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 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.

Cinefex Vault #4: Hidalgo

Cinefex Vault - HidalgoSeeing Hidalgo at Walt Disney’s art deco cinema palace, the El Capitan in Hollywood, was fitting. My parents were in town, and I wanted to treat them to an old fashioned night at the movies, so we loaded up on popcorn and we were not disappointed. It was a rousing, romantic adventure about a man and his mustang, cut from the same cloth as director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, albeit with more horseplay and fewer rockets. So I was happy to cover the film, chatting with ILM’s amiable visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, and I’m happy to resurrect the story here from our online Cinefex Vault.


Horse Sense – article by Joe Fordham

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander oversaw the visual effects work on director Joe Johnston's sprawling adventure, Hidalgo. Photo by Sean Casey. Courtesy of ILM.

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander oversaw the visual effects work on director Joe Johnston’s sprawling adventure, Hidalgo. Photo by Sean Casey. Courtesy of ILM.

At age 32, Tim Alexander is one of a generation of artists at Industrial Light & Magic whose date of birth approximates the studio’s founding date. A digital compositor since his early twenties, Alexander drew upon that bedrock experience as he assumed the role of visual effects supervisor for director Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo. “I tend to look for a 2D solution before considering 3D,” Alexander observed. “There were quite a few sequences in Hidalgo where we could have gone with either 3D animation or a 2D composite, and we decided to go with 2D.”

The film focuses on Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), an ex-U.S. Cavalry dispatch rider who accepts the challenge of a wealthy sheik (Omar Sharif) to enter his favorite mustang, Hidalgo, in a 3,000-mile Arabian horse race. Settings spanned from 1890’s American Wild West to the far reaches of the Sahara. The latter was represented by locations in Morocco, where Alexander and his small crew spent six weeks capturing scenic digital stills and advising on technical issues. “It was grueling,” Alexander recalled. “We were working with dust storms and animals – and everybody got sick! One night, I had a temperature of 107 degrees.”

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, pitted against some of the world's foremost thoroughbred horses, outrun a fearsome sandstorm during a 68-day, 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert.

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, pitted against some of the world’s foremost thoroughbred horses, outrun a fearsome sandstorm during a 68-day, 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert.

Johnston limited time at the harsh location by using visual effects for a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the sheik’s daughter by vaulting across Moroccan rooftops. “We were supposed to shoot above a mosque,” related Alexander, “but Joe asked us to re-create the environment against bluescreen in LA. Luckily, he had established the scene at ground level so the tops of the buildings weren’t visible and we could take some liberty with architecture. We shot a ton of stills; then, back at ILM, we built a 2½D background, mapping stills onto rough geometry to create multiplane and parallax effects.”

For an establishing shot of Hopkins arriving at the port of Aden, a set representing the front the ship was shot in Los Angeles. The rear of the ship was an ILM digital extension. The camel train and people disembarking were filmed in the desert in Morocco, while the water, small boats and background wall were photographed at a coastal town in Morocco. ILM digital compositor Tory Mercer assembled the shot.

For an establishing shot of Hopkins arriving at the port of Aden, a set representing the front the ship was shot in Los Angeles. The rear of the ship was an ILM digital extension. The camel train and people disembarking were filmed in the desert in Morocco, while the water, small boats and background wall were photographed at a coastal town in Morocco. ILM digital compositor Tory Mercer assembled the shot.

Horse trainer Rex Peterson supplied five mustangs to represent Hidalgo. The only animal animation involved a pair of leopards that menace Hopkins and a companion during the race. The digital work proved necessary when the performances of real leopards – shipped to the location and later split-screened into scenes with horses – were found lacking. “It was very difficult to make the leopards look aggressive,” said Alexander, “because they knew they were going back to their cage to eat at the end of every day. So, for some shots, we chose to re-create the leopards in CG.” The CG leopard was modeled from reference of the leopards on set and from animal motion studies. “Very early on, we did a couple of tests using motion capture data of dogs, which we had used for Hulk. But when we applied that to the leopards, they just looked like dogs, so we abandoned that idea.” ILM revisited the live leopards and shot video of them performing various actions from six different angles. Animation director Sylvia Wong and her team then rotoscoped the video to the CG leopard. “That gave us fluid and organic-looking behavior – but the leopards still didn’t look aggressive enough. So we used that as a starting point and key-framed everything from there.”

A tsunami sandstorm -- created with volumetric particles -- overtakes many of the riders early in the race.

A tsunami sandstorm — created with volumetric particles — overtakes many of the riders early in the race.

Another action sequence featured a sandstorm that chases Hopkins and Hidalgo into an abandoned desert mosque. During principal photography, special effects supervisor Bruno Van Zeebroeck used air mortars to create a blast of sand impacting the desert location. ILM created the wider views in post. “Sandstorms in real life are very amorphous and undefined,” observed Alexander, “but Joe decided it would be more effective to see a wall of sand.” ILM generated the sandstorm in RenderMan, using volumetric particles. “We wanted it to feel like the storm was sucking up the desert like a vacuum cleaner. The front edge pulled debris off the ground, whipped it up the wall, then it slowed near the top, creating a sense of speed and scale.”

A plague of locusts obscures the sun. Over plate photography shot in Morocco at sunrise, ILM created the locust swarm as particles with a locust model attached. Locusts closest to camera were rendered at higher resolution than those in the background, allowing many more particles to be created.

A plague of locusts obscures the sun. Over plate photography shot in Morocco at sunrise, ILM created the locust swarm as particles with a locust model attached. Locusts closest to camera were rendered at higher resolution than those in the background, allowing many more particles to be created.

Digital matte artists enhanced the scope of the production with matte paintings that referenced the work of 19th-century ‘Orientalist’ painter Jean-Léon Gérome – particularly Gérome’s The Call to Prayer – for an urban Moroccan vista. “We embellished the landscape and placed a guy in a big tall tower in the background, exactly as it was in Gérome’s painting,” said Alexander. “For a lower angle, where a steamship was parked at the dock and the camera panned to reveal a camel train, we piecemealed the shot together. Half the boat was practical, shot in Los Angeles, and the back part was CG. The water came from Morocco. The right of frame came from the desert in Morocco, nowhere near the ocean. It was quite a blend.”

Frank Hopkins runs down a sand dune as the swarming locusts overtake him.

Frank Hopkins runs down a sand dune as the swarming locusts overtake him.

The ending of the film, set in the United States, involved a spectacular stampede of mustangs, enhanced with 2D effects. “They had 500 horses out on location in Montana,” said Alexander, “but when they released them into the wide-open spaces, it looked like nothing! We replicated the horses and made 2,500 out of the 500.” Shot from a roving helicopter perspective, the horse release was an unrepeatable event, which tested the skills of ILM matchmove and compositing artists. “We couldn’t shoot multiple takes, and the horses could only run the course once or twice a day; so we ended up using bits of other footage and tracking horses into the earlier environment with dust effects.”

For a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the kidnapped daughter of a powerful sheik, rooftop scenes were shot on a foreground set in front of a bluescreen. Background structures, mountains and sky were photographed as still images and mapped onto a 2½D matte painting to permit perspective shifts on moving camera shots.

For a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the kidnapped daughter of a powerful sheik, rooftop scenes were shot on a foreground set in front of a bluescreen. Background structures, mountains and sky were photographed as still images and mapped onto a 2½D matte painting to permit perspective shifts on moving camera shots.

The lengthy and demanding production resulted in 216 effects shots, yet ultimately proved a painless experience for Alexander and his team due to the involvement of ILM alumnus Joe Johnston. “We spent 118 days on location in Montana, South Dakota, Morocco, the deserts of California, all over,” stated Alexander. “But if ever we couldn’t be there, Joe shot all the elements we needed. He really knew what he was doing, and that definitely helped.”

All other photos copyright © 2004 by Disney Enterprises. Courtesy of ILM.

Cinefex Vault #3: Ellenshaw Under Glass

Cinefex Vault - Ellenshaw Under GlassWeighing in at nearly eight and a half pounds, Ellenshaw Under Glass – the handsome autobiography of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw – was a mighty tome. This was not a book to read in bed, or sitting on a bus. Rather, it required a lectern to hold it open, particularly if the reader had been lucky enough to acquire the Deluxe Edition with plexiglass cover and 3D lenticular image of Peter perched atop a cloud, above Mary Poppins’ London. Spectacular, personable and occasionally quite moving, this was a fantastic read about one of the effects industry’s most gifted artists, a true gentleman with an impish sense of humor. Read on to learn more about this landmark book in Don Shay’s review from the Cinefex Vault. The book is still available at the link below.


An Artist’s Journey – book review by Don Shay

For the grand opening of Disneyland, master matte artist Peter Ellenshaw painted an aerial view of the park, which appeared on the first Disneyland postcard and souvenir guidebook. A fixture at the Disney studio for decades, Ellenshaw contributed visual effects and/or production design for nearly all of the Disney live-action films produced during Walt Disney's lifetime.

For the grand opening of Disneyland, master matte artist Peter Ellenshaw painted an aerial view of the park, which appeared on the first Disneyland postcard and souvenir guidebook. A fixture at the Disney studio for decades, Ellenshaw contributed visual effects and/or production design for nearly all of the Disney live-action films produced during Walt Disney’s lifetime.

Like most aspects of visual effects, the art of movie matte painting has been transformed by technology, to the point that ‘before digital’ and ‘after digital’ techniques and end products seem only distantly related. Today, a matte painting can be a full environment – a three-dimensional collage of images and textures over, through and around which a camera, without film or lens, can be flown with total freedom. Not all that many years ago, a matte painting was … well, a painting.

Matte paintings were among the earliest visual effects tools; and for decades, filmmakers used variations on the theme to affordably alter and expand movie settings, both interior and exterior. The era of traditional matte painting was comprehensively and elegantly chronicled in The Invisible Art, by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron, published in 2002, a must-have volume for anyone with a love for the art and history of visual effects.

A companion volume now exists. Peter Ellenshaw, one of the Michelangelos of matte painting, has produced Ellenshaw Under Glass – a mammoth coffee-table book filled with photographs and artwork and recollections spanning the entirety of his 80-plus years. Ellenshaw suggests that his love of painting dates to his World War I childhood, when he and his sisters were hustled under a kitchen table, with paper and crayons to amuse themselves, whenever German zeppelins made bombing runs over London. Having taught himself to paint by copying the old masters, Ellenshaw eventually approached the only artist he knew of – pioneer matte painter and effects artist W. Percy Day. Ellenshaw spent seven years with the curmudgeonly master, learning the art and craft of visual effects on high-profile Korda productions, before setting off on his own. Eventually his work caught the eye of Walt Disney, who hired him to do matte paintings on his first live-action films, produced in England. The artist recalls creating 62 matte shots in 27 weeks for one of them. With no firm prospect of employment, Ellenshaw moved his family to the United States, where he soon made a career for himself within the Disney organization, working closely with the studio’s gruff patriarch, who took an almost fatherly interest in the ambitious young artist.

On his first Disney project, Treasure Island, Ellenshaw transformed an empty harbor with a single vintage sailing ship into a crowded 19th-century seaport.

On his first Disney project, Treasure Island, Ellenshaw transformed an empty harbor with a single vintage sailing ship into a crowded 19th-century seaport.

image_03Ellenshaw Under Glass is not a technical treatise on matte painting, or even a comprehensive account of Ellenshaw’s considerable body of work, but rather a personal memoir. He does, however, explain the fundamentals of matte painting, from vintage on-set glass paintings to dupe-negative optical composites to original-negative matte shots – citing a near disaster on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in delineating the risks of the latter approach. He also explains – and illustrates with details from a painting he created for Spartacus – the impressionistic art of incorporating just enough detail into a matte painting. Too much is as bad as too little.

Ellenshaw offers fascinating chapters on his early work with ‘Pop’ Day, and provides anecdotal, if not comprehensive details on such Disney classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Mary Poppins. Photographically, the book is a marvel – 334 pages of matte paintings, concept art and behind-the-scenes photos, seasoned with personal photos and mementos. Happily, Ellenshaw was not one to throw things away.

One of many concept paintings Ellenshaw created for The Sword and the Rose. In only 27 weeks, he produced 62 matte shots for the period film. A fast and prolific artist, Ellenshaw often rendered color sketches in just a few minutes, and full eight-foot-wide matte paintings in as little as three days.

One of many concept paintings Ellenshaw created for The Sword and the Rose. In only 27 weeks, he produced 62 matte shots for the period film. A fast and prolific artist, Ellenshaw often rendered color sketches in just a few minutes, and full eight-foot-wide matte paintings in as little as three days.

Bruce Gordon and David Mumford – who collaborated with Ellenshaw on the book – explain in an afterword that the original intent was to have Ellenshaw write only a outline, which they would then flesh out into book length. By the time he finished with it, however, Ellenshaw’s ‘outline’ was so rich with detail that it was already book length – and it needed only to be shaped and polished. Ellenshaw writes with a clipped, short-hand style. Thoughts and memories cascade onto the page. He talks to himself in italicized asides – often self-deprecating. Incomplete and run-on sentences abound. Setups and segues are sparse. Though the style is jarring at first, the text is endearingly conversational – as if the reader is sitting in Ellenshaw’s living room listening to him reminisce while he pages through a lifetime’s worth of scrapbooks. As a writer, Ellenshaw has a singular, if unconventional, voice – and Gordon and Mumford are to be commended for not ‘improving’ upon it.

Peter Ellenshaw won an Academy Award for his work on Mary Poppins. An initial concept sketch for a shot of Mary and her charges exploring the rooftops of London -- and the final matte painting for the scene, with empty areas for live-action elements.

Peter Ellenshaw won an Academy Award for his work on Mary Poppins. An initial concept sketch for a shot of Mary and her charges exploring the rooftops of London — and the final matte painting for the scene, with empty areas for live-action elements.

image_07Whether recollecting his childhood in England, his early days in the movie business, his wartime experiences as a pilot, his long and fruitful years at Disney, or his second career as a fine art painter, Ellenshaw flavors his text with warmth and wit. A man of artistic temperament and conviction, Ellenshaw was ever forthright in his views and not averse to butting heads with his professional elders – but never with Walt Disney, whom he clearly revered. In the end, Ellenshaw Under Glass is a valentine to the artist’s longtime employer and friend, and to his beloved wife Bobbie, his muse and mate of 58 years, whose death, before this book was completed, broke his heart – but not his spirit.

Ellenshaw Under Glass is available in two editions – standard and deluxe – the latter being a slipcased edition with a novel cover that provides a fitting visual pun for the book’s wry title. Copies of this limited-edition work may be purchased online at www.ellenshaw.com.

As production designer and miniature effects supervisor on The Black Hole, Peter Ellenshaw shares a light moment with his son, Harrison Ellenshaw, who served as matte effects artist on the film.

As production designer and miniature effects supervisor on The Black Hole, Peter Ellenshaw shares a light moment with his son, Harrison Ellenshaw, who served as matte effects artist on the film.

Photos copyright © Disney Enterprises.

Cinefex Vault #2: Cold Mountain

Cinefex Vault - Cold MountainIn this second story from the Cinefex Vault of online articles we present a journey into filmmaker Anthony Minghella’s 2003 adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Civil War era novel, Cold Mountain. Sadly, Minghella died after making only one more film, aged 54, but he had a great talent for bringing intelligent perspectives to his films, keeping epic vistas rooted in rich characters. Visual effects supervisor Dennis Lowe recalls the experience working in the trenches with Minghella on location in Romania, aided by visual embellishments at Double Negative and Framestore.


Siege Tactics – article by Joe Fordham

Confederate soldiers converge upon the Union Army in Miramax's "Cold Mountain".

Confederate soldiers converge upon the Union Army in Miramax’s “Cold Mountain”.

Visual effects supervisor Dennis Lowe reunited with filmmaker Anthony Minghella for Cold Mountain, an epic drama set during the American Civil War. Adapted by Minghella from a novel by Charles Frazier, the film told the tale of Inman (Jude Law), a wounded Confederate soldier who deserts a military hospital to embark on a long trek home, where his love, Ada (Nicole Kidman), is also struggling to survive the war.

Like Minghella’s earlier films, Cold Mountain emphasized characters and drama over spectacle; yet, to set the stage of a country divided by war, Minghella chose to open the film with a ferocious battle alluded to peripherally in Frazier’s book: the Union army’s attempt to capture a Confederate stronghold in Petersburg, Virginia, by tunneling under enemy lines and detonating bombs from below, to devastating effect.

For a scene in which Union soldiers tunnel under a Confederate stronghold and detonate it from below, on-set pyrotechnics by physical effects supervisor Trevor Wood were augmented with CG people, debris and fireballs at Double Negative.

For a scene in which Union soldiers tunnel under a Confederate stronghold and detonate it from below, on-set pyrotechnics by physical effects supervisor Trevor Wood were augmented with CG people, debris and fireballs at Double Negative.

The sequence was shot on a tract of farmland outside Bucharest, Romania, bulldozed and landscaped to match 19th-century reference photographs. “The siege had to look awe-inspiring,” said Dennis Lowe, “but a lot of it was achieved at the location, with physical effects, then subtly enhanced with visual effects.” Physical effects director Trevor Wood, a long-time associate of Neil Corbould Special Effects, oversaw practical carnage for the siege, using more than 250 gallons of fuel and 200 pounds of explosives to simulate the excavation of a crater 170 feet by 80 feet, and 50 feet deep. “They couldn’t physically pack all that energy into an area that was really that size; so Trevor’s team detonated a circle of about 20 charges, which looked like a bigger explosion than it was.”

Anthony Minghella directs a crowd of extras costumed as Union Army soldiers.

Anthony Minghella directs a crowd of extras costumed as Union Army soldiers.

Director of photography John Seale covered the explosion with four cameras, with a second unit in the trench. Lowe supplied five additional spring-wound Eyemo newsreel ‘crash cameras,’ positioned closer to the blast. The explosion was captured in one take, then enhanced with digital effects. Double Negative blended practical elements of exploding mud and 3D animation. “We wanted to emphasize the scale of the practical explosion,” Lowe explained. “We added CG flying bodies, horses, carts and barrels blowing out; but it was never overemphasized. Anthony wanted the effects to be almost subliminal. Early on, we added as many people as would have been located in that part of the trench and had them fly up 300 feet; but that looked a little over the top, so we layered them into the explosion, covered by foreground mud.”

The Union Army attempts to capture a Confederate stronghold.

The Union Army attempts to capture a Confederate stronghold.

Closeup angles of the ground erupting — hurling Confederates through the air and ripping the clothes from one soldier’s body — used practical effects with minimal digital finessing, and editorial sleight of hand. “We took out wires and added dust and debris,” said Lowe, “but most of that was done for real, with the help of film editor Walter Murch, who was very skilled at judging how much of a shot we could use.”

Digital enhancements also included matte paintings of Petersburg extending off into the distance, and crowd replication seen in an eerie shot preceding the detonation where the camera cranes up to reveal the Yankee soldiers laying in wait, face-down in the mud. Six hundred members of the Romanian Army portrayed soldiers on the field. To expand the mass of men, the visual effects team repositioned and replicated the troops.

For scenes of Confederate troops firing on Union soldiers trapped in the blast crater, Double Negative used crowd replication techniques to multiple the number of extras, and incorporated additional smoke and muzzle flash elements.

For scenes of Confederate troops firing on Union soldiers trapped in the blast crater, Double Negative used crowd replication techniques to multiple the number of extras, and incorporated additional smoke and muzzle flash elements.

Crowd replication was used to nightmarish effect as Union troops pour into the exploded crater, then fall prey to a ‘turkey shoot’ as surviving Confederates take potshots from above. “The extras filled about 1/20th of the area of the crater,” said Lowe. “We shot the crowd in sections using the old rope trick — we threw a rope around them, moved them, then filmed them all again. We shot that as a static plate, then motion-tracked the foreground and added drifting smoke.” Smoke added to the sepia patina created by John Seale using combinations of in-camera filters and digital grading by Framestore CFC.

Filmed over three weeks, the battle set a somber tone for the picture, intercut with Inman’s memories of home. “Anthony felt the film was not about the war,” said Lowe. “He and Walter broke up the battle as the film took shape, making it more relevant to the story. It was an anti-war film, really.”

Double Negative supplied numerous subtle matte paintings, including one in which ski slopes and resorts were removed from distant mountainsides.

Double Negative supplied numerous subtle matte paintings, including one in which ski slopes and resorts were removed from distant mountainsides.

In addition to the battle, Cold Mountain‘s 176 visual effects included night sky enhancements, digital snowfall and a surreal vision in a well — a prophetic image foreshadowing Inman’s return home, inspired by an M.C. Escher print and created by digitally blending elements of Jude Law and trained crows. Digital matte paintings also enhanced environments, adding snow to areas of the Romanian landscape. “We tried not to make the matte paintings too beautiful,” commented Lowe, “because we didn’t want to draw people’s attention to the effects. The hardest thing was holding back, but that’s what Anthony wanted.

Actor Jude Law confers with director Anthony Minghella on location in Romania.

Actor Jude Law confers with director Anthony Minghella on location in Romania.

“The nice thing about Anthony is that he delegates. The first thing he said to me when I met him on The English Patient was: ‘This is your film. Treat these shots as your own.’ That was really shocking, because most directors are quite dictatorial. With Anthony, it’s like going back to film school — you’re playing, and if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world; you learn from it. That’s such a good way to make movies.”

Photos copyright © 2003 by Miramax Film Corporation.

Cinefex Vault #1: Angels in America

Cinefex Vault - Angels in AmericaIn the early years of the new millennium, Cinefex launched an experiment – the Cinefex Weekly Update. Readers had the option to submit email addresses and receive, every seven days, a free Cinefex mini-article, plus a column of ‘Film Clips’ highlighting effects-related news, filtered through a Cinefex perspective.

Writer Joe Fordham illuminates a corner of the Cinefex Vault.

From January through December 2004, we published 49 issues of CWU until we decided to call it a day. Sadly, the weekly turnover was not sustainable on top of our editorial workload. The CWU archive existed online for a while, but when we gave our website a shakedown, that too went the way of the dodo. Gone were all those stories – career profiles, book reviews, deleted fragments from our print articles, and new stories on productions we couldn’t fit in the magazine, including Team America: World Police, Blade Trinity, The Terminal, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kill Bill and, yes, even Catwoman.

Twelve years later, Cinefex Blog has unlocked a time capsule and resurrected a sample of those stories from the Cinefex Vault. This week, we present CWU article #1, written by our founding father Don Shay, which delves into the work of visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund on HBO’s haunting mini-series, directed by Mike Nichols, based on Tony Kushner’s epic stage production, Angels in America.


Heavenly Days – article by Don Shay

An alluring angel (Emma Thompson) visits a despairing AIDS-stricken man.

An alluring angel (Emma Thompson) visits a despairing AIDS-stricken man.

When Richard Edlund received a call from HBO asking if he was available to work on a project called Angels in America, the four-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor hesitated only long enough to ascertain that director Mike Nichols would be at the helm. The television miniseries, adapted by Tony Kushner from his own two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was a six-hour examination of the burgeoning AIDS plague in the mid-1980s, and Edlund found himself drawn in by the treatment of the subject and the intelligence of the writing.

Edlund flew to New York, where the production was being mounted, to meet with Nichols and the producers; but ultimately a younger, less-experienced supervisor was hired instead. Three months later, however, HBO called again. The first half of the production was in the can, and Nichols was dissatisfied with the effects in progress. Would Edlund consider taking over?

Although most of the visual effects would appear in the second half of the production, the first featured a hallucination sequence in which Harper Pitt (Mary Louise Parker), the pill-popping wife of a closeted gay man, finds herself in a fantasyland Antarctica dressed with an icebound sailing ship and other oddities. The sequence, filmed on a greenscreen stage, had been poorly designed from an effects standpoint. “They had built a miniature ship that was maybe ten feet long — not very detailed — and they had just put it on the floor of the Angels in Americaset,” said Edlund. “Of course, it looked like a miniature sitting on the floor of the set. They even had little kids dressed up in Eskimo garb to force the perspective, but they looked like kids. Also, they were getting video dailies, rather than film, and they couldn’t tell that there were focus problems.”

Edlund took the sequence to R!OT in Santa Monica, where Michele Moen, who had worked for him at Boss Film Corporation, was now visual effects art director and lead painter. “Michele has a great eye,” Edlund asserted, “and I needed someone whose aesthetic sense I could trust.” Working with unsteady plate photography for a lead-in shot that craned up from a New York sidewalk and then descended on the Antarctic setting, Edlund and the R!OT team produced a digital painting-enhanced transition, then went on to rebuild the subsequent sequence. “We had to get rid of the ship model, so we rotoed the actors whenever they walked in front of it and painted in all the backgrounds — including the ship, which gave the sequence some visual interest.”

Director Mike Nichols examines practical angel wings on a greenscreen stage.

Director Mike Nichols examines practical angel wings on a greenscreen stage.

The show’s most flamboyant effects come when AIDS patient Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is visited by an angel (Emma Thompson) who crashes through his bedroom ceiling and hovers above him. Thompson was fitted with enormous feathered wings and flown practically on the set via a custom-built rig. “It was better to shoot Emma with the wings on the set, rather than put the wings on later,” said Edlund. “There was a lot of smoke on the set, and shards of light, which would have made it difficult to add the wings after the fact.”

To spare the actress the discomfort of hanging her on wires for multiple days of filming, the special effects crew suspended Thompson, upright, on a bicycle seat rigged to move her up and down and side to side as she hovered and delivered her lines. Fans on the set blew her hair and costume. R!OT did extensive roto and paint work to remove the mechanical flying rig and cables used to support both the rig and the rhythmically flapping wings.

Director Mike Nichols confers with actress Emma Thompson.

Director Mike Nichols confers with actress Emma Thompson.

The sequence climaxes, as it were, with the female angel seducing the gay man as they hover slightly apart in midair. Flames sear the garments off both characters in discreet head-and-shoulders shots requiring the digital team to burn 3D clothing from the undraped performers. Wide shots of the naked figures in orgasmic frenzy featured Justin Kirk and an Emma Thompson body double. “We made castings of the actors and built body pans so they could lie on their sides, facing each other, and be shot in profile from above,” said Edlund, “with the floor painted green beneath them.” Edlund photographed Thompson in closeup, then turned the material over to the R!OT crew, which replaced the body double’s head with the actress.’ “I had shot Justin and the body double a few feet apart, so they could move their arms around, but they were pushed closer together in the composite and their arms were rotoed where they overlapped. We incorporated some orgasmic body action, since the actors couldn’t do any of that in the rigid body pans, and layered in fire elements and the angel’s wings, which were shot separately.”

Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt with the angel wing rig on set.

Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt with the angel wing rig on set.

Late in the film, Prior pays a visit to Heaven, a cross between modern-day San Francisco and the remnants of ancient Rome, run by angelic bureaucrats. The principal action was photographed at Hadrian’s Villa, a 2,000-year-old structure outside Rome, which was enhanced with digitally painted backgrounds. “Mike wanted to impart visually that this was a bureaucratic, dysfunctional place,” recalled Edlund. “We were talking about how to do that, and I said: ‘Remember Orson Welles’ The Trial, where there was a room filled with this vast typing pool?’ And he said, ‘Exactly!’ So they got 60 desks equipped with old Olivettis and Underwoods, and a bunch of angels in gray suits with little wings. We multiplied them eight or ten times by shooting tiles, then comping them into the background.”

Working with an acclaimed director on a prestigious, high-profile project was a heavenly experience for Richard Edlund. “It was a rare opportunity to be involved in something other than a bubblegum movie,” Edlund commented. “Mike Nichols and the actors were terrific. Angels in America is one of my all-time favorite filmmaking experiences.”

Photo copyrights © 2003 by HBO, © 2016 by Cinefex.