High-tech morphing indie films

Looking at the computer games Myst and Riven, which take place in a lush, mysterious and seemingly infinitely detailed fantasy world, it might be a little tough to spot the connection to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the epic space opera opening this week in theatres.And yet, without the Star Wars phenomenon, there might never have been a Myst.

Looking at the computer games Myst and Riven, which take place in a lush, mysterious and seemingly infinitely detailed fantasy world, it might be a little tough to spot the connection to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the epic space opera opening this week in theatres.

And yet, without the Star Wars phenomenon, there might never have been a Myst. "I remember well when I first saw Star Wars, it had so much impact on me," said Robyn Miller, who created Myst with his brother Rand. "I was seeing a place that I was believing was real. That was a place I wanted to go and visit."

Having created two of the top-selling games of all time, Miller has now turned to making his own films -- relying heavily, like the games, on computer imaging. And Miller isn't the only one realising his storytelling vision through computer graphics (CG). Even as increasingly sophisticated CG technology raises the bar for big-budget features like Phantom Menace, the technology is filtering down to ordinary mortals, and in the process, it is changing the landscape of independent filmmaking.

Miller's film project, under the aegis of his film production company, Land of Point, is still under wraps. But like his games, it is set in a computer-generated fantasy world, which Miller is designing from the ground up. A few years back, Miller might have been able to realise his vision only by working through the Hollywood studio system. Today, he's able to make do with a small group of people and a bunch of relatively inexpensive computer equipment in Spokane, Washington. "I think the lower cost is really a great benefit," he said. "That's the only thing that ever allowed us to do Riven or Myst. We started out as just a few guys in a garage ... and we're still at that point. There's so much you can do, even on a single machine."

Other filmmakers are already finding that 3-D graphics make it a lot easier, and less expensive, to make films that delve into the strange world of the imagination. The recent Conceiving Ada, for example, has to do with a time-warp relationship between a modern woman and Ada Byron King, the Victorian inventor of the first computer language.

Director Lynn Hershman Leeson filmed actress Tilda Swinton in front of a bluescreen and then added computer-generated "sets" afterwards, giving the movie a hallucinatory feel. "I felt it important to use the technology Ada pioneered," Leeson wrote in a Director's Statement on the film's Web site. "Virtual sets and digital sound ... provided environments in which she moves freely through time, [and] becomes liberated."

The short film Plug, which premiered at the latest Slamdance (an indie event that parallels the Sundance Film Festival), intentionally uses artificial-looking CG sets to create a science-fiction setting, and a mood reminiscent of Blade Runner. But director Meher Gourjian is hardly in the league of a Ridley Scott. While he worked on Plug he was an animation MFA student at the University of Southern California.

Jonathan Wells, founder and director of ResFest Digital Film Festival, sees such movies as experiments that break through the artificial constraints of the mainstream movie business. Right now this experimentation is happening mostly in short films, but he believes computer technology will enable longer, more ambitious, and more innovative works. "People are going to start using the tools in ways that the people who wrote them never truly imagined," Wells said. "That's the most exciting aspect of what these filmmakers are doing using this technology -- they're trying to make things that are really different."

Of course, as in Hollywood, cool computer effects don't necessarily make for a good film. "I think a lot of the creative thinking that goes on with movies is in terms of, 'OK, what kind of computer-generated effect can we put in here?' rather than 'What fits in with this story?' " said Miller. "It takes a tasteful use of the tools we have. The real creativity is still coming from people."