Revisiting Cinefex (24): Cocoon, The Goonies, Back to the Future

Cinefex 24Both the front and back covers of Cinefex issue #24 feature one of the big hit movies of 1985: Ron Howard’s Cocoon. On the front we see – in extreme close-up – actor Brian Dennehy pulling down his lower eyelid to reveal the glowing skin of his alien Anterean self. The super-stretchy eyelid was a foam latex appliance created by Greg Cannom, with the ethereal glow added later by the animation department at Industrial Light and Magic. The back cover shows the Anterean spaceship, a kissing cousin of the light-bedecked saucers from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Inside this issue, three films are discussed in two articles spanning 68 pages.

  • Creating the Wonder of ‘Cocoon’ (article of Jody Duncan Shay)
  • Backyard Adventures – Spielberg Style (article by Janine Pourroy)

Cinefex publisher Don Shay remarked recently on the journal’s Facebook page that ‘after Cinefex 22 & 23, filled with articles no one wanted to read about movies no one wanted to see, we were more than ready to break the slump with Cinefex 24.’ If the 1985 US box office grosses for the movies featured in issue #24 are anything to go by ($76M for Cocoon, over $61M for The Goonies and just short of a whopping $200M for Back to the Future*) then this one should be a real fan favourite.


Although Cocoon was helmed by Ron Howard, Jody Duncan Shay’s in-depth article (the first credited piece for Cinefex‘s future editor, if I’m not mistaken) kicks off with a surprise appearance from Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis – described here as ‘young and unproven’ – was originally slated to direct Cocoon, but was fired early on by twitchy Warner Brothers studio executives. (Shortly afterwards, Zemeckis’s just-completed Romancing the Stone mined box-office gold for 20th Century Fox, after which he went on to make a popular little film called Back to the Future. Just shows the executives were no smarter in 1985 than they are now.)

rc24cThe article moves swiftly on to the film’s alien characters, analysing them from concept through to their ultimate design and construction. According to make-up specialist Greg Cannom, the filmmakers were ‘somewhat vague on the final form the aliens would take’. Ultimately, his recommendation of spandex suits, subtle prosthetics and special contact lenses seems to have the spot.

While Cannom’s aliens themselves featured heavily through the film, their meticulously crafted ‘husks’ (the human skins worn as disguises by the aliens) were hardly used at all. ‘Basically, you don’t see any more than them being thrown into a bin,’ Cannom laments. ‘For that, we could have used anything.’ Tom Hester experienced similar frustration when the nightmare sequence for which he’d built a complex, articulated alien corpse didn’t even make the shooting schedule, much less the final cut.

Deleted scenes are part and parcel of filmmaking, but I wonder if this wasted effort was a result of the same ‘vagueness’ described by Cannom? Or was Howard simply committed to a flexible approach that meant some ideas inevitably fell by the wayside? It’s hard to say, but file the thought away (you’ll find out why when Robert Zemeckis pops up again later).

Changing topic to Cocoon‘s mechanical dolphins, Jody’s in entertaining form. She serves up a number of anecdotes in which Robert Short attempts to track down dolphins both alive and dead, battles with the inconvenient tendency of Skinflex to melt in sunlight (‘it is like vampire skin – it just turns to mush’) and encounters a local police officer who, on seeing the crew wrangling their fake cetaceans in the surf, was ‘all set to arrest us for molesting dolphins’.

For all the fun, it’s illuminating stuff, at a level both technical and educational. Exactly why didn’t Short’s crew photograph tame dolphins in a tank? Why was it so hard to film wild dolphins at sea? And how did the real dolphins react to their mechanical counterparts (apart from trying to mate with them, that is). The answers are here.

When it comes to ILM’s work on the film, it’s clear that Howard allowed visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston considerable creative freedom. For example, Cocoon‘s opening sequence (a spectacular transition from a young stargazer’s bedroom to the gorgeous night sky that has captured his attention) was cooked up by Ralston and effects art director Phill Norwood. Even the optical department got to flex their creative muscles when they experimented with multiple passes of organic textures to create a range of trails and transitions for the alien glow effects. Optical supervisor David Berry certainly enjoyed the freedom he was granted: ‘Normally in optical, we just get the material … and put it all together. This film gave us the opportunity to actually generate elements.’

Time for a quick VFX pop quiz: you want your actors to interact with an alien creature. Do you create your alien on-set so your actors have something to react to, or just plant the talent in front of a greenscreen (or inside a motion capture volume) and tell them to use their imaginations? Proponents of the latter approach argue that actors are trained to make things up so what does it matter? Those who favour the former maintain you get a better performance if those same actors have something more to look at than a tennis ball on a stick.

It’s a hot topic now and, guess what, it was just as much of an issue back in 1985. Speaking of his decision to film the alien performers in front of a bluescreen for later comping into the production plates, Ralston says, ‘I had thought it might be necessary to shoot them on the set, just so the actors would have something to relate to.’ Were he shooting the film today, Ralston might have chosen to put actors in leotards for the main production shoot and replace them digitally later. Back then, the tools to do that didn’t exist. Still, Ralston appears satisfied with the results: ‘[The actors] were great,’ he says, ‘and had a lot of fun reacting off of something that wasn’t there.’

I usually save comments about an issue’s photographic content until the end, but in the case of Cocoon I’m bringing it up-front. On pages 34 and 35 are three images from the film’s finale, in which the Manta III motor cruiser is lifted out of the ocean by the alien spaceship. I’m flagging them up because they demonstrate rather neatly the state of the art of optical and miniature effects in 1985.

To put these images in context we need to remember that, by the time Cocoon was released, human encounters with saucer-shaped craft had become something of a staple – maybe even a cliché. But, while the concept for the Cocoon finale might be derivative, its execution isn’t. I’ll explain why:

  • In Close Encounters (1977), we saw saucers that were mostly made of light flying against black night skies.
  • In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the equivalent shots were more sophisticated, boasting a little drifting mist and a ship’s hull that reflected its surroundings. Still, the backgrounds remained pretty dark.
  • The Cocoon shots are full of texture and rich with atmospheric haze. Everything is brightly lit, so there’s nowhere to hide. Yet the comps – built up from a wide range of elements including live actors, stop-motion puppets, miniatures and cloud tank backgrounds – look immaculate. The images ooze both confidence and craft. And they look pretty damn real. ‘Never mind turning down the lights to hide the matte lines,’ you can imagine Ralston saying, ‘let’s dial everything up and really show them what we can do.’

Whatever dial it was they turned, it worked. On March 24th 1986, at the 58th Academy Awards, Cocoon won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, with Ken Ralston, Ralph McQuarrie, Scott Farrar and David Berry stepping up to claim their reward.

(As an aside – and as a measure of just where the state of the art has moved on to as I write this in the summer of 2012 – take a moment to watch this video that’s recently gone viral. Many people are assuming it’s been achieved using visual effects, to the point where VFX professionals William Bartlett (Framestore) and Angus Kneale (The Mill) have gone on record to say they reckon the footage is real. I agree with them. My point is that we’ve reached the stage where most people can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake. What’s this got to do with Cocoon? Well, the video is full of dolphins.)

The Goonies

The second article in this issue is a double feature. The movies in question are two of the earliest productions to come out of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment: The Goonies and Back to the Future. Lumping them together makes sense, partly because they were stablemates, but also because neither one was heavy on effects (Back to the Future had 27 effects shots and The Goonies had just 18). Therefore, with relatively little ground to cover, Cinefex gets to switch lenses from wide angle to macro and examine every single shot in almost obsessive detail.

rc24gWith The Goonies, some of that detail is painful. With astonishing frankness, make-up artist Craig Reardon describes his unsuccessful attempts to create a workable make-up for the deformed and lumbering character Sloth. After cataloguing what he calls ‘a series of mistakes and bad decisions,’ Reardon concludes, ‘It was the most miserable experience I’ve ever had on a film. Altogether, I remade the make-up from scratch three, going on four times. I went down fighting.’

Tom Burman took over and eventually delivered the goods. Discussing the Sloth design (based originally on a Spielberg doodle), he confirms that it was ‘a very difficult make-up to do … I’m sure Craig went through pure hell trying to make this thing work.’

I guess it might be small comfort to Reardon but, more often than not, the tale of what-went-wrong is at least as enlightening as the story of how-it-was-done. So kudos to him for baring his soul, and for telling us, amongst other things, exactly why you should get your performer to shave off his beard before you do a life cast of his face …

Back with ILM, visual effects supervisor Mike McAlister discusses the problems created when a key sequence in The Goonies (the kids crossing a collapsing floor over a perilous mine shaft) was cut from ten shots down to five. ‘Unfortunately, McAlister says, ‘the shots that were cut were the ones that really sold the depth [of the shaft].’ In the commentary that follows, McAlister describes the tactics he used to make the shorter sequence work: a good example of an effects team concentrating as much on storytelling as technique.

ILM also created a miniature pirate ship for the film’s finale. Bill George walks us through the extensive research and elaborate construction stages. It should come as no surprise to regular readers of Cinefex that, as well as barnacles and starched silk sails, the model also boasts ‘a tiny above-deck R2D2.’ The ship was shot under motion control and comped into background plates of an ocean at sunset, affording the optical department another opportunity to showcase ILM’s new love affair with atmospheric haze.

rc24btfFinally we reach Back to the Future. Remember how Ron Howard seemed a little ‘hands-off’ in the visual effects department? Well, the same can’t be said for Robert Zemeckis. Again and again through Pourroy’s coverage of this blockbuster film, we hear variations on the phrase, ‘Bob knew exactly what he wanted.’ Just as well, since the post-production schedule ILM was faced with was just eight weeks. Yes, you heard me: eight weeks. According to post-production supervisor Art Repola, ‘We thought working on The Goonies was insane, but then Back to the Future came along.’

Back to the Future might contain fewer than thirty effects shots, but most of them have now achieved iconic status. What a treat, then, to read Pourroy’s microscopic analysis of the deLorean time-slice effect (which turns out to be way more complex than I ever imagined), not to mention animator Wes Takahashi’s account of the traditional hand-drawn techniques he used to create what the script described as ‘the largest bolt of lightning in cinema history.’ After that, Ken Ralston’s back, talking about how he wanted Back to the Future‘s storm clouds to differ from the ones he’d just created for Cocoon (he abandoned the cloud tank in favour of backlit fiberfill).

If it’s iconic you want, how better to end than with Back to the Future‘s closing scene, during which Doc Brown assures us that where he’s going, he doesn’t need roads? Pourroy reveals exactly how ILM made a deLorean fly, a process involving (amongst other things) an ultra-detailed miniature shot under motion control, a manually-tracked match-move and some rather nifty rotoscoping.

The thing that amazes me most is that the compressed post-production schedule gave Ralston barely enough time for a paltry two takes and three passes through the optical department. ‘I saw the sequence in dailies,’ he says, ‘and that same night they were printing the damn thing.’ They say you can have things fast or you can have them right. Luckily for us, Ralston and his team found the trick of delivering both.

The pictures

Speaking of time, I feel like I’m overrunning a little here. No surprise with three such excellent films to discuss. I’ve already talked about my favourite pictures from the Cocoon article, so I’ll move straight to The Goonies. There’s a good step-by-step sequence of images on pages 42 and 43 showing Tom Burman’s Sloth make-up being applied to performer John Matuszak. There’s another nice breakdown on page 61, this time for Back to the Future. The first image shows Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox standing on ILM’s bluescreen stage. Beside it is the final comp of the two actors apparently standing at the Twin Pines (or is that Lone Pine?) shopping mall with trails of fire running between their legs.

Finally, let’s reflect on the fact that, of the 24 issues of Cinefex we’ve revisited together so far, ten have covered major films featuring visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Some issues – like this one – are practically wall-to-wall ILM. Furthermore, if you look at the Academy Awards for the years covered by those 24 issues (1980-1985), you’ll see that the Oscar for Best Visual Effects was won by a crew from ILM every year. Yes, every year. If you were in any doubt which VFX facility was leading the pack during the mid-80s, these early issues of Cinefex will put all arguments to rest.

*source: IMDB

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

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (24): Cocoon, The Goonies, Back to the Future

  1. You’re right about Cocoon being Jody Duncan’s first article for Cinefex. Back to the Future/Goonies was mine. I don’t think we could have been more thrilled to see our names in print than we were with those first published pieces! Thank you for revisiting an issue that’s very special to us both.

    1. You’re welcome, Janine – thanks for dropping by. First publications are pretty special aren’t they? They’re both great articles and it was a real pleasure to revisit them, particularly your text on Back to the Future, a favourite film for me (as I suspect it is for at least half the world’s population).
      Congratulations, by the way, to you and Jody for the success of The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy. Great to see it on the New York Times bestseller list!

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