Cinefex Vault #11 – AVP at ADI

"AVP: The Creature Effects of ADI" book review by Cinefex's Jody Duncan

Continuing our series of effects-related book reviews unearthed from the Cinefex Vault, Jody Duncan – Cinefex’s editor, and author of many handsome ‘making of’ books – interviewed creature effects mavens Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis in 2004 about their experience chronicling their own accounts of their work on 20th Century Fox’s monster mash-up, Alien Vs. Predator. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the article, including Alec’s long-in-development science fiction project, Worlds, a beautifully illustrated story conceived as a photo-journal of a lost astronaut’s mission to a mysterious alien planet. Two very talented fellows.


AVP: The Creature Effects of ADI – book review by Jody Duncan

A new book on the creature effects of Alien Vs. Predator is the work of veteran creature creators and ADI co-founders Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis.

A new book on the creature effects of Alien Vs. Predator is the work of veteran creature creators and ADI co-founders Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis.

Those who attended this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego had the opportunity to purchase advance copies of AVP: The Creature Effects of ADI, a new book by Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated co-founders Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis, prominent practitioners of the creature effects craft for 20-plus years. The book illustrates, in 600 beautifully reproduced photographs, the creation of the creature effects in Alien Vs. Predator.

“Alec and I had talked about doing a book for years,” said Woodruff. “So much of creature effects work is misunderstood or overlooked; and, for the most part, most people don’t see that aspect of making movies. There have been a lot of behind-the-scenes books on movies we’ve worked on – but, usually, we are relegated to a single chapter. Because Alien Vs. Predator had such a huge dose of our creature effects in it, we felt it was a great opportunity to do a book that was totally devoted to the work that came out of our shop.”

Sculptor Jeff Buccacio consults with Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis on the creature effects for Alien Vs. Predator.

Envisioning the book as a high-end photo album of the AVP project, Gillis and Woodruff also considered it an opportunity to recognize the many artists and technicians who had contributed so much to ADI’s projects – while receiving relatively little credit. “We wanted to celebrate not only the work, but the people who do the work,” Gillis said, “the people who don’t get the kind of recognition they deserve. So, we decided to include about 30 artist profiles in the book. We hoped future generations of creature makers might find inspiration in those profiles, because they reveal the many different backgrounds of the people in this field.”

Fabrication specialist Nevada Smith at work on an alien model.

Fabrication specialist Nevada Smith at work on an alien model.

The book project started with a meeting between Gillis and Woodruff and executives at Twentieth Century Fox – the studio behind AVP – in which the pair pitched their ideas for the book and a publisher. “We were very big fans of Scott Robertson at Design Studio Press,” said Gillis. “Scott has done various design and art books. Guys like Carlos Huantes and Steve Berg have had their work published in his books. Scott went into Fox and showed them his previous publications and the kind of high-quality books he does, and they immediately said, ‘This is our guy.'”

Sculptor Bruce Spaulding-Fuller touches up predator head.

Sculptor Bruce Spaulding-Fuller touches up predator head.

When Woodruff and Gillis returned home from Prague, where AVP was filmed, in the middle of March of this year, they had approximately eight weeks in which to write and lay out the book. “At that point,” recalled Woodruff, “the only thing we’d done – because it was the only thing we could do ahead of time – was have our graphic artist and book designer, Chris Ayres, start going through the 1200 images we had. We had to hit the ground running to get the book turned around by May, so that it would be out when the film opened in August.”

Fabricator Ginger Anglin with animatronic queen alien.

Fabricator Ginger Anglin with animatronic queen alien.

In eight chapters and 128 pages, the book chronicles the progress of the AVP assignment, from design to build to final on-the-set performance. In addition to the artist bios, the text is made up of Gillis’ and Woodruff’s first-person observations. “There are Tom’s thoughts on what it is like to be the most experienced suit performer in the industry today,” said Gillis. “He doesn’t call himself that, of course – but he is. Our goal was to make the book very personal, to infuse it with our humor and our thoughts on the subject. Rather than get super-technical and make it a point-by-point description of how everything was built, we aimed to make it a fun read for the market that will see this movie – which is probably people between 15 and 25 years old. Hopefully, the general effects fan will appreciate it, as well.”

Finishing supervisor Tim Leach with elder predator.

Finishing supervisor Tim Leach with elder predator.

Structured chronologically, the book starts with a history of the Alien creature effects, and how ADI came to be associated with the franchise, then continues on to design, sculpture, lab work, mechanical work, finishing, and a chapter on shooting on the set in Prague. One of the chapters is titled ‘Effects Philosophy,’ which details the approach Woodruff, Gillis, AVP visual effects supervisor John Bruno and director Paul W.S. Anderson took to the film’s creature effects. “This chapter also gets into the corporatization of effects in general,” said Gillis, “and how that is producing a sameness of quality. Before, you had brilliant, individual visionaries like Dick Smith or Ray Harryhausen doing effects. Now, you have corporations. There are very talented people within those corporations, but it is still a factory approach — and there is a price to pay for that.”

Predators on greenscreen set.

Predators on greenscreen set.

Citing beginner’s luck, Woodruff and Gillis did not experience many of the trials that can accompany the writing of a movie companion book. “Fox was amazingly quick in turning around approvals for the shots we wanted to run in the book,” said Woodruff. “They were positive and enthusiastic about the book every step of the way, and we had their full support and help.”

Gillis has another book coming out from Design Studio Press, titled Worlds, which was actually in the works a long time prior to AVP: The Creature Effects of ADI. “I’ve been working on this book for seven years,” Gillis said. “It is a science fiction publication, a National Geographic-style exploration of life-supporting planets, but with a human story running through it. It is almost like a documentary film concerning a space explorer – but in book form.”

ADI Alien Vs. Predator concept art.

ADI’s Alien Vs. Predator concept art.

  • AVP: The Creature Effects of ADI is available at the publisher’s website, here.
  • Alec Gillis’ science fiction travelog, Worlds, is available here.
  • Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.

Photos courtesy of ADI.

Now Showing – Cinefex 147

Cinefex 147 - From the Editor's Desk

You know what the law of the jungle says: The strength of Cinefex is in the pack … as in the pack of films we’ve got lined up for you in our sun-dappled June edition, Cinefex 147.

Things get off to a roaring start as Joe Fordham grabs a tiger by the tail for his article on the making of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. You’ll also find superheroes aplenty in Cinefex 146, with in-depth stories on Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse, not to mention a psychedelic trip into the imagination of Lewis Carroll with Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to lead you deeper into our latest issue …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

There are a few directors I follow with particular interest, and Jon Favreau is one of them. I appreciate a director who has both Chef and Iron Man in him – the former, a heartfelt redemption story; the latter, a kick-ass superhero movie. (One of the best superhero movies ever, to my mind.) Whatever the genre or subject matter, Favreau explores the human condition with wisdom, compassion, and wit.

And so I was excited to see what he would do with The Jungle Book – and he did not disappoint. What was frothy, cute and charming in the original Disney cartoon became somewhat darker in Favreau’s live-action adaptation, but little Mowgli and the computer animated animals surrounding him had all the humor and elegance I’ve come to expect from a Jon Favreau production.

A line of text at the end of the credits noted the most amazing aspect of this film: it had been shot entirely on stage in downtown Los Angeles. The story of how that barren concrete slab was transformed into an Indian jungle populated with wolves, panthers, snakes, apes, elephants and one vengeful tiger is revealed in picture and word in Joe Fordham’s Jungle Book article. I know well that in this digital age, not all visual effects stories are interesting. This one is.

Joe also interviewed the effects artists behind the work in Alice Through the Looking Glass, while Graham Edwards dug deep to bring us the stories recounting the making of the effects in X-Men: Apocalypse, perhaps the most ambitious of all the X-Men films to date.

To ‘cap’ it all, my article for this issue covers the effects in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, a truly epic film with 11 of the most popular Marvel characters duking it out, superhero-style.

And that’s issue 147!

Thanks, Jody! Issue 147 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, stand by your mailbox – your copy is already on its way. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Cinefex Vault #10 – The Terminal

"The Terminal" - from the Cinefex Vault

In 2004, I leapt at the chance to join a gaggle of journalists attending a press tour on the set of Steven Spielberg’s quirky Homeland Security romance, The Terminal. Early morning, we were bussed miles out into the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles, where Dennis Weaver was once menaced by an 18-wheeler Peterbilt diesel truck.

A crowded airport terminal serves as home for Viktor Navorski in The Terminal, a DreamWorks Pictures film directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo copyright © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures. 2D illustration by Mark Goerner; photo courtesy of Alex McDowell.

A crowded airport terminal serves as home for Viktor Navorski in The Terminal, a DreamWorks Pictures film directed by Steven Spielberg.
Photo copyright © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures.
2D illustration by Mark Goerner; photo courtesy of Alex McDowell.

We arrived at the former U.S. Air Force Plant 42, where a pair of gargantuan hangars had housed Space Shuttle construction. Inside, we discovered one of the most gigantic movie sets I have ever seen: a full-scale reproduction of a John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal. Tom Hanks arrived to greet us all in character as Viktor Navorski, and at lunch I got to chat with Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It was a good day.

What follows is a story from the Cinefex Vault with production designer Alex McDowell recounting how the movie found its way into the Californian high desert, and the production’s visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson explaining how the filmmakers brought to life environments beyond the mammoth set.


Airport 2004 – article by Joe Fordham

Directed by Steven Spielberg – from a story by Sacha Gervasi and Andrew Niccol, and a screenplay by Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson – The Terminal tells the tale of airline passenger Viktor Navorksi (Tom Hanks), who is forced to live for 11 months in a New York airport terminal after the coup-initiated collapse of his Eastern European homeland.

Art department model.

Art department model.

Set almost entirely in the airport terminal, the movie posed significant logistical concerns for the filmmakers. “JFK was very keen to have us shoot in their terminal four,” recalled production designer Alex McDowell. “But since it was an active airport, we would have had no control over the passengers passing through. Trying to portray 11 months of screen time, night and day, would have been impossible.” Post 9/11 security issues were also a concern. “If the government announced an Orange Alert, they could have commandeered the airport for military use. There was no guarantee that we could own an airport once we’d committed to it.”

Painted airport backdrop, with lights attached to the canvas backing.

Painted airport backdrop, with lights attached to the canvas backing.

The filmmakers selected Mirabel in Montreal, Canada – a site that specializes in cargo services – to stage peripheral scenes and runway action. To depict action in the terminal, they determined the most practical means was to build one. Two vacated military aircraft hangars in Palmdale, California housed the terminal sets, designed by McDowell with a team of architectural designers and Proof, a 3D previsualization studio. Concepts first focused on the engineering of a steel truss that formed the backbone of the set, supporting lights and structures above the 75,000-square-foot floor space. While McDowell’s team generated sketches, blueprints and miniature foam core mockups, Proof built 3D models of sets and determined the overall shape of the terminal, incorporating elements from an array of airports, from Kansai to Charles de Gaulle.

The interior set for The Terminal, erected in a Palmdale hangar, shown with backing and overhead lighting.

The interior set for The Terminal, erected in a Palmdale hangar, shown with backing and overhead lighting.

Previz artist Ben Proctor constructed a 3D model of the terminal in Softimage XSI, which became a point of reference for set construction, camera and lighting departments and helped develop a strategy for handling views outside a three-story-high window that dominated one side of the set. “Steven wanted to concentrate on the drama,” stated McDowell, “and keep the visual effects low profile. We didn’t want to commit to bluescreen shots every time we looked towards this very large expanse of glass on one side of the set.” McDowell opted to create the view outside the window through a backdrop based on a 3D previz model, thus avoiding the two-dimensionality of a large-scale photographic projection. “We distorted a view of the previz model to compensate for the curve of the backing, and lit and modeled the image at a very high degree of detail. It was an amalgam of traditional techniques and previz technology.”

Lit and dressed 3D model of interior airport terminal by previz artist Ben Proctor.

Lit and dressed 3D model of interior airport terminal by previz artist Ben Proctor.

Visual effects art director Robert Stromberg at Digital Backlot generated a 2D matte painting from the previz model, combining photographic texture reference of JFK and Mirabel with photorealistic lighting and skies. JC Backings then used that image to create a 650-by-48-foot backing. Lighting director David Devlin rigged the backdrop with more than 2,000 practical light sources and, with director of photography Janusz Kaminski, developed a front-lit lighting setup to simulate a daytime look or a darker nighttime glow.

The production fitted working elevators purchased from a bankrupt department store.

Digital effects enhanced window views. “The intent was to use the backdrop in passing,” explained visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson. “When we lingered on it for any period of time we were going to add computer-generated air traffic, security and luggage vehicles, people walking around. It ended up being a great idea. Steven was able to stage many scenes with the backing, without revealing there weren’t vehicles or planes. A surprisingly small number of shots required the additional digital material.”

Airport vendors served real food, ice cream and coffee in appropriate outlets, sponsored by real companies.

Airport vendors, sponsored by real companies, served real food, ice cream and coffee in appropriate outlets around the set.

Digital Film Works provided visual effects, supervised by Cosmas Paul Bolger, Jr. Artists spent one day surveying the terminal set then, by referencing architectural plans and previz models, tracked in digital enhancements without motion control or onset tracking markers. “We used photo surveys of the set to reconstruct textures and patterns on the windows and the columns,” said Gibson.

When a blizzard descends on the airport, the weather change required Robert Stromberg to prepare new conceptual images of the snowbound terminal and runway. Digital Film Works tracked particle animation snowfall into windows, shot with sympathetic lighting. “Janusz and Dave Devlin established a style of lighting to create appropriate contrast on the backing to suggested those weather conditions,” said Gibson. “We fit our elements into that, only adding snow when needed. Steven was constantly coming up with clever ways to shoot everything in-camera, without detracting from the production value. He was brilliant at that.”

3D model of fictional exterior airport terminal.

Despite the slender visual effects shot count – 55 shots, compared to an early estimate of 200 – effects technology contributed immeasurably to the production, blurring the line between production design and visual effects. “Digital design has enabled us to collaborate with every part of production very early on,” concluded McDowell. “Previz enables us to immerse ourselves in a very pure flow of design, which everyone has access to. By giving all the departments so much more access to the information at hand, you can alter the way that you approach the film. In my view, it is changing the way that production is conducted.”

The Terminal.

The Terminal.

Photos copyright © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures, process shots courtesy of Alex McDowell.

Remembering Raiders

Raiders-Warehouse

It’s not the years, honey – it’s the mileage.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve clocked up quite a few miles since June 12, 1981, when Indiana Jones, the world’s most famous archaeologist, first donned his fedora in Steven Spielberg’s action adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Back then, I was a spotty 16-year-old youth. My bedroom wall was covered in movie posters, and my shelves were stacked high with Star Wars models. I was excited to see Raiders, not least because the studio publicity had been making a big deal about the movie being a collaboration between Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas. Talk about a marriage made in heaven.

And yet, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The trailer was enticing – full of groovy action beats and enigmatic references to some kind of Biblical artefact called the Ark. Say what? The only Ark I’d heard of was the one built by Noah, and somehow I couldn’t imagine that old tub making an appearance here. So what was this movie actually about? I had no idea.

Not that it mattered. From the very first shot – that cheeky dissolve from the Paramount logo to a mountain peak in Peru – Raiders of the Lost Ark had me thrilled and enthralled. What really blew me away was Spielberg’s mastery of the medium. Here was a filmmaker using every department, every tool at his disposal, with a single purpose in mind – to tell the story.

Take the first reveal of Indy, made unforgettable by Douglas Slocombe’s gorgeous cinematography. Initially glimpsed only in shadow, from behind, or through closeups of his hands, our hero finally steps into the dappled jungle light about three minutes into the opening sequence, having used his bullwhip to disarm his treacherous porter. Next time you watch the film, make sure you appreciate that first heroic closeup. Next, check out how many times Indy moves from shadow into light throughout the rest of the film. In fact, try making a note of every time Spielberg and Slocombe manipulate light and shade in the service of the story. Seriously, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best black and white movie ever made in the era of colour.

If you doubt me on that particular point, try watching the film in monochrome, a task made simple by master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who has put together a colourless, soundless version of Raiders of the Lost Ark for educational purposes, drawing attention to the incredible staging not just of the scene I’ve described above, but every scene in the entire film.

Speaking of silence, let’s talk about sound. Not only did John Williams compose one of most whistleable movie themes ever for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he also layered in music cues spanning the whole gamut from action to humour, romance to horror, suspense to downright awe. Woven through the music is Ben Burtt’s perfectly synchronised array of deliciously crunchy sound effects, from the deafening blam of Indy’s pistol, to the quirky cough of the seaplane’s starter motor, to the cracks of thunder that accompany the opening of the Well of Souls. And yes, there’s even a Wilhelm scream in there.

The soundtrack of my youth.

The soundtrack of my youth.

Visual effects play their part too, although frankly, when that effects-mad teenage version of me sat down to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, he wasn’t expecting much in that regard. Imagine his delight when he spotted matte paintings, cloud tank effects, and a plethora of ghosts that looked like live-action out-takes from the Night on a Bald Mountain section of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Again – and here’s the thing – every single visual effect exists purely to serve the story.

To illustrate, let’s return to the beginning of the film. We’re a few minutes further in, at the point when Indy and Satipo have gained access to the temple containing the golden Chachapoyan fertility idol. As they use Indy’s bullwhip to swing across an open shaft in the floor, we get a couple of shots looking up at them from below. Rather than excavating a big hole in the ground, the filmmakers combined a live-action plate shot from a low angle with a matte painting produced by Industrial Light & Magic.

As visual effects shots go, it’s far from showy. Granted, things get amped up later, when a rain of boulders accompanies Indy’s scramble back across the now-collapsing shaft (to create that illusion, ILM cameraman Jim Veilleux photographed individual boulders moving under motion control against bluescreen, which the optical department then matted into the rest of the scene). But in essence this is a pure storytelling shot, a carefully chosen angle selected through the storyboard process, perfectly pitched to describe the action and enhance the sense of peril.

Not that Raiders of the Lost Ark is lacking in splashy effects. For the finale, ILM visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund used every trick in the book to fill the frame with supernatural apparitions. There are cel-animated ghosts, ghosts brought to life by dragging puppets through a tank of water, an angelic performer flying on a mechanical rig, replica heads rigged to explode, collapse or melt on cue, and a pillar of fire that literally opens a pathway to the heavens.

The first Cinefex I ever bought was issue 6, containing "The Wrath of God ... and Other Illusions," Don Shay's article on the effects of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

The first Cinefex I ever bought was issue 6, containing “The Wrath of God … and Other Illusions,” Don Shay’s article on the effects of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time on my local movie screen was a big deal for me. It was the moment, I think, when I finally gave myself permission to be an effects enthusiast. Up until then, I’d half-believed that being interested in this rather esoteric craft made me a geek, and that my time might be better spent just enjoying these films rather than picking them apart. Incidentally, I suspect Mr. Spielberg was behind that feeling as well. After my first viewing of Jaws early in 1976, I recall annoying my friends by telling them the blood that came out of Robert Shaw was probably just tomato ketchup.

Raiders of the Lost Ark changed that. It proved to me that loving a story, and also loving the mechanics by which it was told, were entirely compatible. It was okay, whenever a juicy matte painting appeared on the screen, to lean forward in my seat a little, and narrow my eyes a little, and mutter under my breath, “Nice.”

If I did that now, of course, I’d spend entire films hunched forward and muttering to myself. There are only a handful of visual effects shots in Raiders of the Lost Ark, whereas modern action films commonly contain over 1,000. If it’s a big summer tentpole, you can double that.

ILM's Alan Maley painted the eight- by four-foot cliff painting on its side, enabling the matte camera to execute the required move by panning rather than tilting.

ILM’s Alan Maley painted the eight- by four-foot cliff painting on its side, enabling the matte camera to execute the required move by panning rather than tilting.

The escalation of effects has brought some astonishing images to our screens. However, from time to time I like to remember special moments from those older, simpler days. Like the moment during that first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when a spectacular Alan Maley matte painting allowed a Nazi truck to fly off an unexpectedly vertiginous cliff, causing the entire audience – myself included – to gasp aloud in surprise and delight.

It’s good to remember moments like that, because when every shot is gasp-inducing, nobody gasps. It’s a simple truth that Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates most elegantly.

Less, as they say, can sometimes be more.

This week marks the 35th anniversary of that first release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember those halcyon summer days as well as I do? Did you gasp when the truck went over the cliff? Which is the Indy moment that sticks most firmly in your memory?

Raiders of the Lost Ark photographs copyright © 1981 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Cinefex Vault #9 – Tremors 4

Tremors 4 - from the Cinefex Vault

Not too long ago, the supermarket tabloid People magazine published an article celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tremors, the modestly-budgeted 1990 monster movie starring Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Fred Ward and a cadre of carnivorous subterranean worms. And if People was reporting on it, you can bet that was a sign your underdog cult film had transcended its humble origins.

In Cinefex 42, Jody Duncan reported on the meaty little monster flick, including commentary from director Ron Underwood, writer S.S. Wilson, monster-makers Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, and visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak. We’ve since had five more sequels and a 13-episode TV series based on the film. In 2004, Janine Pourroy caught up with S.S. Wilson to discuss the fourth in the series, a Wild West origin tale, dragged here, kicking and screaming, out of the Cinefex Vault.


Sweet Revenge – article by Janine Pourroy

Director S.S. Wilson poses with a Graboid on location in Acton, California during filming of Tremors 4.

Director S.S. Wilson poses with a Graboid on location in Acton, California during filming of Tremors 4.

When writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock came up with the original concept for Tremors they never dreamed they’d still be talking about Graboids fifteen years later. “Universal said that we’d never do another Tremors after the first one,” recalled Wilson. “Then the video division pushed for Tremors 2. After that, we said, ‘Okay, so now we’re done.'”

But fans couldn’t get enough of Perfection, Nevada, and the tale of a small group of citizens banding together to fight an uncommon foe. Tremors 3 followed, and a successful television franchise emerged as well. Each time, Stampede Entertainment – with Wilson, Maddock and producer Nancy Roberts at the creative helm – rose to the challenge of reinventing the Graboid, the underground creature that was the story’s reason for being. When talk of Tremors 4 began to surface, Wilson met with Universal executive Patti Jackson to discuss the project. “I told Patti that we were really in a corner,” Wilson recalled. “The fans were going to want a new creature, but we had no idea where to go. We couldn’t just keep doing the same movie over and over.” Off-handedly, Wilson added, “We’d have to do something wacky this time, like set it in the Old West.” To his surprise, Jackson’s response was, “That’s fine.”

Full-size mechanical puppet Graboids were built by KNB EFX Group for above-ground scenes, while shots of the creatures bursting from the earth were built and photographed in quarter scale by 4-Ward Productions.

Full-size mechanical puppet Graboids were built by KNB EFX Group for above-ground scenes, while shots of the creatures bursting from the earth were built and photographed in quarter scale by 4-Ward Productions.

Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, directed by Wilson from a script by Scott Buck, was released early in 2004 as part of a direct-to-DVD package with the original Tremors. Set in 1889, the story follows Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross), the great-grandfather of survivalist Burt Gummer and owner of a silver mine that has been faced with a series of mysterious deaths among the miners. Joining forces with other townsfolk – ancestors of characters who populate 1989 Perfection – Hiram sets out to determine what is killing the miners, and faces the underground enemy for the first time.

KNB also built Baby Graboids for the latest film.

KNB also built Baby Graboids for the latest film.

KNB mounted the full-size puppet on a special movement rig designed for maximum maneuverability.

KNB mounted the full-size puppet on a special movement rig designed for maximum maneuverability.

Puppetry had provided the means for creating Tremors‘ original Graboid – a legless, 30-foot creature with a mouthful of powerful tentacles – and Tremors 2‘s flying Shrieker. Tremors 3 spawned the Ass Blasters, a self-evident variation on the same theme, and introduced the first computer animated Graboids. For Tremors 4, which would feature five-foot-long Baby Graboids that eventually grow to full-sized monsters, Wilson and his team opted to return to the original puppet approach. “We really listened to the fans,” Wilson commented. “The only negative comments we’d ever heard about our special effects – as low-budget as they’d been – concerned the CG Graboids we did for Tremors 3. They were faster and much livelier than the big, heavy puppets we’d used in the earlier versions; but, although the effects were first-rate, fans said that they didn’t ‘look right.’ And, of course, they were also more expensive.”

Wilson and director of photography Virgil Harper line up a shot in which a Graboid chomps down on the barrel of a gun held by Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross).

Wilson and director of photography Virgil Harper line up a shot in which a Graboid chomps down on the barrel of a gun held by Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross).

With that in mind, the producers discussed ideas for the T-4 Graboids with Greg Nicotero of KNB EFX Group, which immediately began building new mechanical puppets. “KNB had already created a new Graboid, El Blanco, for the TV series,” said Wilson, “and we were able to borrow that technology for the film.” KNB’s full-sized Graboid puppet for Tremors 4 was mounted on a four-wheeled dolly, which gave it greater overall maneuverability, and also featured an additional neck joint to create more lifelike flexibility in the head.

The Graboid attacks.

The Graboid attacks!

Production built the mining town of Rejection – renamed Perfection as a plot point later in the film – in Acton, California. As with earlier Tremors films, the intention was to dig large holes in which to conceal the full-scale Graboid puppets, mechanical rigs and crew. Construction was well underway when they ran into a serious setback. “The town was half-built,” Wilson recalled, “and I went out and selected where I was going to plant our eight-foot puppet. But then, production designer Simon Dobbin came to us and said: ‘Guess what? To dig holes out here we’re going to have to blast.’ The area was solid rock underneath. It caused our visual effects producer, Linda Drake, to go back to the drawing board very quickly and come up with an entirely different approach.”

Gaffer Keith Morrison takes a light reading on the full-scale Graboid puppet.

Gaffer Keith Morrison takes a light reading on the full-scale Graboid puppet.

The new approach was to shoot the full-size mechanical puppets only for scenes above ground. For shots of the creatures bursting out of the earth, Robert and Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions – veterans of previous Tremors movies – built and puppeteered quarter-scale Graboids within miniature sets. “Because the Skotaks shot the footage of a Graboid blasting out of the ground with a puppet in a miniature set,” said Wilson, “all of the dust and interaction was there, already in the shot.”

Black Hand Kelly is swallowed by the Graboid.

Black Hand Kelly is swallowed by the Graboid.

For some shots, the quarter-scale puppets were filmed against greenscreen and composited into live-action footage by Kevin Kutchaver and his HimAnI team, which digitally tracked the greenscreen elements to the live-action. “Compositing in the computer allowed us to do very complex composites,” said Wilson.” We could take advantage of image steadying and tracking, and we could do camera moves. It really gave us the best of both worlds to shoot miniatures and then composite them digitally.” In one scene, miniature tentacles were manipulated against greenscreen, then tracked into the mouth of a full-scale Graboid head-and-shoulders puppet that had been shot on location. “It worked marvelously well. We had these tentacles coming in and out of the Graboid’s mouth – yet we never shot the full-size tentacles on the set.” Other CG enhancements included gun muzzle flashes, dust and ‘monster gut’ debris. “We also used CG to distort areas of the frame to create dirt humps as the Graboid moves underground.”

August Schellenberg, as Tecopa, takes aim at one of the attacking Graboids.

August Schellenberg, as Tecopa, takes aim at one of the attacking Graboids.

Despite these computer generated enhancements, Tremors 4 represented a throwback to old-style effects techniques – a style mandated by the budget, but also preferred by the filmmakers. To satisfy Tremors fans and their own sensibilities, the producers will no doubt take the same approach to Tremors 5 – providing there is going to be a Tremors 5. “A script has been written,” said Wilson, “but whether or not it gets made will depend on how well Tremors 4 does and the response to it when it airs this summer on USA.”

If past response is any indicator, Tremors will go on, and on, and on…

Photos copyright © 2004 Universal Pictures; creature shop shots courtesy of S.S. Wilson and KNB EFX Group.

Cinefex Vault #8: Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Cinefex Vault - Kill Bill, Vol. 2

The first half of director Quentin Tarantino’s hyperkinetic revenge fantasy, Kill Bill, appeared in cinemas six months before its sequel, Vol. 2, and predated the Cinefex Weekly Update online articles. That is why we covered only the latter half of this affair, back in 2004, and now present it here as a bloody orphan aperitif to the 247-minute running time. Tarantino has since flirted with rumors that a third installment would flesh out his epic, in the manner of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. By any measure, the film stands as an insane tribute to the heyday of 1970s martial arts action epics. Brace yourself.


Sweet Revenge – article by Estelle Shay

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Actor David Carradine (Bill) confers with director Quentin Tarantino.

It took more than 400 gallons of fake blood and hundreds of severed limb and decapitation gags to supply the grist for Quentin Tarantino’s stylish revenge tale Kill Bill Vol. 1 and its sequel Kill Bill Vol. 2. KNB EFX Group, frequent contributors to Tarantino’s films, accepted the grisly assignment with enthusiasm and delight.
Though six months separated the releases of the original Kill Bill and its sequel, both movies were shot simultaneously – Tarantino having initially envisioned them as one before deciding, in the eleventh hour, to split the story into two parts. For KNB, that translated into a monumental effort, begun in June 2002 after just a few weeks of prep, when KNB supervisor and co-founder Howard Berger, along with Chris Nelson and Jake McKinnon, joined the production in Beijing, China. image_03The five-week location shoot soon turned into fourteen, followed by six months of filming on soundstages in Los Angeles, during which time Berger found himself on set nearly every day. “We handled all of the gore and body chops in the first film, which involved hundreds and hundreds of gags – and none of them were digital,” Berger recalled. “Quentin said: ‘I don’t want to do any computer animation stuff. I want it all to be live, in-camera.’ That was a huge task for us. We’d walk on the set, and the stunt team, the actors and Quentin would run through the action for that morning. We’d watch it, and from that learn what we had to do. ‘OK, this guy gets his arm cut off, these five guys get their legs cut off, and there’s a decapitation.’ Then we would have to chop-chop and put together whatever we could.”
Electromagnet technology, adapted by Berger, proved especially useful whenever the action called for limbs and heads to be severed during the bloody swordfights. Berger and his crew made fiberglass cup sections that attached to the actors. image_04These held magnets that were hooked to a power source, with a battery and trigger switch. They then fashioned fake limbs containing metal pieces that would bond to the magnets when the electricity was turned on. When the crew killed the power, the limbs would fall off. “We did a lot of those gags,” recalled Berger. “Everything was a magnet – legs, arms, head, torso. We even did some full standing bodies with electromagnets – we’d hit the button, and the thing would collapse realistically.”

Tarantino insisted on a practical approach even in instances where CG seemed the logical choice. For a sequence in Vol. 1, where Viper assassin O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu) loses the top of her head to Uma Thurman’s saber-wielding Bride, Berger and his crew took a casting of Liu’s head, then sculpted an appliance that took advantage of forced perspective. image_05“It was tapered from the front, almost like a pyramid, then fanned out as it went farther back on her head,” explained Berger. “It was a very slim piece, because we didn’t want to make it look like Lucy had a Frankenstein head.” KNB rigged the appliance with blood and applied it to the actress’ head. Specific camera angles on the appliance further sold the illusion.

While Kill Bill Vol. 1 was all gore and gruesome battle scenes, Kill Bill Vol. 2 – different in tone and style – offered a variety of makeup design challenges for KNB. “There’s a sequence in the second film,” Berger explained, “where the Bride gets buried alive and takes on a look we called ‘dirt girl.’ She had to look beautiful, yet filthy. Quentin kept going back to the green dancing girl from the Star Trek TV show, saying: ‘She was green, but still sexy. That’s what I want – something that’s sci-fi, but real.'” After numerous tests, KNB finally hit upon a look that involved a combination of creams to protect Thurman’s skin, mixed with fuller’s earth and chocolate Rice Krispies, painted on with tattoo colors to heighten certain areas. The makeup was applied initially by Berger, then later by Thurman’s makeup artist, Ilona Herman.

Connie Cadwell of KNB FX punches individual hairs into a dummy head, representing actor Michael Madsen, whose character, Budd, is bitten by a snake. KNB built the head, along with a full body double of the actor for a fight sequence in Budd's trailer. Photo copyright © 2004 by Miramax. Photo courtesy of KNB EFX Group.

Connie Cadwell of KNB FX punches individual hairs into a dummy head, representing actor Michael Madsen, whose character, Budd, is bitten by a snake. KNB built the head, along with a full body double of the actor for a fight sequence in Budd’s trailer. Photo copyright © 2004 by Miramax. Photo courtesy of KNB EFX Group.

KNB also designed makeups for Gordon Liu as kung fu master Pai Mei, and for Michael Parks, who switches roles in the second film to play an 80-year-old whorehouse pimp. For Michael Madsen – whose character, Budd, is bitten in the face by a deadly black mamba – KNB built and puppeteered several mechanical snakes on set, then devised three stages of makeup for the actor, depicting the grisly effects of the venom.

For Vol. 2‘s action centerpiece – an all-out catfight between the Bride and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) – KNB had to do some quick thinking when Tarantino decided to alter the sequence just before it was due to be shot. “Originally,” said Berger, “there was going to be this whole big swordfight outside a trailer, sort of Samurai Lone Wolf fashion. One of the two characters gets sliced in the neck, and you see the blood spraying out, almost like you were holding down a can of red spray paint. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that it’s Daryl.

“We were prepped and ready to shoot; but then, Quentin came in the next day and said: image_08‘I had a dream last night, and I want to change the whole sequence. Daryl’s not going to get it that way.’ When you’re working with Quentin, you have to be on point the whole time. It makes you work that much harder.”

Despite the occasional surprises, Berger wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. “This was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever been on,” Berger concluded. “Working with Quentin is really an amazing experience because he pushes and pushes you. It’s not out of ego, or not knowing what he wants. He pushes you because he wants you to do your best — to do as good a job as he’s doing.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Miramax.