G is for Greenscreen

G is for Greenscreen - The Cinefex VFX ABCIn the VFX ABC, the letter “G” stands for “Greenscreen”.

You’re standing on a film set. What do you see? Cameras? Lights? A craft service table laden with muffins? A hundred people standing around waiting for something to happen?

Look hard, and you may also see something else: a piece of visual effects technology so commonplace that the eye just skitters over it, barely even registering it’s there – strangely appropriate, because the object’s sole function is to appear completely invisible to the camera.

I’m talking, of course, about the humble greenscreen.

Everyone knows what a greenscreen does. When you point a camera at it, the flat primary colour creates a blank space into which those clever visual effects artists can put anything they like. The greenscreen is a blank canvas ready and waiting to be painted with a spectacular Himalayan panorama, a brooding alien cityscape, a speeding freeway … whatever the backdrop, green is queen.

But can its reign continue? To find out, I asked a panel of VFX professionals whether they thought greenscreens would still be around in ten years time. Before they offer their thoughts on the future of greenscreen, however, let’s take a moment to consider its past.

Greenscreen composite from "Avengers Assemble"

Before and after greenscreen composite from “Avengers Assemble” by ILM

Greenscreen Past

The history of greenscreen is really the history of compositing, which the Cinefex VFX ABC explored in C is for Composite. Still, it never hurts to refresh the memory.

A fundamental discipline of visual effects is the combining of one image with another in a sort of kinetic collage. Typically, this involves cutting the moving image of an actor out of one shot and pasting it into the background of another. To do this effectively, you need a foolproof way of making a moving mask that precisely matches the actor’s constantly-changing silhouette. This mask is known as a travelling matte.

Ever since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have experimented with different ways of creating travelling mattes. One of the earliest solutions is still in use today: filming an actor in front of a coloured screen.

Technicolor bluescreen composite from "The Thief of Bagdad"

“The Thief of Bagdad” features some of the earliest Technicolor bluescreen composites

Developed in the 1930s, the Dunning Process used a blue screen, and required the actors to be illuminated with yellow light. Coloured filters were used to separate foreground from background, but the process only worked in black and white. The arrival of colour film led to more complicated systems of filters and optical printers being used to isolate the actors against the bright blue screens.

Why blue? Because the cool colour of the screen was at the opposite end of the spectrum to the warm skin tones of the actors standing in front of it; the contrast made it easier to create a good matte. You just had to make sure the wardrobe department didn’t dress your leading lady in a bright blue evening gown, or else she’d disappear before your eyes.

Preparing a bluescreen shot for "Ghostbusters"

Preparing a bluescreen shot for “Ghostbusters”, in which the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was composited into live-action plates shot in New York

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Disney had great success with yellow screens lit by sodium vapour lights, used in films such as Mary Poppins. But for the most part the colour of choice remained blue. Once digital techniques came on the scene, however, blue began giving way to green.

So why the colour shift? One reason is that many digital cameras are configured using a Bayer Pattern, in which there are twice as many green sensors as either red or blue; these cameras are naturally more sensitive to the green end of the spectrum. And greenscreens often perform better outdoors, in environments where a traditional bluescreen might blend with the sky.

In many situations, however, the bluescreen is still the filmmaker’s best option – it just depends on the demands of the individual shot.

"White House Down" bluescreen composite

This composite shot by Crazy Horse Effects from “White House Down” proves the traditional bluescreen is still alive and kicking

Greenscreen Present

In the old days, lighting a bluescreen was a big deal. Because the optical department was reliant on delicate photochemical processes, it was vital that the blue colour captured in the original photography was as flat and clean as possible. For that reason, most bluescreen shots were set up on the soundstage, under carefully controlled conditions.

The effectiveness of modern colour separation tools – and the trend towards smaller set builds augmented by digital extensions – has led to a more relaxed approach. You’ll find greenscreens of all shapes and sizes on many location shoots, filling in the gaps between buildings or blocking off the ends of streets. Entire sets might be built and covered in greenscreen material, allowing actors to clamber over blocky toytown structures which will be replaced in post-production by entire digital environments.

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Smaller greenscreens are used within the sets, or even on the bodies of the actors. Wondering what to display on that bank of monitors in the spaceship’s control room? No problem – just set the screens to green and drop in the funky graphics later. Need to alter the anatomy of your lead actor’s head? Easy – just give him a greenscreen bald cap and get VFX to track in the tentacles.

With a greenscreen, you really can do anything.

In fact, greenscreens have become so familiar that even Joe Public – who’s more interested in popcorn than post-production – understands broadly what they do. Granted, the only key he knows is the one that fits his front door, and he might wonder why the rotoscope department is always griping that there might as well not be a greenscreen there at all – “Gee whiz, the thing doesn’t run to the edge of the set, and it’s not even lit properly, I mean, these things aren’t magic carpets, you know!” Nevertheless, the greenscreen has become a universal shorthand for “visual effects go here”. If there’s a single image that symbolises the visual effects industry for the outside world, the greenscreen is it.

It’s an icon for people within the industry too. Take a look at all the VFX professionals you follow on social media. How many of their online avatars are bright green squares? Quite a few, right?

The Go Green movement rose up over a year ago with an agenda to raise awareness of inequalities within the visual effects industry – in particular the effect of nationally-granted subsidies across an international marketplace. The movement is still going strong, and the symbolic power of the greenscreen remain at the heart of its campaign.

There just no escaping it: the greenscreen is a dominant force in visual effects. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what filmmaking would be like without it.

Greenscreen Future

Let’s fast-forward ten years to a movie set of the near future. Look – there’s the camera. Mind your head on the lights. Hmm, looks like we could do with a fresh batch of muffins on the craft service table.

Now, let’s look for the greenscreens. Ten years on, are they still around? If not, what new technology has come along to replace them?

Here’s what our panel of visual effects experts had to say:

Visual effects technology continues to progress and develop at a high rate. Even now our teams have had to become adept at working around lack of green screen when time constraints/filming schedule prohibit its use. Having said that, I think in ten years time, greenscreen or an equivalent will still be needed when actors are in frame. I can see a time when greenscreen could be replaced with live feeds that can still be keyed off, but have the massive advantage of providing actors with on-set feedback. It would be an interesting development that would be beneficial both for us and for the wider production. – Jeff Clifford, Head of R&D, Double Negative

We’ll probably be using more sophisticated systems for real-time keying on location in order to visualize complex visual effects shots, but the reality is that green (or blue) screens are still very useful, and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future. We are still coming up with better ways to light actors on green screen to make the integration better. But there are techniques that will likely revolutionize this, ie real-time rendering and the motion capture of performances. I can imagine a not-too-distant future in which we can create 100% photo-real characters, captured in real-time and rendered on a 100% digital environment. – Aladino Debert, Creative Director and VFX Supervisor, Advertising & Games, Digital Domain

I’m pretty sure that in 10 years we won’t be using color difference matting with green or blue screens any more. Future VFX youngsters will feel about this technique much the way we feel about using miniatures today. Cameras which capture depth data are already available. When the resolution of these channels increases, we’ll place set extensions and digital creatures not just behind the plate, but within it. This will complete the deep compositing idea. Meanwhile, I guess, VFX artists will continue spending their time on rotoscoping plates, where it was not possible or too expensive to setup a green screen. – Sven Martin, VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

Yes, I believe we will still be using greenscreens. Manual rotoscoping is an art form in itself, but even the best roto artist will never match the precision of a greenscreen key. It’s impossible to determine the exact colour and opacity of a hair at a given pixel using even the best rotoscoping system, and to be consistent and accurate over the entire image and a whole sequence of images. Other software solutions which have attempted to extract foregrounds from their backing have been promising, but thus far have proven to be either temporally inconsistent, or simply less precise than a greenscreen. Rear projection has recently been tried again with stunning success in Oblivion. With improvements in projectors (increased dynamic range) I can see this idea being used more often. It does have its disadvantages though; you need to know in advance exactly what you want in the background. Rather than an end to greenscreen use, I hope we will see a hybrid solution: the continued development of the technology and an amalgamation of ideas targeting the same problem. A more intelligent keyer might consider not only colour, but depth, focus, disparity and other image factors to compute whether a pixel is solid foreground, solid background, spill, or transparent foreground. But it seems like it will be a long time before there is a set of circumstances in which a greenscreen would not be at least part of the solution. – Charlie Tait, Head of Compositing, Weta Digital

We will definitely still be using green and blue screens in 10 years time. Technology and techniques are improving, but some classes of problem just require them, and will for the foreseeable future. – Ken McGaugh, VFX Supervisor, Double Negative

I anticipate still using greenscreen insofar as there will be a need to extract live performance from unwanted background. It will be more electronically procedural, with less burden on set-up and lighting to specifications. I think on-set needs will be more forgiving. – Joe Bauer, VFX Supervisor, HBO’s Game of Thrones

Yes, we will still be using greenscreens. There will be advances in technology that will simplify the process, but I don’t think enough of an advance to automate the cutting of mattes. I also don’t believe all advances in technology will be accessible to every filmmaker. However, I do feel this is where 3D stereo technology will come in handy, with further exploration of depth maps. This is probably the area that will bring about the eventual elimination of green screen. – Lon Molnar, Owner & VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

I would love to see a day when we could do “deep” filming: somehow map out depth and use this to help automate our composites. This is years away from being a reality. Often there are times we choose to not use a blue or green screen, opting to rotoscope instead, but blue and green screens are here for the next 10 years and beyond. – Geoff Scott, VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

Bluescreen set-up from "Return of the Jedi"

Cameraman Don Dow attends to the miniature sail barge while assistant Patrick McArdle prepares the Vistarama motion control camera, in this bluescreen set-up from “Return of the Jedi”

Conclusion

Well, the consensus seems to be that greenscreens – and blue – aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Still, given that I can already download an app to my smartphone that will scan an object, isolate it from its background and derive 3D geometry from the data, the dream of “deep filming” may be closer than we think.

Until it becomes a reality, however, the greenscreen seems likely to dominate as the VFX background of choice, and thus will continue to be what it’s always been: the original field of dreams.

Avengers Assemble photographs © 2012 by Marvel Entertainment. Ghostbusters photograph copyright © 1984 by Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. Prometheus photographs copyright © 2012 by Twentieth Century Fox. White House Down photographs © 2013 by Columbia Pictures. Return of the Jedi photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Willis O’Brien Revisited

In the firmament of visual effects superstars, few have burned brighter than Willis O’Brien, whose seminal work in stop-motion and other cinemagical techniques exponentially influenced and inspired generations of visual effects professionals. By extension, it also influenced and inspired the creation of Cinefex.

So begins my introduction to a mythbusting article in the upcoming issue of Cinefex. For more than 30 years, the life and work of Willis O’Brien have been defined by the full-issue biography I wrote on him for Cinefex 7, but my interest in his story began two decades earlier, when I first began my research after noting his obituary in the newspaper.

Willis O’Brien in his workshop at the Edison studios, circa 1917

Willis O’Brien in his workshop at the Edison studios, circa 1917.

I made contact with O’Brien’s widow, Darlyne, who generously shared a wealth of information about her late husband, and who put me in touch with many of the people who had worked with him through the years. It was a slow process on my part – anything but full-time – but over the years I pieced together the essence of a remarkable life. By the time my biography appeared in Cinefex, most of the people whose stories and memories it documented had passed away. For this reason, whenever I am asked, as a writer, what I consider my major contribution to the history of visual effects, I invariably cite that Willis O’Brien issue. Had I not interviewed those people when I did, his story, and theirs, would have died with them.

Little of any consequence has been added to the story of Willis O’Brien since my biography was published. Until now.

Poster for "The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" - 1918

Poster for “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain,” 1918.

Long before King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, O’Brien – who had done only a series of stop-motion ‘cartoons’ to date – joined with producer Herbert M. Dawley to create The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. The silent fantasy was a hit, but the relationship between the two men devolved into a bitter rivalry that nearly derailed production of The Lost World, O’Brien’s breakout feature.

Writer Stephen Czerkas has spent years researching the O’Brien/Dawley feud and has unearthed startling evidence that challenges the long-held view that Dawley was the villain and O’Brien the victim.

That story will appear in the next issue of Cinefex, available to preorder now.

Herbert M. Dawley with a duck-billed dinosaur he built for "Along the Moonbeam Trail," circa 1920

Herbert M. Dawley with a duck-billed dinosaur he built for “Along the Moonbeam Trail,” circa 1920.

From the niche perspective of visual effects history, this is bombshell material, especially for those of us whose reverence for O’Brien runs deep.

We decided to send advance copies of the article to a number of luminaries in the visual effects world – primarily those with a connection to classic stop-motion animation and a passion for its history. We wanted to know what they thought …

A shocking betrayal fit for Extra or TMZ finally gets told … in Cinefex. And it’s a doozie. – Dennis Muren

Willis O’Brien was an artistic diamond-in-the-rough. The towering ape in King Kong, O’Brien’s greatest claim to fame, may have been just a little rubber puppet, but it sprang to awesome, vicious, vibrant cinematic life in the grip of O’Brien’s enchanted hands. A versatile artist of demonstrable skill, O’Brien was equally adept at producing whimsical watercolors or bold charcoal sketches which threatened to leap from the page. His bona fides in the realm of movie special effects — particularly stop motion animation — were self-evident and unquestionable. In retrospect, when he’d alleged fifteen years earlier that he’d been cheated by an obscure, credit-grabbing producer named Herbert M. Dawley, who claimed O’Brien’s work in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain as his own, what serious film scholar could doubt him?

But now, nearly a century later, there are doubts, and cinema orthodoxy may be rewritten. Thanks to the detective work of sculptor animator paleontologist Stephan Czerkas, it now appears that Herbert Dawley may have deserved some of the credit he grabbed. And far from being a no-talent, front-office figurehead, it seems that Dawley had quite a bit of talent himself — particularly in the line of sculpting and animating dinosaurs. Were the acrimonious charges Dawley leveled at O’Brien as warranted as the ones O’Brien flung at him? Did O’Brien learn as much about his craft from Dawley as Dawley did from O’Brien? Czerkas has uncovered documents, diaries, and — best of all — film footage which shows that the savage legal battle these two waged against one another was not a matter of black-and-white. Thanks to Czerkas’ efforts, the career of Herbert M. Dawley may need to be re-assessed, and the accepted verdict in O’Brien vs Dawley thrown out. – Randall W. Cook

Stephen Czerkas has painstakingly unearthed facts, previously unknown to the general public, concerning the rivalry between animation pioneers Willis H. O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley. The upcoming article in Cinefex and the subsequent publication of Stephen’s book are likely to spark controversy among historians of early animation history and fans of O’Brien. – Jim Danforth

For those of us that grew up with the O’Brien mythology, the sleuthing Steve has done clearly redefines that part of stop-motion history, and at the same time does nothing to diminish O’Brien’s accomplishments. It’s always been a rough racket. Some of us got lucky – the right place at the right time … when hasn’t it been competitive? – Phil Tippett

I’ve loved stop-motion animation ever since I was a child of about ten years old, and I continue to be fascinated by the history of the art form. Over the years vintage photos; original artwork and even the decaying remains of some of the puppets have turned up from time to time. However, documented facts concerning the production of these films have been most tantalizingly rare.

Presskit cover for "Along the Moonbeam Trail," 1920

Presskit cover for “Along the Moonbeam Trail,” 1920.

Now a mountain of hitherto unknown information from the early years of dinosaur puppet animation is at last coming to light. We’ve long known of the rivalry that existed between Willis O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley but until now only a fraction of the fascinating story has been available to us. The detective work that Stephen Czerkas has accomplished in tracking down multiple new sources of information to cross reference the facts in his article is truly amazing.

It’s most interesting to read how a near perfect original print of the thought-to-be-lost film Along the Moonbeam Trail was discovered and can be studied. As far as is known this was the first film to combine realistic stop-motion dinosaurs and live-action actors in the same shot. We’re given exciting new perspectives on Herbert M. Dawley’s contributions during the earliest days of motion picture animation and visual effects. – Jim Aupperle

The Five Laws of Movie Mutants

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' epic action adventure "Godzilla," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ epic action adventure “Godzilla,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

With Godzilla stomping once more on to our screens, Marvel’s X-Men heading for those days of future past, and a fresh batch of teenage turtles preparing to clamber out of the sewers, there’s never been a better time to reflect on that most enduring of movie icons: the mutant.

But what exactly is a mutant? It isn’t as if they all look the same. In a police line-up, who’s going to mistake Michelangelo for Mystique? (And will the giant lizard even fit in the interrogation room?) Yet mutants they all undoubtedly are. So what are the rules?

Well, the Oxford English Dictionary describes a mutation as an “alteration or change in form”. In other words, a mutant is any critter that shouldn’t look the way it does. Sometimes a mutant’s abnormalities occur naturally. More often than not (in the movies at least) they happen because some idiot forgot to shut down the nuclear reactor.

Tod Browning's "Freaks" from 1932Mutants in the Movies

An early example of a movie that deals with mutants is the 1932 film Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, just a couple of years before the Hays Code irradiated Hollywood with its sanitising beam and effectively told filmmakers to play nice. With its cast of genuine carnival performers including conjoined twins, the Human Torso and the Stork Woman, Freaks makes for unsettling viewing even today, yet for the most part treats its subject matter with admirable respect.

No doubt experts will weigh in to tell me the cast of Freaks were not mutants in the strictest sense, any more than John Hurt was portraying a mutant when he played John Merrick in The Elephant Man. But chances are high that the average moviegoer, upon seeing any character whose anatomy deviates wildly from the norm, will shout: “Mutant!”

However, if you’re looking for the best way to put a mutant on the screen, look no further than The Elephant Man. Merrick’s startling physical appearance was achieved by encasing Hurt in elaborate prosthetics created by Christopher Tucker, making the film a perfect exponent of the First Law of Movie Mutants:

  • If it’s a deformity you want, it’s make-up effects you need

Of course, there are exceptions to this law – Freaks is one, The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is another. In the latter, actor Michael Berryman’s genetic disorder ectodermal dysplasia was behind the physiognomy of Pluto, one of horror cinema’s most iconic mutant characters.

But really, it’s all about rubber masks and foam latex appliances. The schlockier the better. In movies like The Toxic Avenger, Basket Case, and Slither, the audience is bombarded with ever-more gruesome make-up effects, all with a single purpose: to gross you out. Thus we discover our Second Law of Movie Mutants:

  • Horror is where it’s at

Science Goes Bad

The Third Law of Movie Mutants is a cautionary one:

  • Don’t leave the plutonium where someone could trip over it

During the 1950s, the atomic age spawned a whole new breed of movie mutants: ordinary animals given extraordinary powers by an unhealthy dose of gamma rays.

Radioactive mutants call for more elaborate visual effects than just a rubber mask. The giant ants of Them! were brought to life primarily by using full-scale mechanical props, while It Came from Beneath the Sea boasts a bridge-bashing octopus created by stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen.

For economy and ease of animation, the giant octopus in "It Came Beneath the Sea" had only six tentacles

For economy and ease of animation, the giant octopus in “It Came Beneath the Sea” had only six tentacles

Replace radiation with toxic waste and you get either a bunch of Eight Legged Freaks, or those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I mentioned earlier. In their 1990 screen outing, the avenging amphibians were brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. In the upcoming 2014 reboot, the visual effects burden is shared between ILM, Image Engine and Legacy Effects.

Behind the scenes of "Godzilla" (1954) - image via Retronaut.com

Behind the scenes of “Godzilla” (1954) – image via Retronaut.com

The most famous product of misdirected radiation is, of course, Gojira – better known in the Western world as Godzilla. The huge mutant lizard – an unfortunate by-product of a nuclear test explosion – flattened his first city block in Ishirō Honda’s classic film of 1954. Now this legendary monster’s on the loose again, in Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla (2014). The special effects credits in the Japanese original include Teizô Toshimitsu with the wonderful job description: Monster Builder. The latest outing features visual effects from a host of vendors including:

(To find out exactly how Godzilla’s mega-monster was created, order your copy of Cinefex issue 138, out in mid-June and featuring the definitive behind-the-scenes story about the film’s visual effects. And visit Retronaut for more great behind-the-scenes shots from the original movies.)

Messing with Nature

The Fourth Law of Movie Mutants is a kissing cousin of the Third Law:

  • Man makes mutants

Yes, we’re talking about all those thrillers featuring genetic mutations, military experiments … in short, any scenario whereby man has deliberately messed with nature. Whatever the dastardly misdeed, you can be sure of one thing: it’s not going to end well.

Mutants in this category range from the super-fish of Piranha to the hyper-sharks of Deep Blue Sea. Factor in guilty pleasures like Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, and you’ll soon realise that this enduring theme has achieved the kind of mythical status best appreciated in the comfort of your own home, preferably with a jug of cold beer at your side and in the company of friends just as ready as you to throw pretzels at the screen.

Laughable though much of this particular brand of mutant mayhem might be, the “man-made mutants” sub-genre isn’t without its genuine chillers. The Mist conceals an extraordinary menagerie of half-seen monsters – not to mention a monster of an ending. The Fly – both the 1958 original and the 1986 remake – is a compelling cautionary tale about what happens when you fail to keep a can of Raid beside the teleporter. And I defy anyone to watch the classic “room of failed clones” scene from Alien: Resurrection without feeling queasy.

The Space Bug from David Cronenberg's "The Fly"

The walking Space Bug from the finale of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” functioned off a counterbalanced slave system, with the puppet moving in a direction opposite to the movements of operator John Berg, who was harnessed behind the creature’s mobile support system

Mutants to the Max

In most of the above-mentioned films, the mutants are there to exploit our fears. Fear of nuclear tests, fear of deviancy, fear of the unknown. But there are a few films – just a few – that take a more thoughtful approach. These our the movies that fall under The Fifth and Final Law of Movie Mutants:

  • Mutants can be a serious business

First up in this category is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which explores ideas of identity and what it is to be human. How does it do this? By letting the mutations happen right in front of our eyes. Thanks to Rob Bottin’s amazing practical effects, men transform in outrageous fashion into the most eye-boggling array of movie monsters ever put on the screen. You could argue that the end result is just another monster movie – though an extraordinarily good one – but what sets The Thing apart is that the theme of mutation isn’t simply tacked on for the sake of cheap thrills; it actually drives the story.

Kuato and George puppet - "Total Recall" (1990)

Even with a computer to record and perform the lip-sync articulations, “Total Recall” Kuato-and-George puppet required as many as twenty on-set operators

Similarly, the colony of downtrodden Martian mutants in Total Recall (1990) is not just there to titillate (with the possible exception of the triple-breasted woman), but is an essential plot element. Under Paul Verhoeven’s direction, Total Recall can hardly be called subtle, but its subtext of prejudice and exploitation is handled with surprising sensitivity.

Total Recall used all the tricks in the book to create its cast of mutants. According to special make-up effects supervisor Rob Bottin, “Mutants are a lot of fun in terms of design because there are really no rules – a mutant can be anything. It was Paul’s approach that as we revealed each mutant, the deformities would be progressively more shocking.”

Bottin’s biggest effects challenge in Total Recall was Kuato, the parasitic twin of George. To create the illusion of the tiny human emerging from his brother’s abdomen, actor Marshall Bell wore a full-body prosthetic. “His jawline was joined to the prosthetic,” explained Bottin, “which had a parachute harness to support Kuato’s mechanical head and all the cables necessary to operate the arms.” For close-ups and dialogue scenes, the prosthetic approach was abandoned in favour of a fully mechanical Kuato-and-George puppet. “The arms on both Kuato and George moved via a slave mechanism operated and performed by a single puppeteer.”

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" posterThe other popular example of mutants done right is, of course, the X-Men series. Professor Charles Xavier’s private academy first unleashed its class of misfits on to cinema screens in 2000, elaborating on Total Recall’s “mutants as an underclass” theme with its story of politics, prejudice and superpowers.

The popular Marvel franchise shows no signs of slowing as we anticipate this month’s release of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Visual effects vendors for the new film include Digital Domain, MPC, CinesiteHydraulx, Rising Sun Pictures, Legacy Effects and The Third Floor and we’ll be taking a look at them shortly, right here on the Cinefex blog.

The movies are full of mutants – which one’s your favourite, and why? Are mutants a serious business, or it all just shock treatment? And are there any Mutant Laws I’ve failed to include? It’s over to you!

Total Recall photographs copyright © 1990 by Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. Godzilla (2014) photograph courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and copyright © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. & Legendary Pictures Productions LLC

Giger Flashback

Seeing the news, last Tuesday morning, that H.R. Giger died triggered a flashback.

Back in 1995, I was coordinator for a creature effects studio in a nondescript corner of Sun Valley, when the phone rang. A whispering voice, reminiscent of Peter Lorre, asked to speak with my boss, Steve Johnson. “Who may I ask is calling?” I asked. “It is Gee-ger from Switzerland,” the voice replied.

H.R. Giger self-portrait, 1954 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH

H.R. Giger self-portrait, 1954 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

Steve was in the back of the studio, working with the artists at XFX, Inc., his creature effects studio. We had quite a few projects on the boil, including one of our biggest, an assignment for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Roger Donaldson directing, with visual effects supervised by Richard Edlund – my boss’s former boss from his days running the creature effects shop at Boss Film.

Up until recently, we’d been providing creatures and makeup effects for TV, commercials and some schlocky features. Species was not exactly high-brow – it was about a sex-crazed monster, hatched from alien DNA, who transforms into the gorgeous 19-year-old Natasha Henstridge – but it had a big-time cast of Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger, and it was to be a huge summertime theatrical release.

H.R. Giger in Hollywood, April 1980 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH

H.R. Giger in Hollywood, April 1980 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

More to the point, the producers had scored a major coup by securing Hans Reudi Giger – the Swiss surrealist who had won an Oscar for his design and execution of the ‘big chap’ and other alien forms in Ridley Scott’s Alien — to design the creature, and every artist in the studio reacted when they heard my announcement over the speaker system in the workshop: “Steve Johnson, H.R. Giger is calling from Switzerland on Line One.” A huge chorus of ‘Oooh’ rose up from the crew. Steve scurried to his office with a look of nervous concentration, and closed the door. Probably 45 minutes later, the door opened, emitting clouds of cigarette smoke and Steve reemerged looking drawn and shell-shocked.

This was not Steve’s first time working with Giger. More than ten years previously, M-G-M had commissioned Hans Reudi to provide designs for the Great Beast in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which Steve oversaw at Boss Film. It has been widely reported this was not a happy experience for anyone. The sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 haunted house thrill ride, Poltergeist, had capitalized on Giger’s name but, unlike Alien, logistics prevented Giger’s hands-on involvement and, when the film appeared, Giger was very critical of the results. It was a similar story on the Alien sequels. Giger had not been invited to participate in Aliens, where director James Cameron and creature effects designer Stan Winston created their own creatures, crediting Giger with the original alien design. But on Alien³, Giger had provided designs for director David Fincher and the creature effects crew at Amalgamated Dynamics, and the experience turned sour. Giger blasted the film.

H.R. Giger and Steve Johnson, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

H.R. Giger and Steve Johnson, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Since Poltergeist II, Giger’s only film involvement had been a German horror comedy, Killer Condom, about a prophylactic with teeth. Species was a return to the big time, and Giger threw himself into the project with passion. Almost daily, he’d call and share his art with us. Pre-Internet, all communication was via phone and fax, so I fed Giger’s notes to Steve while coordinating studio traffic. Species required a large crew, with makeup effects of alien transformations of Sil, the predatory alien who grew from embryonic form into makeup effects on a preteen Michelle Williams. And then, there was the adult Sil, a translucent animatronic succubus with serpentine dreadlocks and explosive breast tentacles. We also made her chrysalis, foam latex stunt suits, and gory eviscerations for Sil’s victims. With all of that going on, it was up to me to field Giger’s calls. “Take a message, can’t you?” Steve would say. “I’m in a meeting.”

H.R. Giger and Steve Johnson, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Steve Johnson and H.R. Giger, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Reams of material poured in from Switzerland, page after page of Giger’s da-Vinci-esque sketches with annotations in German and English. Soaking up all that bizarre imagery gave me vivid and disturbing nightmares. And the phone calls kept coming: “I’m sorry, Mr. Giger, Steve is in a meeting.” “Oh, he is always in a meeting!” “I know; can I take a message…?” Local time in Zurich was nine hours ahead of Los Angeles, but Hans Reudi was a night owl. Rumor had it he never left his house in daylight. Giger told me he adjusted his sleep pattern to work with us, to be free of distractions, living in his imagination. As we became acquainted, he started to ask my opinion. “Well, I don’t know, Mr. Giger,” I’d say, “I’ll convey all this to Steve.” I transcribed his ideas into memos, and to my amazement, if I made a comment, the fax machine would buzz again and whatever I had said to him emerged in further illustrations.

XFX artists Dan Rebert and Joel Harlow with H.R. Giger, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

XFX artists Dan Rebert and Joel Harlow with H.R. Giger, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

At the end of the project, Steve commissioned a special display of Sil, full torso, her back arched, her mouth open as she received one of her breast tentacles into her own throat. With Steve art directing, a photographer fogged up the studio and backlit the puppet with pinkish light. Giger adored it. He called it ‘Rose Sil’ and put it on the front cover of his Species Design book released as a movie tie-in by Morpheus International. To thank us for our work, Giger sent a giant box filled with bars of Swiss chocolate for all the crew. Included in the box were copies of Taschen’s Giger biography, and I got a copy with my name misspelled but personally inscribed in silver ink.

Creature performer Vincent Hammond inside the work-in-progress Patrick Monster, with coordinator Joe Fordham at XFX 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Creature performer Vincent Hammond inside the work-in-progress Patrick Monster, with coordinator Joe Fordham at XFX 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman. Inset: conceptual art © H.R. Giger.

Fast-forward to Father’s Day, three years later. It was a Sunday but Steve had given his crew the option of coming in to meet Giger, who M-G-M had flown in to see what we’d been building on Species II. The lovely Natasha Henstridge returned, this time directed by Peter Medak. Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger were once more chasing aliens, which this time included a horny astronaut named Patrick (Justin Lazard) who became infected with alien DNA and subsequently transformed into a huge, tentacle-sprouting quadruped. Giger’s renderings of the Patrick Monster resembled a giant, squatting Sphinx, with elongated limbs. We built a puppet suspended on an overhead pulley system with creature performer Vincent Hammond inside. Giger viewed the creations with his partner and entourage, but what we were trying to do was impossible. The elegance of the designs did not translate to a giant puppet, which looked ungainly, and Giger left unhappy.

16 years later, my ex-XFX boss reflected on the experience of his three films with Hans Reudi. “All Giger wanted to do with us on Species is he wanted to be heard,” Steve Johnson recalled. “That’s it. Because nobody would listen to him unless he sculpted, painted, or created his own art with mannequins and bones. When we came into the picture, I wanted to at least try to trick him into thinking I was listening to him. After a while, I wouldn’t take his calls, because he drove me nuts, but I would take his midnight calls. And that’s all he ever wanted. He just wanted to be heard. That is all an artist wants. If you are a writer, you want your words to be heard. If you are a painter, you want your brush strokes to be seen. We tried our best on Species. I think we somewhat succeeded. In Species II we somewhat failed.”

ALIEN interpreted by Mad Magazine, art by Mort Drucker. Published by E.C. Publications © March 1980.

ALIEN interpreted by Mad Magazine, March 1980, art by Mort Drucker © E.C. Publications.

In the last decades of his life, Giger distanced himself from Hollywood, although versions of his creatures continued to appear in further sequels, spin-offs and Pepsi commercials. During production of Prometheus, rumors emerged that Giger was back working with Ridley Scott on the Alien origin story. Fox would not confirm this, and so it remained undocumented in the Cinefex story, but pictures eventually appeared of Scott and Giger seated at a table sifting through designs. It was heartening to see that Scott still valued Giger’s input, often referring to Hans Reudi as providing the DNA for the imagery of his film.

Perhaps it was this very personal imprint that infused Giger’s art as such a potent force on the few people that he trusted as collaborators. “Lots of people have died around me recently,” Steve Johnson confessed. “My mother died. My uncle died. I understand it’s all part of the Lion King Circle of Life. But when Giger died, it bugged the shit out of me. I am still not sure why. I made a complete fool of myself on social media, online, because it crept up to me in a strange way that I never would have expected. I guess it took me back to when Alien came out, I sat in that movie theatre on a sultry summer afternoon, and I saw something that I could never, ever imagine on my own. It took me to another country.”

Top: Carlo Rambaldi, Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 1978. Bottom: Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 2012. Images © 20th Century Fox.

Top: Carlo Rambaldi, Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 1978. Bottom: Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 2012. Images © 20th Century Fox.

In Alien, Scott instinctively understood that the allure of Giger’s art was that the images appeared to have formed out of the subconscious. He wreathed Giger’s creations in smoke, splashed them with sweat and flashed them with strobe lights. They were grotesque, but had an elegance and beauty that tapped into a fear of the unknown and a fascination with strange mechanisms of the human body. Giger was a consummate artist, a strongly principled man, and a true surrealist, but he was always sweet to me and, despite his many imitators, there will never be another like him.

Inscription by H.R. Giger, 1997.

Inscription by H.R. Giger, 1997.

Special thanks to Steve Johnson, and to Matt Ullman for XFX archival photographs. Other imagery as credited © Taschen, E.C. Publications, 20th Century Fox.

Fulldome – Films in the Round

National Space Centre, Leicester, UK

When was the last time you went to a planetarium? What did you see? An astronomer telling you all about the night sky? A bunch of stars projected on to the inside of a dome? Maybe a laser making psychedelic patterns to a prog-rock beat.

Well, things have moved on.

One of the places they’ve moved to is the UK’s National Space Centre in Leicester. As well as containing a pair of rockets, a real chunk of moon rock, and the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium, this futuristic visitor attraction also houses NSC Creative, a leading creator of fulldome immersive experiences.

Fulldome shows started popping up at planetariums during the 1990s. Suites of nifty new projectors meant you could suddenly do more with your dome than just throw a few dots up on the ceiling. Instead, you could project a movie – but not any ordinary movie. A fulldome film extends beyond the confines of the traditional cinema screen, presenting moving images that both fly over your head and creep up on you from behind.

Fulldome really is film in the round.

I spoke to Paul Mowbray, Head of NSC Creative, and Aaron Bradbury, CG Supervisor, about what life is like under the dome.

The NSC Creative team

The NSC Creative team.

The Fulldome Format

In the early days, fulldome experiences were cobbled together using a range of technologies old and new. NSC Creative’s first show – Big, a documentary exploring the vast scale of the universe – employed a traditional opto-mechanical star ball for those all-important dots, but also featured cross-dissolving panoramic photography, computer animation, and even some stop-motion, courtesy of the team’s ex-Aardman staff.

“We had this crazy menagerie of different analogue technologies, plus a bit of early digital,” Mowbray recalled. “We had a partial dome system with three enormous CRT projectors running NTSC video, plus two banks of all-sky 35mm film projectors. We had a laser; we had lighting effects. It was a real hodge-podge.”

Fisheye image projected on to fulldome

Fulldome shows generally use fisheye images projected on to a hemispherical screen.

These days, the jumble of equipment has given way to a streamlined bank of six digital projectors. They’re fed a single 4K diameter fisheye image, 360° x 180°, rendered as a circle on a square frame and then sliced into segments, one for each projector. Each segment is projected on to the dome in perfect alignment with its neighbour.

“We use software edge-blending, as well as hardware blends – that means physical combs around the edge of the projector lens,” explained Mowbray. “There’s a computer dedicated to each projector, each of which plays its slice of the pie as a high resolution MPEG.

“Other people play back uncompressed footage from one computer, off a fast SSD striped RAID with a 6-head graphics card. 4K digital cinema projectors are also quite common, because you get more pixels with fewer projectors. With that you have two projectors facing each other; each has a half-fisheye lens with a  blend across the middle. 4K is the current accepted standard, but we’re starting to see 8K systems using six or more 4K projectors. We’ve been doing research to work out how far you need to go before you can’t actually perceive any difference in the resolution.”

Aaron Bradbury added: “Overall, we think 16K is a happy medium. You capture most of the audience at retinal resolution, and the people sat near the edge of the dome are still getting a reasonable experience. The image is distorted for them, but that’s no different to be sat to the side of the cinema when you’re watching a feature film.”

Dome format comparison

Fulldome resolution compared to other common formats.

Fulldome Production

Google Lunar XPRIZE fulldome show

“Back to the Moon for Good” is a fulldome production promoting the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

NSC Creative specialises in producing quirky, family-friendly science documentaries like Astronaut (narrated by Ewan McGregor),  We are Astronomers (narrated by David Tennant) and We Are Aliens (narrated by Rupert Grint).

The in-house productions are interspersed with commissioned work for other dome centres or commercial clients. A recent commission was Back to the Moon for Good, promoting the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which offers a $30 million prize to private companies for developing a new lunar lander.

Typical turnaround for a 25-minute fulldome show is around a year. Under extreme circumstances that can be reduced to just four months. The key to success under such tight timescales is planning … and sticking to the plan.

“We’re brutally efficient,” said Bradbury. “Everything we do ends up on the dome. We do the storyboard, we do all the layout and previs, then the cameras are locked. We do that with our in-house shows, and not just the commercial ones. I think that surprises some producers.”

The business of asset creation, modelling and rendering is very much industry-standard, with Maya, 3DS Max and SoftImage being used to pump out the polygons. But producing that all-important fisheye image limits the choice of renderer.

“At the moment we’re tied to Mental Ray, because that’s the only one with the ray-traced spherical lens shader we need,” said Mowbray. “The other technique is to stitch five cameras together, but we prefer a one-click renderer.”

Most members of the NSC Creative team are generalists, although recent growth has seen them assign more specific roles in areas like lighting, FX and environment. All face the very specific challenges that fulldome brings.

“Just pulling the data off the network drives is insane – it kills everything,” Mowbray reflected. “We’re constantly trying to figure out workarounds for the creative and technical challenges of the format, all while trying to manage an ever-growing team of CG artists. At the same time we’re developing a new cinematic language. We’re effectively growing a whole industry.”

The Goldilocks Zone - "We Are Aliens"

“We Are Aliens” presents scientific principles in a quirky, family-friendly way.

The Language of Fulldome

A debate about cinematic language might sound a bit esoteric for a commercial operation, but under the dome it’s a live issue. Rapid transitions in the 360° environment can be overwhelming, and so a typical fulldome show tends to feature long takes, favours dissolves over cuts, and pays particular attention both to where things are in space, and how fast they’re moving.

“You have to be a lot slower,” said Mowbray. “The rule of thumb is: if it feels right in flat screen, then it’s too fast for fulldome.”

Then there’s bounce. When images are projected on to the light grey curved ceiling of a typical dome environment, reflected light can wash things out. This must be taken into account early in the production process, and shots designed to mitigate its effects.

"We Are Aliens"

Many fulldome shots use vignettes to mitigate the effects of light bounce in the dome.

“For shots where the focus is towards the front of the dome, we darken off everything towards the back,” Bradbury explained. “Nobody notices there’s a big dark section behind them because they’re looking straight ahead. But you can also have shots that are more experiential, where the audience is free to explore the frame. That’s the beauty of fulldome. We don’t normally vignette those experiential shots; instead, we keep them dark overall to reduce the bounce.”

Mowbray added: “The new projectors are getting better, with a good balance of brightness and contrast that mostly overcomes these issues. There are projection technologies out there derived from flight simulator tech that have extra panels to give true black. The ideal would be an OLED dome surface.”

There’s one thing that works particularly well in the dome: making people feel sick!

“In Astronaut, we have a centrifuge scene that first spins you around, then rolls the camera, inducing motion sickness,” said Bradbury. “It’s won several ‘most immersive shot’ awards. It’s a big ‘wow’ moment that leaves a lasting impression.”

Paul Mowbray stressed the need for restraint. “If someone actually feels ill when they’re watching one of our shows, then we’ve failed. It’s a really fine line. We have to use it to the advantage of our narrative, and not just for a cheap trick.”

Finally there’s the whole business of frame rates. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that HFR is a hot topic. Especially under the dome.

“With The Hobbit, a lot of people think HFR detracts from the story,” Mowbray stated. “But we’re trying literally to transport people to other places. In the dome, that weird high frame rate thing actually works. 60fps is where we’re heading at the moment, in 8K.”

The 10,000-Frame Shot

One of NSC Creative’s recent commissions is Tomorrow Town – an architectural visualisation project for the Schindler Group. The centrepiece of Tomorrow Town is a 10,000-frame shot during which the camera moves through a futuristic cityscape.

“It’s very hard to cheat shots like this,” explained Aaron Bradbury. “With fulldome, everything’s in the shot, all the time. As you move past buildings you can’t progressively lose them behind you. That’s the biggest challenge we have: setting up scenes so that we can move constantly and seamlessly through them.”

Tomorrow Town architectural visualisation

The “Spiral Town” arcology from “Tomorrow Town”.

Mowbray elaborated: “The normal tricks you do in flat screen work to switch out scenes with a bit of judicious comp work are mostly not viable. We used Mental Ray proxies for the background city, as well as iToo Rail Clone – a parametric modelling tool perfectly suited to this kind of arch-viz work. The biggest killer was the trees. We couldn’t use cards because of the camera move so the geometry got quite dense. The total poly count was about 50 million for the big ‘Spiral Town’ model.”

The lengthy shot contains live action of actors walking around a futuristic concourse. Actors were shot at 4K against greenscreen with locked off cameras, with the footage mapped on to cards in the 3D scenes.

“We were pushing the limits of the technique,” said Mowbray. “Parallax issues occurred if we pushed the angle of the camera too much. But we mixed in lots of CG doubles and controlled the area of interest in the dome, so it worked pretty well.”

Oculus Rift

It’s tempting to think of dome as a closed environment – a specialist arena from which a show producer might never emerge. Not so. Emerging VR technologies like the Oculus Rift mean the immersive 360° experience is no longer trapped under the dome.

“You can’t have a dome at home, but now there’s an opportunity for anyone to have an amazing immersive experience,” said Mowbray. “The Oculus Rift doesn’t deliver the collective group experience, but we are looking at it as a secondary opportunity to monetise our shows and expertise.”

Oculus Rift DK2

The next generation Oculus Rift DK2 ships in July 2014.

The Oculus Rift is also great for the production process. For the first time, it’s possible for artists to preview content at their workstations in immersive stereo.

“Up to now we’ve had to use a five-camera rig – front camera, two side cameras, a back camera and an up camera,” Bradbury explained. “With that we can get a good feeling of what’s going on, but it’s never the same. We still have to render it out, go down and watch it in the dome.”

Mowbray added: “The Holy Grail for us has always been having a dome attached to your workstation, so you’re working directly in the dome space. The Oculus Rift has the potential to realise that dream. For us, it’s a game changer.”

But is a show designed for the Oculus Rift the same as a dome show? Or is it something new? If fulldome is different to cinema, is VR different again?

“The experience is not quite the same,” Bradbury observes. “In the dome, it’s a bit like you’re in a craft, being flown to different places. With the Oculus, it’s more dreamlike. We’ve done tests with it in 360° stereoscopic, and you really are floating in the world. But it’s weird in that you’re looking around, but your body isn’t there. I can already see the differences in making something for the Oculus compared to the dome. And that’s interesting.”

“I think this is an opportunity for real-time filmmaking to come of age,” Mowbray concluded. “There’s a convergence point that hasn’t quite happened yet where gaming, interactive storytelling, immersion and virtual presence collide and create something new. I think that’s why so many people are excited about the Oculus. It really could be a whole new way of telling stories. I can see a point where we’re making dome films in real-time, and we’re not pre-rendering anything.

“At the end of the day we’re technologists only because we have to be. We just want to create amazing experiences using cool stuff. The more great dome experiences people have, the more potential there is for work and the more viable it becomes as an art form. If there was a dome in every multiplex, a dome in every art gallery in every city, that would change everything.”

The Dome at Home

One member of the NSC Creative team has already managed to transport the dome experience out of the science centre and into the wider world. Specifically, his living room.

“I built my own 1.6m geodesic dome,” Aaron Bradbury confessed. “I get a cushion and crawl in on my back. I use it to test the work I do at home, and then I go back into the bedroom and work on it some more.”

While Bradbury is enthusiastic about his construction, his wife is not so sure.

“Sometimes she brings friends around hoping they’ll have a negative reaction and she can make me get rid of it. Instead, everyone loves it! But now the Oculus has come along, I’ve started to think that maybe I can throw all that cardboard away.”

Special thanks to Ruth Coalson

Alien – 35 Years On

Alien Poster 1979Everyone remembers their first time. Mine came when I was fourteen years old, in the darkness of a cinema on the south coast of England. The experience was gripping, deeply immersive, and accompanied by the sickly-sweet smell of popcorn and the occasional blood-curdling scream. Yes, I’m talking about that moment familiar to any movie geek: the first time I fell head-over-heels in love with a film.

Why? What did you think I was talking about?

The film that captured my heart all those years ago was Ridley Scott’s seminal deep-space horror Alien, which had its first US theatrical release 35 years ago this month. Twentieth Century Fox are celebrating the anniversary throughout 2014 – here’s what Jeffrey Godsick, president of Fox Consumer Products, has to say about their planned merchandising programme:

As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of one of the most successful film franchises of all time,  we are thrilled to introduce an array of commemorative products across different categories in partnership with iconic brands including NECA, SEGA and many more. In addition to the highly anticipated release of Alien: Isolation™, hardcore fans can finally add Lieutenant Ellen Ripley to their Alien collections as we welcome her NECA figures into the family of officially-licensed merchandise. Many other exciting first-time and limited edition products will also be released to celebrate this exciting milestone.

35 years! Jeez, where did the time go?

Alien first hit the screens in 1979, but it must have been early 1980 before I experienced my popcorn-and-screams rite of passage (in those days, we Brits frequently had to wait months for the latest blockbuster to cross the Atlantic). I saw Alien again on its subsequent re-releases – including a memorable double feature that paired it with John Carpenter’s The Fog. I’ve watched it countless times since on both VHS and DVD, and you know what? It’s never failed to work its magic on me.

Filming the Space Jockey

Production designer Michael Seymour suggested that the space jockey be mounted on a rotating platform so that only a small portion of the background wall would need to be constructed.

So why do I love Alien so much?

One reason, I’m sure, is the impressionable age at which I first saw it. Many of my abiding movie memories were made in the 1980s, when I spent endless summers scrunching my gangly teenage body into sticky seats and gawping at the wonders unveiled on the screen. The films of that era were the myths of my youth: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Gremlins, Back to the Future … I loved them all then, and I love them all still.

Alien was extra-special because it was the first film I anticipated with the boundless enthusiasm of the true film fan. Before seeing it, I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, and devoured the tantalising text and eye-popping pictures of The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross. By the time the big day came, I was stoked.

At fourteen, I was too young to be admitted into an X-Certificate programme. So I got my dad to buy the tickets and sneak me in past the signs suggesting that epileptics and pregnant women might want to give the show a miss (yes, really). Did my big coat and surly attitude convince the cinema staff I was eighteen? Almost certainly not.

Did I care? I’ll give you one guess.

Alien mechanised head by Giger and Rambaldi

The mechanical alien head was sculpted by HR Giger and mechanised by Carlo Rambaldi. Much of the rich detail was obscured by a smooth translucent shell (absent here) which covered totally the upper portion of the head.

As well as captivating me from atmospheric start to nail-biting finish, Alien also introduced me to the world of visual and special effects. For the first time in my life, I understood there were people who actually did this stuff for a living. After seeing the film, and armed with this knowledge, I loaded up my bookshelves with yet more behind-the-scenes goodies. Pride of place went to Giger’s Alien by HR Giger and issue #1 of a magazine you may have heard of, called Cinefex.

No sooner had I started to appreciate visual effects than I found myself looking at them with a critical eye. Why did the Nostromo seem to judder as it moved across the screen in the two opening shots? Could it be that the shutter speed was set too fast, reducing the motion blur and making the image strobe? Why are there no stars in that section of space the ship is moving through? Oh, I see, it’s so they can do a simple double exposure and not have to bother with traveling mattes.

Ridley Scott and Facehugger

Ridley Scott briefs John Hurt as one of the effects technicians drapes animal intestines from the alien face-hugger, one of three dummy models made by Roger Dicken.

I also found myself appreciating the way the visual effects integrated with the rest of the movie. Gasping at the gorgeous wide shot of the alien derelict, I judged that some of its power must come from the artful timing of the reveal, following as it does a claustrophobic jumble of hand-held shots as the three astronauts stumble through the bleak, bonelike terrain. And, for all the effort that went into creating the various incarnations of the titular creature, you barely see it on screen … and yet still it leaves a lasting impression.

My wife rolls her eyes when she catches me getting all analytical like this. She wonders how I can enjoy a film when all I want to do is take it apart. I explain that spotting the joins is part of the enjoyment.

We agree to disagree.

And I continue to dissect movies, with an delight that began 35 years ago, when the lights went down, and the camera started that slow pan across the curve of an alien world, and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score crawled down the back of my neck and set its claws deep into my spine. A delight which has lasted ever since.

Alien – I thank you.

Do you remember the first time you saw Alien? Did it affect you in the same way it affected me? Maybe there’s another film that triggered your strange obsession with visual effects – or with films in general. If so, what is it, and just why did it get under your skin?

Alien photographs copyright© 1979 by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Production still unit photography by Bob Penn.