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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