F/X talk from Ang Lee and New Hulk pics

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Whether Ang Lee was directing adulterous suburbanites, Southern racists, crouching tigers or hidden dragons, his diverse characters all had something in common: They were living, breathing, multimillion-dollar-check- cashing actors.

But "The Hulk," opening June 20, is a different beast. The veteran filmmaker is making the leap from flesh-and-blood dramas to special-effects blockbuster -- without so much as a fake explosion for a transition.

Lee admits that, when it came to special effects, he had "no idea what I was talking about" as early as last year, when he started filming in the Bay Area.

"In some ways my innocence helped bring freshness (to the movie)," Lee said during an an interview earlier this month. "I think it's good I wasn't scared that the movie relied on (computer-generated) characters. I didn't know enough to be scared."

Lee's decision to direct "The Hulk" surprised fans of comic books -- along with fans of his movies.

His previous films include "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," which were as far away from gamma rays and rampaging green behemoths as cinematically possible. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000 proved that Lee could film action, but the movie's wire stunts and blue- screen backgrounds involved few modern special effects.

But Lee says his latest job made sense to him, with "Crouching Tiger" serving as a transition to "The Hulk." The filmmaker was drawn to the project at first by his comic-reading school-age sons, later realizing that there was a surprisingly complex character in the middle of the pulp action.

"That grabbed me right away," Lee said. "I was on the way to doing something like that in 'Crouching Tiger,' to mix serious drama with pop art. I got a taste of that and thought I could do that bigger."

Once the director was onboard, "The Hulk" needed a location. In the comics and TV show, the monster is born on a desert base in the Southwest, where Bruce Banner (Eric Bana in the movie) is exposed to gamma radiation.

New Mexico was changed to UC Berkeley to get Hulk near a big city, a move that Lee was happy about.

San Francisco "is one of my favorite cities in the world," Lee said. "I would probably rank it at the top or near the top. It's small but very photogenic and has layers. It's like New York. You never have problems finding great angles that people have never done."

Locations for "The Hulk" include Berkeley, Treasure Island and Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Filming for the most part was kept secret, but an extended trailer displayed for some journalists and exhibitors shows that the Bay Area is used to the fullest.

Lee seems particularly fond of helicopter shots looking down on the city streets, where the Hulk wrecks at least one cable car.

Although Lee put his own mark on the film, most of the main plot points in "The Hulk" mirror the comic. Bana plays Banner, a student who gets a dose of gamma radiation while working on a secret military project. As a result, whenever he gets mad, he mutates into a huge green creature. ("You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.'')

Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott and Nick Nolte round out the cast, while television Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno has a cameo.

Unlike the comic and the TV show, the lead character in "The Hulk" is more than twice the height of a normal human. The computer-generated Hulk wasn't created until the filming sequences were over -- when Lee settled into an office across the street from Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael.

Lee describes his education at ILM with wonder, like a parent who goes to a rock concert and discovers that his kid's favorite band actually has good musicians.

"This is the best part of making the movie, I think -- making the movie at ILM. It was pretty much a contrast to what I expected it to be," Lee said. "They call it Industrial Light & Magic, but there's no feeling of industry. It feels totally handcraft. Every individual artist who works on the shots -- it's very hands on."

Colin Brady, an animation director at ILM, said the animators who worked on "The Hulk" were thrilled with Lee's constant presence for the effects work.

"It's pretty much unheard of," Brady said. "(But) the Hulk has such a strong acting role in the movie that I think it did require that Ang was here."

Brady said much of the finished product for the character came from Lee's own movements.

"There's a lot of Ang in the Hulk," Brady said. "Ang would have no problem getting up and acting out exactly what he was looking for. It's a wonderful contrast to see this very soft-spoken guy launch into this very broad action. Next thing you know, he's biting my arm or getting me in a headlock or something."

Holing up with ILM made it easier for Lee to ignore outspoken fans of the comic book, who have criticized everything from the creature's look (they say he appears too much like the lead character in "Shrek") to the inclusion of mutated "Hulk dogs" in the movie.

Lee said he was influenced by the first "Frankenstein" movie more than any comic films such as "X-Men" or "Spider-Man."

"I would like to think that the fans, as loud and earnest as they can be, I hope they make up, like, 0.1 percent of the audience," Lee said. "I wanted to embrace (the comic), but I also wanted to feel free to create my episode of the Hulk. If I got opinions from other places, I would be very distracted."

Lee said Marvel gave him only two mandates -- telling him that the Hulk couldn't be too intelligent and that he had to save a child at the beginning of the movie.

Avi Arad, the Marvel Comics executive in charge of the films, said fans will appreciate Lee's work after they see the film.

"He understood the psychodrama and the deep study it takes to get the Hulk, " Arad said. "The thing he loves the most is the study of the soul. And he delivered that."

Lee joins Brian Singer and Sam Raimi as Oscar-nominated filmmakers who took on blockbuster comic-book films. Arad said the material needed a director who could concentrate on the performances, and Universal Pictures and Marvel were fortunate to get Lee.

"He could have done anything he wanted," Arad said. "And lucky us, he picked 'The Hulk.' "

Lee, who was finishing up special-effects shots and adding the music in early May, said he hasn't thought about his next move.

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