Revisiting Cinefex (15): Never Say Never Again, The Day After, Ralph Hammeras

Cinefex 15The name on the cover of Cinefex #15 is Bond – James Bond. To be precise, it’s Sean Connery in his final outing as the world’s most famous secret agent, facing his latest enemy Maximillian Largo through the holographic display of a tabletop video game. The still is from Irvin Kershner’s Never Say Never Again, something of a curiosity in the Bond canon (is it even considered canon?). On the inside cover is a fuzzy underwater still of the Nautilus model from Richard Fleischer’s 1954 adaption of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, followed by three articles spanning 68 pages.

  • David Dryer – Never Say Never Again (interview by Don Shay)
  • Waging a Four-Minute War (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Photographs and Memories – Ralph Hammeras (edited by Don Shay)

Hot on the heels of Cinefex issue #13 – which used transcriptions of phone conversations between Don Shay and ILM supervisors to report on the visual effects of Return of the Jedi – we get two more articles in which the stories come straight from the horse’s mouth. The first is an interview between Shay and effects supervisor David Dryer, discussing all things Bond. Rounding out the issue is an edited compilation of correspondence between Shay and one of the grand old men of Hollywood special effects, Ralph Hammeras. Slotted neatly between the two is Adam Eisenberg’s analysis of the 1983 TV mini-series The Day After.

Never Say Never Again

The effects for Never Say Never Again were handled by Apogee, but not before independent supervisor David Dryer found himself juggling a number of other options including setting up a shop at Elstree Studios in the UK, hiring ILM or going back to familiar ground with EEG (where he’d worked with Douglas Trumbull on Blade Runner).

rc15nsEven once the effects were placed, thanks to the complexities of a major international shoot, Dryer found himself moving around a lot. Constant travelling led to an memorable airport incident when customs officials discovered ‘plans for the B-1 [bomber] and the cruise missile and the hovercraft sandwiched in between some suits and jackets in my suitcase,’ Dryer explains. ‘It was a bit tense there for a while.’

Dryer describes the movie’s various flying sequences as being achieved through ‘pretty much standard motion control photography.’ Travelling mattes were generated using Apogee’s reverse bluescreen process – there’s no sense of anybody reinventing the wheel here. But there is some interesting talk about getting the different aircraft to fly convincingly, particularly the B-1, which in real life ‘flies more like a fighter than a heavy bomber’. They ended up having to cheat its apparent weight to make it look more lumbering – a perfect example of how sometimes the most accurately rendered visual effects can just look plain wrong.

If Never Say Never Again has a showcase effect, it’s probably the fictional Domination video game (a kind of souped-up version of Risk) played by Bond and Largo. Opposing game players sit in front of video consoles at either end of an ornate table, in the centre of which is a holographic screen relaying the graphics into 3D space.

To create the 3D graphics, Dryer’s team built wire models of all the various elements – such as a terrestrial globe – and illuminated them with laser light. Things got more complicated when they added slit-scan photography into the mix, not to mention a bewildering technique involving foam-core placeholders, scratched lines on blacked-out glass and multiple passes with a krypton laser. It sounds terribly complicated, especially today, when your average PC can probably deliver a similar effect when it’s just running a screensaver. Even for the period, it was a pretty extreme operation. Dryer calls it ‘a very laborious, time-consuming process’ and even Shay asks if ‘it might have been easier just to animate it.’

For all the attention given to making cruise missiles look real and getting the most out of some fairly impressive matte paintings, Dryer asserts his primary concern was that he ‘didn’t want to make anything look larger than life or phony.’ This being a Bond film, he and his team were ‘locked into reality constantly.’ Dryer compares these constraints to the artistic freedom he enjoyed on Blade Runner where, when faced with a problematic matte line, his response was: ‘Put a bright blue light in there and it’ll glow and everybody’ll love it.’

It’s a straight-talking interview with a straight-talking guy. As for the film itself, well it’s something of a curiosity, existing as it does outside the ‘official’ Broccoli/Saltzman series. There’s no doubt it wiped the floor with Octopussy, which came out the same year and gave both fans and the press the golden opportunity to debate the relative acting merits of Moore and Connery. I certainly enjoyed it at the time (it was a welcome antidote to the mire of Moore), but I still preferred the earlier Bonds, and remember coming out with the feeling that 007’s number was up. Thanks to the ongoing – and highly successful – reboots, it’s clear I was wrong.

Before I cover the rest of this issue, here’s your chance to have your own say about the visual effects of James Bond in this blog’s very first VFX poll!

The Day After

Waging a Four-Minute War marks the Cinefex‘s first coverage of a major TV production. For those who don’t recall it, The Day After was one of those ‘event’ mini-series that got everybody talking, even over here in the UK. Eisenberg summarises its premise neatly: ‘[It] follows the people working and living in Lawrence, Kansas, as they struggle to survive a [nuclear] missile attack on nearby Kansas City.’

rc15daThe article paints a compelling picture of the project’s early days, as effects supervisor Robert Blalack worked with illustrator Nikita Knatz to explore ways of portraying visually the horrific after-effects of a nuclear strike. Balancing the realities of war with the need to win ratings meant walking something of a tightrope. As original director Robert Butler (who was replaced during production by Nicholas Meyer) remarks, ‘We chose not to tell the whole truth … in an effort to be as gentle as we could with our audience so they wouldn’t turn off the set, and at the same time, still scare them.’

While budgetary restrictions ultimately limited the effects works to ‘the mushroom clouds, the missile launches and the matte paintings of aftermath destruction’, Blalack spent time early on working out how to blow buildings apart with the extreme violence only a nuclear strike can deliver. Aborted ideas included building miniatures out of sand, wax and ‘fine paper that when exposed to an intense heat would just disintegrate into ash.’ None of these ideas made it off the drawing board.

There was just as much debate about the all-important mushroom clouds. In the end, they were created by injecting coloured dye into a water tank. It’s one of those ideas that sounds simple, but Eisenberg’s comprehensive text demonstrates just what an engineering challenge it was. Blalack consulted with CIT expert Daniel Nosenchuck to develop the theory, while Praxis shop supervisor Larry Stevens had the unenviable job of engineering the complex piston needed to inject the dye in just the right way. Nancy Rushlow recalls the big day when they finally made their first mushroom cloud: ‘We all went nuts. It was like watching a birth. It was beautiful.’

The article goes on to examine the problems of getting clean mattes off the waterborne clouds, and the way animation and optical enhanced the explosions with flashes and stark shadows, going in at a frame-by-frame level to isolate skies, cars and even individual blades of grass. The limitations of the small screen sometimes led to frustration. Discussing attempts to add tiny engine glows to the missile contrails, Chris Regan comments, ‘I think for a theatrical film it might have been [necessary]; but for television, the effect was negligible.’

Interestingly, there’s a section in the article devoted to the sound effects of The Day After, a subject some might consider a little off-topic for Cinefex (for more discussion of sound design, see the Walter Murch article in issue #3). Actually it works rather well, providing additional insights into the specific issues facing a TV production. Sound designer Frank Serafine, used to working on big movies, explains how he ‘had to mix on little speakers’ to make sure the sound balance was working. Still, the restrictions appear to have stimulated his creativity, prompting him to overlay pig and lion sounds with human screams in an effort to ‘make people stand up and pay attention to the danger of nuclear war.’

It’s this last comment that sums it all up. For all the wizardry documented here, what stood out for me were the descriptions of how the difficult subject matter affected those involved. Early on in the proceedings, Blalack made a point of bringing everyone up to speed on the reality of nuclear war. Effects director of photography Chris Dierdorff describes his first round of research presentations as ‘pretty devastating’. And production designer Peter Woolley calls the project ‘a very sad, painful film to work on.’ All credit to Adam Eisenberg for telling the real story behind The Day After, which had technical experts not only creating magic for the small screen, but also crying while they did so.

Ralph Hammeras

Don Shay’s mini-biography of Ralph Hammeras is a little like Doctor Who’s Tardis – it’s much bigger inside than it looks from the outside. It’s essentially a potted history of early Hollywood, written in Hammeras’s own words and given extra depth by Shay’s copious contextual notes. As Shay says at the start, Hammeras ‘is not exactly a household name’. But we soon learn he was responsible for inventing key effects techniques that revolutionised the industry, not least the glass shot (which he successfully patented in 1925) and rear-screen process.

rc15lwI love the casual way Hammeras drops these revelations into his text. I lost count of the number of times he remarks that one of his ideas gave rise to whole new departments within the burgeoning Hollywood studio system. It’s interesting to track Hammeras’s progress through that system, particularly during the Depression years when being laid off was a weekly occurence. There’s lots of social history here, all the more compelling for having it related in the first person.

Hammeras gives us countless behind-the-scenes stories of the films he worked on, including The Lost World. He had a good working relationship with Willis O’Brien on that film, and describes the legendary animator as ‘an ingenious man, and a fabricator of the imagination.’ His recollections are packed with facts and anecdotes, ranging from a horrific studio accident that occured while filming a flying carpet to an encounter with a young Walt Disney, during which Hammeras turned down an opportunity to buy into the original Mickey Mouse cartoon. ‘So here I lost another chance to become a millionaire,’ he says wryly.

As Shay himself admits, this is an incomplete chronicle. But a delightful one nonetheless. All I can do is echo Shay’s words when he suggests it ‘may perhaps prompt some future historian to examine [Hammeras’s] career in greater detail.’

The pictures

The images in the Never Say Never Again article are balanced evenly between fairly standard frame grabs and workshop pictures. Stand-outs are the shots in which members of the Apogee team are busily soldering together complex wire-frame models ready to simulate … well, complex computer-generated wire-frame models.

Impressive as the stills and breakdowns are that show the mushroom clouds from The Day After, I found my attention drawn back constantly to two of Nikita Knatz’s production sketches. The drawings show a woman torn apart by a nuclear explosion. They’re simple and visceral. It’s only when you understand that Knatz was a survivor of both the Dresden firebombing and the Dachau concentration camp that you begin to understand their true weight.

The Ralph Hammeras piece contains some real delights for nostalgia buffs, including the original patent drawing for his glass shot technique and what may be the only surviving image of a scene from The Lost World featuring some two dozen animated dinosaurs. There are few people, however, who won’t raise a smile at the delightful photograph of Hammeras himself perched on a model building in the vast miniature replica of London he and his team of 200 craftsmen created for The Sky Hawk.

That’s all for now. Next up will be issue #16, which is full of apes and werewolves, courtesy of a rather talented chap called Rick Baker.

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

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  1. […] Graham Edwards on Revisiting Cinefex (15): Never Say Never Again, The Day After, Ralph Hammeras. […]

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