A trio of Imperial AT-AT walkers graces the front cover of Cinefex #2, in a now-familiar airbrushed publicity still from The Empire Strikes Back. The inside front cover shows the incredibly detailed Ocean Park fairground miniature built by Greg Jein for Stephen Spielberg’s 1941. The magazine’s 72 pages feature three articles:
- Of Ice Planets, Bog Planets, and Cities in the Sky (interview by Don Shay)
- Greg Jein – Miniature Giant (article by Brad Munson)
- Star Trekking at Apogee with John Dykstra (interview by Don Shay)
The Empire Strikes Back
It’s hard for me to read a 1980 piece about Empire without recalling that summer when I queued eagerly for hours outside Bournemouth’s Gaumont cinema and still wasn’t first through the door to see the movie (I think I was second or third). It’s also reassuring to note that, for all the behind-the-scenes information we’ve been fed by Lucasfilm since then – not least JW Rinzler’s excellent The Making of The Empire Strikes Back – there’s still a wealth of detail in this issue of Cinefex that I haven’t seen documented anywhere else.
The Empire article is an interview by Don Shay with VFX maestro Richard Edlund, and begins with Edlund describing how he and a handful of other Star Wars veterans effectively recreated effects house ILM from scratch. This involved – amongst many other things – building a new VistaVision camera and optical printer. Edlund’s description of the printer is pretty hardcore and while I understand in principle the advantages of having four heads (meaning you can run a complete comp of two shots plus mattes in one pass) I start to get lost when it gets into the really sticky details. Being a VFX geek I don’t care. This is the kind of classic Cinefex detail I used to pore over as a teenager, desperate to understand all these magical processes so I could try and recreate them in the 8mm movies I and my friends were making in our spare time.
Then Edlund gives us the skinny about the opening shot of the tauntaun running in the snow. When I first saw it in the cinema, I’d assumed the landscape was a model. The article reveals it was actually a live-action helicopter shot, with the tauntaun tracked and comped in. Motion-tracking is so commonplace now it’s easy to forget what a big deal it was back then. Edlund describes the painstaking process of plotting the camera move manually on an Oxberry animation stand. I can only begin to imagine how difficult that must have been when the background was an almost featureless snow plain.
Equally painstaking was the famous asteroid field chase. After detailing the way each shot was built up ship by ship, Edlund dutifully does his maths and tells us that the layering process could easily result in 120 separate pieces of film, all of which needed to be combined into one by the optical department. As he remarks, ‘the poor guy who runs the optical printer has really got to love his work.’
Edlund comes across as a methodical, serious-minded man who loves his work. There are no anecdotes in this interview, just the facts, ma’am. Also, it’s clear he sets himself high standards. When Shay asks him how he’d rate the effects of Empire on a scale of 1 to 10, Edlund comes up with a rather modest 6.5. And there’s a nice exchange where the interviewee turns the tables and asks Shay, ‘Was there anything in the picture that you didn’t buy because of the effects?’ This leads to a debate about transparent ships and how Cloud City might have looked better with models rather than matte paintings. I get the feeling Edlund was really keen to know what hadn’t worked, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he left the interview with his own set of notes on areas for improvement!
As well as exploring the effects work on specific films, from time to time Cinefex also runs articles on individual artists and technicians. Here it’s the turn of modelmaker Greg Jein, who began his career on such low budget projects as the adult parody Flesh Gordon and the cult classic Dark Star. The articles explains how a chance encounter with Doug Trumbull at a Star Trek convention led eventually to Jein building model landscapes for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Mention Close Encounters and most people think of UFOs. For me, the effects were just as remarkable in their creation of real-world night scenes. That might not sound like much, but I don’t recall any film before Close Encounters that paid such loving attention to night skies and starlit countryside. Back in the 70s you were more likely to get dodgy blue-filtered day-for-night. There’s no doubt Jein’s incredibly realistic miniature landscapes played a large part in creating the unforgettable Close Encounters night-time atmosphere.
What comes through again and again in the article is Jein’s remarkable attention to detail. He creates tiny Coke cans to sit in the corners of his miniature sets, to fool the audience into thinking it can’t be a model because ‘nobody would bother to put a Coke can in a miniature set’. Long hours and obsessive detailing lead inevitably to in-jokes – the article reveals that the Close Encounters mothership not only has a tiny Artoo-Detoo hidden in its superstructure, but also a VW bus, a TIE fighter, a graveyard, a silhouette of Mickey Mouse …
The article also covers one of Spielberg’s forgotten movies: 1941. It’s interesting to read about it again as the movie gets zero coverage these days, and is generally regarded as a flop. For 1941, Jein created enormous miniatures of Ocean Park and Hollywood Boulevard for Spielberg to destroy. The account of the day they shot the runaway carousel wheel is harrowing. The set-up was so complex and the model so fragile it could only be shot once. Everything went beautifully … only Spielberg decided afterwards that, after the wheel had shot off the end of the pier and into the ocean, he wanted the carousel lights to remain on underwater. So they had rerig and do it again. Jein relates several other incidents where his director’s demands led to much gnashing of teeth. There’s no doubt Spielberg was under huge pressure with this movie and its runaway budget – maybe it showed in his temper. On the other hand, I guess the model department is always under pressure to deliver the impossible overnight.
The article concludes with Jein’s work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and his additional models for the Close Encounters: Special Edition. Inside the latter’s mothership interior are more of Jein’s trademark gags, including some grazing cows, a scene from The Exorcist and a dead mouse. These modelmakers are a strange breed …
Star Trek – The Motion Picture
Finally we come to Don Shay’s interview with John Dykstra. It’s interesting to compare this to the Edlund interview. I enjoyed flicking back and forth between the two, comparing and contrasting the men and their work. Where Edlund appears calm and measured, Dykstra comes across as very much the showman. As a result, the interview is laced with the kind of anecdotes the fans love.
The work under discussion is that done by Dykstra’s new company Apogee for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the man doesn’t mince his words when expressing his opinion about the direction he was working under: ‘… all the [camera] moves were pretty ponderous – bordering on lethargic’. On a more positive note, Dykstra takes great delight in describing the gigantic Tesla coil they used to create the lightning effects around the Klingon ships in the opening sequence. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he says, ‘that coil we’ve got is a big mother – it’ll zap the living poop out of you.’
Like so many people in the field of visual effects, Dykstra is an innovator (there’s a reason the motion control camera built at the original ILM for Star Wars was called the DykstraFlex). He was clearly brimming with new ideas for Star Trek; some worked, others didn’t. If the Tesla coil came up trumps, his idea of lighting all the spaceships with a scanning laser to end up with ‘infinite shadow detail’ turned out to be a non-starter.
As with the Edlund interview, there’s a lot of talk about optical printers. It’s clear from Dykstra’s articulate and detailed description that the compositing process is more than just a science. Apart from the effects of over- or under-exposure on the size of a matte element, the way acetate film stock behaves differently to mylar and the relative merits of any number of unfathomable processes like picking wedges, doing sync laps and deciding whether or not to use a thin holdout … it’s no wonder Dykstra concludes that optical printing is ‘as artful a craft, easily, as original photography’.
There’s more innovation on show in Dykstra’s approach to the energy probe sequence for Star Trek. His challenge was to remove the mobile rig used to create interactive lighting on the set and replace it with a shimmering column of light. The solution involved reprojecting the original photography using a flexible mylar screen, which could be distorted in such a way as to warp the unwanted rig out of view. The animated shimmer was then superimposed over the top. Apparently, if you look closely at the finished sequence, you can just see the rig operator’s elbow sticking out from time to time!
Overall then, it’s a good and varied issue. My favourite picture from the Empire interview is on page 13: Edlund, Hirsch, Berg and Gawley crowded round a large AT-AT model on a snowscape set. The walker, rigged to fall in front of a high-speed camera, is hanging from a wire like a limp and rather sorry-looking marionette. In the Greg Jein article, on page 31, there’s a nice shot of the CE3K Crescendo Summit set – a large forced-perspective landscape model that just looks plain real. There a heaps of good behind-the-scenes Star Trek pictures in the Dykstra interview – the one that jumps out for me is on page 69, in which a sculpture of Ilia is has been completely enveloped in arc lightning from the Tesla coil.
Cinefex is known for its detailed reporting. But this issue proves it’s also about personalities. In 1980, we were still riding the crest of the Star Wars wave, when Cinefex, Cinefantastique, Fangoria, Starlog and Starburst all hit the news stands. Suddenly there was a market for this stuff. Before this era, visual effects technicians were just back-room boys. That’s not to say there weren’t famous names in those earlier years – Willis O’Brien, Albert Whitlock and Ray Harryhausen to name just three – but now, for the first time, these people were becoming stars in their own right. These days, when the VFX supervisors know they’ll be appearing in a behind-the-scenes documentary when the movie comes out on Blu-ray, they have to pay as much attention to how they look on camera as they do to the effects they create. Ah, but maybe that’s an illusion too – these guys are all smoke and mirrors, you know …
And I’ll leave you with one final thought: when it comes to ‘forgotten’ films like 1941, where else are you going to find a published record of the visual effects process than in your back-issue of Cinefex?
- Richard Edlund
- Greg Jein at IMDB
- John Dykstra at IMDB
- Listen to Episode 2 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.