Jeff Kleiser discusses the early CGI of Flight Of The Navigator

Photo-real CGI in 1986? The visual effects supervisor on Disney's ground-breaking movie tells us how easy it wasn't...

Early, early CGI in Flight Of The Navigator (1986)

I was lucky enough, when compiling Top 75 spaceships in movies and TV, to be able to get some background info from Jeff Kleiser, brother of FotN director Randall Kleiser and an accomplished visual effects wizard. Jeff wrote to tell me how he and his team overcame the huge obstacles to creating the first photo-real spaceship with reflection-mapping software years ahead of T2…


 

I was president of Digital Effects, Inc in 1985. It was a company I had formed with 6 other partners in 1978 in NYC, and we had done a lot of commercials using in-house software that had been written by my partners. Among the software developments we were toying with was reflection-mapping, where a photographic image was mapped onto a CG surface to create the illusion that the object was reflecting the environment.

Bob Hoffman wrote the original software and we tested it on a variety of objects. At the same time, my brother Randal was developing “Flight of the Navigator“ for Disney. He showed me the script and I immediately thought the ship should be chrome-like and use the reflection-mapping software. We did a test where we made a simple spaceship (the ship for the movie had not yet been designed) and reflected a photograph onto it. The ship flew toward camera and rotated around and then flew off (wish I could find it!).

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We then matted the reflected ship over the photograph so the composite would show how the spaceship appeared to be reflecting the environment. Randal and Disney loved the idea and the look, but Digital Effects was undergoing an internal dispute among its partners, and it became clear that the conflict was irreconcilable, and there was no way Disney would hire us to do the project. After a showdown among the partners, Digital Effects was simply disbanded.

At that point I met John Pennie, whose company Omnibus Computer Animation was operating from Toronto, NYC and LA (on the lot at Paramount). I struck a deal with John where he hired me to run his Motion Picture Special Effects Division and I would bring several key programmers to write reflection-mapping software to address the creative vision of “Flight of the Navigator”. Bob Hoffman came with me to LA and we worked on getting their software to be able to make the spaceship look right.

Omnibus was using Wavefront Technologies software as their animation package running on a VAX, and we were able to digitize moving video resolution images from videotape that had been transferred from the background film plates in which the spaceship was to be seen. These images were then mapped frame by frame onto the animated spaceship scanned onto 35mm film and composited optically over the film background plates.

To render the spaceship and get it onto film (along with a matte for the optical printing department), they had their own rendering software running on a prototype “supercomputer” called the Foonly F-1, which had formerly been used by Information International, Inc to drive their film recorders. The Foonly had very little disk space, so we had to render on the fly and send the data directly to the film recorder as it was being computed. That meant we had no way of reshooting a scene other than re-rendering it from scratch each time.

Coupled with the fact that the Foonly would randomly crash five or six times a day, we had a very shaky and spooky production pipeline. As we approached the deadline for the movie, we wanted to give ourselves more of a chance of completion, so Bob Hoffman went down to UC San Diego and ported the rendering software onto a Cray XMP (or something like that) at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. This gave us a second rendering pipeline that turned out to be critical in completing on time.

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The design of the spaceship came from the production designer, Bill Creber, and since the ship in the story could change shape from a bulbous slow speed shape to a sleek high speed shape, Bill designed two models that we used to digitize the two shapes, and then reorder the polygons so both shapes had identical topology. Then we could interpolate from one to the other and effect the shape shifting for the film. The idea of shape shifting also arose back at Digital Effects when Randal was visiting our studio and we showed him examples of objects interpolating from one shape into another.

We wanted to do the melting steps as well, but in the interest of keeping us focused on the spaceship shots, they were done as replacement models.

All in all, it was a great project that I believe was the first instance of reflection-mapping in a feature film, and was one of several projects on which I have collaborated with my brother…the others being The Blue Lagoon, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, and It’s My Party.

Many thanks to Jeff for this look behind the scenes at a landmark film for visual effects and CGI!