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 …

Writing Star Trek for Cinefex with Scrivener

"Star Trek Beyond" in Cinefex

I write for Cinefex, a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. In 2016, one of the many films I covered was Star Trek Beyond. Want to know how I tackled it? I’ll tell you.

First up, a few facts and figures. My Star Trek Beyond article was 8,300 words long – about average for the magazine. With photos, that equated to 21 printed pages. While researching the story I interviewed 13 people, generating roughly 45,000 words of interview transcript. From first interview to final reviewed draft, it took me five weeks to put the article together. In any one year, I’ll write a minimum of nine stories of similar scope.

Enough with the numbers. The job is all about the words, right? Quite a lot of them, as you’ll already have gathered.

I wrote my Star Trek Beyond story using my weapon of choice: Scrivener. I use this software for two reasons. First, during the research phase I’ll end up accruing about a zillion bits of information; Scrivener lets me keep everything organised within a single project window – transcripts, background notes, multiple manuscript drafts, handy image files, you name it. Second, the software lets me work on small sections of a draft as individual text files, but by switching views I can string those files together as a single manuscript. Given all the disparate chunks of information I’m wrangling at any one time, that’s really useful.

The Star Trek Beyond article started its life as an empty ‘Cinefex’ template, as shown in the image below. I’ve developed this format over time – it has a simple folder structure filled with all the basic placeholder documents that I know I’m going to need.

Blank Cinefex template in Scrivener

All my Cinefex articles start with this blank Scrivener template.

The ‘Title’ folder is my basic draft manuscript and contains just three files: ‘Introduction;’ an empty text template called ‘One;’ and ‘Conclusion.’ I use the ‘Special Thanks’ file to record the names of people who’ll get a credit at the end of the story, and I use ‘Titles’ to jot down possible titles for the article (this list grows as I write, and I rarely decide upon the actual title until I’ve finished). Below all these sit the ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Research’ folders. The former is a repository for all the interview material; the latter stores, well, everything else.

The USS Enterprise navigates the Necrocloud in "Star Trek Beyond"

As always, the real work on my Star Trek Beyond  story began with the interviews. Once I’d secured permission from the film studio, I spoke to everybody on my list, transcribed the interviews as a separate text documents, and pasted each one into my ‘Transcripts’ folder.

In a perfect world, I’d get all my interviews done first before starting to write. It almost never happens that way – something inevitably jams up the works. With Star Trek Beyond, I began to write the article when my ‘Transcripts’ folder was about half full.

I didn’t start writing at the beginning. Why? Because at this stage, I had no idea how I was going to structure the article. I had no beginning. Instead, I picked one of the many subjects that came up in interview – pretty much a random choice – and wrote a brief paragraph about it, supported by quotes copied and pasted from the relevant transcripts. For Star Trek Beyond, that starter subject happened to be the outer shell of the Yorktown space station, which I wrote about in a little document called (not surprisingly) ‘Shell.’

From there, I bounced on to other related topics – the space station’s superstructure, its atmosphere, the aliens that live in it. Each topic got its own document – based on my empty ‘One’ text template – but I didn’t yet start worrying about how they connected together. For now, I just treated them as free-floating index cards.

When it became clear that Yorktown was a major topic in its own right, I created a folder called (you guessed it) ‘Yorktown’ and put all those individual documents inside it. As time went on, I added other topic folders, such as ‘Enterprise Takedown’ and ‘Altimid,’ and rapidly filled those up too. Soon I had lots of folders on the go and was bouncing between them constantly, endlessly revising what I’d already written, adding new material, reordering text files by sliding them around in the Binder, constantly updating.

As the article grew, a structure slowly began to emerge. As we frequently do at Cinefex, I allowed the main body of my account to follow the narrative of the film, but for various reasons I chose to write a early standalone section about the film’s newly-built USS Enterprise. I also made inroads into framing material like the introduction, a short synopsis of the film, and some notes on the overall production and the way the visual effects team operated. Since I was lucky enough to speak with the film’s director, Justin Lin, I devoted an early section of the article to his comments. Justin also gave me some great closing remarks, which I combined with some insights from visual effects producer Ron Ames to help create my conclusion.

Locking down the structure enabled me to smooth out the joins between all those individual text files. Sometimes that was easy, but often I had to rework paragraphs or write new linking sections to join the dots. By this point, I was mostly working on the manuscript as a whole, rather than treating it as an assembly of separate files (Scrivener lets you switch seamlessly between the two ways of working). Working at the macro scale shone a spotlight on all the areas where I’d repeated myself, or waffled on too long about this, or given short shrift to that. So all that needed fixing too.

"Star Trek Beyond" Cinefex article - final Scrivener document

The final Scrivener document for my “Star Trek Beyond” article.

When I was happy with my final draft I used Scrivener’s ‘Compile’ function to export the manuscript ready for final editing in Word – the usual rounds of nipping, tucking and general tinkering. It’s weird, but documents always read differently in Word. Don’t ask me why.

My final copy edit marked the end of all the heavy lifting, although it was far from the end of the process. Cinefex editor Jody Duncan did her own pass over the manuscript and a separate review stage made sure all the facts were correct. After that came proofreading, typesetting and more proofreading. When I was deep into my next assignment, I received a set of all the images chosen to illustrate my Star Trek Beyond story, at which point I set about writing captions for both the print and iPad editions of the magazine. Only when that task was done could I finally wipe Star Trek Beyond off my ‘to-do’ list.

Every article I write for Cinefex is different, but I tackle them all in a similar way. The key to building big articles from a plethora of research is to keep all your raw material within easy reach, and to give the story room to breathe and grow organically at its own pace. Above all, never assume that you know what the story is when you first set out to write. The story will reveal itself to you when it’s good and ready. It’s all about trust.

Cinefex 148You can read my Star Trek Beyond article in Cinefex 148, available to order online at the Cinefex website. And you can download Scrivener for either Mac, Windows or iOS from the Literature and Latte website. If you’re feeling really bold, do both.

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.

“Alien: Covenant” Crew Remembers “Alien”

The xenomorph returns in Alien: Covenant

While researching my upcoming Cinefex article on Alien: Covenant, I spoke at length with supervisors in the visual effects, creature effects, and special effects departments. At the end of each interview, I asked everyone the same question:

“What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?”

As a long-time fan of the film, I had a hunch that most people just can’t shake off the effects of early exposure to Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi horror movie. We never forget what we see in the shadows as a kid, right? As for those darned facehuggers … they do have a tendency to cling.

Was my hunch right? Head over to the Cinefex blog now and wallow in the reminiscences of visual effects supervisor Charley Henley, creature effects designer Conor O’Sullivan, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and many, many more.

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 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:

Deadline Double

"Crown of Three" CoverNothing beats delivering a manuscript … except maybe delivering a manuscript a week ahead of schedule.

I’m not quite sure how that’s happened with the final novel in my ghostwritten Crown of Three fantasy trilogy, but who am I to question the inscrutable workings of the universe? All I know is that the last of the plot threads have been tied up, the destinies of the characters have been resolved, and my work on that particular project is now officially done. Tonight’s celebrations may involve the imbibing of wine.

Coincidentally, this week saw me deliver another manuscript, this time for my Cinefex article on the upcoming film X-Men: Apocalypse. My work there isn’t quite done yet. I still need to chaperone the story through a final review process, after which I’ll be writing captions for both the print and digital editions of the magazine. Oh, and starting work on the next article, of course …

X-Men: Apocalypse movie posterWith several Cinefex stories now under my belt, I’ve just posted this little blog article, reflecting on my first few months working as senior staff writer for the magazine. I’m delighted to say that my article on the newest James Bond movie, Spectre, is already out in the wild, in Cinefex 145. Next month, you’ll be able to read my articles on Deadpool, Gods of Egypt, and Hail, Caesar!, in our April edition, Cinefex 146. By the way, if you haven’t seen Deadpool yet, you really should. It’s an absolute hoot.

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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