We’ve been swindled! The front cover of Cinefex #33 doesn’t have any visual effects on it. It’s just a picture of some old geezer. Wait a second. Strike that. It’s not an old geezer. It’s what might be the best old-age makeup ever created for a motion picture, namely Dick Smith’s incredible transformation of a 45 year-old F. Murray Abraham into the aged Salieri in Milos Forman’s multi-Oscar-winning 1984 film Amadeus. The back cover features something more evidently made-up, namely Stan Winston’s iconic alien suit from John McTiernan’s 1987 sci-fi classic Predator. You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but there’s a third article squeezed into this issue’s 68 pages, covering the special effects of no less than four Bond movies. Now that’s value for money.
- 007 x 4 – John Richardson (article by Nora Lee)
- Aging Gracefully with Dick Smith (article by Jody Duncan Shannon)
- Predator Revealed (article by Paul Mandell)
Looking for classified information on old-school special effects? Nora Lee’s interview with John Richardson is just the dossier you need. Richardson, a second-generation special effects supervisor brought up on movie sets (literally) through the 1950s, gives us a thorough debriefing on no less than four James Bond films: Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill and The Living Daylights.
Since the effects under discussion are mostly special rather than visual (meaning they’re practical gags achieved live in front of the camera, either full scale or in miniature), Lee’s article is packed with behind-the-scenes secrets concerning car chases, exploding speedboats and collapsing bridges. In the thick of the action – and proving himself at least as intrepid as the British secret agent whose antics he helped put on screen – is Richardson himself.
Richardson’s dry sense of humour is a delight. Here’s a man who’s never shaken and rarely stirred. When one of the Moonraker motor boats got stuck on the brink of the perilous Iguazu Falls, he dangled from a helicopter in an attempt to physically shake it loose. He kept tight hold of the boat until the tugging of the chopper began to tear his harness. ‘So I let go,’ he quips. ‘It seemed the sensible thing to do.’
When Richardson’s not rescuing boats, he’s rigging them to blow up … and usually sitting in them when they do so. ‘[Richardson] does seem to get rather personally involved in his work,’ says Lee. If there’s stunt driving to be done, you’ll probably find him behind the wheel: in Octopussy he drove both the railroad-adapted Mercedes and the Jaguar used to ‘fly’ a minijet through an aircraft hangar (the mock-up plane was attached to the car roof, with low-level foreground props hiding the vehicle).
For Richardson, no mission was too daunting. Required to shoot background plates of the Golden Gate Bridge for A View to a Kill, he climbed the thing all the way to the top. He describes the experience as ‘more than a little interesting.’ He was no less confident with models, using hanging miniatures to create masterful illusions such as the huge viaduct in The Living Daylights. At all times, his joy for the work shines through: ‘I love it,’ he says, ‘because it gives me the chance to do the kinds of things I always wanted to do as a schoolboy – but always got punished for trying.’
(Of course, it’s all different today. Computers have done away with all these old-school techniques. Nobody actually blows things up any more. Do they? Well …
In the very latest Cinefex #133 – exactly 100 issues and 25 years on from the subject of this retrospective – VFX supervisor Steve Begg discusses Skyfall‘s extensive use of miniatures and practical explosions, offering up the capabilities of the Arri Alexa high-def camera as ‘a good reason to bring back some old tricks … Digital cameras can now run at high speeds … [enabling] us to get results much quicker by shooting something practically, rather than waiting on some particle animation to do it for us.’ Mind you, I’m guessing Mr Begg stopped short at hanging off waterfalls …)
And so to Dick Smith, perhaps one of the most influential makeup artists in the business. Smith’s name has popped up in Cinefex before (notably in issue #16, in which Rick Baker and others acknowledge their debt of gratitude to him) but this is the first time we’ve heard from himpersonally and in depth. And what depth. Jody Duncan Shannon’s extended interview with Smith guides us through his entire career, from a childhood spent scaring schoolmates with recreations of classic horror makeups through to projects such as The Hunger (1983) and Amadeus (1984).
Recalling his early years in television, Smith has plenty of tales to tell about the productions he worked on, the actors he transformed and – with minute attention to detail – the materials and techniques he used, from latex appliances to old-age stipple and beyond. Live transmissions made for hectic work during the short commercial breaks: his account of the military operation needed to age actress Claire Bloom from twenty to eighty years old for a live production of Victoria Regina is frankly astonishing.
Smith’s passion for and commitment to his subject is evident at every turn, as is his ability to give an objective appraisal of his work: he’s proud of the good stuff, but not afraid to talk about the bad … and to explain exactly why it didn’t work. The list of innovations goes on and on: using liver spots in old-age makeup, developing accordion-like latex eyelids that blink along with the actor’s, ditching full-face masks in favour of overlapping appliances …
Films under discussion include Little Big Man, The Godfather, The Exorcist and of course Amadeus. As a man who necessarily spends a lot of time with actors, Smith has plenty of anecdotes about the stars of all these shows, including an account of how Dustin Hoffman’s ‘method’ approach to his role as a 121 year-old man had the entire crew treating him as if he really were that old. He also dispels the myth that the dental insert used to give Marlon Brando jowls in The Godfather caused the actor to mumble. ‘His diction was his own creation,’ Smith asserts. ‘The dental piece didn’t interfere at all.’
Dick Smith’s legacy is considerable, as is his reputation as a man who’s not afraid to share his secrets – if you doubt it, check out his academy of Special Makeup Effects Training. Indeed, the story of Smith’s career is one of constant forward motion and at the end of the article he’s looking ahead towards the next big thing in makeup design. ‘The need exists – and always will, I think – to achieve greater and greater realism,’ he says. In a remarkable feat of clairvoyance, he adds, ‘One of the things that may necessitate [more realistic makeup] is that film quality itself is improving. Showscan, for example, reveals incredible detail – so much so, in fact, that it would be impossible to use our current appliance makeups in a film employing that process.’
(For the uninitiated, Showscan was a HFR (high frame rate) system developed by Douglas Trumbull. The 60fps concept never made it into theates, although it’s been used for theme park attractions. HFR did finally hit screens in 2012 in the form of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and all those extra frames – not to mention the demands of 4k digital resolution and 3D – had exactly the impact on the makeup department that Dick Smith predicted.)
Finally we come to Predator. You’ve seen the movie. We all have. You can probably quote all of Arnie’s lines and love the finale where he goes mano-a-mano with one of the best man-in-a-suit aliens ever created. If you’ve any interest in movie effects, you’ll know the suit was designed by the legendary Stan Winston. You may not know – as Paul Mandell reveals here – that Winston was second choice.
The first alien suit – created by Richard Edlund’s Boss Film – proved unworkable on location in the Mexican jungle. Edlund had fought against the design (which incorporated a third leg joint, requiring the performer to be suspended from an aerial rig) but director John McTiernan and producer Joel Silver had insisted. The suit’s failure led to a production shut-down and an eventual restart with a slashed budget.
While the article takes us through this painful learning curve, for the most part it isn’t about suits. It’s about the innovative optical technique used to visualise the alien’s invisibility field, as developed by Manhattan-based R/Greenberg Associates; “Some have called [the company] the ILM of the east,” says Mandell.
Visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek talks us through the development process that led to the filming of a performer on location dressed in a plain red suit – a kind of alien coverall. The contrast of the red suit agains the green jungle – or blue sky – enabled the optical department to extract the mattes they needed to separate the alien from its background. It’s nothing less than an early form of motion capture.
Taking the high-contrast matte as a starting point, separate inline mattes of gradually decreasing size were then generate to help create the characteristic ‘fresnel lens’ invisibility effect. Sounds simple? Pages of analytical text will convince you it wasn’t. For example, ‘for each concentric effect of ten slices, forty passes were needed [through the optical printer] just to make the inline mattes.’
Mandell’s article analyses a number of other effects too, from thermographic ‘alien vision’ imagery to the brewing of glowing green alien blood. But this is really a love letter to optical trickery, as created by a company you may not have heard of, at least as a player in the motion picture business. That’s probably because R/GA abandoned the movies some years ago, reinventing themselves as a digital advertising agency. As you’ll see if you click the link in the list below, they seem to be doing rather well at it.
There’s just enough time left to scan back through this issue’s pictures, starting with James Bond. Tempted as I am to pick out a shot of some or other vehicle crashing or exploding, the stand-out image has to be the one of John Richardson dangling from that helicopter. It’s a behind-the-scenes shot to be sure, but it might as well be a picture of James Bond himself swooping in to the rescue.
The Dick Smith article, as you’d expect, is packed with shots of the master at work, supplemented by portraits of some of his most famous creations. It’s hard to choose a favourite, but I’m going for the one on page 35 that shows Smith sculpting his game-changing makeup for Little Big Man. On the wall behind him are dozens of reference photos of old people, supporting his humble claim that ‘nature is just so much better than I am as an artist – so photos are always useful.’ I’m not denying nature holds the crown, but I reckon Mr Smith sure gives her a run for her money.
From the Predator article I’m going to pick the three-picture breakdown showing the red alien suit in the jungle, the matte that was extracted from it and the resulting final shot. Sitting beside this trio is a single shot of Edlund’s unused alien design in its red configuration, although it’s hard to make out just what it looks like.
If you want to see that suit in all its glory, by the way, just do a quick internet search or watch the special edition DVD. Now that we’re living in the future it’s easy to find deleted scenes, isn’t it? It was so much harder back in the day. But at least we had Cinefex.
Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.