Revisiting Cinefex (29): Star Trek IV, King Kong Lives, Top Gun

Cinefex 29It’s hardware all the way on both the front and back covers of Cinefex #29. Up front is the Klingon ‘Bird of Prey’ spaceship swooping under the Golden Gate Bridge in Leonard Nimoy’s 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The back cover shows a missile strike on a MiG fighter from Tony Scott’s 1986 classic Top Gun. Most of the flying scenes in the two movies were poles apart, with ILM’s slick motion control skills contrasting dramatically with the down-and-dirty work of USFX. Which worked best? And did John Guillermin ever really think making King Kong Lives was going to be a good idea? Let’s revisit the three articles in this issue’s 68 pages and find out.

  • Humpback to the Future (article by Jody Duncan Shay)
  • After the Fall (article by Janine Pourroy)
  • Sky Wars (article by Ed Martinez)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

What is it about spaceships and sea mammals? No sooner have we waved off the dolphin-friendly Antareans in Cocoon (1985) than we find Captain Kirk asking us to boldly go in search of a pair of humpback whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The déjà vu continues when we realise the two films share the same visual effects supervisor – ILM’s Ken Ralston – and there’s continuity from Cinefex too, with Jody Duncan Shay bringing up the sunken treasures from Star Trek just as she did with Cocoon.

rc29stAccording to her article, ‘from the very beginning of the project, the whales … [were] the filmmakers’ major effects concern.’ In order to create the cetacean stars, art director Nilo Rodis Jamero and freelance robotics expert Walt Conti came up with a revolutionary idea: ‘a totally self-contained, free-swimming miniature whale.’ Duncan Shay guides us through their design and construction, which included such subtleties as adding ‘microballoons to the skin to get the buoyancy we needed.’ The whales were a great success, leading Conti to reflect on ‘how much simpler Jaws might have been if it had been done with this kind of approach.’

Elsewhere in the article, we follow the various ILM departments as they go through their paces. Chris Evans dissects his department’s opening matte painting of Starfleet Command, but can’t hide his disappointment in the finished shot: ‘Something happened to it along the way,’ he laments, ‘and to me it doesn’t quite have the sparkle of reality.’ Animation supervisor Bruce Walters tells us how to create a transporter effect using a small square of acetate, an eraser and a jar of vaseline. And modelmaker Jeff Mann explains how a giant rubber band helped propel the miniature Bird of Prey into the storm-tossed water of San Francisco Bay.

For devotees of digital effects, there’s a section on Star Trek‘s computer imagery: a dreamlike time travel sequence in which the heads of the main characters drift through an eerie fog populated by stylised whales. Typically for the 1980s, the filmmakers used CGI as ‘a means of setting apart [the sequence] from the rest of the film and giving it a unique, unreal quality.’ Sophisticated as techniques were already becoming, a few more years would still need to pass before the technology was capable of creating truly photoreal images … and (perhaps more critically) before a director came along who believed such things were possible.

If you use Cinefex to track the careers of some of the VFX industry’s leading lights, you’ll be pleased to see John Knoll making what I’m pretty sure is his first appearance in the journal (credited here as an animator using slitscan techniques to add solar flares to shots where the Bird of Prey flies around the sun). A humble beginning for a now-legendary VFX supervisor known not only for projects from the Star Wars prequel trilogy to the up-coming Pacific Rim, but also for co-creating Photoshop.

King Kong Lives

Now, I’ve always admired Cinefex‘s determination not to judge the films it writes about. Quite right too: the biggest turkeys often yield the most interesting behind-the-scenes stories – and sometimes contain decent visual effects. I wish I could remain so objective but sadly with this next article we’re talking not turkey but giant gorilla – one that’s very dear to my heart.

rc29kklLike many visual effects buffs of my generation, I was hugely influenced by Merian C Cooper’s landmark 1933 film King Kong. Janine Pourroy sums up the power of Cooper’s original when she says that the stop-motion Kong brought to life by animator Willis O’Brien ‘was decidedly the stuff that legends are made of, carving an unrivaled niche in our collective consciousness that was both immediate and enduring.’ Can the same be said of the 1976 remake and this, its sequel?

Uh, no.

Don’t get me wrong. Much as I adore the original, the giant ape Kong is no more a sacred cow than he is a turkey. Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake – for all its faults – proved it’s possible to create something of value that still remains respectful to its source material. In fact, had Jackson more restrained in his outpouring of love for the original it might have been a more satisfying film … ah, but I must rein myself in. I’m not here to share my passion for Cooper’s masterpiece but to consider Guillermin’s misguided attempt to breathe new life into its titular beast. I’ll try my best, but forgive me if my emotions get in the way. I’ve just got a soft spot for the big lug, is all.

Unlike me, Janine Pourroy remains admirably objective throughout her article, even when outlining the frankly ludicrous plot which has Kong survive his fall from the World Trade Centre, thanks to ‘an enormous life support system’ and ‘a Volkswagen-sized artifical heart.’ Through interviews with creature creator Carlo Rambaldi and VFX supervisor Barry Nolan (Van de Veer Photo Effects), Pourroy describes the filmmakers’ three-tiered approach to the effects:

  • ‘A full-sized ape that was created for use on full-sized sets’
  • ‘A Kong costume, worn by an actor, for use on miniature sets’
  • ‘Bluescreen, split-screen or a combination of the two, for scenes involving both live-action and the man-in-a-suit’

By the standards of the time it’s a reasonable list. By 1986 audiences had become intolerant of the stop-motion methods that had served O’Brien and his natural successor Ray Harryhausen so well – nor did it appear that the ‘go-motion’ technique developed for The Empire Strikes Back and Dragonslayer was ever going to take their place. At the same time, artists like Rambaldi, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston and Jim Henson were advancing puppetry and animatronics to extraordinary new levels. Even I have to agree that Carlo Rambaldi’s assertion that ‘a man-in-a-suit had to be used’ is a fair one.

Unfortunately, the suit’s shortcomings mean Kong ends up looking like exactly what he is: a man in a (less than convincing) ape costume.

While Rambaldi talks us through the construction of the cable-operated suit, performer Peter Elliott tells us what it’s like to wear the thing and production designer Peter Murton discusses the 6000lb full-size Kong. Modelmakers Dave Kelsey and David Jones list the different scales used for the forty miniatures sets they produced, and let us in on a few trade secrets like using cedar sprigs sprayed with latex to create twelfth-scale trees, or painting the miniatures one f-stop darker than normal to minimise their contrast with the light-absorbing ape suit.

Naturally, much of Pourroy’s article is concerned with these miniatures (many of which are impressive), but there’s room at the end for Barry Nolan to show off the huge rearlit bluescreen built for King Kong Lives (at ninety by forty feet it was the biggest in the world at the time). ‘We really tried to make it state-of-the-art,’ he says, ‘and incorporate into it everything that we have been learning about how to make blue screen in the past twenty years.’

Nolan’s equally proud of his video assist system, which ‘transferred all the foreground and background plates to videotape so that they could be keyed together with the live-action taking place.’ A similar system had been used on the 1976 King Kong, but this forerunner of today’s pre-comp capabilities was still pretty cutting-edge for its time.

Sadly the same can’t be said for the film itself.

(If you want to witness Kong’s latest reincarnation, head over to Melbourne, Australia later in 2013 for this adaptation of the story as a stage musical. Yes, you heard me right – a musical. Singing dinosaurs, anyone?)

Top Gun

The final article in Cinefex #29, written by Ed Martinez, takes a look at the visual effects created by Gary Gutierrez and his USFX operation for one the biggest hits of the ’80s: Top Gun. Gutierrez was hired on the strength of his work on The Right Stuff, which he describes as a ‘documentary air-to-air feel – a sort of “you are there” approach.’ Adding to the challenge this time around was the need for Gutierrez’s effects to ‘intercut with live-action footage and match shot for shot.’

rc29tgWhat follows is a detailed account of Gutierrez’s shoot-from-the-hip approach: hanging miniature jet fighters from wires, flying them through realistic clouds and, well, blowing them up. Tricks included fixing eccentrically-weighted electric drills to the camera mounts to generate realistic camera shake. ‘Not only did the resultant vibration create a more naturalistic look,’ says Gutierrez, ‘but it also blurred our suspension wires into invisibility.’

If it’s the pyrotechnics that light your fire, you’ll be pleased to learn the article features a recipe for miniature explosives that includes (amongst other things) aviation fuel, gasoline and rubber condoms. If you’re of a more nervous disposition, rest assured writer Martinez pays just as much attention to the many safety procedures observed by the pyro crew.

There’s a snippet or two about such white-collar concerns as rotoscoping and animated tracer fire, but mostly this article’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. Rick Fichter, director of miniature photography, sums it up: ‘Some of the time you get your best shots with chewing gum and baling wire and just saying, “Hey, let’s try it!” … Sometimes you totally lose it; but when you’re able to get the shot, it’s dynamite!’

And dynamite it is. While the trained eye might be able to pick some the miniature shots in Top Gun, I guarantee it won’t pick them all. That was refreshing back in 1986 and it’s just as refreshing now. As Martinez concludes, ‘The fact that [Top Gun‘s] miniature and animation work went by virtually unnoticed proves that seamless special effects can be achieved without a multimillion dollar effects budget and an arsenal of computers.’

The pictures

Packed as the Star Trek article is with matte paintings, spacecraft and miniature whales, my favourite picture shows Leonard Nimoy undergoing a 3D head scan at Cyberware Laboratory. Such scans might be commonplace now, but back in 1986 the equipment looked like something lashed up by Rube Goldberg for a school science project.

Tempted as I am to skip straight over King Kong Lives, I’d be doing a disservice both to Cinefex and to the many artists who contributed to the movie. So I’ll choose the grainy publicity shot of Carlo Rambaldi caught in the grasp of the full-scale ape hand. Rambaldi looks a little worried, as if he’s concerned that Kong (presumably having seen the finished film) is about to crush him to a pulp.

My final pick shows the USFX crew filming one of the Top Gun flying scenes. Three big manlifts have been called into service: one holds a miniature F-14, a second a smoke machine and the third a wind machine. On the ground, pointing up at the plane with the clear blue sky as background, is the camera. The dynamic, real-world atmosphere of this shot is the perfect counterpoint to Star Trek‘s slick technology and the stagey miniatures of King Kong Lives. Do you feel the need for speed? Well, it’s right here.

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

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (29): Star Trek IV, King Kong Lives, Top Gun

  1. Another nicely-done retrospective there Graham. I’ve always had a soft spot for Voyage Home and often revisit it as part of the trilogy (which includes Wrath Of Khan and Search For Spock). 🙂

    1. Thanks, Greg. Apart from refreshing my memory of the VFX for this, I haven’t sat down and watched Star Trek IV for years. But I remember it as being good fun, certainly one of the most entertaining of the original run of movie

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