Edward Norton’s brain, up close and personal

June 02, 2009 | 8:41 p.m.

WIZARDS OF HOLLYWOOD: KEVIN MACK

Liesl Bradner has been interviewing the masters of Hollywood effects and asking a simple question: What’s your proudest moment of achievement on screen? She’s gotten answers that are sometimes surprising but always insightful. You can read the whole series in our Wizards of Hollywood section of Hero Complex. Today, Liesl turns her focus to Kevin Mack and his especially cerebral work in “Fight Club.” 

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Mack inherited his film illusion skills the old-fashioned way — through genetics. His father was Brice Mack, a background artist at Disney who worked on such classics as “Fantasia” and “Cinderella.” Kevin’s work can be seen in two dozen films including “Speed Racer,” “Ghost Rider” and “The Fifth Element.”  He won an Academy Award in visual effects for creating a heavenly paradise for Robin Williams in “What Dreams May Come.” He is currently working on the Chris Columbus-directed adpatation of the Rick Riordan fantasy novel “Percy Jackson and the LightningThief,” which is due in 2010.

Ed Norton in Fight Club

My most memorable scene? I have to say I’m still proudest of the stuff I did on “Fight Club,” mainly the opening title sequence.

It’s a 95-second pullback through the brain. It starts inside a synapse inside the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. It goes through various structures, a forest of neurons and dendrites, passing through various outer layers, the surface of the brain, layers of skull, then skin and a hair follicle and out to the barrel of a gun, essentially following Ed Norton’s character’s thoughts.

I had been doing brain research for years. I was really interested in neuroscience mostly for creating artificial intelligence. David Fincher was an old friend, so when he approached me I saw it as an opportunity to explore the brain in a spatial and visual way. David only gave me a sentence of direction, which was, “Make it dark and scary, like a night dive.”

I approached it from a computation standpoint. I had to employ a method of artificial life in the brain and essentially build a map through a real brain and keep it as accurate and as realistic as possible.

I got data from various people and consulted with Dr. John Mazziota, professor of nuclear medicine and imaging at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine and director of their Brain Mapping Center, to find out what they really looked like and how to grow the brain instead of using scanned models.

We were fighting against the limitations of technology because computers were really slow back then [in 1999]. It’s all computer-generated and mapped using an L-system and ray tracing graphics.I’ve been told it’s the most anatomically correct and realistic visualization of the brain. It was a breakthrough shot that had never been done before.

– Liesl Bradner

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“Fight Club” images courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Digital Domain. John Dykstra photo courtesy of John Dykstra.

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