Cinefex, 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
Several 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.
The 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 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:
- Listen to Episode 1 of the Optical Podcast (an entertaining audio retrospective of this issue and the films it covers)
Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.