Introducing Cinefex China

Cinefex China signing board

Cinefex China launches! From left, Dexter China CEO Jooick Lee, Cinefex U.S. attendees Don and Estelle Shay, director/producer Jacob Cheung, visual effects Oscar-winner John Bruno, Yong Ma, executive editor of Cinefex China, Younghwa Kim, director and CEO of Dexter Studios.

To much of the world, I suppose, the big news out of China last week was the announcement that Beijing has been awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, a first in that no other city has ever hosted both winter and summer games. A significant milestone, to be sure. But the really big news out of China last week – okay, from my admittedly narrower perspective – was the official launching of Cinefex China.

A little over a year ago, I was approached by Jooick Lee, a film producer and senior executive at Dexter Studios, the largest, and arguably foremost, visual effects studio in Asia, with facilities in both Korea and China. Over lunch at a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, he explained that Dexter Studios wished to secure a licensing agreement to publish Korean and Chinese editions of Cinefex. Interest in visual effects was on the rise among Asian filmgoers – especially in China, the fastest-growing film market in the world – and, perhaps more importantly, Dexter felt that artists in Asia’s burgeoning effects community would be well-served by a publication designed to help them keep abreast of techniques and technologies used elsewhere in the world.

This was not the first time we had been approached with such a proposal. A Japanese edition of Cinefex has been published by a succession of companies for nearly 30 of our 35 years. And for shorter stretches of time, with less success, we had licensed editions in France, Italy and Russia.

Cinefex China front cover

Front cover of the first issue of Cinefex China

With a deal in place to produce both Korean and Chinese editions, the Dexter publishing team decided to focus first on China. We provided them with articles and imagery for Cinefex 142, which would form the basis of the first Cinefex China edition. They translated the articles to exacting standards and designed the publication, using a vertical page format they felt was better suited to the Chinese market than the horizontal format we employ in the U.S. edition.

The end result is a strikingly beautiful premiere issue – 186 pages of text and photos that does us all proud.

Staff members and guests gather outside Dexter Studios in Beijing to celebrate the launching of Cinefex China.

Staff members and guests gather outside Dexter Studios in Beijing to celebrate the launching of Cinefex China.

Last Wednesday, Cinefex China was introduced to the public at a launch ceremony conducted at the Dexter Studios facility in Beijing. I was honored to be in attendance. Posters lined the walkway and a billboard-size screen bearing the Cinefex logo and an array of cover images became a signing board for the principals involved. It was like a Hollywood premiere – without the stars.

Inside the facility, we were treated to a show reel produced by Dexter Studios which featured, among other things, some remarkable footage of an all-CG gorilla baseball player and a rampaging Bengal tiger that, to my eye, compared most favorably with similar creations produced in the West.

Cinefex China panel discussion

Jooick Lee (left) moderates a bilingual panel discussion with participants Jacob Cheung, John Bruno and Don Shay.

An audience of about 200 – many of them artists in the Chinese visual effects community – bore witness to the launch ceremony, which was highlighted by a panel discussion on visual effects, in and out of China. Panelists included Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Bruno, distinguished director and producer Jacob Cheung, and me. Jooick Lee moderated the panel, which was translated in real-time, deftly switching back and forth between American and Chinese speakers. It was a gala event, warmly received.

Welcome aboard, Cinefex China. We wish you every success.

Willis O’Brien Revisited

In the firmament of visual effects superstars, few have burned brighter than Willis O’Brien, whose seminal work in stop-motion and other cinemagical techniques exponentially influenced and inspired generations of visual effects professionals. By extension, it also influenced and inspired the creation of Cinefex.

So begins my introduction to a mythbusting article in the upcoming issue of Cinefex. For more than 30 years, the life and work of Willis O’Brien have been defined by the full-issue biography I wrote on him for Cinefex 7, but my interest in his story began two decades earlier, when I first began my research after noting his obituary in the newspaper.

Willis O’Brien in his workshop at the Edison studios, circa 1917

Willis O’Brien in his workshop at the Edison studios, circa 1917.

I made contact with O’Brien’s widow, Darlyne, who generously shared a wealth of information about her late husband, and who put me in touch with many of the people who had worked with him through the years. It was a slow process on my part – anything but full-time – but over the years I pieced together the essence of a remarkable life. By the time my biography appeared in Cinefex, most of the people whose stories and memories it documented had passed away. For this reason, whenever I am asked, as a writer, what I consider my major contribution to the history of visual effects, I invariably cite that Willis O’Brien issue. Had I not interviewed those people when I did, his story, and theirs, would have died with them.

Little of any consequence has been added to the story of Willis O’Brien since my biography was published. Until now.

Poster for "The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" - 1918

Poster for “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain,” 1918.

Long before King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, O’Brien – who had done only a series of stop-motion ‘cartoons’ to date – joined with producer Herbert M. Dawley to create The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. The silent fantasy was a hit, but the relationship between the two men devolved into a bitter rivalry that nearly derailed production of The Lost World, O’Brien’s breakout feature.

Writer Stephen Czerkas has spent years researching the O’Brien/Dawley feud and has unearthed startling evidence that challenges the long-held view that Dawley was the villain and O’Brien the victim.

That story will appear in the next issue of Cinefex, available to preorder now.

Herbert M. Dawley with a duck-billed dinosaur he built for "Along the Moonbeam Trail," circa 1920

Herbert M. Dawley with a duck-billed dinosaur he built for “Along the Moonbeam Trail,” circa 1920.

From the niche perspective of visual effects history, this is bombshell material, especially for those of us whose reverence for O’Brien runs deep.

We decided to send advance copies of the article to a number of luminaries in the visual effects world – primarily those with a connection to classic stop-motion animation and a passion for its history. We wanted to know what they thought …

A shocking betrayal fit for Extra or TMZ finally gets told … in Cinefex. And it’s a doozie. – Dennis Muren

Willis O’Brien was an artistic diamond-in-the-rough. The towering ape in King Kong, O’Brien’s greatest claim to fame, may have been just a little rubber puppet, but it sprang to awesome, vicious, vibrant cinematic life in the grip of O’Brien’s enchanted hands. A versatile artist of demonstrable skill, O’Brien was equally adept at producing whimsical watercolors or bold charcoal sketches which threatened to leap from the page. His bona fides in the realm of movie special effects — particularly stop motion animation — were self-evident and unquestionable. In retrospect, when he’d alleged fifteen years earlier that he’d been cheated by an obscure, credit-grabbing producer named Herbert M. Dawley, who claimed O’Brien’s work in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain as his own, what serious film scholar could doubt him?

But now, nearly a century later, there are doubts, and cinema orthodoxy may be rewritten. Thanks to the detective work of sculptor animator paleontologist Stephan Czerkas, it now appears that Herbert Dawley may have deserved some of the credit he grabbed. And far from being a no-talent, front-office figurehead, it seems that Dawley had quite a bit of talent himself — particularly in the line of sculpting and animating dinosaurs. Were the acrimonious charges Dawley leveled at O’Brien as warranted as the ones O’Brien flung at him? Did O’Brien learn as much about his craft from Dawley as Dawley did from O’Brien? Czerkas has uncovered documents, diaries, and — best of all — film footage which shows that the savage legal battle these two waged against one another was not a matter of black-and-white. Thanks to Czerkas’ efforts, the career of Herbert M. Dawley may need to be re-assessed, and the accepted verdict in O’Brien vs Dawley thrown out. – Randall W. Cook

Stephen Czerkas has painstakingly unearthed facts, previously unknown to the general public, concerning the rivalry between animation pioneers Willis H. O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley. The upcoming article in Cinefex and the subsequent publication of Stephen’s book are likely to spark controversy among historians of early animation history and fans of O’Brien. – Jim Danforth

For those of us that grew up with the O’Brien mythology, the sleuthing Steve has done clearly redefines that part of stop-motion history, and at the same time does nothing to diminish O’Brien’s accomplishments. It’s always been a rough racket. Some of us got lucky – the right place at the right time … when hasn’t it been competitive? – Phil Tippett

I’ve loved stop-motion animation ever since I was a child of about ten years old, and I continue to be fascinated by the history of the art form. Over the years vintage photos; original artwork and even the decaying remains of some of the puppets have turned up from time to time. However, documented facts concerning the production of these films have been most tantalizingly rare.

Presskit cover for "Along the Moonbeam Trail," 1920

Presskit cover for “Along the Moonbeam Trail,” 1920.

Now a mountain of hitherto unknown information from the early years of dinosaur puppet animation is at last coming to light. We’ve long known of the rivalry that existed between Willis O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley but until now only a fraction of the fascinating story has been available to us. The detective work that Stephen Czerkas has accomplished in tracking down multiple new sources of information to cross reference the facts in his article is truly amazing.

It’s most interesting to read how a near perfect original print of the thought-to-be-lost film Along the Moonbeam Trail was discovered and can be studied. As far as is known this was the first film to combine realistic stop-motion dinosaurs and live-action actors in the same shot. We’re given exciting new perspectives on Herbert M. Dawley’s contributions during the earliest days of motion picture animation and visual effects. – Jim Aupperle

Cinefex Unchained

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Sergeant Joe Friday’s cut-to-the-chase phrase – regularly delivered by a deadpan Jack Webb on the old Dragnet television series – best characterizes the style in which Cinefex has always covered its subject matter.  In each of our eighty issues, we have scrupulously avoided controversy, speculation and behind-the-scenes ‘dirt’ surrounding film projects, limiting our focus to the facts of how those films’ effects were realized.  We have endeavored to inform, rather than editorialize, to remain diligently objective, rather than subjective.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan penned that passage – to use a quaint, outdated phrase – to introduce her personal recounting of Cinefex history in our 20th anniversary issue.  It was true then, and it’s true now – 14 years later.  Hundreds of articles, thousands of pages, millions of words have gone out under the Cinefex logo since our first issue was published in 1980, but aside from modest advancements in printing technology and enormous advancements in subject matter, Cinefex 135 looks and reads pretty much like Cinefex 1.  Our editorial manifesto remains unchanged.

Which is not to say that we have no thoughts or opinions on the industry we cover and the films we write about.  We have plenty of them ­– just ask that fly on the wall in our editorial meetings.

Magazines used to be a one-way form of communication.  Aside from the rare letter or phone call, praising or criticizing what we had produced, we worked largely in a vacuum.  No more.  Today, with the Internet and social media, content provider and content consumer are intimately linked.  And we’re thinking maybe it’s time to loosen up a bit.

So we’re starting a Cinefex blog.  What we’ll be writing about is pretty open-ended, but we can see sharing our thoughts on some of the films of the day, the people and companies behind them, emerging trends and technologies, and the state of the business, which, with each passing year, seems to grow more and more worrying.  We may even give you an occasional look behind the scenes at Cinefex.  Our goal is to inform you, entertain you, maybe even provoke you.

From time to time, you’ll be hearing from Cinefex staffers whose names have graced our masthead and bylines for years, but in large part, the blog will be written and overseen by a Cinefex newcomer, whose name, nonetheless, will be familiar to many of you.

Graham Edwards is a British sci-fi/fantasy novelist with a passion for visual effects that led him, a couple of years ago, to dust off his old copies of Cinefex, re-read them from start to finish, and devote a sizable portion of his personal blog to examining and reviewing the contents of each and every one of our first 40 issues – a challenging task, winningly executed, that earned him many fans among the Cinefex staff and our readers.

That project eventually came to an end, but we hated to see Graham vanish into the ether, so we invited him to examine the art of Cinefex journalism from a different perspective by covering Ron Howard’s Grand Prix racing film, Rush, for our upcoming issue.  Having made him one offer he couldn’t refuse, we decided to go for another and invite him to be the primary voice of the Cinefex blog.  We had him at ‘hello.’  Graham is a gifted writer, with an fine grasp of visual effects art and technology, and though he’s not about to give up writing fiction – yet, anyway – we’re extremely pleased to have him on board as an adjunct Cinefex staff member.

Graham’s first Cinefex blog will appear tomorrow.  Read it.  Enjoy it.  Share it.  And by all means, tell us what you think about it.  Our future content will be informed by your comments.