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 – 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!

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 …

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.

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