Revisiting Cinefex (12): Something Wicked, Stop-Motion and Dream Quest

Cinefex-12There’s a creepy beauty on the cover of Cinefex #12, but there’s a fair chance you won’t recognise her. She’s the Dust Witch from the all-but-forgotten 1983 Disney film Something Wicked This Way Comes. On the inside cover is a location shot of Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival from the same movie. The main body of the issue contains three articles spanning 72 pages.

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – Adding the Magic (article by Brad Munson)
  • Stop-Frame Fever, Post-Animation Blues (article by Paul Mandell)
  • A Dream in the Making (article by Marc A. Richardson)

I have a confession to make. I never bought Cinefex Issue #12. The copy I’m looking at was kindly sent to me by Don Shay, whose generosity has filled in the odd gap in my collection. This copy is pristine compared to its scruffy counterparts (don’t flinch, keen collector – as I’ve already mentioned, I like things on my bookshelf to look well-thumbed). This time round, therefore, I’m not so much revisiting Cinefex as scoping it for the very first time.

This slight sense of disconnection continues as I consider the first article, which is about Something Wicked This Way Comes, a film I’ve never actually seen. Nor have I read the novel on which it’s based, which is surprising as the author Ray Bradbury has always been a favourite of mine (two enormous volumes of his short stories sit on those bookshelves I mentioned, and I can assure you they’re very scruffy indeed).

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The visual effects for Something Wicked were, it seems, something of an afterthought. The film was in production at Disney concurrently with Tron and the launch of EPCOT, and it got rather left by the wayside. According to Disney effects supervisor Lee Dyer, ‘we just couldn’t accommodate everyone.’ The film’s director, Jack Clayton, completed a final cut on what was essentially an effects-free movie, at which point the studio executives brought in Dyer and his team to ‘add magic.’ Dyer comments that Clayton, on reading the list of suggested changes, ‘just about went through the ceiling.’

rc12swFor this reason, Munson’s article is not just an account of how the visual effects were achieved on this film, but an intriguing record of what was discarded along the way. For example, the text describes a number of abandoned scenes including ‘a large group of fully-realized circus freaks’, an electrocution scene that employed a giant Tesla coil, a giant mechanical hand and ‘a witch with a walnut face.’ It sounds like there was a whole other movie lying on the cutting room floor.

It’s clear, however, that Lee Dyer did rather more than just ditch unwanted sequences and replace them with fancy effects. Like all good VFX supervisors, he concerned himself first and foremost with the storytelling. For example, he clarified the role of the Tom Fury character by recommending he be introduced earlier in the story, and he imposed logic on the climactic carousel sequence by personifying – through visual effects – the opposing forces of Good and Evil. According to Munson, Dyer saw his role as ‘imparting a clear continuity through the use of special effects.’

As well as delving into the politics of film-making, Munson’s article does of course let us in on plenty of trade secrets. There’s the opening sequence in which Mr Dark’s carnival builds itself out of thin air – a dreamy effect achieved by MAGI with ‘a special new hybrid system … that combines the complexity of computer animation with the changeable, more organic qualities of cel animation.’ It’s another insight into the early days of CG when, hot on the heels of Tron, animators were still fighting to shake off the curse of hard-edged vector geometry and drive the nascent technology into more organic territory. The quaintly retro name devised by MAGI for this latest technique was Synthavision, and I was interested to learn it had its roots in a version of Where The Wild Things Are made by a certain John Lasseter.

The Disney team found other ways to apply what they’d learned on Tron, laying animated light effects over live-action footage of Jonathan Pryce, for instance. When it came to the Dust Witch, they used an extension of this technique to create a transition from beautiful woman to ugly crone. The effect used multiple matte passes to add hollows, shadows and wrinkles to the actress’s face, an approach described by Munson as ‘a kind of electronic makeup’. Nowadays, digital prosthetics is a maturing discipline in its own right; those couple of shots in Something Wicked may well be where it all began.

I particularly enjoyed Jesse Silver’s reflections on matte painting. It seems there’s always something new to learn about this arcane craft, and here I learned about YCMs, which involve creating a separate black-and-white plate for each part of the print spectrum – just like channels in a modern-day Photoshop file. By juggling individual separations, the artist gains more control over the final colour balance. It’s riveting technical stuff, turned mischievously on its head when Silver describes a typical matte painting as ‘a pile of slop … carefully planned slop, of course.’

The article goes on to describe optical effects on a spinning carousel, the accelerated ageing of Mr Dark and the construction of countless mechanical tarantulas. It also tells us how to first build a gigantic miniature of a traveling carnival, and then smash it to smithereens. As Munson concludes, ‘virtually every conceivable aspect of special effects technology makes an appearance in [this film].’ At the end of what can’t have been an easy ride, Jack Clayton is quick to compliment his technical staff. ‘If I’d had Lee [Dyer] from the very beginning,’ he says, ‘a lot more of the subtleties would be there now.’

The last word is saved – appropriately – for Ray Bradbury, who remarks, ‘I often wonder … how it is that any film ever gets made … It looks easy, but it’s not.’ How true. And what a shame that some films, for all the hard work that go into them, simply get forgotten. Something Wicked would appear to be one of them. I know it tanked at the box office but, now I’ve read up on it, I’m going to have to track down a copy and decide for myself whether or not it deserved its fate.

Stop Frame Fever

This issue’s second article, written by Paul Mandell, cites 1981 as ‘a banner year for films featuring stop-motion visual effects’. It goes on to identify a different trend for 1982, namely the ‘discriminating usage [of animation] in smaller doses.’ In other words, after helping to deliver the showcase spectaculars of Clash of the Titans and The Empire Strikes Back, the industry’s key animators were back to odd-jobbing.

rc12ttOnce again, I guess, we’re talking about visual effects being called in at the eleventh hour to patch things up. With Something Wicked This Way Comes, Lee Dyer took that challenge and ran with it. Others weren’t so lucky. When he was called to work on The Howling, Dave Allen faced endless trials: turning full-scale mechanical werewolf concepts into practical stop-motion puppets, matching the tricky firelight and fog from the stage photography, not to mention having almost all his work deleted from the final cut.

It’s the same sorry tale with Randall William Cook and his work on John Carpenter’s The Thing. In keeping with Rob Bottin’s bizarre animatronic creations for which the film is justly famous, the ‘Blairmonster’ they were hired to produce incorporated tentacles, human heads and a bug mouth. To cap it all, a dog had to burst out of its stomach. The incredibly complex armature was built by Ernest D. Farino, who describes the immense challenge laconically as ‘an interesting situation.’ Cook’s team produced five cuts in all, only two of which made the final movie. Carpenter’s view was that ‘the animation and the full-scale mechanicals just didn’t work well together.’

I tend to agree with Carpenter. When that animated tentacle whips out of the hole in the floor and snags the detonator, it pulls you right out of the film at a critical moment. It’s not that the animation’s any less successful than Bottin’s mechanical effects, but the reality already established by those effects throughout the rest of the film is at odds with the slightly-strobing, slightly-too-crisp reality of the stop-motion.

It must have felt like a punch to the gut when those shots got canned. But if there’s anyone capable of taking such punches, it would seem to be Randall William Cook. With good grace, he calls John Carpenter a ‘very generous guy to work for’. And he sounds jovial when he describes his contribution to the low-budget film Q: The Winged Serpent as ‘an aesthetic crime.’ In contrast to the other films discussed in the article, however, Q used ‘every foot of animation Cook and Allen could devise.’

Other animation snippets covered here include Dave Allen’s extraordinary undertaking for The Hunger: a seven-second cut of the decaying body of a rhesus monkey that took him a staggering nine days to shoot, ‘withering the flesh and picking away at it one frame at a time.’ Then there’s Steve Archer’s bravery in tackling the animation of a crystal spider traversing a spindly web for Krull. This is a pot-pourri of an article, and a handy reminder that, back in the 1980s, there was still a percentage of tricky shots for which the only solution was a stop-motion effect.

Dream Quest

Throughout the first three years of Cinefex‘s life, the same names keep cropping up: Edlund, Trumbull, Muren, Dykstra … However, Marc A. Richardson’s article about the up-and-coming visual effects company Dream Quest – with its buoyant ‘new kids on the block’ angle – reminds us that directors don’t always hire the usual suspects.

Actually, the ‘new kids’ thing proved problematic for the six young partners in their new venture. According to Scott Squires, when pitching to Columbia for the effects work on John Badham’s Blue Thunder, the team elected to send in Tom Hollister simply because he was ‘bearded and at least looks older!’

The first part of Richardson’s article is a comprehensive guided tour of the Dream Quest facility. We get to peek round every door and into every department, from Rocco Gioffre’s matte painting loft to the self-contained processing lab downstairs. We get an inventory of practically every piece of equipment in the building, the layout of which Robert Swarthe describes as ‘maniacally clever.’

rc12btThe Blue Thunder effects described here are reminiscent of the work done by Apogee on Firefox. To create composites of F-16 fighters flying over Los Angeles, Dream Quest had to first generate stable background plates (achieved using a gyro-stabilised helicopter platform), then combine them with motion-control footage of model planes. Like Apogee, they solved the problem of bluescreen spill on shiny models by using ultraviolet lighting to generate the matte elements.

There are details too of Dream Quest’s earlier projects, including simulated computer graphics readouts for Blade Runner and a ground-breaking Lincoln Continental advert. For trivia fans, there’s the revelation that Scott Squires personally devised the cloud tank technique for creating cloud formations that rapidly became the industry standard, and the charming fact that Dream Quest’s version of an Oxberry animation stand was christened the Dingleberry.

Dream Quest had a good run of over twenty years before it was bought out by Disney. The company’s most famous alumnus is probably multi-Oscar-nominated Scott Squires, who left Dream Quest to work at ILM, recently produced jaw-dropping effects for Transformers: Dark of the Moon and is an active board member of the Visual Effects Society. I’ve included links to information on Scott and the other five Dream Quest partners at the foot of this post – it’s interesting to see what came of them all.

The pictures

Browsing back through this issue of Cinefex, I’ve picked out three pictures as being particularly memorable. In the Something Wicked article, there’s a shot of Bob Schiffer posing beside two of the artificially-aged Jonathan Pryce prosthetic faces he created for the film. Bob’s expression is amusingly matter-of-fact compared to the horrified looks worn by his fabricated companions. The stop-motion article features a great spread of pictures showing the Blairmonster puppet from The Thing, in particular that extraordinarily complicated armature. From the Dream Quest article I’ve picked out the photo on page 53, showing a snorkel camera tracking over a model Manhattan landscape for Escape from New York. The model is textured with geometric shapes and lines, and was shot in high-contrast black and white to mimic a 3D computer display, back in the days when they couldn’t get a computer to do that sort of thing.

Just as there are tent-pole movies, there are tent-pole issues of Cinefex. This isn’t one of them – it doesn’t feature articles about big movies like Blade Runner or E.T. But in some respects that makes it more interesting to read thirty years on. The lesser-known – or less successful – films offer just as much insight into the state of the art as the successful ones. Stories about pain are more compelling than stories where everything goes swimmingly. And contemporary studies of companies like Dream Quest tell us so much about the visual effects business as an evolving business. So thanks for sending me this one, Don. Rest assured it will soon be as scruffy as the others.

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

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