Annihilation

Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“It’s making something new.” So says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) about the alien infestation occupying an area of coastal swampland in Annihilation. ‘Something new’ is exactly what writer-director Alex Garland has delivered, in his adaptation of the acclaimed science fiction novel by Jeff Vandermeer.

I read the novel a few years ago, shortly after it won the 2014 Nebula Award and some time before it was announced that a film was in the offing. In his strange tale about a party of unnamed scientists exploring Area X, a restricted zone that may or may not have been contaminated by an otherworldly presence, Vandermeer serves up a banquet in which every dish is full of extraordinary flavours, yet somehow you’re never quite sure about what it is you’re eating. You’re grasping, constantly, for a meaning that always eludes you, yet somehow this is never frustrating. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s the only meal I’ve ever eaten where I’ve ended full to bursting, yet hungry for more.

Annihilation posterIf you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said the novel was unfilmable. To my delight, Alex Garland has no truck with that notion. Structuring the human stories in  way that’s accessible to a movie audience, he’s mapped a narrative course that provides the sense of resolution that the novel deliberately avoids, without losing any of the tantalising weirdness. Right at the end, there’s even a suggestion this film is but one facet of the growing body of work that Garland began with his cautionary tale about artificial intelligence, Ex Machina.

Portman leads magnificently, but her co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac are as immersed in their roles as their characters are immersed in Area X. However, it’s with its visuals that the film shine – often quite literally. I frequently couldn’t tell where Rob Hardy’s caustic cinematography left off and Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects took over. From the soap bubble glare of the ‘shimmer’ – a kind of barrier that conceals Area X from the outside world – to the bizarre flora and fauna beyond, Annihilation brings you the very best kind of sights: those you’ve never seen before.

Best of all, Alex Garland isn’t afraid to celebrate the strange. The film’s climax builds around a decidedly peculiar encounter with something that almost makes sense, yet which you know is just a tantalising glimpse of something ineffable. Throughout, Garland allows his camera to linger on some of the most intriguing images I’ve ever seen in cinema. Even after just one viewing, I’m convinced Annihilation belongs among the sci-fi greats. Am I overstating it? I don’t think so.

It’s a shame the film didn’t get a theatrical release outside the U.S., where it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. Everywhere else it’s on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, Netflix is fine, and my TV screen was big enough to give me a reasonable sense of what it might be like to venture into Area X. Still, given Garland’s penchant for holding the camera back and offering long, wide views of remarkable things, I’d love to see Annihilation on the big screen.

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.”

 

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.

 

 

Cinefex 150 – Arrival and Allied

Cinefex 150

Looking for an extra stocking filler this Christmas? Then try the latest issue of Cinefex. It’s packed with meaty behind-the-scenes articles on four of this season’s biggest movies – Doctor Strange, Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Allied.

As soon as Arrival landed on my assignment list for this issue, I went straight out and bought Ted Chiang’s short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others, which contains the novella from which the movie is adapted. The story blew me away, and set me up nicely to interview visual effects supervisor Louis Morin and a bunch of talented artists from Hybride Technologies, Oblique FX, Rodeo FX, Raynault VFX, Framestore, Fly Studio and MELS VFX.

Arrival PosterI also got the lowdown on the design of Arrival, speaking with production designer Patrice Vermette – who together with his wife, artist Martine Bertrand, conceived the extraordinary graphic appearance of the alien ‘logograms’ – and with concept artist Carlos Huante, who developed the look of the alien visitors themselves. My only regret is that, despite my best efforts, I never managed to pin down director Denis Villeneuve for an interview. Mind you, at the time he was hard at work on the set of Blade Runner 2049, so I suppose I can forgive him …

My other assignment for Cinefex 150 was the wartime romance Allied, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie guided me through the movie’s re-creation of 1940s Casablanca and a bomb-torn London, with visuals brought to the screen by Atomic Fiction, UPP and Raynault VFX. Having spent a fair chunk of my boyhood avidly building Airfix construction kits, I also enjoyed speaking with an engaging fellow called Dave Hobson, whose company Gateguards UK built a full-scale replica Westland Lysander aircraft for the film.

As for what’s coming up, well, I’ve already submitted my single assignment for issue 151 – an in-depth look at the fast-emerging VR industry, primarily from the perspective of the many visual effects professionals who have made the move into the virtual realm. Despite putting that one to bed, I’m not ready to wind down for Christmas yet – as I write this blog, I’m deep into interviews for my next pair of articles in Cinefex 152, out next April. I won’t reveal what movies I’m covering just yet, except to tell you one of them looks set to be my most monstrous assignment to date!

 

Cinefex 149 – Chariots and Spaceships

Cinefex 149It’s in a mild state of dizziness that I’m announcing the publication of Cinefex 149, the latest edition of the world’s leading visual effects magazine. Why so dizzy? Because not only have I just submitted my two articles for the following issue 150, but I’m about to launch into wall-to-wall interviews for issue 151! Issue 149? Ah, it seems so long ago …

Luckily, I remember vividly writing my two articles for this October 2016 issue. The first goes behind the scenes on Timur Bekmambetov’s reimagined Ben-Hur. The movie may have underperformed at the box office, but trust me, the story of how it got made has all the blood and thunder you could wish for.

As well as speaking with the talented visual effects teams at Mr. X, Scanline and Soho VFX, I was also lucky enough to interview Ben-Hur second unit director Phil Neilson, who staged the high-speed chariot race for real in a full-scale Roman Circus set at Italy’s Cinecittà World. If you want to get down and dirty with what it really takes to put a major action scene on the screen, this one’s for you. Here’s a brief extract:

Rigorous safety regimes ensured that the shoot concluded without major incident, and no horses were injured. Nevertheless, with the principal performers riding front and center, in chariots regularly hitting speeds of 40 miles per hour in a dust-filled arena, there was no disguising the danger. “I think that was probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my career,” asserted special effects supervisor Andy Williams, veteran of action films including Mad Max: Fury Road and Black Hawk Down. “A car or motorbike has got an off switch. Four one-ton horses don’t. Once they’re going flat out, it’s virtually impossible to stop them.”

My second article chronicles the making of Approaching the Unknown, a rather wonderful low-budget sci-fi movie written and directed by Mark Elijah Rosenberg. It was a delight to chat with Mark and his close-knit team of filmmakers, who resurrected 1980s motion control camera equipment to photograph deep-space sequences using miniature spaceships, cloud tanks and all manner of old-school techniques. Talk about a labour of love.

Cinefex 149 leads with Joe Fordham’s stunning article on Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, and also contains in-depth stories on Suicide Squad and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, written by Joe and Jody Duncan respectively. It’s available on newsstands, or through the Cinefex online store, links below.

Warp Speed and Warcraft

Cinefex 148

Cinefex 148 has hit newsstands at warp speed, with four big articles on four big movies: Star Trek Beyond, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Legend of Tarzan.

With two stories on my plate for this issue, I started out by tackling Warcraft. I started work at the beginning of April 2016, figuring that since the film more or less wrapped in 2015, it would be relatively easy to get people to talk about it. Not so! Because everyone involved had moved on to other projects, scheduling interviews made for much ducking and diving, trying to pin folk down and getting them to dig into – in some cases – two-year-old memories.

Happily, everyone was very keen to talk about this fascinating project, which broke new ground in its use of large-scale performance capture. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer chatted with me for over an hour from his hotel room, during a rare moment of rest from his duties on Wonder Woman. The VFX team from Industrial Light & Magic shared stories of orcs and magic, as did their stalwart support crews at Hybride Technologies and Rodeo FX. The guys at Giant and Animatrik taught me everything I always wanted to know about performance capture but was too afraid to ask. Icing the cake, I got to spend over 30 minutes on the phone with Warcraft‘s director, the smart and ever-charming Duncan Jones.

While Warcraft was all about getting my interviewees to recall the past, my second story – on Star Trek Beyond – was uncompromisingly futuristic. And I’m not just talking about the spaceships. Interviewing through May 2016, I was asking people to open up about a movie they were still working on, and which wouldn’t even be released until July! Talk about writing by the seat of your pants. Thanks to visual effects producer Ron Ames and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, I secured interviews with all the key players at primary vendor Double Negative, not to mention the VFX crew at Atomic Fiction. Joel Harlow described the challenges of producing over 50 alien prosthetic makeups for a single movie, and I was lucky enough to get Justin Lin, thus nailing my second director interview of the issue.

All that’s just half of what you’ll find in Cinefex 148. Grab yourself a copy, and you’ll also get to see Jody Duncan battle the alien invaders of Independence Day: Resurgence, and Joe Fordham swing through the trees in pursuit of The Legend of Tarzan. Order now from the online store:

Apocalypse Rises in Cinefex

Cinefex 147 - X-Men Apocaylpse article by Graham Edwards

The new edition of Cinefex is out, and with June in full swing it’s no surprise that this one’s full of big summer movies. Dominating the cover, and roaring through the pages of Joe’s story on The Jungle Book, is that ferocious feline Shere Khan. Joe also covered Alice Through the Looking Glass, while Jody went into battle with Captain America: Civil War.

My assignment was X-Men: Apocalypse, for which I had the great pleasure of interviewing visual effects designer John Dykstra. Movie fans will know that Mr. Dykstra is one of the grand old men of the business, having led the team that created the effects for the original Star Wars back in 1977. He was charming, erudite and ferociously intelligent, and speaking with him was the icing on a cake mixed from wide-ranging interviews with the teams at MPC, Digital Domain, Rising Sun Pictures and others, plus makeup and prosthetics wizards John Rosengrant, Jose Fernandez and Adrien Morot.

If you like tigers, mutants, superheroes or Victorian time travel, Cinefex 147 is for you. Order your copy now from the online store:

Cinefex 145 Now Available

Cinefex 145

There’s something hot on my coffee table.

It’s issue 145 of Cinefex, and it’s hot because (a) it’s just been published; (b) it has the Millennium Falcon on the cover (signalling the presence of a drop-everything-and-read-it-now article by my colleague Joe Fordham about Star Wars: The Force Awakens); (c) it contains my first article for the magazine as senior staff writer, namely a soup-to-nuts look behind the scenes on the 24th James Bond film, Spectre; and (d) as an extra bonus, it’s also managed to sneak in an updated reprint of my Q&A on the visual effects of the sleek sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.

Also inside this new edition are in-depth articles about awards season favourite The Revenant, and ocean-going melodrama The Finest Hours.

Golly. It doesn’t get much hotter than that.

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