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American Werewolf in Paris
Sci-Fi Universe, February 1998
Cory Doctorow

Without question, this was the hardest piece to get interviews for. Everyone I needed to talk to was in Europe, and I ended up hanging around at home for the better part of two weeks, waiting for phone-calls. When I risked stepping out to give blood during a shortage, my celphone rang while I was in the chair, needle in my arm. "Sit tight," I told the guy, "I'll be home in fifteen minutes, we'll do it then." Luckily, I give blood fast, and I basically yanked the needle out of my arm and jumped a cab home. The guy never called.


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In 1981, John Landis cracked one of Hollywood's biggest nuts: he raised the investment backing for a cross-genre flick, a comedy-horror movie called An American Werewolf in London. It was an unqualified success: dynamite script, dynamite acting, dynamite box-office, and, oh yeah, a werewolf-transformation scene that scared the hell out of movie-audiences and won effects-wizard Rick Baker an Academy Award.

Baker had the fortune to be working on SFX in 1981, when computers were pricey toys you used to play Pong with. As a result, the transformation scene was accomplished with atoms, not bits. Baker used expertly sculpted prosthetics, stop-motion animation, animatronic devices, and a lot of greasepaint and hair to get a look that still stands up today as a wicked eyeball-kick.

It was, possibly, the all-time apex of the atom-based SFX industry. Certainly, it was a far ahead of even the genius of Ray Harryhausen, who had been the acknowledged wizard a generation before. But somewhere there in the early 'eighties, computers stopped being pricey toys and started being stupendously expensive tools. With the release of Tron, atom-based effects moved closer to a scrapheap that is already piled high with obsolete tech: vinyl records, ViewMaster(tm) reels, pinball machines, and assorted crap all the way back to the Kinetoscope.

But today, a decade and a half later, atoms retain a stubborn toe-hold in the biz. Computers, you see, are such a success that loads of dough are constantly being spent on pushing them, making them better. Anyone who's bought a computer knows what this is about: this year's top-of-the-line screamer is next year's boat-anchor. The upshot is that a ten-year-old computer-generated (CG) effect looks like kid's stuff next to a shot generated today. It's pretty hard to make a classic when you know that your work will be "quaint" a decade later.

Anthony Waller is a new face on the feature-film scene, with only the 1995 Mute Witness to his directorial credit. He wanted to do a comedy-horror movie, too. He ran into the same problem John Landis had with London: conservative investors want to back known quantities, not quirky cross-genre flicks. His solution was to create a known quantity, by licensing the right to produce a movie that shared its heritage with a past box-office champeen, and An American Werewolf in Paris was born.

Somewhere along the way, most of the ties with American Werewolf in London were flensed away from Waller's movie. Some of them ended up red-penciled out of the script, others on the cutting room floor. Some of them were never there to begin with.

Waller's movie called for "the first CG werewolf in movie history." Where John Landis directed around the constraints of the animatronics, only shooting the wolves from the waist up, blocking shots that achieved dramatic intensity even though the werewolves couldn't lunge or jump or run, Waller contracted with CG wizard John Grower and Santa Barbara Studios for a photorealistic, action-packed, all-digital creature.

The result is impressive. The hardest nut to crack was hair. Hair is notoriously difficult to generate with a computer (that's why Spielberg didn't make Wooly Mammoth Park), and CG people have traditionally opted for bald characters or the kind of Lego(tm) hair one sees in Reboot. Santa Barbara wrote a ground-up hair rendering engine that placed 400,000 individually animated follicles on each wolf. Every hair has multiple properties: direction, curl, tip-thickness, base-thickness, scraggle, length, and percentage of grey, brown, red and black. Their hair casts shadows on the ground, set and actors, and motion-blurs when the werewolves move. Different kinds of hair are placed on the werewolf bodies, so while they are asexual, the hair gets, uh, curlier just where you'd expect it to.

Developing hair was an enormous technical challenge. It took four weeks to create what Grower describes as "the most impressive hairball you'd ever seen," and six months more add hair to a prototype werewolf.

The wolves are chimeras, made from pieces of lions, bears, wolves, dogs, and humans. The film-makers made detailed models of werewolf skeletons, and created the "chaining" that determined how the bones and joints worked together; added a biologically plausible musculature, re-chained it, added skin, then hair. Says Waller, "when the creature moves, you can see that is vertebrae and a skeleton and a structure. Skin rides overtop of muscle and hair behaves the way it should, longer hair and shorter hair moving independently."

A scene that demonstrates this to good effect is the sequence wherein a werewolf leaps from a fountain. Waller shot a real person in a green chromakey suit jumping out of the fountain, real water splashing around, and shipped the plates back to Santa Barbara, where Grower added the werewolf. The werewolf leaps out in slow-motion, and shakes itself dry, and a wringing action ripples down its body from neck to tail, torque and twist snapping CG water droplets loose from the fur that blend seamlessly with the actual water from the empty plate.

Without CG, Paris would have been impossible. As an independent director with a comparatively small budget (US$20 million), Waller was forced to devise thrifty ways of getting the job done. Before principle photography began, a skeleton crew went to all the locations used in effects shots and shot empty plates, which they sent to Santa Barbara. The effects were matted onto these empty plates while principle photography was taking place, so that while the actors were doing their thing, acting to thin air or guys in green suits, digital wolves were being made to do the same thing on the other side of the ocean. The effects weren't done in "post," rather, they were produced in "during."

"But don't you worry that in ten years, your movie will look dated, as CG effects bound forward?" I asked Waller.

"No," he said.


"No. The gap between the state-of-the-art in 1987 and 1997 is much larger than the gap between 1997 and 2007 will be. We're getting closer to perfection. Once we can produce something that's absolutely, 100% believable, you won't be able to improve on it. That's the upward limit. If you 'improve' on it, it won't look real anymore -- you'll come full-circle."

This shook me. I mean, as a geek-of-all-trades, the idea that computers will some day reach a zenith, will stop moving. . . Well, I'd never thought of it. When you reflect that a singing greeting-card you buy at a truck-stop for $1.99 has the equivalent of the entire world's computational capacity when Sputnik was launched, the notion of growth stopping is pretty outre.

It's an interesting idea, though. What's the "goal" of computers? What is the Macintosh for? I started off writing goofy computer programs that drew "pictures" out of characters from the Latin alphabet. Over the years, I've used computers to mix audio, edit video, generate 3D artwork, virtually tour distant buildings, make friends, make enemies, make a living, retouch photos, screen video, lay out documents, design typefaces, kill monsters, buy books and CDs, and read Doonesbury. To me, the computer is defined as something that changes all the time.

But imagine if someone actually believed the computer industry hype: some day, your computer will make your life easier. It will do exactly what you need it to do. It will do this in exactly the way you need it to be done.

And imagine if that someone was part of an worldwide, multi-trillion-dollar industry that poured cash into the problem, applied all the muscle and might at their disposal.

"Oh yeah, CG will look perfectly real as the years go by," says Grower. "Creatures are, of course, easier to do than people. From birth, we're used to seeing people, all the little subtleties: facial expressions, posture, you know. Creatures are easier: when you work with something people aren't used to seeing, you can fudge a little more. Given enough time, money and talent, you can accomplish anything. We used to say, 'that's an impossible shot.' Now, we just talk about how much it will cost. When they storyboarded Werewolf, we looked at that fountain scene and then at each other, and laughed, because we had no idea how we'd do it, but six months later, we'd done it.

"Of course, you can't pull off extreme close-ups with CG. For other shots, it works damn well, maybe better than animatronics, unless you're Rick Baker. But there's only one Rick Baker, and he's booked, and expensive

"We used animatronics and CG for some scenes. There's a transformation sequence, where the female lead is turning into a werewolf. It's one continuous shot, starting with her real head, which is changed through makeup, and pans down an animatronic wolf's body, six nipples and all, and then down to a pair of CG legs. The knees break -- there's a bone-crunching, shiver-up-your-spine moment as they crack -- and bend backwards into a dogleg."

Both of the American Werewolf movies are about American tourists overseas, but the resemblance ends there.

Three backpacking college grads take themselves on an "adventure tour" of Europe. When they arrive in Paris, they take it upon themselves to bungee-jump off the Eiffel Tower. Andy (Tom Everett Scott, That Thing You Do!), is about to take the plunge, when a mysterious beauty named Serafine (Julie Delpy, Killing Zoe, The Three Musketeers) beats him to it, taking a suicidal leap. He dives after her and rescues her, injuring himself in the process.

After recovering in hospital, Andy is obsessed with tracking down the "most gorgeous young woman he's laid eyes on." His companions, Brad (Vince Vieluf) and Chris (Phil Buckman) try to dissuade him. After all, she's a suicidal nutcase.

But Serafine has a good reason for taking the plunge. She's a reluctant, hereditary werewolf (Waller confides that in an earlier version of the script, she is the love-child of London's Alex, the nurse; and David, the wolf). Her fascist ex-boyfriend (Pierre Cosso) has deliberately infected himself and his gang with lyncanthrope virus, stolen from her, in order to purify themselves for the task of ridding Paris of the scum of the earth (i.e., American tourists).

Much hilarity and terror ensues, of course. The werewolves chase our heroes over a number of remarkable locations in Paris, including a simulated tomb of Jim Morrison.

Where the wolves in London were reluctant monsters, awakening from their lunar escapades with no memory of their misdeeds, the fascist wolf-gang in Paris uses lycanthropy like a drug. "It's like an acid trip," Waller says. "They can't remember what they've done, but they remember the rush. Being a werewolf is a paring-away of the layers of consciousness, getting to the basic, animalistic core at the center of all human beings -- the part of us in which we are most alike, the basic instincts: aggression, fear, anger. They consider being a werewolf the highest form of existence, a heightened form of the evolutionary process. Survival of the fittest."

Shooting on location in Paris, the film-makers were faced with the legendarily thick Gallic bureaucracy. French producers were brought on board, and after two unsuccessful attempts at securing a permit to use the Eiffel Tower, one week before shooting, a minor miracle was granted: they were given carte blanche to shoot anywhere on the tower, to turn the lights off and on, to construct temporary platforms, for two full nights. They weren't as lucky in finding a suitably decrepit church to shoot in, however: the local clergy all found it difficult to grant permission for the filming of a movie about the undead in their parish.

Coordinating a cross-continental production on a tight budget is a challenge, and here, computers paid off again, in the form of the Internet. A private Web site was used to share files between the location crew and the several effects houses working on the feature.

Now that Buena Vista Pictures has taken over North American distribution, the Internet is back on the scene, with a public Web site at http://www.movies.com/werewolf/index.html.

Disney Online, a division that was a meager four-person effort a few years ago, has mushroomed into an vital part of the production cycle. As soon as a film is green-lighted at the studio, the Online people register domains for all the working titles (Disney current holds over 200 domains). Domains are kept active for at least a year, and probably longer, as the ramifications of having someone else put up a site at your lapsed domain is the kind of nightmare that Disney's legendarily aggressive lawyers wake up screaming from.

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