Cinefex Diaries – Thor: Ragnarok

Marvel Studios Thor: Ragnarok. L to R: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Photo: Film Frame. ©Marvel Studios 2017

Marvel Studios Thor: Ragnarok. L to R: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Photo: Film Frame. ©Marvel Studios 2017

Cinefex 155 hits the streets in just a few days, with headline coverage of Blade Runner 2049 (plus my own article on The Dark Tower). I’ll talk about that in a separate blog post very soon. Right now, I’m dusting down my desk after submitting my final draft articles for Cinefex 156, which is out just before Christmas, and gearing up for the next issue after that – that’s out in February 2018. The magazine has a long lead time, so we need to plan ahead!

Thor: Ragnarok poster

My first Cinefex 156 assignment – which I began towards the end of August 2017 and worked on through into October – was Thor: Ragnarok. Although I’ve been working at Cinefex for a while now, this is the first Marvel Studios film I’ve covered – and over the years the magazine has covered ‘em all. The article turned out to be the biggest I’ve worked on to date, not least because of the huge number of visual effects vendors involved.

The scale of the task first became apparent when I spoke with Jake Morrison, production visual effects supervisor at Marvel. I told him that I was working from a shortlist of 10 companies. After a pause at the other end of the line, Jake said (I could hear the smile in his voice): “Yeah … we’re up to 18 now.”

That was just the start. Some of those 18 companies offered me interviews with more than one person. Then there were all the other people I needed to speak to – virtual production, special effects, speciality costumes … the list went on. In the end, I conducted 29 interviews, generating over 70,000 words of transcript. Believe me, when you’ve got so much material to work with, the tricky part isn’t what to put in, it’s what to leave out.

In the middle of my interview schedule, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with Victoria Alonso, executive vice president of physical production at Marvel Studios. Shortly afterwards, Victoria arranged for me to see a cut of the film, even though it was only around 65 percent complete. Marvel is fantastically – and unusually – supportive like that. Frequently my colleagues and I have to work blind. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to actually see the film you’re writing about, even when some of the sequences are unfinished – especially then, actually. Viewing a cut that’s littered with previs, postvis and temp shots gives you great insight into what’s really going on behind the curtain.

I also got to speak with Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok. Taika was a gem. He emerged bleary-eyed from an all-day shot approval session barely a fortnight before the film was due for delivery, and chatted with me for a full 30 minutes before plunging back into the inky darkness of the screening room. Not only did Taika talk about his approach to directing the film, but he also shared some amusing insights about his experiences wearing a motion capture suit to portray a Kronan rock monster called Korg.

Next time, I’ll tell you about my second article for Cinefex 156 – Guillermo del Toro’s delightful fantasy The Shape of Water. If you’re into romance and monsters, you’re going to love this one!

Writing Star Trek for Cinefex with Scrivener

"Star Trek Beyond" in Cinefex

I write for Cinefex, a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. In 2016, one of the many films I covered was Star Trek Beyond. Want to know how I tackled it? I’ll tell you.

First up, a few facts and figures. My Star Trek Beyond article was 8,300 words long – about average for the magazine. With photos, that equated to 21 printed pages. While researching the story I interviewed 13 people, generating roughly 45,000 words of interview transcript. From first interview to final reviewed draft, it took me five weeks to put the article together. In any one year, I’ll write a minimum of nine stories of similar scope.

Enough with the numbers. The job is all about the words, right? Quite a lot of them, as you’ll already have gathered.

I wrote my Star Trek Beyond story using my weapon of choice: Scrivener. I use this software for two reasons. First, during the research phase I’ll end up accruing about a zillion bits of information; Scrivener lets me keep everything organised within a single project window – transcripts, background notes, multiple manuscript drafts, handy image files, you name it. Second, the software lets me work on small sections of a draft as individual text files, but by switching views I can string those files together as a single manuscript. Given all the disparate chunks of information I’m wrangling at any one time, that’s really useful.

The Star Trek Beyond article started its life as an empty ‘Cinefex’ template, as shown in the image below. I’ve developed this format over time – it has a simple folder structure filled with all the basic placeholder documents that I know I’m going to need.

Blank Cinefex template in Scrivener

All my Cinefex articles start with this blank Scrivener template.

The ‘Title’ folder is my basic draft manuscript and contains just three files: ‘Introduction;’ an empty text template called ‘One;’ and ‘Conclusion.’ I use the ‘Special Thanks’ file to record the names of people who’ll get a credit at the end of the story, and I use ‘Titles’ to jot down possible titles for the article (this list grows as I write, and I rarely decide upon the actual title until I’ve finished). Below all these sit the ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Research’ folders. The former is a repository for all the interview material; the latter stores, well, everything else.

The USS Enterprise navigates the Necrocloud in "Star Trek Beyond"

As always, the real work on my Star Trek Beyond  story began with the interviews. Once I’d secured permission from the film studio, I spoke to everybody on my list, transcribed the interviews as a separate text documents, and pasted each one into my ‘Transcripts’ folder.

In a perfect world, I’d get all my interviews done first before starting to write. It almost never happens that way – something inevitably jams up the works. With Star Trek Beyond, I began to write the article when my ‘Transcripts’ folder was about half full.

I didn’t start writing at the beginning. Why? Because at this stage, I had no idea how I was going to structure the article. I had no beginning. Instead, I picked one of the many subjects that came up in interview – pretty much a random choice – and wrote a brief paragraph about it, supported by quotes copied and pasted from the relevant transcripts. For Star Trek Beyond, that starter subject happened to be the outer shell of the Yorktown space station, which I wrote about in a little document called (not surprisingly) ‘Shell.’

From there, I bounced on to other related topics – the space station’s superstructure, its atmosphere, the aliens that live in it. Each topic got its own document – based on my empty ‘One’ text template – but I didn’t yet start worrying about how they connected together. For now, I just treated them as free-floating index cards.

When it became clear that Yorktown was a major topic in its own right, I created a folder called (you guessed it) ‘Yorktown’ and put all those individual documents inside it. As time went on, I added other topic folders, such as ‘Enterprise Takedown’ and ‘Altimid,’ and rapidly filled those up too. Soon I had lots of folders on the go and was bouncing between them constantly, endlessly revising what I’d already written, adding new material, reordering text files by sliding them around in the Binder, constantly updating.

As the article grew, a structure slowly began to emerge. As we frequently do at Cinefex, I allowed the main body of my account to follow the narrative of the film, but for various reasons I chose to write a early standalone section about the film’s newly-built USS Enterprise. I also made inroads into framing material like the introduction, a short synopsis of the film, and some notes on the overall production and the way the visual effects team operated. Since I was lucky enough to speak with the film’s director, Justin Lin, I devoted an early section of the article to his comments. Justin also gave me some great closing remarks, which I combined with some insights from visual effects producer Ron Ames to help create my conclusion.

Locking down the structure enabled me to smooth out the joins between all those individual text files. Sometimes that was easy, but often I had to rework paragraphs or write new linking sections to join the dots. By this point, I was mostly working on the manuscript as a whole, rather than treating it as an assembly of separate files (Scrivener lets you switch seamlessly between the two ways of working). Working at the macro scale shone a spotlight on all the areas where I’d repeated myself, or waffled on too long about this, or given short shrift to that. So all that needed fixing too.

"Star Trek Beyond" Cinefex article - final Scrivener document

The final Scrivener document for my “Star Trek Beyond” article.

When I was happy with my final draft I used Scrivener’s ‘Compile’ function to export the manuscript ready for final editing in Word – the usual rounds of nipping, tucking and general tinkering. It’s weird, but documents always read differently in Word. Don’t ask me why.

My final copy edit marked the end of all the heavy lifting, although it was far from the end of the process. Cinefex editor Jody Duncan did her own pass over the manuscript and a separate review stage made sure all the facts were correct. After that came proofreading, typesetting and more proofreading. When I was deep into my next assignment, I received a set of all the images chosen to illustrate my Star Trek Beyond story, at which point I set about writing captions for both the print and iPad editions of the magazine. Only when that task was done could I finally wipe Star Trek Beyond off my ‘to-do’ list.

Every article I write for Cinefex is different, but I tackle them all in a similar way. The key to building big articles from a plethora of research is to keep all your raw material within easy reach, and to give the story room to breathe and grow organically at its own pace. Above all, never assume that you know what the story is when you first set out to write. The story will reveal itself to you when it’s good and ready. It’s all about trust.

Cinefex 148You can read my Star Trek Beyond article in Cinefex 148, available to order online at the Cinefex website. And you can download Scrivener for either Mac, Windows or iOS from the Literature and Latte website. If you’re feeling really bold, do both.

Cinefex 153 – High Octane Aliens

Cinefex 153

Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror flick Alien is probably my favourite film of all time. So imagine how thrilled I was to get the gig covering Alien: Covenant for the new issue of Cinefex. Since the average Cinefex article runs to about 26 pages (yes, we really do dig deep with our stories), that’s a big gig.

As I discovered during my interviews, Sir Ridley likes to capture as much as possible in camera – even when he knows it will ultimately be digitally replaced. So the creature team led by Conor O’Sullivan and Adam Johansen spent a lot of time building alien puppets of all shapes and sizes, and operating them while covered in fake blood and KY jelly. Visual effects supervisor Charley Henley led teams at MPC, Framestore, Animal Logic, Luma, Rising Sun Pictures, Atomic Fiction and Peerless Camera Company to take the cosmic critters to the next level, and surround them with alien environments and supersized spaceships.

My second article this issue is on The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in the hugely successful Fast & Furious franchise. Confession: before I started work on my story, I hadn’t seen a single one of the previous movies. My first step therefore was to binge watch all seven films back to back – which was a lot more fun than I’d anticipated. Researching and writing the article was more enjoyable still. I spoke with visual effects supervisor Michael Wassel and the teams at Digital Domain, Double Negative, Pixomondo, Rodeo FX, Cantina Creative, Trixter and RISE, but the highlight was undoubtedly my two-and-a-half-hour chat with special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm, who enlightened me on all the ridiculously over-the-top practical gags and stunts he staged for the film, from chucking one bunch of cars out of a high-rise garage, to smashing another lot to pieces with a giant wrecking ball, to blowing up a frozen Icelandic lake.

My stories aren’t even the half of it, of course. Our cover boy this issue is Rocket Raccoon, so no prize for guessing that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is our lead article, written by the inestimable Joe Fordham, who also donned his thermoptic suit to cover the new live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. Neatly bookending Alien: Covenant is Jody Duncan’s spine-tingling story on Life, which rounds out Cinefex 153 with an extra dose of orbital terror.

Cinefex 153 is on newsstands now, and available to order at the Cinefex online store. The enhanced iPad edition features tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Animated Insanity With “Mad God (Part 3)”

Phil Tippett animates a scene from "Mad God"

If you’re a fan of stop-motion animation, icky underworlds and slavering monsters, you’ll want to jump on board the Mad God express.

Mad God (Part 3), the third instalment in a series of nightmarish short films by legendary animator and visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, is now looking for backers on Kickstarter. Not that it’s likely to have any trouble hitting its funding target – less than two days into the campaign it’s already over the halfway mark.

The Mad God series takes its audience on a dreamlike descent through a Miltonian underworld filled with bizarre and horrifying creatures. In Phil’s own words, “It’s bringing you to that moment just after waking up from a dream, frozen, exploring fragments of your feral mind before they fade back into the shadows.”


“Alien: Covenant” Crew Remembers “Alien”

The xenomorph returns in Alien: Covenant

While researching my upcoming Cinefex article on Alien: Covenant, I spoke at length with supervisors in the visual effects, creature effects, and special effects departments. At the end of each interview, I asked everyone the same question:

“What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?”

As a long-time fan of the film, I had a hunch that most people just can’t shake off the effects of early exposure to Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi horror movie. We never forget what we see in the shadows as a kid, right? As for those darned facehuggers … they do have a tendency to cling.

Was my hunch right? Head over to the Cinefex blog now and wallow in the reminiscences of visual effects supervisor Charley Henley, creature effects designer Conor O’Sullivan, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and many, many more.

A Kingdom Rises This Month

Crown of Three - A Kingdom Rises

It’s always a good day when a new author’s comp drops into my mailbox. Here’s the latest: A Kingdom Rises, the final instalment of my fantasy trilogy for middle grade readers, with yours truly writing under the pseudonym J.D. Rinehart. It’s out in hardback on May 30, 2017, so if you haven’t read the first two volumes now is the perfect time to catch up.

Here’s the blurb from the inside jacket cover:

An ancient prophecy says that when three stars appear in the sky, triplets will take the throne and peace will come to the land. The stars have appeared, and the triplets are Gulph, Tarlan and Elodie. But the prophecy has failed.

Tarlan saw Gulph die during a final confrontation with their undead father. Gulph fell from a burning tower, and there’s no way he could have survived … even with Gulph’s special abilities.

As for his sister, Elodie, Tarlan is convinced that she’s a traitor who betrayed the rebellion and her family just so she could have the throne to herself.

With nothing left to believe in, Tarlan is abandoning both the cause and his pack of wild animals and is heading north.

But appearances can be deceiving. And in a world of magic and deceit, mistaking lies for truth can be deadly.

There’s a Big Ape On My Desk

Cinefex 152

I don’t actually remember the first time I saw Merian C. Cooper’s classic 1933 monster movie King Kong. It was probably late at night when I was a spotty teenager, and I was probably watching on the little black and white telly in my bedroom – grateful that for once I was missing out on all the colours.

However, I do know that I watched King Kong again on VHS tape not long after I’d developed an unhealthy passion for animation and visual effects –specifically, after viewing a documentary on the making of The Empire Strikes Back. As I recall, this early version of the now-familiar “Special Features” section of your average Blu-ray contained a bunch of clips from old-school sci-fi features,  including Them, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and – of course – King Kong. Most of those old films were already familiar to me. But as soon as I realised how much those clever fellows at Industrial Light & Magic loved them, I knew I had to watch them all over again.

After rediscovering King Kong, I bought The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, along with issue 7 of an imported American magazine called Cinefex – an issue devoted entirely to a long article by Don Shay on the life of King Kong animator and special effects technician Willis O’Brien. The more I read, the more I began to appreciate the esoteric intricacies of stop-motion animation, glass paintings and traveling mattes. I put my faith in that big old ape, and he’s never let me down since.

Imagine my delight when, nearly forty years later, I got to write a lengthy article for the 152nd issue of Cinefex on Kong: Skull Island, the latest adventure for Cooper’s prodigiously proportioned primate – with animation and visual effects by, you guessed it, Industrial Light & Magic (ably supported by Hybride Technologies and Rodeo FX, I should add). I was especially pleased to score an interview with the new film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an enthusiastic fellow with a big personality and an even bigger beard.

Cinefex 152 also contains my story on Logan, the last outing for Hugh Jackman as the grumpy mutant slasher Wolverine. One of the best bits about writing this article was hearing the glee in the voices of my interviewees as they described the various ways they’d embraced the film’s R-rating. From the makeup department’s stash of silicone severed limbs to the visual effects department’s gory research into ballistic dummy weapon testing (Google it, if you’ve got the stomach), the whole assignment was a blood-splattered treat from start to finish.

Cinefex 152 is on newsstands now, and available to order at the Cinefex online store. The enhanced iPad edition features tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

The Dreamsmiths Unleashed

The Dreamsmiths Unleashed - virtual reality in Cinefex 151

My Cinefex assignments usually require me to peek behind the scenes on the latest feature films. This issue, my task was a little different. Inspired by the recent boom in virtual reality, the editorial team decided it was high time we took a look at the brave new world of immersive entertainment.

As a VR virgin, I had a basic working knowledge of virtual reality, but little more. Still, it’s sometimes better to go in baggage-free than laden with preconceptions. But where to start?

A quick round of research confirmed what I already suspected – VR hardware and software are developing so fast that even the online technology sites are having a hard time keeping up. Published every two months, Cinefex has a long-lead production schedule, meaning any attempt to make this a tech-based article was doomed to failure.

That was fine by me. While I knew I’d be talking tech to a degree, what really interested me were the creative challenges faced by industry professionals as they explored new ways of working in a largely untried medium. As I began to contact potential interviewees, it soon became clear that a surprisingly large number of people working in virtual reality come from the world of visual effects – Cinefex’s specialist subject.

I ended up with 22 interviewees, and after hours of conversation found that I’d amassed around 80,000 words of transcript. Topics ranged from shooting methodologies to camera tech, creative philosophies to nuts-and-bolts issues like how do you edit a 360-degree film? In an immersive experience should you acknowledge the presence of the viewer? When the camera sees everything, where the heck do you hide the crew?

With so much material, it took me a long time and many drafts to find structure in the chaos. It was my visual effects contacts who came to the rescue, when I realised that through their many and varied experiences I could track all the aspects of virtual reality that I wanted to cover – they effectively became my guides.

Among those who helped steer me along my path were: Ben Grossmann – visual effects supervisor of Hugo and now boss of VR specialists Magnopus; Robert Stromberg – production designer on Avatar, director of Maleficent and now head of The Virtual Reality Company; John Gaeta – visual effects supervisor of the Matrix movies, now creating VR experiences in the Star Wars universe at ILMxLAB; Saschka Unseld, director of Pixar’s The Blue Umbrella and creative director at Oculus Story Studio … the list goes on, and I’m grateful to each and every one of the people who gave me their time.

Cinefex 151If you want to get clued up on everything that’s fizzing right now in virtual reality, you can read my article, The Dreamsmiths Unleashed, in Cinefex 151. Picking up a copy means you also get to enjoy in-depth coverage of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Westworld, Passengers and A Monster Calls.



3rd Strike Reviews “Crown of Three”

Crown of Three: The Lost Realm - Dutch EditionHaving devoured Crown of Three, my fantasy novel for younger readers, review site 3rd Strike has tucked into its sequel, The Lost Realm. Here’s an extract from the online review of the Dutch edition:

“J. D. Rinehart (Graham Edwards) shows he can come up with an interesting plot that still runs very strongly in this second installment of the series … The Lost Realm is an exciting continuation of the story that was slowly being laid out in the first issue. In this book you’ll see how the powers of the [triplets] evolve and how their arduous quest truly kicks off. If you were into the first book, this one will surely push you to the edge of your seat in this constant struggle to finally liberate Toronia from the evil that runs amok.”

I would be failing in my duty, however, if I did not share this warning from the reviewer:

“Before you know it, the casualties are piling up, again invoking that Game of Thrones for teenagers vibe, which actually works quite well for this series. That being said, perhaps for some ten-year olds this series might be a bit too violent, as some gory scenes are described in detail.”

You have been warned!

The Lost Realm Cover Choice


The Lost Realm - German and Czech editions

I’m spoiled for choice. Having just received the German and Czech editions of The Lost Realm, my fantasy novel for young readers, I just can’t decide which cover I prefer. Do you have a favourite?

The Lost Realm is the second volume in the ongoing Crown of Three series, written under the pseudonym J.D. Rinehart. The final volume in the saga, A Kingdom Rises, will be published by Simon & Schuster on May 30, 2017.

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