Visual effects technology is being used in the most unlikely places these days like a remake of a nearly 90-year-old silent film.


Image Entertainment Inc. will release "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" on June 5. It will be the first time that original sets from a silent era film have been "re-mixed" as digital backgrounds integrating contemporary actors.


The update to the 1919 silent classic widely regarded as the first horror film ever made comes courtesy of modern green-screen technology. The original film cleverly uses light and shadow to create an abstract realm in which a demented doctor and a carnival sleepwalker are present for a series of murders in a small community.


"It looks like film, real old film," said cinematographer Chris Duddy, "which is phenomenal." The update was shot in digital video and modern effects were used to produce the aged, grainy look of the original.


"Because it was made in black and white it was very forgiving in some regards," Duddy said, "but it was still a very arduous process to get the visuals right."


After obtaining the original negatives, writer/director David Lee Fisher filmed modern actors against a green backdrop that was erased in post-production. The foreground images were the merged or "composited" into digitized and enhanced images from the original film.


While the live-action production was filmed in just nine days at a Burbank facility, the setup took nearly a year, as has the post-production.


The total production cost was shy of $200,000 in part because the film rights are in the public domain, sparing any acquisition expense.


Duddy's effects expertise (his credits include "Total Recall," "Terminator 2," and "Titanic") were critical for Fisher during production, since the two had to "eyeball" every shot to make sure the green-screen set aligned perfectly with original.


"Some shots took us hours to line up because an actor had to sit on a stool or lean onto a podium and we had to get the exact height and angle, and the camera lens had to be perfectly aligned," Duddy said. "A movie like '300' has an $80 million budget and a ton of people working on compositing and computer generated imagery. We did it all for about 200 grand and with just a couple of us doing effects work."


Duddy and Fisher did get one break in terms of the production. When the original film was produced, movie cameras were stationary, with the actors moving around the set and camera. So in staying true to the original perspective, Duddy and Fisher kept the camera work relatively straightforward, which made the subsequent compositing work less complex.

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