fun and profit in Swordfish, the faux-antique, kaleidoscopic frenzy of The Heart of the World and the refracted history of Ararat—can actually share the same medium. But filmmaking in Canada is a mongrel industry, divided between servicing the American studios and originating its own cinema.

Hollywood doesn’t have to grapple with those identity issues. It manufactures its own world, week after week. Here are two of its latest products, two formula pictures that are not as formulaic as they appear. One of them, Cats &Dogs, has a Canadian pedigree: it was directed by Lawrence Guterman, who grew up in Montreal and Toronto, and studied animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.

Cats & Dogs Let me declare my bias. I don’t like movies about pets. I don’t even like pets in movies—those cutaway shots of cute dogs cocking their heads drive me crazy. And I have a profound allergy to live-action movies about talking animals. Well, except for Babe, which was tolerable, and Babe: Pig in the City, a film so thrillingly dark and perverse it was the exception that proves the rule. That said, through these jaundiced eyes, Cats & Dogs is a passable diversion with a few sparks of real wit—a picture that should delight children, pet-loving parents and anyone with a soft spot for state-of-the-art stupid-pet tricks.

Designed as a spoof of a spy thriller, its about an international conspiracy of cats

bent on world domination. The hero is a beagle puppy named Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire), who becomes a rookie agent for a kind of canine CIA battling feline insurgency. Alec Baldwin and Charlton Heston voice the roles of dogged operatives, while Susan Sarandon chews scenery as a nurturing Saluki hound. But the movie’s scene-stealer, voiced by Sean Hayes, is a megalomaniacal white Persian cat—instead of being the villain’s mascot, he’s the Dr. Evil of pussy power.

The animals, who pilot planes and engage in high-flying martial arts (Crouching Kitty, Sleeping Beagle?), are animated by a seamless blend of puppetry, computer graphics and live action. And, oh yes, there are also some humans. In the beagle’s household, Jeff Goldblum is typecast as a mad scientist who is trying to find a cure for dog allergies while ignoring his soccerchallenged son, and Elizabeth Perkins is a caring housewife. For actors in the whatever-happened-to category, playing second fiddle to talking pets must be a grim consolation, like auditioning for A.I and ending up in A.I. Animal Intelligence.

Crazy/Beautiful Kirsten Dunst, whose career is just taking off, plays Nicole, the boozing, delinquent daughter of a wealthy congressman (Bruce Davison). She falls in love with Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a handsome, hardworking Latino boy from the other side of town. She’s crazy; he’s beautiful. It sounds schematic, and it is. But Dunst, 19, who resembles a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, brings a raw, reckless energy to a role that allows her to downshift through a series of hairpin mood swings. As the diligent pretty boy, Hernandez avoids getting swallowed by stereotype. And Davison weighs in at the eleventh hour with a heartrending performance that makes Crazy/Beautiful more than a teen flick.

But then Dunst—who was a bloodsucking child in Interview with the Vampire and a rabid cheerleader in Bring It On—is no typical teen. Next year she’ll portray Tobey Maguire’s web mistress in Spider-Man. And in Hollywood, when you get to play a comic-book character, you know you’ve finally come of age. Q