Want to see a Winnebago zooming through space? Just park yourself in front of Mel Brooks’s 1987 sci-fi parody Spaceballs. Alternatively you could take a look at the front cover of Cinefex #31. The celestial camper in question goes by the name of Eagle 5 and is in fact a detailed miniature photographed on Apogee’s bluescreen stage. Unusually, the same film features on this issue’s back cover too, with a close-up of the robot character Dot Matrix. It’s odd that neither George Miller’s black comedy The Witches of Eastwick nor Gary Goddard’s shaky fantasy Masters of the Universe are featured – maybe they just didn’t yield up any cover-worthy shots. Regardless, it’s a varied line-up that nicely fills this issue’s 68 pages.
- Spaceballs – The Special Effects (article by Mark Elliot)
- Witch Trials (article by Adam Eisenberg)
- Masters of the Universe (article by Ron Magid)
Spaceballs is a comedy. That means the visual effects can afford to be cheesy, with wobbly miniatures and visible matte lines guaranteeing the movie’s a laugh-riot.
Or can they?
Nope. In fact, the opposite is true. Here’s Mark Elliot in his Cinefex article on Mel Brooks’s slice of spaceborne silliness: ‘Since Spaceballs is a parody of many high-quality effects pictures, its effects had to be of the same caliber.’ Visual effects supervisor Peter Donen backs him up: ‘We did not show wires and blue lines intentionally … The jokes are in the story and the events that occur.’
To ensure the effects looked as slick as possible, Donen handed the bulk of the work to Apogee. Ironically, this Van Nuys facility was home to some of the original Star Wars crew whose classic VFX work was about to be lampooned. Richard Erland, Apogee’s head of R&D, bigs up the company’s cutting-edge credentials, citing their collaboration with Kodak (along with ILM and Boss) to develop ‘a new motion picture film stock optimized for visual effects’. Kodak creating a new product tailored specifically to the visual effects professional’s needs? Clearly someone was taking all this camera trickery seriously.
Nor does the rest of the article skimp on the tech-talk, proving that comedy is indeed a serious business. If you thought blue screens were just, well, blue screens, check out Erland’s discussion of its intricacies, right down to the trouble he had with fluorescent tubes (they’re noisy and cause strobing during high-speed photography) and how he ultimately came to design his own lights specially configured to be compatible with Kodak’s new 5295 film stock.
Not that the article’s devoid of humour. Rick Lazzarini (the poor sucker who had to wear a cheese-slathered ‘Pizza the Hutt’ costume) describes the gig as ‘by far the grungiest … of all the suits I’ve been in.’ Then there’s Ken Diaz telling us how actor/director Mel Brooks insisted the application of his ‘Yogurt’ makeup take only an hour. ‘If I was not finished in time,’ says Diaz, ‘he would just get up and leave.’ If the image of Diaz chasing Brooks around the set for the rest of the day trying to fix his ears doesn’t make you smile, nothing will.
The rest of the article covers the gamut of typical 1980s vintage effects work, from gigantic spaceships shot under motion control through to matte paintings and miniature landscapes. This is the place to be if you’re seeking escape from the hard science of film stocks, with modelmaker Grant McCune revealing that, at a miniature scale, ‘juniper is a perfect sell for an evergreen tree’ and the best substitute for snow is good old baking soda.
Apogee’s work on Spaceballs was augmented by Illusion Arts (additional matte painting) and ILM (an Alien spoof in which a chestburster emerges from John Hurt’s ribcage only to break into a song and dance routine). Looking back on the output of all three providers, overall supervisor Donen remarks that the team managed to create ‘high-quality effects for a reasonable budget – and without much pain and strife.’ He defines the preceding decade as a period during which ‘pictures of this size were emotionally draining, physically exhausting and incredibly costly,’ and concludes, ‘I like to think we have shown a way to reverse an ominous trend.’
Donen’s suggestion that in 1987 visual effects had reached a plateau was a reasonable one. By then, he and his peers were working within a visual effects industry confident in its use of a number of miniature-and-optical-based techniques that had matured over the previous ten years or so. However, hindsight tells us that massive change – in the form of digital technology – was just around the corner.
The Witches of Eastwick
Next up is another comedy, though of a blacker kind: The Witches of Eastwick.
The film’s director, George Miller, is at pains to point out that he didn’t want effects to dominate the proceedings, an attitude that didn’t go down well with his producers. ‘They assumed special effects to be some sort of insurance,’ Miller says, ‘and so they wanted to have more and more.’ The team at ILM – the industry-leading facility hired for the VFX work – were in agreement, with general manager Warren Franklin commenting, ‘You don’t need special effects, you’ve got Jack Nicholson!’
Adam Eisenberg’s article takes us smoothly through ILM’s labour on The Witches of Eastwick, during which they discovered yet another new way of creating ominous rolling clouds and developed new tricks in the matte painting department to deal with Miller’s desire for formal, balanced compositions. ‘Usually we try and make things look uncomposed,’ says Craig Barron, ‘because nature really isn’t very composed.’
There’s a lengthy breakdown of a sequence in which, during a tennis match between the movie’s four main characters, the ball develops a life of its own. By filming a real tennis ball spinning against black velvet under motion control, then reshooting the resulting footage on an animation stand using a pin-block, animator John Armstrong and animation cameraman Bruce Walters were able to create not just the aberrant motion of the bewitched ball, but much of its regular movement too (the actors were so hopeless at tennis they ended up miming the longer rallies).
The tennis match is a great example of how it’s the everyday things that can give the visual effects artist the biggest challenge. ‘One of the reasons the sequence was so difficult is that everyone is familiar with how tennis matches look,’ says Walters. ‘So it was critical to have the ball move right and be correct within the court.’
The other big effects moment comes at the film’s climax, when Jack Nicholson turns into the devil. For the sequence, make up effects artist Rob Bottin created several puppets which director Miller elected to shoot in bright sunlight. ‘I wanted … to avoid the smoke-filled, backlit sort of look you tend to get,’ the director explains. Miller’s approach clearly gave visual effects supervisor Mike Owens a few nightmares. ‘It was scary,’ he says, ‘Everybody said: “A rubber puppet, humanistic, in broad daylight? What are you talking about?”‘
Also described here is another of Bottin’s contributions: a life-size replica of actress Veronica Cartwright rigged to vomit cherry pits from its mouth. Bottin is clearly proud of his creation, remarking that ‘when we were doing the vomit lady we got a lot of visitors on the set … By the end of the week I was dubbed “The Duke of Puke.”‘ Bottin’s account of his puppet’s capabilities is far too lengthy to reproduce here, but the executive summary is that it could essentially spew its guts for over a minute, while performing an extraordinary range of physical gyrations. Sadly the sequence proved just too much for preview audiences to take and all the footage of Bottin’s puppet was cut from the film.
There’s one more deleted scene worth mentioning: the original opening sequence of a seagull flying over the town of Cohasset, Massachusetts. ILM’s swooping aerial shots featured liquid nitrogen clouds and a puppet seagull adapted from a real stuffed bird. In describing the extraordinary problems he encountered in trying to sign up this unlikely movie star, Mike Owens shares what must surely be the single most useful fact I’ve read so far in my trawl through the Cinefex archives, namely that, ‘it’s illegal to own a dead seagull in California!’
Masters of the Universe
Now, just when Spaceballs and The Witches of Eastwick have us thinking that in 1987 everything in the VFX garden was rosy, along comes Masters of the Universe, described by visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund as ‘a horrendous series of compromises.’
Ron Magid’s article is largely concerned with the concept and production design of this fantasy flop, with just a few pages devoted to visual effects. I wonder if the people concerned just didn’t really like talking about it. Not that the interview with concept designer Bill Stout isn’t worth a look, communicating as it does the poor guy’s stoic determination to generate single-handed ‘over two hundred paintings – most of which I began in the first two months.’
Stout’s story is one of a colossal volume of work produced to impossible deadlines. He talks about the challenges of turning a range of toys into believable characters and lists the design styles that influenced his concepts for the sets, props and costumes of the fantasy world of Eternia. These ranged from Art Deco and Mayan through to William Cameron Menzies and classic Hollywood swashbucklers. The film might be a failure, but Stout clearly lived up to his name, displaying undeniable enthusiasm in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Boss Film was under the cosh too. Even the normally unflappable Richard Edlund, master of the movie’s universe of visual effects, had to admit defeat, despite delivering everything he was asked for and more by the end of the film’s highly compressed schedule. ‘We were definitely hurt by [Cannon Films’] lack of preparation,’ he says. Production problems were compounded by what he describes as a ‘hard-bid’ philosophy: ‘What we bid for a job is what we bring it in for.’
Edlund’s bidding principles proved incompatible with problems like late delivery of plate material and a 200% increase in shot count, resulting in his chief financial officer Donald R Fly concluding that, ‘It was not a profitable show for us.’ Nor was the film a hit at the box office, proof that nobody in their right mind should ever again think of making a movie based on a line of toys.
Oh, hold on a second …
The Spaceballs article has a great photo of Chris Ross and Grant McCune scraping raspberry jam from the inside of a miniature radar dish (when the script said ‘jam their transmissions’, it meant it literally). The picture is proof that the VFX artist’s work is nothing if not unpredictable.
From the article on The Witches of Eastwick, I’m picking the photo of Rob Bottin contemplating his extraordinarily lifelike vomiting puppet, which looks so much like Veronica Cartwright that the actress was prompted to say, ‘God, I would think it was me.’
As for Masters of the Universe, I’m singling out a picture of the battlestation model (looking suspiciously like one of the sand skiffs from Return of the Jedi) surrounded by lights, reflectors, and all the clutter you’d expect to see on a motion control stage. A classic 80s behind-the-scenes shot.
I’m conscious I’m publishing this review during a week when visual effects professionals – particularly those in California – are up in arms over working conditions following a run of company liquidations in an industry where extended overtime (often unpaid) is the norm, jobs are unsecured, and globalisation, outsourcing and localised subsidies make for low bids and even lower profits.
It’s not an argument I’m going to wade into here, but it’s worth noting that some of the issues being discussed this week were around even back in 1987. On Masters of the Universe, Edlund’s fixed-price policy caused Boss Film major headaches, while George Miller’s account of his battle with the producers of The Witches of Eastwick to keep the VFX shot tally down illustrates a gulf of understanding between the suits and the artists as to what precisely visual effects are for – a gulf that persists to this day. As for overtime, Miller acknowledges the ‘tremendous pressure [at ILM] – especially when they’re trying to get out their summer pictures and everyone’s going around the clock.’
So are things worse now than they used to be? Was the 1980s really a golden age? Certainly the world of visual effects has changed out of all recognition since the days when spacecraft were made of plastic and the only way to make a replica of Jack Nicholson was to smother his face in plaster and hope you didn’t suffocate the talent. Hell, the whole world has changed. If there’s anything to be learned from the old days, it’s surely a lesson not about issues but attitude.
Who better to deliver that lesson than Richard Edlund, a man who earlier this year received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society. Here’s what Edlund had to say in Cinefex #31 in the light of the debacle that was Masters of the Universe:
‘We learned a basic ‘koan’ of life … a Zen term referring to a situation in which someone is presented with a puzzle and must come up with an answer … The koan of life I’m talking about is that whenever we’re faced with adversity, it’s necessary to take that adversity and turn it to our advantage.’
Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.