Revisiting Cinefex (37): Star Trek: TNG, The Fly II, Oxford Scientific Films

Cinefex 37Putting the world’s most iconic spaceship on the front cover must have helped shift a few extra copies of Cinefex #37. But wait a second. Isn’t that the USS Enterprise from Star Trek – The Next Generation? What’s a TV show doing on the cover of a journal that’s all about cinematic visual effects? Maybe they put a movie on the back … yep, it’s a scene from Chris Walas’s 1989 sequel The Fly II, showing the grotesque Martinfly creature and bad guy Anton Bartok swathed in electrical discharges inside one of the teleport pods. The third article within this issue’s 68 pages is an in-depth look at British effects studio Oxford Scientific Films. Want me to have a retrospective look at this eclectic mix? Of course you do.

  • Special Effects – The Next Generation (article by Glenn Campbell and Donna Trotter)
  • On The Fly – The Making of a Sequel (article by Robin Brunet)
  • From Science to Showbiz (article by Pamela Duncan Looft)

Star Trek – The Next Generation

Looking for a snapshot of the state-of-the-art in broadcast television circa 1989? Look no further than Glenn Campbell and Donna Trotter’s article on the visual effects of Star Trek – The Next Generation. After sketching in a little background (including notes on how Gene Roddenberry got the original 1960s Star Trek series off the ground in an era when all the major studios were shutting down their in-house effects facilities) the authors go on to describe the technical and financial challenges of rebooting the concept for, ahem, a new generation.

rc37stWhat follows is a terrific breakdown of video production techniques both old and new (well, they were new then). Joe Matza of Composite Image Systems enthuses about his Abekas digital disk recorder, which ’employs two high-speed computer disk drives to store up to fifty seconds of film per disk.’ There’s more arcane hardware on display in the form of the ADO, Quantel’s Paintbox and Mirage (which allowed the retouching and spatial manipulation of video images) and the Quantel Harry, the rotoscope-friendly big brother to the Paintbox.

Remember the Quantel days? All that fancy equipment grabbing frames of video, folding them up and flying them all over the screen in every pop video and news bulletin you watched through the 1980s? I don’t know about you, but I got pretty sick of those effects. But in the hands of the TNG artists, they came into their own.

The new technology was all very well, but it took skill to make it not only to perform, but also integrate with both traditional effects techniques and film footage borrowed from the Star Trek feature films. Rob Legato was the man combining Quantel technology with ILM elements of the USS Enterprise shot, stage footage and practical effects. In the first season alone, Legato delivered ‘about eighteen hundred effects shots in less than eight months’ – a staggering achievement even at 525-line NTSC resolution.

Legato’s ingenuity is evident in the many shot breakdowns presented in the article. He devised bluescreen comps that pushed the Ultimatte system to the limit, and combined motion control with pan-and-scan to put bluescreened actors in front of painted backgrounds while moving the camera … all the time fighting to keep up with the extraordinarily tight network deadlines (once he resorted to shooting some Enterprise streak elements on Kodacolor print film and using a one-hour photo shop to get it processed in time).

This is a well-balanced article, with heaps of technical detail balanced neatly with historical context. There are also interesting comparisons between the opposing worlds of television and cinema. It’s clear that, in 1989, the two were still very much separate entities, a divide characterised by the stark difference between videotape and film. Nowadays, in the digital age, is there really any difference at all?

(Since his early days on Star Trek – The Next Generation, Rob Legato has become one of the most respected VFX supervisors in the business. If you’ve never heard him speaking on the subject of visual effects, take fifteen minutes out of your day to watch his superb TED talk from 2012: The Art of Creating Awe. In this short lecture, Legato regales his audience with stories about his work on Apollo 13, Titanic and Hugo.)

The Fly II

Moving on to Robin Brunet’s article on The Fly II, we switch our attention from opticals to animatronics. Behind the scenes of this horror sequel is a story of big ambitions (producer Steven-Charles Jaffe declares his intent to make a film ‘in the class of Aliens‘) and harsh realities (effects supervisor Jon Berg, referring to endless script rewrites, remarks that, ‘We did not know exactly what would be required until the very last minute’).

rc37tf2Despite uncertainties about the storyline, the effects crew kept rolling, producing puppets and rigs adaptable enough to accommodate everything director Chris Walas would demand on set. It can’t have hurt that Walas – sitting for the first time in the director’s chair – was by then a veteran of this kind of movie, having masterminded the creature effects for the original The Fly, Gremlins and others.

The text, as you’d expect, is packed with instructions for creating mechanical armatures, manufacturing fake flesh and all manner of gore, and painting a puppet to give it a gorgeous insectile iridescence. There’s also plenty of cinematic sleight-of-hand on show, from a clever sliding plexiglass gag devised to simulate ‘fly vomit’ dissolving a car window to the simple trick of wrangling live flies by letting them thaw slowly.

While the hero of the piece is undoubtedly the full-scale Martinfly animatronic on its roving boom arm, what’s impressive is the sheer range of creatures and creature parts created for the film. Nowhere is this more evident than in Walas’s showcase four-minute Steadicam shot that not only pressed three different creature rigs into service but also included ‘one of the most complicated live-action animatronics gags ever devised.’

At the end of the article, Jon Berg asserts, ‘We did five times the effects with the same schedule and budget as the original. It was under-the-gun work – and it looks good.’ He’s right, although when I watched the movie again recently I concluded that, good as the creatures look, there’s a level of performance that’s lacking. I guess that’s inevitable given the extraordinary pressure the crew was under.

(That raises a question: what’s really more important – how something looks, or how it performs? Would you rather see a monster that looks slick but just lumbers about? Or one that’s lashed up from spare parts but acts the pants off the rest of the cast? Discuss.)

Oxford Scientific Films

The third and final article in Cinefex #37 prompts me to pose another question: how many visual effects companies can you think of that were established in the 1960s and are still thriving today? Well, Oxford Scientific Films was founded in the UK in 1968 and is still going strong, having evolved into an award-winning producer of award-winning natural history films for broadcasters including the BBC and National Geographic.

rc37s3In her retrospective article, Pamela Duncan Looft charts the company’s progress from its genesis in the zoology department of Oxford University to a commercial outfit ‘specializing in high magnification, controlled motion, snorkel, aerial image and high-speed cinematography.’

Thanks to commissions from the BBC and Ealing Corporation, the students who founded the company soon left their academic roots behind and started making actual money. What followed was a remarkable journey characterised by constant technical innovation. Faced with such challenges as filming, for example, butterfly eggs at ultra-high magnification, co-founder Peter Parks and his team developed the dark field optical bench. This remarkable piece of equipment shaped their intense light source into a cone that left the brightly lit eggs floating against black (that’s a poor description of an incredibly clever optical device it takes Looft a whole page of text to dissect, by the way).

OSF gradually made inroads into feature films, contributing the kind of trippy effects sequences that characterised the 1970s and early 1980s. Their snorkel camera let them get up close and personal with teeny-tiny things, and they were constantly experimenting with different fluids and chemical compounds to create unique visual experiences, such as the yeast cells they pumped past the camera to create ‘cosmic explosions’ for Altered States (1980).

Looft’s article steers us through OSF’s low-budget recreation of Saturn’s rings for Saturn 3 (1980), Kara’s innerspace odyssey for Supergirl (1984) and extensive miniature work for Deepstar Six (1989). But it’s her descriptions of those innovative camera rigs that really stick in the mind, in particular the aerial image relay system with which OSF created a real-time composite of a giant dragonfly swooping through a prehistoric forest, using an impossibly unwieldy IMAX camera, a specialised snorkel lens and a whole bunch of mirrors.

Oxford Scientific Films have now gone back to their zoology roots – and remained tremendously successful to boot. That the natural world is their first love is evident in Parks’s closing remark: ‘When I look at the strange and beautiful creatures that live underwater, I am still convinced that the very best special effects are found right there.’

The pictures

The Star Trek article features lots of stills from the show but, from a historical point of view, the winning shots are those of gigantic videotape storage machines and banks of CRT monitors. This is electronic production in the dawning digital age and boy does it look clunky.

The Fly II yields up some superb behind-the-scenes shots of the movie’s mechanical monsters, many in colour. My favourite shows stunt doubles Yves Cameron and David Mylrea suspended on wires from a boom crane. Mylrea’s head is poking from the top of the full-body Martinfly suit as he ‘carries’ a nervous-looking Cameron towards the teleporter, while a pair of technicians heft equipment around them.

I’m not going to pick out an individual shot from the Oxford Scientific Films article. Rather, what strikes me about the pictures here is the amazing contrast between the behind-the-scenes photos of heavy, industrial camera rigs and the extraordinarily delicate microscopic images they produce. There are pages and pages of them both, proof that science can deliver not only truth, but beauty too.

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

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