Cinefex Diaries – Venom and Alpha

Cinefex 161

The new Cinefex is just out, with Joe Fordham’s epic story on First Man gracing the cover. This issue, two of the five articles are mine, and they couldn’t have been more different.

First up is Alpha, which I actually finished writing in December 2017, ready for our February 2018 issue. When the film’s release date got bumped to the autumn, we rescheduled the story for inclusion in Cinefex 161. To cover this Ice Age tale of a young hunter’s friendship with a lone wolf, I spoke not only with visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun and the many artists under his direction, but also archaeological consultant Dr. Jill Cook from the British Museum, and animal trainer Mark Forbes. It’s fascinating where the research takes you sometimes and, in my quest to tell the story of how a team of talented filmmakers brought a wolf called Alpha to the screen, I ended up going to some pretty interesting places.

I worked frantically on my Venom assignment all the way through the summer, arranging interviews with visual effects co-supervisors Paul Franklin and Sheena Duggal, the team of artists at DNEG, director Ruben Fleischer, and a ton of other people, all while they were working frantically on getting the film finished for its October release. It’s a tough gig trying to join the dots on a story like this, when you’re interviewing people who haven’t necessarily drawn all the dots yet! The upside of all that hair-tearing is that the Cinefex story on Venom hit newsstands barely a week after the film was released. It doesn’t get more timely than that!

As always, I had fun putting together the promo video for Cinefex 161, which goes from historic first steps to shark-infested depths with its stories on First Man, Venom, Alpha, The Meg and A.X.L. Here it is:

Cinefex 160 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon be touching down in your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, which features tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Cinefex Diaries – Kessel Runner

Cinefex 160 - Solo: A Star Wars Story

The August edition of Cinefex is out, and I’m chuffed to have the cover with my article on Solo: A Star Wars Story. I had a whale of a time researching and writing this one, interviewing the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic, creature designer Neal Scanlan, special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy and many others.

I also checked off a personal bucket list item by chatting with director Ron Howard. Here’s a snippet from my interview with him:

“This isn’t a war movie with an ensemble cast. It’s about young Han’s rite of passage, running this gauntlet on his quest for freedom. I wanted to make it first-person and put the audience right alongside Han throughout the adventure, to give it an urgency and excitement … There are always elements of the American Western and Kurosawa’s samurai films in Star Wars and I wanted to add a kind of ‘70s energy to all that — which was already there in the mind’s eye of Larry and Jon Kasdan, who wrote with kind of a rock‘n’roll vibe. In addition, I always remembered that A New Hope had a very unpretentious attitude about the spaceships, the worlds. George Lucas always said you have to throw all that stuff away. Don’t go for beauty shots. Don’t linger.”

You’ll hear more from Ron in the complete article, along with a ton of juicy behind-the-scenes stories explaining exactly how the design and effects teams made their movie magic.

With the Millennium Falcon on the front cover on Cinefex 160, I naturally went all sci-fi with this issue’s accompanying promo video. It’s a mere minnow compared to the whale-sized visual effects feast that is Solo: A Star Wars Story, but I had a heap of fun putting it together.

The print edition of Cinefex 160 is on newsstands now, and available to order at the online store. The iPad edition features tons more photographs and exclusive video content, including visual effects breakdown reels for Ant-Man and the Wasp and Solo: A Star Wars Story prepared especially for Cinefex by Marvel Studios and ILM respectively.

Cinefex Diaries – Going Solo

Cinefex 159 - Pacific Rim Uprising

My latest Cinefex story is Heft and Jank, an in-depth article on Pacific Rim Uprising, hot off the press in our June 2018 issue, Cinefex 159. I described the work that went into it in an earlier blog post – check it out here. Even while I was wrapping up the robots and monsters, however, I was gearing up for my next two articles, which have taken up all my time since then.

Deadpool 2First up was Deadpool 2. I was looking forward to this one, having written the Cinefex story on the original Deadpool back in 2016. It didn’t disappoint.

My interview list for Deadpool 2 covered a lot of ground, from production visual effects supervisor Dan Glass through all the many VFX vendors who worked on the show, namely DNEG, Framestore, Method Studios, Weta Digital, Soho VFX, Crafty Apes and Digital Makeup Group.

I also chatted with special effects supervisor Mike Vézina, makeup designer Bill Corso, aviation effects supervisor Doug Scroggins, and the previs supervisors at Unit Eleven, Image Engine and The Third Floor. Last and definitely not least came the film’s director, the supremely talented David Leitch.

Deadpool 2 took a lot of wrangling, but it was nothing compared to my second assignment – Solo: A Star Wars Story, the final draft of which I delivered just a couple of hours ago. This is the first time I’ve covered a Star Wars movie for Cinefex, so I was determined to get it right.

I ended up with another long list of interviewees, kicking off with production visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow, plus the visual effects teams at Industrial Light & Magic – who led the project – Hybride Technologies and Tippett Studio.

Then there were the guys at BLIND LTD, creature supervisor Neal Scanlan, special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy and costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon. And yes, I did manage to pin down director Ron Howard for a telephone interview during which he proved that he really is one of the nicest men in the business. As a movie fan who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, getting to chinwag with Ron was absolutely a bucket list moment.

I’ll tell you more about these two articles in a future blog post. Right now, all you need to know is that they’ll be appearing in Cinefex 160, which you can preorder from the website here.

Even as I was winding up Solo, was getting my ducks in a row for my next assignment, which looks set to start later this week. As for what film I’m covering, you’ll just have to wait and see …

Revisiting Cinefex (13): Return of the Jedi

Cinefex 13 - Return of the JediI reckon the front cover of Cinefex issue #13 must have shot off the press like a rocket, featuring as it does a dynamic still of the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy (AKA that most famous of pirate ships, the Millennium Falcon) speeding through the innards of the second Death Star. Open the cover and there’s a rather more sedate black and white shot of Jedi master Yoda, looking as inscrutable as ever. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, this issue’s 72 pages are devoted entirely to the closing chapter of George Lucas’s Star Wars saga: Return of the Jedi.

  • Jedi Journal (edited by Don Shay)

When I first set out on this retrospective odyssey through my back-issues of Cinefex, I remarked on the journal’s clutter-free format: no editorial, no advertising (not in the early days at least), just the facts, ma’am. It’s a simple concept, and a versatile one too. In the issues I’ve reviewed so far there’s been a creditable mix of articles ranging from coverage of then-current blockbusters, to retrospectives on prominent practitioners, to reports on the growing impact of computer technology on Hollywood. The single extensive article in issue #13 rings the changes yet again in that, although edited by publisher Don Shay, it hands over the actual writing reins to the VFX artists themselves.

The artists in question are ILM’s Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston, each of whom supervised a more or less equal share of Return of the Jedi‘s visual effects. According to this issue’s introduction, they each ‘recorded a month-by-month account of the work as it developed and changed.’ I don’t know if the journals were written exclusively for Cinefex, or if Shay negotiated access to material that was already being produced; either way, the format promises an intriguing insight into what really went on behind the Star Wars scenes. Does the resulting article live up to that promise? Let’s find out.

Return of the Jedi

It’s Richard Edlund who kicks things off with his initial round-up from February 1982, before ILM had really got going on the project. Edlund – who summarises his role at ILM as ‘architect of the whole photographic system’ – gives us a technical run-down of all the equipment upgrades that have been made ready for Jedi. These include tuning up the quad printer that was built for The Empire Strikes Back, revamping the motion control system and refining the field motion control technology used briefly on Raiders of the Lost Ark and more extensively on Poltergeist. He’s particularly excited about the new multiplane matte camera, which he describes as ‘a real locomotive.’ Edlund’s descriptions are a little like those exploded diagrams you get in technical manuals: precise, in-depth and ever-so-slightly obsessive. If you were handy with a spanner, you could probably build a complete visual effects facility just using his notes.

rc13rjEdlund goes on to discuss videomatics (an early form of pre-vis using crude models and hand-held video cameras) and muses on whether they’ll get to do the lasers and light sabers with CG (they didn’t). There’s a real sense of anticipation here, of an experienced team building up both resources and energy for a big push. And a sense too that Star Wars is something special. As Edlund puts it, ‘the real raison d’etre [for ILM] is Star Wars‘ – the implication being that all those recent little projects like Raiders and E.T. and Poltergeist were just warm-ups for the main event.

As the article progresses, Edlund’s reports are interleaved with those of Muren and Ralston, creating an overlapping narrative of the pressure-cooker environment that ILM became through the course of the production. As well as detailing their own work, the three men refer frequently to what their colleagues are up to. Occasionally this leads to repetition – the only flaw in this otherwise effective format – but that’s more than made up for by the immediacy of the text.

One of the things I enjoyed about this issue was the number of times I read about problems that had never really occurred to me before – for example, establishing and maintaining the relative sizes of the various spaceships, particularly as they fly through the Death Star tunnels. The models are all built to different scales, and there are variants within each type (the X-Wing variants, for example, range in size from eighteen inches to four feet). The tunnels themselves are different again. It’s all about trajectories and angles and focal distances and, according to Edlund, it takes ‘a certain amount of schoolboy math’ to calculate the correct size ratios. ‘You’d think that there’d be a mathematical relationship,’ Edlund adds, ‘but it’s just too subjective for that.’ [Read more…]

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