Phantom Menace: British actors - what about the technology?

The Phantom Menace may feature an almost entirely British cast, but its computer-generated actors and crew are very much all-American. Is the absence of British computer artists a reflection of their ability or is it the same old story of a British film industry in recession?

The Phantom Menace may feature an almost entirely British cast, but its computer-generated actors and crew are very much all-American. Is the absence of British computer artists a reflection of their ability or is it the same old story of a British film industry in recession? Will Knight investigates.

The copious computer-generated effects used in the Phantom Menace may be impressive, but they owe more to a big budget than real innovation, according to British computer art experts.

The Phantom Menace utilises computer generated imaging (CGI) on a scale never before seen in the cinema. Over 95% of the film was digitally manipulated, but according to Richard Spohrer editor of CGI Magazine, this has more to do with money than innovation. "The sheer scale of computer imaging on The Phantom Menace is different," says Spohrer, "There are more wide camera shots, more computer generated backgrounds than ever before. It's also the first time three main characters -- Jar Jar Binks, Watto, C-3PO -- have been entirely computer generated. But it's not really anything new."

Spohrer believes British computer artists have the creative edge over the rest of the world and are only held back from making blockbuster movies by their lack of size, which in real terms means no cash for risky projects. "In terms of creative ideas, the people we have here (in Britain) are the top of the heap. The problem is that feature films are so expensive and such a long-term investment. Companies here tend to do pop-promos and adverts because they are less of a risk."

Graham Andrew, from the CGI department of The Mill, a British computer graphics firm involved in feature films, agrees: "The problem with the Phantom Menace is the sheer volume. A British company would simply not have been able to take it on. It was very much George Lucas' baby as well, you have to remember that."

Meg Guidon, marketing manager at The Mill, believes the situation is changing. "More British companies are getting involved in making films," she says. "I don't think it's fair to say the research and development teams in this country are better than in the US, but we do traditionally have a broader skills base and more of a background in traditional animation. In the US, they tend to be a bit narrowly focused and categorised."

British firms are also at the forefront of the sort of computer techniques used in The Phantom Menace, according to Guidon. She says, "These sorts of methods are very much on the increase generally. In The Gladiator, the new Ridley Scott film we are working on, we create an entire amphitheatre using CGI."

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