Revisiting Cinefex (10): Poltergeist and Firefox

Cinefex-10-Poltergeist-FirefoxThe cover of Cinefex #10 knows what scares you: it’s the Hallway Beast from Tobe Hooper’s 1982 horror film Poltergeist. Turn the page and you’ll find a still from Clint Eastwood’s high-tech thriller Firefox, showing the full-scale MiG-31 aircraft being stolen from its Russian hangar. There are two articles in this issue, spanning the regular 72 pages.

  • Poltergeist – Stilling the Restless Animus (article by Paul Mandell)
  • Mach 5 Effects – The Apogee of Firefox (article by Paul M. Sammon)

Poltergeist

Steven Spielberg was busy in the early eighties. While wrapping Raiders and preparing for E.T., he somehow found time to produce Poltergeist. Watching the film, you could be forgiven for thinking he directed it too. As Mandell says in this article, ‘Despite Tobe Hooper’s titular role as director, the film abounds with evidence of Spielberg’s personal touch.’ Indeed, Spielberg’s dominating presence is evidenced in the article’s text: for every one mention of Hooper’s name, Spielberg gets at least ten.

rc10pPoltergeist is a chaotic film. It’s packed full of unforgettable stuff – and some truly classic scenes – but somehow it doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. The article gives the impression the production was pretty chaotic too. A compressed schedule meant ILM’s Richard Edund and Tom Smith had to cook up their effects budget blind. And Spielberg’s vision was so wide-ranging – and changeable – that almost every visual effect meant breaking new ground. Art director Nilo Rodis-Jamero comments, ‘most of the effects had never been done before … Every shot was R&D time.’

Spielberg’s fertile imagination not only fueled the movie’s startling visuals, but also gave rise to what Lorne Peterson describes as ‘tension-relieving laughfests’. During breaks on the E.T. set, Spielberg ‘would send video cassettes to ILM elaborating on the [Poltergeist] storyboards’. Peterson’s description of Spielberg’s one-man shows (often including hand-puppets) is a scream.

Mandell’s article moves smoothly from one major effect to the next, starting with practical effects like the rotating bedroom set on its giant gimbal rig and the corpses that rise out of the ground. Grotesquely, these were built around real human skeletons imported from India, a country which at the time was (and may still be for all I know) ‘the only country in the world that will allow [their] export.’

The skull used for the infamous ‘guy tears his face off in the mirror’ scene, however, was a fake one. Craig Reardon built an animatronic rig covered in gelatin-based ‘flesh’ … and guess who was on set ready to rip it apart? Yes, the hands you see in the movie are those of Mr Spielberg himself. It seems he brought his sense of humour with him on the day of the shoot: Reardon tells us how, when they were finished, Spielberg ‘stood up into the shot and did a kind of comedy routine, feeding the thing part of its own face.’ Reardon is also particularly proud of the fact that Tobe Hooper, on seeing the face-tearing shot in dailies, promptly threw up.

Having covered the physical effects, Mandell moves on to mattes, miniatures and opticals. Some Cinefex articles follow a film’s chronology, describing the effects in sequence as they crop up in the story. Here, it’s all out of sequence, and I for one prefer it that way – after all, it’s more representative of the way films are shot. In the case of Poltergeist, it also helps communicate that sense of organised chaos I mentioned earlier.

In this section Mike Pangrazio tells us about his meticulous matte paintings (some of which I didn’t spot when I first saw the movie, and I’m an inveterate matte-spotter). Gary Platek tells us how to create a tornado in a water tank, while Richard Edlund laments that ‘nobody sees our tornado dissipate because Dana’s dress flips up in that shot, and that’s all anybody looks at.’

Read on and the sheer scale of ILM’s undertaking becomes apparent. The flapping books in the bedroom full of spinning toys posed unique challenges, finally solved by wrangling the books by hand in front of a bluescreen, shot by a motion control camera running data from an on-set field recorder. Talk about every trick in the book. The staircase ghosts were actors on wires shot in reverse and enhanced with effects animation. There were shock waves and slime and lasers and one hell of a lot of rotoscoping.

The giant throat that opens up in the childrens’ bedroom was $100,000-worth of half-size model matted into the live action set. Talking about these shots, optical supervisor Bruce Nicholson comments, ‘there was a lot of trial and error … we actually had to opaque or vaseline-out certain areas of the matte edge.’ I watched the movie recently and you know what? Those shots still look stunning.

The throat model, incidentally, was a real monster. Lorne Peterson describes it as ‘this incredible construction of bunjy cords, lights, gels and pipes.’ The controls resembled those of a pipe organ: ‘you could get it to undulate, or play out one gross, sequential movement, merely by running your finger across the board.’ You won’t be surprised to learn that Steven Spielberg took over those controls for a while. According to Peterson, Spielberg described that particular visit to ILM as ‘the best day I’ve ever had.’

Nor will you be surprised to learn that the house implosion at the climax of the movie involved more judicious use of those ever-popular bunjy cords. Ah, what would the effects business have been without such devices, back in those halcyon days?

Firefox

I remember awaiting the theatrical release of Firefox with some excitement (I’d read and loved the book) and being a bit underwhelmed when I finally got to see it. Much as I’m a fan of Eastwood, I don’t think the film’s dated too well. The same could be said for the film’s optical work although, when you consider the mountain John Dykstra and his team at Apogee had to climb, there’s a lot still to admire about it.

rc10fApogee weren’t Eastwood’s first choice. The actor/director started out talking to Douglas Trumbull at EEG. It was during this early development stage that Greg Jein produced a slew of initial designs and storyboards. According to Jein, Eastwood had ‘strong beliefs on the look of the fictional MiG-31’ – in particular, he wanted the aircraft to be shiny.

When Apogee took up the reins, the aircraft designs were developed further, partly because the new crew planned to create miniatures that actually flew. Always the innovator, Dykstra also saw an opportunity to use a system he and his eight partners had been developing called INS: ‘a method of recording the angular position and rate of change of a genuine aircraft.’ The plan was to use INS to gather flight data from the aircraft being used to shoot the sky background plates, then use that data to programme the motion control cameras on the miniature stage.

INS was clearly another kind of field recorder, performing the same function as the recorders being used by ILM to store camera movement on the Poltergeist set. Having created programmable cameras capable of subtle, repeatable movements (the first operational example of which was the Dykstraflex used on Star Wars) the industry was clearly now seeking ways to integrate those cameras with the real world.

By all accounts, the data-capture system worked extremely well, although the frame-rate adjustments necessary to ramp up to the MiG-31’s top speed of Mach 5 sound tricky, involving mechanical switches and potentiometers and servos linked to the on-board camera’s lens and shutter. Even when they’d got that working, when they got the data back to the motion control stage they had to convert it to suit the particular angle they wanted for the miniature MiG-31. Mat Beck recalls, ‘a fair amount of trigonometry’ and ‘hard, hard math.’ I daresay a modern computer would manage all these tasks without dropping stride.

The Apogee team also used what they dubbed a ‘motion control field unit’. This was essentially a portable motion control system used to film moving background plates. A variant on the field recorder concept, if you like. This came into its own with the crucial take-off scene, which sees the miniature MiG-31 matted into a panning live-action plate, and which still holds up pretty well today.

Regarding the miniature photography, Apogee’s Roger Dorney talks at length about the innovative UV ‘reverse bluescreen’ method used to generate mattes of the aircraft in flight. Eastwood’s insistence on the MiG-31 having a shiny finish meant traditional bluescreen was a no-no (reflections on the glossy miniature would contaminate the matte, making it unusable).

The solution was to spray the miniature aircraft with a coat of UV paint. After shooting the beauty pass, they then shot a matte pass under UV light. The UV paint, invisible under the normal stage lights, glowed brightly enough against black for the optical department to be able to extract a matte. And no reflections. According to John Sullivan, the technique had an additional benefit: ‘The reverse bluescreen process saved us an enormous amount of time.’

Sammon describes all sorts of other tricks used by Apogee to integrate the miniature aircraft with the real-world environment. There was much debate about angular lens displacements and speed curves, most of which leaves me scratching my head. If this issue’s Poltergeist article presents the effects business as a craftsman’s paradise, the Firefox piece is a reminder of just how much science is involved too.

If you want to learn how to film miniature helicopters, or build a model ice flow, this article is the place to come. According to Sammon, however, the ‘incredible verisimilitude of Firefox’s cockpit scenes [are] perhaps the film’s single greatest technical achievement.’ I don’t disagree, and John Dykstra seems pleased with these particular effects too, taking great pride in describing the full-scale cockpit mockup surrounded by moveable lights and backed up with Don Trumbull’s portable front projection unit.

Overall, though, Dykstra’s view of Apogee’s work on the film is muted. ‘There are some shots that weren’t as good as they could have been,’ he says. ‘Perhaps I got too carried away with staying far away from the planes.’ On the other hand, he has nothing but praise for his director: ‘Eastwood’s a sharp person and one helluva filmmaker. Any time he wants us to work with him again, he’s got us.’

The pictures

Scanning through the pictures in Cinefex #10, I see plenty of evidence in the Poltergeist article of those ubiquitous bunjy cords. My favourite the one of Spielberg sat on the floor with his hands raised high above his head, tearing into that gore-covered mechanical skull. On his face is a look of devilish glee, as he watches his performance on an off-camera monitor. As for the Firefox pictures, well, as a kid I had a bedroom filled with plastic Airfix kits, so I’m naturally drawn to the shot of nine beautiful aircraft models, each one subtley different, built by Greg Jein during the initial design phase. I guarantee you won’t find a cooler squadron of make-believe MiGs anywhere.

Cinefex #10 shows us that, back in 1982, ILM was boiling with creativity and, yes, slime. At the same time, Apogee was ferociously calculating and innnovating. Just when you thought every new variation on the matte process had been invented, Dykstra’s team came up with UV reverse bluescreen. Just when you thought Edlund’s crew had reached the bottom of their barrel of effects techniques, they rolled out a new barrel and pulled out a whole load more.

Craft, science and imagination. It’s a potent mix, isn’t it?

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

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