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.

VFX Q&A – Van Ling on ‘Cliffs of Freedom’

During the television broadcast of the 91st Academy Awards, viewers may have glimpsed a trailer for a sweeping historical epic, Cliffs of Freedom. The independent feature, released by Round Hill Media, boasted an impressive cast – Billy Zane, Christopher Plummer, Patti LuPone and Lance Henriksen – and glamorous co-stars, Jan Uddin as a Turkish colonel and Tania Raymonde as a feisty Greek woman, in a Zhivago-esque romance of star-crossed lovers set against a backdrop of Ottoman oppression. Equally notable – to anyone conversant with the visual effects community – was the name Van Ling, a long-time collaborator of James Cameron’s, making his theatrical feature directorial debut.

A Boy and his Power Loader. Image © Thom Carroll, Twentieth Century Fox, 1986.

A hidden ‘Easter Egg’ on the Aliens Blu-ray immortalized Van Ling’s introduction to Cameron’s world, revealing how the youthful University of Southern California film school graduate applied his fledgling filmmaker moxie to gain an impromptu audience with the Aliens filmmakers by recreating one of their sci-fi epic’s robotic props. Ling later served as Cameron’s right-hand man on projects from 1986 through 1994, before carving out his own niche with producing partner Casey Cannon at Banned From the Ranch, and then Van Ling Productions. It was Cannon who introduced Ling to Cliffs of Freedom producer Marianne Metropoulos, who was seeking assistance on her project, which required a giant leap into new filmmaking territory. “I became fascinated by this period of world history,” commented Van Ling. “In school, I learned Western European history, but it was all Victorian and Tudor periods, which took students from where they began to where we are in America today – they didn’t spend too much time teaching us about the Ottoman Empire and events in Eastern Europe. That fascinated me, and one of the things we wanted was to find themes that resonated with people today. We wanted this to be a human story, with themes that were relatable to our world today. Revolutions, hope and resilience never seem to go out of style.”

To trace Van Ling’s adventure – from USC to his directorial debut, recreating 19th century Greece, using vast reserves of moviemaking ingenuity and nearly 1,000 visual effects shots – Cinefex caught up with the filmmaker during the Cliffs of Freedom opening weekend.

CINEFEX: Was it always your ambition to become a filmmaker?

VAN LING: Going to USC Cinema School in the mid-1980s certainly encouraged my desire to make movies. That was an exciting time for visual effects films. ILM was king of the jungle, and the maturation of motion control work that was pioneered by ILM, Doug Trumbull and others was reaching its pinnacle. Around the time that I graduated, we were on the cusp of starting to use digital tools to raise the stakes in creating visual effects, and all of those influences inspired me to want to tell stories and work on amazing films.

CINEFEX: USC has a great mentor program. Who were your influences there?

VAN LING: Thomas Stanford, the film editor on West Side Story, taught an editing class and I learned a lot from him. Producer Leon Roth taught ‘The Art and Industry of the Film,’ where different filmmakers would come in every week of the ten-week semester – the first week you would see a current film, and then every subsequent week they’d bring in a department head from that film, one week the director, the next week the cinematographer, and then production designer and the composer would come in. In my semester, we had Back to the Future, which was fantastic. And along those lines, after I graduated, we made Terminator 2 and I came back and coordinated getting a lot of the people from T2 to come in and do that same class. I got to pay it forward.

CINEFEX: Was that how you met James Cameron?

Van Ling directs Christopher Plummer as Thanasi, advisor to a Turkish colonel caught between the whims of a capricious Sultan and an enigmatic rebel leader in “Cliffs of Freedom”.

VAN LING: Well, I first learned about James Cameron when he came to USC in 1984 to screen The Terminator for us in a class where upcoming films were screened for students and the filmmakers come to do a Q&A – this wasn’t the same as the full semester program, but every week they’d screen an upcoming film, and they usually had a producer or an actor or director come in for a Q&A in the big Norris Theater. I loved The Terminator, and I became fascinated by Jim’s stories about guerrilla filmmaking, and working for Roger Corman. I thought to myself, wow, this is an ingenious filmmaker, who’s doing dynamic filmmaking and great storytelling, but he’s doing it as a science fiction genre geek. I would love to work for this guy. Jim and Terry Gilliam and some other folks like that were the ones I was really looking at. But that was a pipe dream at that time, way out of my league, so I focused on my studies and looked forward to Jim’s next film, which of course was Aliens, which came out the year I graduated.

CINEFEX: Cinefex readers may be familiar with your recreation of the P-5000 Power Loader from Aliens, but give us the short version.

VAN LING: The summer I graduated from USC, I did two weeks as a set P.A. on reshoots for Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, and I worked as a lowly summer intern in the marketing department at Showscan. While I was doing all those things, I would call the Fox production offices of James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, his producer, asking about internships every week. They’d always reply, ‘Nothing this week, but call back next week’ – that was already a step above what anybody else would say. And then Aliens opened, I went to see it twice on opening day, and one of my roommates from college, Ed Marsh, made a gentlemen’s bet with me regarding my fascination with the Power Loader from the film, the big yellow walking forklift. He dared me to build a model of it in time for his dorm’s upcoming Halloween party.

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I showed up at the party with a seven-foot-tall mobile costume, with lights, motorized claws and stilts that I cobbled together in my parents’ garage. And I won that bet. More importantly, earlier in the day, I had called Jim and Gale’s office on the Fox lot one more time, and told them, ‘Hey, I made a Power Loader.’ To my surprise, they said, ‘Bring it on down, we’ll leave you a studio gate pass, we gotta see this.’ I was floored. I rented a pick-up truck, and got down there late in the afternoon. I missed seeing Jim, but Gale came out and said, ‘This is the best walking resume I’ve ever seen.’ And then, she loaned me Sigourney Weaver’s costume and Reeboks for the night to make my costume complete. It’s the kind of story that sounds made up, but it’s completely true, and I don’t think it’ll ever happen again.

CINEFEX: So, is it true – that landed you a job with Jim?

VAN LING: Well, I didn’t build that project with the intent of trying to get a job. I did it because just out of the love of it, and just because I’m a geek. I think it was that sincerity and the love that went into it that showed. My friends who helped me on the project kept telling me, ‘Hey, you should show this to James Cameron!’ But after that experience, meeting Gale, Jim ended up coming down to my parents’ house to meet me. He arrived while I was working on a friend’s student film, building a set out of foam core. And he asked me, ‘Hey, do you know how to do this kind of cut?’ He got down on the floor and started showing me how to cut foam core in a way that you can create rounded edges. And, coincidentally, I’d just gotten my first Macintosh that day, Jim saw that and said, ‘What kind of computer do you think I should get?’ We really hit it off, and that’s when he hired me to be his researcher and technical assistant on The Abyss. I became his computer consultant, his technical assistant and his researcher, and because he knew I was interested in visual effects, I ended up working for Jim for the next eight years.

CINEFEX: What did you learn at Lightstorm that led you to become a filmmaker?

Anna Christina (Tania Raymonde), a young Greek woman, witnesses events that inspire her to become a freedom fighter against Ottoman invaders. Production plate.

Entity FX tracked the Steadicam plate, tracking backward with Raymonde, rotoscoped the performer and composited layers of fog passes, augmenting in-camera fog effects.

VAN LING: I learned so much about every aspect of filmmaking because I was there on almost every meeting on every project. Jim used to call me his ‘extra RAM,’ his random access memory. It was a great opportunity and responsibility. At one point, as digital technology was ramping up, Jim gave me some advice. He said, ‘You have to decide where you want to be. If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to spend more time on sets, learning the rhythms and how all that process works. But if you want to focus on visual effects, you need to spend more time working directly on a computer.’ It was a really tough decision and I thought, ‘What would he do with this opportunity?’

CINEFEX: Is that how you branched out in work with Casey Cannon?

VAN LING: Well, I had met and started working with Casey on T2. She was a friend of Mark Dippé at ILM, he introduced us, and she brought me in to work on some concert videos she was working on. I then brought her in to work with me on some of my Lightstorm projects, like the laserdisc special editions of The Abyss and T2. When Casey started her own computer graphics boutique, Banned From The Ranch Entertainment, I joined as creative director. We were designing and running interactive screen graphics on set for movies like CongoTwister, The Relic, Dante’s Peak, Starship Troopers. This was before the days when most computer screen graphics in movies were comped in after the fact. Prior to that, all the computer screens you saw in movies were video resolution, they weren’t real computers, they all looked like video graphics on standard definition 640×400 TV monitors. We started using real computers, creating computer graphics and animating. We then added visual effects work to our plate, and moved toward more creative story work. For Deep Rising, I designed a graphic sequence to sell the idea that a character comes in and hacks this cruise ship – I storyboarded it all out, we shot the insert shoot, and that solidified my interest in becoming a director.

CINEFEX: How did Casey come to present Cliffs of Freedom to you?

Sultan Mahmud II hosts an audience in the gardens of Hagia Sophia, overlooking the Imperial Mosque, 1808. Agrapha Productions created the palace park environment with background mosque, ornate tent exterior and bluescreen crowd elements.

New Mexico production plate, jib down to reveal tent, exposed for tent interior.

VAN LING: Casey was helping the financier, Marianne Metropoulos, put together her passion project story about her Greek heritage – this fictional story that takes place during Greek history. Casey thought it would be beneficial for me, although I wasn’t thinking about directing. She brought it to me to help figure out some story and script issues, back in 2011. They had a decent script, it wasn’t quite where they wanted it, Marianne wanted it to be more of a love story that happened to be set in this historical context. I brainstormed how to get from point A to point B in her story, and Casey suggested, ‘Why don’t you write that up?’ So, what started as story notes became beat-sheets, which became scene descriptions and dialogue suggestions and, by 2014, I had done a complete page-one rewrite and I started to get invested in the storytelling aspects.

CINEFEX: What threw the switch that turned this into your feature film directorial debut?

VAN LING: I backed into it. We went through a couple of director candidates, while I was just a writer. In fact, as I was writing a script, I was still working on designing Blu-ray menus for all the Hunger Games films and working on Disney Imagineering projects for EPCOT and Disney cruise ships. I was a support player. In 2014, I went with them to Morocco on a two-week scout as a writer, supporting one of their director candidates. But it was really hard to get anyone – studios or cast – interested in a movie that took place in this period. Marianne shelved the project for a year or two and, in the end, I ended up being the last man standing because I knew the script better than anyone.

Janissary Lieutenant Nemid (Morse Bicknell) consults with Captain Sunal (Raza Jeffrey) on the ramparts of the Sultan’s palace. Otto Studios added 3D palace, digimatte buildings, with weathering and blood stains, and birds.

Production plate, crane move up to actors on palace wall. New Mexico sky provides natural bluescreen.

While the film was shelved, Marianne commissioned me to write a TV series proposal about this same historical period. I amortized all my research into a completely new story, The Hellenes. To sell a TV series, you not only have to have a proposal with episode synopses, character details, and a look-book of research, we thought why not make a ‘sizzle reel’? That’s what people do these days for these presentations. So, I scripted 26 pages of shots and dialogue scenes, and directed them while Casey produced this teaser trailer. We brought over some actors from London, a few of whom overlapped into the film – Jan Uddin, who plays our male lead, Tariq, played our Sultan in the sizzle reel. We spent two days in the suburbs of Pasadena at a house that had an amazing Turkish room, and two more days at a cemetery in Compton, which happened to have this Middle Eastern architecture. We used that to double for Istanbul.

As I was editing that footage into a montage, Marianne and her husband Dean saw what I was putting together and they got super excited. They decided to do the feature, and Casey let me know they wanted me to direct. I was surprised because it never occurred to me to put myself in the running. The sizzle reel became the proof of concept, as well as my audition.

CINEFEX: Did you feel up to it?

VAN LING: I felt up to it. Any trepidation that I felt was due to the schedule that they proposed. They knew they didn’t want to shoot in Europe – this was not too long after a bunch of tourists in Tunisia were killed by extremists, and so any thought of going to Morocco, or similar, was unattractive. But this was August 2016, and they wanted to have principal photography done by the end of the year.

CINEFEX: Where did you find your locations?

A Turkish patrol approaches the gates of the walled city of Tripolitsa, a center of Ottoman occupation on the Greek Peloponnese Peninsula. Alchemy 24 tracked and created city wall extensions, and added wagons, tents, and structures within wall.

Partial set piece, shot from an aerial drone camera descending over the New Mexico location.

VAN LING: We looked at Connecticut and Colorado, but we knew by the year’s end it was going to get really cold there, so we looked at Texas, we scouted the Southwest and we found that New Mexico had the best financial incentives. We chose Santa Fe and, to shoot principal within a short period of time, we ended up with only six weeks of prep. To prepare for nine weeks of principal photography in the last quarter of the year, from Fall into Winter, for a story that took place mostly in Autumn and Spring, we had to hit the ground running. So, we did have some trepidation, but with all of our visual effects background, we knew it was possible.

CINEFEX: How did you use your visual effects knowledge to plan the shoot?

VAN LING: We storyboarded a number of action sequences and key moments. But, even as a visual effects person, my main instinct was to try to do this all live, if possible, without relying on visual effects. For our opening scene, I envisioned a flashback and I wanted to play the whole sequence as if it had been shot in a dust storm, because I wanted it to have a foggy, hazy feeling. I had that very specific idea, and the first thing I learned was we had zero control over weather. When we tried to shoot fog effects in-camera, the wind would blow the fog away, and if we re-set and moved our fog effects upwind, the wind changed direction. Those are the kind of things you run into and those are the kind of times that we always knew we had visual effects in our hip pocket.

CINEFEX: The opening sequence is impressive, with fighting played in slow motion silhouette against the haze – how did you pull that off?

A Greek villager, Christina Kanelos (Raquel Cassidy), cradles her child amid the chaos of a Turkish attack. Entity FX layered characters into layers of mist for the stylized opening sequence.

Production plate bluescreen element of Raquel Cassidy, shot at 48 frames per second.

VAN LING: Once we realized there was no way we were going to be able to actually shoot it in smoke, I designed the whole sequence as something that we shoot on greenscreen. We shot all the different elements, separated them and then multi-planed them together into a cohesive scene. Mat Beck and his team at EntityFX did that opening sequence in the fog. They helped us put all that together and then they also came in to do a bunch of fight shots and battle sequences.

CINEFEX: Tell us how you shot your clifftop scenes.

Additional greenscreen elements of Greek villagers, shot as locked-off elements for the opening scene.

VAN LING: We found some real cliffs where we shot in New Mexico. Nothing substitutes being able to shift the camera on a slight dolly with a character standing on the edge of the cliff and seeing the parallax shift that tells you, wow, you are on a cliff. That meant we had to do some cable removals, for safety, so we storyboarded all of those scenes to figure out the logistics and camera angles and again, minimizing the amount of visual effects that we needed to do.

CINEFEX: How did you drop the Ottoman Empire behind your action?

VAN LING: We knew we would need visual effects for a couple of establishing shots, but we built sets for most everything else. Our production designer Charlie Campbell built an Ottoman Palace, a hallway and a courtyard that she could swapped out and redress as different parts of the palace. Apart from our location scenes, up in the hills and the rocks representing the Greek countryside, for our main Greek village, Charlie and her team redressed an abandoned high school in the middle of downtown Santa Fe. That’s something you don’t see every day! We had our Ottoman courtyard set, four walls, little hallways and arches and doors and a little market area outside of it, and we built all of that on a baseball field in this high school. We built the village square for the Greek village on the basketball court and we dressed the building façades as if they were stone Greek buildings, rather than modern school buildings. Charlie was amazing. She came on board for our sizzle reel, and she was ingenious in finding ways to make things work. We worked really well together, knowing what she could accomplish in practical builds and what visual effects could add to that.

Turkish Colonel Tariq (Jan Uddin) and his Greek tutor Thanasi view Ottoman Empire troops on the eve of an attack on the rebel hordes. Agrapha Productions added Turkish troops, wagons, horses and dust effects.

Production plate, craning above performers atop 30-foot-tall set-piece of the Ottoman city gate, shot on location in New Mexico. Troop extras, with terrain tracking markers, in background.

CINEFEX: Did you do any soundstage work?

VAN LING: If you consider the high school gym, where we erected some greenscreen as a soundstage, yeah, we did some stage work. It was really interesting guerrilla filmmaking, yet bigger than it probably should have been.

CINEFEX: What stylistic approach did you use to convey the scale of your battle scenes – the Ottoman army rallying against the rebels – on a budget?

VAN LING: We studied battle scenes from all sorts of previous movies, including a number of Greek films about some of these historical incidents, and we cherry-picked what felt best for our particular story. The goal was to shoot action with long lenses and keep the battle going with a lot of motion in the background, but always focusing on our characters. Cory Geryak, our director of photography, had other ideas. I storyboarded everything out but Cory had this theory, which I know a couple of DPs ascribe to, which is to backlight every shot. When I questioned lighting continuity, Cory explained the continuity was that everything looked great – which was a very interesting way to approach it! He had previously been gaffer for cinematographers Phedon Papamichael and Wally Pfister, so he was experienced in that regard, but it was his first time as a DP, just as it was my first time as a director. He learned from what he learned and I brought what I learned, and so it was an interesting back-and-forth.

CINEFEX: Did Jim Cameron offer any advice on methods for dealing with this style of guerrilla filmmaking?

Christina and her rebels observe the Ottoman encampment. Otto Studios added 3D digimatte Turkish camp and valley, with atmospheric haze.

Production plate, camera craning above performers, shot on hilltop overlook with bluescreen backdrop.

VAN LING: When I started getting ready to go into production, I did write to Jim, because he was one of my sponsors to get into the DGA for this film. I told him about my trepidations, and he told me how he got into fistfights with his first producer, he got fired off Piranha 2, and they locked him out of the editing room. His advice was roll with it. That was probably one of the strongest encouragements I had.

CINEFEX: Did the Van Ling directing style become pugilistic?

The Ottoman camp. Otto Studios added 3D digimatte Turkish camp extension, mountains, forest, ground dirt, haze, smoke and bluescreen troop elements.

New Mexico production plate, craning up above foreground props and performers, with bluescreen backing.

VAN LING: That’s not really my style, but I had to find the strength to just keep going through it. I have to say, in 30 years of being in the business, it was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever been on. Part of that was because, as a beginner, you come into a show and everybody thinks they need to tell you how their department works – or how they want it to work for them! This was another thing I learned from Jim: learn how to do everything, because that knowledge empowers you to call people on their bullshit.

CINEFEX: How did you land in Wellington, New Zealand, for your postproduction?

VAN LING: We chose Wellington not because of any connection with Lightstorm, or Jim. It came from Casey looking around to try and find ways to save money. There was a great tax incentive. The real draw for me was the fact that I really respected what the folks in Peter Jackson’s camp were able to do. They have the equivalent of their own Skywalker Ranch down there, at Park Road Post. It’s a wonderful place, with a nice attitude that reminded me of my days at Skywalker, and I enjoyed working there. Our sound designer was Dave Whitehead, whom I had worked with on a DTS trailer that I had designed ten years earlier, and our sound mixer was Michael Hedges, who had won the Academy Award for some of Jackson’s King Kong and The Return of the King. They’re all really laid back, and super talented.

CINEFEX: From the credits, it looks like you had a large visual effects team. In addition to Park Road Post and Entity FX, there were many other studios – Otto Studios, Umedia VFX, Fin Design & Effects, SlateVFX, BFX ImageWorks, Cause+FX Visual Effects, Barraca Post, Rodeo FX and La Posta – as well as some familiar friends, Agrapha Productions, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. and Daren Dochterman.

Greek rebels ambush an Ottoman caravan and detonate a wagon full of gunpowder and ammunition. Agrapha Productions and Plural blended on-set pyrotechnic effects and stunt elements with digital dirt and stock fire and smoke elements.

New Mexico production plate with stunt performers portraying cable-pull effect with dust and dirt explosion.

VAN LING: We went in planning 200 to 300 effects shots. That included the big establishing shots of Istanbul and Tripolitsa, matte painting backgrounds, greenscreen work for the actors on the cliffs, as well as some period setting anachronism removals. But we didn’t plan for the fact that we were shooting into winter, so we also had snow removal, rain removal, cold breath removal, adding digital green leaves onto trees because they were all bare. We also had some financier whims, people asking for aesthetic changes to do with costumes – those required a lot of roto, and color changes. There were also wire removals and other clean-up work.

CINEFEX: Who did your matte paintings?

VAN LING: Rodeo FX worked on some of our larger cityscapes, and they came in as an assist to the smaller vendor that they acquired, Alchemy 24 in Montreal, who did some amazing work for us. Daren Dochterman, who is another friend from my days at USC Cinema School, did half a dozen smaller digimatte paintings – the wide village meadow and Greek valley establishing view when Christina leaves to join the rebels – as well as interactive lighting shots during the caravan explosion. We also had some challenging work in our clifftop scenes in the third act that was done at SlateVFX in Australia, augmented by Juan Robertson of Plural in New Zealand, to get the final look I wanted.

CINEFEX: What did ADI do for you? You have some rather tragic deaths among the romance and your battle scenes.

Director Van Ling oversees a vertiginous clifftop scene making use of safety rigging, designed for digital rig removal, to allow precarious placements of performers at the precipice.

In the battle of Valtetsi, Turks aim a cannon at Christina and her cousin Demetri (Jamie Ward) on a nearby cliff. The production shot separate elements of foreground cannon action, against bluescreen, mid-ground battle and a background cliff. Plural composited the three layers, providing geographic relation between the ground level action and clifftop finale.

Turkish cannon fire shatters a cliff, separating Christina from her cousin. SlateVFX augmented an aerial drone shot of natural crevice in a New Mexico cliff location, adding a 3D digimatte cliff, digi-double characters, falling rock and dust elements. Plural added smaller boulders and tumbling rocks.

VAN LING: Tom and Alec at ADI were kind enough to create the prosthetics for our hero gruesome throat-slitting scenes. They are old friends from the Stan Winston days – along with the team at Legacy Effects – who worked on Aliens and T2. I love those guys and I am always trying to advocate for the use of real, on-set, practical prosthetics makeup and animatronics, augmented with digital touchup, for better realism and actor connection.

CINEFEX: How was it acting as your own visual effects supervisor?

VAN LING: That was the biggest thing that was a challenge for me. I went in thinking, yeah, I can do this – but the visual effects became a lot bigger than we expected. It was an eye-opening experience. Being part of a team is nothing compared to having to lead the team. It’s a huge responsibility to have the vision and to get everyone rowing in the same direction. I learned so much, through mistakes, dumb luck, and once in a while being validated in my approach. I have even more respect now for what a director does. It is not for the faint of heart. We went into production so fast, I was still wrapping up some of my Disney work, so there was a period during principal where I would go to set at 6:00 a.m., we’d shoot all day, I’d get to my hotel room at midnight, I would then spend the next two hours doing shot lists for the next day, and then at around 2:00 a.m., I’d work another two or three hours on the Disney projects, and then get a couple hours of sleep and then go back out to set. Being a visual effects supervisor, if you’re doing it right, is a full-time job. And being a director, obviously, is a full-time job. I would not recommend doing both. You’ll notice, on Jim’s films, he still creatively supervises everything, but he is no longer his own visual effects supervisor because the duties that go with that are so great.

CINEFEX: What’s next for you, Van?

VAN LING: Well, I’ve been on this project for nearly three years – more than twice that, if you count our work before production – so, first of all, rest is on the agenda. But, I do have stories of my own that I’ve been developing for a while, and they are more in my genre wheelhouse. I have a lot of writing to do.

‘Cliffs of Freedom’ imagery © Aegean EntertainmentThanks to Van Ling, Casey Cannon, Elizabeth Denekamp, Brenna Nimkoff, Marilyn Lopez, Daniel Chartock, TAG Media Group, Allison Jackson.

The Makeups of ‘First Man’

The Makeups of First Man - Cinefex Q&AThe Cinefex story on First Man – Universal Pictures’ dramatization of the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong – unearthed fascinating details about the production, which resulted in a 9,000-word story featured in our October issue. Director Damien Chazelle’s film told the story of the first man on the moon in a documentary style that required naturalistic approaches to all aspects of production – from production design, to cinematography, costume design, special effects, visual effects and makeup.

The challenge for Ryan Gosling, Chazelle’s leading man from La La Land, was to step into the title role playing Armstrong as a clean-cut aviator and a very private family man who embodied small town Ohio values in a turbulent counterculture era.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (L) oversees photography of the opening sequence of Universal Pictures’ “First Man,” where National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) pilots an X-15 rocket plane to an historic altitude.

Makeup department head Donald Mowat, who previously collaborated with Gosling on Blade Runner 2049, attended Armstrong’s physical appearance with minimal technical artifice. “I’ve found that unless the makeup screams ‘prosthetic,’ no one is that interested,” asserted Mowat. “And yet, this was one of the hardest films I’ve worked on.”

“The challenge was that everyone knew our leading man was Ryan Gosling. There was only so much we could do to make him resemble Neil. However, the difference between how Ryan looks in Blade Runner to First Man was quite huge, even though it was all ‘just makeup.’ Neil was very boyish. That quality was something I stumbled on by accident while watching one of Ken Burns’ documentaries about the 1960s. That was where I did most of my research, especially for the female characters. Damien wanted to represent real-life 1960s, not Austin Powers sixties. Working with Ryan, we wanted to capture Neil Armstrong’s look that was typical of that period – short-sleeved shirts, short hair, very groomed, more ‘50s than ‘60s-looking. In all the reference, Neil had this very tight, short hair-cut and he always seemed clean as a whistle.”

During astronaut training, Armstrong’s piloting skills are put to the test on board a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.

For space mission scenes, costume designer Mary Zophres obtained period re-creations of NASA flight suits from Chris Gilman’s Global Effects, and production designer Nathan Crowley furnished authentic reproductions of cockpits and space capsules. The claustrophobia of the eight-day Apollo 11 moon mission put demands on cast and crew. “We had to play with levels of stubble and fatigue. That was quite a test, maintaining continuity over weeks of filming, working in very tight quarters, where accessibility into the set was difficult. I was pre-setting, and then I had the actors spray themselves. They worked so hard in that set for five or six hours without a break.”

Armstrong guides NASA’s Gemini VIII space capsule into a docking maneuver with an orbital target vehicle.

Makeups included a moustache application for Apollo 11 command service module pilot Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), and a custom hair pieces for Gosling that wig maker Peter Owen supplied to cater to the eight-year story arc, while Marie Larkin served as hair department lead for broad range of characters. “It did feel like two distinct films, with the NASA missions and the stories of the families, wives and children. For Neil’s wife, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy), we were very conscious that many of the astronaut’s wives seemed to represent a particular sort of middle class Americana – they all resembled girl’s Phys Ed teachers. The emotional level of the film, together with the period setting and the conservative nature of the characters was quite tricky to get right. The men were all clean-shaven, the occasional older man had a thin David-Niven-style moustache. But the younger men back then were squeaky clean, like choirboys, which was not the easiest thing to recreate as we took the characters into their 30s.”

July 16, 1969, Armstrong joins Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (Corey Stoll) on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

The film spanned three U.S. presidencies, but avoided prosthetic likeness makeups. “I found reference pictures of all the characters represented in the film and Damien went through each one, including extras and day-players. He found look-a-likes for well-known astronauts, such as John Glenn. But we didn’t want to create elaborate makeups, and we accepted the fact that most people would not remember what the astronauts looked like.” A single character received prosthetic assistance, for astronaut Pete Conrad (Ethan Embry). “Conrad had a distinctive look, with a great gap between his front teeth. We did a dental impression for Ethan Embry – we called him, ‘Teethan.’ Other than that, we gave Ryan a little hairpiece to indicate the passage of time, and he captured the essence of Armstrong.”

First Man opened October 12. For the complete story on the production, special effects, miniatures and visual effects of the film, visit Cinefex 161.

Imagery © Universal Pictures. Special thanks to Donald Mowat, Damion Stene and Bette Einbinder.

Cinefex Vault #15 – Harry Potter 3

Cinefex Vault - "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

Here’s an episode that we could not quite fit into our Cinefex 99 story on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga, directed with great panache by Alfonso Cuarón. This amusing sequence – where Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Bill George shared duties with Potter series visual effects supervisor Tim Burke, and Nick Dudman’s creature effects team – deals with a mythological creature that allows students to confront their darkest fears. Now unleashed again, for your online reading pleasure, from the Cinefex Vault.


Building a Better Boggart – article by Joe Fordham

Director Alfonso Cuarón on the set of ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,’ with actors Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe.

Chocolate frogs, flying broomsticks, haunted castles and a bestiary of strange creatures fill the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels chronicling the education of fledgling wizard Harry Potter. Director Alfonso Cuarón stirred the cauldron of ingredients for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in the movie franchise, bringing new flair to magical goings-on in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, producing a darker tale where teenage Harry Potter meets mysterious characters and spectral apparitions seemingly intent on his demise.

During one such sequence, Hogwarts’ Professor of the Dark Arts Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) invites Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and other students to confront their fears embodied inside an ornate wooden wardrobe containing a ‘Boggart.’ Like many of Rowling’s creations, the Boggart was drawn from mythological reference – in this case, an obscure and mischievous spirit from Northern English folklore – and required thoughtful interpretation to define its appearance on-screen.

ILM visual effects supervisor Bill George, production visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, and ILM animation supervisor David Andrews.

“The Boggart was a constantly changing chameleon,” commented visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who divided duties on the production with visual effects supervisor Tim Burke. “The idea was that it did not exist in any other form other than the creature it turned into, and it took the form of whatever its victim feared most. We decided it should be like scanning channels on a radio. If you scan radio channels in England, between BBC Radio Four and Radio One you might pass through other channels, passing Radio One then coming back and missing it a couple of times. The Boggart was like that – constantly trying to figure out what it was supposed to be.”

In the classroom scene, Lupin encourages pupils to take turns opening the haunted wardrobe, revealing and then suppressing their personal Boggart demons. Industrial Light & Magic – one of five main visual effects vendors on the film — generated the Boggart as a swirling, airborne apparition. “Alfonso didn’t want to simply see one creature morphing into another,” stated ILM supervisor Bill George. “He wanted a shapeless creature, like a vortex. Tim and Roger found reference of a very high-tech CG simulation of a nasty, industrial, geometric shape that was buzzing, vibrating and spinning. They sent that to us and said, ‘It should be something like this, but organic.'”

The Boggart takes the form of a giant serpent.

To create the nexus of the effect, ILM lead CG modeler Michael Koperwas designed a series of glasslike digital shapes – spheres, ovoids, rods and interlocking orange-segments – which lead animator Paul Kavanagh articulated to describe motion like shifting tumblers in a combination lock. “It was an abstract art style of animation,” said ILM animation supervisor David Andrews. “We made the pieces pop and flip and spin, and applied them to this completely bizzare creature. Alfonso wanted it to behave like a visual representation of a radio tuner sound, picking up these different nightmares. We tried to give it a very frenetic quality to match that weird sound, and used the animation principle of a bouncing ball – it anticipated the action by a couple of frames and then popped and changed shape, like a frog squishing down and then hopping.”

The Boggart serpent is transformed into a huge jack-in-the-box.

The giant jack-in-the-box was built as a full-size animatronic by Nick Dudman’s team.

The Boggart shifts from one child’s nightmare to another.

The spinning, shifting pieces drove transformations between Boggart forms, culled from a library of live-action images representing elements on the Boggart nightmare scale. “Alfonso asked us to come up with 100 different scary things that we thought would make interesting images,” related Guyett. “He was very good at tapping into the kinds of things kids are afraid of – things within their own set of experiences, like the classic fear of going to the dentist. But we also tried to put an angle on it because these were Hogwarts kids, not in the normal world.” The production allocated a Boggart shooting unit to film a wild variety of childhood fears – including a dentist, a crocodile, a shark’s mouth, lunging knives and a flamethrower. Censorship concerns of placing children in peril whittled imagery to a handful of horror archetypes – a gecko, raven, witch and snake – which ILM mapped and revealed subliminally in the shifting CG object.

The first Boggart apparition involved the appearance of Hogwarts Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who terrifies Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) before acquiring women’s apparel. “We used a small motion control rig where we hand-operated and recorded the move,” related Guyett. “We filmed Alan Rickman stepping out of the wardrobe in his professor robes and recorded the move. We then dressed Alan as a woman and played back the selected take. Alan is such an incredibly skilled actor, he matched his movements exactly; then, ILM did a fantastic job of matching Snape in his robes to Snape in the dress, through what looked like a handheld camera move.”

The Boggart as Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

Snape’s garments undergo a drastic transformation.

ILM next modeled and animated a giant spider, reminiscent of the monstrous Aragog from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to terrify Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) before the young wizard succeeds in conjuring rollerskates onto the spider’s feet, causing the giant arachnid to skitter and skate. The third candidate (Sitara Shah) transforms a giant lunging snake — another ILM animated character — into a giant jack-in-the-box, constructed as a full-scale animatronic by creature effects designer Nick Dudman.

The sequence then concludes with Harry Potter facing his own demon — a towering spectral form representing one of the robed prison guards from Azkaban wizard prison. One of the most nightmarish creatures in the film, the form was generated digitally by ILM. “The Boggart started out as a longer sequence than it appears in the movie,” stated Guyett. “But it was a cute idea, and short and sharp is probably the way it should be.”

Harry Potter repels a faux dementor.

For more on the effects from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, visit Cinefex 99.

Photos copyright © 2004 Warner Bros.

Cinefex Vault #14 – Troy

Cinefex Vault - "Troy"

This little story, originally published as a Cinefex Weekly Update newsletter feature in May 2004, was one of a few little satellite pieces that came adrift from our larger magazine stories. In this case, our story Bronze Age Ballistics in Cinefex 98 – which covered the making of Wolfgang Petersen’s Hellenic epic Troy – was simply too chockablock with rampaging armies, crashing weaponry and collapsing cities to accommodate a fascinating aspect of the film. While on my interview trail, I had been astonished to hear about the creation of the full-scale Ancient Grecian battleships, built by marine coordinator Mike Turk and his nearly-300-year-old family business in London. So, rather than paraphrase Mike’s remarkable stories into a passing paragraph, I saved his story for this fascinating capsule, which we are pleased to undock here from the Cinefex Vault.


Cruel Sea – article by Joe Fordham

One of two full-scale warships built for Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2004 historical drama, Troy. Shipbuilders R.J. Turk and Sons, led by marine coordinator Mike Turk, built the seaworthy vessels from designs based on historical reference.

3,197 years ago, a beautiful woman absconded with a youthful prince from a neighboring city and inspired her jealous husband to mount a mission to retrieve her, gathering a fleet that – legend has it – numbered 1,000 ships. Now the subject of Warner Bros.’ Troy – adapted from classical texts by screenwriter David Benioff and directed by Wolfgang Petersen – the story exploded onto theater screens with a stellar cast, vast scenes of war and some of the largest sets ever constructed on a feature film location.

Assisted by physical effects, makeup effects and visual effects from four London effects studios, production designer Nigel Phelps resurrected the ancient city of Troy and launched the Greek attack almost entirely on location in Malta and Mexico. “Wolfgang wanted to make the film look as real as possible,” stated visual effects supervisor Nick Davis. “He wanted to show the sheer scale of battles and the massive Greek armada, but he wanted the camera right in there with his stars, really on the ocean.”

Art director Cliff Robertson initiated warship design by drafting conceptual renderings for two full-scale seaworthy vessels, extrapolated from historical reference. “Both ships were ‘monoreme’ designs,” related marine coordinator Mike Turk. “Unlike a bireme or a trireme, which had two and three decks of oars, monoremes had a single bank. It was the oldest and simplest style of vessel, which helped keep labor costs down for rowing; but they had to look enormous, very high-sided and menacing.”

Turk’s family business, R.J. Turk and Sons – based in Kingston upon Thames, near London – has been building ships since 1710, during the reign of Queen Anne, and has supplied boats and ships for film and television dating back to MGM’s A Yank At Oxford in 1938. Turk drew upon his maritime lineage for Troy, referencing the 1987 reconstruction of Olympias – an Athenian Trireme of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. – led by John Morrison, former President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. “I knew Professor Morrison,” said Turk, “but we only used his research on the oars. In fact, because we were working from Cliff’s drawings, we worked backwards, figuring out what lengths our oars needed to be to reach the water – doing everything arse-about-face!”

Turk’s naval architect, John Heath, devised working drawings from the designs. An oar specialist then built 19-foot-long oars out of spruce, and Turk’s team built masts and spars at his boatyard in Kingston. The main structural build took place at Cassar Dockyard, close to the main filming location in Malta, where steel fabricator Norrie Henderson lead construction of the hulls – one measuring 120 feet, the other 140 feet. “We didn’t try to build the hulls traditionally in timber,” Turk said, “because we only had four months to build them.” Steel hulls helped the ships comply with maritime safety standards. “We built them to the same standards as passenger ships that cross the English Channel. They had no cabins or sleeping accommodations and, in fact, no toilets; but otherwise they complied to day-sailing regulations for 100 people.”

The art department devised six liveries for the ships depicting different ornamentations for tribes of the allied Greek forces. Turk’s team created sails using flax, an authentic material to the period, and designed custom rigging. “We had no historical detail whatsoever about rigging,” Turk explained, “so we used our best means of guessing. But they sailed all right, so we guessed correctly!” Sailing was accomplished with combinations of oars and wind power, assisted by a pair of diesel engines mounted aft, beneath the waterline, in line with twin rudders. Helmsmen used engines to position warships in shots and bring the 70-ton vessels up to speed.

Bringing manpower up to speed proved a bigger hurdle. “We only had six days of training,” related Turk. “I brought out six Watermen from England, who were expert rowers – tug skippers and passenger boat masters from the London River, and winners of Doggetts, the oldest rowing race in the world – and they trained our local oarsmen, who were made up of waiters, out-of-work cooks, chefs and other colorful characters.” Despite the ragtag crew, warships performed impressive feats of seamanship. “For one shot, they wanted the camera to hang out over the water, shooting under the bow, then rising up and descending over the stern. We did that on the Mall, outside Valletta harbor, running the ship by the camera within five feet of the sea wall, with ocean liners and ships sailing by as we came out. We got up to about 14 knots – that was bloody fast.”

Warships roamed up and down the Maltese coast, shooting ten days of first unit with principal performers, and three weeks with second unit, accompanied by an armada of 25 ancillary ships coordinated by Turk. Support ships doubled as camera craft, two passenger ferries served as lunch and toilet facilities, while a flotilla of safety boats, police and security trafficked the area. Turk’s team also constructed a half-boat launch to represent Spartan King Agamemnon’s barge and smaller period vessels similar to Arab fishing boats.

At the end of the Malta shoot, warships were dry-docked, then the art department recycled sails, masts and rigging in Mexico, constructing beached versions of the ships using molds taken from the hulls. With digital enhancement by Framestore, and building on years of maritime history, the ships provided dramatic underpinning to an epic adventure. “A Turk built a warship in defense of the realm to the south of the Tower of London in 1295,” Turk remarked, “so we have been building warships for some time! It was quite dramatic stuff. I hope it comes across on film.”

For the complete story on the effects of Troy – featuring interviews with Nick Davis, The MPC, Framestore, physical effects supervisor Joss Williams, makeup effects supervisor Daniel Parker and more – look for Cinefex 98.

Photos copyright © 2004 by Warner Bros., behind the scenes reference shots courtesy Framestore.

Cinefex Vault #13 – 50 First Dates

Cinefex Vault - "50 First Dates"

While it is a popular maxim that ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard,’ visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal has had her share of films containing both. Death and destruction have included Marvel’s Agent Carter television series, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and The Hunger Games; comedies have included the first Sex and the City feature, Christmas with the Kranks, and the Adam Sandler vehicles Big Daddy and 50 First Dates. Unlocked here from the Cinefex Vault is a story on the latter 2004 Sandler film, with Sheena’s hair-raising tales of Hawaiian icebergs, jiggling pectorals and an amorous walrus.


Invisible Woman – article by Estelle Shay

On location in Hawaii for the Adam Sandler comedy, 50 First Dates, Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal confers with visual effects director of photography Chris Nibley during setup for a 260-degree panoramic shot captured with four overlapping Vistavision cameras.

Specializing in ‘invisible effects,’ Sheena Duggal relishes creating movie magic that most moviegoers never notice. One of the first four Inferno artists in the world, Duggal was hired by Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1995 to set up and oversee the company’s Inferno department, then later transitioned into visual effects supervision. After working with director Peter Segal on Anger Management, Duggal signed onto Segal’s next film, 50 First Dates, a romantic comedy set in Hawaii about a young couple whose budding romance is put to the test by the woman’s short-term memory loss.

Duggal oversaw some 100 shots on the film, including a number of tricky transitions, with wipes and clever morph-dissolve gags. In an early scene, for example, the camera tracks a dolphin in a marine park tank as it swims past a window adjoining the office of veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler). “We shot the ‘A’ side of the plate underwater in a tank with a dolphin at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, California; and we shot the ‘B’ side on a stage on the Sony lot. Then, using a lot of 2D effects, motion tracking, matte paintings, rebuilding the motions within the shot and adding little nuances of particles floating in the water, we put the whole thing together to create the feeling that you were in the tank with the dolphin, and that you actually pass through the window into the room where Henry is stitching up his injured friend.”

The office of marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) overlooks a dolphin aquarium. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Marine World element, filmed in California. For an unbroken shot in which the camera passes through an aquarium window and into Roth’s office, Duggal and her team used motion tracking, 2D effects and matte paintings to link underwater plate photography of a dolphin shot in a tank with stage photography of actors in the office set.

Some effects were added to sell the humor in shots, in particular those involving characters interacting with the film’s aquatic stars – a penguin and an enormous male walrus. “A full-grown male walrus weighs a couple of tons,” remarked Duggal, “and if he gets spooked, he’s going to make a run for the water. So any time the actors were in proximity to the walrus where they had to be between him and the water, we did it as a visual effect.” A shot of the walrus projectile-vomiting onto Henry’s assistant provided Duggal with one of her more memorable assignments. “In an ideal world, we would have gathered all kinds of reference data on the set. But on the day we were shooting, the walrus was horny; and they wouldn’t let me near him because he was reacting to women. So we just shot a plate of the walrus with his mouth open. Later, we set up a bluescreen shoot with the actress in the scene, and shot this really gross mixture of dog food and water at her so we could get the interaction of the vomit hitting her. Then we composited it all together in 2D – which wasn’t as easy as it appears, because there were logistical issues in lining up the movement of the walrus’ mouth.”

A walrus projectile-vomits onto Roth’s assistant. The trained walrus was photographed alone at a marine park. Then the actress playing the assistant was filmed against bluescreen being blasted with a mixture of dog food and water. Alignment of the vomitous spew with the walrus’ shifting mouth was a challenge for the SPI compositing team.

Effects intervention also provided the humor for a scene in which Lucy’s brother (Sean Astin) performs a ‘pec dance,’ moving his pectoral muscles in sync to music. “When we got on set,” recalled Duggal, “we discovered that Sean couldn’t actually do that. So we found a guy who was able to do this dance, and we filmed him on a bluescreen stage, trying to time it to the music as best we could. We scanned that into the computer, composited it onto Sean, and did a bunch of morphing and warping to make it look realistic.”

At the end of the film, Duggal and her crew had to transform Hawaii into Alaska for a scene in which Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) gazes out a boat window as the camera pulls back through the glass to reveal the vessel floating in waters surrounded by icebergs and snowcapped mountains. “The production said: ‘We’ll build a dry dock in Hawaii, and we’ll cover it with bluescreen, and we’ll get a boat on this dry dock and shoot it that way. Then you guys can put it in Alaska,'” recalled Duggal. “But in the interest of realism, we decided that was probably not the best approach – especially since it might get us into CG water. Instead, we found a bay in Hawaii, took the actors out there and filmed them in a boat, then added whatever we needed to give it the feeling of being in Alaska.”

The amnesiac Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) journeys to Alaska. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Hawaiian production plate.

Though all the live-action was shot in Hawaii, Duggal and a crew went off to Blackstone Bay in Alaska to capture the mountain vistas needed for two big rotating helicopter shots that reveal the entire landscape. “We took a Vistavision camera with us and shot maybe a 250-degree pan-and-tile of the environment,” said Duggal. “Fortunately, we also chased icebergs around because I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure they’re going to ask me to put icebergs into these shots at some point.'” In postproduction, when the director saw how little snow there was, he asked for more production value. “We ended up taking the pan-and-tile, which I was hoping we could just composite in, and turning that into a matte painting so we could add more snow and detail. Surprisingly, I was able to take a lot of the 2D icebergs that we shot, roto them out of the Vistavision footage and track them into the water. We also added CG breath to a number of shots of the actors.” Adding to the seamless effect was careful attention to lighting detail. “We got hold of a copy of a sun chart for Hawaii on the day that we shot the Hawaii plates, and did the same in Alaska. That way, we could look at what time of day it was in Hawaii, and what angle the sun was in the sky, and wait for the same time of day and same lighting conditions when we shot in Alaska.”

“It was all great fun,” Duggal concluded. “I love what I do, and I love doing invisible effects. When I get a show like this, I’m fortunate, because a lot of the types of shots I’m doing can be done in a 2D way. And since I was involved in building this department, I know all the skills of the artists. That’s a great advantage to me as a visual effects supervisor.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Columbia Pictures Industries. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.

“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.

7

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

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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, 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

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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.