In 1989, producer Douglas Wick became intrigued with the thought of making a movie about invisibility and its ramifications. He explains, "At about that time, there was the beginning of a revolution in visual effects technology, and it became clear to me that you could now show the tracings of an invisible man like never before. So, in addition to the universal fascination with invisibility, there was the developing possibility of visual fireworks."
A strong, coherent story eluded Wick until he conferred with Gary Scott Thompson and Andrew W. Marlowe. Marlowe was fresh from the success of "Air Force One." Like Paul Verhoeven, the screenwriter was fascinated with the psychological implications of a person with all societal constraints lifted.
Adding to his interest and qualifications, Marlowe has long been fascinated by the complex world of special effects and is a frequent visitor to the field’s leading labs and companies.
Verhoeven recalls, "When Andrew wrote the script, he included special effects that were not yet possible. He wrote it anticipating that in one year we could do these effects. He wrote on the edge, and it has really pushed the envelope."
Marlowe says of the story, "It is an exciting morality play about a charismatic leader held in check by society’s rules. With no cliches, we see what transpires as these rules are slowly removed, just as the layers of his body disappear."
Enthused by Marlowe’s treatment, Douglas Wick sent it to director Paul Verhoeven, the noted Dutch-born filmmaker who has created some of Hollywood’s major blockbusters. "He was the director I always wanted for ‘Hollow Man,’" says Wick. "The film’s real challenge wasn’t in the creation of the visual effects but in finding a great filmmaker to actually make the effects integral to the drama. Paul is not only a mathematician and scientist gifted in working with special effects, he is an extraordinarily visual storyteller who keeps audiences spellbound."
Indeed, the films of Paul Verhoeven invariably delight and disturb audiences. His early Dutch pictures are a remarkable series of social, sexual and historical exploration that are by turns bitter, cruel, funny, tragic and witty.
Verhoeven explains his attraction to the sci-fi genre. "When I went to the United States to work, I knew that I did not know enough about the nuances of American culture to reflect it in film. I didn’t want to have to worry about breaking rules of American society or making mistakes because I was not aware of certain expressions or social behavior. I felt more secure working in science-fiction."
Verhoeven’s Hollywood debut was "RoboCop," a huge science fiction success. He returned to the genre with the blockbuster "Total Recall," followed by the epic space fantasy "Starship Troopers." He also continued to delve into the realm of psychological thrillers with "Basic Instinct" and the erotically charged "Showgirls," undoubtedly the highest-profile films of 1992 and 1995, respectively.
Boiling down his complex body of work, Verhoeven says, "I take the elements of life as I see them and put them into movies—the things I love and the things I hate."
Verhoeven recalls his initial reading of the "Hollow Man" screenplay. "The characters were precise. The plot contained smart developments on the invisibility theme. I liked the extreme unity of space, time and plotting. It gave me a strange feeling that I cannot express better than to say it was a very precise study in evil. It starts as a benevolent, scientific adventure with some humor. Then we see the bright, genial Sebastian Caine disintegrate into a mad, evil monster. He becomes the devil," says the director, who grew up in Europe during the dark days of World War II.
As with most of Paul Verhoeven’s work, "Hollow Man" raises disturbing questions about human behavior.
"Thousands of years ago, Plato wrote of invisibility, saying that morality is not inside us; it is defined by what others know and expect of us," says Verhoeven. "He said an invisible person would become intoxicated with the power, and abuse it simply because he could get away with it. He would steal, and he would enter homes and rape and kill at will. Plato suggested there is no universal moral code inside us that leads us to being good and just. We behave because we don’t want to go to jail.
"Who am I to argue with Plato?" the director asks.
In addition to exploring an age-old moral question, Verhoeven was fascinated with the idea of dramatically creating a magnetic hero who ultimately becomes evil incarnate.
"After miraculously cracking the formula for invisibility on animals, Sebastian experiments on himself," explains Verhoeven. "But the human DNA chain is slightly different. The rather jovial adventure begins to turn dark as the invisible state takes a grip psychologically. Strange things are unleashed in his personality that take him into the abyss of evil."
Continues the director: "Sebastian cannot hold himself back at a certain point because he knows he can get away with anything. In his new unseen state, he begins to stretch out his evil claws."
Verhoeven relishes the dilemma that Sebastian’s dissolution into the pit of depravity presents the audience. "In the beginning, you are rooting for him. He is the hero. But as the shadows descend on his mind, and he turns to evil, how long do you hold onto him? Do you ever completely reject him, or does a small part of you continue to cheer him on?"
Assessing "Hollow Man," the director says, "It is a science fiction suspense thriller that ultimately turns into a horror story as the science deteriorates. It becomes cold, contained, claustrophobic—what I would call modern gothic."
Equally compelling for Verhoeven was the opportunity to engage in mind-boggling digital special effects that would have been impossible even a year ago.
The challenge was to avoid the cliches associated with the ‘invisible person’ genre, screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe remembers. "We have gone far beyond the floating pencil or the glass of water moving alone through the air. We needed to find other ways to manifest the character."
The filmmakers delivered on this promise. Sebastian is partially seen moving through steam, struggling in a swimming pool and moving ghost-like through blankets of smoke and fire.
Paul Verhoeven candidly admits, "I had absolutely no idea how very complicated and difficult it would be to make this picture. It was beyond anything I imagined."
Everyone underestimated the complexity of making "Hollow Man," recalls senior visual effects supervisor and second unit director Scott E. Anderson. "We were in untested waters. I compare the work on ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Hollow Man’ to marching an army and building a Swiss watch. There are just as many moving parts, but in a more compacted space."
The two major special effects challenges were to show the title character becoming invisible—layer by layer, body system by system—as well as his eerie movements thereafter.
Verhoeven concedes, "From a scientific point of view, a formula for invisibility seems impossible. But everything we now have was once inconceivable. If you accept the premise of invisibility, then this movie is extremely realistic.
"The drama of it all, the questions it raised and the opportunity to work with amazing new special effects made me want to do ‘Hollow Man,’" summarizes Verhoeven.
Verhoeven’s longtime partner, producer Alan Marshall, joined the team, and they quickly assembled a cast.
"I knew there would be many technical difficulties down the road," Verhoeven says, "but they would be pointless without the right actor in the title role. Though he would be invisible, or appear as a digitally sculpted figure in cascading water or in fire, he is always the primary presence. Everyone is reacting to him, being touched by him. We could not have a double fill in for the actor. It would not work. We needed a talented actor who was willing to work very hard and put up with a great deal of discomfort."
The title role went to Kevin Bacon, who has displayed amazing range in such pictures as "My Dog Skip," "Stir Of Echoes," "Wild Things," "JFK," "A Few Good Men," "Picture Perfect," "Sleepers," "The River Wild," "Footloose" and "Diner."
"I have admired Kevin Bacon’s work for its enormous versatility," says Verhoeven. "I had heard he was very down-to-earth, and I knew he had made ‘Apollo 13,’ which was an extremely grueling, horrible shoot with zero gravity and heavy nausea.
"In our first meeting, I focused on how difficult it would be for the actor who would play Hollow Man. Most of the time he would be completely painted blue, black or green so that we could make him invisible. It is unpleasant to put the paint on, and even more of an ordeal to take it off. Sometimes he would have a latex mask completely glued to his face, and it would have to be peeled off each day. Then there are the contact lenses that fit over the entire eyeball. Claustrophobic and unpleasant, with physical danger—this was not a job for a prima donna."
Bacon remembers, "What really drew me to this story, other than the opportunity to work with Paul Verhoeven, was a fascination with the character of Sebastian. He is a self-obsessed, power-hungry, egocentric, spoiled child who can exude charm and have people follow him. When he becomes invisible, he is intoxicated by the power. It is inevitable that he becomes a mad monster."
Bacon now admits that playing Sebastian Caine was the hardest job of his career. But, he says, referring to Verhoeven’s reputation with affection, "It gave me a chance to play a mad scientist and to be directed by one!"
For the role of Linda—Sebastian’s former lover and now first lieutenant in a dangerous scientific experiment—Verhoeven wanted an actress who could be a warm, understandable woman who grows into a warrior when forced to by frightening circumstances. Academy Award nominee Elisabeth Shue was tantalized by the character.
"Romantically and professionally, she has existed in Sebastian’s strong shadow," says Shue. "Finally, she must take charge and crush the man she has loved. I was interested in the challenge of Linda’s growth without going over the top and becoming a typical superhuman screen heroine."
Verhoeven recalls, "Elisabeth did not want to be some kind of amazon fighter who was completely rough, harsh and in charge. She wanted to play a sensitive, normal, intelligent woman ultimately forced to fight a friend, a boss, a lover to the death. I think the result is that we have utilized Elisabeth Shue’s well-established screen vulnerability, and at the same time presented her with a stronger character than she’s ever had on screen."
Shue believes, "Linda has always had leadership qualities, but she has existed always in someone’s shadow. When she and Matthew face death, she assumes the position of authority."
Speaking about the director, Shue praises his energy, intensity, attention to detail and ability to inspire. "He has an extremely stimulating visual style, and he cuts the film in his mind as he shoots it. It’s exciting to observe his vision come to life. His shots are very fluid, with constant movement in the frame. Needless to say, he never shoots anything in the typical manner."
It is the character of Matthew, played by Josh Brolin, who makes "Hollow Man" an emotional triangle. Linda has secretly gone from the demanding, mercurial arms of Sebastian to Matthew, who is enthusiastic, attractive and supportive. It is the discovery of this perceived betrayal that drives Sebastian deeper into darkness.
With the casting process underway, producer Alan Marshall brought long-time Verhoeven collaborator Allan Cameron to Los Angeles as "Hollow Man"’s production designer. Work began on the picture’s primary setting—the gigantic, secret underground laboratory featured in Andrew W. Marlowe’s screenplay. It is one of the largest single motion picture sets ever constructed.
Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, had just the stage to house this enormous facility, which consisted of labs, an observation and recovery room, medical supply areas and a labyrinth of tunnels. Sony’s historic Stage 15, approximately 360 by 160 feet and over 40 feet high, was long famed as the largest sound stage in the world.
Cameron found the design project intriguing. "I wanted to create a closed atmosphere that, in the beginning, feels like a safe home for this family of scientists," says Cameron. "But as Sebastian deteriorates, the laboratory becomes more threatening and claustrophobic. It is a very interesting setting for the third act when everyone is trapped inside with this horrible, invisible force. It is an ideal setting as the film becomes a haunted house movie."
Marshall recalls, "In the story, we decided that the facility was originally a Cold War bunker that had been essentially abandoned 30 years ago. Within that graying shell, the U. S. government has now built a high-tech, hush-hush laboratory."
Adds Cameron, "You have this shell that contains old air-conditioning and air-filtration systems along with rusted machinery and aging electrical systems. We separated the old portion of the bunker from the new with stainless steel walls and large expanses of plate glass, creating a vivid juxtaposition of old and new. I designed a large, S-shaped corridor that curves through the complex so that you are never sure what is around the corner. We also installed masses of pipes and conduits in the ceilings where Sebastian could hide above his victims."
A particular challenge was a sequence in which the sprinkler system floods the main corridor and we see a partial "Hollow Man" materialize through the falling water. Cameron and special effects supervisor Stan Parks, calling on years of film experience, devised an enormous circulating system that could reuse the water and keep it heated for the actor’s comfort.
Another formidable challenge was the construction of a tall elevator shaft that serves as the only physical link between the laboratory and the real world. It is in this deep crevice that the film reaches its deadly climax as Linda and Matthew desperately try to escape a hellish inferno and a friend gone mad—and invisible.
"We decided to build this set abutting the large parking structure at the studio," explains Marshall. "This allowed us to take advantage of the fact that it has floor levels every 10 feet, and we could shoot from countless angles."
In addition to filming on the Southern California soundstage, the unit hit the road for a location shoot in Washington, D.C.
"The film needed to be opened up from time to time," producer Douglas Wick states, "to intensify the isolation of the lab. Going on location to Washington, D. C. accomplished that."
Producer Alan Marshall elaborates, "Our goal was to find locations that were identifiable as the capital, but not typical of the District Of Columbia. We filmed in August, to avoid the restrictions that tourism brings."
After nine months of negotiations, a major coup was scored when permission was granted for the production to film at the Pentagon. "Hollow Man" is one of only two pictures in the past decade allowed to shoot at the world’s largest and arguably most famous office building.
"I wanted to film an important scene in front of the imposing building that houses the world’s strength and power," Paul Verhoeven explains. "It is such an important symbol for the whole world. I wanted it towering and shadowing over their heads as they engage in the ultimate danger of betraying such enormous authority. You can’t fool around with the Pentagon."
The production used other D.C. landmarks for key scenes. Producer Alan Marshall remembers, "The next order was to find a location with architectural character that was isolated, but close to downtown Washington, to serve as the exterior entrance to our secret underground government facility. We found the perfect place at the former Washington Navy Yard, now the Southeast Federal Center. Our timing was good, because it is scheduled for development."
Persistence paid off in securing the cooperation of the U. S. Department Of Labor to film on its rooftop. Offering spectacular views of the United States Capitol, it served as the perfect location for a dramatic scene on a restaurant terrace constructed to match details of Washington’s historic Willard Hotel, where interiors were shot.
For a frighteningly amusing scene featuring the film’s title character driving through the city, the company chose an area outside the Treasury Department and across from the famed Old Ebbitt Grill. While the producers often discovered the nation’s capital to be underlit, this particular block was not only bright but featured spectacular traditional architecture.
At Verhoeven’s side throughout the adventure was his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Jost Vacano, A.S.C. Repeatedly praised for a dazzling command of style, Vacano’s camera possesses a personality as essential to the narrative as that of any character.
In addition to countless technical quandaries presented by filming an invisible man interacting with the visible world, Verhoeven remembers, "There were times we did scenes without relying on any digital effects; we were just expressing the issue of invisibility as a point-of-view shot."
As difficult as the motion picture’s many shots were, combined they could not match the rigorous demands of the visual effects arena. Verhoeven and his team quickly discovered that the 560 visual effects would be much more complicated than originally anticipated.
The first category of effect employed was known as bio-phase shifting—phase shifting a living creature out of the visible spectrum layer by layer. Today’s audience will not settle for merely imagining Sebastian Caine’s transformation from normality to invisibility. Viewers demand to experience it, especially when Paul Verhoeven is in command. The director called on every recent breakthrough in visual effects technology and computer graphics imagery and sought the services of the field’s leading innovators.
Senior visual effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson says, "Fortunately, Columbia Pictures backed a dedicated research effort on human motion, physiology and animation. The result was a very detailed generic human—our digital body—that showed how we could recreate human physiology."
"There are three transformations in the movie," Verhoeven reveals. "One experiment with a gorilla, and two with Sebastian. Sebastian becomes invisible, and later attempts to return to visibility but fails.
"He disappears and appears in intricate layers. As the radiated fluid enters his system, layers of flesh seem to liquefy. Then the muscular system dissolves, leaving a struggling skeleton wrapped with blood vessels and stuffed with the major organs. Then the organs go. The blood vessels go, leaving only a skeleton. Then the skeleton evaporates into nothingness."
Imageworks’ artists, technicians and designers made lengthy visits to medical facilities and schools to examine human bodies, make photographs and drawings, go through anatomical courses and observe autopsies. They had to know exactly what happens when you cut a human body and when you peel real skin. They were apprised on how liquid things are, how much fat there is and even how light reflects off muscles and liquids.
"Through my daughter, who is an art student," Verhoeven elaborates, "we found a museum in Florence, Italy, that is amazing. It houses anatomical wax sculptures with skin peeled off so you can see veins, muscles and even, partially, bones or whatever lies beneath. You see tendons and the skeleton and the fat. It was all done by a woman in the 16th or 17th century, and they are anatomically perfect."
"We studied her work," jests Verhoeven, "so one of our technical advisors was three or four hundred years old."
To accomplish the transformation sequences, special software had to be written to allow the internal matter of the human form to be realized on screen.
Scott E. Anderson explains, "Computers typically use surface textures mapped onto the outer edges of an object. It works this way to minimize processing time. Over the years, advances have been made to enable the creation of three-dimensional objects in the digital world, expanding the palette but still only employing surface shaders. We had to develop new techniques so that the details of the human body could be revealed layer by layer.
"With our new software, we can create the muscular contractions, bones, joints and other intricate internal body movements and details. When all the information is fed into a computer, we can then animate the exact movement of the human body and replicate how veins and muscles move beneath the skin. The amount of detail is absolutely staggering."
The solution is a process called volume rendering, in which not only the surface but the entire volume, inside and out, of an object is calculated and produced on screen.
Attempting to explain the technique in lay terms, Anderson continues, "Slicing a previous, typical 3-D digital object in half revealed nothing more than a vacuum inside. In ‘Hollow Man,’ a 3-D object cut cross-section reveals all the appropriate detail of an object’s internal structure. With this method, an organ such as a human heart can come to life on screen, gradually beginning as nothing more than the fibers of a capillary system growing and beating. Blood vessels become arteries and veins until layers of muscle develop around them, ultimately forming a fully rendered heart."
"Never before have we been able to look so precisely inside the human body," Verhoeven marvels. "I have never seen anything so beautifully digitized.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of connected elements inside the body. One tiny movement can affect almost everything. They built a perfect digital body for us, where all the tendons and muscles are perfectly attached so that when an arm moves, you see all the rotating inside. It involves incredible mechanical rules and mathematical formulas."
Anatomy consultants Beth Riga and Stuart Sumida believe that the research accomplished by Sony Pictures Imageworks on behalf of "Hollow Man" will advance the study of medical anatomy. As educators, they have long sought a richly detailed, precise human model, but funding for such an ambitious project was not available in the scientific and academic community. What was originally designed to create a brilliant visual effect now has the potential to become a valuable teaching tool.
Once the effects geniuses show Sebastian Caine’s incredible disappearance, however, there is the massive burden of marking his presence throughout the entire movie. This was the second special effects challenge. The audience and the characters in the story must somehow see his frenzied movements as he fights to preserve his omnipotence.
It is one thing to create a level of dynamic realism in a relatively stationary object, quite another to have an invisible presence be the potent force of the film. Sebastian is, indeed, an unusual lead character. His skin—and everything inside—are invisible. His head and hands are only detectable by the latex sheaths that cover them. Inside his mask’s eye holes, there is an empty space.
When Sebastian comes into contact with elements of the real world, however, such as water, smoke, fog or fire, the particular element succeeds in bringing his features into partial visibility.
Verhoeven explains, "When you shoot a scene with the invisible character physically interacting with another person, you film the actors performing the action and then matte the invisible person out. Then, of course, you have a black hole that needs to be filled in digitally. Everything the character has covered needs to be repainted."
The director who added gigantic insects engaging in eye-popping battle scenes to "Starship Troopers" quickly learned that, "It is easier to add something to a scene than take it out."
To accomplish this goal, actor Kevin Bacon spent much of the shooting schedule covered in green, blue or black paint (with matching contact lenses, wig, teeth covering and skin-tight leotard) that would enable the visual effects technicians to totally or partially remove him from view.
The attention to detail was often painstaking, but worth it, according to Scott E. Anderson, who remembers the awesome challenges of "Hollow Man." "Not only did we get to create great images of the human body, but we also had some great surreal and impressionistic moments of the invisible person expressed in his environment. It was a wonderful blend of slam-bam visual effects and some really subtle, beautiful moments."