Los Angeles is a ghost town. The film industry – in particular the specialist field of visual effects – has abandoned its birthplace in favour of pastures new … not to mention controversial economic incentives.
In short, Hollywood is doomed.
Or is it?
Montreal-based visual effects facility Rodeo FX, which recently won awards for Game of Thrones and whose work features in the critically acclaimed Birdman, has just announced the opening of an office in Venice, CA. According to Rodeo’s press release:
“The Montreal facility has signed on the Hatch FX team, renowned matte painter, Deak Ferrand, and long-time executive producer, Cheryl Bainum, to lead the Rodeo FX Los Angeles team. The new office offers Hollywood studios and creatives direct access to all Rodeo FX services.”
Here’s what the Rodeo team has to say about the venture
“L.A. is still the starting point for much of the early development and creative process. Rodeo FX now has a physical presence here and can be a part of the early pre-production phase. We will provide conceptual art, work with writers, directors, and creative executives, and follow these same projects through to final delivery. Being involved and collaborating from the onset of any project helps control costs while specifying and maintaining the creative vision.” Cheryl Bainum
“The boutique feel of the Venice office is a great place to start the creative brainstorming process with the client. Using our visual reference library and pen in hand, the ideas can begin to take shape. Having the client physically in the same space during this process is very exciting and provides for a more hands on and collaborative experience.” Deak Ferrand
“As Rodeo FX grows, it is important for our clients that we have a presence in L.A. Studios, directors, and producers can develop ideas for their projects from pre-production through delivery of final shots in collaboration with the team at our Venice Beach location. Our L.A. office provides access to senior creative staff and opens the door to a team of 200 talented artists based in a province with some of the best tax credits anywhere,” Moreau added. “It’s the best of both worlds for our clients.” Sébastien Moreau, President of Rodeo FX
Could this be the beginning of a new era for visual effects in Los Angeles? Watch this space.
In the VFX ABC, the letter “J” stands for “James Bond”.
The James Bond movies comprise the longest continually-running film series ever, beginning with the release of Dr. No in 1962 and continuing all the way up to the present day … and beyond, if you factor in last week’s press blitz announcing the title and cast of Spectre, the latest film in the franchise, due for release in November 2015.
While the Bond films aren’t exactly effects-driven, they still require the services of a crack team of illusion-wielding agents both on-set and in post. The output of these SFX and VFX mission specialists typically includes spectacular chase sequences, a big reveal of the evil mastermind’s hidden lair and, almost certainly, lots of inordinately large explosions.
The first Bond film of all, Dr. No, features just such an explosion during its climactic scene, when Bond causes a nuclear reactor to blow up, destroying the bad guy’s island base. Later films delivered more big bangs, from the airplane crash at the end of Goldfinger through to the pageant of pyrotechnics that closed You Only Live Twice, when agent 007 infiltrates the volcano-crater headquarters of arch-villain Ernst Blofeld and sparks off – you guessed it – a giant explosion.
Artist Albert Whitlock contributed a number of matte paintings to “Diamonds Are Forever”.
The visual and special effects in these early years were the province of industry stalwarts such as Roy Field, Frank George, John Stears and Wally Veevers. There was even a brief contribution by legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock, who provided some essential scene-setting spectacle for Diamonds Are Forever, and whose paintings are showcased on Peter Cook’s ever-reliable Matte Shot blog.
When Live and Let Die came along in 1973, the 007 team recruited Derek Meddings, whose modelmaking background with Gerry Anderson on shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds allowed the “big set” visions of production designer Ken Adam to be realised in miniature form.
In this extract from Don McGregor’s 1981 interview in Starlog 49, The Man Who Creates The Magic For James Bond, Meddings describes the submarine-swallowing supertanker seen in The Spy Who Loved Me:
“Nobody suspected that the supertanker was a miniature until the front opened, and then, lots of people still thought there was a boat that did actually have a front that opened. Even the people who were originally going to supply us with a real tanker went to the premiere of The Spy Who Loved Me and they had forgotten they had not rented their tanker to us. They said to the director or the producer, ‘I can’t remember when you used our tanker.’ And he said, ‘We never used your tanker.’ There was never one shot in the whole film with a real tanker. We built our miniature tanker at Pinewood Studios; I had it built 63 feet long. It had a crew of three, all special effects men who ran it. We shipped it out to the Bahamas, and shot those scenes all at sea.”
Effects scenes reached a frenzy in 1979 when Moonraker jumped on the Star Wars bandwagon and propelled Bond into orbit. Meddings’s involvement with the series continued on and off, all the way up to Goldeneye in 1995, by which point the use of effects had settled back into a more conventional supporting role.
With Bond at the controls, the Hercules makes a bombing run on a bridge as Soviet tanks attempt to pursue their equestrian adversaries. The lower structure of the bridge was a hanging miniature constructed by a special effects crew led by John Richardson and Mike Lamont.
That’s not to say 007 didn’t serve up some spectacular action in the meantime, nor has he failed to do so since. In The Living Daylights, Bond drops a bomb from a Hercules transport aircraft on to a bridge in order to thwart an advancing convoy of Russian tanks. In this extract from Nora Lee’s article 007×4 in Cinefex 33, veteran special effects supervisor John Richardson describes the visual sleight of hand employed to create the shot:
“There never was a bridge like the one you see in the film. Well, there was a little bridge. Lengthwise it was the same as the one you see on screen, but heightwise it was at most fifteen or twenty feet above the river bed. We constructed a foreground miniature of the ravine and a different bridge. We used the existing bridge from the handrail down to the road level so that you could see vehicles driving along it, but everything beneath that was a miniature.”
This use of miniatures – ever a staple of the Bond movies – continues to the present day. In Skyfall, the explosions at both the MI6 headquarters and Bond’s family residence were enacted using models. Describing the former, here’s an extract from Joe Fordham’s article Old Dog, New Tricks in Cinefex 133:
“Chris Corbould’s special effects team built a 14-foot-tall, ¼-scale miniature representing the central tower and offices of the MI6 building, and then rigged the structure with pyrotechnics. Visual effects supervisor Steve Begg oversaw the element shoot at Pinewood Studios, using a pair of Arri Alexa cameras running at high speed. Peerless Camera Company then composited the miniature explosion into plates of the real Secret Service building photographed from Vauxhall Bridge, and blended the miniature with additional pyrotechnics and CG debris.”
Chris Corbould is a true James Bond perennial, having undertaken his first Secret Service mission in The Spy Who Loved Me way back in 1977. With Corbould and Steve Begg now confirmed as effects supervisors on Spectre, we can reasonably guess that the classic Bond blend of practical and visual mayhem will continue to wreak havoc across the globe for some considerable time to come.
I’m launching this week’s personal selection of VFX videos with a tour of the cosmos. Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist – is an inspirational vision of a near future in which humans are beginning to venture into and colonise the planets. According to Werbquist, “All the locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.” If Wernquist’s stunning images, combined with a spine-tingling narration patched together from old Carl Sagan recordings, don’t make your spirit soar, nothing will:
My next choice is a cute little video called A Cup of Tea at Engine House VFX and – entirely appropriate for a visual effects company based in England’s rural county of Cornwall – it demonstrates the basics of CG using, well, a cup of tea:
Now that we’re all maxed out on the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s time to take a trip back in time to the early days of the saga. From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga is a 1983 documentary narrated by Mark Hamill and packed with classic behind-the-scenes footage. I kept my original VHS recording of this for years, until the march of time made it obsolete. So when I stumbled over it on the official Star Wars YouTube channel the other day, I was delighted. The video’s been uploaded in nine parts – here’s the first:
Milk VFX have posted their latest showreel, featuring a wide range of work from features including Snow White and the Huntsman and Les Misérables, TV shows including Doctor Who, not to mention a whole menagerie of prehistoric beasts. Click the image to watch it on their Vimeo channel:
Only a couple of trailers this week. The first is Terminator: Genisys, the latest attempt to reboot the classic sci-fi franchise. This looks a lot more like a Terminator movie than we had any right to expect – future war scenes, big stunts, Arnie, and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke channeling Linda Hamilton in her role as Sarah Connor. While I didn’t see anything that had me pumping the air with excitement, if they can get the promised “twisty timeline” story right, this could be a winner. Visual effects are led by Double Negative and MPC, and the teams there are clearly on-brief to emulate the style of Cameron’s original movies. Check out the Hunter-Killer that flies in at around the 20-second mark and tell me it doesn’t have that old-school “swinging around on wires” vibe:
The second trailer is for Vice. I’m not sure I’ll be queueing up to see this action-heavy movie about a hedonistic resort populated by client-serving androids, but it’s interesting to note the current popularity of “artificial intelligence in a female body shell” movies, which surfaced recently with the British indie flick The Machine and will continue early next year with Alex Garland’s upcoming Ex_Machina:
Last up is an oldie but goodie. Powerful Visual Illusions is a TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel. It’s got nothing to do with movie visual effects … except actually it does. Seckel’s lecture is rammed with optical illusions and examples perceptual trickery, all wrapped up in an entertaining monologue which proposes that the human brain actually derives pleasure from being fooled. As Seckel himself says, when we witness the impossible “our expectations are violated in a pleasing way.”
Any theory which statesthat visual effects are pleasing by their very nature scores high points with me. How many points does it score with you?
It won’t surprise you to learn the video you voted into first place last week was – you guessed it – the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Which one’s going to be top of the tree this week? Now’s your chance to decide!
Can Star Wars ever be fresh again? That’s the question that’s bugged me ever since it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be helming the first in a brand new series of movies set far, far away in that fabled galaxy.
So it was with considerable trepidation – and yes, a healthy dose of new hope – that I watched the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it hit the internet last Friday – a teaser which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is set to become the most-viewed movie trailer ever.
I’m pleased to report I was encouraged by what I saw. Strike that, I was thrilled. Okay, it was just a tease – a stream of disconnected shots punctuated by tantalising seconds of black – but everything was married neatly together by a soundtrack that was one part pure Star Wars sound effects, one part new John Williams score (yes, that music really was brand new).
I also saw enough of the new film’s design and visual effects to thrill even the most jaded fanboy. There’s a cute robot that looks like the unlikely offspring of Artoo Detoo and a soccer ball. There’s Daisy Ridley’s character riding a cool and chunky new speeder bike. A hooded character in a misty forest igniting a lightsaber with extra twiddly bits. Next-generation X-Wings powering majestically over a lake.
Best of all, there’s the Millennium Falcon barnstorming her way at zero altitude over what has to be the Tatooine desert before encountering a pair of screaming TIE Fighters. The ever-reliable internet drew my attention to the fact that everyone’s favourite heap of junk appears to have exchanged her radar dish for some kind of squat, square thingummy, but it took my son to point out the obvious: she lost same dish after colliding with one of those pesky bulkheads in the interior of the Death Star during the climax of Return of the Jedi. And, you know, those replacement parts are hard to find.
Further discussion of the trailer sent me and my son into full nerd-mode, during which he mused that the extra beams on the lightsaber – allied with the fairytale feel of the forest environment in which it’s seen – give that particular shot the feel of a medieval fantasy. Are the Sith being presented as an ancient warrior caste? Only time will tell.
And so on. In short, it’s geek heaven.
But I think it’s also more than that. Random though the shots might seem, there’s no doubt they’ve been very carefully designed and selected to make sure they’re fit for purpose. What purpose? To excite, yes, but also to reassure. Did the teaser do both those things for me? You know, I think it did, and for three reasons:
First, this looks like the Star Wars I remember from my youth. The Star Wars that came alive for me when I received through the mail my copy of The Art of the Empire Strikes Back and sat for the best part of the day opening my mind into a larger universe. The teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks just like the pictures in that book, and I’m not the only one to think so. The best comment I’ve seen in this regard was this tweet by comic artist Rob Liefield:
Second, this sounds like Star Wars. John Williams? Check. Crisp reiterations of all the right audio cues, from the schzoooom of a lightsaber to the elephantine shriek of the TIE fighters. And did I hear a probot buried somewhere in the mix?
Third – and for me most important of all – there’s the opening shot. Arguably, it’s the least spectacular of them all, although it performs the essential task of defining John Boyega as the new face of the franchise. But let me tell you what else I think it does.
Putting all the geek stuff to one side, what’s the one thing we all want out of the new Star Wars film? The same things we want out of any adventure story: characters we love, fully engaged in a compelling story. And I think that’s exactly what this one shot promises. Whoever John Boyega’s character may be (is he a Stormtrooper, or just dressed up as one?), he looks to me as if he hasn’t a clue what’s going on. Where am I? What is this place? What the heck is going to happen next?
This, I believe is the key to rediscovering Star Wars. We need to forget what’s gone before. We need to leave all the baggage behind and see these wonderful worlds through the eyes of someone who has simply no idea what’s gone before. I hope Boyega’s character has never heard of Luke Skywalker. I hope he has only the vaguest idea about empires or rebellions, or squashy little green guys with big pointy ears. I hope he wouldn’t know one end of a lightsaber from another and has never, ever kissed a Wookiee.
In short, I hope he’s as fresh to all this as I want to be in December 2015.
So what did the other Cinefex staffers make of the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Here are their thoughts:
“My gut reaction is that it has all the fun of the original … without the cheese! I am unexpectedly excited to see it. Even though I was in the primo demographic group – 22 years old, a frequent movie-goer, up for doing whatever the ‘thing’ to do was at the time (mood rings, pet rocks, watching Saturday Night Live) – I was one of about five people who didn’t stand in line to see the first Star Wars. I’ll stand in line to see this one!” Jody Duncan
“It seems like J.J. may have caught the spirit and look of the original films quite wonderfully. The gadgets and such were updated and fun, and there were also some beloved familiars. But I think the reason why Star Wars hit the chord it did – and endured – isn’t because of the effects (which were great) or the excitement of the adventure (which was wonderful). It’s because of the deeper story it told, and the archetypal depths it plumbed. If Mr. Abrams thinks so too, I shall be a very happy fan.” Janine Pourroy
“This looks like a Star Wars film should look. I like the way J.J. Abrams has honored the nostalgic visuals and sounds from the original films. I also like the look of the new droid and lightsaber. The X-Wing fighters looked really good flying low over water, and the Millennium Falcon clip makes me want to see more. Bring it on!” Gregg Shay
“My knee-jerk reactions? The youngsters look intriguing. The zippy rollerball astromech immediately reminded me of Ralph McQuarrie’s “Art of Star Wars” Artoo thumbnail sketch. The 88 seconds did of course include Abrams visual trademarks: at least one lens aberration and a swirly whirly upside-down aerial chase-cam shot. But I got a tingle at the new needle-nose X-Wings zipping over the lake. Kudos, ILM. I know from skimming online that some commentators are kvetching, and I don’t need to hear any more opinions on the moral sins of CGI — if that’s your criticism, it’s time you threw away your 1995 ‘to do’ list. As far as I’m concerned, J.J. appears to get it, and I know he’s one of us in that he loves this stuff. I think we’re in safe hands.” Joe Fordham