Revisiting Cinefex (1): Star Trek and Alien

Cinefex Issue 1 - www.cinefex.comCinefex, in case you didn’t know, is a quarterly magazine about visual effects – specifically, behind-the-scenes articles on major movies. I’ve got a big stack of them piled on the floor beside the upstairs bookcase. It’s not a complete collection – I’ve lapsed occasionally over the years – but there’s one hell of a lot of them.

The other day, I decided the time had come to revisit the early editions. And I thought I’d take you along for the ride.

The first thing you notice about Cinefex is the odd format. It’s small, almost square, though at 72 pages Issue 1 is reassuringly thick. The front cover design is terribly simple – a big still of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek – The Motion Picture, the Cinefex logo, a discrete ‘number 1’ and the cover price of $3.50. There’s no copy, no headline, nothing to tell you what the magazine’s about. This minimalism – born of a commitment to let the incredible imagery it features speak for itself – has always been Cinefex’s trademark. But it’s a brave move for a first issue.

The bravery continues inside. There’s no editorial, just a contents page and a brief list of credits. The contents comprise two articles:

  • Into the V’ger Maw with Douglas Trumbull
  • Creating an Alien Ambience

The first article, Don Shay’s lengthy interview with effects maestro Douglas Trumbull about his work on Star Trek – The Motion Picture, kicks off right away on page 4. The second article – about Ridley Scott’s Alien – runs straight after it on page 34 (this article’s also by Shay, who incidentally is the creator, editor and publisher of Cinefex).

And that’s it. No advertising, just an insert with an introductory subscription offer, in short no frills whatsoever. Simply a wealth of detailed text and fascinating photos. This dedication to the task at hand set up Cinefex as a class act from day one.

Star Trek – The Motion Picture

rc01stSeveral things stand out in the Star Trek piece. First is Trumbull’s candidness in talking about the various political reasons he first turned down, then finally accepted the visual effects contract (after finishing Close Encounters, he was keen to develop his career as a director in his own right). His director’s instinct is obvious when he talks about his revisions to the spacewalk scene, earlier cuts of which apparently looked like a bodged version of Fantastic Voyage, with Kirk and Spock getting attacked by ‘a mass of sensor-type organisms’ – alien antibodies, if you like. Trumbull scrapped the sequence and devised what we ended up seeing – Spock’s psychedelic trip through V’ger’s memory banks. It’s probably no coincidence that Spock’s trip resembles Bowman’s ‘ultimate trip’ at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. After all, that was Trumbull too.

Another thing that strikes me is the descriptions of the optical effects. Back in 1980, there was no CGI. So when it came to creating the epic cloud-forms of the V’ger exterior, there was no choice but to build it and photograph it. This is where I fell in love with Cinefex, I think, because we’re treated to a no-holds-barred description of the process Trumbull used, starting with bent coat-hangers photographed rotating under strobe lights, through to airbrushed artwork filmed under motion control on a specially-built rig, generating multiple exposures in up to twenty or thirty separate passes. It gets pretty technical, but it’s never less than fascinating.

There’s loads more good stuff: Trumbull’s dealings with Apogee, John Dykstra’s effects company, who shared the work on ST-TMP; a discussion about the relative merits of VistaVision against 65mm and 35mm film; a note that model-maker Greg Jein made ‘a whole series of about fifty different planets and moons’; the perils of wire rigs; and the interesting revelation that Trumbull had wanted to introduce the ‘stretching Enterprise’ effect  for the warp drive sequences. It’s an effect that only appeared later – in The Next Generation, I believe. If Trumbull had had his way, we’d have seen it first in 1979.

Alien

rc01aThe Alien article ranges far and wide through the production, with quotes from director Ridley Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon, as well as all the key contributors to the visual effects process. The story’s a familiar one to fans – especially now we’ve seen it dissected to death on the various DVD box sets and special editions. But it’s worth remembering this: back in 1980 there were no DVDs. If you were lucky – and if you could afford it – you might find your favourite movie on VHS or Betamax. But it took years for films to get released to the home market. And when they were, they were no special features, no deleted scenes. Back then, Cinefex really was solid gold, because it was telling you stuff you literally couldn’t find anywhere else.

Highlights from the Alien article include: Dan O’Bannon’s assertion that, while he went crazy for Giger’s grotesque artwork, he’d hoped Scott would encourage the creation of something even more weird than ‘that thing with a big long penis for a head’; descriptions of the tension between Giger and Roger Dicken, who built the face-hugger and chest-burster; a great account of the now-legendary chest-burster shoot; and, best of all, Scott’s idea about filling up the alien’s head with live maggots ‘to have a kind of subtle movement in the creature’s brain’.

The pictures

The other great part of Cinefex is of course the pictures. Stand-outs in Issue 1 are the backstage shot from Star Trek with the crew swarming over the space dock miniature. At the bottom of the shot is a rig of at least thirty tiny dental mirrors, each one reflecting a pool of light on to a different part  of the Enterprise model. The one I like from the Alien article is a black and white shot of Roger Dicken lying under the mess table and looking resigned to his fate as he pokes the chest-burster puppet up through a hole in the tabletop.

In wrapping up, I’ll add that I remember seeing both these movies at the cinema. I was only thirteen when Alien came out, and because it was an X-Certificate I had to get my dad to sneak me in. There were signs in the foyer saying that pregnant women might find it too shocking, and giving dire warnings about the potential dangers of the strobe lighting effects. Alien had a big effect on me at the time, and is still one of my all-time favourites.

Star Trek – The Motion Picture I remember as ponderous but pretty, with a fantastic score by Jerry Goldsmith. Having grown up with the original series on TV, it was a treat to see it on the big screen. And Persis Khambatta with no hair was a strangely alluring sight for a teenage boy.

Next time I’ll talk about Cinefex 4, featuring Outland and Altered States. What happened to Issues 2 and 3, I hear you cry? Well, I didn’t get serious about collecting Cinefex until Issue 6 or so – I’m afraid you’ll just have to tolerate the gaps.

Cinefex is still very much in production, by the way, both in paper and e-formats. You can still get order back issues, or even photocopies of the earlier editions. Check out their website here:

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

Comments

  1. Don Shay says:

    Hi Graham —

    Not sure who picked up on it first, but your blog has been zipping around the Cinefex staff at warp speed since you posted it yesterday. What a terrific and flattering entry — and by someone who can write! I enjoyed reading your take on Cinefex 1 after all these years. It brought back many memories of the time and effort it took to put that initial issue together and launch it. Who knew I’d still be publishing the magazine 30+ years later?

    The completist in me grieves at the thought of your having to jump from #1 to #4, so if you’ll send me a mailing address, I’d be pleased to dip into my personal collection of out-of-print issues and send you #2 and #3.

    You made it sound so good, I may have to go back and re-read #1 myself. Not sure I’ve do so since it was first published.

    Cheers,

    Don

    • What a fantastic review. I’m currently writing a quite extensive dissertation on the development of Dark Star, Dune (abandoned) and Alien, looking especially at the work of concept artists Foss, Geiger, Cobb and Giraud, and Dan O’Bannon’s involvement. I’m trying to track down some copies of the Cinefex articles regarding Alien, especially ‘Alien: Creating An Alien Ambience’. I have so far been unable to find issue 1 at the BFI library and was hoping to contact a collector of Cinefex to maybe have a read.

      • Or the original author?

      • Don Shay says:

        The first issues is a tough one to find, but Titan Books in London reproduced our “Alien” article, plus those on “Aliens” and “Alien 3” in a book called “Alien: The Special Effects.” I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but copies are fairly easy to come by, at least in the U.S. Try Amazon.

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment, Don – and especially for the offer of the back-issues! It’s great to know that you and the Cinefex team have picked up on the blog. I’ll try and do your work justice as I work my way through my large stack of back issues! Best wishes, Graham

  3. Thanks for reminding me how much I love Cinefex !

    Jim

  4. Steve K. says:

    I really like the way the site works on the iPad. Maybe you could do all the digital versions of Cinefex from now on? 😉

  5. Cinefex magazine has always been my favourite read. I proudly have the entire collection sitting on my bookshelf and eagerly await each new issue. It was a real pleasure reading your thoughts on issue one as the early editions really are historic snippets of the vfx industry. Can’t wait for your comments on the Willis O’Brien issue which is truly superb.

  6. Gus Cadore says:

    Hi Graham,

    It’s been great reading your blog on the early issues of Cinefex. Like you I’ve collected the magazine since Issue One (missing a few along the way – drat!), and have the stack of issues sitting on the side. I clearly remember buying that first issue from the original site of Forbidden Planet in London. What struck me about the magazine was how different it appeared to be from everything else on the shelves at the time: the shape, the cleanness of the cover, the paper quality, the depth and quality of the writing and the total lack of ads (I was astounded to find out years later how the magazine was run on a shoestring but Shay and his team managed to keep up the quality).

    I’m writing this after finding out that there’s now an iPad version of Cinefex. I’ve downloaded all the available copies and am very impressed with the standards the team have kept up plus the fact that ALL the back issues will be available over time.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

    Regards,

    Gus

    • Hi Gus —

      Thanks for your kind words about Cinefex. Nice to hear that you’ve enjoyed the magazine through the years, and I’m glad you’re enjoying our new iPad edition.

      Cheers,

      Don

      • Gus Cadore says:

        Hi Don,

        Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. What I wrote was only the tip of the iceberg as far as I’m concerned as the magazine is a great piece of work, so you’re welcome. For the record, my list of personal Cinefex highlights from over the years is:

        Issue One
        The Empire Strikes Back stop-motion special
        Aliens
        Terminator 2
        Star Wars / ILM (your interview with George Lucas was brilliant, especially the way you contextualised it and the fact that he was enjoying himself so much he gave you more time – priceless!)
        Jurassic Park
        Titanic
        The Phantom Menace
        2001: A Space Odyssey
        True Lies

        I think that my list of personal highlights is going to grow once the iPad ‘Early Years’ editions are made available and I can fill in the gaps (e.g. Willis O’ Brien, Blade Runner, Tron, etc). Again, thanks for responding (imagine the look on my face when I realised the founder of Cinefex made contact) and keep up the great work – your team’s a class act.

        Gus

    • Hi Gus. Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I’m delighted you’re enjoying the blog posts. I remember when Forbidden Planet’s tiny London store was – literally – the only place in the UK you could buy Cinefex. How times change!
      Best wishes, Graham

  7. Can anyone please fill me in about the quality of the photocopies of old editions of Cinefex that they sell at cinefex.com? I only have about 6 or so magazines, and I’d love to start slowly collecting them all or at least most of them. Are the photocopied versions all black-and-white? If so, are the photos hard to view?

    • Hi John —

      We offer B&W photocopies of our out-of-print back issues primarily for researchers or filmmakers who need the information. They are certainly not for collectors. In the coming year, we’re going to begin making all of our back issues available on the iPad, which I think you’ll find to be a more-than-pleasant alternative to the photocopies. If you’re a paper-and-ink guy, though, you can often find out-of-print issues on eBay or Amazon. Many of our old issues can still be purchased on our website — so check that out first before paying inflated “collector’s” prices elsewhere.

      Don Shay
      Publisher / Cinefex

    • Gus Cadore says:

      Hi John,

      A few years ago I bought photocopies of Cinefex back issues that had gone missing from my collection and I personally found them adequate replacements for what had gone. Obviously, you don’t get the richness of the original issues but if you compare what Cinefex are offering as opposed to nothing at all, it’s no contest.

      Can I also say that, as Don’s mentioned, the back catalogue will eventually be available on the iPad platform. I own one and have all the issues that are currently available through the app. The quality is amazing plus there are unique elements that make the experience different from the print and online editions. If you’re considering collecting the entire Cinefex back catalogue, I’d seriously consider investing in one – you won’t regret it

      All the best

      Gus

    • Thanks to Don and Gus for helping John out. It’s good to know there are still choices for collectors even 30 years on.
      Graham

  8. Bruce Koski says:

    I only just found this site and your retrospective commentary. Enjoyed this first installment and look forward to reading the rest. Thanks.

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