There’s a rule of thumb in the graphic design business: if you want the magazine to sell, put a pretty face on the cover. This is my 25th trip into my personal Cinefex archive, and well over half the covers I’ve looked at more or less follow that rule (remember, in the world of visual effects, even Ray Harryhausen’s hideous Medusa from Clash of the Titans is way past pretty and into the realms of gorgon-gorgeous). This time around, the good looks belong to the alien Drac, played by Louis Gossett Jr in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1985 science fiction film Enemy Mine. The back cover features the equally attractive vampire Jerry Dandridge from the original Fright Night. Altogether, this issue contains three articles, spanning 72 pages.
- Behind the Lines of ‘Enemy Mine’ (article by Janine Pourroy)
- Der Trickfilm – A Survey of German Special Effects (article by Rolf Giesen)
- Fright Night (article by Jennifer Benidt and Janine Pourroy)
Like the alien character in its story, the futuristic drama Enemy Mine suffered a painful birthing process. The film was up and running with writer/director Richard Loncraine at the helm and four weeks of location shooting under its belt before Fox – ‘no longer confident that Loncraine was the man for the job’ – halted production. This isn’t the first Hollywood false start Cinefex has chronicled, but with what writer Janine Pourroy describes as ‘a $9 million write-off tacked onto the now doubled budget’, it’s surely one of the most expensive.
Loncraine’s original version of the movie got so far into production that the first five pages of Pourroy’s article are entirely devoted to it, making this an intriguing glimpse of a movie that never was. We hear how Chris Walas spent a ‘very intense period’ developing the original Drac make-up and suit for what he refers to as ‘Enemy Mine I’. He then endured ‘an amazingly grueling experience’ shooting in Iceland before going back to the drawing board in order to realise Petersen’s new vision for the character. Luckily for us, Cinefex has photos of both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ alien make-ups, giving us the unique opportunity to judge for ourselves which one we prefer.
Long after Pourroy has segued into the Wolfgang Petersen reboot, Loncraine’s legacy remains apparent. Throughout the text there are constant references to new script demands and changes to the production design affecting the visual effects on both a conceptual and practical level. ‘[The film] became quite different,’ says ILM visual effects art director Dave Carson, ‘much, much more colourful.’ Petersen’s zingy new palette caused the ILM matte artists a few headaches. As supervisor Chris Evans comments, ‘If you paint deep orange shadows on everything, it’s going to look very bizarre.’
Enemy Mine turned to be quite a showcase for the ILM matte painters. Evans describes how his small crew accompanied Petersen to Lanzarote to shoot background plates, spending evenings designing matte shots based on the day’s Polaroids. ‘In most cases,’ he says, ‘the finished shots look almost identical to the small paintings I did on location.’ Matte artist Craig Barron goes a step further, describing Petersen’s inclusive approach as ‘the exciting kind of creative interaction we really enjoy.’
The discussion continues deep into territory concerning the integration of live action and animation elements with the paintings, the benefits of latent image over optical compositing and the tapping of Harry Walton’s expertise in a specialised masked printing technique. In short, it’s a fully-featured guided tour of ILM’s matte painting department back in the days when brushes were made out of sable and the pigments came out of a tube.
When he took over, Petersen transferred a lot of the miniature effects work over to his team in Munich. By and large, the ILM crew seems to have worked well with their German counterparts. Still, spreading the production across continents wasn’t without its problems. Discussing concepts for an alien grub-creature, Walas says, ‘the design changed three times between my take-off in Munich and my arrival in San Francisco.’ And ILM effects editor Bill Kimberlin remarks how the nine-hour time difference meant, ‘there wasn’t an opportunity to make quick adjustments,’ although he adds that, ‘the footage still worked out pretty well.’
Nowadays, globalisation is commonplace, and can even work to a production’s advantage. A director can shoot all day on a Los Angeles sound-stage knowing that when he (eventually) goes to bed his VFX crews in London and Sydney will be discussing the new footage over breakfast. Back in 1985, things weren’t quite so simple, which makes Petersen’s decision to support his native film industry all the more laudable.
Every so often, Cinefex throws us an article out of left field. In issue #25, we’re treated to a potted history of German effects written by Rolf Giesen (who has to his name an impressive list of books on this and related subjects). The article complements the preceding Enemy Mine piece rather well, concluding as it does with a brief mention of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and The Neverending Story. The German connection, presumably, is why the two articles appear side by side.
Starting at the very dawn of cinema, the text takes us on a lightning tour of some of the milestones in German ‘trickfilm’. The insights into Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis are naturally of great interest, but so too are Giesen’s notes on less famous films, including the very early Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) and Lebende Buddhas (Living Buddhas).
Giesen’s digging deep into history here, yet he still manages to deliver that most critical of Cinefex components: the first-hand account. For example, Erich Kettelhut, art director on Lang’s Die Nibelungen, has much to say on the creation of the film’s fifty-foot articulated dragon. He informs us the massive puppet had a head and neck that was ‘hard as iron’ and that ‘an unfortunate stroke of [the dragon] could have broken a man’s bones.’
If you’re a fan of early cinema, you’ll love Giesen’s clear, concise descriptions of a number of old-school effects including half-silvered mirrors, the Shuftan process and an early optical printer called the Truca. If you’re more interested in the here-and-now, you may smile when you spot a passing reference to a young, up-and-coming director described as part of ‘an emerging generation of filmmakers in Germany excited about rekindling the interest and challenge of cinematic special effects.’ His name? Roland Emmerich.
Emmerich’s subsequent success shows Giesen was right to single him out. Even so – and despite Germany’s great cinematic heritage – the country isn’t known as a big player in the modern visual effects business. This recent article in the Chicago Tribune suggests that might be about to change, as companies like Celluloid, Exozet, Pixomondo, Rise, Scanline and Trixter take advantage of beneficial exchange rates and low overheads – not to mention Oscar-winning talent – in their quest to create the same kind of VFX community that’s grown up in London over the past decade. It’s encouraging to see that, in the land of the Black Forest, Lang’s legacy is alive and well.
(In his article, Giesen notes that, before its general release in 1926, Metropolis was heavily cut by an unhappy UFA Studios, with much of the excised footage being ‘lost forever’. In 2008, however, a 16mm dupe negative of the film was unearthed at the Buenos Aires Museo Del Cine. The negative included 25 minutes of this lost footage and prompted a full restoration and recutting of the whole film. The resulting 2010 version of Metropolis is currently the most complete version available.)
Last time we heard from Star Wars veteran and Oscar-winner Richard Edlund, he was creating visual effects at BFC for another in a long line of mammoth projects: 2010. When it comes to Fright Night, he’s working on a much smaller scale, with an effects budget of under a million dollars. It’s Edlund the businessman who says, ‘I don’t want to be in the business of just servicing multimillion dollar productions … you’ll end up committing to pictures you may not want to do, just to keep stoking the fires.’
Not all directors take an active interest in visual effects. Fright Night‘s Tom Holland, it seems did. BFC art director John Bruno remarks that he came up with ‘some very good and elaborate ideas.’ The restricted budget forced Bruno to curb a little of Holland’s enthusiasm, however, revising ambitious shot designs to be more achievable and favouring in-camera techniques over optical composites.
The conservative approach didn’t curb creativity, however. Effects director of photography Neil Krepela lets us in on the tricks used to realise the film’s 90-second opening shot, which combines a live action crane move with a Matthew Yuicich matte painting. Randall William Cook describes the various make-up appliances – including finger extensions and ‘a full, one-piece, paper-thin mask – he created to turn Chris Sarandon into a vampire. And creature designer Steve Johnson reveals how he enhanced the figure of actress Amanda Bearse for her transformation into the vamped-up Amy. ‘I sculpted my dream breasts for her,’ he proudly announces.
There’s a detailed study of Evil Ed’s transformation into a werewolf (which benefited from the fact that Bruno had previously worked on An American Werewolf in London) including the rationale behind making the shape-shifting a curiously assymetric affair. Sticking with the creatures, we also learn about the trials of puppeteering a vampire bat with a seven-foot wingspan. ‘You put your hand up inside,’ says Cook, ‘and by the time you get a take that’s good, you have no strength left.’
Throughout the article, there’s a sense of Edlund’s crew falling back on all their experience to deliver plenty of bang for very few bucks … and, for the most part, succeeding. ‘The show benefited from my experience on Ghostbusters and 2010,’ says Mark Vargo. And Edlund himself concludes, ‘Columbia really got their money’s worth from us on this film.’
Flicking back through this issue of Cinefex, the pictures I’d pick out from the Enemy Mine article are the ones that show the film’s glorious matte paintings, especially those photos where we see the artists meticulously picking out intricate details on huge sheets of glass with tiny brushes.
Giesen’s article on Der Trickfilm contains many fascinating vintage images, but the most memorable one for me is a relatively recent one from Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story. The caption sums it up perfectly: ‘An army of technicians prepare to orchestrate Falkor’s [the 43-ft long “luck-dragon” character] multitudinous cables.’
And, always a sucker for a melting head effect, I can’t fail to appreciate the behind-the-scenes shot of a rubber-and-gelatin replica of actor Jonathan Stark disintegrating before the camera while an entire effects crew, crouched just out of frame, heroically makes it writhe in agony.
Cinefex #25 is quite a mixed bag. One of the best reasons to revisit this issue is the long opening paragraph from Rolf Giesen’s article on Der Trickfilm. It’s a quote from 1916, in which film pioneer Paul Wegener speaks ‘prophetically of his dream to engender an absolutely artificial movie.’ Wegener’s rhapsody includes the wonderful lines, ‘We are entering a new pictorial fantasy world as we would enter a magical forest … setting foot in the field of pure kinetics – or optical lyric, as I call it.’
There’s many who would say that cinema today has not only realised Wegener’s dream, but gone beyond it. There are others who might argue that Hollywood at least is far too commercial to produce true art. When creating those ‘magical forests’ can easily cost $200 million, it’s tempting to say there’s nothing ‘pure’ about the process at all. But it can still be ‘lyrical’, can’t it?
Optical lyric. I don’t know what the original German was, but it’s a delightful turn of phrase. So about it, all you industry professionals out there? Given the choice, what job title would you rather have under your name? Visual Effects Artist? Or Optical Lyricist?
I know which one would get my vote.
Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.