Revisiting Cinefex (19): Gremlins, Buckaroo Banzai, Dreamscape

Cinefex 19It’s okay to read Cinefex in the bath. The worst that can happen is the pages go crinkly. But you’d better take care with this one because if you drop it in the water there’s no telling what might come out. As if you needed any more clues, the giant close-up of Gizmo on the front cover will confirm that the big film covered in issue #19 is Joe Dante’s 1984 hit Gremlins. Those cute Mogwai eyes are there again on the back cover, peering out from inside a cage in the school science lab. Inside are articles on three movies, covering the regular 72 pages.

  • Gremlins – Never Feed Them After Midnight (article by Paul M Sammon)
  • Across The Eighth Dimension With Buckaroo Banzai (article by Nora Lee)
  • Dreamscape – What Dreams Are Made Of (article by Adam Eisenberg)

Cinefex is all about straight reporting. Its devotion to objectivity allows it to treat all films – regardless of budget, box office success or artistic merit – with the same non-judgemental attitude. In the land of Cinefex, the playing field is always level.

All the same, you’ll often find that the essential character of both a movie and its VFX artists infiltrates the text. For example, Don Shay’s Blade Runner article is meticulous and multi-layered, while Adam Eisenberg’s piece on The Day After hums with nuclear tension. Likewise, Paul M Sammon’s discussion of Gremlins is packed to the rafters with anecdotes about the inventive craziness that abounded on the set of this landmark creature feature. I dare you to read this one without cracking a smile.

Gremlins

Among others, we hear from Chris Walas (who led the thirty-strong creature team) director Joe Dante and producer Michael Finnell. Most of the text is devoted to live on-set effects – not surprising if, as Sammon says, Gremlins is (in 1984) ‘one of the heaviest live-action special effects films in cinema history.’ I’m not sure on what basis he makes that claim but I’m prepared to believe it’s true.

rc18gAfter a satisfying dissection of the film’s genesis and pre-production (including Walas’s confession that despite his enthusiasm for the project, the second-draft screenplay’s references to ‘hordes of gremlins – thousands and thousands of them’ made him ‘turn pale’), we move quickly into creature design and development. According to Walas, the basic gremlin look came easy but, when it came to the mogwai, ‘it took us seven months to nail that design down.’

Reading about Walas’s work, what really stands out is the sheer number of creatures he and his crew turned out. For maximum versatility, they created a ‘library’ of interchangeable body parts – heads and limbs and bodies brought to life by what Walas describes as ‘all sorts of methods … radio signals, rods, handwork, marionetting, cables and what I call “throw-em-across-the-room” puppetry.’

Having set the scene, Sammon takes us through the movie sequence by sequence. Just like Rick Baker in issue #16, Walas is happy to explain exactly how things were done. He breaks down which versions of the creatures (cable-controlled, ‘superface’, hand-puppet and so on) were used in each shot, and describes the various one-off rigs devised for those set-ups that didn’t otherwise fit the mould. The most memorable of these is the scene where Billy Peltzer fends off a chainsaw-wielding Stripe with a baseball bat. Real actor, real bat, real chainsaw … plus a clever rig that, according to Walas, had ‘a guaranteed stopping point.’ I have no doubt it did, but oh boy, actor Zach Galligan must have had one hell of a lot of faith in the guy with his hand inside the gremlin.

This is one of those articles you really want to have beside you next time you watch the movie. Ah, here’s the scene with the movie theatre full of gremlins, let me look that up, oh yes – wow, so they shot forty operators with a puppet on each hand and one on his head, then split-screened and had Dream Quest comp them twice over to put the whole shot together. You get that much detail and more for pretty much every shot in the film, which means that the text ranks pretty high on the bang-for-bucks scale.

There are quite a few bonus extras too, like a page on sound effects and voice design (in keeping with Dante’s love of cartoons, Mel Blanc – the voice of Bugs Bunny – tried out for the gremlin and mogwai parts, but Mark Mangini of Thundertracks Ltd judged his voice too recognisable). Plus we get the skinny on Rocco Gioffre’s matte paintings, Dream Quest’s opticals and the movie’s one-and-only stop-motion shot. This latter was the work of Peter Kleinow who, astonishingly, animated all forty gremlin puppets single-handed over three sessions lasting ten hours each.

Executive producer Steven Spielberg’s name pops up from time to time. There’s his famous cameo in the ‘inventors convention’ scene, of course, but it’s interesting to read that it was Spielberg’s idea for Gizmo to become the hero in the third act, and that he was the one who added the phrase ‘light-bright’ to the little critter’s vocabulary. But, in contrast to the Poltergeist article where Spielberg is centre stage, here he’s very much in the background. Although Dante confesses to some initial reservations about working with Spielberg – ‘I had heard some rumors about the Spielberg/Hooper situation on Poltergeist, and frankly I had some trepidation about it, because nobody wants to make a picture for someone who should really be making it himself’ – there’s no doubt whatsoever that this was Dante’s film. ‘My fears were groundless,’ the director continues. ‘Steven never even looked at the film until we had about a two-hour rough cut to show him.’

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a huge fan of this film. I love the way Dante mixes a nostalgic Hollywood vibe with a punkish anarchic humour and cartoon sensibilities. The visual effects are solid and the creature work positively froths with energy and character. The improvisational nature of Walas’s approach means a lot of the stuff you see on screen was made up on the spot. I wonder if you’d get that spontaneity if you got a bunch of animators to make the movie with today’s technology. I guess you could argue that the steadily maturing business of motion capture has opened the door to improv once more, but I’m not sure you could beat the original for sheer chutzpah.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai

Ask for a vote on who remember Gremlins and chances are you’ll see a lot of hands go up. I doubt that’s the case with the other two movies featured in Cinefex #19. I’ve never seen W.D. Richter’s low-budget The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (I’m not even sure it reached my local theatre when it was released) so I’m already at a disadvantage. This ignorance isn’t helped by the lack of synopsis in Nora Lee’s article. It provides a decent rundown of the tally of effects and how they were produced, but no sense of context at all. Having since looked the movie up, I get the impression it’s impossible to summarise the plot in less than twenty pages and without smoking a little wacky baccy first, so on this occasion I’ll let Ms Lee off the hook.

rc19bbThe article concentrates for the most part of the model-making work of Greg Jein (he built spaceship that looked like sea-shells) and the miniature photography and opticals of Dream Quest (they racked their brains trying to work out how the hell to make a sea-shell fly). Even though the flying scenes posed some of the same challenges as those in Firefox, Dream Quest’s solution differed significantly from Apogee’s. Instead of shooting background plate photography from an aircraft, they shot miniature cotton clouds with motion control and comped them over painted sky backdrops.

As well as analysing these flying scenes, Hoyt Yeatman of Dream Quest also talks about a big signature shot that shows one of those wacky spaceships crashing through a warehouse wall, an effect achieved with what these days would probably be called a ‘bigature’. It’s an entertaining and somewhat hairy story of giant models moving down tracks at 30mph and a one-take breakaway wall so fragile that ‘the slightest push would break out the bricks.’

I’ve no doubt Buckaroo Banzai has a small but enthusiastic cult following, but I think it’s fair to say this is one of the more forgettable films covered by Cinefex. Check out some of the clips on YouTube and you’ll see why few people remember it. Some of the effects, like the big ship crashing through the wall, look pretty good. Others are frankly terrible but, given the impressive roster of talent on the show, that’s surely down to time and money constraints.

One thing that is evident, however, is a bravery to try something new despite the low budget. John Scheele of Greenlite Effects came up with the idea of hooking up a scanning electron microscope to a motion control camera to create the surreal environments of the titular eighth dimension. It’s a great idea, but the challenges it raised were immense. The only way to add colour to the mono images was a photoroto technique similar to that used in Tron. ‘That meant every frame of the eighth dimension had to be rephotographed onto an animation cel,’ says effects supervisor Michael Fink. There were other problems like inconsistent exposures from frame to frame and the simple fact, as Fink puts it, that ‘scanning electron microscopes are not made for motion control.’

The results of all that effort look hokey today, not least because of the way much of the movement through the microscopic environments looks like it could have been created with a flat image on a simple animation stand. But occasionally, for just a few frames, there’s a real dimensionality as they actually get the camera swooping over the tiny landscape and you get a sense of what might have been achieved with, say a couple of years R&D and a few million dollars.

You’ve got to give director Richter credit for pushing the envelope. On the subject of special effects, he says, ‘The hardest thing … was creating those things that nobody has ever seen before. Everybody has already seen everything … and they know all the tricks.’ It’s as much a truism now as it was then, and brings up the interesting question of just what movie effects are for. At the most basic level, they show us stuff that couldn’t be built for real and put in front of the camera (your classic matte painting), or they tidy up a shot that would otherwise be cluttered by all the unwanted junk and clutter you find on an average set (wire removal, for instance). At the other end of the scale, they do what Richter says: they show us stuff we’ve never seen before. I suspect this drive for novelty, spectacle and that one cool, unbelievable shot that will have the fans punching the air is what brings most people into the business in the first place … and keeps them there while they’re waiting for the Next Big Movie to come along.

Dreamscape

The final article in this issue is Adam Eisenberg’s look at Dreamscape, another forgotten movie from the mid-80s. This one I did see, though only on home video a couple of years after its theatrical release. It’s an interesting forerunner of movies like The Matrix and in particular Inception. Like Buckaroo Banzai, it features the optical work of Peter Kuran, who acted as effects supervisor on the show as a whole.

rc19dKuran talks us through the various optical tricks he used to create high-speed clouds and post-nuclear landscapes. Craig Reardon, last seen making a gremlin for the George Miller section of Twilight Zone: The Movie, helped bring a snake-man to life with a full-scale costume, an effect supplemented by James Aupperle’s stop motion work.

Reardon’s solution to the snake-man transformation scene is an interesting one. Keen not to replicate Rick Baker’s work in An American Werewolf in London, he opted to do it using replacement animation. It’s ‘the same technique used on television to make the Pillsbury doughboy talk,’ he says. Tight timescales forced him to short-cut the process, skipping the step of casting each successive iteration of the miniature head-and-shoulders sculpture before moving on to the next. ‘That was a big mistake,’ he says. ‘The result was some slight anomalies between each change, which caused slight tremulations or jerkiness.’

Throughout both the Buckaroo Banzai and Dreamscape articles, all the artists involved are never less than candid about the effects that didn’t work. That’s cool, when you think about it. It’s tempting to say that with enough time and money you can do anything you want, although we all know that isn’t necessarily true. Gremlins had a budget of around $11 million, only $3 million more than Dreamscape, yet it was more successful on every level. All three films, however, do share the same kind of funkiness, perhaps best summed up by Peter Kuran: ‘It was all sort of hand-done, off-the-wall stuff.’ However well the film turns out, I reckon off-the-wall is never a bad place to be.

The pictures

The Gremlins article features the kind of behind-the-scenes photos I would like to have seen in the Cinefex article on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but which Rambaldi and Spielberg’s image embargo precluded. There’s a great fish-eye view on page 16 that shows actors Zach Galligan and Glynn Turman in the school science lab. There’s a mogwai standing on the table. Around, behind and under him are crowded at least six operators wielding a fiendish Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg array of manual cable controls.

The Buckaroo Banzai article has some good shots of cotton clouds and sea-shell spaceships sitting in front of painted skies and bluescreens. I like the pair of images on page 57 that show the big ship crashing through the breakaway wall. And the best photo from the Dreamscape piece is undoubtedly the one of Craig Reardon working on those replacement snake-man heads. I count 23 of them ranged across his work bench, each one slightly different from the next – quite a set of collector’s pieces.

Just before I wrap up, I’ll throw the question I asked earlier over to you. Just what exactly are visual effects for?

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

Comments

  1. Dorothy Emry says:

    Ah, Buckaroo Bonsai…such a silly film, but that’s why I’m so fond of it. Can’t help loving the cheesy effects in the same way I love those in the old Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. Of course, Buckaroo Bonsai is well worth watching just because of John Lithgow as a mad scientist.

    On the visual effects question: Unfortunately, I think that more and more in recent films they’re sometimes just a way to cover up flaws in plot and/or characterization (or complete lack of both). At best they become an integral part of the storytelling. Example of one of the best: the opening sequence in Contact, which is a perfect story in itself, that sets the tone for the entire film: the desperation to find a connection with others whether across light years or just a few feet here on Earth.

    • I haven’t seen the movie, but it does look the kind of goofy entertainment that could be great fun if you’re in the right mood. Fascinating cast too, with some solid character actors like John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum and Peter Weller appearing very early in their careers. I agree that VFX are at their best when they’re in service of the story, but then the same could be said for cinematography, production design, even dialogue and performance. A good script is still king.

  2. I think the point is that these movies provide good, easy going fun and they work remarkably well at it.

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