About Joe Fordham

I've been writing full-time for Cinefex since 2001 (the year, not the movie). Before Cinefex, I worked in visual effects, special effects, makeup effects, miniature effects, animation and editing in LA and in London. The silhouette in my avatar is my logo for Flashfilms, a website where you'll find links to my filmmaking and creative writing. Flash was my dog.

“2036 Origin Unknown” – VFX Q&A

Origin Unkown - VFX Q&A

While recent planet-wide dust storms raged on Mars, a small sci-fi movie unspooled 33.9 million miles away, in a handful of theatres across the United States. 2036 Origin Unknown, released by Gravitas Ventures June 6, is an indie sci-fi thriller set mostly in an underground bunker on the Red Planet where a lone U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) and her artificial intelligence system, ARTi (Steven Cree), probe the mysteries of a giant cube unearthed in a Martian dune sea.

Filmmaker Hasraf 'HaZ' Dulull directs Sackhoff in the USPC set.

Filmmaker Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull directs Katee Sackhoff in the U.S. Planetary Corp set.

The film marked the sophomore feature from young British filmmaker and former visual effects artist, Hasraf Dulull, whose directorial debut The Beyond featured in an earlier Cinefex Blog a scant six months ago. Cinefex caught up with the prolific Dulull, who we learned one addresses as HaZ.

CINEFEX: Good evening, HaZ. We previously spoke with you about your early career in visual effects. We’re curious, where did you come from before that, and what were the influences that led you to become such a prolific filmmaker?

HAZ: I was born and raised, and went to school and university in London. I am the eldest of three boys, raised by my lovely parents who are from Mauritius. My dad loved renting VHS sci-fi and horror films from the library and video store, so he is to blame for all my early age film binges – I remember watching Silent Running, Blade Runner and Alien and being just mesmerized by the world of sci-fi. At the time, I had no idea what my career path would be, I just knew I wanted to do make stuff like that, where I could let my imagination run wild.

I got into visual effects and CGI at an early age, as a teenager, and I was self-trained. Instead of going out to play with my friends, I would hack away on my Atari ST, creating Basic-coded graphics, and then I got enough money to buy a PC and learnt 3D Max R4 and Lightwave. I’ve wanted to make films since the age of 12, but I didn’t go to film school. Instead, around 1998 I started working in video games creating cinematics, or ‘FMV’s, full motion videos, as they used to be called. I then moved into VFX and rode that career for over 10 years, starting as a compositor and then working my way up to becoming VFX supervisor and then VFX producing.

CINEFEX: What gave you the idea for Origin Unknown?

U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars in the indie science fiction thriller "2036 Origin Unknown."

USPC operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars.

HAZ: Around 2014, I was in a supermarket queuing up to pay for my groceries. I remember thinking, where are all the cashiers? I missed having small-talk with the cashiers as I was scanning and packing my groceries – instead, we now have self-service systems, with only one or two staff on stand-by. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow! What if this was the future of space exploration, a way to afford more missions by minimizing cost and human error?

I wrote the idea as a treatment, and a lot of people told me not to set the film on Mars, as many Mars films were flopping at the box office – but I wrote it the way I wanted, just to get it out of my system and shelved it. A year and a bit later, I was working as a VFX producer on various TV shows, a colleague introduced me to Anis Shlewet and James T. Ryan, producers at Parkgate Entertainment, and I was pitching them various projects and then this came up during our ‘what if?’ conversation. They were both heavily into grounded sci-fi, and it was a great meeting outcome, which got the ball rolling. It also helped that Ridley Scott’s film The Martian, had just come out around that time and it was a hit, so Mars was back in!

Anis and James hired a writer Gary Hall to develop the Pathfinder script further. It was great to collaborate with another writer as we are both self-proclaimed nerds who love space exploration while keeping the story grounded.

CINEFEX: How did you manage to create Origin Unknown just six months after the release of The Beyond?

HAZ: Both Origin Unknown and The Beyond happened pretty close to each other, but not simultaneously. For example, we shot tons of second unit for Origin before I started shooting Beyond, and then there was a break on Origin while we went through casting and financing, and in that time, I shot The Beyond. By the time I finished Beyond, we were already moving into prep to shoot Origin. It was interesting, I spent years making short films and trying to get a feature film made, and then the two projects happened back to back. Either I am every lucky, or I am cursed. I prefer to think I was very lucky, and I was also grateful to be doing what I love, even if it meant lots of caffeine and late nights.

CINEFEX: How did your experience with visual effects disciplines influence story development and production plans?

Production design previz.

Production design previz.

HAZ: During script development, I generated tons of previz and visual material to help Gary Hall see what I had in my mind as he was writing. Sometimes, I created visuals to test what we could achieve on our budget. If our ideas were too ambitious, I’d tell Gary to modify scenes to help our approach production-wise. So, it was great to be involved in the script stage to help shape production as opposed to writing a script and then having to make sacrifices later, due to budget and schedule constraints.

While doing previz, I worked closely with production designer Jon Bunker and cinematographer Adam Sculthorp to discuss mood and tone, and types of lens we wanted to capture certain moments. Jon Bunker provided me with FBX – Autodesk Filmbox – files of the set he designed. I moved those around in Maya to figure out my shots. It was a very tight collaboration to ensure we were all on the same page, spending the budget correctly and not building stuff which wouldn’t get seen. Before we cast the film, I used our second unit material of Martian landscapes and space scenes and cut together a sizzle reel which the producers used to raise more financing.

CINEFEX: How did you cast Katee Sackhoff – who, of course, is a sci-fi genre star after playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica?

HAZ: From what I know, our producers and sales company sent Katee’s agent the script. She loved the complexity and layering of the story, but she had a million questions. I spent months getting to know her on Skype, discussing plot and character and coming up with more ideas. We ended up reshaping the script in a very collaborative way, and Katee influenced so much about Mack’s character, pushing us to take it further, both during script development and shooting.

Mack spars with ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) her USPC artificial intelligence computer interface.

Katee shares my love for improv. That was a challenge for my lovely script supervisor, Hannah Kenneally Muir, tracking all the changes on set, but it was important for the shoot that we all worked in synchronicity in a creative fun process, finding special golden moments, which you find in the moment and feel it on the day.

The idea of Mack using a stress ball – shaped like planet Earth – was something Katee came up with during blocking, and if you watch the film closely you will realize the ball actually has a strong metaphor with the main plot of the film.

CINEFEX: Mack spends most of her screen-time in one room, USPC HQ on Mars – how did Jon Bunker design that set?

HAZ: Jon is a very humble and experienced guy, who has been doing this since the 1980s, but also worked as a concept artist on films such as Gravity.

I created a look-book containing lots of images of NASA mission control rooms; Jon contributed ideas on how to take that technology into the future, while keeping it grounded. Jon was very invested in my pitch that the location should feel like a character in the film, and he made the set as spacious as possible, with just the right amount of tech to make it feel functional, while ensuring all the panels lit up as light sources for cinematography.

We had a very tight shooting schedule of 11 days, so that contributed to the idea of building a full 360-degree set, with functional buttons and controllers. It was important for Mack to be able to interact with objects in the room to keep it feeling natural. We also created a lot of screen graphics in preproduction. Jon and his team had those printed onto the screen surfaces, which we animated later animated with blinking lights and graphics, so it all felt authentic to Katee while she was on set, rather than asking her to stare at blank screens.

CINEFEX: Mack’s robotic co-star, ARTi, is an ornery but very non-athropomorphic fellow –a ball on a stick – how did you create his interactions with Katee on set?

ARTi offers counsel via an orb on a mechanical arm suspended from the USPC bunker ceiling. Territory Studio designed and animated the robotic appendage.

HAZ: I wanted ARTi’s design to be simple, with the slickness of Apple products, but I also wanted to him to have enough articulation in his movements to create a character, like the robot Max in Flight of the Navigator.

We had a real-scale ARTi head built for the close-ups where Mack would be interacting with ARTi physically. But for the main bulk of his scenes, ARTi was created digitally by the talented team at Territory Studio. Visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason worked with us on set and at Territory, designing and animating the character. And Territory animator Ashley Pay did an incredible one-man job of blocking, animating, shading, lighting and rendering ARTi shots. Compositing supervisor Caroline Pires then led the Territory team to integrate ARTi into footage in Nuke. Paddy Eason was also very hands-on with shot creation, too. When we needed additional closeups of ARTi, Paddy and his team generated new back-plates by projecting Canon 5D stills of the set onto simple geometry, and then they animated ARTi with little camera moves. All the time we were shooting, Paddy and his on-set VFX assistant Tizzy Gregory were snapping away with the 5D and they placed GoPros in hidden locations to grab witness camera footage to help with animation.

CINEFEX: How did you work with ARTi’s voice artist, Steven Cree, in creating the dynamic between Mack and ARTi?

HAZ: ARTi’s voice was one of hardest things to get right. On set, a stand-in actor, Jud Charlton, provided Katee with voice interactions. Jud’s voice also helped the animators, and I worked with editor Jeremy Gibbs to sometimes come up with more ARTi moments to help make the robot/human relationship feel more intimate.

We cast Steven Cree during postproduction. He never got to work with Katee directly. He worked with the animated shots – often works in progress – and he fell in love with ARTi. Steven approached the character the same as he would approach a human character, and I think that allowed the audience to empathize with ARTi. Like Katee, Steven sometimes came up with additional lines on the spur of the moment, which also helped ARTi feel relatable and real. Our sound designers, Richard Lewis and Steven Parker at Pindrop in London, then added subtle effects to make ARTi’s voice feel a little processed but not computerized. The idea was, when ARTi speaks, the room is speaking. And so, the guys at Pindrop carefully mixed the voice to resonate with the room acoustically.

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Mack remotely activates a probe, containing a rover, to launch from an orbiter ship above Mars.

CINEFEX: What went into your spaceship designs, and how did you decide on creating miniature elements?

HAZ: I knew I didn’t want to go the route of building CG spaceships, mainly because I had done that in most of my VFX career. Instead, I wanted to go back to how films like 2001 and Alien were made – using practical models where you can feel the texture as light bounced off the ships.

We brought on the amazing team from The Model Unit at Ealing Studios, in London. Mike Tucker and his team built the orbiter ship, the lander probe, the rover, the cube and the Mars landscapes. I began by creating CG geometry versions of those objects and then sent the Maya files to Mike and his team to work from, both as reference and for 3D printing components. The amount of craftsmanship, attention to detail and passion that went into building those objects was so inspiring and helped the shots look real.

The orbiter ship miniature under construction at The Model Unit, Ealing Studios, in London.

During our second unit shoot, the Model Unit team added more textures to the spacecraft as Adam Sculthorp and his team lit the scenes against a black backdrop. We wanted to emulate the lighting of NASA footage. Adam mounted lights to a motion control arm and moved those to create the sense that the spaceship was moving as shadows slid across the surface. We later added stars to create depth, as well as the planet Mars and effects of rocket boosters igniting.

CINEFEX: How did you create your Martian surface scenes?

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.

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Preparing the miniature set of the lander probe to launch from the orbiter ship.

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Lander probe miniature element.

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Lander probe composite.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the cube.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the mysterious giant cube.

HAZ: Mars was a hybrid of landscape model work created by the Model Unit, taken further in VFX using digital set extensions. For most of our rover shots, we used Model Unit’s practical rover, built and operated via remote control, filmed on the real landscape. We extended into the distance stuff. We used a CG rover for the aerial shots and wide vistas of it entering the dust storm. During second unit, we also shot elements of dirt, smoke and atmosphere at various speeds on black for use later in compositing. We used imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover to help with the digital set extensions.

The Martian storms were mainly digital, rendered out of Houdini by effects artist Aleksandr Uusmees. I then took those into After Effects for compositing and I integrated lighting strikes, stock footage of retimed clouds and additional Houdini simulations along with some keyframe warping effects.

CINEFEX: How did you divide the work among your visual effects team?

HAZ: Territory Studios and Paddy Eason handled all the scenes involving ARTi, our hologram scene and our big end sequence. Andrew Popplestone and his team at Territory also created our opening titles, and visuals for ARTi’s points of view.

Filmmore VFX and visual effects supervisor Hans Van Helden, in Amsterdam, handled wireframe animated renders of the rover in action and a few full CG shots involving the rover and parachute lander.

Squint VFX and visual effects supervisor Jonathan Harris handled a few shots involving the CG cube on a terrestrial ice shelf, as well the Martian One crash footage.

I supervised a small team at my own company, HaZ VFX, handling all the heads-up displays and screen graphics for playback, previs, the launch of the probe, the orbiter space station, all the Mars storm scenes, the Cube scenes and several key sequences. A ton of shots cropped up during editorial that we didn’t have additional budget to award to a facility, so we handled a lot of those shots ourselves.

Cube miniature under construction at The Model Unit.

The cube miniature, under construction at The Model Unit.

Cube miniature on Martian landscape set.

The cube miniature on the Martian landscape set.

CINEFEX: Without giving too much away, your third act gets into some narrative pyrotechnics as Mack confronts the mystery of the cube on Mars – how did you design and execute those sequences? There are some pretty big ideas there, quite ambitious for an indie sci-fi film.

HAZ: We always knew the film needed a big twist, ramping up in scale and cranking up the imaginative sci-fi content toward the end. I was inspired by films like 2001, Jacob’s Ladder and Contact, where the last act blows your mind – we knew that was what was going to make the film more memorable, and this meant that sequence needed to be less exposition-based and more visual-narrative based.

We didn’t have the budget to execute the sequence the typical CG way, so we relied on the amazing compositing team at Territory who had pushed Nuke to its extremes with particle systems and high dynamic range lighting on some epic shots, to make them feel grand in scale and concept. The design of those scenes took shape during postproduction. As we were editing, I was working closely with Andrew Popplestone on our title sequence. Andrew and his team and his team tend to work in a very design + story approach, and they had developed so much high resolution imagery for the titles, we decided to incorporate some of that into our special ending scene. This wasn’t in the script – so, again, this was one of our many ‘think out of the box’ approaches that we used in the making of this film.

The cube responds to Mack's investigations and launches triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

The cube responds to Mack’s investigations and triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

I built a sequence that involved 3D renders of the cube and cosmic imagery, using assets generated from the title sequence. Andrew supplied me with large 6K textures. Visual effects artist Lee Medcalf, a frequent collaborator of mine, then built the cube using planes textured with those renders, and then animated the camera and lit it all in After Effects. He supplied me with the After Effects file and I added additional animation and effects. We used cosmic visual treatments seen in the opening title sequence, so the film opened and ended with this style.

There were really no rules when it came to the last act of the film. I felt the more mind-bending it became visually, and the more depth and layers we had in those shots the better, to make those scenes feel complex and large. This would not have been possible, or affordable, on a typical indie-scale film. And it was all result of the collaboration between myself, Andrew Popplestone, Paddy Eason and their teams.


2036 Origin Unknown is currently on limited theatrical release in the U.S., and is now available on digital streaming platforms. The film will have its U.K. release, on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD formats, August 13.

Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.

Benson’s Space Odyssey: A Book Review

benson1

David Bowman (Keir Dullea) in “2001: A Space Odyssey” © Turner Entertainment Co. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Jacket design by Rodrigo Corral Art & Design.

50 years after its theatrical release, 2001: A Space Odyssey stands as a film that, the more a viewer brings to the experience, the more the film rewards them. Michael Benson’s recent publication, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece is evidence of that.

Plenty of other books have already mined this territory. From Jerome Agel’s eclectic 1970 paperback The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 was the first, to Arthur C. Clarke’s fascinating 1972 diary of his creative journey with Kubrick in The Lost Worlds of 2001, there have been many fascinating accounts of the science fiction cinematic giant. More recently, we’ve had Dan Richter’s 2002 publication, Moonwatcher’s Memoir, Christopher Frayling’s 2015 folio of production designer Harry Lange’s contributions, The 2001 File, and Piers Bizony’s 1994 account, 2001: Filming the Future, his luscious 2014 Taschen picture book, The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention Don Shay and Jody Duncan’s revealing 2001: A Time Capsule in Cinefex 85. Benson had all of these to draw from – and, for full disclosure, Cinefex founder Don Shay was one of a noble community of authors and contributors who generously shared his personal transcripts and research. What distinguishes Benson’s book is its vivid narrative and linear nature.

After a slow start, meandering around Sri Lanka – formerly Ceylon – in the home of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, the author charts a path quickly to Kubrick’s penthouse in New York, 1964. That’s when things get cooking, as Clarke and Kubrick spark ideas that, four years later, exploded onto cinema screens. Using personal letters, exhaustive interviews and voluminous archival material, cross-referenced in 31-pages of footnotes and a seven-page index, Benson adopts a novelistic tone, allowing readers to gaze into Kubrick’s ‘olive eyes’ and shiver with the cold as his two protagonists clamber up onto Kubrick’s apartment roof to peer through Clarke’s Celestron telescope. The documentary style is insightful and amusing, making for a fluent and involving read as Benson charts landmarks of Kubrick and Clarke’s collaboration. Anecdotes previously and frequently taken out of context are given new scrutiny. It’s all here: from Kubrick’s often-stated desire to make the ‘proverbial really good science fiction film’ (in his first letter to Clarke), to the congenial sparring of great minds (Kubrick hated Clarke’s taste in films).

Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), confer with their HAL 9000 computer in the centrifuge of the spaceship 'Discovery' en route to Jupiter. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), confer with their HAL 9000 computer in the centrifuge of the spaceship ‘Discovery’ en route to Jupiter. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Mysteries of Kubrick’s visual effects processes are also revealed, spelling out the contributions of its four special photographic effects supervisors, as listed in the film’s credits – Wally Veevers, Tom Howard, Douglas Trumbull and Con Pederson. Benson pulls no punches in describing effects supervisor Wally Gentleman’s frustrations that led to his near nervous breakdown and early departure, after some integral research and development. Trumbull’s role is perhaps the most vivid, sketching the experience from the point of view of an ambitious 23-year-old, and Pederson is equally candid as another gifted and outspoken young artist, last to join the team and offer up some incisive contributions. Special makeup designer Stuart Freeborn’s experiments, successful and otherwise, chronicle the production’s journey to create believable prehistoric man-apes. And Kubrick’s controversial credit as ‘special photographic effects designer and director,’ remains a sore point among visual effects artisans, although it gifted Kubrick with the film’s only Oscar for ‘Best Special Visual Effects’ in 1969. The rest is history, but suffice to say the detail is all there in Benson’s 444 pages.

Other highlights include Kubrick assistant Andrew Birkin’s travels in Namibia, capturing backgrounds for the Dawn of Man, and his aerial adventures above Scotland, Utah and Arizona for Bowman’s trip Beyond the Infinite. Production designer Tony Masters’ contributions were myriad, engineering ingenious in-camera zero gravity effects, and providing a last-minute sketch of Tycho moon base. We learn how Kubrick’s thorny encounter with scientist Carl Sagan in early preproduction perhaps haunted the filmmaker’s quest for cinematic expressions of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Benson reveals the genesis of the film’s sound design, and how those breathing sound effects were achieved. And he spells out the evolution of the musical score, relating the backstory of how composer Alex North’s original music was quickly severed and jettisoned into orbit.

Benson unsparingly relates reactions of early audiences and critics, who tore the film to shreds after its 1968 New York press screenings. Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, provides heartbreaking testimony to Kubrick’s vulnerability in these moments as the critical community piled on the invective. There is also a telling account of a more perceptive critic, teenage nephew of M-G-M president Maurice Silverstein, who viewed the film by peering through a projection booth window during the film’s first screening for M-G-M. After the icy studio reception, Benson relates, assistant film editor David DeWilde meets the boy in the booth, who announced, “It was the most amazing film I’ve ever seen.”

Stanley Kubrick lines up a shot with Kier Dullea as Bowman in one of Tony Master's sets for the enigmatic third act, beyond the infinite, in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Keith Hamshere / Getty Images.

Director Stanley Kubrick lines up a shot with Keir Dullea as Bowman in one of production designer Tony Masters’ sets for the enigmatic third act, beyond the infinite, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Keith Hamshere / Getty Images.

Want to know what Kubrick removed in his final edit when he sliced 19 minutes from the film? You’ll find that here. Astonishingly, eight 70mm prints were at that point in circulation around the U.S., and projectionists received instructions where to make tape splices. The final 161-minute film went on to make history, and Benson relates that journey, too, in an epilogue that details Kubrick’s continued friendship with Arthur Clarke – a rarity for him – Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999, and his funeral on the grounds of his home in Childwickbury Manor, Saint Albans in England. Douglas Trumbull attended the small gathering and made his peace in a personal reflection. But save that for the book.

Space Odyssey is a moving tribute to a great and unique film, and will no doubt add to the resurgence of interest in time for 2001’s 50th anniversary release. However, if you have not yet bought tickets for screenings this week at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, you are out of luck. They are sold out (addendum: the Arclight added shows next week, due to the film’s popularity, but the Dome is at capacity). Stanley would have been proud.

Thanks to Sarah Reidy.

Ready Player Maze

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts in Steven Spielberg's film of "Ready Player One." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts in Steven Spielberg’s film of “Ready Player One.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

I confess: I cut my teeth on Jaws, was forever changed by Close Encounters, and experienced an epiphany after Raiders. So, it is always an event for me when a new Steven Spielberg film rolls around, and it is always a joke at Cinefex editorial meetings who will be first to raise their hand to cover the new Spielberg film. It is always me. Or, at least, that has been the case since I joined the team full-time in 2001.

That year, I embarked on the mythical quest that was A.I.. The production was remarkable in that, after decades of development, the creative assets passed from Stanley Kubrick into Steven Spielberg’s care. I badgered Warner Bros. for a director interview. Mr. Spielberg kindly offered to respond to my written questions between camera setups on his next production, Minority Report, which he was already shooting, but I was too nervous to accept lest my insights into supermecha fell into the wrong hands. Besides, I already had a feast of material with Industrial Light & Magic leaders Dennis Muren, Scott Farrar, creature legend Stan Winston, et al. So, that honor eluded me, although I remain proud of the story.

Wade Watts' game-playing avatar ponders his fate in Steven Spielberg's film of "Ready Player One." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Wade Watts’ game-playing avatar ponders his fate in Steven Spielberg’s film of “Ready Player One.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Since then, I have continued my run of Spielberg films – Minority Report, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Indy IV, Tintin and The BFG. I missed six – Catch Me if You Can, Munich, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The Post – which had interesting, albeit less voluminous visual effects. My eighth is in the works, with Ready Player One scheduled for Cinefex 159.

As part of my research, Warner Bros. invited me to participate in an event at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, in Hollywood. On a vacant lot, across from the Taft Building, a corner of The Stacks has recently sprung up. Without giving too much away, the Stacks is the setting in Ernest Cline’s novel where the novel’s hero, Wade Watts, resides in a ramshackle mobile home bolted on top of a pile of other shacks in the outskirts of Oklahoma City, 2045. For the next two weeks, leading up to the theatrical release of the new movie, anyone can visit Ready Player One – Challenge: The Maze.

Steven Spielberg greets the crowd at San Diego Comic-Con. Photo credit: Eric Eric Charbonneau.

Steven Spielberg greets the crowd at the “Ready Player One” presentation at San Diego Comic-Con. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau.

Sign a waiver, get tagged with a radio-frequency identification wristband, and after a trip through the velvet ropes, step into the dystopian nightmare. Guests are free to wander, probe and generally tinker around, under the watchful gaze of virtual-reality-helmet-wearing Stacks residents and the occasional unsmiling officer of Innovative Online Industries. I admit, I was expecting holograms, but these are the real deal.

At the end of one glowing corridor, Batman awaits, and he will exchange only terse words. Harley Quinn and a nightmarishly huge Care Bear are friendlier inside a 1980s disco-lounge, where passersby are invited to dance (at least, I did). That’s where I learned there are keys afoot, and this is an Easter Egg hunt. By interacting with the maze and its occupants, and scoring a really lousy game of Pac-Man, I located two of three magic totems, and for each was rewarded a rubber stamp on the back of my hand. I’m not sure where they would have stamped the third.

My favorite chamber was an enigmatic mirrored room, which reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But that may just be me, as that Russian sci-fi classic appeared in 1972. Most of the maze ephemera echoed the book and film, set in a 1980s’ flavored vision of 2045. My only criticism: too many Starlogs, and no vintage Cinefex – but perhaps they were worried Stacks residents would sell those precious magazines on the 2049 equivalent of eBay?

Steven Spielberg, "Ready Player One" author Ernest Cline and cast members brave the mirror room. Photo credit: Steven Spielberg / Twitter.

Steven Spielberg, “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline and cast members brave the mirror room. Photo credit: Steven Spielberg / Twitter.

At the end of the maze, an IOI sentry unlocked a secret door to another mirrored corridor, this one flashing colored lights, which led into a chamber of movie artifacts. To find out what those are, you’ll have to visit, or dig around elsewhere, as there are story spoilers. On my way out, a maze security operative pressed a box into my hands, so there are tchotchkes to be had, coming soon to a Funko retailer near you.

It’s a funhouse experience, with a carnival atmosphere – a savvy bit of marketing, and a thrill if you’re a Spielberg fan because there are items from the film tucked away among the stacks (Aech’s bus is parked in there toward the back). The next day, my Twitter feed revealed that I missed a few celebrity visitors who, unlike me, snapped selfies in the maze (hello there, Mr. Spielberg). I’m still working on that interview.

Ready Player One will be in theatres March 29, and in Cinefex this June.

Thanks to Suzanne Fritz, Loraine Valverde.

The Shape of Oscar

Guillermo del Toro poses with both the Oscar® for best picture and achievement in directing for work on “The Shape of Water” at the Governors Ball following the live ABC Telecast of The 90th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Photograph by Nicholas Agro / A.M.P.A.S.

Guillermo del Toro poses with both the Oscar® for best picture and achievement in directing for work on “The Shape of Water” at the Governors Ball following the live ABC Telecast of The 90th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Photograph by Nicholas Agro / A.M.P.A.S.

The Shape of Water did an amazing thing last night. Although some might argue it is more a romantic adult fantasy, rather than a horror film, it is the first time a monster movie has won ‘best picture’ and ‘best director’ at the Academy Awards.

Not even The Exorcist did that, although it was nominated for seven Oscars, and won for ‘best adapted screenplay’ and ‘best sound mixing’. Typically, genre films only win in ‘below the line’ or technical craft categories. And the genre has included significantly talented filmmakers, Francis Coppola, Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, George Romero, Ridley Scott, Richard Donner, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton and John Landis to name a few. James Whale, who directed two of Universal’s most enduring horror classics, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in 1931 and 1935, was never nominated. Many more have been ignored, or set aside as second class cinematic citizens.

The last borderline monster movies to receive Oscar’s big awards were Jonathan Demme’s 1991 grisly and terrific thriller The Silence of the Lambs, which won Jodie Foster ‘best actress,’ and Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 disturbing psychodrama Black Swan, which performed similarly, nominated in top categories, and winning Natalie Portman ‘best actress’ award. But neither are considered true genre entries.

1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde won Frederic March ‘best actor,’ tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ. And Bette Davis won ‘best actress’ for the modern gothic melodrama Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. Rosemary’s Baby won ‘best adapted screenplay’ in 1962, similar to this year’s Get Out, which is another notable achievement for the genre. But other than that, out-and-out monster movies have been Oscar pariahs. The original King Kong, although it inspired so many filmmakers and resides on the National Film Registry, did not receive a single AMPAS nomination, technical or otherwise.

So, bravo, Guillermo, on breaking the glass ceiling. We know you eat, breathe and dream monsters for a living, so it is fitting that you have carried the torch for all outsiders and children of the night. Let’s see what you’ve got next.

The Shape of Water in Cinefex

Cinefex covered The Shape of Water in issue 156, published December 2017 and available to purchase from our online store. Our lavishly illustrated article includes interviews with Guillermo del Toro, Doug Jones, the teams at Legacy Effects and Mr. X and special effects supervisor Warren Appleby. In fact, we’ve been chronicling Guillermo’s career for many years, as the links below will testify.

Edlund, Kroyer and Oscar 2018

VFXOscar2018

It is perhaps impossible to summarize the careers of Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer without turning a blog into a full-blown magazine article. But, for the uninitiated:

Richard Edlund with Millennium Falcon at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund, with Millennium Falcon, at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Richard is a four-time Academy Award visual effects winner – for Star Wars, Empire, Raiders and Return of the Jedi – governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, founding chairman of the AMPAS visual effects branch, chairman of the AMPAS Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, 2007 recipient of the AMPAS John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, 2008 recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers Presidents Award, board member of the Visual Effects Society and co-designer of the Pignose amplifier.

Bill Kroyer, professor and director of the Chapman University Digital Arts Program. Image © Chapman University.

Bill Kroyer, professor and director of the Chapman University Digital Arts Program. Image © Chapman University.

Bill, for the last eight years, has been professor and director of the Digital Arts Program at Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, at Chapman University. He is AMPAS governor of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch, co-chair of the AMPAS Science and Technology Council, former animation co-director at Rhythm & Hues Studios, first recipient of the International Animation Society’s June Foray award, Oscar nominee for his 1989 short Technological Threat, Disney alumnus, and shared credit, with Jerry Rees, as ‘computer image choreographer’ overseeing digital animation on Disney’s 1982 feature TRON.

Both gentlemen are mellifluous, talented and passionate about their crafts, and are currently honoring the art by mentoring students of film and animation at Chapman University, in Orange Country, California, where Edlund recently embarked on the Dodge College Pankey Distinguished Artist program. “I guess I’m considered a distinguished artist,” Richard Edlund wryly observed. “I’ve done about 30 features, a lot of commercials and ride films, and so I’ve gone through the School of Hard Knocks. I’m now going down memory lane, revisiting a lot of movies that I’ve worked on, and trying to give young filmmakers a sense of how we got here.”

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with "Star Wars" visual effects and special effects Oscar winners from the 50th Academy Awards. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with “Star Wars” visual effects and special effects Oscar winners from the 50th Academy Awards. Image © Chapman University.

Across campus, Bill Kroyer’s students, undergraduates in the animation visual effects program aged between 18 to 22, engage in the creation of animated films or visual effects, working with live-action filmmakers in Chapman’s graduate program. “We are also getting into virtual/augmented reality projects now,” related Kroyer. “It’s pretty active, innovative stuff.” As an early adopter of digital technology, Kroyer still espouses core disciplines. “The fundamental skills are unchanged. Those include performance, staging, composition, design – all the qualities that attract the eye, and create an emotional impression. On the other end of the spectrum, technology is evolving daily, and my kids are way ahead of their professors. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you’ll never know more than the kids, because the stuff they’re learning about was just invented yesterday. I’d put my sophomore cinematographer up against any member of the Academy for testing VR cameras. It’s unbelievable what these kids are doing, and it’s a very exciting time. It’s very different from the old paradigm where the professor had all the knowledge. Now, it’s more like I’m teaching you this and you teach me that.”

Richard Edlund, with hyperspace Wookiee. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund, with hyperspace Wookiee. Image © Chapman University.

Edlund’s teaching experience, at his alma mater University of Southern California in the Peter Stark Producing Program for visual effects and emerging technologies, influenced his current course trajectory. “It is invigorating to be dealing with young talented students,” Edlund concurred. “At USC, students were neurologists and lawyers who didn’t want to follow those professions and wanted to get into film. I had all these fertile minds, 50 of them in a class, and they’d all seen just about every film that had been made in the recent times, so I was being quizzed by people who were really up on what’s happening in the world of modern technology, upper the upper echelon IQs, and they’d ask questions that cause you to rethink your own ideas.” Edlund’s current curriculum, surveying visual effects from the analog era to this year’s Academy Award-nominated VFX films, emphasizes the breadth of film history. “I’ve done a lot of sci-fi movies, but that’s not my main interest in cinema. I enjoy great dramatic accomplishments in film, but I find that many of my younger students don’t go back much further than The Lord of the Rings. They’ve seen all the modern movies, but when you mention Citizen Kane or Casablanca, they haven’t seen those milestones of cinema. I’m trying to bring them back a little bit further, and I’m working on a series of one-hour shows on visual effects, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the present, showing how we got here by interviewing the people that came up with those stepping stones. The kind of ingenuity we had to us in the analog era was entirely different from the ingenuity we have now. We’ve gone from blacksmithing to neuro-surgery. It’s a whole different Megillah.”

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with Grant McCune and X-wing, at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with Grant McCune and X-wing, at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Viewed in historical perspective, the crop of five visual effects nominees for the 90th Academy Awards – from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes, Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 to Blade Runner 2049 – may be unique in that each prominently features digital characters interpreted, in varying degrees, through interactive human performances and animation. “Technology allows us now to solve problems and introduce new characters in ways we never could before,” noted Kroyer. “That has opened up the field creatively and that will only continue as the years go by. There is no question about that; and it poses two questions. On the creative side, what will people do that the audience will respond to? And on the awards side, how to evaluate those factors as a voting member of the Academy, the Visual Effects Society, or the Animation Society? How do we reward those performances if they have become a team endeavor? That’s something that we are looking at very critically, especially in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, involving all our branches.”

The increased prevalence of visual effects has had manifold effects on audience expectations.  “I think it has been liberating,” observed Edlund. “It’s an arduous process. A lot more people put a lot more work into shots nowadays than there used to be. And there are so many shots in effects films. It seems there’s not a day that Marvel doesn’t have a thousand shots in the pipeline. And that that means people are fighting for the opportunity of getting into some of these shots. We have monstrous shows with monstrous needs. And the interesting thing is that audiences have seen so much, and the material is so transparent, nothing excites them. It gets to the point where you’ve been so over-exposed to super reality that it’s like, so what’s new? Even for those of us who’ve spent our lives in visual effects, when we’re evaluating the work, we don’t know what’s been added and what wasn’t. That’s why recently we’ve asked visual effects supervisors to put ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots into their presentation reels so we can see what they started with and what we’ve wound up with. That’s a new development for us. Back when Doug Trumbull was presenting his work on Close Encounters, he did a before and after effects reel, and we felt that that was not copacetic – but Star Wars won, anyway!”

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer explain motion control miniature photography. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer explain motion control miniature photography. Image © Chapman University.

The incorporation of ‘making of’ reels into visual effects evaluations informs more detailed award categories. “We have to have intelligent and informed data about exactly how performances are created to make our decisions,” said Kroyer. “The VES is now is finally incorporating the ‘making of’ reels because even the most trained eye can no longer tell what’s been manufactured and what is natural. That has extended into the area of character performance – whether it’s a photo-real human, or an anthropomorphic monster or ape, it is impossible to evaluate the work, unless you really dig in and look at it. Years ago, when Bob Zemeckis directed The Polar Express, the Academy sent me in to look at the files and the data to see exactly what the animators had brought to those performances, and how much was straight parse-through from the actor. In that case, when I sat with the animators, I examined the source files and the finals, and it was very obvious that the animators had keyframed and tweaked almost every frame. Our definition of an animated film is that the performances are created by the animators.” The five current AMPAS animated feature nominations include diverse stylizations of computer graphics, and a hand-painted independent feature based on the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. “Look at Loving Vincent – that is not a photo-real CG film, but the question was, is this a film where filmmakers have simply rotoscoped live actors? We examined all the files, and we found that animators were making critical performance decisions, and we decided, even though the film made use of actors, what was on screen was done frame-by-frame by talented animators. It was not just parsed through a technical process, these were real performances, by top-rated, experienced, professional character animators who made decisions to create that work.”

Richard Edlund, and Death Star. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund, and Death Star. Image © Chapman University.

Voting procedures have evolved alongside technology. “We go through this every year,” said Edlund. “You have people thinking that maybe Andy Serkis should get an Academy Award for motion capture. But you have to realize that his motion capture then gets tweaked by numerous animators. If, at some point, we’re going to recognize motion capture actors as actors in a movie, we will then have to include the animators in those awards. It will be similar to the question of numerous writers writing a screenplay, when each screenplay along the road gets reworked by another screenwriter: each draft gets read by somebody, who then has to decide who gets the ‘ampersand’ and who gets the ‘and’ – ‘and’ and ‘ampersand’ are a big deal different – and the positioning of those credits falls into the Writers Guild’s domain, not the producer.”

Students at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Image © Chapman University.

Students at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Image © Chapman University.

Despite the mainstream media spin – pitting digital against analog, motion capture against keyframe animation – visual effects voting criteria remain an open field. “As an artist and an animator, an audience member and a film-lover,” remarked Kroyer, “I really don’t care at all how they do it. I only care if I am moved by a performance. My problem comes with being an Academy voter, where I have to make decisions about who should be rewarded. There’s no evil or good in technology, and the idea of trying to say, ‘this is better than that’ – that’s an irrelevant argument in everything except the awards process. That’s when we have to analyze what really makes a performance, what really had the impact on the audience, who was chiefly responsible, and to what degree were they sharing that performance. Very few organizations are digging into these questions as deeply as we are at the Academy. We have access to the people who are driving the bus – Oscar-winning actors, technologists, and visual effects artists – and we are getting them together, having extremely interesting examinations, and I must say we are having fun looking at these questions. Everybody is interested, because it is relevant. The educated step that we can take right now is one of learning, because there’s so much happening in this field, you really have to understand its nuances.”

Thanks to Ryan Smith, Rogers & Cowan, Meagan O’Shea, Chapman University.

Cinefex Monster Movie Poll

Cinefex Movie Monster Poll

Welcome to the Cinefex Monster Movie Poll – our pick of 150 films from around the world, featuring creatures and creations from the darker corners of filmmakers’ imaginations that have enchanted, horrified or amazed us. To celebrate the season, we’d like to invite you to vote for your favorites.

The sheer volume of monster movies was overwhelming, so we streamlined our selections with a few self-imposed rules. No TV, no sequels, no super-villains, and no remakes. That’s why you’ll find only one Star Wars (we’re not asking you to choose between Greedo, Jabba, or Grievous), one Kong, and a single occurrence of Bram Stoker’s blood-sucking Count (up to you if that’s Lugosi, Lee, Langella, Hamilton, Oldman, or Nielsen). Yet Nosferatu, we felt, was a significant enough departure to warrant his inclusion.

Sink your teeth into our list by choosing up to 13 films – unlucky for some! – then hit the ‘Vote’ button at the bottom of the page. Voting closes midday October 31. We’ll publish the results soon after that.

Ron Thornton’s Model-maker Mantra

An Earthforce Starfury starfighter, from "Babylon 5" -- Ron Thornton's original 22,840-polygon digital model, lit and composited as a high-rez rendering by the ship's original designer, Steve Burg.

Visual effects designer Ron Thornton’s original 22,840-polygon Starfury star fighter, built for the Emmy-award-winning television series “Babylon 5”, lit and composited as a high-rez rendering by the ship’s original designer, Steve Burg. Photo © Steve Burg, 2016.

‘Slap a few nurnies on it, coat of paint, walk away.’ Those were the words that miniature effects maven Ron Thornton used to prod aspiring model-makers who were perhaps being too precious with their projects and, more importantly, our budget.

Ron Thornton builds the Wanderer-class cargo ship, Scorpio, for BBC TV's "Blake's 7," circa 1980.

Ron Thornton builds the Wanderer-class cargo ship, Scorpio, for “Blake’s 7” © BBC TV, 1980.

Ron was a bit of a legend when I met him in the late 1980s, fresh off the boat from England. Ron was the man that built the Scorpio spaceship for Blake’s 7, the Robin-Hood-in-space BBC TV series created by Doctor Who writer Terry Nation. And Ron had also forged his own little niche in Hollywood as a bit of a bad boy model-maker from across the pond, with credits at Apogee’s model shop for the impossibly long spaceship in Spaceballs, the Canadian TV series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and David Allen’s model crew on Robot Jox which achieved jaeger spectacle with car-sized model robots in the Southern Californian desert.

Ron and his Yakovlev Yak-52 Soviet trainer aircraft. As well as animating ships in flight, Ron was a passionate aviation enthusiast. His Yak was his second love. Photo © NewTek.

Ron and his Yakovlev Yak-52 Soviet trainer aircraft. As well as animating ships in flight, Ron was a passionate aviation enthusiast. His Yak was his second love. Photo © Robert Cazzell.

When I joined Ron’s team as production assistant, Ron put me to work doing bits and pieces of model-making work. I was hopeless at it. But I had a big truck, which was useful for hauling things around, I was willing to learn, plus I’d made a few short films of my own and knew my way around a camera, so we hit it off, and we shared a similar love of movies. Ron was also a fabulous chef, with a bawdy sense of humor, and a rich vocabulary of Monty Python references.

After some time running around for Ron’s company, Foundation Imaging, which grew from his garage into a small industrial unit in North Hollywood, Ron sent me on an errand to go fetch his latest toy. I drove to a computer store on Colorado Boulevard in Santa Monica and handed over a check for an Amiga Video Toaster.

Ron greeted this with glee and he soon took to noodling in an early version of Lightwave’s 3D modeling program. His first project, I remember, was a British-racing-green Flash Gordon style space vehicle, a 3D reconstruction of one of his old Blake’s 7 vehicles. He built out all the nurnies, slapped it all together, gave it a coat of paint very reminiscent of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbird 2, and animated it trundling through space. He asked me what I thought. As a card-carrying Spielberg fan, I told him it looked good, but as the shot was panning past a sun, shouldn’t there be a bit of a lens flare? Ron said, ‘Great idea!’ and he got on the phone to the Toaster makers at NewTek. Little did I know I had just suggested one of the biggest clichés in computer modeling, foreshadowing the Knoll Light Factory lens flare plug-in — at least, that was my memory.

The space station at he heart of "Babylon 5," modeled and animated at Foundation Imaging as a five-mile-long rotating cylinder, housing 250,000 intergalactic souls as the 'last, best hope for peace.' Photo © NewTek.

The space station at the heart of “Babylon 5”, modeled and animated at Foundation Imaging as a five-mile-long rotating cylinder, housing 250,000 intergalactic souls as the ‘last, best hope for peace.’ Photo © Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc.

Ron’s 3D experiments, and his collaborations with NewTek eventually won him an Emmy award for the visual effects he created for Babylon 5, Joe Straczynski’s Casablanca in space, a hotbed of intergalactic intrigue set on board a five-mile-long rotating space cylinder. Ron made all the space ships on NewTek’s software and blew everybody’s minds. In 1993, no one had done anything on that scale for television. We built a few miniatures, too, and John Criswell and Greg Aronowitz and their creature effects teams made many crazy aliens, but pretty much everything else was done with off the shelf PC software.

What Ron brought to that format was not only a nerdy love of tech. He still had the same hands-on approach, using CG tools as building blocks, with a three-dimensional sensibility to lighting, texture and camera blocking. It served him well, and years after I stopped working for Ron I saw his face looming out of the pages of Cinefex magazine, in advertisements for the DAVE computer graphics school where he mentored students as ‘The Godfather of CG Visual Effects.’

"The Godfather" in Cinefex 107, October 2006

“The Godfather” in Cinefex 107, October 2006.

I last saw Ron at a memorial service, and he gave me a hard time for not answering his emails. We had gone our separate ways. Ron founded another studio in New Mexico, and worked as a freelance visual effects supervisor. I’d been working for Cinefex for years and never got around to covering one of Ron’s numerous shows.

Foundation had become a staple of the Star Trek universe, revamping The Motion Picture effects for director Robert Wise’s video re-release, as well as providing animation and effects for Nemesis, Deep Space NineVoyager and Enterprise. Ron also produced his own Saturday morning TV fare, with Hypernauts – I wrote a script, which never saw the light of day – and Roughnecks, an animated spinoff of one of Ron’s favorite sci-fi novels, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Ron Thornton. Photo © NewTek.

Ron Thornton at 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, Van Nuys, California. Photo © Kevin Quattro.

Ron’s final credits included a remake of George Romero’s The Crazies and a handful of television shows. We last spoke in person about five years ago, when I happened to be in town for Christmas. Ron called out of the blue, wanting to go for a drink. Sadly, I was working that evening and when I got clear of my deadline, he was not around. But that was Ron’s style. He went where the wind took him, so I didn’t think anything of it. Ron was probably out carousing.

A few months ago, I heard that Ron was not doing well health-wise, and one of Ron’s NewTek colleagues, Chuck Baker, confirmed he was raising money to help cover Ron’s medical expenses. I was glad to be able to offer some help by posting a link to Chuck’s fundraising page, assisting Ron’s medical expenses, on the Cinefex Facebook page (see below). The Internet responded with a huge outpouring of sympathy, all those lives he touched, from fans to industry insiders.

Sadly, Ron passed away November 21. I’ll miss him. He was a larger than life character, but I am grateful to him for giving me my first safe harbor in the LA film community. And all the knowledge that I’ve accumulated since then has served me well in the multifarious disciplines that I cover every day writing for Cinefex. He taught me not to be too precious. Get your hands dirty. Slap a few nurnies on it, coat of paint, walk away.

The Thornton Design model-making crew poses in front of the "Highlander II" Shield Corporation pyramid, North Hollywood, 1990. L to R: Tom Gleason, Joe Fordham (with puppy Flash), Mike McFarlane, James Belohovek, Karen Mutter, Ron Thornton, Mark Ellis.

The Thornton Design model-making crew poses in front of the “Highlander II” Shield Corporation pyramid, North Hollywood, 1990. L to R: Tom Gleason, Joe Fordham (with puppy Flash), Mike McFarlane, James Belohovek, Karen Mutter, Ron Thornton, Mark Ellis. Photo © James Belohovek.


Ron remembered:

“Many of you are finding out that Ron Thornton passed away. The Babylon 5 ranks keep thinning. We had a rolling coaster ride of a friendship, lots of laughs, many many great dinners, a few tears and thank god, memories that no one can take away.

“I first met Ronnie in Toronto on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. He’d been brought in to run the model shop and serve as the art director, along with Dale Fay, of the miniature shoots. We became good friends on that show. He was a mad visionary and brought a special perspective to everything he worked on. After Captain Power, we worked on a couple of ‘industrials’ for Lockheed and the Air Force. Ron and I shared a love for all things aviation. You may or may not know that Ronnie’s 56 seconds of animation that was essentially a shot that could not have been done with models, was what finally pushed the executives to give Babylon 5 a shot with a pilot.

“Ron continually pushed the envelope to visually enhance the storytelling on the projects he worked on in new and exciting ways. And he was a gentle soul as well. As I think back on the years, Ron and I went from a post apocalyptic Earth to aerial combat over the Fulda Gap in Europe, to the far reaches of space and finally winding up with wooly mammoths in the last ice age. Quite a span.

“Ronnie, you were such a mad visionary and hopefully a little rubbed off on the rest of us. Godspeed ol’ friend.”

— John Copeland, producer/director


“Ron always saw the potential. He could look at a solid wall and see the door that ought to be there, and if there wasn’t a door he’d make one. He was like that with people, too. I never met anyone with a better knack for hiring unknown, untried talent and really letting people shine.”

— Steve Burg, conceptual designer


“I had the honor of being Foundation Imaging’s first employee; Ron took a chance and hired a 3D novice because he saw in me the most important characteristic for the job: enthusiasm. ‘You can teach anyone the software,’ Ron told me a few years later, ‘but you can’t teach them to love their job.’ And love it I did. I — and so many others in the business right now — wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for this gentle, genius of a man who contributed so much and asked for nothing in return.”

— Adam ‘Mojo’ Lebowitz, digital artist


It’s so heartbreaking that the visual effects community has lost a great pioneer of VFX. Ron, you had a vision, and saw the potential for desktop VFX to be used for television way back on Babylon 5. To hundreds upon hundreds (including me), you were a mentor, a teacher and a good friend. Thank you for believing in me and allowing me to start compositing on the second season of Babylon 5. You were so generous with your knowledge and shared so much of it on a bunch of kids who were learning the ropes of visual effects back then. Thanks for teaching me so many things, from how to paint in Photoshop (version 1.0!) to rendering in Lightwave, to how to shoot a proper blue/green screen, to how to make a great roux (you were such a great cook)!! As so many have said before me, we were all a family at Foundation… from the BBQs, the parties, to developing creative content for television together. Thanks for believing in all of us you mentored, thank you for encouraging so many of us to pursue our dreams and help create visual effects all around the world.

— Sherry Hitch, digital artist


Modelmaking at Thornton Design, circa 1990, featuring detail of the hydrogen miner from the ABC TV pilot "Plymouth" and the Shield Corporation pyramid from "Highlander II: The Quickening". Photos © James Belohovek.

Nurnies galore, featuring detail of the Thornton Design hydrogen miner from the ABC TV pilot “Plymouth” and the Shield Corporation pyramid from “Highlander II: The Quickening”. Photos © James Belohovek.

I never considered myself a ‘star’ model-maker, I was always learning from others. Ron gave me the job of detailing out some of the miniatures for Plymouth (the 1991 ABC TV moon colony drama). I had never done that before and told him so. He gave me a few pointers and then let me go at it. It was a fun time. Best of all, he liked what I did, God bless him.

— James Belohovek, model-maker


“I met Ron through Steve Burg, a fellow New Jersey-ite who went to Cal Arts with my wife, Kathy Zielinski. Steve was working on the Stuart Gordon film Robot Jox, taking over the design task from Ron Cobb to build robots and sets. It was while visiting Steve in a small Burbank shop space that I met Ron Thornton who was fabricating the rather large miniatures for the film. It was really cool stuff to see in person, and Ron and I hit it off immediately. I mean, come on! Building giant robots?

“Soon after, I went to Ron’s apartment where he showed me something on a small Amiga computer he had been working on. If I remember correctly, it was a TIE fighter flying through some asteroids. The thought I kept to myself was, ‘This poor guy… This is never going to look good enough for film or TV!’ Well, I guess, I was wrong about that. You think? Ron had faith.

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver and his wife Kathy celebrate Ron's birthday. Photo © Kevin Kutchaver.

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver and his wife Kathy celebrate Ron’s birthday. Photo © Kevin Kutchaver.

“Ron kept pushing the new technology, while never forgetting his love of physically building models, and I was excited to see what he was up to on a new television series called Babylon 5. He showed me some of his work, which knowing the desktop computer solution was pretty groundbreaking! He also showed me a sequence done on a Paintbox system in the edit bay of some glowing orb animation that cost a small fortune to do, and Ron asked me, ‘You could do this, couldn’t you?’ With Ron’s blessing I was compositing a national TV show at home surrounded by seven Macintosh computers. Ron had faith in thy ability to figure it out. And just in time, I did. And Ron’s invitation forever changed the path of my career.

“When Ron was pitching his Hypernauts series, he asked me if I wanted to do the music for the reel. He had heard some of the music I had done (just playing around) and I thought it would be really fun to do something out of my comfort zone like that. Once the series sold, Ron then asked me to do the music for the series. I kind of freaked out. I told him ‘I pretty much gave you everything I have in he demo.’ I was pretty sure I would run out of ideas halfway through the first episode. Ron was actually disappointed, but I thanked him for letting me do the pitch reel and explained to him I didn’t want him to hate me once I failed to deliver. The point is, he was the type of person that was willing to give a novice, ‘musician’ the keys to his series kingdom because one of his talents was he was able to persuade people to do their best work.

“I only worked at Foundation Imaging for a brief time, but I know he and his partner, Paul, had built what is now a rarity in this business: A small group of talented, enthusiastic people that were more a family than they were employees. And the number of people that were brought into the business for the first time by Ron is pretty impressive, as well.

“Ron was a person who could always see what was possible, and worked constantly to make it happen. He did it not out of any ego, or personal gain, or hidden agenda, but for the reason most of us got into VFX. It was what we do, and it was fun and Ron really loved doing it, and through osmosis, we loved working with him. He was a tireless source of ideas and enthusiasm, and he was a loyal partner in any project. I’ll miss that dialogue with him as he runs a new idea or project by you, and the infectious feeling of thinking, ‘I have to do this with him!’

“Ron Thornton was a good friend, and to everyone who knew him, a truly good person. Gifted, willing to share and, in the best way, a big kid at heart. To realize I’ll never hear him call and tell me about his next adventure is the saddest thing imaginable. To say Ron Thornton was a visionary would be an understatement. To say I really miss him is another…”

— Kevin Kutchaver, visual effects supervisor


Thanks to Tim Scannell, Tom Gleason, Steve Burg, Chuck Baker, John Copeland, Sherry Hitch, Mojo, James Belohovek, Kevin Kutchaver, Robin and Ron Cobb for contributing to this article.

Cinefex Vault #12 – Team America

"Team America" from the Cinefex Vault

Concluding our tour through the Cinefex Vault of long-lost online articles, we’re going out with a bang. Associate editor Estelle Shay took the plunge, in 2004, interviewing miniature effects supervisor Lou Zutavern about his adventures – with the late, great special effects supervisor Joe Viskocil and friends – producing Gerry-Anderson-styled marionette mayhem for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s R-rated satire, Team America: World Police.


Team Spirit – article by Estelle Shay

Team America team leaders Joe (Trey Parker) and Chris (Matt Stone) lead the charge to put the 'F' back in Freedom in Paramount Pictures' "Team America: World Police."

Team America mission leaders Joe (Trey Parker) and Chris (Matt Stone) put the ‘F’ back in ‘freedom’ in Paramount Pictures’ iconoclastic “Team America: World Police.”

Where would James Bond be without his Aston Martin? The same might be asked of the superheroes in Team America: World Police, a raunchy spy spoof by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Relying on an all-puppet cast to poke fun at everything from politics to Hollywood’s fondness for over-the-top action films, Parker and Stone called upon miniature effects artisan Lou Zutavern to oversee design and construction of a slew of tricked-out vehicles for the marionetted superheroes, armed to the teeth with terrorist-defying weapons and missiles.

Team America airborne strike force.

Team America airborne strike force.

The Team America all-star jet.

The Team America all-star jet unleashes a freedom-seeking missile.

Zutavern – a veteran of such iconic films as Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Starship Troopers, and a longtime fan of Thunderbirds, the sixties-era Gerry Anderson puppet show that inspired Parker and Stone – jumped at the chance to work on the project. “I’d spent a lot of time studying the work that Derek Meddings and his crew did back in the sixties for Thunderbirds,” said Zutavern. “I’d also worked on Super Adventure Team for MTV, which was a marionette show; so I understood the limitations of the puppets.” He was equally well-equipped to handle the directing duo’s ‘on-the-fly’ approach to filmmaking. “I originally came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, where you learn how to do things very cheaply and in-camera. I loved the old Republic Picture serials, and researched how the Lydecker Brothers did all that stuff. They had no budgets back then, and, as it turned out, neither did we.”

Model makers Phil Hartman, Jason Kaufman and Bruce MacRae working on Team Hummer.

Model makers Phil Hartman, Jason Kaufman and Bruce MacRae working on Team Hummer.

Model makers Jason Kaufman, Ken Swenson and Phil Hartmann working on Team Hummer.

Model makers Jason Kaufman, Ken Swenson and Phil Hartmann working on Team Hummer.

Hummer test-fit in jet Osprey.

Hummer test-fit into Osprey fuselage.

Osprey framework while test-fitting the nose.

Osprey framework, test-fitting the nose.

Operating out of stages in Culver City, Zutavern and a skeleton crew of ten that eventually grew to 20 began fleshing out designs for Team America‘s miniature vehicles and assorted aircraft. The script called for a Lamborghini limo that transforms into a flying craft, and a boxy, Hummer-like utility vehicle equipped with hidden missiles that serves as the team’s main means of transport. Additional vehicles included a motorcycle ridden by Gary, the team’s newest undercover recruit, military-style Osprey and Black Hawk helicopters, a sixties-style jet, and a submarine – all of them featured prominently throughout the film. “There were jet-to-jet air battles,” noted Zutavern, “terrorist jets trying to shoot down the Team America vehicles, submarines underwater, shooting ballistic missiles and torpedoes, and vehicles on land chasing each other and exploding. Pretty much, if you’ve seen it in a Michael Bay film, you’re going to see it here.”

The vehicles were built in sizes ranging from 1/3 scale to accommodate the 22-inch puppets, to 1/35th scale, making it easier to use off-the-shelf model kit parts. From the start, Zutavern found himself relying heavily on his Roger Corman roots. “Roger used to walk in and go: ‘Here’s $2,000. Make it last,” recalled Zutavern. “And that would be my budget. I remember having to do a tabletop model one time, and we had enough lumber to build the tabletop, and that was it. But I needed trees. So I went down to Pier One Imports one night and trimmed their hedges for them. They just assumed the gardeners did it. That’s kind of what we were doing here. I brought in boxes of old model parts, and asked my distributors for all the kits with parts that were missing. For the jet, I literally went down to one of the local hobby distributors and bought a bunch of kits, and started chopping them up until we got something we liked the look of.”

Street level detail.

Street level detail.

Zutavern and his crew also created interiors for scenes shot inside the various Team America transports, all designed to reflect the personas of the protagonists. “Their whole thing is once they blow up a country, it’s time for a libation,” observed Zutavern. “So everything was done as if it’s basically a lounge.” Though modelmakers often used chopped-up model molds, discarded parts and prop bin rejects to detail the interiors, one exception was the tricked-out limo interior. “It was very slick, completely upholstered, with carpeting, neon lights, two videoscreen feeds and a bar built into the door. There was a back seat and a front seat that fit together, and the front seat and the dash came off so you could stick a camera in and get a view of two puppets sitting back there having a conversation.”

Model Foreman Caius Man and Model maker Eric Cook work with cars on miniature New York streets.

Model foreman Caius Man and model maker Eric Cook position cars on the miniature New York streets.

At Zutavern’s urging the production hired special effects and pyro expert Joe Viskocil to handle the mechanics of motivating the vehicles and rigging explosions for the various action sequences. “With few exceptions, everything was pulled on cables,” noted Zutavern. “We couldn’t use radio control all that much because there was a lot of wireless communication from the marionettes and static from our lighting rigs, which would have interfered.”

Shooting the miniatures proved challenging, as constant script changes came down the pike from Parker and Stone, who kept devising more and more outrageous scenarios. “We’d have five different sets, and three guys running between them,” said Zutavern, “with three setups going, and two getting ready to shoot. I remember one instance where we had a bunch of taxicabs, and we realized we had no people in the cabs. So one of our modelmakers raced over to the craft services table and got a bag of cashews and raisins, and glued them together with the raisin as the head, and the cashew as the body. We stuck those in as drivers, and nobody could tell the difference.”

Special Effects Lead Tom Zell and Special Effects Technician John Chaldu working on Sub model-shot.

Special effects lead Tom Zell and special effects technician John Chaldu work on the sub model.

Water tank shoot.

The Team America crew employed a classic Derek Meddings underwater miniature technique, seen in many episodes of Gerry Anderson’s “Stingray,” shooting the miniature sub ‘dry’ through a water tank foreground.

Though the vehicles were built with steel chassis to better withstand abuse, Zutavern was hard-pressed to keep them in play during the no-holds-barred action scenes. “We’d have a bag of parts,” recalled Zutavern, “and just glue them together; and then the painters would spend all night doing these dazzling paint jobs. They’d be just barely dry, but they would go straight to the stage in the morning.” Once on stage, Viskocil and his crew would crash the cable-driven cars at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour, model pieces flying upon impact. “It got to the point where we kluged the models together so many times, the only thing keeping them together was the paint. People would look at them and go, ‘That looks horrible!’ And we were like, ‘Well it didn’t used to.'”

Despite such challenges, there was no shortage of modelmakers willing to work on Team America. “When they saw what we were doing and how much fun it was, even though it was really hard work,” Zutavern remarked, “everyone wanted to work on this show. Any big effects film from the last 30 years — somebody in my crew was on it. But this was more fun for them because they could get back to their roots. Modelmakers don’t usually get a chance to design things. Usually, they’re given a set of drawings and told to make it just like that. Here, they could jump in and really be creative. Of course, sometimes I’d say: ‘Yes, you can design this whole interior. But you’ve got to deliver it right after lunch!'”

Photos © 2004 Paramount Pictures; behind the scenes images courtesy of Lou Zutavern.

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.

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.