About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

The Cinefex Quiz 2016

Can’t face Black Friday? Still stuffed with Thanksgiving turkey? Here’s the perfect way to ease into the holiday weekend. Yes, it’s the annual Cinefex Quiz!

There’s one question for every article we’ve published this year. So, if you’ve been diligently reading your copies of Cinefex throughout 2016, you’ll have no trouble at all. Except wait — our final issue of the year won’t be published until December! Can we really be sneaky enough to ask you about articles we haven’t even published yet? You’ll have to do the quiz to find out …

On Seeing “Arrival”

Arrival PosterLast month, I finished my Cinefex article on Arrival, which you’ll be able to read in our upcoming December 2016 issue. As so often happens, I didn’t actually get to see the movie until this weekend, long after submitting my final draft. This happens a lot in this job, thanks to a complex dance of release dates, studio embargoes, and our magazine’s long lead time.

On top of that, as part of my research I’d also read the story on which Arrival is based – Ted Chiang’s rather marvellous Story of Your Life. So, by the time I found myself seated in my local multiplex waiting for the titles to roll, I knew an awful lot about the movie.

Sometimes it’s no fun knowing what’s coming next (believe me, when you’re interviewing for a Cinefex article you hear a lot of spoilers). In the case of Arrival, I was delighted to discover it didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit.

The reason is simple, I think. Arrival is a class act. It’s that most delicate of creatures – a science fiction film that actually makes you think. The questions it raises are challenging, profound and moving, and yet somehow it manages to wrap them up neatly in an entirely accessible story about humans reacting to first contact with an alien species.

The movie looks gorgeous, by the way. Director Denis Villeneuve and director of photography Bradford Young constantly manipulate the camera’s depth of field to keep intimacy and tension in constant balance, and find beauty in the overcast light of what would be just another damp and ordinary day, if not for the strange vessels found suddenly hanging over twelve locations around the world.

The ships themselves – not to mention their shadowy occupants – are iconic and enigmatic. The alien aspects of Arrival are adroitly handled by a team of visual effects facilities including Hybride Technologies, Rodeo FX, Oblique FX, Raynault FX, Framestore, MELS VFX and Fly Studio, all under the expert eye of visual effects supervisor Louis Morin. What’s more, Villeneuve allows the camera to linger on their work, giving folk like you and me ample opportunity to spot the imperfections. Except there are no imperfections. There is only a stark, alien beauty. The work is that good.

We don’t often review films here at Cinefex. It’s not the Cinefex way, you see. We treat every film as equal – it’s our job to tell you how it was done, not how it made us feel. Occasionally, however, something exceptional comes along.

Something like Arrival.


Have you seen Arrival yet? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments box.

Now Showing – Cinefex 149

Cinefex 149

We’re big fans of Steven Spielberg here at Cinefex. So, with the whizzpopping fizzog of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant fronting our brand new issue Cinefex 149, we wondered: “How many Cinefex covers have featured a movie directed by Spielberg?”

Our first Spielbergian cover came in January 1983, with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The following year we led with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, after which we skipped nearly a decade before releasing Jurassic Park onto the cover of our August 1993 edition.

Dinosaurs continued to rule with our monstrous 1997 cover for Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and we stuck with Spielberg in 2001 when our cover story was A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We followed Spielberg’s science fiction journey in 2002 with Minority Report, and in 2005 with War of the Worlds. That gives us an impressive running total of seven Cinefex covers.

We have to confess, it’s been a bit of a gap since our last Spielbergian cover. So we’re delighted to bring the grand total up to eight with Cinefex 149’s truly spectacular cover image for The BFG.

Cinefex isn’t just about cover stories, of course. As well as our in-depth coverage of The BFG, our 2016 Halloween issue also contains larger-than-life articles on Suicide Squad, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ben-Hur and Approaching the Unknown, with exclusive interview content and images you won’t find anywhere else.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to reveal more …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

During its first few years of publication, Cinefex typically covered two movies per issue – for a darn good reason: Don Shay was the magazine’s sole writer, not to mention its sole layout designer, business manager, circulation manager, and answerer of phones. (Don never did have a receptionist or administrative assistant. From his first day as a magazine publisher to the day of his retirement three years ago, if you called Don’s Cinefex number, he was the one who answered.)

As we brought on more writing help, we upped the number of movies covered to four – and we’ve maintained that formula, for the most part, for a number of years. Every once in a while, however, we stumble onto an extra project that we want to cover – something that might not qualify as the super-boffo visual effects film that is our usual fare; but something that we think the readers will find interesting.

In this issue, Approaching the Unknown was that project. The most frequent question we get from readers is, ‘Why don’t you cover more old-school effects?’ My usual response is: ‘If you can find somebody using old-school effects, we’ll cover ‘em!’ We hear that a group of intrepid filmmakers used a cloud tank, and we are there, tape recorders in hand. And that was the case with this independent, small-budget film, covered in Graham Edwards’ wonderful article.

But of course, the issue still has its four effects-extravaganza subjects: Joe Fordham’s in-depth articles on Suicide Squad and The BFG – whose lovely face graces the cover – and Graham’s coverage of Ben-Hur, which includes lots of behind the scenes information on staging the famous chariot race. My article on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children finishes out the issue, Tim Burton-style.

Have a scary – but safe – Halloween!

Issue 149 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, a gigantic hand will be thrusting your copy through a convenient upper-story window very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Star Trek in Triplicate

Star Trek Beyond Barco Escape

The concept of multi-screen projection is nearly as old as cinema itself. In 1927, French film director Abel Gance presented the final reel of his historical epic Napoleon in triptych form, with spectacular battle scenes projected on three adjacent screens.

Years later, in 1952, the demo movie This is Cinerama helped to launch the film world’s obsession with ever-bigger, ever-wider theatrical experiences, with a refined three-panel process that almost – but not quite – erased the seams between the three pictures.

In the summer of 2016, the triptych returned to theaters with a special Barco Escape presentation of Star Trek Beyond. Kicking in during key moments of the film, a trio of movie projectors expanded the intergalactic action across two additional Cinemascope screens.

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Talking to Cinefex, Star Trek Beyond co-producer and visual effects producer Ron Ames explained:

“We took the animations on the center screen on our all-CG shots, and extended everything you see off to the left and right, giving you kind of a horseshoe view. During some of the live-action scenes, we used the space almost three-dimensionally. For example, if you had a wide shot of the bridge, on the left and right screens you’d see details of viewscreens, or people’s reactions. It was three-dimensional storytelling, which was kind of fascinating.”

Watch a video of Barco Escape before and after clips from Star Trek Beyond by Prime Focus World:

Sharing digital assets with main visual effects vendor Double Negative, a team of 120 artists at Prime Focus World created the additional content needed to fill the extra screens. You can read the full story here on the Prime Focus website. Commenting on the process, Merzin Tavaria, chief creative director of Prime Focus, remarked:

“Essentially we were creating one huge 6K image across a 270 degree field of view. We realized early on that the scenes that we would be extending were already impressively wide shots on the single center screen, with focal lengths of around 100mm. If we’d applied similar focal lengths to the left and right cameras, we’d have been looking behind ourselves! We had to come up with intelligent and creative ways of using the extra screen space.”

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Star Trek Beyond is still playing in selected Barco Escape theaters across the United States, Europe, Mexico and China. Visit the Barco Escape website to find three screens near you.

Now Showing – Cinefex 148

Cinefex 148

Pop quiz – how many times has the U.S.S. Enterprise graced the cover of Cinefex? As our header image demonstrates, the answer is now “five.”

Starfleet’s iconic starship first appeared on the front of our inaugural issue, way back in 1980, when Cinefex issue 1 delivered exclusive coverage of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (we’ve covered every single Star Trek theatrical feature since, with the exception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

The Enterprise‘s next cover gig came in 1989 with Cinefex 37, when we voyaged into the world of television to explore the visual effects of Star Trek – The Next Generation. Fast-forward to 2009 and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, and there’s the Enterprise soaring across the cover of Cinefex 118, only to return in 2013 for Cinefex 134 and our in-depth story on Star Trek Into Darkness.

Now the Enterprise is back, up close and personal on the front cover of the brand new Cinefex 148, in a stunning image that was specially beamed to us by Double Negative. Inside you’ll find galaxy-spanning articles on four blockbuster movies – Star Trek Beyond, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Legend of Tarzan.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to tell you more about our latest edition …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

In Cinefex 65, published in 1996, we dedicated much of our coverage to Industrial Light & Magic, in honor of the celebrated company’s 20th anniversary. I was given the task of writing a survey of ILM’s work up to that point, covering – in a paragraph or two – the effects in each of ILM’s film projects spanning that period.

No effort has ever made me appreciate Cinefex more. I quickly found that if the film in question was one we had covered, I had a wealth of information from which to draw. On the few occasions I had to write about a film not previously covered in Cinefex, I was doomed, because no such information existed. Many visual effects artists have made the same observation, and have said to me: “Before Cinefex, getting information about how a film’s effects were done was almost impossible.”

I mention this because, when assigning myself the Independence Day: Resurgence article for our current issue 148, my first thought was: “Thank God, we covered the first Independence Day 20 years ago.” I knew that I could re-read that article and learn all I needed to know – for compare and contrast purposes – about how they had done the effects for the original film. I also knew that my new article would benefit from our long association with visual effects supervisor Volker Engel, who in 1996, in 2016, and in all the years between has been the very best kind of ally.

Warcraft director Duncan Jones, too, was an ally as Graham Edwards dove deep into that film’s effects. Graham also covered Star Trek Beyond, the subject of one of our sexiest covers ever. (Yes, the Enterprise is our cover image yet again – but no one complained when Elle Macpherson graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition three years in a row!)

Finally, Joe Fordham brings us extensive coverage of the effects in The Legend of Tarzan, which includes some fascinating stories of shooting background imagery in Central Africa’s Gabon – a remote, deeply forested landscape never before seen in a Hollywood film.

That’s Cinefex 148 – enjoy!

Issue 148 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, clear those Tribbles out your mailbox – your copy will be docking very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Q is for Queen

In the VFX ABC, the letter “Q” stands for “Queen”.

Science fiction and fantasy films delight in carrying us to strange lands and even stranger planets. As we explore these brave new worlds, chances are we’ll encounter a thoroughly alien society. And who will we find sitting on the alien throne?

An alien queen, of course.

In 1924, a Russian silent film called Aelita, Queen of Mars whisked audiences across the far reaches of space to meet the scantily-clad Martian monarch. Directed by Yakov Protazanov, Aelita showcased lavish constructivist sets by Isaak Rabinovich and a fleeting glimpse of a funky balloon-shaped spacecraft – the movie’s miniatures are credited to Viktor Simonov.

A thinly-disguised treatise on socialism, Aelita bombed at the box office, yet its innovative production design appears to have influenced later and more memorable science fiction films including Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis and Universal Pictures’ 1930s Flash Gordon serial.

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker's revolution in the 1924 Russian film "Aelita, Queen of Mars."

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker’s revolution in the 1924 Russian film “Aelita, Queen of Mars.”

When it comes to alien queens, however, there’s one monarch who reigns supreme. Yes, I’m talking about the vengeful, egg-laying xenomorph from James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens. Created for the production in both full-size and quarter-scale versions by artists at Stan Winston Studio, this big bad momma simultaneously pushed special effects technologies to the limit and created a movie icon that towers tall even to this day.

Here’s what James Cameron had to say about his original concept design for the alien queen, in the pages of Cinefex 27:

“For me, the queen is really a blend of what [H.R.] Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston's crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston’s crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

In the same interview, Cameron commented that somebody had likened the queen to “an anorexic dinosaur.” In the film, Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley famously refers to her as “you bitch!” Which got me wondering – how did the Stan Winston team refer to their creation while they were on set?

As it turns out, the answer is prosaic. John Rosengrant and Alec Gillis, part of the original Aliens creature crew, told me they referred to her quite simply as “the Queen.” Gillis elaborated: “We were so dogged tired that one-syllable words worked best!”

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

Ten years after the release of Aliens, in 1996, concept artist Ricardo Delgado compared his design for the Borg queen of Star Trek: First Contact with the same deadly arachnid that had inspired James Cameron – the black widow spider.

Alice Krige performed as the cybernetic sovereign, wearing prosthetic makeup by Mike Westmore and crew, with Industrial Light & Magic deploying some smart digital effects for a shot in which a descending apparatus introduces the queen’s fleshy head and shoulders to a waiting biomechanical body.

Genre films in subsequent years gave us a healthy succession of notable queens (or at least characters close enough to royalty to count in my book).

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace benefited from the graceful presence of Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala, while in 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence treated us to a glimpse of the queenly Blue Fairy, voiced by Meryl Streep and digitally keyframed by ILM to emulate the retro qualities of 1950s Disney animation.

In the year 2001, a rather different kind of queen made audiences tremble with fear. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the heroic young wizard played by Daniel Radcliffe goes up against a giant chess set brought to life by sinister spells. Photographed on a full-scale set, with practical effects and pyrotechnics by special effects supervisor John Richardson and digital animation by Mill Film, the chess sequence features a sword-wielding queen driven by a particularly aggressive kind of magic.

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.”

No queen is complete without her castle. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Sony Pictures Imageworks constructed the freezing environs of the castle of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch (who looks a lot like a Snow Queen if you ask me). Meanwhile, for Snow White and Huntsman, Baseblack and BlueBolt built the brooding castle environments within which Charlize Theron as Queen Revenna worked her endlessly wicked ways.

In 2010, director Tim Burton concocted an arresting vision of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, for which artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks used digital warping and clever composition to enlarge the head of actress Helena Bonham Carter, techniques they revisited for James Bobin’s 2016 sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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As I write this in the summer of 2016, alien queens are big again – in this case, very big. Following James Cameron’s lead, Roland Emmerich gave us “something we hadn’t seen yet” in Independence Day: Resurgence. The 200-foot-tall queen of the alien invaders was brought to the screen by visual effects artists at Weta Digital. You can read the full story of how they did it in Cinefex 148.

Not every movie queen requires motion picture magic to put her on the throne. Nevertheless, some of cinema’s most memorable monarchs were helped into power by teams of artists from the fields of visual and special effects. The result of their work is frequently spectacular, which just goes to prove one thing.

Queens rule.


Aliens photography copyright © 1986 by Twentieth Century Fox. Star Trek: First Contact photograph copyright © 1996 by Paramount Pictures. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone photograph copyright © 2001 by Warner Brothers. Alice in Wonderland photographs copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.

All Eyes on Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek BeyondI think I must have a split personality.

Leastways, that’s what I thought last Sunday, while I was enjoying Star Trek Beyond in my local multiplex. “Enjoying” is the right word, by the way. I thought the movie was fresh and fun, with bags of inventive action neatly balanced by solid character moments and a warm inclusive heart. I really hope feisty alien scavenger Jaylah gets to join the crew, don’t you?

So why did the movie make me feel divided? Because I was watching it through lots of different sets of eyes, all at the same time.

The first set of eyes belonged to a middle-aged moviegoer primed and ready for some escapist entertainment. That version of me left the cinema highly satisfied, and confident that the reboot series has plenty of dilithium left in the tank.

The second set of eyes belonged to a Cinefex writer who spent most of May interviewing the people responsible for Star Trek Beyond’s eye-popping effects. My victims included the visual effects teams at Double Negative and Atomic Fiction (who were ably supported by their fellow artists at Kelvin Optical). Special effects supervisor Cameron Waldbauer told me how he blew stuff up and generally threw things around, while head of prosthetics Joel Harlow talked at length about Krall, Kalara and the rest of the 50-plus alien species that he and his team brought to the screen. To my delight, I even managed to grab 15 minutes with director Justin Lin.

Everything I’d learned – and everything I’d written – was going through my head while the movie played. Sometimes that meant I knew what was coming next. Often it left me delighted by the sheer visual finesse of a sequence I’d only ever had described to me in words. Throughout, it made me grateful that I’d had the good fortune to get a solid glimpse behind the scenes … before I’d actually seen those scenes.

Cameraman Hoyt Yeatman checks alignment for the final shot of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," photographed using a special rig that allowed the camera to swing on a 180-degree arc down and under the Enterprise.

Cameraman Hoyt Yeatman checks alignment for the final shot of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” photographed using a special rig that allowed the camera to swing on a 180-degree arc down and under the Enterprise.

The third set of eyes belonged to the teenage version of me – the eager young fellow who sat drinking in the stunning visual effects created by Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra for Star Trek: The Motion Picture back in 1979. Sure, all those Enterprise and V’ger flybys seemed to go on forever, but by golly, weren’t they gorgeous to behold?

The eyes don’t stop there. There was a fourth and even more youthful set with me in the cinema this weekend. These nostalgia-rich peepers belonged to the little kid who for many years ate his evening meals in front of the television, avidly watching reruns of the original Star Trek series. That kid was thrilled to see Kirk, Spock, Bones and all the rest of them given new life and a whole new frontier to play in. Justin Lin told me that he too grew up with the show, and his love for Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek is plain to see, shining out from every frame of Star Trek Beyond.

As if four sets of eyes weren’t enough, I was all ears too. Michael Giacchino’s score for Star Trek Beyond – an extension of the music he composed for the previous two reboot movies – is a real treat, somehow managing to sound fresh while still sharing DNA with the classic themes written by Jerry Goldsmith for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and James Horner’s exhilarating score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. These days, it isn’t often I leave the cinema humming the theme tune. I’m humming Giacchino’s Star Trek theme as I write this blog.

I guess there’s nothing unusual in my many-eyes experience of moviegoing. It’s something we all share, don’t you think? No film exists in isolation – least of all the latest iteration of a franchise going back an epic 50 years.

How many sets of eyes did you take to Star Trek Beyond? And what did they see?


Cinefex 148 is out this month, with in-depth behind the scenes coverage of Star Trek Beyond, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Legend of Tarzan. Preorder your copy now.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture photograph copyright © 1979 by Paramount Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved. Special effects unit still photography by Virgil Mirano.

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.

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 147 Cover Reveal

Cinefex 147 Cover - The Jungle Book

The time has come to release the cover of our upcoming June edition into the wild. It boasts an up close and personal shot of Shere Khan, the villainous tiger of Walt Disney Studios’ live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and if we say so ourselves, it looks rather stunning.

As well as Joe Fordham’s in-depth article on the making of director Jon Favreau’s epic jungle tale, Cinefex 147 also features extensive coverage of Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Packed with behind-the-scenes stories and exclusive images, it’s the perfect way to start your summer.