Space Jam: Twenty Years on we revisit our work on the classic animation-live action hybrid

Twenty years ago today Space Jam hit the big screen. Technologically impressive at the time, the movie has become a sort of nostalgic, cultural phenomenon.

Much like 1988’s WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, where animation supervisor Richard Williams and ILM optical supervisor Ken Ralston combined live-action and animated footage, SPACE JAM took ROGER RABBIT’s lead, and then went much further. ROGER RABBIT was a monumental achievement in the pre-digital era, and SPACE JAM was its heir apparent.

Visual effects supervisor Ed Jones (who also earned an Academy Award for ROGER RABBIT) and the digital crew of Cinesite completed shots for SPACE JAM that averaged 30 elements per composite.

To celebrate the films 20 year anniversary we dusted off our 1996 press release to revisit the work!



15th November, 1996

Cinesite worked with over 18,000 special effects elements, employing never-before-used techniques to make basketball superstar Michael Jordan interact seamlessly in an animated world, with a cavalcade of cartoon characters.

Space Jam could not have been made five years ago because the technology had not yet been created that could capture Pytka’s free moving camera style. In the past, Jordan’s movements would have been choreographed with absolute precision and filmed with a “locked down” motion control camera. The technique involves a groundbreaking motion-tracking process in which a background environment is created, put in place, and moves as the camera does, following the action of the players…and the entire sequence is orchestrated in the computer.

As the filming progressed, Cinesite’s animators worked for months, creating virtual environments for the film, using wire-frame models. The practice gym is entirely CG.

Moron Mountain is the initial introduction to the animated world of Space Jam, which sets the stage for the film’s key conflict. Cinesite (Europe) Ltd. created the entire 45 second animated shot using a combination of digital tools and techniques. The sequence begins inside a press conference where Michael Jordan is announcing his retirement from professional basketball; the camera cranes up and out of the roof of the hotel, revealing a panoramic view of Chicago at night.

This effect was achieved by tracking the live action plate through a photorealistic computer generated glass dome to reveal an animated digital matte painting of Chicago. The camera continues moving up over the moon to reveal an alien galaxy, complete with atmospheric planets and starfields – in the centre of the frame you see a large smoking planet with giant neon rotating text wrapped round it like a belt, this is the home of Swackhammer and the Galatical theme park ‘Moron Mountain’. Because this sequence had to pass the audience from the real to animated worlds, Cinesite used computer animation to create the ‘toony’ alien environments whilst retaining a very three dimensional image. Additional animated effects such as the smoking volcanic surface, various spacecraft and dozens of individually animated alien punters were all created and composited into the scene to realise one of the most spectacular shots in the movie.


Fun Facts About the Visual Effects of “Space Jam”

Total Number of Film Frames:     79,200

Total Minutes of Visual Effects: 65 (out of 84 total film minutes)

Total Number of Elements for the Film: 18,481 (comparable to 6,000 in the effects-laden, summer blockbuster Independence Day)

Total Disc Storage for Film: 9.5 terabytes (9.5 million megabytes 1,000 megs = 1 gig, 1,000 gigs = 1 terabyte)

Disc Storage Translated for the Computer-Challenged:

If the film’s work was stored on a floppy disc, it would take 800 million diskettes, or fill a 10,000 square-foot warehouse

Total Time Spent at Computer: 11,656 man days @ 8 hours a day or 46 man years

About the Basketball: The actual ball used in Space jam was hand-delivered to Cinesite LA, where, for three days it was scanned into a computer. Every smudge, mar and scratch was accounted for digitally, from every angle possible. (The ball belonged to “Space Jam” director Joe Pytka, whose treasured possession has touched the hands of several great players.) Through clever editing, the animated players could freely pass the computer-generated ball to and from Michael Jordan. Jordan, however, only handles the real ball.

You can also find additional information about Cinesite’s work on Space Jam’s website, it’s a glorious time capsule of 1990s web design!