Revisiting Cinefex (14): The Right Stuff, Brainstorm, Twilight Zone

Cinefex 14Watch your fingers – the front cover of Cinefex #14 features a sizzling still of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule experiencing re-entry in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff. The capsule’s a model and the flames are backlit nitrogen gas, but it still looks like hot stuff.

The inside front cover shows a helicopter lifting the model capsule’s full-scale counterpart out of the ocean after splashdown. Inside this issue are three articles spanning the more-or-less standard 72 pages.

  • Low-Tech Effects – The Right Stuff (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Brainstorm – Getting the Cookie at the End (article by Brad Munson)
  • Twilight Zone: The Movie – Shadows and Substance (article by Don Shay and Paul Sammon)

In Cinefex issue #13, we learned about the remarkable variety of techniques developed by Industrial Light & Magic for Return of the Jedi. Issue #14, with its trio of dramatically different behind-the-scenes stories, proves there was at least as much diversity going on outside the walls of ILM as within.

With The Right Stuff, we find ourselves in the company of a VFX team that actively turned its back on the ‘ILM way’, abandoning motion control and travelling mattes in favour of seat-of-the-pants techniques that included hurling model rocket-planes out of windows. Brainstorm took a more cerebral approach, using what might be the most complex animation camera ever built to paint extraordinary images of the afterlife using pure light. Then there’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which the animatronic monsters more or less took over the asylum.

The Right Stuff

The visual effects for The Right Stuff were created by the newly-formed USFX, an off-shoot of animation specialists Colossal Pictures. At the helm was Gary Gutierrez. While director Philip Kaufman was shooting first unit photography, USFX started producing footage using motion control equipment rented from Richard Edlund. But Kaufman didn’t like the overly-choreographed results and pulled the plug. ‘Gary [did] what he was supposed to do – hire the best people in the field,’ Kaufman says. ‘That was his first mistake … he had become trapped in the state of the art.’

rc14rsKaufman’s vision was clear and uncompromising: he wanted things to look real. ‘The work done by … ILM is the best that can be done,’ he explains, ‘but even so the ships have a certain lightness about them. Real planes … just don’t act that way.’ Gutierrez took the temporary shut-down on the chin; he was in fact glad of the opportunity to ‘start listening to my own reflexes and to ignore what had become a classical motion control approach.’

It was at this point that USFX started experimenting. Really experimenting.

Eisenberg’s article takes great delight in describing the ‘variety of unconventional approaches’ explored by Gutierrez and his team, including ‘riding a wheelchair past the models at different speeds’, suspending model aircraft from helium balloons and, yes, throwing those same models out of top floor windows. To recreate the effect of a space capsule’s heat-shield melting during re-entry, they considered casting the metallic surface using frozen mercury, then warming it back to room temperature. When they realised how toxic mercury was, there was a suggestion they use ice cream instead! ‘The amount of delight [Kaufman] got from the success of any shot,’ Gutierrez remarks, ‘was directly proportional to how funky the method that accomplished it.’

For the flying sequences, in-camera effects were the order of the day. Planes ran on wires and cameras were worked by hand using telephoto lenses to accentuate the shake. However, for some shots – like views of the Earth from space – the team had to resort to opticals. Even here, USFX kept pushing the envelope … and having a sly dig at ILM. ‘When you go to Star Wars and look at their planet paintings,’ remarks artist Jena Holman, ‘they’re dead.’

The Right Stuff‘s planetscapes were eventually farmed out to experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson. Kaufman likens Belson’s studio to ‘a medieval alchemist’s laboratory.’ All we get from Belson himself is the rather vague comment that he uses ‘mechanical and optical effects’ on an ‘optical bench.’ It was at this point in the article that I experienced a rare occurrence: Cinefex failing to deliver the details I craved (due not to any failing in Eisenberg’s journalism, I’m sure, but to Belson’s insistence on keeping his secrets).

The Right Stuff was well-received critically and won four technical Oscars. Although it was released theatrically in the UK, it came and went fairly quickly, so that I ended up watching it for the first time on TV some years later (recut as a two-part mini-series as I recall). Maybe the British public was less than enthralled by this epic chapter of quintessentially American history. Me, I loved it.


Much of Brad Munson’s Brainstorm article is devoted to the centrepiece ‘Death Tape’ sequence – a recording made by a revolutionary new brain-scanning device that shows the transcendental journey taken by Lillian Reynolds (played by Louise Fletcher) after her death. The techniques used to create the sequence were highly technical – almost the antithesis of the gritty effects Kaufman and Gutierrez had worked so hard to achieve. The article does still mention grit, however – namely that displayed by director Douglas Trumbull in finally bringing to the screen a film that seemed doomed from the start.

rc14bInitially, Trumbull saw Brainstorm as the perfect vehicle for his new Showscan process, which involved upping the frame-rate of motion picture film from the standard 24 to 60 frames per second. According to Munson, test reels of the process ‘suggested a sense of dimensionality and viewer involvement that was altogether extraordinary’. Trumbull’s concept was to shoot most of the film at regular speed, switching to 60-fps for any shots representing the POV of a character wearing the futuristic brain-recording device.

Unfortunately, Paramount balked at the cost of equipping theatres with new projection equipment, prompting a move to MGM and the abandonment of Showscan altogether (the novel POV concept remained intact, but would now be executed by switching from flat 35mm to 70mm widescreen at the appropriate moments). Worse was to come when, near the end of principal photography, the film’s star Natalie Wood died suddenly in a boating accident. Munson chronicles the extraordinary progress of the film from this nadir to the moment when, a whole year after MGM called a halt on the project, insurers Lloyds of London actually put up an extra $3.5 million to see the film finished.

The film was back on track, but visual effects supervisor Alison Yerxa still had her work cut out realising the pivotal Death Tape sequence. As director, Trumbull had taken a step back from his usual effects role, but he was still the source of all the ideas. ‘It was all in Doug’s head,’ comments effects cameraman Don Baker. And Trumbull himself laments the difficulty of communicating his concepts: ‘Drawings were always inadequate … Verbal explanations were also difficult … When you get into the zone where nothing makes sense – nothing makes sense.’

Luckily for us, Cinefex is here to bring order to the confusion. That means a detailed study of Compsy (Computerised Multiplane System). This horizontal automated animation stand, first used to create the V’ger cloud sequence for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was upgraded and worked almost to death to create Brainstorm’s ground-breaking effects.

For the final ‘heaven’ scenes, for example, Compsy was used to create in-camera composites of ‘four to six streams of angels each … comprised of at least 120 separate images.’ The workloads described here are staggering. Not to mention the maths. Richard Hollander describes how ‘each angel had its own individual motion, and then we’d have a total move on top of that.’ It’s reassuring to know that, for all the high technology and number crunching, Compsy only survived its ordeal thanks to ‘a bit of double-sided tape on the bottom of the camera’s inner casing to catch all the film dust.’

It wasn’t all Compsy, of course. Brainstorm also featured Trumbull’s trademark slit-scan photography, some blink-and-you-miss-them matte paintings, and a gruesome organic representation of hell featuring tortured souls and calves’ brains, all of which are covered by the article. We also learn about Jerry Morawski’s stunning light sculpture techniques, which provided the ethereal glowing backgrounds to the heaven sequence.

It’s this use of light I remember most clearly about the effects in Brainstorm. For all the science involved, there’s a real sense of Trumbull and his team as artists working not with paint on canvas but with light on the motion picture screen. The results, combined with James Horner’s fabulous score, create real movie magic. There’s no doubt the film isn’t what it might have been (no surprise given its troubled history) but it’s testament to Trumbull’s determination that it’s as good as it is. And, in the moments when it really takes off, it’s nothing short of dazzling.

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Much of this issue’s final article – Twilight Zone: The Movie – is devoted to the film’s two effects-heavy stories: Joe Dante’s It’s a Good Life and George Miller’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

Rob Bottin was responsible for the creature effects in the Good Life segment. When discussing with Bottin how to tell the story of a boy with psychic powers whose cartoon obsession literally comes to life, Dante asked, ‘Do you have any bizarre things you’d like to do?’ Bottin duly came up with a ton of outlandish gags inspired by Tex Avery cartoons. Cue a stream of anecdotes about Bottin’s animatronic marvels, the best of which relates to the monstrous rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, the first incarnation of which was filled with helium gas. Thanks to an adhesive malfunction, the giant inflatable was last seen ‘drifting away over Van Nuys.’ (For all I know, there may still be a reward for its return, so if anybody out there’s seen it …)

rc14tzThere’s something deliciously unrestrained about Bottin’s imagination, and about the way it’s realised. Yes, there are complex mechanics inside his cartoon creatures, but he’s not afraid to resort to low-tech solutions like ‘wires on fishing poles.’ He also understands how the camera can help: the rabbit effect exploited multiple frame rates in a single shot – ‘[actor] Kevin McCarthy did a good job compensating for the speed changes’) – and the manic shot of a Tasmanian Devil-inspired character spinning through – and tearing apart – a living room is so effective that, as Bottin says, ‘Everyone thinks it’s an optical,’ even though it was achieved entirely in-camera.

The Nightmare segment features another kind of creature: an airborne gremlin created by Craig Reardon. We get good detail about the construction and mechanics of the monster – more in-depth than in the Bottin section. There are also the familiar stories of on-set circumstances contriving to undermine the effects artist’s work – specifically George Miller’s decision to shoot his segment in a rainstorm. Despite Miller’s early promise that the monster wouldn’t get wet – which gave Reardon the confidence to use foam rubber flesh – when it came to the shoot ‘it was fire hoses and Ritter fans just soaking this suit every time you saw it.’

Choice trivia from the article: Reardon hired his mum for the arduous job of individually Supergluing quills on to the gremlin’s head; and (my favourite) Miller had enormous fun shooting an ‘inflatable eyeball’ appliance for a subliminal cut of actor John Lithgow’s eyes literally popping out of his head. ‘On several takes,’ says Reardon, ‘the eyes got as big as baseballs! People were dying with laughter on the set.’

The pictures

There are plenty of eye-popping pictures in Cinefex #14. Stand-outs for me include the shot of Gary Gutierrez’s crew filming a model X-1 suspended on wires from a crane outdoors. Off to the side, a bunch of guys are up a ladder using a PT boat fogger to direct a jet of vapour past the plane. The Brainstorm article is full of stunning frame enlargements showing angels and memory bubbles, but the one I’m picking out is a discarded shot of Louise Fletcher that’s been distorted by an optical effect resembling a Fresnel lens (Trumbull judged it ‘too confusing’ and it never made the final cut). And from Twilight Zone, it has to be the quintessential behind-the-scenes creature photo showing Rob Bottin with his arm planted firmly in the nether regions of one of his bizarre animatronic creations, while his cable-controlling crew wait hunched in the background, ready to bring the monster to life.

This whole business of revisiting Cinefex is inevitably full of nostalgia. This issue in particular made me very aware of the passage of time. As I write, only a few months have passed since the media started talking about Natalie Wood’s death again, thirty years on. And, while Showscan never made it to the theatres, we’ll soon be watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit running at 48 frames per second. Digital technology has finally made Douglas Trumbull’s dream a reality.

The films covered here are all solid affairs, crewed by filmmakers committed to retaining their integrity against all the odds: industry preconceptions, financial challenges, studio politics and, yes, even death. Despite everything, on these particular productions it seems that nobody sold out. It’s a shame, therefore, that the three films under discussion seem to have drifted into that shadowy part of the collective memory where, if you ask the average Joe about them, the best you’ll get is a quizzical look and a remark like, ‘Yeah, I think I might have seen that once.’

However, for the fans (and if you’re reading this you’re probably in that category), these films continue to burn as bright as a Compsy animation effect. Mind you, nobody’s perfect: in preparing this review, I had to consult my oracular buddy Phil Guest about whether the UK release of Brainstorm really did feature that aspect ratio switcheroo (it did, by the way) or whether my mind was just playing tricks on me. Memory, like celluloid, is prone to crumbling away.

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

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