Cinefex Diaries – VIEW Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018

Last year, I remember looking wistfully at the programme for VIEW Conference 2017 and thinking what a great lineup it was. At the time, our hectic publishing schedule made it impossible for any of the Cinefex editorial team to attend, but this year is different. The stars have aligned and I’ll be heading out to Turin in October for VIEW Conference 2018, ready to report back on the proceedings via the Cinefex blog.

What’s so great about VIEW? For me, personally, it’s a chance to rub shoulders with people I’ve admired for years, among them Dennis Muren. Creative director at Industrial Light & Magic and a true legend in the field of visual effects, Dennis has been conjuring movie magic since the days of The Empire Strikes Back through Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park and beyond. Then there’s Hans Zimmer, whose epic film scores seem hellbent on filling up my iTunes library. Both Dennis and Hans are delivering keynote speeches at VIEW this year, and I can’t wait.

On top of that, VIEW will give me the chance to meet up with a bunch of visual effects supervisors I interviewed for Cinefex earlier this year, but have never actually met in person – like Rob Bredow (Solo: A Star Wars Story), Dan Glass (Deadpool 2) and Geoffrey Baumann (Black Panther). I’ll also get to prowl the conference hall in search of new victims – sorry, interviewees – watch the many presentations and, best of all, report back to our readers.

Here’s a tiny selection of highlights from the conference programme, which you can view in full at the official VIEW Conference 2018 website:

TUESDAY 23 OCTOBER

  • “Creatively Driven – The VFX For Solo: A Star Wars Story” – Rob Bredow, overall visual effects supervisor, senior vice president, executive creative director, head of ILM
  • “Step into my Music – Hans Zimmer
  • Black Panther” – Geoffrey Baumann, overall visual effects supervisor, Marvel Studios

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER

  • Westworld” – Jay Worth, overall visual effects supervisor, HBO
  • Venom” – Troy Saliba, animation director, DNEG
  • Adrift” – Dadi Einarsson, visual effects supervisor, co-founder, RVX
  • Avengers: Infinity War” – Matt Aitken, visual effects supervisor, Weta Digital

THURSDAY 25 OCTOBER

  • “From Puppets to Pixels: Bringing the Dinosaurs of Fallen Kingdom to Life” – Glen McIntosh, animation supervisor Jurassic World, and animation co-supervisor Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
  • “Next-Gen Virtual Reality” – Dr. Don Greenberg, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics, Cornell University
  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” – David Vickery, overall visual effects supervisor, creative director, ILM

FRIDAY 26 OCTOBER

  • “Breathing Life into the Alien Robot of Lost in Space” – Joao Sita, visual effects supervisor, Image Engine
  • “What is the Magicverse?” – John Gaeta, senior vice president, Magic Leap
  • “Deadpool 2” – Dan Glass, overall visual effects supervisor, second unit director
  • “Visual Effects: Defining that Critical, Elusive and Final 5%” – Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor, creative director, ILM

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place 22-26 October 2018, at OGR (Officine Grandi Riparazioni), Turin, Italy. Reserve your place at the official VIEW website. See you there!

“We Are Stars” – Fulldome Show Review

"We Are Stars" fulldome science documentary by NSC Creative.

Scientists like to categorise things. “This is how the universe began,” they say, or, “This is how atoms work,” or, “Here’s how humans developed from their apelike ancestors.”

But science isn’t just studying the individual dots. It’s working out how they join up. Because everything is connected. After all, that’s what the word “universe” really means: turned into one.

This connectivity is the theme of We Are Stars, a new fulldome science documentary from award-winning computer animation studio NSC Creative which enjoyed its official world premiere last night, 15 July 2015, at the National Space Centre, Leicester, UK.

"We Are Stars" fulldome documentary film by NSC Creative

“We Are Stars” begins its cosmic journey in a Victorian funfair, before whisking viewers away on a dazzling tour of space and time.

Choosing as its subject nothing less than the entire history of creation, the 26-minute steampunk-themed film boldly goes on a dizzying journey through time from the Big Bang to the present day. Beginning with the simplest atoms, We Are Stars explains how nuclear fusion in the hearts of early stars allowed the construction of more complex elements, which were then sprayed across space by vast supernova explosions, creating giant nebulae which then condensed to form new stars surrounded by planets laced with those complex elements, which in turn became the building blocks of primitive life, which gradually evolved into, well, us.

"We Are Stars" fulldome documentary film by NSC CreativeSounds complicated? Fear not – the carefully-researched science in We Are Stars is delivered with effortless panache by the Time Master, a Victorian tour guide who chaperones both his animated acolytes and their real human audience on this eye-opening odyssey through space and time.

Voiced by genre favourite Andy Serkis, the Time Master has up his sleeve a series of whimsical mechanical devices cunningly designed to demonstrate key scientific concepts in simple terms. Want to travel through time? Take a spin through the stream of pictures in this flickering zoetrope. Want to observe the evolution of life on Earth? Watch tin-toy dinosaurs lumber across the surface of a brass globe in this quaint revolving orrery.

It’s not all Victorian whimsy, however. We Are Stars also serves up a spectacular platter of deep-space vistas. Supported by Rhian Sheehan’s soaring score (available for free download here) the jumbo-sized visuals take full advantage of the immersive fulldome format. The result? Breathtaking.

So what exactly is fulldome? Simply put, it’s a movie projected not on to a regular screen, but on to the inside of a dome. Imagine a planetarium on steroids. What fulldome delivers is an audience experience that’s as close to virtual reality as you’ll get within a theatrical environment.

Fulldome demonstration

Indeed, virtual reality is very much the order of the day here, with We Are Stars claiming its place as the world’s first science documentary designed and created for both VR HMDs (Head Mounted Devices) and immersive dome screens. According to Paul Mowbray, show producer and head of NSC Creative:

This film pushes the bleeding edge of VR out to the edge of the universe. We hear a lot of concern as the rest of the industry gears up to dealing with high resolution 4k and high frame rates. We have been doing that since 2000. Now we are moving to 8k, stereo, 360° films, and blazing a trail in immersive media production. Hold on to your HMD!

Impressive though the technology is, however, what lies at the heart of the show is the storytelling. As Max Crow, director of We Are Stars, explains:

When you start dealing with stories on the cosmological scale, it is very easy to lose sight of the human story. With the We Are … series of films, the human side to the latest astronomy and space science research has always been at their core. With We Are Stars, it is more relevant than ever as we connect life on Earth with the Big Bang, and attempt to give the audience a sense of where they have come from and what they are fundamentally made of. The fancy headline technical specifications make for an incredibly immersive experience, but it is the story at its heart that truly immerses the viewer in a universe of wonder and enlightenment.

"We Are Stars" fulldome science documentary by NSC Creative. Left to right: Max Crow, Andy Serkis, Paul Mowbray.

Left to right: Max Crow, Andy Serkis, Paul Mowbray.

There are as many film formats these days as there are branches of science. A routine trip to your local multiplex means deciding between 2D or 3D, regular or IMAX. Now that fully immersive VR technology seems finally to be coming of age, the choices look set to expand even further.

Faced with so many choices – so many dots, if you will – it’s vital that filmmakers in all media remember the one thread that joins them all together: telling a good story. Just like the one told by We Are Stars. It’s the story of us, and of the amazing universe that surrounds us.

What better place to tell it than inside a great big dome?


We Are Stars is currently showing at the National Space Centre in 4k x 4k 2D at 30fps. Later in the year, the show will be upgraded to 8k x 8k resolution, running in 3D at a high frame rate of 60fps. It will also be available in a range of virtual reality formats.

To learn more about how shows like We Are Stars are made, read my article Fulldome – Films in the Round on the Cinefex blog.

The VFX of “Snowpiercer” – Cinefex Blog

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Just published on the Cinefex blog is my Q&A with Eric Durst, Visual Effects Supervisor on Snowpiercer. In this science fiction film directed by Bong Joon-ho, a giant train circles an ice-locked, post-apocalyptic Earth on endless tracks. Its carriages contain a highly stratified society of survivors, from the working classes at the rear to the privileged bourgeoisie at the front. It’s an atmosphere ripe for revolution.

In this short extract from the Q&A, Eric discusses the stunning underwater environment of the train’s Aquarium Car:

It was an interesting lighting challenge, with the water environment on one side and the window looking out on the frozen landscape at the other. Director of Photography Alex Hong had light travel through water trays on top of the aquarium structure. These refracted the light spilling on the actors, replicating the way light would react in an actual aquarium environment. This became a wonderful base to work with so the CG tank and fish could become integrated. Light streamed through the window in the Sushi Bar area, reinforcing the look of the ice and cold outside.

Mark Breakspear and his team in Vancouver really took on the challenge of creating this world, with many visits to the Vancouver Aquarium to study the fish, the lighting environments, the way the light refracted through the water and glass, along with how it distorted the fish as they passed. Many, many iterations of fish animation were produced to get the right quality of movement, along with the reactions of the fish to their surroundings and the humans observing them. Plants and greenery in the water swayed as fish passed, while an underlying vibration suggested the movement of the car over the tracks.

Revisiting Cinefex (40): Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Cinefex 40You need a pair of big name stars to put on the front cover of Cinefex #40. Who you gonna call? Why, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, of course, garbed as Ghostbusters and waving their nutrona wands in an image from Ivan Reitman’s 1989 sequel Ghostbusters II. The supernatural vibe extends to the back cover, which features the ghost of executed criminal Nunzio Scoleri, realised as a full-body suit with a complex animatronic head whose facial expressions were run by a computerised system called SNARK. The second article looks at Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, also from 1989. Will this issue’s 68 pages leave us feeling haunted, or do they contain the Holy Grail? Let’s find out.

  • Ghostbusters Revisited (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Father, Son and the Holy Grail (article by Adam Eisenberg)

How fitting that this, the final retrospective in my Revisiting Cinefex series, should be concerned with a pair of films that themselves return to old ground. Heck, the first article in this fortieth issue is even called Ghostbusters Revisited. How spooky is that?

Cinefex was already going strong when these two franchises first hit the screens, reporting on Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 (issue #6) and on Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 (issues #17 and #18 respectively). So we’re perfectly placed to ask the question: ‘Did visual effects techniques change significantly in the years between the original movies and their sequels?’ If we’re lucky, Cinefex might just help us dig up the answer.

Ghostbusters II

It’s ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren who sets the scene for this backstage look at Ghostbusters II. ‘The first Ghostbusters set the trend for short production and postproduction schedules,’ he says, ‘and this one was worse. Ghostbusters II had by far the shortest schedule of any film I have ever worked on.’

rc40gbThis is a well-rounded article, with the customary Cinefex ultra-detail supplemented by Dan Aykroyd’s insights into the development of the script, recollections from all the actors of filming in New York City and executive producer Michael Gross’s overview of the whole effects process.

It seems Gross spent a lot more time at ILM than director Ivan Reitman. ‘[ILM] asked what Ivan was like to work with,’ he says. ‘”Well,” I said, “… you’re hardly going to see him.”‘ What a contrast to some of the hands-on directors who have appeared in some other editions of Cinefex we’ve revisited. ‘Michael Gross has a very good eye for performance,’ says creature and makeup effects designer Tim Lawrence. ‘He was always on set.’ Still, Gross asserts that the relationship between the director and ILM was excellent: ‘The communication between Ivan and Dennis was so good that it didn’t matter.’

The comedic, improvisational nature of Ghostbusters II presented ILM with some serious challenges, as did a release date that kept shifting to earlier and earlier in the calendar. In the end the pressure proved too much. ‘We peaked out at a hundred and eighty shots,’ says Dennis Muren, ‘and we could not take on any more without jeopardising the whole film.’ Overflow work went to Available Light, VCE and Apogee.

Turning to the visual effects, yet again we sense the drive of the VFX professional constantly to create something new. ‘What I wanted to do with the film,’ says Muren, ‘was to try and create ghosts that nobody had ever seen before.’ Muren and his team tapped every technique they knew and developed more beside, creating a ghost nanny through a combination of live performance and puppetry, bringing the Statue of Liberty to life, turning the animated nutrona beams into lassos and projecting footage of the flying Scoleri brothers on to mirrorplex while manipulating the flexible material with motion-controlled push rods to ‘make them go round curves, stretch out at certain points and even bulge.’

There are some entertaining anecdotes, both from the production shoot (Harold Ramis likens cramming himself and his fellow actors into a cramped and freezing manhole on a New York street as ‘being trapped in a mine cave-in or the Armenian earthquake’) and from the effects stage (when the gimbal used to move the full-scale Statue of Libery head wasn’t falling apart, it was pitching enough to make the actors feel seasick: ‘It was a little scary,’ remarks Bill Murray).

And there was slime. Lots of slime. There’s even a complete recipe for slime from physical effects supervisor Chuck Gaspar. ‘You could actually eat the stuff,’ he says. ‘It would not have any taste, but you could eat it.’

When it comes our quest to unearth key visual effects trends of the 1980s, Eisenberg’s article does indeed bring forth some buried treasure. For example:

  • Computers were taking over. I’m not talking CGI, but about the use of computers to control an ever-expanding variety of stage effects, in this case animatronic creatures. ‘We could record the initial [facial] performance,’ says Tim Lawrence, ‘keep the parts we liked, and then … electronically edit the other functions a channel at a time … This could then be played back as stored, or speeded up and slowed down at the touch of a keystroke.’
  • Moving the camera to avoid the ‘locked-off curse.’ According to director of effects photography Mark Vargo, ‘On the first Ghostbusters, the camera was locked off … On the second show, we were able to move the camera quite a bit … Optical can handle [composites with camera moves] today in ways we could not have done as easily five years ago.’
  • Methocel. One of the key ingredients used in the giant river of slime flowing beneath New York City was the thickening agent methocel. I’ve lost count of how many times this gloopy stuff was used in the effects films of the 1980s. (Okay, I’m pulling your leg. Methocel is hardly a trend. But that stuff just gets everywhere, you know?)

Muren closes the article in typically thoughtful fashion. ‘A movie like Ghostbusters II is not about effects,’ he says, ‘it’s about making people laugh.’ Reflecting on the tight deadlines, he adds, ‘I believe the slogan, “It isn’t over ’til it’s over’ … Just because we haven’t figured out something doesn’t mean that with two more minutes of thought we’re not going to come up with some great solution.’

Gross certainly seems pleased with the solutions Muren and his extended team provided. ‘We never had to sacrifice quality,’ he concludes. ‘It was a great team effort by a lot of people – and everybody delivered.’ [Read more…]

Revisiting Cinefex (39): The Abyss

Cinefex 39It’s a shame there are no books about the making of The Abyss. I hear the behind-the-scenes stories are as enthralling as the movie itself. Wait a second … here’s issue #39 of the popular visual effects journal Cinefex and – what do you know – all 80 pages of it are devoted entirely to James Cameron’s seminal 1989 underwater science fiction film. The front cover shows actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio inside Cab One, a fully functional prop vehicle built around a commercial Aquarius submersible. On the back cover is a close-up of one of the ethereal NTI puppets created by Steve Johnson. The two images sum up the extraordinary blend of heavy engineering and soaring imagination that is The Abyss. Hold your breath, it’s time for the dive to begin.

  • Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss (article by Don Shay)

Nowadays, it’s normal for big-budget films to farm out their visual effects to a number of different vendors. Back in the 1980s, this practice was unusual … until James Cameron made The Abyss. The film’s hugely ambitious effects roster prompted what Cameron describes as ‘the most intensely competitive effects bidding ever’, with ILM and Dream Quest winning the lion’s share, ably supported by Fantasy II and Robert and Dennis Skotak.

The beginning of a trend? Perhaps. For Cameron, it was the only way he was ever going to get The Abyss up on screen. Are we glad he did? Of course we are. While I’m one of the many who missed The Abyss on its theatrical release (partly thanks to poor marketing, at least here in the UK), I made up for it later, devouring the film on home video and elevating it first to the status of ‘hidden gem’ and soon after to the ranks of ‘one of my all-time favourites’.

The Abyss

The first 30 pages of Don Shay’s substantial article on The Abyss are concerned less with visual effects and more with the myriad hurdles director James Cameron had to leap just to get his production up and running. This was filmmaking at the bleeding edge, with Cameron’s ambition to make the ultimate underwater adventure prompting conceptual and technical advances in practically every area of the production.

rc39abFirst and foremost, he needed a filming tank capable of holding 7.5 million gallons of fresh water and equipped with filtration and heating systems. When no such tank was found to exist, Cameron came up with the idea of converting the containment vessel at an abandoned nuclear power plant in Gaffney, SC. Then came his need for diving helmets with on-demand breathing, built in microphones and earphones and big faceplates to make the most of the actors’ performances. No such helmets existed. So Cameron had them made.

The list of innovations goes on: full-scale submersibles, underwater filling stations for the divers’ oxygen tanks and, not least, a decision to unite experienced cinematographers Al Giddings and Mikael Salomon to create a team responsible for ‘upgrading underwater photography to a level comparable with studio work.’ Part of their work involved the deployment of underwater HMI lights, yet another industry first.

As you’d expect, Shay plunges into all this with gusto. He also a number of stories that illustrate just how far out on the frontier Cameron was when he made The Abyss. Like the way the tremendous water pressure in the main filming tank regularly caused parts of the inadequate plumbing system would explode like bombs, causing ‘a monster leak that sounded like Niagara Falls.’ Innovation? Yes. Adversity? Well, this is a James Cameron movie. What did you expect? [Read more…]

Revisiting Cinefex (38): Terry Gilliam

Cinefex 38Ready to be enchanted? Then take a look at the front cover of Cinefex #38, which shows the fanciful hero of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) dancing an aerial waltz with the goddess Venus. The two figures are half-scale miniatures, though at a glance you’d swear they were alive. The chap on the back cover is alive – he’s actor Jonathan Pryce performing as Sam Lowry in the dystopian masterpiece Brazil (1985). Pryce is wearing metal armour and sporting gigantic wings, but I defy you to spot the wires holding him aloft. The third movie featured in this issue is Time Bandits (1981), which can only mean that all 68 pages are devoted entirely to the work of one man: Terry Gilliam.

  • The Adventures of Terry Gilliam (article by Paul M. Sammon and Don Shay)

Just occasionally, a filmmaker comes along who’s so committed to visual effects he sets up his own company to produce them. George Lucas did it in 1975 with Industrial Light and Magic. James Cameron did it in 1993 with Digital Domain (with a little help from Scott Ross and Stan Winston). Across the pond in the UK, in 1976, Terry Gilliam joined forces with Kent Houston to form Peerless Camera Company.

Gilliam’s interest in Peerless surely explains why Cinefex publisher Don Shay decided to devote a whole issue not to a visual effects practitioner, but to the work of a single film director (I believe it’s the only time in the journal’s long history this has been done). Reading the article, the decision makes perfect sense, as it rapidly becomes clear that once Terry Gilliam shouts ‘Action!’ the line between live action and visual effects gets decidedly blurred.

Time Bandits

After a glut of articles centred on the visual effects houses of California, it makes a change to visit the United Kingdom (well, I’m a Brit – I would say that). Right away, Kent Houston makes a point of describing how the optical equipment at Peerless differs from that in the USA: ‘In England, we tend … to use an underneath aerial image system on our animation stands.’ Add Terry Gilliam into the mix (a film director who, in the case of Time Bandits, actually animated his own title sequence – and you just know we’re going to be in for a quirky ride.

rc38tbWhile Houston’s commentary provides valuable technical insight into the making of Time Bandits, it’s Gilliam’s voice that really brings this article to life. He talks in broad terms about the film’s genesis and production, and in detail about the specifics of some of the key visual effects shots. Anecdotes abound, including Gilliam’s memories of filming a horse in a wardrobe, and his bemused discovery that the art department had built a full-scale galleon to match his rough clay maquette precisely.

His own harshest critic, Gilliam is equally ready to talk about the good and the bad. Describing the scene in which Strutter executes an epic rope swing in order to gain a handhold on a distant ledge (filmed in reverse using a six-inch miniature figure), he says, ‘The effect is quite extraordinary. I still watch it now and could swear that a real person is … grabbing that rock.’ But he’s unable to hide his dislike of a live action/matte painting composite in which the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness towers behind a shattered magical barrier: ‘Something is very wrong with [the shot] … Whatever the reason, it drives me crazy.’

It’s common to find such candidness in the Cinefex archives. I don’t know if it’s a measure of a certain humility in the industry as a whole, or the skill of the interviewers. Probably it’s a little of both. If you’ve ever seen Gilliam interviewed, however, you’ll know he’s more candid than most. For example:

A lot of the Time Bandits effects were done … manually and simply. Personally, I think films have tried to mechanize and computerize special effects too much. As a director, I have no patience for the ILM style of effects work … I prefer just to get some good men off-camera doing their little tricks so I can direct everything right there on the set.

When I first saw Time Bandits in the cinema, at the age of sixteen, Gilliam’s ‘manual and simple’ approach blew me away. Clash of the Titans was out the same year, and I remember wishing Ray Harryhausen had exchanged some of his stop-frame animation for a little Gilliamesque grittiness. And, much as I was in love with the dazzling illusions of ILM, I was charmed by the grounded fairy-tale magic conjured up by Peerless for Time Bandits. Suddenly what I wanted was more Gilliam. Four years later, I got it. [Read more…]

Revisiting Cinefex (37): Star Trek: TNG, The Fly II, Oxford Scientific Films

Cinefex 37Putting the world’s most iconic spaceship on the front cover must have helped shift a few extra copies of Cinefex #37. But wait a second. Isn’t that the USS Enterprise from Star Trek – The Next Generation? What’s a TV show doing on the cover of a journal that’s all about cinematic visual effects? Maybe they put a movie on the back … yep, it’s a scene from Chris Walas’s 1989 sequel The Fly II, showing the grotesque Martinfly creature and bad guy Anton Bartok swathed in electrical discharges inside one of the teleport pods. The third article within this issue’s 68 pages is an in-depth look at British effects studio Oxford Scientific Films. Want me to have a retrospective look at this eclectic mix? Of course you do.

  • Special Effects – The Next Generation (article by Glenn Campbell and Donna Trotter)
  • On The Fly – The Making of a Sequel (article by Robin Brunet)
  • From Science to Showbiz (article by Pamela Duncan Looft)

Star Trek – The Next Generation

Looking for a snapshot of the state-of-the-art in broadcast television circa 1989? Look no further than Glenn Campbell and Donna Trotter’s article on the visual effects of Star Trek – The Next Generation. After sketching in a little background (including notes on how Gene Roddenberry got the original 1960s Star Trek series off the ground in an era when all the major studios were shutting down their in-house effects facilities) the authors go on to describe the technical and financial challenges of rebooting the concept for, ahem, a new generation.

rc37stWhat follows is a terrific breakdown of video production techniques both old and new (well, they were new then). Joe Matza of Composite Image Systems enthuses about his Abekas digital disk recorder, which ’employs two high-speed computer disk drives to store up to fifty seconds of film per disk.’ There’s more arcane hardware on display in the form of the ADO, Quantel’s Paintbox and Mirage (which allowed the retouching and spatial manipulation of video images) and the Quantel Harry, the rotoscope-friendly big brother to the Paintbox.

Remember the Quantel days? All that fancy equipment grabbing frames of video, folding them up and flying them all over the screen in every pop video and news bulletin you watched through the 1980s? I don’t know about you, but I got pretty sick of those effects. But in the hands of the TNG artists, they came into their own.

The new technology was all very well, but it took skill to make it not only to perform, but also integrate with both traditional effects techniques and film footage borrowed from the Star Trek feature films. Rob Legato was the man combining Quantel technology with ILM elements of the USS Enterprise shot, stage footage and practical effects. In the first season alone, Legato delivered ‘about eighteen hundred effects shots in less than eight months’ – a staggering achievement even at 525-line NTSC resolution.

Legato’s ingenuity is evident in the many shot breakdowns presented in the article. He devised bluescreen comps that pushed the Ultimatte system to the limit, and combined motion control with pan-and-scan to put bluescreened actors in front of painted backgrounds while moving the camera … all the time fighting to keep up with the extraordinarily tight network deadlines (once he resorted to shooting some Enterprise streak elements on Kodacolor print film and using a one-hour photo shop to get it processed in time).

This is a well-balanced article, with heaps of technical detail balanced neatly with historical context. There are also interesting comparisons between the opposing worlds of television and cinema. It’s clear that, in 1989, the two were still very much separate entities, a divide characterised by the stark difference between videotape and film. Nowadays, in the digital age, is there really any difference at all?

(Since his early days on Star Trek – The Next Generation, Rob Legato has become one of the most respected VFX supervisors in the business. If you’ve never heard him speaking on the subject of visual effects, take fifteen minutes out of your day to watch his superb TED talk from 2012: The Art of Creating Awe. In this short lecture, Legato regales his audience with stories about his work on Apollo 13, Titanic and Hugo.) [Read more…]

Revisiting Cinefex (36): Dead Ringers, Alien Nation, Die Hard, The Blob

Cinefex 36Jeremy Irons playing dead might seem an odd choice of picture for the front cover of a visual effects journal. All becomes clear when you realise this is a still from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a film that both advanced the craft of split-screen ‘twinning’ and allowed its director to indulge his fascination with ‘body-horror’ makeup effects. The back cover features one of the ‘Newcomer’ aliens from Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi/cop/buddy mashup Alien Nation. That’s both covers used up and still we’ve got two movies to go: John McTiernan’s classic action hit Die Hard and Chuck Russell’s forgotten B-movie reboot The Blob. That’s a lot to get through in just 68 pages. We’d better get started.

  • A Planetful of Aliens (article by Ron Magid)
  • Exaggerated Reality (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Double Vision (article by Don Shay)
  • The Right Blob for the Right Job (article by Robert G Pielke)

Alien Nation

‘Be careful what you wish for.’ So the saying goes, and it pretty much sums up the trials of the prosthetics crew on mammoth makeup movie Alien Nation. The task of creating not just one or two alien creatures but an entire race fell on Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant and Tom Woodruff, working as a team under the Stan Winston Studios banner.

rc36anMagid’s article tracks the development of the alien designs from day one to final wrap. ‘The earlier designs tended to be more outrageous,’ says Gillis, with Mahan explaining that in the end director Graham Baker opted for a more subtle approach ‘in order to allow the character of the actor to be read through the rubber pieces.’

This decision caused headaches for Zoltan Elek, the man responsible for applying the makeups to the actors. Originally a champion of the ‘less is more’ approach, Elek found it hard to apply prosthetics so thin and smooth that ‘I could not afford to make any mistakes along the blending edge … It was a tough job.’

Makeup fans will rejoice as Gillis and the Winston team bring us step-by-step descriptions of their various life-casting and mould-making techniques. As well as revealing the magic ingredient they used to create a stubble effect on the aliens’ heads, they also bewail the difficulty of designing a body suit for an alien striptease scene and the challenge of securing the cooperation of an actor who ‘almost broke his contract because he insisted no on had informed him that his entire head would be covered by the makeup.’

But what comes through time and again is the sheer volume of work demanded by the show: some ninety sets of appliances were required for lead actor Mandy Patinkin alone, with each appliance requiring ‘at least seventy individual molds.’ Add to that the hundreds of background masks created for the film’s crowd scenes and you start to appreciate the slightly stunned tone of the team’s closing comments.

‘We figured that going from … the alien queen in Aliens to these straight prosthetic makeups would be simple,’ says Mahan, ‘but it was really a lot of work.’ And while the crew clearly got great satisfaction from working on a show comparable – in makeup terms at least – with the groundbreaking Planet of the Apes, Gillis has to admit it ‘was a huge logistical challenge.’

Die Hard

In Adam Eisenberg’s short-but-sweet article on Die Hard, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund describes the ways in which he and his team at Boss Film Corporation helped achieve director John McTiernan’s vision of ‘exaggerated reality’, which dictated that in this film ‘the effects could not look like effects at all.’ [Read more…]

Revisiting Cinefex (35): Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow

Cinefex 35Cinefex #35 contains behind-the-scenes stories on two big films of the late 80s, although both front and back covers feature just one: Robert Zemeckis’s milestone marriage of live-action and animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? While the front is dominated by Roger himself – looking as manic as ever – the back is reserved for his curvaceous spouse, Jessica, a cartoon drawing responsible for triggering impure thoughts in around 90% of the men in the average theatre audience. The second movie under discussion is Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy Willow, notable from a visual effects standpoint for its innovative use of computer morphing for a magical character transformation scene. Two films. 68 pages. Let’s go!

  • Romancing the Rabbit (article by Adam Eisenberg)
  • Willow (article by Jody Duncan Shannon)

The 1980s was the decade when traditional (by which I mean optical and mechanical) visual and special effects were being pushed to the limit. Techniques don’t get much more traditional than hand-drawn cel animation, so it was inevitable that sooner or later one of the new breed of young ambitious filmmakers would drag the well-worn concept of combining animated characters with live action into the modern age. The filmmaker in question was Robert Zemeckis, riding high on the success of Back to the Future. The film was Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Making Roger Rabbit – in which one of the lead actors is a hyperactive cartoon rabbit – was an extraordinarily complex business. Luckily we have Adam Eisenberg on hand to make sense of the madness. His behind-the-scenes article is a winner on every level as it takes the production completely apart, with detailed insights into preproduction, the gag-filled live-action shoot, the animation itself, a second ‘Toontown’ shoot with actor Bob Hoskins working his guts out on a bluescreen stage and finally the painstaking optical work needed to bring everything together.

rc35rrThe man in charge of Roger Rabbit‘s animated content was Richard Williams, most well-known at that point for his Casino Royale and Pink Panther title sequences. Initially sceptical of the project, he was tempted when he discovered he and Zemeckis were on the same page: ‘We both agreed that the key to doing this movie was interaction.’ Williams was finally won over when Zemeckis proved how clever the storyline was by acting out the entire first shot of the movie for him. Now that’s a deleted scene I’d love to see.

A proof-of-concept test scene, filmed at ILM and animated by Williams, set the seal on the project – and prompted executive producer Steven Spielberg to comment that he’d ‘only seen film history twice in his life. The first time was … Star Wars – and now [I’ve] seen it again with this rabbit.’

Eisenberg’s article devotes many column inches to the special effects used in the live-action shoot to create the critical interaction between the as-yet-undrawn cartoon characters and the physical set. Producer Robert Watts remarks that, ‘About eighty percent of the movie we were shooting with only half the cast present … Thus it became like shooting a giant “Invisible Man” movie.’ Gags ranged from puddle splashes all the way through to sophisticated robotic arms that would ultimately be obscured by the animation. Responsible for these were Michael Lantieri and George Gibbs.

The range of on-set effects is really extraordinary: a self-riding bicycle, a stretching automobile, a piano that played itself. ‘Every day we were required to provide some effect,’ says Lantieri. ‘Every shot – no rest.’ Equally critical was the performance of Bob Hoskins, who had to make his audience believe he really was seeing an imaginary rabbit. ‘I studied my daughter Rose,’ he says. ‘Rose has invisible friends that she plays with.’ In the end, Hoskins got so good at visualising Roger that ‘I lost control … I would hallucinate the Toons in very weird places – like in restaurants off the set.’ [Read more…]

Revisiting Cinefex (34): Beetlejuice, Batteries Not Included

Cinefex 34The cover of Cinefex #34 presents me with a problem. How do I describe the front cover without saying the name of the character out loud? What’s that? It doesn’t count if I write it down? Well, sorry, I just can’t take that chance. Let’s just say the scary animated snake-man comes from one of Tim Burton’s earliest films and move swiftly on to the back cover which features the pint-sized flying saucers from Matthew Robbins’s 1987 fantasy Batteries Not Included.

Phew – made it! With a bit of luck, I’ll get all the way through this issue’s 68 pages without saying Beetlejuice. Oh … rats!

  • Cheap and Cheesy and Off-the-Cuff (article by Jody Duncan Shannon)
  • Visit from a Small Planet (article by Richard Linton)

Beetlejuice & Batteries Not Included

While Beetlejuice (I’ve said it once so I might as well go for broke) is a shoot-from-the-hip cult classic described by its maverick director Tim Burton as ‘crazy and abstract’, Batteries Not Included is a slick assemblage of familiar Spielbergian themes, with a family of cute flying saucers doing their level best to warm the cockles of your heart. In all departments – not least their visual effects – the two films are poles apart, right?

rc34bjOn the face of it, yes. Batteries Not Included features cutting-edge miniature and optical work from VFX giant Industrial Light & Magic. For Beetlejuice, Burton handed the reins to Alan Munro, a storyboard artist who’d never worked in visual effects before. However, a quick flick through this issue of Cinefex shows that, behind the scenes, the movies were more similar than you might think.

Take the age-old question of whether to capture effects on-set or put them together in post. For Beetlejuice, Munro devised a forced-perspective sand planet set for actors Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin to perform in front of, as well as a number of visual gags that allowed Burton to shoot in-camera everything from decapitations to a bannister that transforms into a snake. For Batteries Not Included, model mechanical supervisor Tad Krzanowski designed a clever marionette rig that enabled director Matthew Robbins to shoot his slimline saucers live alongside his actors.

ILM visual effects supervisor Bruce Nicholson elaborates on what led them to work in this way. ‘It was Steven Spielberg who had encouraged us to try and do some of the saucer work on the set,’ he says. [Read more…]

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