John Knoll invents reality -- in a Hollywood kind of way. "Eighty percent of my job is to ask the question: If this were real, what would it look like?" Knoll says.
The three-time special-effects Oscar nominee's biggest competition in creating otherworldly but believable creatures often comes from himself. Take his latest effort, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," for which he not only upped the ante on his own work on the first "Pirates" movie but also went out and helped invent an entirely new way of shooting special effects.
The problem had been that the old motion-capture systems -- the computerized technique for digitally recording movement -- consisted of an enormous collection of equipment: 16 cameras with precise lighting requirements and the rough portability of a hog-tied elephant. So Knoll and his cohorts at George Lucas' shop of wonders, Industrial Light & Magic, built Imocap.
This new system required only three cameras and a new kind of sensor-studded suit for the actors to wear, allowing "Pirates" director Gore Verbinski to shoot on location -- ditching the blue screens and soundstages. Thus, actor Bill Nighy's creepy Davy Jones character, complete with cephalopod skin, squid-tentacled face and, arguably, the most expressive set of computer-generated eyes to date, got to interact in real time with Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow.
"Reacting is so important to the craft of acting," says Knoll. "We had world-class actors for this film. Imocap gave them the opportunity to work off one another, not be stuck alone on some soundstage."
For Knoll, this kind of necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention effort is par for the course. After all, the reason he got hired by Lucas in the first place was that he built, for his senior thesis film at USC, a motion-capture system. Back in 1985.
At the time, although there were a few such systems in existence, none was commercially available -- so Knoll built his own from an old milling machine and a used Apple II computer. "I guess ILM saw that and figured anybody who would go to such lengths for a thesis film is the kind of guy they wanted around," Knoll said.
A few years later, Knoll, working with his brother, Thomas, invented Adobe Photoshop, the now nearly ubiquitous film-editing program. He is credited with shooting the first CG shot ever, for "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and went on to earn Oscar nominations for "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and the first "Pirates." He won Saturn Awards, presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, for the two "Star Wars" movies.
"He's just one of the very best in the business," says producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "He's a true artist. He did amazing work for 'Pirates II', and he did so in an incredibly short time frame. I don't know if he's going to win the Oscar -- but he certainly deserves it."