Jungle Law at 15th Annual VES Awards

Disney's The Jungle BookThe law of the jungle prevailed at the 15th Annual VES Awards last night, Tuesday 7 February, with Disney’s The Jungle Book gathering up five awards. HBO’s Game of Thrones dominated the television category, while Buster the Boxer – a Christmas advertisement from UK department store chain John Lewis – warmed hearts in the commercials category.

In a lavish awards ceremony hosted by comedian Patton Oswalt at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the Visual Effects Society handed out awards in a wide range of categories, recognizing outstanding visual effects in photoreal features and television, animated features and other fields. Also during the evening, Victoria Alonso – Marvel Studios Executive VP of Physical Production – received the VES Visionary Award, and Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston picked up the VES Lifetime Achievement Award.

Here’s the complete list of winners, arranged by category:

Photoreal Feature Film

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
The Jungle Book

  • Robert Legato
  • Joyce Cox
  • Andrew R. Jones
  • Adam Valdez
  • JD Schwalm

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature
Deepwater Horizon

  • Craig Hammack
  • Petra Holtorf-Stratton
  • Jason Snell
  • John Galloway
  • Burt Dalton

Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature
The Jungle Book — King Louie

  • Paul Story
  • Dennis Yoo
  • Jack Tema
  • Andrei Coval

Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature

Doctor Strange — New York City

  • Adam Watkins
  • Martijn van Herk
  • Tim Belsher
  • Jon Mitchell

Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project
The Jungle Book

  • Bill Pope
  • Robert Legato
  • Gary Roberts
  • John Brennan

Outstanding Model in a Photoreal or Animated Project
Deepwater Horizon — Deepwater Horizon Rig

  • Kelvin Lau
  • Jean Bolte
  • Kevin Sprout
  • Kim Vongbunyong

Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature
The Jungle Book — Nature Effects

  • Oliver Winwood
  • Fabian Nowak
  • David Schneider
  • Ludovic Ramisandraina

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature
The Jungle Book

  • Christoph Salzmann
  • Masaki Mitchell
  • Matthew Adams
  • Max Stummer

Television

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode
Game of Thrones — Battle of the Bastards

  • Joe Bauer
  • Steve Kullback
  • Glenn Melenhorst
  • Matthew Rouleau
  • Sam Conway

Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode
Black Sails — XX

  • Erik Henry
  • Terron Pratt
  • Aladino Debert
  • Yafei Wu
  • Paul Stephenson

Outstanding Animated Performance in an Episode or Real-Time Project
Game of Thrones — Battle of the Bastards — Drogon

  • James Kinnings
  • Michael Holzl
  • Matt Derksen
  • Joseph Hoback

Outstanding Created Environment in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project
Game of Thrones — Battle of the Bastards — Meereen City

  • Deak Ferrand
  • Dominic Daigle
  • François Croteau
  • Alexandru Banuta

Outstanding Effects Simulations in an Episode, Commercial, or Real-Time Project
Game of Thrones — Battle of the Bastards — Meereen City

  • Thomas Hullin
  • Dominik Kirouac
  • James Dong
  • Xavier Fourmond

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Episode
Game of Thrones — Battle of the Bastards — Retaking Winterfell

  • Dominic Hellier
  • Morgan Jones
  • Thijs Noij
  • Caleb Thompson

Animated Feature Film

Outstanding Visual Effects in an Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings

  • Travis Knight
  • Arianne Sutner
  • Steve Emerson
  • Brad Schiff

Outstanding Animated Performance in an Animated Feature
Finding Dory — Hank

  • Jonathan Hoffman
  • Steven Clay Hunter
  • Mark Piretti
  • Audrey Wong

Outstanding Created Environment in an Animated Feature
Moana — Motunui Island

  • Rob Dressel
  • Andy Harkness
  • Brien Hindman
  • Larry Wu

Outstanding Effects Simulations in an Animated Feature
Moana

  • Marc Henry Bryant
  • David Hutchins
  • Ben Frost
  • Dale Mayeda

Other

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Real-Time Project

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

  • Bruce Straley
  • Eben Cook
  • Iki Ikram

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project
Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure

  • Bill George
  • Amy Jupiter
  • Hayden Landis
  • David Lester

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial
John Lewis — Buster the Boxer

  • Diarmid Harrison-Murray
  • Hannah Ruddleston
  • Fabian Frank
  • William Laban

Outstanding Animated Performance in a Commercial
John Lewis — Buster the Boxer

  • Tim van Hussen
  • David Bryan
  • Chloe Dawe
  • Maximilian Mallmann

Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Commercial
John Lewis — Buster the Boxer

  • Tom Harding
  • Alex Snookes
  • David Filipe
  • Andreas Feix

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Student Project
Breaking Point

  • Johannes Franz
  • Nicole Rothermel
  • Thomas Sali
  • Alexander Richter

Now Showing – Cinefex 150

Cinefex 150 - From the Editor's Desk with Jody Duncan

If you’re looking for some extra-special reading material this holiday season, treat yourself to a copy of Cinefex 150, packed with in-depth stories on mystical mirror dimensions, inscrutable aliens, magical creatures and wartime wonders.

With Doctor Strange casting a spell over the box office this fall, you won’t be surprised to see that we’ve chosen Marvel’s sorceror supreme as the cover boy for our December issue. The magic ramps up as we explore the visual effects of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest excursion into J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. We delve into some thought-provoking sci-fi in our detailed analysis of the critically acclaimed Arrival, while rounding out Cinefex 150 is Allied, Robert Zemeckis’ romantic drama of hidden secrets and secret missions set at the height of World War II.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to reflect on the contents of our latest issue, and on some of the other coverage we’ve offered through 2016 …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

I was heartened to see that of the 20 films initially announced as candidates for Best Visual Effects Oscar contention – now pared down to 10 – Cinefex has covered all but three (Kubo and the Two Strings, Sully and Deepwater Horizon.)

This may seem unremarkable: “These were the best visual effects films of 2016! Of course they were covered in Cinefex!”

Not so fast. What makes our hitting 17 out of 20 noteworthy is that, for each of the six issues we produced in 2016, we made the decisions as to what to cover for that issue at least six months prior to the release of the prospective film projects. We are the longest of ‘long lead’ publications, our editorial and production processes consuming months, rather than weeks or days. (You think 30-page articles and glossy image reproductions happen quickly?)

So we chose to cover The Jungle Book, for example, well before the film was released – heck, well before it was even finished! When The Jungle Book’s Baloo was still just a twinkle in director Jon Favreau’s eye, we had to guess that the film would be as successful as it was, and that its effects would be as stunning as they were. (But, hey, it was Jon Favreau – this one wasn’t exactly a long shot.)

There’s a whole lot of prognosticating going on in the halls of Cinefex – and I was gratified (and greatly relieved) that, for the most part, we got it right in 2016.

Three of the Best Visual Effects Oscar contenders are to be found in the pages of our new issue 150: Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Doctor Strange. Our fourth story covers Allied – because, occasionally, we like to explore films that involve muggles and non-aliens living in our own dimension.

I hope you enjoy the issue. As for 2017: What do you think? War for the Planet of the Apes or Woody Allen’s untitled project? Yeah … that’s what we thought, too.

Cinefex 150 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy should materialize through a sizzling magical portal very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Happy holidays!

Vote for Your Favorite VFX Bake-Off Movie

On December 16, 2016, the 89th Academy Awards came a step closer as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whittled down the candidates for the Visual Effects Oscar from 20 to 10.

The next stage is what’s become known as the ‘bake-off,’ in which members of the Academy’s Visual Effects Branch will view 10-minute reels showcasing effects work from each of the shortlisted films. This takes place on January 7, 2017. Afterwards, members will vote to nominate five movies for final consideration for the award itself, to be presented at the ceremony on February 26, 2017.

Scroll down to vote for your favorite movie in our fun poll. And if you fancy reading up on the candidates, we’re pleased to report that Cinefex has covered eight out of the 10 films under consideration. Here’s a quick round-up of our in-depth articles, all lavishly illustrated with visual effects breakdowns and behind the scenes photos, many of them exclusive to Cinefex.

Cinefex 147 - Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book

In our June 2016 edition, Cinefex 147, you’ll find A Family Affair, Jody Duncan’s superheroic story on Captain America: Civil War, alongside Law of the Jungle, a lusciously detailed article by Joe Fordham on The Jungle Book.

Cinefex 148 - The BFG

In October 2016, Cinefex 149 led with Joe Fordham’s fizzpopping coverage of The BFG, in an article aptly titled A Melancholy Joy.

Cinefex - Arrival, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

You’ll find no less than three Oscar hopefuls in our December 2016 issue, Cinefex 150. First up is Arrival, translated to the page by Graham Edwards in his story Persistence of Vision. Next comes In a Mirror, Darkly, Jody Duncan’s magical article on Doctor Strange, followed by Joe Fordham’s spellbinding analysis of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, in a feature entitled The Magical Congress.

Cinefex - Passengers, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

You’ll have to wait until 2017 to read these last two articles. The good news is that isn’t very far away! Cinefex 151 is due out mid-February, 2017, which means you should have time to pore over its contents before you settle down to watch the 89th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday 26. The two stories you won’t want to miss are Jody Duncan’s spacefaring feature on Passengers, and Joe Fordham’s starblasting coverage of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Deepwater Horizon / Kubo and the Two StringsThe only two films on the bake-off shortlist that we didn’t get around to covering this year are Deepwater Horizon and Kubo and the Two Strings. Both movies contain fabulous effects work that we’d love to have written about, but even Cinefex has only so many pages to go around. And we reckon an 80 percent record is something to be proud of.

Raw Steak and The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as trapper Hugh Glass in "The Revenant."

One year ago, on December 16, 2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant enjoyed its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. Based on true events, and on the novel by Michael Punke, the film tells the harrowing story of 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, after being mauled by a bear, seeks revenge against those who left him for dead.

In this exclusive Q&A with Cinefex editor Jody Duncan, makeup supervisor Adrien Morot reveals the secrets behind some of the scenes which didn’t make the final cut. Like the film itself, his is a tale of ingenuity, endurance, and raw steak.

Yes, that’s right. Steak.

On location, DiCaprio grappled with bear performers. Industrial Light & Magic replaced them with a meticulously rendered and animated bear in postproduction.

On location, DiCaprio grappled with bear performers. Industrial Light & Magic replaced them with a meticulously rendered and animated bear in postproduction.

Cinefex: As we understand it, there were quite a few graphic and violent shots of characters being scalped, but those appear to have been cut from the final film. The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, wanted to capture those effects in camera – and that’s where you came in. Tell us how you realized some of the scalping effects, and where they appeared in the film, originally.

Morot: There were many scalping scenes throughout the movie, including a dream sequence in which Tom Hardy’s character, John Fitzgerald, is scalped. It’s a very weird dream sequence, all done in one shot, where he sees a skinned bear creature walking through an icy pool of blood. The camera turns towards Fitzgerald, who is looking at the creature, and behind him stands Hugh Glass. As Fitzgerald tries to reload his gun, Glass suddenly scalps him. All of that had to be done as one single action – which meant that the bear creature and the scalping all had to be there, self-contained, within that single shot.

Cinefex:  How did you achieve that?

Morot: We had a bald cap, into which we incorporated a network of tubing, and we applied that to Tom Hardy. Once that was secured, we glued on top of it a silicone prosthetic appliance that looked like Tom’s forehead, complete with the scar his character had from being partially scalped as a kid. The prosthetic was pre-cut at the place where the scalping was to be done, and then lightly glued back in place. We concealed the cut line with Ultra Ice that was colored to look like skin tone.

When they shot it, Leo would run a dull blade along that pre-cut line, and then the blood from the tubing would start to pour down. We had a remote-controlled, battery-operated blood pump that was hooked up to Tom’s waist. So, we could be standing 20 feet away, and as Leo started cutting we’d activate the blood. Leo was fantastic – there’s a reason he gets the big bucks! We just had to explain it to him once, briefly, and he did it perfectly every take.

Makeup effects artist Adrien Morot created a head scar appliance worn by Tom Hardy, playing partially scalped trapper John Fitzgerald. The whitish, hairless prosthetic started at Hardy's forehead and continued to the back of one side of his head.

Makeup effects artist Adrien Morot created a head scar appliance worn by Tom Hardy, playing partially scalped trapper John Fitzgerald. The whitish, hairless prosthetic started at Hardy’s forehead and continued to the back of one side of his head.

Cinefex: You mentioned that there is a “bear creature” in this dream sequence.

Morot: Alejandro was always getting inspired and coming up with these kinds of ideas. One day, he came to me on set, and said, “Adrien, I have this idea! How about we have this skinned man-bear creature crawling around in a pool of blood?” And I said, “Okay, sure. When do you want to do that?” His answer was, “Next week!”

I explained to him that it would take more than a week to come up with a skinned bear creature, and his response was that maybe we could just take a suit and stitch some raw steaks onto it.

Cinefex: Steaks? You mean, T-bones, rib-eyes, the things you eat with A-1 sauce?

Morot: Yes! Steaks! And I said, “Okay, yeah, no – I don’t think we can do that.” So I did a bunch of concept drawings on my MacPro in my hotel room, and then showed them to Alejandro to see if he liked any of them. Once he’d agreed on one of those concepts, I had my shop build bear feet that would be worn by Javier Botet, the suit performer. We were lucky to have all of his measurements because we were already doing another movie with him, and he was coming to the shop that week anyway.

Cinefex: You started with the feet – wasn’t the bear head a bigger problem?

Morot: Well, luckily, Legacy Effects had built a skinned bear for the movie, for another scene. I asked John Rosengrant if we could get that skinned bear head for our creature – which would save us a lot of time – and they very nicely sent it to us. It was great, but it was a bit too heavy and cumbersome for our purposes – it hadn’t been built with the idea of a performer wearing it. But it was still a great reference, because I had it right there in front of me as I worked.

I sculpted a new bear head in clay, with kind of a zombie, ripped-flesh texture. I sculpted it very quickly, using Legacy’s head as reference for the shape, but scaled down so it would fit on a performer. I did the mold right there on set, in the makeup trailer, in the mountains, and poured it out of lightweight polyfoam. We did some silicone detailing on top, painted it, and put in glass eyes, and teeth.

Cinefex: What did you do for the body?

Morot: First, I bought the tallest, leanest store mannequin I could find in Calgary, as reference for Javier’s body. Then, using cotton fill, we sculpted the bear shape onto that, with a sculpted ribcage and a neck that jutted forward a bit. Then we did some silicone detailing on top of everything, and painted it. The costume department provided us with a long, shredded cape for the creature to wear. He almost looked like the zombie version of a Civil War soldier. And that’s how we made the suit within a week, inside my makeup trailer.

Cinefex: And no Porterhouses were used in the making of this suit?

Morot: No, no steaks. Given how quickly it was done, you’d think it would have looked like garbage. But, it turned out pretty good. The whole movie was like that – Alejandro suddenly coming up with an idea, very excited, and asking, “Can we have it tomorrow?” Throughout, I was always playing catch-up, always three months behind where I would have been normally. And I was basically working alone at the location, because my crew back at my shop in Montreal was working on other movies. I’d be on set during the day, applying makeup, and I’d work at night producing wounds and dummies and other things needed for the next day. Then I’d drive to the set the next morning, having had very little sleep.

Cast and crew spent several months shooting in the Canadian Rockies. Snow machines added a wintry ambience to those locations lacking the real thing. Visual effects further extended the desolate snowscapes, as in this shot by Cinesite.

Cast and crew spent several months shooting in the Canadian Rockies. Snow machines added a wintry ambience to those locations lacking the real thing. Visual effects further extended the desolate snowscapes, as in this shot by Cinesite.

Cinefex: A trailer in the middle of the Canadian Rockies – that can’t have been a very good place to produce makeup effects.

Morot: I had to set up a little shop in the production office. Once I was there and saw the urgency, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to rely on my shop in Montreal to make things and ship them to me – and, as I said, they were busy on other shows, anyway. So, I told the producers, “I need to make a shop here. Can you get me some shelves? Can you build two 4-by-8 wooden shop tables?” I gave them a list of materials to order, or had one of my on-set assistants get them in Calgary. We did that very quickly. In the end, I had right there in the production office the equivalent of the shop that I had in my dad’s basement when I was 16 years old. That was kind of cool, actually.

Cinefex: “Have silicone, will travel.”

Morot: Basically, yeah. I had a little bit of everything so I could whip out anything we needed. Except a steak suit.


Cinefex 145 CoverYou’ll find our complete, in-depth article on The Revenant in Cinefex 145. The story features more of Adrien Morot’s insights and detailed coverage of the rest of the film’s effects, courtesy of visual effects supervisor Richard McBride and the pioneering teams of artists at ILM, MPC, Cinesite, One of Us, Secret Lab and Legacy Effects.

The Visual Effects Oscar Race Begins

VFX Oscar Longlist 2016

On 2 December, 2016, the latest visual effects Oscar race began in earnest, when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 20 films up for consideration by the Academy’s Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee. Later this month, that list will be halved when committee members decide on the 10 films that will be eligible for nominations voting. Everything comes to a head on 26 February, 2017, at the trophy ceremony for the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

Alice Through the Looking Glass, Arrival, The BFG, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Passengers, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, Sully, Warcraft, X-Men: Apocalypse.

Once again, science fiction and fantasy makes a strong showing, with 90 percent of the movies sitting squarely in that ever-popular genre. Of these, one third feature the antics of superheroes ranging from Marvel’s squeaky-clean Captain America to the down-and-dirty reprobates of DC’s Suicide Squad.

Mind you, not since 2004 has a superhero actually won the battle for the visual effects Oscar, when John Dykstra, Scott Stokdyk, Anthony LaMolinara, and John Frazier picked up awards for their work on Spider-Man 2. Will the 89th Awards mark the moment when the famous gold statuette sports spandex once more?

Squaring their shoulders against the sci-fi onslaught are Sully and Deepwater Horizon, a pair of true-life tales that are themselves as different as chalk and cheese. Then there’s the wild card that is Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika’s fantasy adventure that relies as heavily on cutting edge visual effects as it does on its devotion to stop-motion.

Some might think that the overwhelming presence of science fiction and fantasy movies in this awards category is just a sign of the times. Not so. Every film that won a visual effects Oscar during the 1980s was either solid genre fare, or was at least coated with a dusting of fantasy — and if you disagree that Raiders of the Lost Ark counts in that regard, I’ll gladly debate the point. During the 1990s, the only award-winning movie to break the mold was Titanic, a feat matched in the 2000s only by Gladiator. Like it or not, robots rule, wizardry wins, and spaceships score bigtime.

Of course, there’s sci-fi and there’s sci-fi. Last year’s visual effects Academy Award winner was Ex Machina, an absorbing character piece in which the on-screen magic was subordinate to the story. Will this year’s Academy voters be similarly wooed by slow-burning Arrival, or will they give their blessing to a bells-and-whistles spectacular like Doctor Strange or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? And what of the movies that relied heavily on state of the art virtual production techniques, notably The Jungle Book, The BFG and Warcraft?

Just like you, we don’t have a crystal ball. But we do pride ourselves on the fact that since Cinefex was first published in 1980, every single visual effects Oscar-winner has featured in the magazine. As for this latest crop of contenders — you’ll find in-depth articles covering no less than 17 of the movies on the Academy’s longlist in our recent and upcoming issues.

None of us in the Cinefex office knows who is going to walk away with the next Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but we’re having a lot of fun guessing. What’s your prediction?


Related articles:

The Cinefex Quiz 2016

Can’t face Black Friday? Still stuffed with Thanksgiving turkey? Here’s the perfect way to ease into the holiday weekend. Yes, it’s the annual Cinefex Quiz!

There’s one question for every article we’ve published this year. So, if you’ve been diligently reading your copies of Cinefex throughout 2016, you’ll have no trouble at all. Except wait — our final issue of the year won’t be published until December! Can we really be sneaky enough to ask you about articles we haven’t even published yet? You’ll have to do the quiz to find out …

Ron Thornton’s Model-maker Mantra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Godfather" in Cinefex 107, October 2006

“The Godfather” in Cinefex 107, October 2006.

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

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

Ron Thornton. Photo © NewTek.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ron remembered:

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

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

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

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

— John Copeland, producer/director


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

— Steve Burg, conceptual designer


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

— Adam ‘Mojo’ Lebowitz, digital artist


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

— Sherry Hitch, digital artist


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

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

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

— James Belohovek, model-maker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Kevin Kutchaver, visual effects supervisor


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

On Seeing “Arrival”

Arrival PosterLast month, I finished my Cinefex article on Arrival, which you’ll be able to read in our upcoming December 2016 issue. As so often happens, I didn’t actually get to see the movie until this weekend, long after submitting my final draft. This happens a lot in this job, thanks to a complex dance of release dates, studio embargoes, and our magazine’s long lead time.

On top of that, as part of my research I’d also read the story on which Arrival is based – Ted Chiang’s rather marvellous Story of Your Life. So, by the time I found myself seated in my local multiplex waiting for the titles to roll, I knew an awful lot about the movie.

Sometimes it’s no fun knowing what’s coming next (believe me, when you’re interviewing for a Cinefex article you hear a lot of spoilers). In the case of Arrival, I was delighted to discover it didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit.

The reason is simple, I think. Arrival is a class act. It’s that most delicate of creatures – a science fiction film that actually makes you think. The questions it raises are challenging, profound and moving, and yet somehow it manages to wrap them up neatly in an entirely accessible story about humans reacting to first contact with an alien species.

The movie looks gorgeous, by the way. Director Denis Villeneuve and director of photography Bradford Young constantly manipulate the camera’s depth of field to keep intimacy and tension in constant balance, and find beauty in the overcast light of what would be just another damp and ordinary day, if not for the strange vessels found suddenly hanging over twelve locations around the world.

The ships themselves – not to mention their shadowy occupants – are iconic and enigmatic. The alien aspects of Arrival are adroitly handled by a team of visual effects facilities including Hybride Technologies, Rodeo FX, Oblique FX, Raynault FX, Framestore, MELS VFX and Fly Studio, all under the expert eye of visual effects supervisor Louis Morin. What’s more, Villeneuve allows the camera to linger on their work, giving folk like you and me ample opportunity to spot the imperfections. Except there are no imperfections. There is only a stark, alien beauty. The work is that good.

We don’t often review films here at Cinefex. It’s not the Cinefex way, you see. We treat every film as equal – it’s our job to tell you how it was done, not how it made us feel. Occasionally, however, something exceptional comes along.

Something like Arrival.


Have you seen Arrival yet? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments box.

Now Showing – Cinefex 149

Cinefex 149

We’re big fans of Steven Spielberg here at Cinefex. So, with the whizzpopping fizzog of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant fronting our brand new issue Cinefex 149, we wondered: “How many Cinefex covers have featured a movie directed by Spielberg?”

Our first Spielbergian cover came in January 1983, with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The following year we led with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, after which we skipped nearly a decade before releasing Jurassic Park onto the cover of our August 1993 edition.

Dinosaurs continued to rule with our monstrous 1997 cover for Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and we stuck with Spielberg in 2001 when our cover story was A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We followed Spielberg’s science fiction journey in 2002 with Minority Report, and in 2005 with War of the Worlds. That gives us an impressive running total of seven Cinefex covers.

We have to confess, it’s been a bit of a gap since our last Spielbergian cover. So we’re delighted to bring the grand total up to eight with Cinefex 149’s truly spectacular cover image for The BFG.

Cinefex isn’t just about cover stories, of course. As well as our in-depth coverage of The BFG, our 2016 Halloween issue also contains larger-than-life articles on Suicide Squad, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ben-Hur and Approaching the Unknown, with exclusive interview content and images you won’t find anywhere else.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to reveal more …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

During its first few years of publication, Cinefex typically covered two movies per issue – for a darn good reason: Don Shay was the magazine’s sole writer, not to mention its sole layout designer, business manager, circulation manager, and answerer of phones. (Don never did have a receptionist or administrative assistant. From his first day as a magazine publisher to the day of his retirement three years ago, if you called Don’s Cinefex number, he was the one who answered.)

As we brought on more writing help, we upped the number of movies covered to four – and we’ve maintained that formula, for the most part, for a number of years. Every once in a while, however, we stumble onto an extra project that we want to cover – something that might not qualify as the super-boffo visual effects film that is our usual fare; but something that we think the readers will find interesting.

In this issue, Approaching the Unknown was that project. The most frequent question we get from readers is, ‘Why don’t you cover more old-school effects?’ My usual response is: ‘If you can find somebody using old-school effects, we’ll cover ‘em!’ We hear that a group of intrepid filmmakers used a cloud tank, and we are there, tape recorders in hand. And that was the case with this independent, small-budget film, covered in Graham Edwards’ wonderful article.

But of course, the issue still has its four effects-extravaganza subjects: Joe Fordham’s in-depth articles on Suicide Squad and The BFG – whose lovely face graces the cover – and Graham’s coverage of Ben-Hur, which includes lots of behind the scenes information on staging the famous chariot race. My article on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children finishes out the issue, Tim Burton-style.

Have a scary – but safe – Halloween!

Issue 149 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, a gigantic hand will be thrusting your copy through a convenient upper-story window very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Star Trek in Triplicate

Star Trek Beyond Barco Escape

The concept of multi-screen projection is nearly as old as cinema itself. In 1927, French film director Abel Gance presented the final reel of his historical epic Napoleon in triptych form, with spectacular battle scenes projected on three adjacent screens.

Years later, in 1952, the demo movie This is Cinerama helped to launch the film world’s obsession with ever-bigger, ever-wider theatrical experiences, with a refined three-panel process that almost – but not quite – erased the seams between the three pictures.

In the summer of 2016, the triptych returned to theaters with a special Barco Escape presentation of Star Trek Beyond. Kicking in during key moments of the film, a trio of movie projectors expanded the intergalactic action across two additional Cinemascope screens.

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Talking to Cinefex, Star Trek Beyond co-producer and visual effects producer Ron Ames explained:

“We took the animations on the center screen on our all-CG shots, and extended everything you see off to the left and right, giving you kind of a horseshoe view. During some of the live-action scenes, we used the space almost three-dimensionally. For example, if you had a wide shot of the bridge, on the left and right screens you’d see details of viewscreens, or people’s reactions. It was three-dimensional storytelling, which was kind of fascinating.”

Watch a video of Barco Escape before and after clips from Star Trek Beyond by Prime Focus World:

Sharing digital assets with main visual effects vendor Double Negative, a team of 120 artists at Prime Focus World created the additional content needed to fill the extra screens. You can read the full story here on the Prime Focus website. Commenting on the process, Merzin Tavaria, chief creative director of Prime Focus, remarked:

“Essentially we were creating one huge 6K image across a 270 degree field of view. We realized early on that the scenes that we would be extending were already impressively wide shots on the single center screen, with focal lengths of around 100mm. If we’d applied similar focal lengths to the left and right cameras, we’d have been looking behind ourselves! We had to come up with intelligent and creative ways of using the extra screen space.”

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Star Trek Beyond is still playing in selected Barco Escape theaters across the United States, Europe, Mexico and China. Visit the Barco Escape website to find three screens near you.