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howard the duck holds some hand soap Image: Universal Pictures

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George Lucas’ Howard the Duck movie made The Matrix possible

The producer’s notorious Marvel movie has another place in history

When you read chronicles of the movie industry’s legendary flops, they almost always include Howard the Duck, the 1986 Marvel Comics adaptation that cost $37 million and tanked hard at the box office.

The iconoclastic Marvel comic written by Steve Gerber became an unlikely pop culture phenomenon in the mid-1970s, and George Lucas discovered it in film school. By the ’80s, though, Gerber’s creation was mostly forgotten — except by Lucas. The director-producer chose Howard the Duck as one of his post-Star Wars marquee production projects, directed by his old friend and American Graffiti co-writer Willard Huyck.

But from the ashes of failure often rise future successes. This oddball flick about a dimension-warped anthropomorphic waterfowl gave rise to a special effects technique that revolutionized the way action cinema was made. We wouldn’t have The Matrix without Howard the Duck.

Behind the feathers

howard the duck and lea thompson in howard the duck Image: Universal Pictures

In the 1980s, Industrial Light & Magic was where the special effects magic happened. Lucas founded the company because he wanted the original Star Wars to feature visuals that no other sci-fi film had pulled off before. A New Hope’s space battles were created using a PDP-11 computer that precisely moved a camera rig around detailed miniature models. It recorded its movements and replayed them exactly, allowing for multiple shots to be composited together while maintaining placement and perspective. This revolutionized how effects scenes were choreographed, and placed the computer at the heart of Lucas’ toolkit. It wasn’t long before ILM’s attention turned to using the machines to alter the film itself.

ILM’s projects were often used as proofs of concept for new technology, and Howard the Duck was no exception. The movie was packed full of ambitious effects, from the “Go Motion” technique, used to create the realistic blurring of the film’s sculpted miniature Dark Overlord monster, to the wireless controls for Howard’s facial animation. But arguably the film’s most important effect was something that didn’t even show up on the screen.

Howard the Duck’s quite literal breakthrough came right at the beginning, in a scene in which the duck is rocketed out of his apartment along with his easy chair. The effect was filmed with steel wires pulling the puppet and prop horizontally through multiple walls and sets, but it was what came after the camera stopped rolling that made it truly revolutionary.

Walking the wire

Wire suspension was nothing new in special effects work. Classics like Metropolis (1927) and King Kong (1933) simulated the flights of airplanes by moving tiny models across barely visible strands of steel. Actors could also be strapped into harnesses to simulate flight, a technique adopted from the stage.

Over in Hong Kong, directors were even more ambitious with their wires. To augment their already impressive agility, performers were harnessed up to wires for heroic leaps and gravity-defying kicks. The technique defined the wuxia films of the 1960s, but if you squint, you can often see the telltale cords suspending the heroes and villains.

There were many methods of hiding or otherwise camouflaging their presence. Wires were painted to match the background, lit with hard light, optically blurred with Vaseline, and sometimes even painted over on the film itself. But for Howard the Duck, ILM developed a next-generation technological solution.

Rub it out

After the scenes with Howard’s chair jetting through the walls and out of the building were filmed, the footage was taken to the ILM optical lab, where the team used dissolves, double exposures, and other traditional post-production methods to create visual effects. According to Jonathan Luskin, an animator and technical director at ILM, the original intention was to use traditional analog methods to hide the wires — he thinks probably Vaseline on glass. But it just didn’t look right: The varying surfaces Howard flew by drew too much attention to the wire, even blurred and in motion.

With the department at a dead end, the technicians reached out to the computer graphics team to see if it had any ideas. ILM’s Graphics Group had just developed a program called LayerPaint to run on the early Pixar Image Computers. (When Lucasfilm sold a controlling interest in the Graphics Group to Steve Jobs in 1986, Jobs would rename the company after that piece of hardware.) LayerPaint allowed artists to draw in raster graphics on transparent layers over film footage, before consumer products like Photoshop made that possible.

The team also had one of the only digital laser scanners in the world that could handle film. Luskin modified the program so it would load frames in sequence, and artist Bruce Wallace went through and used it to composite in background colors and textures over the visible wires, frame by frame. The end result, in motion, looks nearly seamless.

The technique was an immediate hit in visual effects circles. Suddenly, films could have live actors and props violating the laws of physics without resorting to a blue screen. Multiple studios developed their own techniques and software, and the method was notably used for the hoverboard sequences in Back to the Future Part II and the bike jump in Terminator 2: Judgment Day shortly afterward.

“Nobody was thinking of us first,” Luskin told me. “It was always a matter of proving ourselves. Some visual effects supervisors were forward-thinking, but others didn’t really understand what we could or couldn’t do.” LayerPaint’s primary programmer, Mark Leather, would receive an Academy Award in 1993 for his contribution to the technique.

Fantastic fights

While American movies might feature one or two wire stunts in the course of a single film, Hong Kong action demanded a lot more. By the 1990s, wirework had become a staple of the industry, with a generation of moviemakers looking to up the ante. Films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China offered outrageous wire-assisted fights.

One of the period’s most notable directors was Yuen Woo-ping. After beginning his career in 1978 with the Jackie Chan vehicle Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Yuen worked with many of the genre’s greats. As he gained confidence, he started choreographing more and more wire-driven action scenes. By 1993’s Iron Monkey, he was widely regarded as one of Hong Kong’s undisputed masters of the technique.

When executive producer Barrie Osborne approached Yuen about coming onboard The Matrix, he initially demurred, fearing that his poor English would hinder his effectiveness. But when he was pitched on the project and the special effects that would accompany his fight choreography, he agreed to work in America for the first time, with the caveat that the principal actors train directly with him.

Jacking in

The Wachowskis had big dreams for The Matrix.

The script incorporated and referenced a panoply of ideas from Buddhism, quantum mechanics, semiotics, and more. In a 1999 chat on the Warner Bros. website, they commented, “We think the most important sort of fiction attempts to answer some of the big questions. One of the things that we had talked about when we first had the idea of The Matrix was an idea that I believe philosophy and religion and mathematics all try to answer. Which is, a reconciling between a natural world and another world that is perceived by our intellect.”

They also knew that Warner Bros. wouldn’t pay $75 million for 90 minutes of heady philosophical inquiry, so they needed to deliver action sequences like nothing Western audiences had ever seen.

The principal actors in The Matrix underwent a rigorous four-month training process to be able to fight to Yuen’s standards. Most Hong Kong actors come up through a martial arts system, so they at least have a basic knowledge of the techniques, but Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and the rest were starting from scratch. To make matters worse, Reeves had recently had surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck, but still went on to do nearly 95% of his action shots.

One of the reasons Yuen agreed to work on the film was the technology that would be applied to mask the wirework, and he credits the experience with opening his mind to the potential of additional effects. A huge majority of the sequences in the film were shot practically, with the only digital work coming in erasing rigging and wires.

There’s no question of how influential The Matrix was for action cinema. Hollywood movies that followed pivoted to include exciting, larger-than-life fight scenes. With the reliability of digital wire removal, directors could have their high-paid actors safely performing superhuman feats and emoting the whole time.

Yuen took digital wire removal back to Hong Kong, and directors there rapidly adopted the technique. Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon showed how modern technology could adapt to a classical wuxia mode, and before long, the old ways of hiding wires were officially obsolete.

The advent of digital wire erasure has also made film production safer for actors. Previously, stunt coordinators would use the thinnest cables possible to minimize their appearance on camera. But now, it’s just as easy to paint over a thicker rope, reducing the possibility of accidental breakage.

It’s absolutely fair to say that modern action, including the acrobatic fight scenes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, owes a lot of its visual vocabulary to technology from Howard the Duck. If it wasn’t for a small group of ILM artists frantically trying to make a quacking puppet on an easy chair look like he was really flying, the world of cinema would have been vastly different.