Hey folks, Harry here... In my review of REIGN OF FIRE, I asked who THE SECRET LAB was. Somewhere along the way that name never stuck in my head, DREAM QUEST IMAGES, however, is one of my all time favorite Visual Effects Houses. I knew they were on DINOSAUR, but somehow I missed or simply forgot that they were folded up into Disney's gigantic digital company. Watching REIGN OF FIRE, you just can't help but be in utter awe at their work. Bar none, this is the best digital creature animation I've seen. Living breathing creatures, completely alive within their settings affecting everything. The company poured everything they had into REIGN OF FIRE... It is a shame that that crew couldn't of stayed together somewhere... When you see the 'arch-angels' sequence in REIGN OF FIRE, you'll see one of the very best digital effects scenes ever committed to film. DREAM QUEST understood how to fool the eye and the brain with their tricks. Personally, I'll never ever think of them as THE SECRET LAB... They will always be DREAM QUEST to me. I hate it when things get renamed. It'd be like calling DISNEY... EISNER'S. It might be under new management, but his name will never be on the company. Everyone, settle down... This is the story of The Secret Lab...
You liked Reign of Fire. I'm glad. I worked on the Visual Effects. I used to work at the Secret Lab. You wonder who we were, and where we came from, and how we created dragons that at least can be mentioned in the same breath as Tippett's go-motion god of a dragon from another Disney movie so long ago. I'm writing you to tell you that sadly we are no more, and all film geeks should know this loss.
The Secret Lab was Disney's new name for the visual effects company that used to be called Dream Quest Images. Dream Quest was founded by Hoyt Yeatman and Abdi Sami back in the mid 80's. Hoyt is the very essence of visual effects coolness. Abdi was the guy with the business knowhow. Together they started in Hoyt's garage and built whole worlds of amazing visuals. I know many of my favorite moviegoing moments were courtesy the old Dream Quest. The red red canyons of Mars in Total Recall... the too-real-to-be-believed submarines in The Abyss... the Black Lectroids' spaceship in Buckaroo Banzai-- the way it moved!
Disney came to Dream Quest more and more to do its bigger and bigger summer blockbusters. Crimson Tide, Con-Air, The Rock... So it made sense for Disney to buy Dream Quest from Abdi and Hoyt... Hoyt would stay on, to make the movies for Disney... and the team they built would keep the cool visuals coming.
The next big step for Dream Quest was digital characters: George of the Jungle's elephant, Deep Rising's sea monster, Mighty Joe Young. All of them today still hold up as great digital creations, with Dream Quest's digital Mighty Joe still unsurpassed.
Then came the big one: Armageddon. Almost all of the Asteroid and shuttle shots done by Dream Quest under the supervision of Richard Hoover, oh, and the destruction of Paris in one beautiful shot that is among the best effects of all time courtesy the master, Hoyt Yeatman. Dream Quest got two Oscar nominations that year, for Armageddon and for Mighty Joe Young (we lost to What Dreams May Come).
We were making these effects in a small building in an industrial park in Simi Valley, CA. It was a scrappy little outfit, and sometimes it seemed like way out there in the boondocks we were creating just to please ourselves. A bunch of film-loving geeks working for Hoyt in his garage.
About this time, Disney was making a film called Dinosaur at their Feature Animation division. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a luxurious, lushly-appointed building, and tricking it out with computer hardware. They paid top-dollar for the talent, and put them in a building with (I kid you not) a sand volleyball court, a jogging track, a putting green, a gym, a video-arcade and cable tv in every cube.
When Dinosaur finished, Disney had a really expensive building, and no new film to start making in it. A lot of eyes were on the expenses, and the powers that be decided to absorb Dream Quest and put us in the big expensive building with the people who made Dinosaur. They would call us the Secret Lab, and they put the Secret Lab logo on the credits for Dinosaur almost as an afterthought.
Fancy building aside, this was when Dream Quest and The Secret Lab would do its best work ever. This is because the character animators at Disney are second to none in the world. The amazing technology the people created for making dinosaur muscles and bones and fat and sinew, and the amazing lighting and shading tools -- and the people who know how to use them, made this a marriage from heaven.
Harry, stop reading this now, and go look at the movie 102 Dalmatians. I know, I know, kid's stuff. But look at the dogs. Scene after scene after scene of digital dogs interacting with real dogs -- some in close-up! You heard me. Digital dogs, and you can't tell the difference. That is the result of great animation, great muscle/skin systems, great lighting, great shaders, great fur-rendering tools and great compositors. The dog is the one animal that everyone knows -- so easy to mess up, because everyone has one. The dog is second only to the human being for the hardest digital creation to fool the eye. Disney didn't promote this as an effects movie, so it got totally missed. It deserved the Oscar, but it didn't even get nominated because everyone assumed they were real dogs.
So where are we now? Defunct. Disbanded. Layed-off. Why? Because some bean-counter decided that outside companies can do effects cheaper. Duh! We WERE cheaper when we were in our industrial park in Simi Valley! It was you guys who moved us into the palace with the video arcade and the putting green!
The Secret Lab is no more. The building is empty now, the talent is gone, dispersed... Lots of us went to go work on The Two Towers or the Matrix sequels. Some of us will probably be forced to take work on Scooby Doo II. The people will go on to other things at other places... but that magic mix will never exist again. Everywhere people wind up, they have a wistful tone in their voice. "Yeah, it's alright here," they say. "But nobody here really gets it about effects." Nobody knows how to make CG not LOOK like CG. How to make dragons and dogs and giant gorillas move like animals rather than marionettes. How to make images that stick in the memory for years and years. Well... maybe Weta does... Thank God for Weta.
This week, Reign of Fire will come out, but most of the people who made it don't work for Disney anymore. I'd love to see an Oscar nomination for effects. People worked for over a year on this show. Lots of blood and tears were shed creating what you see onscreen. People worked late nights and weekends fully knowing they would be out of work when it was done. That's love. Everyone wanted these dragons to be real, to live onscreen just like the Vermithrax. Tons of technical innovations went into these dragons. Real scales on the dragon, not just texture maps, muscle and skin systems to die for, fluid dynamics that allow the dragon's wings to actually stir the smokey air around as they flap, and for the first time ever, CG fire that looks utterly real. The shot where Van Zan jumps off the top of the truck with a fireball all around him: that fire's digital. FX supervisors Rich Hoover and Dan Deleeuw deserve an Oscar in a big way, as do the dozens of people like me under them, who all work for Disney's competitors now. The saddest thing is, no matter how big a hit they have with this film, they can't do a sequel, because the people don't work there anymore. Disney's suits don't understand that once you lose the momentum, you can't ramp it back up for one movie without enormous expense. Reign of Fire looks so good because the dragons are built on top of dalmatians and the dalmatians were built on top of Dinosaur.
A piece of movie geek history has gone away this week. Dream Quest Images is no more. The company was never the household name that ILM or Digital Domain or even Weta is. We concentrated on the effects, not the magazine articles. I wanted film lovers to know that we were here, and now we're gone -- hope you enjoy the dragons.
Reign of Fire won't be the last film from The Secret Lab. Hoyt has one last surprise up his sleeve. A film starring a CG kangaroo. The working title is Down & Under, and it's a Jerry Bruckheimer film. One last bit of magic from the folks that brought you the dragons. This kangaroo is better than the dragons, if you can believe that. It is the best effects creature we've ever done, and it's our martini shot. A skeleton crew has stayed on board to finish the last couple of shots from that film, working in a little industrial park in Glendale -- working with Hoyt. If I know Hoyt, something about the dusty small place and the tight crew makes him smile.
Dream Quest/The Secret Lab's credits (a partial list). If you count any of these films among your favorites, raise a glass and give a toast of thanks to Hoyt Yeatman.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Better Off Dead
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Defending Your Life
My Favorite Martian
George of the Jungle
Pee Wee's Big Adventure
Mighty Joe Young
The Sixth Sense
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Mission To Mars
Gone in 60 Seconds
Reign of Fire
Down & Under