VFX Videos of the Week 11-28-14

 

Omote Project

Omote Project – image source nobumichiasai.com

Thanksgiving has come and gone for another year, which means it’s time to put down that turkey sandwich and enjoy my VFX videos of the week.

Top of the list is this amazing example of real-time projection mapping. The Omote Project is an international collaboration between media artist Nobumichi Asai, makeup artist Hirohito Kuwahara and digital image engineer Paul Lacroix. “Omote” is the Japanese word for “face” or “mask”, and this art installation draws heavily from the traditions of Japanese Nogaku musical plays, which use masks to portray a multitude of emotions. The marriage of this ancient art and digital technology is stunning to behold:

In 14 Movie Special Effects You Won’t Believe Weren’t CGI – presented by Cracked.com – Amalgamated Dynamics founders Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis expound on the virtues of practical effects. Packed with great clips, and hosted by two of the most engaging men in the business, this falls into my “drop everything and watch this now” category:

Click to watch "14 Movie Special Effects You Won't Believe Weren't CGI"

Oh, and I’d be neglecting my duties if I failed to mention Joe Fordham’s exclusive interview with Tom and Alec, which you’ll be able to read in Cinefex 140 – out in just a few weeks!

This week’s seen an internet trailer war. It started innocently enough with this teaser for Pan. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), this is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. With visual effects by vendors including Scanline VFX, Framestore, Rising Sun Pictures and MPC, this looks luscious, and promises to be an interesting take on a tale that’s close to my heart:

However, Pan‘s thunder was decisively stolen by the first trailer for Jurassic World. It took the world by surprise on Tuesday when Universal Pictures released it into the wild a full two days ahead of schedule.

Like me, you’ve probably watched this trailer a dozen times already. Like me, you probably had a big, goofy grin on your face when you saw that Great White Shark hanging out over the lagoon. Like me, you probably can’t wait to see the movie when it’s released next June – and especially to eyeball those visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, Legacy Effects and Image Engine. Oh, and don’t worry, I’ve been told dinosaur supervisor Phil Tippett will keep the darned things on a tighter leash this time around:

While there’s no official statement on the subject, there’s every chance the dinosaurs were unleashed early to stop them being taken apart by Jedi Knights. Yes, it’s true, the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released today, thus winning the internet – and quite probably breaking it – as roughly a gazillion eager fans send the iTunes Movie Trailers website spiralling into meltdown.

What can I say about this? It look like Star Wars. It sounds like Star Wars. It has a cute robot, a cool bike-speeder thing, X-Wing-style craft zooming low over water and a Millennium Falcon flyby to die for. And it’s giving me goosebumps. What are you waiting for?

In all that excitement, you could be forgiven for overlooking another Lucasfilm trailer: Strange Magic. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and directed by sound maestro Gary Rydstrom, it’s described as a “madcap musical fairy tale from the mind of George Lucas”. If you’re a Lucas-basher, look away now, but I reckon any trailer that looks this good – and makes me chuckle to boot – deserves its place on my VFX videos of the week:

There’s magic of a different kind in the music video The Last Goodbye, Billy Boyd’s closing credits song for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Intercutting Boyd’s studio performance with clips from both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, this is the perfect coda to Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth odyssey:

Have you heard of Secret Cinema? If you have, you’ll probably know what to expect from this next video. If not, I won’t spoil it by telling you. Let’s just say that, following their critically acclaimed interactive presentations of The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shawshank Redemption, this London-based event company has been staging the most immersive screenings of the Robert Zemeckis classic Back to the Future you can imagine. Roads? Where they’re going, they don’t need roads:

While I’m straying from VFX in the strictest sense, take a look at The Animated Adventures Of Firefly: Production Diary, in which artist Stephen Byrne spends a dazzling 8 minutes and 48 seconds breaking down the process of creating a single 2½-second animated shot that portrays a heartbreaking character moment from Joss Whedon’s Firefly ‘verse. This will first hypnotise you, then make you shed one, small tear:

Right. Back to the VFX … with a vengeance. MPC has just released this stunning breakdown reel of their work on Godzilla. While I had issues with the script of Gareth Edwards’s blockbuster, the VFX were never less than amazing … as this reel proves:

As for my final choice of the week, well, it’s bigger than Jurassic World. It’s more gasp-inducing than Godzilla. It’s as deliciously hands-on as the practical FX of Amalgamated Dynamics. Yes, it’s Gregg Shay’s teaser video showing our next print edition, Cinefex 140, running smoothly through the state-of-the-art Heidelberg Speedster XL-106 8-Color UV Perfector press at Neyenesch Printers in San Diego:

Last week’s winner in the reader’s poll was the MPC breakdown reel for X-Men: Days of Future Past. Now it’s time to vote for your favourite video in this week’s selection. Will you favour the practical or the pixellated? It’s time to decide!

Visual Effects – Art or Science?

Is visual effects and art or a science?

In this digital age, visual effects has stopped being an art and become a science. Now that computers rule the roost, movie magic has become an endless round of number-crunching, pixel-wrangling, and worshipping before the Great God of Physics-Based Simulation.

Or has it?

Isn’t the opposite true? Don’t the infinite possibilities of CG mean that visual effects professionals have the freedom to craft moving images that are more spectacular and dramatic than ever before? Physics be damned – surely the primary aim of visual effects is just what it’s always been: to tell an amazing story.

Truth or beauty? Which is it? Or is there room for both in the ever-evolving world of visual effects?

There’s only one way to find out: ask the experts. So that’s what I’ve done, by putting this simple question to a range of leading VFX professionals from around the world:

  • Which is more important – obeying the laws of physics, or producing a shot that’s artistically right?

Here’s what my panel of experts had to say:


Joe Letteri
Senior VFX Supervisor, Weta Digital

“Realism informs everything that we do. But there’s no way to get all of the science absolutely right. Most of it is still unknown, or can’t be solved exactly. So in the end we use artistic interpretation and instinct to make audiences believe in what they are seeing.”


Joan Panis
Head of FX, MPC Montreal

“What’s important is the end result. It’s all about composition and timing. This can vary from shot to shot, but a lot of the time real physics doesn’t actually achieve good results. CG artists often need to cheat by reducing gravity or changing its direction, adding forces to get a plume of smoke in the right position, or manipulating the way explosion debris flies towards the camera or past an actor.

“Sometimes, things just don’t look right, even if they are physically accurate. So we create invisible forces to make it feel right. All that matters is that the composition of a shot throughout its frame range makes sense to our brains. I find that our eyes and brains have a surprisingly high tolerance for real-world inaccuracies.

“For the end battle sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy, our FX team built a library of ship explosions that were placed – mostly automatically – through our crowd system. One of the main problems we anticipated was that, as the ships flew up, down and sideways, the accompanying explosions would have to keep their directionality. But we also had to keep in mind that gravity should be pulling the exploding pieces downwards.”

Guardians of the Galaxy - MPC

“For the end battle sequence of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, our FX team built a library of ship explosions that were placed – mostly automatically – through our crowd system. But CG artists often need to cheat by reducing gravity or changing its direction, adding forces to get a plume of smoke in the right position, or manipulating the way explosion debris flies towards the camera or past an actor.” Joan Panis, MPC

“We thought about creating a large number of library elements to cover all the angles at which the ships were flying and exploding. In the end, it turned out we didn’t need to do as much as we’d thought. We mostly used just three types of element: the ship flying straight horizontally, flying upwards at an angle of 60 degrees, and flying downwards at an angle of 60 degrees. That was all we needed in order to sell the physics of the battle.

“Technically, the ships flying at 45 degrees and exploding have a gravity skewed by 15 degrees. But as most of the shots were fast-paced action shots, and because the explosions fire pieces in all directions, our brains don’t have time to register the skewed gravity.”


Andy Hayes
Head of Effects, Framestore

“We’re always searching for the best-looking motion to enhance the director’s vision for a shot. This means making things move correctly so that the illusion of reality is not questioned. But it also means adjusting that motion to convey the many aesthetic targets – composition, timing, scale, peril, etc – that are key in making the shot and sequence work.

“Starting with something that’s physically correct is the norm for us. But a shot naturally evolves with feedback. Physical parameters are tweaked or animated, and additional constraints or forces are applied to make things move in a more specific way. So we end up with something which may not be 100% physically correct, but which conveys the director’s vision – which is far more important.

“As an example, for the destruction of the Hoverbots and Necrocraft in Guardians of the Galaxy, we didn’t rely on simulation alone. Our underlying physical rigs utilised many different constraints and forces to pull the craft into specific crash locations, based on compositional art direction.”

Guardians of the Galaxy - Framestore

“For the destruction of the Hoverbots in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, we didn’t rely on simulation alone. Our underlying physical rigs utilised many different constraints and forces to pull the craft into specific crash locations, based on compositional art direction.” Andy Hayes, Framestore.

“Abstract effects with simulation qualities can add additional complexities. For example, the Tengu Monk fight sequence from 47 Ronin showed swathes of a cloth-like substance extruding from the demonic monks. In these shots, we were totally breaking physics in that the simulation material grew and changed over time – and ultimately even transformed into a gaseous substance. It was important to wrangle this material into something that was physically correct initially, but once that was done, our Creature FX department head, Carl Bianco, employed a LOT of tweaks to make the simulation twist and fold in the desired way.”


Daniele Bigi
DFX Supervisor, MPC

“In every production I’ve been involved in over the last 12 years, the main goal has always been to achieve the filmmaker’s artistic vision. How the team accomplishes that is really secondary.

“Building a set-up that obeys the laws of physics can help to produce a controllable and predictable result. Nevertheless, there are many situations where the director’s vision calls for a specific look or effect that’s completely artistically driven. In this situation, the software we use has to be flexible enough to allow artists and TDs to step back from real-world physics.

“On Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, at the beginning of the final battle between Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Ronan (Lee Pace), a gigantic hemispherical plasma shield is deployed by the Ravagers in order to hide their ships from the Dark Aster mothership.

“The shield is made up of a red-orange storm cloud effect, scattered with thousand of electric bolts running through it. The shield distorts the sky, and its opacity changes based on the camera angle, making the Ravagers invisible only from the Dark Aster’s point of view. Anyone trying to tackle this complex effect by obeying only the laws of physics would find it very difficult indeed! I think we created a visually beautiful shot without being restricted by the rules.

“As DFX supervisor, however, I must say that I would probably pick scientific accuracy over artistic interpretation. I think the industry is moving naturally in that direction anyway and the quick and wider adoption of PBR (Physically Based Rendering) is just one example of that.”


Ron Herbst
CG Supervisor, Digital Domain

“Hands down, no matter what, the shot must ‘work’, and physics be damned. What we do is entirely about storytelling. If the shot doesn’t tell the story, it is not serving its purpose.

“My answer is both philosophical and pragmatic. A client will reject a shot that in his or her opinion doesn’t work. Their reasons for why something does or doesn’t work are theirs to give, and ours to interpret to the best of our ability. In the end, what we deliver must satisfy the client, and any energy we exert in the interest of scientific correctness risks delaying a show’s delivery or chewing up the margin.

“That said, how we move towards getting a shot to work must begin with correct physics. There’s something in the subconscious of all audiences that looks for what it expects. If some of the basic physics isn’t there, the viewer won’t believe it’s really happening.”


Lon Molnar
Owner and VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

“That’s a tough question. This is the constant internal battle: challenging our technical integrity with the creative ability to bend reality, in order to tell the story.

“I think that, in the world of filmmaking, what we ultimately do is create illusions. We do this by any means necessary.  We aim to replicate reality, yet we might also create an alternate reality. Our goal is to satisfy the director’s unique vision – sometimes at the sacrifice of real world physics. If the rules need to bend in order to accomplish this, so be it. At the end of the day – if we’ve done our job – the audience is lost in the spectacle.”


James Reid
Head of Effects, Milk VFX

“When designing an effect, it’s important to find the right balance between realism and art. An awareness of the science behind natural phenomena is key to building something that’s believable, even when dealing with magical effects. This approach can be useful in refining an effect, and thinking of ways to add interesting detail.

“However, it ‘s paramount to know when to be more flexible and stray away from realism. From a technical point of view, similar results can often be achieved through a variety of methods, and the most scientifically accurate approach is rarely the most efficient, both in terms of artist time and computation time. Furthermore, the requirement to choreograph the movement of an effect often dictates a more visually-driven approach.”


Kevin Campbell
Director of Production Technology, Rising Sun Pictures

“The most important thing is producing a shot that the director likes. This is generally something inspired by physical laws, but not bound by them.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Rising Sun Pictures

“Most of the effects in the Quicksilver sequence were inspired by physically correct simulations, but we retimed them in an art-directed way which broke most physical laws.” Kevin Campbell, Rising Sun Pictures.

“The Quicksilver kitchen sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past is a good example. Most of the effects in this sequence were inspired by physically correct simulations, but we retimed them in an art-directed way which broke most physical laws. The results are largely physically plausible and artistically satisfying but not physically correct.”


Ara Khanikian
VFX Supervisor, Rodeo FX

“I think this issue exists in almost every shot I’ve worked on! I also think VFX should always obey the laws of physics … for the first take or two at least. After that, it’s up for grabs.

“Most feature film VFX work tries to replicate real-world physics and behaviour. It’s an on-going challenge to always produce photoreal effects … but then again, what is photorealism? Is it what we see with our own eyes, or what we’re used to seeing through a lens? The difference is a huge one.

“I believe that if you create VFX using real-world parameters like gravity, weight, laws of inertia and momentum, and proper lighting, it’s easier to then dial in artistic liberties than if you start off by considering only the artistry. The laws of physics ground the shot, and the artistic interpretation makes it appealing to look at, and communicates motivation and performance.”


Sean Faden
VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

“Ideally, the simulation software allows the artist to experiment with the behaviour, while being able to rely on basic physical principles to give the effect its underlying realism.

“Five years ago, we would probably have used a combination of physical sim software and hand animation or procedural particles. However, today’s sim engines are faster and more reliable, to the point of letting the artist or TD create something pretty great in a few iterations and with minimal manual adjustment.

“This is especially true with water sims. Sure, we can art direct things like spray and secondary effects, but the overall behaviour when left to tools such as Realflow or Houdini fluids is pretty amazing. Sims for volumetric effects (including fire) leave a little more room for interpretation and fudging of parameters to get the desired final effect or feeling of scale.

“A recent project required us to create burning flags for a battle sequence. Since the shots were hyper-dramatic, we simulated the fire at a much larger scale to emphasise the slow-motion and high detail. We used Fume’s simulation toolset, but with cheated physical parameters to hit the desired look.”


Erik de Boer
Animation Director, Method Studios

“In the work I do – the photorealistic integration of animals and creatures – understanding the laws of physics is crucial. But most often, selling that physicality means that once we’ve determined the ‘real-life rules’, we happily break those rules for dramatic and artistic reasons.

“Maybe the top speed of an F-16 feels too slow relative to the camera, and makes the shot a bit boring. The way an animal’s limb changes shape when it meets the ground might need to be exaggerated, or its fur might need extra overlap to show a violent percussive impact.

“Such deviations from Newton often annoy our technical animation department or FX colleagues who like to play by the rules. But although we’ve often tried to implement algorithms or interfaces that help or even force us as animators to obey the rules, we usually find that they get in the way, and that we need to have some fun with them to make the performance work.”


Max Solomon
Animation Supervisor, Framestore

“On Gravity, the challenge was to create physically extreme, visceral shots that were totally believable. It was a fine line to tread. If the audience thought for one moment that Sandra Bullock wasn’t really slamming into the ISS, or spinning off into space at the end of the Shuttle’s Canadarm, the spell would be broken and they would cease to share in the jeopardy of the character.

“However, we were aware that if we had stayed within the limitations of what the human body can endure without sustaining serious harm, we would have ended up with some pretty boring shots. So we needed to push all the action to the max.

“In reality, the G-force she would have experienced while attached to the end of the Canadarm would probably have made her head explode, and when she slams into the solar panels on the ISS at 60 miles an hour … well, you’ve seen car crashes!”

Gravity - Framestore

“On “Gravity”, we were aware that if we had stayed within the limitations of what the human body can endure without sustaining serious harm, we would have ended up with some pretty boring shots. So we needed to push all the action to the max.” Max Solomon, Framestore

“We were certainly helped by the fact that the action was taking place in zero gravity, and the astronauts were in suits which cushioned the impacts, so the audience subconsciously were less critical of what they were seeing. But ultimately it was about making everyone go, ‘Wow!’ and not, ‘Oh yeah that looks just like NASA footage on YouTube.’”


Geoff Scott
VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

“Both are important, to a degree. It’s paramount to always start with reality as your base, whether it’s the motion of a creature or person, how light reacts when passing through a certain type of material, or a complex fluid simulation. The laws of physics always provide us with our foundation.

“Once we establish this baseline, that’s when we enhance the effect according to the client’s direction. The key goal is not to get locked into the mentality of “but this is real”. When dealing with a director or producer, that doesn’t matter – it’s about the integrity of the scene and the shot. Our goal is to support that; if we need to bend the laws of physics, so be it.

“For example, for the documentary Battlefield: Cell, we worked with Cambridge University and various scientific advisors to recreate a viral invasion of a host cell. Our mandate was to design the film as if it were a space epic – à la 2001: A Space Odyssey – showcasing huge expanses between sister cells and the inner cell was massive. The reality is that cells are so densely packed there’s no negative spaces between them, plus we’re not even sure if light works the same way at that scale. So, although our protein structures were accurate, the entire film is an impossibility.”


Lee Carlton
CG Supervisor, Digital Domain

This is a great question. It should really be answered by the person you’re trying to please with the shot direction. More often than not, the answer is that you need more control in artistic direction, to be able conform to a preconceived concept already developed as an ideal in that person’s mind, and waiting to be realised in digital form.

A perfect example is a recent shot we did involving a ship in space being obliterated by foes. We needed to art-direct the shot to create an ideal, crowd-pleasing explosion, rather than a truly realistic explosion as it would happen in space. By the way, the shot came out fantastic!


Wil Manning
VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

“I find the idea of obeying the laws of physics to be seriously flawed. Our own eyes and brains play tricks on us constantly and, in my opinion, visual effects is a bunch of magician’s tricks designed to make people feel amazement, emotion and excitement.

"The Prestige" poster“In defence of this argument, I’m going to borrow from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (perhaps with irony, as his films are known for invisible effects and an avoidance of CG).

“The first step in any magic trick is ‘The Pledge’, where we show something ordinary: “It’s film, it’s through the camera, what you see is real.” Next is ‘The Turn’, where we take the ordinary and we make it extra-ordinary. With VFX, that means doing something that’s impossible: travelling into space; making someone run faster than the speed of sound; venturing into a boys dreams.

“Then comes ‘The Prestige’. This is the art: once the audience suspends disbelief of the unreal, we can show them fantasy. From space, we take them into a black hole; our speed runner catches bullets; the boy dreams of turning into an automaton. What you end up with is immersion in fantasy, and that’s pretty cool.

“For me, to make physically accurate visual effects is very important – it’s the foundation on which the artistry rests. If someone believes what you’re doing could be real, then you have them in your pocket and you can start to truly amaze them. You can perform magic.

“In addition, cinema is a language of codes and signals that’s tacitly understood by the audience, and it shouldn’t surprise us when we move to another culture than the language of cinema is as different there as the day-to-day spoken language. I work a lot in China, and it amazes me what’s important to the Chinese market, culturally speaking, compared to the USA and Australian markets (where I hail from).

“In China at the moment, there is much less emphasis on physically accurate work and a much stronger focus on making something that amazes – even if the work at times seems implausible. This can be pretty hard to deal with, because it’s in the nature of Western VFX to put realism before artistry. Most of our tools are biased this way – look at the recent tidal shift to Physically Based Rendering.

“The language of Chinese cinema seems more forgiving of the unreal and informal. Film makers as diverse as Tsui Hark, Jiang Wen, Zhang Yimuo, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo and Jia Zhang Ke (to name just a few) all speak with voices etched in unreality. I feel that for them realism takes second place to story and raw impact, and for Westerners working in VFX in China that sometimes that means leaving our preconceptions at the door. It’s a great experience!”


Conclusion

Well, the vote seems unanimous. For animation directors, VFX supervisors and FX experts alike, the answer remains the same: real-world physics may be the perfect starting point for most visual effects challenges, but it takes a healthy dose of artistry to make a truly sensational shot.

Is this a surprise? Hardly. As has frequently been observed, a computer is just a tool. It’s the person behind it who pulls the rabbit out of the hat.

And visual effects remains what it has always been: magic.


Special thanks to Stephanie Bruning, Jenny Burbage, Ian Cope, Anouk Deveault, Dave Gougé, Joni Jacobson, Melissa Knight, Che Spencer, Liam Thompson, Jonny Vale and Karl Williams. Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past photographs copyright © 2014 by Marvel Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox. Gravity photographs copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Cinefex 140 Preview

Cinefex 140 "Interstellar" cover

The next issue of Cinefex magazine is just around the corner. Yes, the presses are rolling on issue 140, and our digital team is busy finalising the online and enhanced iPad editions. So we thought it’s about time we unveiled the cover, with its spectacular shot of the Ranger spacecraft docked to the Endurance station, from Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic Interstellar.

Paul Franklin tweets about "Interstellar"We’re not the only ones excited about our latest cover. Not only did it debut on the official Interstellar Facebook page and Twitter feed, but the film’s visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin tweeted these comments about it:

Here’s a run-down of the four articles featured in Cinefex 140, which is locked, loaded, ready for launch on December 15, and available to pre-order in our online store right now:

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan directs Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in an adventure story about interstellar space travel. Co-written by Nolan and brother Jonathan, the film is a journey of discovery, realized in part through stunning visual effects images created by Double Negative. As he had with the Dark Knight trilogy and other films, however, Nolan sought to capture as much action as possible in-camera, with on-set special effects orchestrated by Scott Fisher, and other practical effects by New Deal Studios.

The Zero Theorem

A neurotic computer genius (Christoph Waltz), employed by a vast futuristic company named Mancrom, attempts to find a mathematical formula that may lead to the meaning of life, but instead falls in love with a beautiful avatar (Mélanie Thierry) and slowly loses his mind. Filmmaker Terry Gilliam brings his idiosyncratic visual flair to create a nightmarish technological world and phantasmagoric landscapes working with production designer David Warren, special effects supervisor Nick Allder, and visual effects supervisors Felix Lepadatu, Jonah Loop and Fredrik Nord at LenscareFX, Haymaker, The Chimney Pot Group and Bold Turtle Productions.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul star in director Ridley Scott’s retelling of the biblical account of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Spain and Mexico stood in for Egypt throughout filming. Double Negative provided visual effects to imbue the film with a grandeur and epic scale befitting its source material, with additional effects support from MPC, The Senate, Method Studios and The Third Floor.

Q&A: Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis

An in-depth look into the history and more recent adventures of special makeup effects designers and creature creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, co-founders of Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated. Woodruff and Gillis discuss their backgrounds in the burgeoning 1980s creature effects industry, early assignments at Stan Winston Studio, and their creative partnership that has spanned 25 years, encompassing Death Becomes Her, Starship Troopers, Tremors, multiple Alien films, and more recently Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs and Harbinger Down — a pair of independent monster movies, wrought with passion and crowdfunded resources, that mark Woodruff’s and Gillis’ feature directing debuts.

VFX Videos of the Week 11-21-14

Fun with oobleck - The Slow Mo Guys

I’m starting this week’s collection of videos with a big serving of oobleck. What’s oobleck? It’s a non-Newtonian fluid. Or, to you and me, a thick‘n’sticky mix of cornflour and water.

If you’re a fan of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (there must be one or two of you out there, right?), you’ve seen oobleck before. It’s that weird black stuff that boogies away in the chamber full of alien urns, or whatever they were.

In the video below, the endlessly entertaining Slow Mo Guys have mixed up a bucketful of oobleck, dumped it on top of a loudspeaker, and set their high-speed cameras rolling at a zippy 1,600fps. The result? A peculiar practical effect that defies both gravity and common sense. The coolest, gloopiest video of the week:

This year, New Deal Studios is celebrating its 20th anniversary. One of the dwindling number of full-service VFX companies still operating out of Los Angeles – and still going strong – New Deal boasts credits spanning the decades, from Broken Arrow, Alien: Resurrection and Pitch Black all the way up to Inception, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Interstellar.

If you watch nothing else today, watch this interview with New Deal’s Digital FX Supervisor and Technical Lead Jeff Jasper. Brought to you by The Foundry, it’s full of stunning behind the scenes footage and breakdowns:

What would a Friday roundup be without a few VFX breakdowns? Check out this week’s new reel from MPC, deconstructing their meticulous visual effects from X-Men: Days of Future Past. Beautiful work:

On to this week’s trailers, of which four caught my eye. First up is the latest international trailer for Seventh Son. Fantasy beasts? Check. Sweeping panoramic landscapes? Check. Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore? Check and check. Due out in February 2015, this fantasy epic features spectacular effects from MPC, Trixter, Rising Sun Pictures, Method Studios and many others, all under the overall supervision of VFX legend John Dykstra:

Next up is Marco Polo. This new Netflix series about the famous 13th century explorer starts airing in December, with a roster of VFX providers including Pixomondo, Spin VFX and Phosphene:

It seems you can’t leave your house without tripping over another live-action adaptation of a traditional fairy tale. The latest is Kenneth Branagh’s colour-saturated rendition of Cinderella, starring Lily James as the girl with the glass slipper and Cate Blanchett as her wicked stepmother, and featuring effects both magical and mousey from MPC:

Last and definitely not least (actually, I like this so much I reckon it’s last and most) is the trailer for Peanuts. Some purists are already tearing this apart, but it seems to me that Blue Sky Studios have come up with an intelligent hybrid of 3D CG and sketchiness to bring Charles M. Schulz’s classic cartoon world bang up to date. Most important of all, this feels like Peanuts:

That’s all for this week. The video that scored the most votes out of last week’s selection was Black Hole Creation by Shanks FX. Way to go, Joey! You can vote for this week’s favourite right now – or add your own choice to the list – in the poll below. Ready … steady … vote!

Dream Landscapes – The Snowscape

Dream Landscapes - The Snowscape

“The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films exist only in our dreams” – Werner Herzog

The snowscape is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Some valleys on the icebound continent of Antarctica are effectively dead zones – regions so cold and dry that not even a micro-organism can survive there, let alone a human being.

This essential lifelessness is one reason why, in Western tradition, snow has come to symbolise hardship and death. Yet danger is also a seductress. The very dangers of the snowscape make it appealing, both to explorers like Scott and Shackleton … and also to movie audiences, who are always ready for a vicarious sub-zero thrill.

The First Snowfall

One of the earliest cinematic trips to a snowscape (if not the very first) was the brainchild of pioneering movie magician Georges Méliès. For his 1912 film The Conquest of the Pole he replicated an Arctic wilderness in his studio in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, France. Like most of Méliès’ creations, however, his vision of the North Pole is the product more of whimsy than rigorous research.

The airplane makes an Arctic approach in Georges Méliès' "The Conquest of the Pole."

An adventurous airplane makes an Arctic approach in Georges Méliès’ “The Conquest of the Pole.”

A more realistic representation of an Arctic wilderness hit the screens in 1935, in Merian C. Cooper’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel She. The film relocates the book’s action from Africa to northern Russia, giving the RKO effects unit plenty of scope to build snowscapes using miniatures and matte paintings.

Check out Peter Cook’s blog for more of this film’s beautiful VFX shots, created by the same team used by Cooper for his groundbreaking King Kong.

The explorers journey north in search of the fabled home of "She."

The explorers journey north in search of the fabled home of “She.”

Scott of the Antarctic, released in 1948, features a wealth of location photography from Grahamland, Switzerland and Norway. However, the film’s star John Mills – along with the rest of the precious talent – rarely set foot outside the Ealing stage where the majority of the dramatic scenes were shot. Studio and snowscape were married together using process photography and the ubiquitous matte paintings, provided in the this instance by Geoffrey Dickinson.

"Scott of the Antarctic" features a number of impressive matte paintings executed by Geoffrey Dickinson.

“Scott of the Antarctic” features a number of impressive matte paintings executed by Geoffrey Dickinson.

Mattes and miniatures remained the solution for a wealth of subsequent snowscapes, including those in Ice Station Zebra, which in 1968 received an Academy Award nomination for its special effects (it lost out to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Like Scott of the Antarctic, it was shot largely on a soundstage, this time at the MGM Studio in Culver City. Its expansive Arctic vistas were the work of legendary matte painter Matthew Yuricich.

The "Ice Station Zebra" studio set was extended using Matthew Yuricich's stunning matte paintings.

The “Ice Station Zebra” studio set was extended using Matthew Yuricich’s stunning matte paintings.

A Whole World of Snow

Snowscapes don’t get much more fantastic than those which appear in The Empire Strikes Back. Scenes on the ice planet Hoth were shot both on a glacier in Finse, Norway and on soundstages at Elstree Studios.

For the spectacular snow battle scenes, the traditional matte-and-miniature approach was combined with Industrial Light & Magic’s new motion-control camera technology, to create what’s still one of the most dynamic snowfield sequences ever filmed.

For the sequence, stop-motion Imperial walkers were animated ambulating through a miniature set dusted with baking soda snow, and backed by Mike Pangrazio’s spectacular paintings.

Memebers of the ILM visual effects crew wrangle a toppling Imperial walker.

A four-foot walker model is rigged by an ILM crew comprising Richard Edlund, Ed Hirsch, Jon Berg and Steve Gawley. Surgical masks were worn to avoid inhaling the baking soda which doubled as snow.

According to Paul Mandell’s article Tauntauns, Walkers and Probots in Cinefex 3, the primary ingredient for the miniature snow was humble baking powder:

“Nilo Rodis was primarily responsible for the construction of the miniature snow sets … [Rodis] decided to use baking soda for snow. The original idea was to use micro-balloons – microscopic glass beads used in the casting process to create a light airway and to add strength to resin compounds. The idea was discarded, however, because the surface tended to ‘float.’ Baking soda looked more authentic. Surgical masks were worn to avoid unnecessary inhalation.”

In the same issue, animator Phil Tippett describes the particular challenges of animating in the volatile environment that is the miniature snowscape:

“One of the things Jon Berg felt should be was to have the walkers crunch down on the snow. That meant dealing with an unstable surface. That complicated things a lot, as you can imagine. You can’t cover up a mistake, and you can’t bump the surface with your arm.”

Snow Blowers

Micro-balloons – eschewed by the Empire miniaturists – came into their own on Firefox, when the script required extensive snowscapes to be disrupted by the low-level flight of the supersonic jet fighter. Visual effects for the film were provided by John Dykstra’s company Apogee.

In the photograph below, Dennis Dorney and Doug Smith film sonic shock waves ripping through a miniature mountain range. The model trees were covered with the snow-like micro-balloons, before being blown apart by an air cannon.

Dennis Dorney and Doug Smith film sonic shock waves ripping through a miniature mountain range for "Firefox."

The tradition of tabletop snowscape models continued into the 1990s. For the climactic scenes of the 1998 movie incarnation of The X-Files, in which an alien spaceship bursts from beneath the Antarctic ice, live-action footage of Mulder and Scully was composited with this large miniature built and photographed by Blue Sky | VIFX:

The Blue Sky | VIFX miniature snowscape used for the climax of "The X-Files."

Digital Snowscapes

The Day After Tomorrow saw digital techniques stepping up to the formidable task of snowscape creation. Hydraulx produced the film’s three-minute opening shot as a single, seamless CG take, scanning model icebergs and ice shelves, and using the data to create digital replicas.

At the end of the lengthy shot, the camera comes to rest overlooking a climatologists’ camp on an Antarctica snowfield. A live-action plate of the camp, shot on a minimal bluescreen set, was added to the composition and enhanced using additional CG structures, vehicles and characters.

"The Day After Tomorrow" - the climatologists' camp

In this extract from her article Freeze Frames in Cinefex 98, Jody Duncan explains how ILM created views of New York City encased in ice … and acknowledges the reassuring presence of the ever-reliable baking soda, still a valuable tool in the arsenal of even the most pixel-centric artist:

“ILM combined painted textures and 3D procedural rendering techniques on 150 lidar buildings. Maintaining scale in the all-white buildings – devoid of scale-enhancing textures such as rust, watermarks and stonework anomalies – was a particular challenge.

“To simulate expanses of snow-covered ground, ILM crew members laid baking soda or talcum powder on a flat surface, then tapped it to create interesting crevices and cracks. Photographs of the setup were used either as reference or as texture maps applied to the CG terrain. Subsurface scattering techniques gave the icy cityscape a translucent, photoreal look.”

"The Day After Tomorrow" - New York under ice

The issues of convincing scale is not the only problem face by artists when trying to put snowscapes on film. Talking on this blog about the visual effects of Snowpiercer, VFX supervisor Eric Durst pointed out the challenges of maintaining the right contrast and colour balance in an environment that is essentially white:

“Mike Mielke and his team from Scanline in Munich did fabulous work in creating the environments. The amount of detail required was staggering, especially with an ice and snow environment where color is greatly reduced. In this almost monochromatic world, where it’s basically all white on white and shades therein, the level of detail needs to be extreme to keep large surfaces from blocking up and becoming flat.”

Final composite of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

“Snowpiercer” shootout – final composite

The Future of the Snowscape

What of the future of snowscapes in cinema? If climate change does indeed mean that the days of the polar ice cap are numbered, and that the great ice shelves of Antarctica are destined to slide into the ocean, exposing the naked mountains beneath, perhaps one day visual effects might be the only way in which a snowscape can be visualised for the screen.

Regardless, it’s likely the spectacle of the snowscape – with its pervading sense of danger and death – will continue to entrance movie audiences into the future. Cinema is, as it always has been, a convenient way for armchair adventurers to visit those dream landscapes they would never otherwise see.


The Empire Strikes Back photograph © by Lucasfilm Ltd. Firefox photograph © 1982 by Warner Bros. Inc. The Day After Tomorrow photographs © 2004 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Snowpiercer photograph copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014.

2014 Awards Season Begins

The 2014 film awards season slipped into high gear yesterday with the the Hollywood Film Awards, held at the Hollywood Palladium, hosted by Queen Latifah and broadcast live for the first time in its 18-year history.

The ceremony came hot on the heels of the Hollywood Post Alliance awards, which recognises the contributions of individuals and organisations across a range of post-production categories in feature films, television and commercials.

Hollywood Film Awards

Winners of the Hollywood Film Awards are decided not through a process of nominations and ballots, but by a team of industry insiders and executives, with potential recipients evaluated on a body of work and/or a film on release during the qualifying year.

The 2014 award for Best Film went to David Fincher’s thriller Gone Girl, with the Best Actor and Actress awards going to Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, and Julianne Moore for Still Alice, respectively.

The award for Best Visual Effects was received by ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar for his team’s work on Transformers: Age of Extinction. David White (Special Makeup Effects) and Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou (Hair and Makeup Design) accepted an award for their work on Guardians of the Galaxy, which also picked up the Blockbuster award.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

The Hollywood Film Award 2014 for Visual Effects was won by “Transformers: Age of Extinction”.

Hollywood Post Alliance Awards

The HPA award for Outstanding Visual Effects – Feature Film went to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, recognising Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Erik Winquist, Keith Miller and Paul Story of Weta Digital.

The Game of Thrones season four finale The Children picked up the award for Outstanding Visual Effects – Television, acknowledging the work of HBO’s VFX supervisor Joe Bauer, Sven Martin of Pixomondo, Jörn Grosshans of Mackevision, Thomas Schelesny of Scanline VFX and Matthew Rouleau of Rodeo FX.

Reflecting on Game of Thrones – which earlier this year won an Emmy for Best Visual Effects, Sébastien Moreau, President of Rodeo FX and VFX Executive Supervisor commented:

 “This is very exciting. We were already extremely grateful for the Emmy Award; we are now honoured to receive this HPA Award, which is one of the preeminent awards in our industry.”

Game of Thrones - Rodeo FX

Rodeo FX delivered over 150 shots for season four of “Game of Thrones”, including the majestic city of Meereen.

VFX Videos of the Week 11-14-14

The Somme in Seven Poems

In this week of remembrance for the fallen of the First World War, the BBC has released The Somme in Seven Poems, a collection of short animated films that bring to life the words of writers including Siegfried Sasson and Robert Graves. The animation sequences are part of the full-length documentary, War of Words – Soldier-Poets of the Somme, and were created by Bristol-based Burrell Durrant Hifle. Here’s the trailer:

You can watch The Somme in Seven Poems in its entirety here via the BBC iPlayer (access may vary according to where you are in the world).

Next up in my VFX videos of the week is Black Hole Creation, in which Joey Shanks of Shanks FX sets about reproducing the scientifically accurate black hole seen in Interstellar using optical in-camera techniques. If you enjoy going behind the scenes on a little old-school trickery, you’re going to love this:

This week has seen the usual crop of new trailers, including a spectacular final promo for Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Watch out for in-depth coverage of the visual effects of this biblical epic – by Double Negative, MPC, The Senate and Method Studios – in Cinefex 140, out in December.

The new extended teaser for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron doesn’t show much we haven’t seen already, but is a decent enough fix until we get the full trailer next year. VFX credits for this Marvel epic include ILM, Double Negative, Trixter, Clear Angle Studios, and Animal Logic:

It looks like 2015 might be the year of “adrift in the ocean” stories. Not only do we have Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea to look forward to, but Brian Falk’s Against the Sun looks kind of interesting too. Based on a true story, it chronicles the fate of three US Air Force flyers as they battle the elements in an inflatable raft, after their plane crashes into the sea during WWII. Visual effects are by Switch VFX, Spin VFX, Malditochroma VFX, Flash Film Works and Baked FX:

Next comes the final trailer for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Visual effects are by Digital Domain, Method Studios, MPC, Cinesite and Zoic Studios, and we’ll be covering the movie here on the blog soon. This one is a bitter-sweet affair, featuring as it does the late Robin Williams in his last screen role:

My final pick of the trailers is this teaser for iBoy, an unlikely superhero story about a boy who, following a mugging, gets fragments of a smartphone embedded in his brain. Visual effects and motion graphics are by Momoco:

Click to watch iBoy trailer on Vimeo

Last on this list of videos of the week doesn’t feature any visual effects. What it does feature is Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon performing his song Heart, Broken, a wry protest against the whole business of going behind the scenes on movies. Uh, wait a second … that’s exactly what we do here at Cinefex. On second thoughts, I don’t want you to watch this video at all!

The winner of last week’s poll, with 32% of the vote, was this year’s John Lewis Christmas TV ad, Monty’s Christmas, starring MPC’s cute animated penguin. As for this week’s selection, well, now’s your chance to vote for your favourite. Will it be poems from the Somme, black holes, one of those terrific trailers, or Joss at the piano? Or maybe you don’t like my selection at all, in which case there’s a special box for you to add your own suggestions!

Sci-Fi with a Heart

InterstellarHow often does a science fiction film make you cry?

That’s the question that occurred to me after watching Interstellar this weekend. Why? Because Christopher Nolan’s space epic is the first sci-fi film for a very long time to put real tears on my face (to prove it, here’s my unashamedly subjective review).

Given what I knew about Interstellar (not much – I’ve been living under a self-imposed media blackout), I’d expected the spectacle. Knowing Nolan, I’d also expected a workout for my brain. What I hadn’t expected were the sucker punches of genuine emotion.

Sucker punches I was more than happy to take on the chin, because there are so few films like this that are able to deal them out.

Comparing notes with Cinefex founder Don Shay, I discovered he was thinking along similar lines. “How rare it is to see a science fiction film with a human emotional core,” Don commented.

So I started making a list, only to discover it was harder than I’d imagined. Don set me off with Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We debated The Abyss – remembering in particular the drowning-and-resuscitation sequence – and decided it just about qualified. But maybe that’s because we both just love the damn movie so much.

As for the rest … what science fiction films are there that have not just the right stuff, but the human touch as well?

Virgil and Lindsey Brigman (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) bring the human touch to science fiction in James Cameron's "The Abyss".

Virgil and Lindsey Brigman (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) bring the human touch to science fiction in James Cameron’s “The Abyss”.

One recent sci-fi film that really got under my emotional skin was Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. It didn’t set me to sobbing, but I was certainly stirred by Wikus van de Merwe’s transformation from petty bureaucrat to tragic hero, as well as by the pitiful nobility of the downtrodden aliens.

Duncan Jones’s Moon had a heart, too – the film was as dependent on Sam Rockwell’s extraordinary performance as it was on its lunar landscapes … just as District 9 was reliant on Sharlto Copley’s intense and sympathetic portrayal of Wikus. For all the hardware on show in these films, it’s the humanity inside that drives them both.

If it’s simple tears you want, all you have to do is turn to the 1980s, that era of Spielbergian wide-eyed wonder (and perhaps to the slightly more cynical decade of the 1990s that followed). But, while E.T. thoroughly deserves his place on our list, I’m not convinced by some of the other contenders from that era.

Gertie gives E.T. a goodbye kiss.

Admit it – your bottom lip was quivering long before Gertie (Drew Barrymore) gave E.T. his pot plant and a goodbye kiss.

You see, there’s a fine line between emotional truth and manipulative sentimentality, and for my taste, films like Starman, Cocoon and Bicentennial Man stray too far across it. Sure, they might bring a lump to your throat, but so does an undercooked casserole. And some films, like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, simply can’t decide when to blow hot, and when to blow cold.

Many other movies have their moments. Roy Batty’s dying speech at the end of Blade Runner is an emotional one, to be sure, but could Ridley Scott’s future fable be called “big-hearted”? Much as I love it, I have to say not.

On the other hand, Gravity is surely a no-brainer. My heart was full when that damn parachute opened – don’t tell me yours wasn’t, too. And, talking of redemptive parachute deployments, surely we’re allowed to include the fact-based Apollo 13, even though most would argue it doesn’t qualify as science fiction?

In foetal position, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the human pulse beating at the heart of Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity".

Curled up in foetal position, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the human pulse beating at the heart of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity”.

And therein lies the problem. As soon as you factor emotion into the equation, everything becomes subjective. Does this film qualify? Does that? This movie made me cry, but maybe I was just having a bad day.

Just how do you quantify the human heart?

That’s why I’m handing this over to you. I want you to tell me which science fiction films make you blubber like a baby? The comments box is waiting, so don’t be afraid. It’s the most natural thing in the world to open your heart and share your tears.

After all, you’re only human.


Interstellar photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures. The Abyss photograph copyright © 1989 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial photograph copyright © 1982 by Universal City Studios, Inc. Silent Running photograph copyright © 1972 by Universal Pictures. Gravity photograph copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.

VFX Videos of the Week 11-07-14

The Centrifuge Brain Project

Do you dare to take a ride with “The Centrifuge Brain Project”?

Yes folks, Friday has come round again. That means it’s time for another round-up of my favourite videos from the last seven days.

This week saw the release of the first trailer for Chappie, the new film from Neill Blomkamp, due out March 2015. Anything new by Blomkamp is a cause for celebration, even if Elysium didn’t reach the incredibly high bar set by his debut feature District 9.

The trailer is full of familiar Blomkamp tropes – the earthy setting, the ultra-functional robot and a seductive blend of pathos and powerhouse action. Personally I wish he’d ease back with the explosions, but the effects – courtesy of Image Engine, Ollin VFX, The Embassy and Weta Workshop – look grungily gorgeous. I like the robot’s performance and the overall offbeat tone and I also like the idea of Hugh Jackman playing a bad guy:

Next up is a smart new showreel from Atomic Fiction. The reel includes some great work from Star Trek Into Darkness, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Flight and many others:

Disney just released a new trailer for Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods. Based on the hit Broadway show, and with a starry cast including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine and Emily Blunt, it’s a musical mash-up of the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm. Visual effects are by MPC and Atomic Arts, and the special effects supervisor is Stefano Pepin:

I doubt we’ll see many musical numbers in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but if this new trailer is anything to go by, Peter Jackson’s throwing everything at what’s being billed as the “defining chapter” of his Middle Earth saga. There are orcs and elves, dwarfs, trolls and wizards, not to mention one heck of a lot of sabre-rattling soldiers (well, there are five armies, after all). On several occasions the screen is filled by flocks of giant bats and – I may be mistaken – I’m sure I spotted the kitchen sink in there somewhere. With visual and practical effects by Weta Digital and Weta Workshop respectively, this looks like it’s going to close off the trilogy in spectacular fashion:

Warning: there are no visual effects in my next choice. However, if you’re (a) hyped about Interstellar and (b) have even a passing interest in film history, you’ll get a kick out of seeing eight padlocked 70mm film reels arriving at the Willow Creek 12 Theatre in Plymouth, MN, before being cleaned and prepped ready for projection.

According to their website, this Muller Family Theatre is one of only ten left in the US capable of presenting the movie to the general public in this format and, with Dave the projectionist in charge, it looks to me like Christopher Nolan’s latest is in excellent hands:

As part of its current celebration of science fiction cinema, the British Film Institute has just made available dozens of rarely-seen sci-fi films through its online BFI Player. It’s an eclectic mix, ranging from Walter Booth’s 1911 spacefaring short The Automatic Motorist, to A Short Vision (a slice of animated atomic war angst from 1956) and the post-apocalyptic Memoirs of a Survivor starring Julie Christie. Access to BFI Player varies depending where you are in the world, but at the very least the list of synopses is well worth a browse:

Watch rare science fiction films on the BFI Player

Feeling festive? UK department store chain John Lewis has a reputation for producing heart-warming Christmas TV ads with high production values. This year is no exception. So set aside your Scrooge-like tendencies and cuddle up with Monty’s Christmas, which stars an adorable penguin brought to life through the visual effects artistry of MPC:

My final choice has been spinning around the internet for a couple of years, but it’s one short film that I’m always ready to share with a discerning audience. That includes you, dear reader. The Centrifuge Brain Project is a spoof documentary made by Till Nowak as a kind of absurdist love letter to theme park rides. I love it for its dry sense of humour and (of course) for its daft and delightful visual effects:

Now it’s time to vote for your favourites. Last week’s winner, with a scorching 46.5% of the vote – was Hasraf Dullull’s proof-of-concept short film Sync. So who’s going to win this round-up? Cast your vote now, and come back next week to check the result!

Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend

Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the LegendHere’s the bad news. Your treasured shelf of movie books is going to groan in protest when you append this weighty tome to your “making of” collection.

The good news is you won’t regret the addition.

Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend tells the story behind what is not only a popular series of science fiction films, but a true-blue cultural phenomenon. The book’s authors – Cinefex’s own Joe Fordham and Jeff Bond – clearly both adore their apes, with their enthusiasm for all things simian evident both in the incisive yet readable text, and the wide selection of lavishly presented photos and artwork.

Every film in the franchise to date – from the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes to this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is here. The stories behind the movies are illuminated by a wide range of interviews, some contemporary, many conducted specifically for this volume. Considerable attention is paid to the relationship of each film to the others, giving the book a pleasing sense of coherence.

There are a few surprises, too: an entertaining section on memorabilia and fandom, and an in-depth analysis of the musical scores. Nor will effects fans be disappointed: there’s a whole chapter devoted to the groundbreaking work of creative makeup designer John Chambers, who won an Academy Award for the ape makeup he developed for the first film.

It’s tempting to argue that, without Chambers and those like him, this book wouldn’t even exist. At Chambers’ 75th birthday party – attended by a veritable who’s who from the effects industry – makeup designer Michael Westmore is quoted as saying:

“One thing I remember that John always taught me, which I have passed on, is ‘don’t keep any secrets.’ And I haven’t. John told me one time: ‘The day that you can get better than me, bless you: go do it.’”

By challenging studio traditions of secrecy, Chambers fostered an atmosphere of openness that was applauded and pursued by those around him, and especially by the makeup effects artists followed in his footsteps – Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston to name but three – artists who have always championed the sharing of skills and knowledge, just like their peers and protégés working across the entire field of special and visual effects.

It’s this culture of sharing that enables authors like Fordham and Bond to do the work they do, and tell the stories they uncover. Books like Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend are the result. And although studios still sometimes offer resistance, driven as they are to their PR machines, the urge of effects professionals to share their experiences remains as strong as ever.

Long may that continue.

Caesar Woz Ere

Authors Jeff Bond (left) and Joe Fordham in Century City, Los Angeles, standing at the western end of the pedestrian footbridge seen in “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”.

An Interview with the Authors

How long were you working on the book?

Joe Fordham – Titan approached me January 20, 2014. We delivered our last fragment — or rather John Landis sent me his foreword, which he wrote himself — June 22, 2014. So I was involved for six months, all told. Of course, we had to do a lot of research, chasing interviews, images and planning, so we weren’t writing that whole time.

Jeff Bond – I believe we had about five weeks as our writing deadline, but we may have added another week or two towards the end of the schedule.

How did you divide the workload?

Joe Fordham: We pretty quickly decided Jeff would handle the “old apes” — meaning Pierre Boulle through to Battle for the Planet of the Apes — as well as the chapter on the music in all the films. I would handle the ‘new apes’ — meaning everything else — and we met in the middle.

I also interviewed visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, who shared his historical knowledge of the early films’ matte paintings and photographic effects. Craig was friendly with effects supervisor L.B. Abbott and matte artist Matthew Yuricich. And I spent a wonderful afternoon at the home of makeup artist Dan Striepeke, former head of the 20th Century Fox makeup department, who shared his memories of his friendship and long association with Apes makeup designer John Chambers.

Jeff also gave me his perspective on what we called the “Forbidden Zone” of Apes projects that fell in between the classic movies and the more recent productions, including the unmade screenplays that led to the Tim Burton remake.

What was the most memorable thing you found during your exploration of the 20th Century Fox vaults?

Joe Fordham – Sadly, that a lot of archival material has been stolen. The Fox archivists are very careful about this now, and have strict security measures in place, but years ago there was a time when unscrupulous people with “sticky fingers” would check material out of the vault and not return it, claiming it to be lost. That material would later turn up in auctions, or end up being offered for sale at conventions — great for that collector, but bad for film history and future generations of film scholars.

Here’s an example of that. Jeff and I were determined to locate producer Arthur P. Jacobs’ original conceptual art. He commissioned it to gain interest in the first Planet of the Apes film, but it was only through the generosity of documentarian Kevin Burns – who had scanned the art back in 1998 for his wonderful documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes – that we were able to provide Titan with those images. Jeff and I searched high and low, but neither Fox nor the custodians of the Jacobs estate, nor any other archives knew what happened to that art. It was heartbreaking.

Jeff Bond – The most unexpected thing for me had nothing to do with the Apes movies. While going through the Arthur P. Jacobs archives at Loyola Marymount University, I found some big sheets of artwork for Jacobs’ movie project Voyage of the Oceanauts, which would have starred Eric Braeden and had visual effects by Douglas Trumbull. Jacobs had also planned a production of Dune back in the day, and I only regret I didn’t stumble across materials for that project.

I had never seen the photos of the unused mutant designs for Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and even though production designer Bill Creber has been interviewed about Apes many times, I had never heard him talk about the design of the big hunt sequence, and how they planned the look of the first shots of the apes on horseback.

How did you make the picture selections?

Joe Fordham – Fox asked Jeff and me to be their emissaries into the Fox vaults. We supplied a wish-list to Fox archivist Jeffrey Thompson, so that he could pull material from their Raiders of the Last Ark-style storage facility.

Then when we went to visit Jeff’s office in Century City — not far from where they filmed parts of “North America 1991” for Battle. Jeff’s team members kept wheeling out trolley after trolley stacked high with cartons and file boxes of photographs and slides. We focused on color images that we had not seen before. There is still a vast ocean more of black-and-white material.

Jeff Bond – We went to the Fox photo archives, which I had been to before while working on soundtrack album projects for Film Score Monthly – I believe I had even looked through some of the Apes photos on those projects. Our editor at Titan also gave us access to a huge digital collection of photos, and Joe and I each made selections based on what we knew we’d be writing about (or had already included) in our chapters.

Picking the photos was actually easy; the hard part was dealing with our budget, because we could not have everything we wanted. One thing I desperately wanted to include was the painted artwork from Jacobs’ original presentation for Fox, which showed things like the apes in helicopters and the human astronauts driving around in this big bubble-topped tank. Kevin Burns, who made the great documentaries included in the original Apes Blu-ray sets, very graciously gave us access to his scanned artwork so that we could include those.

Which is your favourite ape movie, and why?

Joe Fordham – The first. It had Schaffner’s brilliant, witty vision of an extraordinary idea, with a terrific script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, perhaps Charlton Heston’s best performance — I kept telling Jeff that Taylor was a “protean” hero, but he wisely avoided my flowery adjective.

To cap it all, it had a spectacular score by Jerry Goldsmith, one of the 20th century’s most imaginative film composers. I also have a fondness for Escape, which was the first Apes film I saw in the cinema, possibly during its re-release. And I loved Dawn.

Jeff Bond – The first one will always be my favorite. I love Charlton Heston’s performance, I love the screenplay and all the actors playing the apes, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is probably the ultimate science fiction movie score, the production design and costuming are brilliant … and I love it because it’s about ideas, and the suppression of ideas.

I think that Conquest is also an incredible achievement, especially in its original form, unseen by the public until Fox put it on their Blu-ray set. It’s possibly the most subversive movie ever made by a major studio, one that argues very eloquently on the side of armed rebellion. It may also be the most violent movie released by a major studio in the ’70s.

I also very much enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: it’s a beautifully made movie with some of the most convincing digital characters I’ve ever seen.

The concept behind the Planet of the Apes films is clearly an enduring one. Why do you think audiences continue to be fascinated by these stories?

Joe Fordham – There have been books written about the Apes series’ socio-political overtones and interpretations of the films’ meanings. Jeff and I decided to let those speak for themselves and focus more on how the films were made, as that was already quite a challenge.

What I admire about the movies – in particular Franklin Schaffner’s first one – is that all that stuff is implicit, swimming around under the surface. It’s not overt. You can take the movies as simply an adventure story, or just focus on the characters; but there is a deeper resonance, and I think the best films in the series have walked that line.

Jeff Bond – There’s always a fascination with finding some kind of humanity in animals, or even inanimate objects. We project human thoughts and feelings onto all sorts of things – especially animals – so to see that portrayed so convincingly is compelling. I think the newer movies push that concept to new heights because you really do feel like you’re watching real simians and not actors in makeups.

Which ape character would you like to be, and why?

Joe Fordham – Galen, in the TV series, was quite an urbane young chimp, and I liked his sense of humor.

I was pleased to discover, while researching the later TV movie presentations of the Apes TV series, that Galen lived to quite a ripe old age. It was apparently Roddy McDowell’s last time in ape makeup, when he recorded introductions and TV bumpers as a grey-haired old chimp, sitting in his study and speaking into camera, reflecting on his adventures with Virdon and Burke, the two astronauts who came in search of Taylor.

Jeff Bond – It might be odd to say, but Zira is really the hero of the early Apes pictures. She’s the one arguing for understanding and compassion, and I would aspire to be as outspoken and idealistic as her.

Which ape character do you think you actually are?

Joe Fordham – Koba!

Jeff Bond – I’m probably Cornelius – a bit more cautious and less daring.


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