Revisiting Cinefex (4): Outland and Altered States

Cinefex Issue 04The front cover of Cinefex #4 features a still from Outland: a long shot of the Con-Amalgamate mining complex on Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io. On the inside front cover there’s a full page ad: looks like Disney were hiring Special Effects Apparatus Designers for EPCOT and Disneyland. After that, we get two articles spanning the regular 72-page format:

  • Outland (article by Don Shay)
  • The Altered States of ‘Altered States’ (article by Paul Mandell)

Until I picked up this copy of Cinefex, I’d forgotten Outland was the first movie produced  by The Ladd Company. It’s a fact of particular interest to all SF fans as Alan Ladd was the Fox executive who championed the original Star Wars. Outland has fallen into the shadows somewhat since its release in 1981, but The Ladd Company went on to produce a science fiction film that’s stood the test of time rather better. You might have heard of it. It’s called Bladerunner.

Outland

Don Shay’s Outland article opens with director Peter Hyams discussing the genesis of the project, which was inspired in part by those fabulous JPL Voyager images of Jupiter and its moons. Hyams envisioned the future as a frontier – not ‘lucite domes and … conveyor belts’ but more like ‘day-to-day operations right now on oil rigs’. This frontier concept carried overtones of the American West and led inevitably to the film being described as ‘High Noon in space’.

rc04oThere’s a good deal in the article about the model department, led by Martin Bower and Bill Pearson. All good old-school kit-bashing stuff, including a great anecdote about a desperate chase around Woolworth’s stores to track down a certain type of lampstand they’d decided was perfect as the basis for a series of refinery towers! There are some impressive statistics in there too, not least the revelation that the Io landscape model was a massive two hundred feet long.

The most interesting thing about the Outland effects, however, is that the film marked the feature debut of a new compositing process called Introvision, a variant on front projection.

Traditional front projection works by placing a half-silvered mirror at 45-degrees in front of the camera. There’s a projector to the side, pointing in toward the mirror at 90-degrees to the camera. The mirror reflects the projected image (ie the background plate) directly at a Scotchlite screen behind the actors, in perfect alignment with the camera lens, delivering a clean, in-camera composite.

Introvision rather cleverly gives the mirror extra functionality by incorporating a second screen facing the projector. Parts of this screen are masked off with black masks. Negatives of these masks are used in front of the camera to create what amount to live mattes. So… what the camera sees is a projected background and the actors performing in front of it. When the actors need to move behind part of the projected ‘set’, what they’re actually moving behind is one of the black masks. The mask is in precise register with its mate on the other screen which lets the second, matching projected image through. So the actor ends up walking inside what’s essentially a flat image.

Phew! I’ve written that half a dozen ways and it’s still easier to do it with a diagram. Don explains it rather better in the article.

It’s a clever system, but I’m only aware of its use in a handful of films. The reality is that Introvision was probably one of the last innovations of the chemical/optical age. With digital technology compositing on the horizon, its days were always numbered. A shame, since at its heart are the kind of stage illusions in which all cinema visual effects are rooted. I’ve always thought front projection’s one of the best compositing tools out there. Aliens springs to mind, in which James Cameron’s team created flawless composites despite practical steam effects and restless camerawork. Front projection may be tricky to get right, but when it is right it’s unbeatable.

There’s heaps more in the Outland article: exploding heads, starfields painted with a toothbrush, a Jupiter model that wasn’t entirely spherical, and the telling line about ‘trying to produce post-Star Wars effects footage with pre-2001 technology’. But it’s time to move on.

Altered States

The Altered States article features extensive interviews with effects legend Dick Smith, the make-up designer and sculptor who was one of the few constants through the film’s troubled production history. That history is explored at length by Paul Mandell in this excellent article – continuing proof that Cinefex is as interested in the context of visual effects as the detail.

rc04asThe original director hired to bring Paddy Chayefsky’s novel to the screen was Arthur Penn. Endless meetings were devoted to visualising the crucial transformation scenes in which Edward Jessup (played by William Hurt, described as a ‘promising newcomer’) evolves into a bizarre cosmic entity. There was much debate about the merits of physical effects (represented by Smith) over optical (Joe Alves and John Dykstra) with Penn preferring the latter.

Not that Smith wasn’t kept busy. He developed new technology to achieve an under-skin ‘mole’ effect. Ultra-thin bladders were used underneath foam-latex appliances and inflated in sequence to create the illusion of bulging movement under Hurt’s skin. Smith also found a way to create a full-body mould of Hurt in just five minutes – which was the maximum time the actor could hold the contorted pose required of him. Smith describes how, having developed a fast-setting hydrocal recipe, he and his team ‘frantically dipped large squares of burlap and threw them on Bill’s face and body!’ Once the stuff was set, it was then a race to get the moulds off before Hurt got so hot he started burning. Who’d be an actor in an effects movie?

All this technical stuff is great, but on re-reading this article what impresses me most is the candidness of the interviews. This isn’t glossy promotional ‘making of’ stuff, it’s a real insight into Smith’s frustration at Penn’s constant changing of the concepts, of designer Joe Alves’s fury when Chayefsky had one of his sets torn down because he didn’t like the windows! Many movies go through birthing pains; clearly Altered States was no exception.

When Penn was replaced with director Ken Russell, things started to move forward. But there were still frustrations. Bran Ferren bewails how Russell liked ‘sloppy blue matte shots … That would drive us up the wall,’ he says, ‘but what do you do?’ Robbie Blalack talks about creating the kind of trippy opticals Russell’s known for. I like the way Dick Smith gave William Hurt apeman-feet simply by adding an extra toe and lots of hair: ‘The fact that he would have six toes probably wouldn’t even be noticed,’ Smith is quoted as saying. ‘It was kinda cute.’

If Outland represents the death throes of optical compositing, Altered States could be said to herald the digital age. To create the necessary wow-factor for the movie’s finale – in which a deformed and tortured Hurt struggles down a corridor, banging the walls and phase-shifting constantly from one cosmic form to another – Bran Ferren was brought in to enhance the stage photography with computer effects.

Ferren’s first task was to isolate Hurt from the background, which he did using a ‘computer-assisted rotoscope system’. This created ultra-smooth matte elements, which he then filled with computer-generated particles. Crucially, the particles were mapped to the contours of Hurt’s body to give a pseudo-3D effect ‘so it actually appeared to be wrapped around him rather than just being matted over him.’

Once generated, the particle imagery was plotted out on to paper in black-and-white, rephotographed on an animation stand and coloured with traditional optical effects. The process sounds clunky now, but at the time it was the only way to get the data out of the computer and on to film.

The last word on Altered States goes to Dick Smith. I guess the interview took place not long after he finished work on the movie (which clearly took a lot out of him), which probably accounts for the wistful tone in which he says, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can be expected to have the energy that’s necessary for this kind of sustained creative effort.’

The pictures

Cinefex #4 has the usual great collection of photos. Outland favourites have to be those in the model shop – all those shuttle and refinery models encrusted with plastic kit parts. And in the Altered States article there’s a brilliant photo of Bran Ferren sat at his then-state-of-the-art computer terminal. Ferren looks like he’s wandered off the set of Dark Star, and the computer kit wouldn’t look out of place in an old episode of Mission Impossible!

Because of Don Shay’s kind offer to fill in the early gaps in my Cinefex collection, I’m hoping that in my next retrospective I’ll be able to jump back to Issue #2 (always assuming the US Postal Service and the Royal Mail play ball of course).

Despite his comments coming out of Altered States, Dick Smith did of course go on to produce many more amazing make-ups and effects, and won an Oscar in 1984 for his work on Amadeus. Don Shay wrote an excellent 50-year tribute to Smith in Cinefex #62.

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

Comments

  1. Don Shay says:

    Hi Graham —

    I enjoyed your latest post on Cinefex 4 — another walk down memory lane for me.

    Introvision was a clever process that I feel was just too slow and cumbersome for widespread feature film use. Tom Naud was a real promoter, but he was a bit old-school in that he didn’t want to reveal any specifics of how the process worked. I think he was afraid competitors might steal the idea — which would have been easy if anyone had been inclined to do so. While writing the “Outland” piece, I spent a day with them while they were shooting a commercial, and was able to figure it all out, just by watching. Tom was pretty distressed about that when he read the article. I’m not sure how long Introvision stuck around, and I’ve not heard of Tom or John Eppolito in many years. One of the Introvision guys, Bill Mesa, went on to found Flash Film Works, though, which is still a going concern.

    In reading your current post, as well as you last one, I am struck — as you were — by how candid everyone was back then. Visual effects was a small business in those days, and people must have felt freer to speak their minds. Today, everyone is much more cautious — a reflection of the more corporate nature of both visual effects and filmmaking, I suppose. Too bad.

    Cheers,

    Don

  2. Thanks for those insights, Don. Your article does indeed portray Tom Naud as keen to promote his new and ‘secret’ process – it’s amusing to picture you spending a day observing and managing to work it all out! The way it’s described, I imagine setting up an Introvision shot must have been quite time-consuming – problematic to have the talent hanging around while you’re frantically trying to get the mattes to line up?

    As far as the candidness of the articles goes, I suppose the whole ‘making of’ business has become just that – a business. I don’t know, but I’d imagine it’s harder for publications like Cinefex – respected though it is in the industry – to get candid access to visual effects now the marketing departments have such an interest.

    Best wishes
    Graham

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