Crimson Peak – Cinefex 144 Extract

Crimson Peak - Cinefex 144 Extract

Are you ready for this week’s final peek inside our new issue, Cinefex 144? Our extract this time is from Joe Fordham’s A Monstrous Love, which prowls behind the scenes of Guillermo del Toro’s chilling Gothic romance Crimson Peak.

The film combines the talents of makeup effects supervisor David Marti and DDT Efectos Especiales, visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi at Mr. X, and special effects supervisor Laird McMurray.

In this exclusive extract, Guillermo del Toro describes the approach he adopted in bringing Crimson Peak’s quintet of supernatural characters to the screen:

DDT created five ghost characters, working from designs initiated by art department conceptual designers David Meng and Guy Davis, and del Toro’s distinctive graphic treatments. “I asked DDT to take into account the fact that I wanted to do the movie in a very theatrical way,” remarked Guillermo del Toro. “It was my concept that the ghosts had to be red. I wanted to link everything that was evil to the color red, and that was linked to the red clay under the house.”

Ghosts incorporated the unique physicality of performers Doug Jones and Javier Botet. “I wouldn’t call Doug just a suit performer; he is a great actor, and I love working with him. Doug has certain traits that make him identifiable to the fans, so I didn’t want him to play all five ghosts; and so, I shared the characters with Javier, who did an incredibly creepy job in Mama. Javier can dislocate his arm and move in a very different way. We then used an approach similar to what we did with the Reapers in Blade II and part of the makeup on Abe Sapien in Hellboy – we designed digital effects to enhance the makeup.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features The Martian, Everest and In the Heart of the Sea.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

In the Heart of the Sea – Cinefex 144 Extract

In the Heart of the Sea - Cinefex 144 Extract

It’s time for the third extract from our brand new issue, Cinefex 144. This time the article we’re previewing is Jody Duncan’s High Seas Drifter, a detailed look behind the scenes of Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, which is based on the true historical events which inspired the classic novel Moby Dick.

Visual effects were supervised by Jody Johnson and delivered by Double Negative, Rodeo FX and Scanline, while special effects supervisor Mark Holt delivered the movie’s full-scale 19th century whaling ship into one mother of a storm.

In this exclusive extract, Johnson reveals the secrets behind the stand-in whales used during production to help with the actors’ performances:

Both the interior tank and open sea shoots employed bucks that stood in for the whales to guide the actors’ eyelines. “We used jet-skis with prosthetic whale heads attached to the front to give everyone, including the camera crew, a sense of where the whale was,” said Johnson. “They gave the actors something to focus on and to point their harpoons at.”

The jet-ski stand-ins had to be replaced with a more sophisticated prosthetic when the crew moved to the Canary Islands. “Our marine consultants pointed out that the jet-ski with the whale head stuck to it would sink once we were in open waters. So we had prop builders create a buoyant whale rib with a head on it, and we swept that around the actors in the boats to give them something to look at and aim at. It was very difficult to orient oneself when we were at sea, because there were few points of reference and everything was moving all the time. The bucks helped everyone to keep track of what was happening and where the whale was at any given time.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features The Martian, Everest and Crimson Peak.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Everest – Cinefex 144 Extract

Everest - Cinefex 144 Extract

For our second peek between the pages of Cinefex 144, we’re climbing to the highest place on Earth for a sneak preview of The Death Zone, Joe Fordham’s in-depth article on Baltasar Kormákur’s high altitude tale of tragedy and terror, Everest.

Special effects supervisor Richard Van Den Bergh worked hand in hand with visual effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson to transport audiences to the Himalayas, together with artists at Reykjavík Visual Effects, Framestore, Important Looking Pirates, One of Us, Union VFX and Milk VFX.

In this exclusive extract, Einarsson recalls the early stages of the production, which included a dramatic location scout around the mountain itself:

To review what portions of the drama could be filmed on Everest, Kormákur retraced the steps of the 1996 expeditions with key production staff, including visual effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson, co-founder of Reykjavik Visual Effects – an Icelandic visual effects and animation studio with whom he had previously collaborated on the ocean survival drama The Deep.

“Baltasar is a very physical director,” noted Dadi Einarsson. “He wanted the performers to feel the conditions that they were supposed to be acting in, and it was important for him to be authentic with as much of the film as was logistically possible. That’s why he always wanted to get the principal performers to hike in to Everest.” Production scouts began with a flight from Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. “From there, we trekked up to Base Camp and stopped off at Namche Bazaar and Tengboche Monastery. We then went up to Base Camp and took a helicopter flight up and down the Khumbu Valley, up the Western Cwm and around Everest, shooting reference photos.”

Aerial perspectives were hugely impactful. “It’s difficult to convey the scale of Everest with a camera. When you’re there, it’s everything you thought it was, but three times bigger. It is immense, stunning and awe-inspiring. We came away from that trip knowing that we had to convey that sense of scale. That became the subtext we wanted to achieve with all our visual effects.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features The Martian, In the Heart of the Sea and Crimson Peak.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

The Martian – Cinefex 144 Extract

The Martian - Cinefex 144 Extract

What’s the best way to celebrate the launch of Cinefex 144? A sneak preview of all the articles it contains, of course. First up is An Abundant Solitude, in which Jody Duncan travels through space to report on Ridley Scott’s hit science fiction film The Martian.

Under the guidance of production visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers and visual effects producer Barrie Hemsley, the film’s 1,100 VFX shots were divided neatly between Framestore, MPC and The Senate, with special effects supervisor Steven Warner and his team adding their practical skills to the mix.

In this exclusive extract, MPC visual effects supervisor Anders Langlands describes the subtle ways in which colour was used to transform locations at Wadi Rum, Jordan, into the film’s spectacular Martian landscapes:

MPC removed the foliage in the photography by either painting it out, or adding CG rocks over the top. MPC also replaced the bright blue skies in the Wadi Rum plates with more alien-looking, amber-colored skies. In preproduction, Lev Kolobov, working closely with Richard Stammers, created a series of color grading temps that would give the skies their warm hue.

“Richard was very keen to avoid its looking like we just put a tobacco filter onto the lens when we shot it,” commented Anders Langlands. “He didn’t want it to end up looking like sepia film or something like that. Also, it wasn’t just a matter of keying off the original blue sky or roto-ing it off, because, obviously, all of that skylight illumination fell onto the ground and rocks, as well. We found that if we took out too much blue from everything, we killed all of the nice color variation in the landscape.

“So Lev came up with this nifty little series of grades that enabled us to replace the sky with whatever color or series of colors that we wanted, and still preserve all of that natural color variation in the landscape – which is what made those plates look so gorgeous in the first place. We ended up with skies that had a coppery feel, with some green tones going off to deeper, orangey-brown tones. Often, we exaggerated the natural gradients in the sky to create a more dramatic effect.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features Everest, In the Heart of the Sea and Crimson Peak.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Now Showing – Cinefex 144

Cinefex 144 - From the Editor's Desk

Batten down the hatches! Close the airlocks! The new issue of Cinefex has reached the summit, and the view from the afterlife is spine-tingling!

Forgive me for mixing my metaphors, but when you’re faced with a quartet of movies as varied as these, you run out of potatoes real quick. Not potatoes. Words.

The first film on the Cinefex 144 call sheet is The Martian, Ridley Scott’s space odyssey about a stranded astronaut with a passion for, yes, growing potatoes. Next up – and up, and up, and up – is Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, based on true events in which the members of a mountain-climbing expedition eat potatoes and meet with tragedy and terror (I may be wrong about the potatoes).

The third film showcased in Cinefex 144 is In the Heart of the Sea. Ron Howard directs Chris Hemsworth in this true and tragic tale about the attack on the 19th century whaling ship Essex by a monstrously large and aggressive potato. Sorry, sperm whale. Our fourth and final article explores the spine-chilling delights of Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural Gothic romance Crimson Peak. No potatoes in this one. Pretty sure about that.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to talk about the latest issue of the world’s premier visual effects magazine …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

I recognize that superheroes, monsters and spaceships are our bread and butter here at Cinefex, but I do enjoy the occasional exploration of other visual effects-created phenomena. Issue 144 is our travelogue issue, with forays to the summit of Mount Everest, to the desert terrain of Mars, to the waters off the coast of 19th century Nantucket, and to the decrepit mansions of Victorian-era New York. I came out of it as exhilarated as Anthony Bourdain during Sweeps Week (without having to eat the weird food).

What unites these four very different films – Everest, The Martian, In the Heart of the Sea and Crimson Peak – is that they are all “people” stories. Three are about people struggling against Nature, whether it takes the form of Earth’s tallest peak, a formidable and hostile planet, or a massive whale. The fourth is the story of one person against the supernatural. But the struggle is the same, and can be boiled down to this most basic theme: “Something – the mountain, the planet, the whale, the ghost – wants to eat me, but I will fight to survive.”

I had a headstart on the issue, having written In the Heart of the Sea several months ago, when it was originally slated for a spring 2015 release. The film – and hopefully, my article, complete with wonderful commentary from Ron Howard – will be worth the wait. I thoroughly enjoyed writing about Ridley Scott’s The Martian – loved the book and the movie, and loved the backstory, as well (geeky unknown author self-publishes e-book and makes good).

Joe Fordham did exhaustive research for his fascinating story on Everest, Baltasar Kormákur’s feature, with an A-list cast, about the well-documented 1996 disaster on the mountain, in which eight climbers died. Joe also got to return to the singular world of Guillermo del Toro for the Gothic-horror-inspired Crimson Peak. We love Guillermo, and from what we hear, the feeling is mutual.

I really hope you enjoy reading issue 144 as much as we did writing it. It’s going to have photographs and everything!

Thanks, Jody!

So, put on your pressure suit, grab your harpoon, and spear yourself a copy of Cinefex 144. Once you’ve done that, plant yourself on a comfortable mountain peak and let those potatoes send a shiver down your spine.

Not potatoes, dammit. Articles.

 

O is for Optical Printer

O is for Optical Printer - Cinefex VFX ABCIn the VFX ABC, the letter “O” stands for “Optical Printer”.

So what is an optical printer? Simply put, it’s a piece of equipment designed to copy motion picture film. A typical optical printer has a projector at one end and a camera at the other. By running film through the projector, and rephotographing it with the camera, you can create a near-perfect duplicate of your original.

But that’s just the start. By moving the camera and projector around, or zooming their lenses in and out, you can change the size and orientation of the final image. You can alter the timings to slow things down or speed them up. You can employ filters to change colours or introduce blurs. Through the clever use of masks, you can create animated transitions between shots, or combine lots of separate images into one. In short, with an optical printer, you can create almost any visual effect you like.

Many histories of optical printing begin in the mid-1940s, when the Acme-Dunn optical printer hit the market as the first mass-produced device capable of doing all the above (and more). In reality, the Acme-Dunn machine was the culmination of many years of research, innovation and experimentation by a host of dedicated cinematography and visual effects pioneers.

Diagram by Roscoe C. Hubbard illustrating the difference between early contact and optical printers. Image source: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, February 1927.

Diagram by Roscoe C. Hubbard illustrating the difference between early contact and optical printers. Image source: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, February 1927.

Early Years

Long before television — let alone DVDs, Blu-rays or streaming services — rudimentary optical printers were being used to service the growing demand for a home cinema experience. In 1918, Moving Picture World described one such machine as “an ingenious device for printing from a standard size motion picture negative on to a smaller film used by one of the many small home projecting machines upon the market1.”

An early optical printer. Photograph: Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918

An early optical printer. Photograph: Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918

These basic devices were not exactly commonplace. Nor did they conform to any kind of standard design. Nevertheless, many film enthusiasts had already identified them as the shape of things to come. In May 1922, addressing the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff bewailed the general lack of progress being made in developing a sophisticated and reliable optical printer for professional use.

“There are several good step printers and one continuous printer on the market,” Wyckoff said, “but to my mind they are antique. We should be able to do with our printing machine even more than we can do with our camera. It should be so flexible that we can take any part of our positive and make a new negative; that will enable us to do trick work that as yet has not been seen. There is nothing of this kind as yet on the market.2

In fact, such machines did already exist, although in severely limited numbers. Responding to Wyckoff’s plea, Pathescope’s Willard B. Cook updated the Society on the availability of optical printers for research purposes: “Mr. A. F. Victor built twelve of them, which are distributed among different laboratories over the country.3

Making Strides

Optical printers gained ground through the 1920s, performing such mundane duties as copying original negatives, as well as resizing them from 35mm to 16mm, and vice versa. These early printers often used daylight to expose the film, and their output was generally destined for the educational or non-theatrical market. At the same time, enthusiastic inventors continued to explore the creative possibilities of the technology for the rapidly-expanding theatrical motion picture industry.

Press advertisement from 1928 for a Depue-Vance daylight optical printer.

Press advertisement from 1928 for a Depue-Vance daylight optical printer.

In 1927, A. B. Hitchins of Duplex Motion Picture Industries Inc. presented his latest optical printer to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. As well as enlarging, reducing, and handling routine optical effects such as lap dissolves and wipes, the Duplex optical printer also boasted a special effects attachment comprising a matte box, multiple exposure device, circular and rectangular vignette, curtain shutter, and blade cut-out.

“The Duplex optical and reduction printer is the result of an insistent demand for improved and more flexible printing methods,” Hitchins stated. “Directly we enter the field of optical printing, we open up a practically unlimited range of printing possibilities; every phase of trick and effect photography can be readily accomplished, limited only by the ingenuity of the operator. With a machine of this type at one’s command many expensive sets need never be built, for any desired detail or background can be printed in by double exposure or with silhouette negatives.4

The 1927 Duplex optical printer Type A featured a built-in special effects attachment and matte box. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, September 1927.

The 1927 Duplex optical printer Type A featured a built-in special effects attachment and matte box. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, September 1927.

The Society benefited from further optical printing insights the following year, when cinematographer Carl Louis Gregory presented “an optical printer for trick work”, designed by himself and built by Fred A. Barber.

Gregory illustrated the challenges of “trick work” by describing the process of putting a mermaid on to the screen. His proposed solution (requiring an optical printer, of course) required the filmmaker to “make negatives of a nude woman swimmer and of a shark or a minnow and from these … dissect the trunk of the woman and the tail of the fish and assemble a mermaid that will almost make you believe in the existence of the fabled creatures.5

Critical to the success of this operation was the ability to perform the final assembly with great accuracy. “The solution of this difficult problem,” Gregory advised, “is in an optical printer where every mechanical move can be controlled with micrometric precision.6

Mounted on a six-foot lathe bed on a concrete foundation, the Gregory-Barber optical printer was a “three-head” device. This meant it carried three key optical components — camera, lens and projector — each mounted on its own moving carriage. The carriages, or “heads”, were capable of independent movement up, down, left and right, in increments of one eight-hundredth of an inch.

The Gregory-Barber optical printer was a precision-built optical printer capable of head movement to within a tolerance of one eight-hundredth of an inch. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928.

The Gregory-Barber optical printer was a precision-built optical printer capable of head movement to within a tolerance of one eight-hundredth of an inch. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928.

Fixing it in Post

By the 1930s, optical printers were essential tools relied upon by all the major motion picture studios. Not only did they offer boundless creative possibilities, but they also made financial sense by saving time on repetitive tasks. In 1931, RKO’s head of special effects Lloyd Knechtel said, “Within the past few years the motion picture has almost universally adopted the system of optical printing in its many and varied uses and forms, and has found it invaluable as both an artistic and an economic aid.7

Much of the work running through the gate of a typical optical printer was drudgery — fade-ins and fade-outs, dissolves and all the countless wipes and iris effects familiar to early cinema audiences. However, filmmakers were also seeing in the optical printer the potential for correcting errors made during principal photography — what is now commonly called “fixing it in post”.

“There are ever increasing demands made on the optical printing experts,” Knechtel observed, “to ‘doctor up’ scenes that have already been photographed and which require certain ‘adjustments’ in order to make them usable in a production.8” Optical fixes might include correcting the accidental under or overexposure of a scene, reducing contrast, using coloured filters to create “day for night” effects, or blurring out unwanted details such as a rogue company name on an advertising billboard.

The editor of International Photographer, commenting on an article by Maurice Hughes of Pacific Title and Art Studio, likened optical printer technicians to combat medics: “It is [Maurice Hughes’] belief that the optical printer has been the emergency doctor in many successful operations performed on film9.”

Turning Tricks

King Kong 1933

Trick work — what is now called visual effects — enjoyed a boom period during the 1930s, as films ranging from King Kong (1933) to a seemingly endless stream of Busby Berkeley musicals conjured optical illusions to dazzle audiences seeking escape from economic gloom and political upheaval. It was in the field of trick work that optical printers came into their own, not only by stirring audiences with fabulous spectacles, but also by helping producers to cut costs.

In 1934, cinematographer Linwood Dunn noted, “As studio executives become more familiar with the artistic and money-saving possibilities [of optical printing], I feel assured that they will take more and more interest in this branch of trick photography10.” A few years later, in 1937, J. A. Norling identified the economic benefits of the optical printer as the key to its ongoing success: “There is no better way to insert a background in composite photography than by background projection or by the Dunning process, but some composite scenes requiring background insertion can be made on the optical printer at less expense, if the picture action is suitable11.”

The sequence of images below breaks down the different elements used to create a typical visual effects shot of the period. It was created for the film So Ends the Night by Cosgrove Special Effects Department at RKO Pathé Studios, Culver City, under the supervision of Jack Cosgrove12.

For this RKO composite shot, the original live action (top left) was shot on a stage at Universal. The man and dog were further isolated by what would later be known as a “garbage matte” (top right). This was achieved by projecting the original footage on to a white layout board, drawing in the rest of the silhouette by hand, and rephotographing the result. Cosgrove Special Effects combined the result with a stock shot of a sunset sky (bottom left) using an optical printer, with the final composite image (bottom right) achieved after much experimentation with different light levels and a range of high contrast films. Image source: International Photographer, December 1940.

For this RKO composite shot, the original live action (top left) was shot on a stage at Universal. The man and dog were further isolated by what would later be known as a “garbage matte” (top right). This was achieved by projecting the original footage on to a white layout board, drawing in the rest of the silhouette by hand, and rephotographing the result. Cosgrove Special Effects combined the result with a stock shot of a sunset sky (bottom left) using an optical printer, with the final composite image (bottom right) achieved after much experimentation with different light levels and a range of high contrast films. Image source: International Photographer, December 1940.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Indispensable though the equipment had become, even by 1940 there was still no such thing as a “standard” optical printer. Individual machines were meticulously hand-crafted, with each studio’s special effects department pioneering its own variations on the theme. As the benefits of optical printing became increasingly apparent, the race was on to mass-produce a truly reliable, standardised device.

One man hoping to be the first past the post was William Draper, who in 1940 described his frustration in trying to get one of his ever-evolving prototypes into production. “With the issuance of letters of patents in 1938,” Draper remarked, “[I] determined to make one grand effort to put [my] system to work. Believe it or not the effort is still in the process of incubation. It seems incredible that such a simple idea would present such a multitude of problems13.”

William Draper's optical printer of 1940, configured with a travelling matte in the camera head. Photograph: International Photographer, April 1940.

William Draper’s optical printer of 1940, configured with a travelling matte in the camera head. Photograph: International Photographer, April 1940.

Driven by a desire to improve both productivity and reliability, Draper dreamed of an optical printer that would “reduce thirty minutes of a skilled workman’s time to five minutes of a printer’s time” and give filmmakers “a more standardised, dependable product … as near foolproof as possible14.” However, the complexity of the challenge seemed insurmountable. Working with business associate J. W. Fitts, Draper tinkered endlessly with “an optical printer with a few extra gadgets [which] reminds one of the perpetual motion machine that was constructed by the student of theosophy in the Philosopher’s Stone. When it was contained in a cigar box it lacked one gear of being ready to function. When it had outgrown the house it still was short one gear. No matter what is added, it still suggests the addition of something else15.”

"Here are the details of the ‘perfect’ optical printer that would be the answer to the prayers of motion picture camera operators for a mechanically foolproof device that even eliminate tests” - William Draper, International Photographer, June 1940.

“Here are the details of the ‘perfect’ optical printer that would be the answer to the prayers of motion picture camera operators for a mechanically foolproof device that even eliminate tests” – William Draper, International Photographer, June 1940.

The Acme-Dunn Optical Printer

Shortly before the end of World War II, everything changed. On 18 October 1943, Linwood Dunn, first cinematographer and head of optical printing at RKO, presented to a technical conference in Hollywood “an optical printer of radically new design and construction … Besides doing all of the conventional optical printing effects, the Acme-Dunn optical printer can make automatically driven dolly or ‘zoom’ shots at any practical speed, make horizontal or vertical frame slide-off effects, wipe off in any direction at any speed, do frame-combination printing within a 12-frame cycle, and enlarge from 16mm, including successful 3-frame separation negatives16.”

The Acme-Dunn was the world's first mass-produced optical printer. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

The Acme-Dunn was the world’s first mass-produced optical printer. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

Built by Acme Tool Company of Burbank, the Acme-Dunn optical printer differed from the many and varied Rube Goldberg contraptions turned out by studio workshops by being constructed as a single complete unit, with a cast-iron base and housing. The Bell & Howell camera was fully integrated, and all threading and operational controls were accessible from one side of the device.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the Acme-Dunn optical printer was specifically designed for mass-production.

Describing his invention as a “dream printer”, Dunn said, “[It is] a machine which can do anything that has been done on any all-purpose optical printer, with special emphasis on ease and flexibility of operation … When an imaginative optical printing specialist is not hampered by the limitations of his equipment, his value to his studio can be tremendous17.”

All the controls for the Acme-Dunn optical printer were accessible from one side of the machine. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

All the controls for the Acme-Dunn optical printer were accessible from one side of the machine. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

Initially, the Acme-Dunn printer was manufactured purely for governmental use, with the first machine snapped up by the U.S. Navy’s Central Photographic Laboratory in Washington, D.C. After the war, widespread production began and the Acme-Dunn became what motion pictures had always lacked: an industry-standard optical printer.

On 15 March 1945, the Academy Research Council bestowed a Class 3 Award on Linwood Dunn, Cecil Love and Edward Furer for the design and construction of their new optical printer, commenting, “This machine exemplifies technical advancement necessary to keep pace with the ever increasing scope of the motion picture art18.” Nearly forty years later, in 1981, the Academy recognised the same three men for the same achievement, retrospectively awarding them a special Oscar for technical merit.

Experiments in Optical

Press advertisement from 1962 for an Acme optical printer.

Press advertisement from 1962 for an Acme optical printer.

Once standardised, the optical printer solidified its reputation as a piece of essential equipment capable of performing a multitude of onerous tasks without complaint — and saving the production valuable dollars to boot — as illustrated in this laconic report from a 1956 edition of Motion Picture Daily: “C&G Films Effects, New York City, announce the acquisition of a new optical printer that does everything but write dialogue … The idea, of course, is to save time in the industry where time is money19.”

Even though the optical printer was rapidly becoming an old dog, it was still capable of learning new tricks. For example, during the 1950s, Raymond Spottiswoode, an early proponent of 3D cinema, published a number of papers citing the optical printer as a useful tool in the delicate task of adjusting stereo displacement effects. And in 1957, Oxberry introduced the first commercially available aerial image optical printer, so named because the receiving camera was focused not on the plane of the film it was copying, but on a “virtual” or “aerial” image floating in empty space between its own lens and that of the projector.

Experimental filmmakers found even more creative uses for various kinds of printers. In 1963, Stan Brakhage created the short film Mothlight by pasting moth wings and other fragments from the natural world between two strips of mylar, and running the result through an contact printer20.

Watch Mothlight by Stan Brakhage:

However, even as artists were exploring the creative possibilities of the optical printer, countless machines were being mothballed as the big Hollywood studios began closing down their special effects departments. By the 1970s, the appetite of audiences for big-screen thrills had waned. Nobody cared about visual effects, and those filmmakers still passionate about them found themselves well-served by in-camera techniques such as front and rear projection, or latent image composites.

Once a highly-evolved organism, the optical printer was rapidly going the way of the dinosaur.

Resurrection

Star Wars 1977In 1977, Star Wars took the world by storm. To deliver the fast-moving visual effects envisioned by director George Lucas, the newly-formed Industrial Light & Magic developed a computer-controlled camera platform known as the Dykstraflex. The resulting footage was perfect for Lucas’s needs, but in order to combine the many separate elements generated by the Dykstraflex into a single image, ILM was going to need the granddaddy of all optical printers.

To create their complex composites, ILM repurposed an old VistaVision machine, originally built by Howard Anderson in the 1950s and used in the production of epics including The Ten Commandments. Resurrecting the large VistaVision format was a deliberate choice — the subsequent reduction to 35mm anamorphic in the “Anderson” optical printer helped retain the definition and clarity of the original images.

For The Empire Strikes Back, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund championed the design and construction of a brand new aerial image optical printer. The “Quad” had no less than four projector heads, allowing many shots to be assembled in a single pass. However, the monster machine’s complexity made it difficult to load, so when ILM came to scale the visual effects mountain that was Return of the Jedi, they took a “divide and conquer” approach and split the Quad in half. One of the resulting pair of printers continued to go by the original name, while the other was christened the “Workhorse”.

Ken Smith at the controls of ILM's "Workhorse" optical printer. Photograph courtesy of ILM.

Ken Smith at the controls of ILM’s “Workhorse” optical printer. Photograph courtesy of ILM.

Just as the early optical printers of the 1920s and 1930s were hand-crafted labours of love, so ILM’s machines were one-offs. Many used second-hand components, and each had its individual quirks. For example, most optical printers had the receiving camera positioned to the right of the projectors, and were thus considered “right-handed”. The Workhorse, due to the nature of the projectors scavenged for its construction, was “left-handed”; perhaps it was no coincidence that the man who oversaw its development, ILM’s optical photography supervisor Bruce Nicholson, was a southpaw too.

Having elevated optical printers into the spotlight once more, ILM continued to use them all the way up to 1993, when the venerable Anderson printer — still in working order — was finally decommissioned.

Cut and Print

Eastman-Kodak trade advertisement from 1947.

Eastman-Kodak trade advertisement from 1947.

Optical printers continue to be used today by photochemical diehards, experimental filmmakers, film archivists and restorers, and in the educational market. When it comes to feature films, however, the optical printer has been almost completely supplanted by its digital successors. Yet its memory lingers in the vocabulary of the modern visual effects artist, who might casually speak of “elements”, “passes”, “mattes” and “wipes” without once reflecting on how and where the terms originated.

They might also be surprised to discover that their objective in putting together their brave new digital composites is exactly the same as that proposed by Carl Louis Gregory back in 1928, when he described the incredible accuracy necessary for the creation of convincing visual effects:

“The components must be reassembled with a mathematical precision so fine that the new combinations shall not reveal the joining lines between the welded parts even when magnified hundreds of diameters on the screen.”

Creating the joins. Not seeing the joins. Ultimately, that is the aim of all visual effects artists. And exactly what the optical printer was built to do.

Article updated July 14 2016. Special thanks to Greg Grusby and Mark Toscano. “Star Wars” photograph copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm, Ltd.

1. Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918, “Reduction Prints for the Home Market”; 2,3. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, May 1922; 3. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, May 1922; 4. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, September 1927; 5,6. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928, “An Optical Printer for Trick Work”; 7,8. Cinematographic Annual, Volume 2, 1931, “Optical Printing”; 9. International Photographer, June 1940, “Laps ‘n Wipes”; 10. American Cinematographer, April 1934, “Tricks by Optical Printing”; 11. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, February 1937; 12. International Photographer, December 1940, “Special Effects at RKO”; 13,14,15. International Photographer, April 1940, “Factory Methods Come to Pictures”; 16,17. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, January 1944, “The New Acme-Dunn Optical Printer”; 18. The Film Daily, 16 March 1945; 19. Motion Picture Daily, 20 February 1956; 20. An Introduction to the American Underground Film, Sheldon Renan, first published 1967 by E.P.Dutton & Co. Inc., Released to the Internet Archive by the Author in 2011.; 21. The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, J.W. Rinzler, first published 2010 by LucasBooks.; 22. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928, “An Optical Printer for Trick Work”

The Cinefex Quiz 2015

Well, it’s been another great year for movies. Here at Cinefex, we’ve been proud to bring you in-depth coverage of some of the best that 2015 has had to offer. From Interstellar to Jurassic World, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Ant-Man, we’ve taken you behind the scenes like nobody else can.

So, with the year rapidly coming to a close, it’s time to flick back through this year’s issues of Cinefex and test your knowledge of all the movies we’ve explored in the past twelve months. Sixteen articles. Sixteen questions. How many will you get right?

VFX Q&A – “Crimson Peak” Titles

"Crimson Peak" titles - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Master of the macabre, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, recently took cinemagoers on his latest foray into modern horror, unlocking the doors on a Gothic haunted house fantasy in Universal Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ Crimson Peak.

In the upcoming Cinefex 144, we will be delving deep into the supernatural goings-on of the film – speaking with señor del Toro, visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, makeup effects supervisor David Martí, special effects supervisor Laird McMurray and other key crewmembers, including artists at Toronto visual effects studio Mr. X.

Before you pull up your chair by the fireplace with your winter issue, we will set the scene – spoiler free – with Ron Gervais, creative director of IAMSTATIC, who with creative director Dave Greene and production company TOPIX realized the elegant title sequence that closes out the film.

Watch the complete Crimson Peak title sequence:

What is the typical relationship between a title design team and a feature film production, and how did that work with Crimson Peak?

The process varies from filmmaker to filmmaker and the nature of the project. There are films that use titles as cool backgrounds for nameplates, or a punch intro to grab the audience’s attention, which is sometimes all that’s needed. Alternatively, there are directors who embrace the full power of titles and use them to add another layer to their films. Guillermo del Toro is obviously a director that likes to inject meaning and substance into every nook and cranny of his work. With Crimson Peak you feel as if every element has been carefully considered and mulled over, so with these titles we wanted to try best to bring that same approach to our work.

Original storyboard for the "Crimson Peak" title sequence.

Original storyboard for the “Crimson Peak” title sequence.

Guillermo has mentioned that, stylistically, the film is a throwback to a classic style of filmmaking – when you began your title sequence design, was the film developed enough for you to get a sense of that, and how did you select visual elements that complimented the story?

When we were first approached to create a treatment for Crimson Peak, we hadn’t seen a single image. We were give a copy of the script and we found a few pictures of the actors on set via the Internet. The script really resonated with us and fortunately we were able to capture the right tone in our treatment and frames. The film has a very strong visual motif, and one of our earliest notes was that moths, butterflies and vines were key elements.  The house itself is a crucial character in the film and acts as a perfect backdrop. Combining these two elements we were able to create a guided tour through a series of vignettes that act as a concentrated overview of the story.

IAMSTATIC gathered a wide range of research material, as well as referencing actual props used in the film.

IAMSTATIC gathered a wide range of research material, as well as referencing actual props used in the film.

Your breakdown video shows that all the imagery in your sequence was computer generated – did the filmmakers provide you with elements, and did you try to capture the feel of Tom Sanders’ production design and Dan Laustsen’s photography?

Once we set off making the titles, we had only a few cleared images from the film to use as reference. Later in the process, we did have the pleasure of being shipped two large crates of movie props – everything from large drapes, beautiful wardrobe pieces, old picture and books to intricate frames with bugs pinned in them. So we were able to add to our initial designs by hand-selecting objects that would make sense for each title screen. There ended up being a large list of CG props in the end, which made it fun to arrange the set pieces.

Watch IAMSTATIC’s breakdown video of the Crimson Peak main title sequence:

To compliment the huge sets that they built for the film, Mr. X created a very detailed digital model of Allerdale Hall, inside and out – did they share that with you, and were you accurate to that layout?

Yes, we were fortunate enough to get the beautiful exterior model of Allerdale Hall from Mr. X, which made it much easier to have continuity with the film and allowed us to incorporate it into our own world for the titles. It also saved us an incredible amount of work so we are very grateful for that. The interior shots were custom built by us, and our team at Topix, so we could create our own bespoke scenes, or vignettes.  We were not as concerned with being ‘accurate’ to the actual rooms seen in the film and instead focused more on using composition and lighting to capture the overall mood of the film.

CP-Max-Scene-01

Visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi’s credit contains a telling story detail, which we won’t elaborate on here for spoiler reasons — but it made me wonder, did you choreograph your shots to particular credits?

Absolutely. Every object placed in our sets has some meaning and relationship to the characters, or crew highlighted in each title. The titles for Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and the other actors have strong messaging about their characters’ struggles, while costume designer Kate Hawley shows objects related to her craft, and film editor Bernat Vilaplana is paired with a wall of framed paintings. They each get wrapped with iconography from the film. As Guillermo del Toro said, “We used the titles to underline and add narrative to the film.”

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Can you take us through your animation process, and how much input you had with Guillermo and Bernat on pace and timing?

The process was incredibly smooth. We chose a “temp” music track that we felt matched the tone of the film, and used that as our guide. As we began doing previs animation, we would often sit with the director and talk about tweaks to the pacing and edit based on its relationship with the film.

"Crimson Peak" titles - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Del Toro is very well versed in the whole process of animation and CG, and it was nice not to get bogged down looking at the work in its rough state. We could really focus on making the flow of the cameras and edit match his vision. He also knows his bugs! So if we had a butterfly moving or bending in a strange way he would point that out immediately.

Wax seal lighting setup (top) and final shot (bottom).

Wax seal lighting setup (top) and final shot (bottom).

Was it normal to have so long, in this case five months, to create a title sequence?

No, I don’t think that it’s the norm, but honestly we used every minute of it. I think that knowing how much blood, sweat and tears was being put into this film pushed us to match the same effort. Often, in certain projects, things can become overworked if given too much time and revised to many times; but in this case we relished the opportunity to add a level of detail that we are not usually afforded. It was great.

As a film is ending, many modern audience members can’t seem to wait to light up their phones and bolt for the exits – have you observed if people stick around to appreciate the artistry that you put into this sequence?

We have seen the film twice and we have noticed that with any Guillermo del Toro film, most people are there to see every inch of the imagery, and they know that he would put importance on the titles craft as well. We also locked the doors so they had no choice :)

"Crimson Peak" title sequence

Crimson Peak is now playing in theatres. Look for our full feature in Cinefex 144, in December.

Thanks to Universal Pictures, Bette Einbinder, Ron Gervais, Dave Greene.