Cinefex through the 1980s

Cinefex through the 1980sOn May 14th 2011 I wrote my first retrospective review of Cinefex, the journal of cinematic illusions. I did it on a whim, thinking it might be fun to wade through my teetering pile of back issues and reappraise some of those old-school visual effects in the light of modern techniques. Thus began my odyssey to review the first 40 issues of Cinefex, which together comprise the complete first decade of the journal’s publication, covering the years 1980-1989.

Cinefex issue #1, featuring Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien, hit the news stands in March 1980, the year there was a peanut farmer in the White House and the UK had just elected its first female prime minister. If you turned on your wireless you’d probably have heard Michael Jackson’s Rock With You, Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love or Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall. That same year, Mount Saint Helens erupted in Washington state, Chris Pine and Zooey Deschanel were born and the world had no idea that in four years time a chap called Steve Jobs would introduce Apple’s very first Macintosh computer.

Fast-forward to November 1989 and issue #40. The Oval Office is occupied by George Bush Sr and Margaret Thatcher is still hanging on by her fingernails at No 10 Downing Street. The radio’s blaring out Madonna’s Like A Prayer while the B-52s are inviting us to hop in their Chrysler (you know, the one that’s as big as a whale) and head on down to the Love Shack. The Berlin Wall came down, Daniel Radcliffe and Taylor Swift were born and NBC aired episode one of Baywatch.

Ah, seems like it was only yesterday.

So what’s inside these forty issues of Cinefex? Well, they contain 93 articles, most of them analysing a major – or not-so-major – effects film of the day, interspersed with the occasional look back at an oldie (eg Silent Running, issue #8), an examination of a particular VFX technique (eg the discussion of early CGI, #6) or a career retrospective (eg Willis O’Brien, issue #7 or Rick Baker, issue #16).

Every one of the 24 films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects during the 1980s is represented, including the ten winners, of course. By my reckoning, the collected articles contain around 1.5 million words of text. The total number of words I’ve written in my retrospectives is roughly 80,000.

Many people regard the 1980s as a golden age for visual effects. Think The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Abyss … the list of groundbreakers goes on. Reading through these back issues of Cinefex has given me a good sense of how visual effects evolved during an era when traditional photochemical, optical and practical techniques were being pushed to the limit, while all the time the new wave of digital technology was coming up on the rails.

Here are a few of the key trends I’ve spotted:

Visual effects of the 1980s

  • Flying vehicles were mostly photographed by motion control cameras under hygienic and carefully controlled conditions (The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner). But even as this technique gained dominance, a backlash against cold, clinical computer control led to renewed interest in hanging models from wires and shooting from the hip (Top Gun, The Right Stuff).
  • Stop-motion animation – for many years the standard technique for bringing strange creatures to life – went into decline. Advances in optical compositing and a desire to incorporate natural motion blur encouraged the development of go-motion and rod puppet systems (Dragonslayer, Return of the Jedi). At the same time, big advances in animatronics and makeup effects led to a boom period for puppets and men-in-suits (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, An American Werewolf in London).
  • Spectacular environments remained the domain of the traditional matte artist, usually painting on large sheets of glass just as their predecessors had in the earliest days of cinema (Blade Runner). Increasingly, however, the paintings were enhanced by camera moves and the addition of three-dimensional miniature elements (Willow).
  • In fact, moving the camera was at the top of everyone’s list. Field recorders appeared, enabling operators to gather data on camera moves during the production shoot and replicate them in miniature on the effects stage (Firefox, The Golden Child). Even when data wasn’t being recorded, increasingly sophisticated optical printers gave directors the confidence to move the camera anyway and let the VFX guys work it out later. Anything to take the ‘static camera’ curse off the effects shot. I don’t know if anyone was using the phrase ‘we’ll fix it in post’ during the 1980s, but this is where its roots lie.
  • Digital imagery hit the big screen. To begin with, it was confined to the representation of computer worlds or gaming environments (Tron, The Last Starfighter). As technology and ambition took hold, the industry saw the first dimensional, fully-rendered characters combined with live action (Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss).

For every item on the above list there are a dozen others. The story of visual effects through the 1980s is a long, complex and fascinating one. I hope one day I might explore it in more detail. After that there’s the 1990s, when Cinefex brought us articles on Terminator II: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13Titanic and The Matrix. In the 2000s it took us backstage on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, as well as other big franchise hits including Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Hot on their heels were Transformers, Iron Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek … but all that, as they say, is another story.

Before I wrap this up, there’s a few people I want to thank. First and foremost, thanks to Cinefex publisher Don Shay and his team. Not only has Don filled in the odd gaps I had in my early collection, enabling me to cover this first decade in its entirety, but he’s also regularly posted links to this blog on the Cinefex Facebook page. If you haven’t done so already, read the comments Don has added at the foot of some of my articles, in which he gives his own unique insights into the more memorable issues.

I’d also like to thank John deNardo at the award-winning SF Signal, who’s linked to all the articles as they’ve appeared.

But most of all I’d like to thank you for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey as much as I have. Now, as I promised myself, I’m going to have a little lie down …

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