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 #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.

VFX Q&A – “Crimson Peak” Titles

"Crimson Peak" titles - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Master of the macabre, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, recently took cinemagoers on his latest foray into modern horror, unlocking the doors on a Gothic haunted house fantasy in Universal Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ Crimson Peak.

In the upcoming Cinefex 144, we will be delving deep into the supernatural goings-on of the film – speaking with señor del Toro, visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, makeup effects supervisor David Martí, special effects supervisor Laird McMurray and other key crewmembers, including artists at Toronto visual effects studio Mr. X.

Before you pull up your chair by the fireplace with your winter issue, we will set the scene – spoiler free – with Ron Gervais, creative director of IAMSTATIC, who with creative director Dave Greene and production company TOPIX realized the elegant title sequence that closes out the film.

Watch the complete Crimson Peak title sequence:

What is the typical relationship between a title design team and a feature film production, and how did that work with Crimson Peak?

The process varies from filmmaker to filmmaker and the nature of the project. There are films that use titles as cool backgrounds for nameplates, or a punch intro to grab the audience’s attention, which is sometimes all that’s needed. Alternatively, there are directors who embrace the full power of titles and use them to add another layer to their films. Guillermo del Toro is obviously a director that likes to inject meaning and substance into every nook and cranny of his work. With Crimson Peak you feel as if every element has been carefully considered and mulled over, so with these titles we wanted to try best to bring that same approach to our work.

Original storyboard for the "Crimson Peak" title sequence.

Original storyboard for the “Crimson Peak” title sequence.

Guillermo has mentioned that, stylistically, the film is a throwback to a classic style of filmmaking – when you began your title sequence design, was the film developed enough for you to get a sense of that, and how did you select visual elements that complimented the story?

When we were first approached to create a treatment for Crimson Peak, we hadn’t seen a single image. We were give a copy of the script and we found a few pictures of the actors on set via the Internet. The script really resonated with us and fortunately we were able to capture the right tone in our treatment and frames. The film has a very strong visual motif, and one of our earliest notes was that moths, butterflies and vines were key elements.  The house itself is a crucial character in the film and acts as a perfect backdrop. Combining these two elements we were able to create a guided tour through a series of vignettes that act as a concentrated overview of the story.

IAMSTATIC gathered a wide range of research material, as well as referencing actual props used in the film.

IAMSTATIC gathered a wide range of research material, as well as referencing actual props used in the film.

Your breakdown video shows that all the imagery in your sequence was computer generated – did the filmmakers provide you with elements, and did you try to capture the feel of Tom Sanders’ production design and Dan Laustsen’s photography?

Once we set off making the titles, we had only a few cleared images from the film to use as reference. Later in the process, we did have the pleasure of being shipped two large crates of movie props – everything from large drapes, beautiful wardrobe pieces, old picture and books to intricate frames with bugs pinned in them. So we were able to add to our initial designs by hand-selecting objects that would make sense for each title screen. There ended up being a large list of CG props in the end, which made it fun to arrange the set pieces.

Watch IAMSTATIC’s breakdown video of the Crimson Peak main title sequence:

To compliment the huge sets that they built for the film, Mr. X created a very detailed digital model of Allerdale Hall, inside and out – did they share that with you, and were you accurate to that layout?

Yes, we were fortunate enough to get the beautiful exterior model of Allerdale Hall from Mr. X, which made it much easier to have continuity with the film and allowed us to incorporate it into our own world for the titles. It also saved us an incredible amount of work so we are very grateful for that. The interior shots were custom built by us, and our team at Topix, so we could create our own bespoke scenes, or vignettes.  We were not as concerned with being ‘accurate’ to the actual rooms seen in the film and instead focused more on using composition and lighting to capture the overall mood of the film.

CP-Max-Scene-01

Visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi’s credit contains a telling story detail, which we won’t elaborate on here for spoiler reasons — but it made me wonder, did you choreograph your shots to particular credits?

Absolutely. Every object placed in our sets has some meaning and relationship to the characters, or crew highlighted in each title. The titles for Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and the other actors have strong messaging about their characters’ struggles, while costume designer Kate Hawley shows objects related to her craft, and film editor Bernat Vilaplana is paired with a wall of framed paintings. They each get wrapped with iconography from the film. As Guillermo del Toro said, “We used the titles to underline and add narrative to the film.”

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Can you take us through your animation process, and how much input you had with Guillermo and Bernat on pace and timing?

The process was incredibly smooth. We chose a “temp” music track that we felt matched the tone of the film, and used that as our guide. As we began doing previs animation, we would often sit with the director and talk about tweaks to the pacing and edit based on its relationship with the film.

"Crimson Peak" titles - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Del Toro is very well versed in the whole process of animation and CG, and it was nice not to get bogged down looking at the work in its rough state. We could really focus on making the flow of the cameras and edit match his vision. He also knows his bugs! So if we had a butterfly moving or bending in a strange way he would point that out immediately.

Wax seal lighting setup (top) and final shot (bottom).

Wax seal lighting setup (top) and final shot (bottom).

Was it normal to have so long, in this case five months, to create a title sequence?

No, I don’t think that it’s the norm, but honestly we used every minute of it. I think that knowing how much blood, sweat and tears was being put into this film pushed us to match the same effort. Often, in certain projects, things can become overworked if given too much time and revised to many times; but in this case we relished the opportunity to add a level of detail that we are not usually afforded. It was great.

As a film is ending, many modern audience members can’t seem to wait to light up their phones and bolt for the exits – have you observed if people stick around to appreciate the artistry that you put into this sequence?

We have seen the film twice and we have noticed that with any Guillermo del Toro film, most people are there to see every inch of the imagery, and they know that he would put importance on the titles craft as well. We also locked the doors so they had no choice :)

"Crimson Peak" title sequence

Crimson Peak is now playing in theatres. Look for our full feature in Cinefex 144, in December.

Thanks to Universal Pictures, Bette Einbinder, Ron Gervais, Dave Greene.

Kubrick’s Aries 1B

Sunday morning, Deadline Hollywood broke the news:

Academy Museum Buys Rare ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Model For $344,000

"2001" key art by Robert McCall © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

“2001” key art by Robert McCall © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Fans were stunned. As any Stanley Kubrick aficionado will tell you, it has long been legend that all the spaceship miniatures from Kubrick’s landmark science fiction film were destroyed after filming at the filmmaker’s request, to prevent recycling in cheap imitations. Could this be the real McCoy?

Before the facts were known, a small studio in El Segundo, California, became mecca for a pilgrimage of visual effects professionals who arrived to gaze in awe at the Aries 1B – the spherical trans-lunar spaceship from 2001: A Space Odyssey – that, miraculously, had been found after 47 years in obscurity.

The miniature was up for auction and the curator, Premiere Props, welcomed guests to verify the find. Facebook images began appearing of spectators posing with the ship — Dennis Muren, Greg Jein, Matthew Gratzner, Ian Hunter, Shannon Gans, Dave Jones, Bruce Logan, Pat McClung, Harrison Ellenshaw, Peter Anderson, Bill Taylor, André Bustanoby, Gene Kozicki, Rob McFarlane, Ted Rae, Dan Winters, John Goodson and Kim Smith (and guest appearances, by phone, from Douglas Trumbull and Steve Gawley). The general consensus: the miniature was real.

The AMPAS Museum of Motion Pictures eventually acquired the ship for a princely sum. Prior to finalizing the sale, event organizer Dan Levin allowed Visual Effects Society Archive Committee co-chair Gene Kozicki and VFX artist André Bustanoby to a make detailed photographic record of the ship; and Gene shared the experience with Cinefex:

“I have to admit that when I first heard that the Aries-1B filming model was up for sale at a local auction house, I was skeptical. Model makers, prop makers, and costumers have been making replicas of key items for years and quite often they show up in an auction as the authentic item, only to be ‘de-bunked’ later. At first I thought that would be the (unfortunate) case here.  But the photos and story had a ring of authenticity to them and I figured it was worth seeing it in person.

“Upon first examination, the model appeared to be in pretty good shape. It was covered in thick layer of dirt and dust, but structurally it was sound and aside from the landing gear shrouds, was largely intact.  It was what I expected a model that was made in 1966 to look like. The story that the auctioneer provided about how the consignor obtained it lined up somewhat with the story I had been told by Dave Larson (who’s researched the making of 2001 extensively and has worked with Doug Trumbull on presentations). 

Photo courtesy Gene Kozicki

Aries 1B – photo courtesy Gene Kozicki

“Within about five minutes of looking it over, I was pretty much convinced it was the genuine filming model and not a replica. What clinched it for me was a phone conversation that I had with Doug Trumbull just after I left the auction house. He mentioned details about the nature of some of the materials – something that wasn’t readily apparent in photos. (Some of the panel detailing was done with thin metal foils cut to shape. The foils featured a subtle embossed texture that don’t really show up on film but can be seen up close with the naked eye. Doug said they used that material because it looked like quilted insulation.) The model was built as a one-off using some pretty heavy-duty industrial model making techniques. The body is thick acrylic and fiberglass. The landing gears are a combination of steel and brass. The model parts are individually glued on – not castings. (This lack of shortcuts played no small role in its survival. I’ve seen younger filming models in worse shape due to ‘modern’ materials and the need to get it done quickly and cheaply.)

“From a design aesthetic, all of the models in 2001 were so unlike anything we had seen before that it helped sell the concept of a believable future. Up until that time, space travel and lunar landings were done in ships that looked far more elegant that practical. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon journeyed into space standing up. The public had seen a few real launches and it was clear that the way we were going to get into space was not the way our fathers had envisioned it. In 2001, space travel wasn’t fantasy, it was plausible. In fact, it was mundane. Doctor Floyd (William Sylvester) sleeps most of his way to the Space Station and the moon. They have stewardesses and receptionists just sitting there, reading a magazine. In 2001, space travel was boring. That I think made it far more realistic than anything we had seen prior. And that’s why it still holds up.

Photo courtesy Gene Kozicki

Aries 1B detail – photo courtesy Gene Kozicki.

“So how did this thing get here? A lot of the stories surrounding the filming of 2001 have grown to legend or myth status, probably due to time and the fact that the director was Stanley Kubrick. The ‘myth’ states that Kubrick ordered everything destroyed in order to prevent cheap imitations from beating 2001 to the screen. The reality appears to be far more mundane. Like most movies, post-production ran longer than expected and during this period the models were just stored away — either on a stage or in a building at M-G-M’s Borehamwood studio, in England. And they stayed there even after the film was released in 1968. Why? Probably because it was easier to just leave the stuff there than figure out what to do with it. 

“Finally, at some point in the early/mid 1970’s, M-G-M finally decided to clear the material out.  Kubrick was offered the models but reportedly refused. (Obviously the logistics involved in moving and storing them were considerable.  With the ‘small’ Discovery model being around 15 feet long and the ‘large’ Discovery being 54 feet long, it would require several trucks and a large shed to store them.)  But I think there’s something else we should consider — by the time this reportedly happened (mid-70’s), Stanley Kubrick had tried to get Napoleon off the ground, directed A Clockwork Orange, and was working on Barry Lyndon. Given Kubrick’s tendency to go ‘all in’ on a given film, it seems reasonable to me that he simply wasn’t interested in anything from one of his (by then) old films.

“Over the years, there were rumors that some of the models survived. In fact, the Aries 1B, along with the Orion Clipper (the ‘Pan-Am’ ship), and the Moonbus were thought to have been set aside for Kubrick to claim. But we’ve also ‘heard’ that the Moonbus was taken home by a crew member and eventually suffered an ignominious fate at the hands of that crew member’s son and some fireworks. And of course, there were the photos of Space Station V rotting in a field. The problem with all of this was that the only evidence we had as to the fate of the models were those photos – and those photos supported the ‘myth’ that everything had been destroyed. (Despite the fact there was no mention of any of the other models being in that same field.) Now that the Aries has shown up, obviously that lends at least some credence to some of the models being put to one side. (And if they were put to one side for Kubrick, how did the consignor get his hands on the Aries?)  Hopefully, this discovery will allow new research and we can get a better picture of what happened.

Aries 1B miniature construction, 1966.

Special effects technician Rodney Fuller (R) attends to the Aries 1B at Borehamwood, 1966. Image courtesy Matte Shot © Hawk Films / M-G-M.

“As this item was coming up for auction, we really didn’t know where it would end up, or if we would ever be granted access again. Premiere Props’ owner Dan Levin allowed us to come in and document the model several times. It was his hope that if enough industry people saw it and talked about it, it would remove any lingering doubts from people’s minds that this was the real thing. (He was skeptical at first, too.) Additionally, Dan recognized the significance of the prop and wanted to make sure it wound up in some institution that would not only restore it but display it. We all recognized that it had a unique story apart from the basic fact that it was used in a movie.

“Joining us in examining the model were John Goodson from ILM, model maker Greg Jein, the folks at New Deal Studios, visual effects designer Dennis Muren — and everyone else who saw it was almost giddy that this thing survived. André Bustanoby and I set up tracking markers and took photos from all sides, and inside.

“With the removal of the hardware that controlled the landing gear, we noticed that the model was sitting a bit lower than what was seen on screen. The landing gears still move, albeit manually. The main part of the body appears to be made from a blown plexiglass dome about 30 inches in diameter. The endoscope was a handy gadget I picked up at a hardware store that transmits imagery to your iPad or cell phone via an app. I got it to see inside the guts of the model. I was curious to see if any of the landing gear linkages were still inside the model. (Like Al Capone’s vault, it was empty.) I was also trying to see if the mount points for the model were still intact. The last thing we wanted to see happen was the model get damaged as it was being moved back into its shipping crate. Thankfully, the mounts and inner structure appear to be in good condition. The Academy will have to come up with some way to mount it securely — I wouldn’t want to rely on a 50 year old mount point as the sole method of support. But it seems sturdy enough to get it into a crate and to a facility where it can be examined further.

“Given the influence of 2001 and all the legends surrounding the making of the film, the significance of this model cannot be overstated.  This is the equivalent of someone discovering Orson Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons or Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz. 2001 set the bar very high — without 2001 and the contributions of the artists that worked on the visual effects, we wouldn’t have Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix, or Interstellar. I am very pleased that the Motion Picture Academy is the new custodian of this iconic artifact and I hope that its eventual display will inspire future storytellers as much as it has inspired ourselves.”

Gene Kozicki, André Bustanoby, Harrison Ellenshaw and the Aries 1B. Photo courtesy Dan Levin.

Gene Kozicki, André Bustanoby, Harrison Ellenshaw and the Aries 1B. Photo courtesy Dan Levin.

Special thanks to Brian Johnson and to Peter Cook at Matte Shot.

20,000 Leagues with Fleischer and Ellenshaw

In August 1999, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles announced a screening of Walt Disney’s classic film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for which visual effects artist Peter Ellenshaw had famously produced some of his most striking visual effects. At the 20000-leagues-postertime, I was working for an online publication and I had recently completed an interview with Peter’s son, visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, about a mind-bogglingly extravagant episode of Xena: Warrior Princess produced at Flat Earth Productions. In my quest for material to feed the hungry maw of the Internet, Harrison agreed to put me on the phone with his father, who was then retired and living out in Santa Barbara, painting landscapes of golf courses and seascapes. Peter regaled me with wonderful stories about his friendship with Walt Disney and his fondness for 20,000 Leagues, and much to my delight he also arranged an introduction with the film’s director, Richard Fleischer. Suddenly my little story was snowballing into more than I had expected.

I visited Richard Fleischer at his family home, a Spanish-style mansion in Pacific Palisades that Richard had inherited from his father, animator Max Fleischer, long considered Disney’s rival. Driving up the winding pathway to the house made me feel like Joe Gillis visiting Norma Desmond in her mansion in Sunset Boulevard. I was nervous, but Richard invited me into his study and was very generous in sharing his memories.

Sadly, the story that I wrote based on my conversations with these two gentlemen has long since vanished online, and Peter and Richard are no longer with us, but I dug out my original text and offer it here to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary.


Of the 50 tough, uncompromising and often brilliant films he directed, Richard Fleischer – Mr. Majestyk, The Boston Strangler, Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green – is arguably best known for Walt Disney Pictures’ 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which sent a generation of moviegoers to bed with nightmare images of a tentacled behemoth with a rolling, staring eye and a snapping, pulsing beak.

For Fleischer, 20,000 Leagues came on the heels of directing over a dozen RKO B-pictures. He initially greeted the project with uncertain feelings. Not only was the big-budget, effects-laden film a change of pace and style, but Fleischer had grown up in another animation camp as the son of Max Fleischer – animation pioneer and inventor of the rotoscope process, Out of the Inkwell and the Betty Boop cartoons.

For matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Verne’s adventure was equally an odyssey into uncharted waters. Ellenshaw was the new ‘boy wonder’ on the Disney campus, having arrived from his native Britain with new optical technology gleaned from seven years assisting Alexander Korda’s master matte painter, W. Percy Day. Add to the mix Disney’s latest technical masterstroke – the idea of mounting the epic in the new CinemaScope aspect ratio – and Ellenshaw and Fleischer had their work cut out for them. 45 years later, the two master filmmakers looked back on their experience fashioning what has now become a timeless slice cinematic fantasy.

Original concept art for the "Nautilus"

Original concept art for the “Nautilus” from Richard Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Richard Fleischer, director

“There were two big challenges for me, besides developing the screenplay with Earl Felton. CinemaScope was brand new at the time. I had seen a demonstration of the process six months prior to filming and I thought it was the future of film. The first challenge was to use the screen artistically and creatively, as a storytelling device, not as a gimmick. I also wanted to treat the project in an adult fashion, not as a picture for kids. Secondly, I wanted the film to have philosophical depth and artistic integrity, which was not at that time one of Disney’s strong points, but it was there in Verne’s novel.

“Helping me was Harper Goff, the production designer, who was a true genius and a tremendous artist. He had been working on the design of Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, for quite a while before I came on the picture, though he and Walt had their differences on what the sub should look like. Harper prevailed and came up with a design that is so familiar today, that very rough-looking, odd craft with all the rivets sticking out. Walt wanted it to look really sleek and modern, but he relented when he saw that Harper’s gothic look really paid off, both exterior and interior. It really looked like a sea monster, as it was in the story.

The "Nautilus"

The classic design of the “Nautilus” was the brainchild of production designer Harper Goff.

“We built a full-scale exterior of the sub, which was all shot at Fox Lake, and of course we built the interior full-scale. The sub was designed to take advantage of CinemaScope, but it was difficult to work with. We only had one 40mm lens for the whole shoot, so Harper designed the sets so that you could see the whole sub interior at one time – ceiling, walls and floor – to give you that claustrophobic feeling but it was almost impossible for Franz Planer, the cinematographer, to light. There was no place to hide the lights!

“We had various sizes of miniature subs; the largest was five or six feet long. These were shot at Disney in this huge tank they built for the picture, the biggest in Hollywood at the time. We were shooting and lighting into the tank through windows and using underwater lights but we ran into problems in the sequence when they’re going through the underwater tunnel that leads into the inside of the volcano, Vulcania.

“The CinemaScope lens needed a lot of light and we were shooting high speed, which also needed a lot of light, so it got to a point where we couldn’t get an exposure. Harper came up with a great solution. He figured if we could get rid of the anamorphic lens, we could use a much faster lens, however when we projected our image in CinemaScope the sub would be stretched out four times longer than it should be.

“What he did was he designed and built a squeezed-up model of the Nautilus, a chubby sub. It was very odd-looking, two or three feet long, even the rivets were oval, but he figured it precisely so when we shot it with a standard lens and then projected it through CinemaScope, it stretched it out to the perfect proportions. We were able to maneuver it much more easily through our set, and it worked perfectly.

The "Nautilus"

Various sizes of the “Nautilus” miniature were photographed in a large tank at Disney, with shots being further enhanced by Peter Ellenshaw’s extensive matte paintings.

“The squid was the first thing that I photographed, although none of that is in the picture. Everybody that was involved made a terrible mistake because it was written to be shot on a calm sea at sunset, which meant we had no way to hide the cables. The first squid that we shot had almost no motion to it at all, and it was not really waterproof. The stunt men were wrestling the squid arms, pretending the squid was attacking them, although they were attacking the squid, and it was disintegrating. Chunks were falling off because it was filled with kapok and that was absorbing water, getting heavier and heavier, then the cables would snap. Walt Disney saw the dailies and said it looked like a Keystone Cops comedy. He got some of the animatronic geniuses at Disneyland to help out, and that is where special effects supervisor Robert A. Mattey came into the picture.

“I was still worried until the writer, Earl Felton, suggested we rewrite the scene so it takes place in a big storm at night. We have rough seas, wind, waves crashing and lightning flashing and we only see the squid clearly in the lightning. I ran out and told Walt and he got construction going. It cost over a million dollars to make the change and we almost didn’t have enough money to finish the picture because of that, but it was tremendous.

“We still needed cables to move the arms, but we had 35 people controlling the mechanics. It was filled with machinery and pneumatics tubes and hydraulics. It had eyes that opened and closed, a beak that opened and closed. Each arm had three puppeteers to give the motion as it curled and uncurled. A lot of that was helped with the internal machinery, but you still need a human hand to give it emotion, a realistic, life-like motion, not a mechanical movement. It was wonderful stuff.”

Harrison Ellenshaw (left) and James Mason appraise one of the many matte paintings produced by Ellenshaw for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"

Peter Ellenshaw (left) and the film’s star, James Mason, appraise one of the many matte paintings produced by Ellenshaw for Richard Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Peter Ellenshaw, matte artist

“I first worked for Disney in England on Treasure Island. I came to America hoping to work for Walt. Nothing had been set up when I first came out. They were still matte painting onto the original negative – exposing mattes onto undeveloped, exposed production footage – whereas back in England I had learned, on films like Black Narcissus, the technique of making dupe negatives. We were always having terrible weather, so Doug Hague at Technicolor in London had pioneered this process where we could grab matte elements no matter what the weather was like and correct the contrast later. I brought this to America, although I found myself doing all the matte paintings for 20,000 Leagues onto original negative.

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“Walt had an artist storyboard the whole film, then we had meetings to decide which ones would be used as mattes. When Dick Fleischer started working, I was doing sketches for the film, then after two weeks Walt called us all together to see the early miniature footage. It had all been lit from the front and looked like a tin toy sub, but I couldn’t say anything because I was the new boy. When the lights came up, Walt turned to poor Ralph Hammeras, the second-unit miniature effects photographer who had been working in special effects since 1917, and told him to work with me on these paintings I had been doing to show the way I felt it should be lit.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw

Ellenshaw’s matte paintings were done “the old-fashioned way” by hanging them on eight-foot pieces of masonite in front of the camera.

“I always did conceptual paintings for visual effects, quick sketches in oils, but this led to me working with Ralph until they finished with the miniatures instead of getting on with the actual matte paintings. I was getting behind and I didn’t have time to set up my camera back at the studio, so I decided I would have to paint the mattes the old-fashioned way, hanging them on big eight-foot pieces of masonite in front of the camera.

“I remember hearing they were using CinemaScope at Fox and they were curving matte, paintings to cope with the new perspective. It was imaginary; you just didn’t need it. We painted on a flat surface and we didn’t have any problems. I ended up doing about eight paintings on location out of a total 30 or 40.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw

Eight of the 30-40 matte paintings produced by Ellenshaw for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” were painted on location.

“They finally found a place for me to set up my camera in a corridor. I used Ub Iwerks’ process lab camera assistant to work the camera for me, under my instruction. We were really out on a limb. One very complex scene was for a shot where they look through a spyglass into Vulcania and see all the explosives being loaded onto ships.

“We went out to Cucamonga on location and set up the scene and photographed 40 extras three times, making them look like 120. I set up a little tent, put up a black mask, cut away one portion, photographed a portion of the scene, marked the glass, filled that area back up then re-ran the film to exposed the second piece, and did that three times.

“For each exposure, we would run a test, take the film back to the studio and keep it in the refrigerator until we were ready to make tour tests on our painting. During that time, the film continued to expose even though it was sealed in a light-tight box. It was a chemical reaction that slowed down after two or three hours, but when you re-exposed it to the painting you had to rush to get it developed to try to stop it building up again, to equalize the different densities of black. I’m astounded now that I ever tried to get three images on one piece of film for that scene with the painting of the ship, but it worked.”

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw

For a key scene showing explosives being loaded on to a ship, 40 extras were shot multiple times to increase their apparent numbers. The resulting plates were then comped together along with an Ellenshaw matte painting of the ship.

Thanks to Walt Disney Pictures, Harrison Ellenshaw, Allen and Philip DeBevoise.

Smaug Versus Colbert

Smaug in motion capture gear ready for his encounter with comedian Stephen Colbert

Smaug in motion capture gear ready for his encounter with comedian Stephen Colbert

Viewers of Comedy Central’s satirical news show The Colbert Report have long been aware that the series’ deadpan Conservative commentator, comedian Stephen Colbert, is a die-hard fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Colbert has famously called out filmmaker Peter Jackson on numerous points of Middle-earth lore, and his Tolkien pop-quiz smack-downs with actor and fellow Tolkien fan James Franco are legendary. Jackson and company welcomed the witticisms and scholarly insights by rewarding Colbert with a cameo appearance in The Desolation of Smaug as a ‘Laketown Spy,’ and Colbert reciprocated by emceeing a Hobbit panel at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this summer.

Last Thursday, in the run-up to the North American opening of Jackson’s final Middle-earth chapter, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Colbert one-upped every talk show host in town, and amazed audiences worldwide, by inviting the dragon Smaug, mighty guardian of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, to his Comedy Central studio as a talk show guest.

While roaming the halls of Weta Digital in preparation for our coverage of The Battle of the Five Armies in our upcoming Spring edition, Cinefex caught up with Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken who, with senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, led a small army of artisans responsible for bringing Tolkien’s fearsome firedrake to the small screen.

CINEFEX: So, Matt, how far in advance did you know about Smaug’s Colbert Report appearance before the broadcast date?

MATT AITKEN: We had a whole two weeks advance notice on that one. I think Peter Jackson was being kind to us, letting us finish the film. From what I gathered, he and Stephen Colbert cooked this thing up between them. And they had the dialog recorded for a few weeks. My understanding is that Benedict was in a sound booth in London doing some final dialog replacement for Smaug quite late in the day. And at the end of that session, they tagged on the voice recording for the Colbert Report interview. The way they did it was Stephen telephoned Benedict while he was in the booth, and they recorded the session on an iPhone to give us performance reference video of him recording Smaug’s side of the dialog. They essentially ad-libbed the interview and went through it two or three times. I think there was the basis of a script, but there was a lot of ad-libbing going on, as well. I don’t think it will ever get seen, but that video footage was gold, seeing Benedict performing and then cracking up between lines.

CINEFEX: I noticed that Smaug was limited to just his head and one hand peeking into Colbert’s studio – was that also a mercy call by Pete, to help visual effects?

MATT AITKEN: Well that was a combination of things. It was about how much of Smaug could we practically see in the context of that studio space. We didn’t want him you appear too small, by cramming him into that tiny space. We also didn’t have time to build a whole studio interior to accommodate all of Smaug’s interactions. We just built the part of the stage that you see in the single-shots on Smaug, that was the extent of our digital set.

CINEFEX: You built a digital version of the Colbert studio?

MATT AITKEN: We did. Comedy Central sent us some stills. We digitally modeled some of the props that are sitting on the shelves that Smaug busts through, the kinds of thing that Colbert has collected over the years — he has his Captain America shield, and various other bits and pieces. We included that in the wreckage of where Smaug busts through. We had to have that much built, because he busts his way in, and we had to do some destruction around that. It was a lot of fun to do. And the Colbert Report team was great to work with. They are a really great bunch of people.

Smaug's Eye - Image property of Weta Digital and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

CINEFEX: How ever did you put all that together, with the animation, in two weeks?

MATT AITKEN: Well, Pete presented it to us the day after we delivered our final shots on Five Armies. My other fellow visual effects supervisors, Eric Saindon and Chris White, were already otherwise engaged, and so I got to pick it up. I broke it out into shots. It turned out to be about six minutes of character animation, about 50 shots, and so we just went wide with it. We got all the animators who had been working on Smaug all year and gave them a couple of shots each, and that is how we got it done. They did fantastic work. After rendering The Hobbit feature footage in stereo at 48 frames per second, rendering at high definition TV resolution at 24 frames per second was a breeze. The Weta Digital render wall was wide open, so we were able to take over the whole render wall to get it rendered in time. We shipped it at the very last minute, and I was a little bit nervous to see how it played out. But it played out just great, and it seems to have been incredibly well received.

CINEFEX: It certainly did. And we got see a new side to Smaug’s personality. I think he’s a natural for Hollywood.

MATT AITKEN: Yeah, exactly! We were very pleased it went over so well.

Thanks to David Gougé, Amy Minty and Alison Branch. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey photograph copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures and courtesy of Weta Digital.

Mysteries of Cinefex 140

Just wanted to say ‘thanks’ to our loyal reader, Douglas Hryniuk, for his kind note in our Facebook comments about our upcoming editorial selections for December 2014. We do have an interesting lineup for Cinefex 140, and attentive readers might have noticed a bit of a revolving door in our ‘next issue’ page at Cinefex.com.

As Douglas observed, we had originally planned to cover The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in December, closer to the movie’s theatrical release date. However, Peter Jackson requested that we wait, for similar reasons that I described in a Cinefex Blog, regarding The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, last year:

http://cinefex.com/blog/timing

One of the other movies that I researched was Fox-Searchlight’s upcoming Birdman, which Douglas also spotted at our next issue page. Alejandro Iñárritu’s film is extraordinary, with spectacular performances and highly imaginative filmmaking from all departments. Unfortunately, for reasons too complex to explain here, that one, too, has flown the coop. We’re leaving some birdseed to see if he’ll return.

We do have another story that I’m working on right now, which I believe our readers will find intriguing. Plus, the other stories as advertised are all in various stages of completion — namely, Christopher Nolan’s outer space adventure Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings and Terry Gilliam’s mad The Zero Theorem. Those, with our other little cracker, should make an entertaining Christmas stocking stuffer.

We’ve not decided yet what movies will follow those in Cinefex 141, in March, so you’ll have to watch this space.

— Joe Fordham

Nolan Interstellar

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan ponders the mysteries of “Interstellar” — scheduled for theatrical release November 5, and in-depth analysis in Jody Duncan’s upcoming story in Cinefex 140. Image © Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures / Syncopy.

John Bruno Q&A – James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

Deepsea-Challenge-3D-VFXQA

Visual effects supervisor John Bruno first met filmmaker James Cameron at the 1985 Tokyo Film Festival, where Cameron was screening Aliens and Bruno was promoting the visual effects of Poltergeist II. Bruno’s background – growing up in the ocean-side community of Monterey, California, combined with his experience in animation and the nuts and bolts of movie making – sparked a mutual appreciation that led to the filmmakers’ first professional collaboration, earning Bruno a ‘best visual effects’ Oscar – with Hoyt Yeatman, Dennis Muren and Dennis Skotak – for Cameron’s 1989 underwater science fiction tale, The Abyss.

'The Abyss' in Cinefex 39.

“The Abyss” covered in Cinefex 39.

Work on The Abyss involved many practical underwater dives, including Bruno’s first dive in a submersible off Grand Cayman exploring the 850-foot-deep wreck of the cargo ship Kirk Pride, which provided valuable reference for fictional scenarios. After filming, Cameron continued to invite Bruno on recreational dives until out of the blue Cameron proposed another submarine excursion, swearing Bruno to secrecy, diving on the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The footage wound up in the opening scenes of Cameron’s 1997 box office champion. “I dove with famed underwater photographer Al Giddings twice to the Titanic,” John Bruno recalled. “We had lunch on the bridge in front of the Titanic’s bronze telemotor – I had a cold hotdog, a bread roll, and a piece of broccoli; and it was best lunch I ever had! We were in the lighting sub, Mir 2, lighting the Titanic as Jim filmed from in Mir 1. So, I am in the movie Titanic, inside a submarine.”

"Ghosts of the Abyss" 2001

Bill Paxton, ‘Mir’ submersible pilot Genya Cherniev and John Bruno, “Ghosts of the Abyss” 2001 © Walden Media / Buena Vista Pictures.

In 2001, Bruno returned to the Titanic site as a producer on Cameron’s 3D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, using a pair of small, custom-engineered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore deep inside the wreck. Cameron continued to record his dives, including the 2002 Discovery Channel documentary investigating a sunken World War II battleship, in Expedition: Bismarck. A few years later, while Cameron was prepping his space epic, Avatar, Bruno learned that work was underway on a classified new submersible, a futuristic one-man vessel designed to venture into the deepest place on earth, the ‘Challenger Deep’ in the New Britain Trench, a volcanic cleft in the ocean off Papua New Guinea.

sub3

‘Deepsea Challenger’.

The sub, which resembled a vertical torpedo painted ‘Kawasaki racing-green,’ gave its name to Cameron’s latest documentary, sponsored by National Geographic and Rolex, released in special venue theatres as James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D. Bruno shared director credit on the film with Andrew Wight and Ray Quint. Wight initiated filming, but then tragically died with documentary filmmaker Mike deGruy in a helicopter accident. Bruno flew out at short notice to record the expedition that went on make history March 26, 2012, when Cameron touched down on the seabed, seven miles beneath the ocean surface. Quint directed historical reenactment scenes and oversaw Australian-based postproduction, working with Melbourne visual effects house Iloura.

John Bruno and friends on location in Pomio, Papua New Guinea

John Bruno and friends on location in Pomio, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

John Bruno described to Cinefex his experience capturing 1,200 hours of footage — which film editor Jane Moran honed to a gripping 90-minute documentary — chronicling Cameron’s latest aquatic odyssey, and exploring his filmmaking colleague’s unique spirit of adventure.

 

What’s it like to direct Jim Cameron?

Jim and I have a 25-plus-year history of working together. When he asked me to direct this project I thought, well, I have knowledge of deep-ocean submersible diving, and had insight where to take the backstory. And I wasn’t intimidated to ask questions, because we know each other so well. For example, when the expedition was underway, I was struck by an idea for something I wanted to talk to Jim about on camera. I knocked on his cabin door and said, ‘Jim, there is something I’d like you to do.’ He replied, ‘Well, you’re the director. Tell me what you need and I’ll do it.’ After that, I just got on with the job.

When you joined the production, after the helicopter accident, did you have to hit the ground running?

John Bruno interviews James Cameron

John Bruno interviews James Cameron prior to a ‘Deepsea Challenger’ test dive.

On the flight to Australia, I started to break down the script. I listed the key people involved. I had to learn everything about them and the Deepsea Challenger submersible in the next 72 hours. I had a breakdown of the 3D cameras, backup equipment and the key members of the camera crew. I needed to know where the safe zones were for filming aboard ship. Launch control officer David ‘DW’ Wotherspoon and my director of photography Jules O’Loughlin became my closest friends and allies because shooting at sea on an open-decked ship is difficult and dangerous.

On board the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

On board the ‘Mermaid Sapphire’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

Our surface vessel, the Mermaid Sapphire, was a deep-ocean pipeline survey ship. There were cranes and winches with steel cable running everywhere. It’s an industrial platform. During a sub launch, deck hands and crewmen would be straining to control the Deepsea Challenger with ropes that crisscrossed the deck and guided it over the railing and into the sea.  If a rope snapped, or the sub started swinging loose, we would have a ‘situation’ and camera operator looking through an eyepiece would not be watching his surroundings — his job is to follow the action – so we had to be self-aware, and look out for each other.

On board the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ is winched above the deck. Photo: John Bruno.

When we were out over the New Britain Trench, Jim set a record for the single deepest dive of a manned submersible – 8,000 meters, or 27,000-feet. On board the Mermaid Sapphire, we had a satellite feed to the outside world. We could post updates on the Internet and receive information. We were getting feedback about the dive. One Tweet in particular bugged the hell out of me. It said something to the effect that this was just ‘a rich Hollywood guy doing a stunt.’ That made me angry. I told Jim I wanted to change the entire line of questioning in my upcoming interviews and find people who knew him as an explorer going back 20 years.

You mean, like animatronic designer Walt Conti, who built the weight-release system on the Deepsea Challenger?

'Deepsea Challenger' is lowered into the ocean

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ begins its descent into the New Britain Trench. Photo: John Bruno.

Exactly. Walt Conti and animatronic designer Ty Boyce both worked with us on The Abyss. On camera, I asked Walt to compare Jim then and now, and he recalled how the conversation always turned to diving. It was the same with other members of the crew, the discussions would always turn to going out on some sea adventure. That led to us to incorporate footage from the making of The Abyss, the making of Titanic, the 16,000-foot dives to the Bismarck and we tied that into this documentary. Before Deepsea Challenger, Jim had organized seven deep-ocean expeditions and logged 77 submersible dives. This was no stunt. Jim made that very clear in the opening of the film, when he explained how the Deepsea Challenger was designed as a real scientific platform.

The sub is a unique-looking vehicle. Jim discusses the vertical orientation in the film; was there a reason he had it painted Kawasaki racing green?

Bruno with the 'Deepsea Challenger'

Bruno with the ‘Deepsea Challenger’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

He just thought it looked good. It was easy to see. It was either that, or white or yellow, and green was good. I really liked the design, where they had clear Lexan panels on the sides so you could see the lights of the batteries were all working. It also gave a really cool ‘sci-fi’ visual to the whole thing. It looked like a spaceship. The vertical orientation came from something we always talked about when we were SCUBA diving. Generally, divers are taught to equalize their ears as they go down, slowly, carefully and cautiously. When you dive with the James boys, if you’re going down 50 feet, you want to get to that depth as quickly as possible so you have more time at the bottom. It’s a theory that perpetuated itself, I believe, into the Deepsea Challenger design. But it makes sense. The Mir subs took two and a half hours to get down to the Titanic, at 12,500 feet. That gave us six hours bottom time, and then it took two and a half hours to get back up. The Challenger rocketed to the bottom, three times deeper than Titanic, in two and a half hours, and returned in 90 minutes — that’s three or four times as fast. The expedition journalist, Dr. Joe MacInnis, described it as ‘a gravity rocket.’

How did you fit cameras in the sub?

Cameron pilots the 'Deepsea Challenger'

Cameron emerges from a successful dive.

The pilot rode inside a 48-inch diameter sphere. It was very tight quarters. Jim and the submersible co-designer and pilot Ron Allum each dove in the sub. They had a test sphere they used to try to fit everything inside the vehicle — life support systems, recording drives, instrumentation. There was a 5K RED Epic camera mounted inside the view port. Jim had a monitor to view that image, and when he wanted to look out, he could move that camera out of the way. There was a small 3D camera mounted in a fixed position in front of him in the sub, and that camera documented his every word on the dive.

On the exterior of the sub, there were two specially built cameras designed by Jim’s engineers to withstand full ocean depth. One was mounted to the end of a six-foot boom arm, which he could pan and tilt in any direction. And the other was mounted on the manipulator arm, and was set up for macro imaging of animals and rocks.

There was also a robotic submersible ‘Lander’ following the dive. Did you use that for additional photography?

The Lander

The Lander scientific platform. Photo: John Bruno.

Our science department ran two robotic Landers. Marine engineer Kevin Hardy, formerly of the Scripps Research Institute, built those. One Lander had a 3D HD camera.

Also, on the Mermaid Sapphire, we had a very large, very yellow ROV called the Quasar, which we fitted with our own deep-ocean 3D camera and lights. On the 4,000-foot dive, Quasar got some great shots of the sub moving and working on the bottom. The Quasar was also there as a potential rescue vehicle. The plan was, if there was a malfunction on Jim’s sub and he was within its reach, Donny Cameron (no relation) who operated the Quasar, could attempt to grab the Deepsea Challenger and pull Jim back to the surface. That ROV turned out to be a much better camera platform than we imagined.

Jim’s inspiration for this expedition, as depicted in the movie, began in 1960 with the submariners Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard on the bathyscape Trieste, which made the first descent into the Mariana Trench. How did you bring that to life in the documentary?

In the script, Jim referenced the fact that he was influenced by that dive when he was a young boy. It’s what got him interested in deep-sea exploration. In fact, he brought Don Walsh on board as an advisor, and suggested it would be nice to juxtapose the Deepsea Challenger dive with the dive of the Trieste.

Russian submariner Anatoly Sagalevitch, John Bruno and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh with reference model of the Walsh's 1960 sub 'Trieste'

Russian submariner Anatoly Sagalevitch, John Bruno and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh with reference model of the Walsh’s 1960 bathyscape ‘Trieste’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

After the main shoot, when I got back to Melbourne, I located period footage of the Trieste dive on-line. It was newsreel footage and filmed interviews done in 1960. They were black and white and not very high quality. Rolex was kind enough to ship us a museum display model of the Trieste submersible to study, and Don Walsh referred us to the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington D.C., where the Trieste is on permanent display. I initially thought we could film our re-enactors in the actual sub, but our research showed us that the sub had been modified since 1960, it was quite cramped inside, and it had also been painted a completely different color.

We decided if we were going to do this we’d have to build set pieces to re-tell portions of the Trieste story. I scripted and storyboarded the sequence; Ray Quint then took over in postproduction and directed and edited those scenes. To create exterior underwater shots of the 1960 dive, the Trieste descending into the abyss and returning, Iloura, a Melbourne visual effects house, built a stunning 3D replica of the Trieste as it appeared in 1960. They created some beautiful shots of the Trieste as it descended to the bottom, and then landed and returned.

There were some other interesting reenactments of Jim as a boy sitting in a cardboard box submarine. How accurate were they?

Cameron greets Don Walsh on the deck of the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

Cameron greets Don Walsh on the deck of the ‘Mermaid Sapphire’. Photo: John Bruno.

Again, that came from Jim’s script and comments he made when I interviewed him. When I discussed opening the film with that story, Jim was initially a little embarrassed about including those scenes. But, to me, the story was about what inspired Jim to want to become an explorer, what drove him to get to this point, and I felt this would help show Jim’s motivation. Jim said that would have to be my decision; so we did it.

Charlie Arneson, our expedition logistics supervisor, contacted Jim’s family, and they provided us with pictures as reference. In Melbourne, producer Brett Popplewell and Ray Quint cast a young boy that looked remarkably like Jim did back in the day, and they found some clothes that matched what Jim was wearing in the photos. Ray directed those scenes, and they turned out to be a nice way to open and close the movie.

The film also enumerates the harsh realities of Jim’s dive, especially the many terrible ways to die in the event of a malfunction at great depth. How did you broach the issue with Jim and his wife, Suzy Amis, about what you would do if things went wrong?

The 'Quasar' camera platform

The ‘Quasar’ camera platform. Photo: John Bruno.

It was tricky; especially after the tragedy of losing Andrew and Mike on Day One of the expedition. But on the way to the airport I was with Jim and Suzy and I had to ask that question, ‘Have you guys ever discussed something happening?’ Jim looked at me and said, ‘No.’ I looked at Suzy and said, ‘Seriously? You guys have never discussed it?’ Suzy told me, ‘No, it has never come up. I trust him. He’s a really smart guy. He showed me all the safety systems and how the backup systems work. Nothing’s going to happen. He knows what he’s doing.’ Suzy was a really strong woman. I couldn’t crack her. I could see why they were together.

Out on the ship, I asked Jim again, this time on camera, ‘People look up to you. You’re financially secure, successful, you made two of the highest-grossing films of all time; you’re married to a beautiful woman, and have five kids. Why are you doing this?’

He replied, ‘I wanted to set an example for my children.’ That’s when I realized the underlying theme of this movie. It’s about character and moral courage. It’s about setting examples. That’s what Jim was trying to pass on to his kids. And so I told him, no matter what happened, I was going to accurately document this dive, even if it turned out to be a forensic document of what went wrong. Luckily, that turned out not to be the case.

The 'Deepsea Challenger' crew celebrates the record-breaking dive

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ crew celebrates Cameron’s record-breaking dive. Photo: John Bruno.

It’s a fascinating journey, and I won’t spoil Jim’s final summation, but I did find it quite moving where he reflected on what inspired him — was that a theme that he always had in mind, or did that slowly evolve as you discovered the film?

Jim is always talking about inspiring kids – his own, and the next generation of explorers. His wife Suzy has this wonderful progressive ‘green’ school, the MUSE School, which she co-founded with her sister, and Jim talks there often, giving inspiration to children. We need scientists now. Kids now want to make a million dollars in one day on the Internet; but Jim is interested in inspiring a sense of adventure. Get up, get outside, go somewhere, do something magnificent and adventurous. Explore.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D opens in select theatres August 8.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D © 2014 Deepsea Challenge, National Geographic, photography by Mark Thiessen. All rights reserved. All other imagery © John Bruno, unless otherwise credited. Thanks to John Bruno, James Cameron, Richard Edlund, Graham Edwards.