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.

Cinefex Monster Movie Poll

Cinefex Movie Monster Poll

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

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

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

Ron Thornton’s Model-maker Mantra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Godfather" in Cinefex 107, October 2006

“The Godfather” in Cinefex 107, October 2006.

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

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

Ron Thornton. Photo © NewTek.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ron remembered:

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

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

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

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

— John Copeland, producer/director


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

— Steve Burg, conceptual designer


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

— Adam ‘Mojo’ Lebowitz, digital artist


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

— Sherry Hitch, digital artist


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

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

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

— James Belohovek, model-maker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Kevin Kutchaver, visual effects supervisor


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

Cinefex Vault #12 – Team America

"Team America" from the Cinefex Vault

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


Team Spirit – article by Estelle Shay

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

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

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

Team America airborne strike force.

Team America airborne strike force.

The Team America all-star jet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hummer test-fit in jet Osprey.

Hummer test-fit into Osprey fuselage.

Osprey framework while test-fitting the nose.

Osprey framework, test-fitting the nose.

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

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

Street level detail.

Street level detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water tank shoot.

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

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

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

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

Cinefex Vault #11 – AVP at ADI

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fabrication specialist Nevada Smith at work on an alien model.

Fabrication specialist Nevada Smith at work on an alien model.

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

Sculptor Bruce Spaulding-Fuller touches up predator head.

Sculptor Bruce Spaulding-Fuller touches up predator head.

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

Fabricator Ginger Anglin with animatronic queen alien.

Fabricator Ginger Anglin with animatronic queen alien.

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

Finishing supervisor Tim Leach with elder predator.

Finishing supervisor Tim Leach with elder predator.

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

Predators on greenscreen set.

Predators on greenscreen set.

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

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

ADI Alien Vs. Predator concept art.

ADI’s Alien Vs. Predator concept art.

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

Photos courtesy of ADI.

Cinefex Vault #10 – The Terminal

"The Terminal" - from the Cinefex Vault

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

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

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

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

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


Airport 2004 – article by Joe Fordham

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

Art department model.

Art department model.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3D model of fictional exterior airport terminal.

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

The Terminal.

The Terminal.

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

Cinefex Vault #9 – Tremors 4

Tremors 4 - from the Cinefex Vault

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

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


Sweet Revenge – article by Janine Pourroy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KNB also built Baby Graboids for the latest film.

KNB also built Baby Graboids for the latest film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Graboid attacks.

The Graboid attacks!

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

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

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

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

Black Hand Kelly is swallowed by the Graboid.

Black Hand Kelly is swallowed by the Graboid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinefex Vault #8: Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Cinefex Vault - Kill Bill, Vol. 2

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


Sweet Revenge – article by Estelle Shay

image_02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos copyright © 2004 by Miramax.

Cinefex Vault #7: Ray Harryhausen – An Animated Life

Cinefex Vault - Ray Harryhausen - An Animated Life

Following Don Shay’s review of Peter Ellenshaw’s autobiography, Cinefex presented an online review of another literary property by a visual effects giant, the first exhaustive authorized volume in which Ray Harryhausen discussed his own life and work – resurrected here at the Cinefex Vault as another one for the ages.


Adventures in Fantasy – book review by Joe Fordham

Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen performs a touch-up on the Kraken during production of his final motion picture, Clash of the Titans. In addition to numerous short subjects, Harryhausen provided stop-motion and other visual effects for 16 feature films spanning six decades.

Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen performs a touch-up on the Kraken during production of his final motion picture, Clash of the Titans. In addition to numerous short subjects, Harryhausen provided stop-motion and other visual effects for 16 feature films spanning six decades. Photo copyright © 1991 by Titan Productions.

“What is there to be said that is new about Ray Harryhausen?” asks writer Ray Bradbury in his forward to the current book by his life-long friend. The answer, as chronicled by stop-motion legend Harryhausen and film historian Tony Dalton in Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, is quite a lot – 304 glossy pages crammed with text, photographs, film posters, diagrams and sketches – many previously unpublished from Harryhausen’s personal archives.

The book, which appeared last November in the United Kingdom – where Harryhausen has resided for decades – has now been released in the United States with considerable fanfare and a full-blown book tour by the author. This is Harryhausen’s second book, following the slim, technically deficient Film Fantasy Scrapbook – which first appeared in 1972, with revisions in 1974 and 1981 – a mostly-pictorial guide to creatures that have populated the effects maestro’s films. An Animated Life towers over that. The book is part confessional – revealing techniques never previously divulged by their creator – and part love letter to a craft that Harryhausen describes in meticulous prose as ‘dimensional animation.’

Ray Harryhausen's first feature work was on the original Mighty Joe Young, in which he produced most of the film's animation under the supervision and tutelage of his mentor, Willis O'Brien. Photo copyright © 1949 by RKO Radio Pictures.

Ray Harryhausen’s first feature work was on the original Mighty Joe Young, in which he produced most of the film’s animation under the supervision and tutelage of his mentor, Willis O’Brien.
Photo copyright © 1949 by RKO Radio Pictures.

Bradbury sets the tone in his spirited introduction. Tony Dalton’s preface continues in similar vein, recounting his 30-year friendship with Harryhausen – almost half the length of time Bradbury has known him – and outlines his journey into the archives of the British Film Institute, where much of his research material was obtained. The book is an exhaustive historical study, five years in the making, covering the production of every one of Harryhausen’s films, written by the man himself with the support of close contemporaries.

While fans may be familiar with the films described, Harryhausen is quick to shoot down frequently printed fallacies, such as the origin of the material used to skin his first animated creature, the title character in Cavebear in 1935 – not purloined illicitly from his mother’s favorite fur coat! He also goes to pains to place his peers in context – tracing how his first employer and mentor, Willis O’Brien, made the transition from sculptor in a San Francisco marble shop to the creator of King Kong – and outlining his own lineage.

In 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Ymir -- a creature from Venus -- hatches from an egg and grows to monstrous proportions. For a sequence in which the Ymir confronts an escaped circus elephant on the streets of Rome, Harryhausen animated both creatures and a fleeing human. Photo copyright © 1957 by Columbia Pictures.

In 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Ymir — a creature from Venus — hatches from an egg and grows to monstrous proportions. For a sequence in which the Ymir confronts an escaped circus elephant on the streets of Rome, Harryhausen animated both creatures and a fleeing human. Photo copyright © 1957 by Columbia Pictures.

Fred and Martha Harryhausen are pictured as the loving parents of a strange, but talented only child in pre-World War II Los Angeles, assisting their son in fabricating miniature costumes, props and creature armatures, as long as their manual dexterity remained. Harryhausen lists other early influences – including the fiction of H.G. Wells, the art of Gustav Doré, John Martin and Charles R. Knight – touchstones that remained with him his entire career, as illustrated in atmospheric pencil and charcoal creature concepts, from his earliest student renderings to Force of the Trojans, an unrealized project that was to have followed his 1981 swan song, Clash of the Titans.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad represented Harryhausen's first venture into color, a factor which necessitated the changing of many effects techniques he had developed over the years. It also represented a shift away from contemporary times and single-character animation to episodic confrontations between human protagonists and a variety of mythological creatures. Photo copyright © 1958 by Columbia Pictures.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad represented Harryhausen’s first venture into color, a factor which necessitated the changing of many effects techniques he had developed over the years. It also represented a shift away from contemporary times and single-character animation to episodic confrontations between human protagonists and a variety of mythological creatures. Photo copyright © 1958 by Columbia Pictures.

Unrealized projects abound in the back pages of the book, which contains a catalogue of 53 ‘Lost Worlds,’ including some titles now in development by present-day filmmakers. Harryhausen relates how he decided J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was not suitable for a live-action/dimensional-animation treatment, then adds: “How wrong I was!” Harryhausen also recalls how, following The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, he and producer Charles H. Schneer discussed, and rejected, the idea of doing an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: “We felt the story simply wasn’t strong enough.” Harryhausen states the unrealized project he most wanted to pursue was The War of the Worlds, retaining H.G. Wells’ Victorian setting. The book contains illustrations of Harryhausen’s proposals for the film, which he submitted to producer George Pal in 1950, before learning that Pal had already been in discussions with Paramount to mount a contemporary adaptation.

The Valley of Gwangi, a prehistoric drama set within the framework of a western, was based on an unrealized Willis O'Brien project that had been in preproduction, then abandoned, nearly 30 years earlier. Photo copyright © 1969 by Warner Bros.

The Valley of Gwangi, a prehistoric drama set within the framework of a western, was based on an unrealized Willis O’Brien project that had been in preproduction, then abandoned, nearly 30 years earlier. Photo copyright © 1969 by Warner Bros.

A chronological filmography follows, listing Harryhausen’s short films, television commercials, documentaries for the Army Signal Corps and 16 feature films. Harryhausen and Dalton then supply a glossary of filmmaking terms, which are quite poetic in their descriptions of photochemical and stop-motion paraphernalia. Digital artists should take note as Harryhausen reveals methods by which he rigged saucers to fly in his 1956 production Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers – physically hand-painting wires prior to exposing every frame to render them invisible. Unfortunately, the book then concludes without an index to provide easy reference for this compendium of a lifetime’s achievement.

For Jason and the Argonauts, considered by many his magnum opus, Harryhausen created a fiendishly complex sequence in which live characters battle seven skeleton swordsmen. On some of the shots, Harryhausen was able to average only 13-14 frames per day -- less than a second of screen time. Photo copyright © 1963 by Columbia Pictures.

For Jason and the Argonauts, considered by many his magnum opus, Harryhausen created a fiendishly complex sequence in which live characters battle seven skeleton swordsmen. On some of the shots, Harryhausen was able to average only 13-14 frames per day — less than a second of screen time. Photo copyright © 1963 by Columbia Pictures.

But Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life is a rare entity. Despite its considerable bulk, the book is immensely readable, a hoot from front to back, as well as a treasure trove of imagery and reference material. As anyone who has stood in line to meet the man will attest, Harryhausen is a bright and witty storyteller, with a craftsman’s passion for film and an intolerance for interfering producers. All the anecdotes are here — the ‘sixtopus’ from It Came From Beneath the Sea and, at last, the real story of how he choreographed seven sword-fighting skeletons. Throughout, the narrative enthralls and captivates.

Cinefex Vault #6: The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Cinefex Vault - The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

While tracking down the artists responsible for the effects of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, visual effects supervisor Louis Morin confided to me, ‘You’ve got the wrong man. The real magician here is Michel Gondry.’ Normally, the production’s visual effects supervisor is a good barometer for a film’s artistic and technical effects; but Louis was not being disingenuous. As we spoke about the film, it became apparent what a vivid and fantastic imagination the director had, and it would have been fascinating to track down monsieur Gondry, the rock and roll maestro of the avante-garde – another day, perhaps. But time was our enemy, and in fact I had to hand my transcript to my editor, Jody Duncan, due to another pressing deadline. Here is our joint effort, unearthed from the Cinefex Vault, attempting to describe the magic tricks of this unique and charming film.


Random Access Memory – article by Jody Duncan and Joe Fordham

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, a couple coming out of a failed relationship, who decide to undergo a questionable medical procedure to erase all memories of each other. Midway through the procedure, Joel realizes he is making a terrible mistake, and attempts to thwart the erasure by hiding memories of Clem where they cannot be found.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, a couple coming out of a failed relationship, who decide to undergo a questionable medical procedure to erase all memories of each other. Midway through the procedure, Joel realizes he is making a terrible mistake, and attempts to thwart the erasure by hiding memories of Clem where they cannot be found.

In director Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman plumbs a consciousness-bending story about a man, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who attempts to ease the pain of a breakup by undergoing a procedure that will erase all memories of the relationship from his mind. Joel’s attempts to interrupt the erasure mid-procedure – all from within his subconscious – set the story in a world that is part reality, part waking dream.

That surreal world was the stuff of visual effects, more than 100 realized by Custom Film Effects. Buzz Image Group took on only 16 shots, but each was a critical depiction of Joel’s altered mind as, one by one, his memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) are deconstructed, abstracted and, finally, erased.

The memory abstractions are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle. In a sequence early in the film, Joel – in his car – follows Clementine as she walks angrily down a sidewalk. “This was a hand-held, non-effects shot,” said Buzz visual effects supervisor Louis Morin, “but in the scene, Jim Carrey says a line about everything falling apart – and Michel wanted to emphasize that feeling.” To visually support the idea of a world falling apart, Gondry suggested removing one of Clementine’s legs in the scene. “I said: ‘Okay, it’s possible – but this is a swish-pan, and it is going to be so fast, nobody will see it.’ But he wanted to try it; so we replaced Clem’s real legs with CGI legs, did 3D tracking and remodeled the sidewalk she was walking on.”

Determined to limit the number of visual effects in the film, director Michael Gondry used in-camera trickery wherever possible. For a scene in which Joel transports Clem into his childhood memories, production built a forced-perspective kitchen set to render Jim Carrey child-size.

Determined to limit the number of visual effects in the film, director Michael Gondry used in-camera trickery wherever possible. For a scene in which Joel transports Clem into his childhood memories, production built a forced-perspective kitchen set to render Jim Carrey child-size.

The first attempt at the shot bore out Morin’s initial concerns. “Nobody could see it,” said Morin, “because it was so fast. I asked if they had a longer take of Clem walking, and they did – but in that one, she wasn’t turning her head properly. So we combined takes in the swish-pan, tracked the head from the first take onto Clem in the longer take, and put in a whole CGI background.” In that background, a car crashes behind a fence, unnoticed by Clem. “That was a CGI car and a CGI fence. It was a shocking event to keep the audience on their toes, to say, ‘Look – some pretty unusual things will be shown to you in this movie.'”

Joel jumps out of his car and runs up and down the block – his car, magically, situated at both ends. The shot required two months of Inferno time at Buzz. “We had to track all the shots,” Morin commented, “four takes, going from one side of the street to the other. Everything was shot hand-held, so we had to use 3D tracking, and then create transitions. There’s a lamppost and a mailbox there, and we switched from one take to the other, flipping the image so it was a mirror effect as he was running back and forth. It was partly a morph, switching speed, retracking shots into one another. It’s not 100% seamless, but pretty close, considering that everything was shot hand-held and the perspective was off. We had to freeze-frame the shot, track it manually and reposition camera projections. We also erased signs and interiors of the stores along the street using matte-painted projections.”

The street scene ends with Joel falling down, only to bounce up, rewind-style, onto a sofa in his apartment where he eats takeout Chinese food with Clem. Buzz took reverse footage of Carrey falling from a sofa, filmed on the street, and combined it with an element of Carrey seated on the same sofa in the apartment set. “We used an Elastic Reality morph for that,” said Morin. “We also had to add CG chopsticks in his hand. He had actually held real chopsticks in the plate with Clem; but for this shot, we had to remove them and put in CGI ones that would match the chopsticks in his hand when he initially falls.”

For a metaphoric scene in which a beach house, meaningful to Joel and Clem, crumbles and collapses, Buzz Image Group created a 3D replication of the house and animated its falling apart. The wintertime shot was enhanced with snow elements sliding from the roof.

For a metaphoric scene in which a beach house, meaningful to Joel and Clem, crumbles and collapses, Buzz Image Group created a 3D replication of the house and animated its falling apart. The wintertime shot was enhanced with snow elements sliding from the roof.

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In another scene, Joel and Clem sit in a car, watching a drive-in movie from outside the establishment’s fence, inventing their own dialogue for the characters on the screen. As the memory is erased, Clem and the car flicker in and out. The fence then disappears, slat by slat, chasing after Joel and Clem in the animation style of Norman McLaren’s National Film Board of Canada. Carrey and Winslet were shot in a real car – once with Winslet inside and once without, to capture elements for the flicker effect. Buzz then replaced the car with a CGI car as the characters run out of the vehicle. “We modeled different parts of the car,” said Morin, “then sliced away the 3D objects, like an MRI brain slice.” Buzz also created the fence animation by removing the fence in the live-action plates and replacing it with matte paintings rendered in Photoshop and projected onto 3D geometry.

Buzz’s biggest shot is near the end of the film, when a house on the beach in Long Island – the setting of a pivotal moment in the couple’s relationship – crumbles, a visual metaphor for Joel’s losing grasp of Clementine. Buzz began work on the shot based on Gondry’s first directive to create a stop-motion look; then revised the approach to include more real-time elements such as animated bricks falling from the chimney, tracked into a CGI house. “Michel thought that was going in the right direction – but he wanted more,” said Morin. “So we found some reference footage of real houses collapsing, and then animated the whole house with hard-body dynamics. What you see is a house collapsing in four seconds – all CG.”

The surreal images in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – digital effects sprinkled with in-camera and forced perspective gags, all achieved without the use of bluescreen or motion control – sprang from a filmmaker who approaches visual effects more as a magician than a technician. “A magician makes you look at one place while the trick is happening somewhere else,” said Morin. “Michel does that with effects. You expect an effect at one point in a shot, but the effect is already done by the time you get there. He fools you – and that’s part of his cleverness. Everything is possible in his mind.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Focus Features.

Cinefex Vault #5: Monster

Cinefex Vault - MonsterThe Cinefex Vault of online articles contains some curiosities, including some accounts of films so off the beaten track they might not at first appear to contain any special effects. Such was the case with director Patty Jenkins’ Monster, which – despite its title – contained no creatures of fantasy. Instead, the title referred to a stunning performance by actress Charlize Theron who slipped completely into the skin of a convicted psychopath, earning her ‘Best Actress’ at the 2004 Oscars and Independent Spirit Awards. A key collaborator in Theron’s transformation was makeup designer Toni G, who in the run up to the 2004 awards season reflected here on her experience helping to transform one of cinema’s great beauties into the face of brutal killer.


Skin-Deep Monster – article by Jody Duncan / interview by Joe Fordham

Among those nominated for the best actress Academy Award this year is Charlize Theron, whose chilling turn as serial killer Aileen Wournos in Patty Jenkins’ Monster has garnered ecstatic critical reviews – many of which note how thoroughly Theron disappears in the role. Gone is the svelte, creamy-skinned, blue-eyed beauty; in her place is a near-perfect re-creation of Wournos, complete with ravaged hair and skin, crooked teeth and dumpy body.

Makeup artist Toni G deglamorized actress Charlize Theron for her role as executed serial killer Aileen Wournos in writer-director Patty Jenkins' motion picture, co-starring Christina Ricci.

Makeup artist Toni G deglamorized actress Charlize Theron for her role as executed serial killer Aileen Wournos in writer-director Patty Jenkins’ motion picture, co-starring Christina Ricci.

Historically, Oscar has honored beautiful women who have shed their vanity for the sake of a juicy role. Elizabeth Taylor as the frumpy Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won the best actress statuette, as did Hilary Swank playing the boyish, gender-confused Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, and The Hours’ Nicole Kidman, whose natural beauty was obscured by a prosthetic nose. If Theron continues that trend with a win on Oscar night, she is likely to acknowledge the contribution of Toni G, the makeup artist responsible for her startling physical transformation.

Recommended to Theron and Jenkins by Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studio, Toni G met with the actress and the director well before the start of filming to devise an overall approach to the makeup assignment. “When they first called me,” Toni G recalled, “I thought that Charlize Theron as Aileen Wournos was a bit of a stretch. But when I met with Patty and Charlize, I realized that it was definitely achievable. Charlize was so completely inspired, she inspired me! I thought, ‘Yes, this is possible.'”

At that first meeting, Jenkins and Theron made it clear that they wanted to pursue a non-prosthetic approach. “Prosthetics weren’t even considered,” Toni G said, “mainly because there wasn’t the budget to do that. But I never thought prosthetics were necessary, anyway.” The plan was to have Theron gain 30 pounds – which, in itself, would go a long way toward changing her appearance – and then implement the other changes through straightforward makeup and hairstyling techniques. As a start, Toni G researched a wealth of archival material on Wournos. “There were so many great photographs of Aileen and so much video coverage, it was a dream. I had a plethora of research material.”

In the days leading up to the shoot, Toni G applied test makeups on friends in her garage, arriving at a final makeup that emphasized Wournos’ key characteristics. Among the most crucial were her misshapen eyebrows and dry, over-bleached hair. Rather than wear a wig, Theron gamely endured a day-long hair-frying and hair-thinning session with hairstylist Katie Swanson. Her eyebrows also took abuse. “Charlize’s eyebrows needed to be completely changed to frame her face differently,” Toni G noted, “so I took off all the outside part of her eyebrows, and also bleached them. Eyebrows are an amazing representation of what people go through in their lives. You can see an angry person, a happy person, a gentle person, all through the eyebrows. Aileen’s eyebrows had a tendency to angle upward towards her forehead, which created an angry expression.” Contact lenses further altered the actress’ eyes, changing their color from blue to brown and giving them a deeper, more haunted look.

Wournos’ crooked, stained and rotting teeth were another distinguishing feature. Toni G covered Theron’s straight, white teeth with prosthetic dentures, which also served to push out her mouth slightly, making it appear wider. Toni G hired Yoishi ‘Art’ Sakamoto, with whom she had worked at Cinovation, to make the dentures. “Art took a dental impression, and then came up with some prototype dentures, painting on the discoloration and detail. We discussed what needed to be changed, and went from there. It was important that the dentures be thick enough to look realistic, but thin enough not to impede Charlize’s speech. We got a practice pair out to her as soon as possible – about a month before they started shooting – so she could get accustomed to speaking with them. It takes time for a person to learn how to speak properly with prosthetic dentures, so that they don’t distract from the performance.”

Theron (left) and Wournos (right).

Theron (left) and Wournos (right).

Even with the excess weight, damaged hair, crooked teeth and bleached and over-tweezed eyebrows, Theron’s beauty shone through. “We had all those things together,” Toni G recalled, “but she still had this creamy, poreless, gorgeous skin. With makeup, I had to create the years of abuse to her skin – all the freckles and capillaries and sun damage – either through hand-painting or working with an airbrush.” The makeup artist used an alcohol-based, makeup-industry ‘tattoo ink’ to create layers of translucent washes, building up the skin damage to suggest depth and dimensionality. A sealant called ‘Green Marble’ was applied to create additional texture, and was also used liberally to prevent the makeup from running off in a scene in which Wournos appears in the shower.

With practice, Toni G got the makeup application time down to a single hour. “I remember the first day we did the whole makeup on Charlize. It gave me goose bumps. She walked out of the trailer, lit a cigarette – and Charlize was gone.”

A symbiotic fusion of Toni G’s makeup and Charlize Theron’s extraordinary performance resulted in a stunning on-screen representation of the troubled Aileen Wournos. “If Charlize had given a brilliant performance, but still looked like Charlize,” Toni G concluded, “that would have been very distracting. But if not for her brilliant performance, the teeth, the makeup, the hair – none of it would have worked.”

Photo copyrights © 2003 by Newmarket Films.