Alec Baldwin’s case opens up debate on computer-generated weapons in movies

Digital effects have helped Sandra Bullock blast through space, a sports car plunged through skyscrapers, and even Robert De Niro returned to the age of 30.

But can you make a character fire a weapon?

The question of whether digital effects could replace a gun shot on a television or movie set has been circulating in politics and entertainment since the Alec Baldwin incident in Rust, in which the actor unknowingly fired a real gun that was handed to him, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Several creators promised to stop using real weapons on set, 60,000 people signed a petition supporting such a measure and a senator from the state of California assured that he would introduce a bill to ban firearms.

But many directors have long preferred to see actual gun shots, which they believe looks better and keeps viewers more interested in their story. Technology is now advancing to the point where they would have less reason to resist, but that is not a certainty.

Traditional computer generated (CG) imagery can achieve some, but not all, of the effects of a traditional firearm. One innovation, photogrammetry, can reproduce the full effect of a real gun, but it is a more complicated procedure and costs money.

First, some explanation. A real life pistol shot can be divided into three components: the recoil of the weapon; muzzle flash (that burst of light that occurs when hot, high-pressure gas mixes with air as it exits the weapon); and the impact when the projectile hits the front of the cartridge.

Using a real gun to fire a target (that is, a cartridge without the projectile) is a traditional Hollywood way of recreating a shot. Why not? It perfectly captures the first two parts of the process. The actor is pulling the trigger of a real gun, causing a recoil, and the real gun creates a real muzzle flash; blank space just means there is no bullet at the tip. The third part is run by squibs, micro-explosive charges distributed elsewhere, which are programmed to detonate, releasing ketchup makeup on a shirt or poking a hole in a wall.

Innovating and trying to do this without a real weapon means that technology must intervene.

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The first part can be replicated with an air pistol or BB that creates a similar, if not exact, recoil as a traditional pistol. The last part, the detonator, does not require an active weapon. Cannon flash? That is more difficult.

CG can create a light that looks pretty cool. And anyway, a shot is usually one or two frames long.

But in real life, a blinding flash does not remain static on the gun, but instead bathes the entire room and everything in it with light. That is where the problems begin.

“We can do the flash pretty easily,” explained Marc Côté, a veteran visual effects supervisor who has worked on the HBO hit. Big Little Lies, The Morning Show de Apple TV Plus and the epic 3D adventure Immortals 2011. “Making the light spread over the characters and the setting is the tricky thing.”

In other words, a gun in CG can be fired, but the light doesn’t go anywhere, it just stops at the end of the barrel like one of those mini flags on a clown gun.

This is where photogrammetry, an on-screen tool that converts images from two to three dimensions, can help. The tool is fairly new and many effects houses don’t use it regularly. (The term generally refers to the use of photos to measure distances between objects, but filmmakers use it to mean creating depth from that measurement process.)

A photogrammetric tool relies on photos to analyze distances, then calculates the data it collects to represent the images with true depth; makes still images appear dynamic. Photogrammetry was first used in Hollywood in a heartbreaking mid-air scene in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, making it appear that Daniel Craig and Olga Kurlyenko were in free fall from a crashed plane when they were actually standing in a wind tunnel in England.

Solfar Studios, a cutting-edge Icelandic studio, used it to create a virtual reality piece of Everest climbing content without leaving Reykjavik. Also video game designers.

Côté implemented it in Big Little Lies so that Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon appeared to be in a cafe in Monterey, California, that they weren’t even close to. The effects genius and the Montreal-based studio he founded, Real By Fake, increased their use of the technology during the Covid shutdowns, when it became essential to have a real-life feel without people around.

Côté said that the tool can also be used to represent a real shot. The still image of the flash at the end of the gun would be photogrammetric, so to speak, to spread to the rest of the room, and even a smart viewer wouldn’t notice. It would only take a ton of extra hours as it would create a new special effect each time and would spend a few thousand dollars each time a gun was fired.

Some officials say it pays to go digital. “Those who work behind the scenes to entertain and bring joy to millions of people around the world should not worry about returning home safely to their family,” said California legislator Democrat Dave Cortese, announcing his bill. Of law.

Several Hollywood veterans have also embraced the change. “There is no reason to have guns loaded with spotlights or anything else on set,” he tweeted. the director of Mare of Easttown , Craig Zobel. “It should be completely forbidden. Now there are computers. The shots at Mare of Easttown are all digital. You can probably tell, but who cares? It’s an unnecessary risk. “(Many of us probably wouldn’t know.) Eric Kripke, showrunner of The Boys from Amazon, expressed a similar sentiment. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post ).

Others went further. “As of today, ‘The Rookie’ policy is that all shooting on set will be Air Soft pistols with computer-generated muzzle flashes added in post,” said Alexi Hawley, showrunner of the ABC crime drama.

“There will be no more ‘live weapons’ on the show,” he added, noting that the safety of the synthetic was worth the sacrifice in realism.

In fact, the problem at the heart of CGI is the one that underlies much of cutting-edge content innovation, from deepfakes to autotuning. It is a question of whether technical reproductions can keep up with physical reality and tradeoffs, ethically and qualitatively, in the attempt.

Of course, there is a Catch-22 here: productions with the least experienced personnel to protect weapons, as in the case of Rust that is of low budget, they are also less likely to be able to afford expensive effects. By Côté’s calculations, a production with numerous computer-generated shootings could add up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs.

It may take a while before technology gets cheaper. Until then, productions could go another way, like showing the weapon from a far angle, or in a dark room where the flash from the mouth wouldn’t spread as far. Without technological means, Hollywood could prove its most reliable innovation: the solution.

El Washington Post