About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Q is for Queen

In the VFX ABC, the letter “Q” stands for “Queen”.

Science fiction and fantasy films delight in carrying us to strange lands and even stranger planets. As we explore these brave new worlds, chances are we’ll encounter a thoroughly alien society. And who will we find sitting on the alien throne?

An alien queen, of course.

In 1924, a Russian silent film called Aelita, Queen of Mars whisked audiences across the far reaches of space to meet the scantily-clad Martian monarch. Directed by Yakov Protazanov, Aelita showcased lavish constructivist sets by Isaak Rabinovich and a fleeting glimpse of a funky balloon-shaped spacecraft – the movie’s miniatures are credited to Viktor Simonov.

A thinly-disguised treatise on socialism, Aelita bombed at the box office, yet its innovative production design appears to have influenced later and more memorable science fiction films including Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis and Universal Pictures’ 1930s Flash Gordon serial.

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker's revolution in the 1924 Russian film "Aelita, Queen of Mars."

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker’s revolution in the 1924 Russian film “Aelita, Queen of Mars.”

When it comes to alien queens, however, there’s one monarch who reigns supreme. Yes, I’m talking about the vengeful, egg-laying xenomorph from James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens. Created for the production in both full-size and quarter-scale versions by artists at Stan Winston Studio, this big bad momma simultaneously pushed special effects technologies to the limit and created a movie icon that towers tall even to this day.

Here’s what James Cameron had to say about his original concept design for the alien queen, in the pages of Cinefex 27:

“For me, the queen is really a blend of what [H.R.] Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston's crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston’s crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

In the same interview, Cameron commented that somebody had likened the queen to “an anorexic dinosaur.” In the film, Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley famously refers to her as “you bitch!” Which got me wondering – how did the Stan Winston team refer to their creation while they were on set?

As it turns out, the answer is prosaic. John Rosengrant and Alec Gillis, part of the original Aliens creature crew, told me they referred to her quite simply as “the Queen.” Gillis elaborated: “We were so dogged tired that one-syllable words worked best!”

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

Ten years after the release of Aliens, in 1996, concept artist Ricardo Delgado compared his design for the Borg queen of Star Trek: First Contact with the same deadly arachnid that had inspired James Cameron – the black widow spider.

Alice Krige performed as the cybernetic sovereign, wearing prosthetic makeup by Mike Westmore and crew, with Industrial Light & Magic deploying some smart digital effects for a shot in which a descending apparatus introduces the queen’s fleshy head and shoulders to a waiting biomechanical body.

Genre films in subsequent years gave us a healthy succession of notable queens (or at least characters close enough to royalty to count in my book).

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace benefited from the graceful presence of Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala, while in 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence treated us to a glimpse of the queenly Blue Fairy, voiced by Meryl Streep and digitally keyframed by ILM to emulate the retro qualities of 1950s Disney animation.

In the year 2001, a rather different kind of queen made audiences tremble with fear. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the heroic young wizard played by Daniel Radcliffe goes up against a giant chess set brought to life by sinister spells. Photographed on a full-scale set, with practical effects and pyrotechnics by special effects supervisor John Richardson and digital animation by Mill Film, the chess sequence features a sword-wielding queen driven by a particularly aggressive kind of magic.

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.”

No queen is complete without her castle. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Sony Pictures Imageworks constructed the freezing environs of the castle of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch (who looks a lot like a Snow Queen if you ask me). Meanwhile, for Snow White and Huntsman, Baseblack and BlueBolt built the brooding castle environments within which Charlize Theron as Queen Revenna worked her endlessly wicked ways.

In 2010, director Tim Burton concocted an arresting vision of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, for which artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks used digital warping and clever composition to enlarge the head of actress Helena Bonham Carter, techniques they revisited for James Bobin’s 2016 sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.

As I write this in the summer of 2016, alien queens are big again – in this case, very big. Following James Cameron’s lead, Roland Emmerich gave us “something we hadn’t seen yet” in Independence Day: Resurgence. The 200-foot-tall queen of the alien invaders was brought to the screen by visual effects artists at Weta Digital. You can read the full story of how they did it in Cinefex 148.

Not every movie queen requires motion picture magic to put her on the throne. Nevertheless, some of cinema’s most memorable monarchs were helped into power by teams of artists from the fields of visual and special effects. The result of their work is frequently spectacular, which just goes to prove one thing.

Queens rule.


Aliens photography copyright © 1986 by Twentieth Century Fox. Star Trek: First Contact photograph copyright © 1996 by Paramount Pictures. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone photograph copyright © 2001 by Warner Brothers. Alice in Wonderland photographs copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.

All Eyes on Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek BeyondI think I must have a split personality.

Leastways, that’s what I thought last Sunday, while I was enjoying Star Trek Beyond in my local multiplex. “Enjoying” is the right word, by the way. I thought the movie was fresh and fun, with bags of inventive action neatly balanced by solid character moments and a warm inclusive heart. I really hope feisty alien scavenger Jaylah gets to join the crew, don’t you?

So why did the movie make me feel divided? Because I was watching it through lots of different sets of eyes, all at the same time.

The first set of eyes belonged to a middle-aged moviegoer primed and ready for some escapist entertainment. That version of me left the cinema highly satisfied, and confident that the reboot series has plenty of dilithium left in the tank.

The second set of eyes belonged to a Cinefex writer who spent most of May interviewing the people responsible for Star Trek Beyond’s eye-popping effects. My victims included the visual effects teams at Double Negative and Atomic Fiction (who were ably supported by their fellow artists at Kelvin Optical). Special effects supervisor Cameron Waldbauer told me how he blew stuff up and generally threw things around, while head of prosthetics Joel Harlow talked at length about Krall, Kalara and the rest of the 50-plus alien species that he and his team brought to the screen. To my delight, I even managed to grab 15 minutes with director Justin Lin.

Everything I’d learned – and everything I’d written – was going through my head while the movie played. Sometimes that meant I knew what was coming next. Often it left me delighted by the sheer visual finesse of a sequence I’d only ever had described to me in words. Throughout, it made me grateful that I’d had the good fortune to get a solid glimpse behind the scenes … before I’d actually seen those scenes.

Cameraman Hoyt Yeatman checks alignment for the final shot of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," photographed using a special rig that allowed the camera to swing on a 180-degree arc down and under the Enterprise.

Cameraman Hoyt Yeatman checks alignment for the final shot of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” photographed using a special rig that allowed the camera to swing on a 180-degree arc down and under the Enterprise.

The third set of eyes belonged to the teenage version of me – the eager young fellow who sat drinking in the stunning visual effects created by Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra for Star Trek: The Motion Picture back in 1979. Sure, all those Enterprise and V’ger flybys seemed to go on forever, but by golly, weren’t they gorgeous to behold?

The eyes don’t stop there. There was a fourth and even more youthful set with me in the cinema this weekend. These nostalgia-rich peepers belonged to the little kid who for many years ate his evening meals in front of the television, avidly watching reruns of the original Star Trek series. That kid was thrilled to see Kirk, Spock, Bones and all the rest of them given new life and a whole new frontier to play in. Justin Lin told me that he too grew up with the show, and his love for Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek is plain to see, shining out from every frame of Star Trek Beyond.

As if four sets of eyes weren’t enough, I was all ears too. Michael Giacchino’s score for Star Trek Beyond – an extension of the music he composed for the previous two reboot movies – is a real treat, somehow managing to sound fresh while still sharing DNA with the classic themes written by Jerry Goldsmith for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and James Horner’s exhilarating score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. These days, it isn’t often I leave the cinema humming the theme tune. I’m humming Giacchino’s Star Trek theme as I write this blog.

I guess there’s nothing unusual in my many-eyes experience of moviegoing. It’s something we all share, don’t you think? No film exists in isolation – least of all the latest iteration of a franchise going back an epic 50 years.

How many sets of eyes did you take to Star Trek Beyond? And what did they see?


Cinefex 148 is out this month, with in-depth behind the scenes coverage of Star Trek Beyond, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Legend of Tarzan. Preorder your copy now.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture photograph copyright © 1979 by Paramount Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved. Special effects unit still photography by Virgil Mirano.

Now Showing – Cinefex 147

Cinefex 147 - From the Editor's Desk

You know what the law of the jungle says: The strength of Cinefex is in the pack … as in the pack of films we’ve got lined up for you in our sun-dappled June edition, Cinefex 147.

Things get off to a roaring start as Joe Fordham grabs a tiger by the tail for his article on the making of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. You’ll also find superheroes aplenty in Cinefex 146, with in-depth stories on Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse, not to mention a psychedelic trip into the imagination of Lewis Carroll with Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to lead you deeper into our latest issue …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

There are a few directors I follow with particular interest, and Jon Favreau is one of them. I appreciate a director who has both Chef and Iron Man in him – the former, a heartfelt redemption story; the latter, a kick-ass superhero movie. (One of the best superhero movies ever, to my mind.) Whatever the genre or subject matter, Favreau explores the human condition with wisdom, compassion, and wit.

And so I was excited to see what he would do with The Jungle Book – and he did not disappoint. What was frothy, cute and charming in the original Disney cartoon became somewhat darker in Favreau’s live-action adaptation, but little Mowgli and the computer animated animals surrounding him had all the humor and elegance I’ve come to expect from a Jon Favreau production.

A line of text at the end of the credits noted the most amazing aspect of this film: it had been shot entirely on stage in downtown Los Angeles. The story of how that barren concrete slab was transformed into an Indian jungle populated with wolves, panthers, snakes, apes, elephants and one vengeful tiger is revealed in picture and word in Joe Fordham’s Jungle Book article. I know well that in this digital age, not all visual effects stories are interesting. This one is.

Joe also interviewed the effects artists behind the work in Alice Through the Looking Glass, while Graham Edwards dug deep to bring us the stories recounting the making of the effects in X-Men: Apocalypse, perhaps the most ambitious of all the X-Men films to date.

To ‘cap’ it all, my article for this issue covers the effects in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, a truly epic film with 11 of the most popular Marvel characters duking it out, superhero-style.

And that’s issue 147!

Thanks, Jody! Issue 147 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, stand by your mailbox – your copy is already on its way. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Remembering Raiders

Raiders-Warehouse

It’s not the years, honey – it’s the mileage.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve clocked up quite a few miles since June 12, 1981, when Indiana Jones, the world’s most famous archaeologist, first donned his fedora in Steven Spielberg’s action adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Back then, I was a spotty 16-year-old youth. My bedroom wall was covered in movie posters, and my shelves were stacked high with Star Wars models. I was excited to see Raiders, not least because the studio publicity had been making a big deal about the movie being a collaboration between Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas. Talk about a marriage made in heaven.

And yet, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The trailer was enticing – full of groovy action beats and enigmatic references to some kind of Biblical artefact called the Ark. Say what? The only Ark I’d heard of was the one built by Noah, and somehow I couldn’t imagine that old tub making an appearance here. So what was this movie actually about? I had no idea.

Not that it mattered. From the very first shot – that cheeky dissolve from the Paramount logo to a mountain peak in Peru – Raiders of the Lost Ark had me thrilled and enthralled. What really blew me away was Spielberg’s mastery of the medium. Here was a filmmaker using every department, every tool at his disposal, with a single purpose in mind – to tell the story.

Take the first reveal of Indy, made unforgettable by Douglas Slocombe’s gorgeous cinematography. Initially glimpsed only in shadow, from behind, or through closeups of his hands, our hero finally steps into the dappled jungle light about three minutes into the opening sequence, having used his bullwhip to disarm his treacherous porter. Next time you watch the film, make sure you appreciate that first heroic closeup. Next, check out how many times Indy moves from shadow into light throughout the rest of the film. In fact, try making a note of every time Spielberg and Slocombe manipulate light and shade in the service of the story. Seriously, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best black and white movie ever made in the era of colour.

If you doubt me on that particular point, try watching the film in monochrome, a task made simple by master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who has put together a colourless, soundless version of Raiders of the Lost Ark for educational purposes, drawing attention to the incredible staging not just of the scene I’ve described above, but every scene in the entire film.

Speaking of silence, let’s talk about sound. Not only did John Williams compose one of most whistleable movie themes ever for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he also layered in music cues spanning the whole gamut from action to humour, romance to horror, suspense to downright awe. Woven through the music is Ben Burtt’s perfectly synchronised array of deliciously crunchy sound effects, from the deafening blam of Indy’s pistol, to the quirky cough of the seaplane’s starter motor, to the cracks of thunder that accompany the opening of the Well of Souls. And yes, there’s even a Wilhelm scream in there.

The soundtrack of my youth.

The soundtrack of my youth.

Visual effects play their part too, although frankly, when that effects-mad teenage version of me sat down to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, he wasn’t expecting much in that regard. Imagine his delight when he spotted matte paintings, cloud tank effects, and a plethora of ghosts that looked like live-action out-takes from the Night on a Bald Mountain section of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Again – and here’s the thing – every single visual effect exists purely to serve the story.

To illustrate, let’s return to the beginning of the film. We’re a few minutes further in, at the point when Indy and Satipo have gained access to the temple containing the golden Chachapoyan fertility idol. As they use Indy’s bullwhip to swing across an open shaft in the floor, we get a couple of shots looking up at them from below. Rather than excavating a big hole in the ground, the filmmakers combined a live-action plate shot from a low angle with a matte painting produced by Industrial Light & Magic.

As visual effects shots go, it’s far from showy. Granted, things get amped up later, when a rain of boulders accompanies Indy’s scramble back across the now-collapsing shaft (to create that illusion, ILM cameraman Jim Veilleux photographed individual boulders moving under motion control against bluescreen, which the optical department then matted into the rest of the scene). But in essence this is a pure storytelling shot, a carefully chosen angle selected through the storyboard process, perfectly pitched to describe the action and enhance the sense of peril.

Not that Raiders of the Lost Ark is lacking in splashy effects. For the finale, ILM visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund used every trick in the book to fill the frame with supernatural apparitions. There are cel-animated ghosts, ghosts brought to life by dragging puppets through a tank of water, an angelic performer flying on a mechanical rig, replica heads rigged to explode, collapse or melt on cue, and a pillar of fire that literally opens a pathway to the heavens.

The first Cinefex I ever bought was issue 6, containing "The Wrath of God ... and Other Illusions," Don Shay's article on the effects of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

The first Cinefex I ever bought was issue 6, containing “The Wrath of God … and Other Illusions,” Don Shay’s article on the effects of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time on my local movie screen was a big deal for me. It was the moment, I think, when I finally gave myself permission to be an effects enthusiast. Up until then, I’d half-believed that being interested in this rather esoteric craft made me a geek, and that my time might be better spent just enjoying these films rather than picking them apart. Incidentally, I suspect Mr. Spielberg was behind that feeling as well. After my first viewing of Jaws early in 1976, I recall annoying my friends by telling them the blood that came out of Robert Shaw was probably just tomato ketchup.

Raiders of the Lost Ark changed that. It proved to me that loving a story, and also loving the mechanics by which it was told, were entirely compatible. It was okay, whenever a juicy matte painting appeared on the screen, to lean forward in my seat a little, and narrow my eyes a little, and mutter under my breath, “Nice.”

If I did that now, of course, I’d spend entire films hunched forward and muttering to myself. There are only a handful of visual effects shots in Raiders of the Lost Ark, whereas modern action films commonly contain over 1,000. If it’s a big summer tentpole, you can double that.

ILM's Alan Maley painted the eight- by four-foot cliff painting on its side, enabling the matte camera to execute the required move by panning rather than tilting.

ILM’s Alan Maley painted the eight- by four-foot cliff painting on its side, enabling the matte camera to execute the required move by panning rather than tilting.

The escalation of effects has brought some astonishing images to our screens. However, from time to time I like to remember special moments from those older, simpler days. Like the moment during that first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when a spectacular Alan Maley matte painting allowed a Nazi truck to fly off an unexpectedly vertiginous cliff, causing the entire audience – myself included – to gasp aloud in surprise and delight.

It’s good to remember moments like that, because when every shot is gasp-inducing, nobody gasps. It’s a simple truth that Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates most elegantly.

Less, as they say, can sometimes be more.

This week marks the 35th anniversary of that first release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember those halcyon summer days as well as I do? Did you gasp when the truck went over the cliff? Which is the Indy moment that sticks most firmly in your memory?

Raiders of the Lost Ark photographs copyright © 1981 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Cinefex 147 Cover Reveal

Cinefex 147 Cover - The Jungle Book

The time has come to release the cover of our upcoming June edition into the wild. It boasts an up close and personal shot of Shere Khan, the villainous tiger of Walt Disney Studios’ live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and if we say so ourselves, it looks rather stunning.

As well as Joe Fordham’s in-depth article on the making of director Jon Favreau’s epic jungle tale, Cinefex 147 also features extensive coverage of Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Packed with behind-the-scenes stories and exclusive images, it’s the perfect way to start your summer.

Now Showing – Cinefex 146

Cinefex 146 features Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Hail, Caesar!, The 5th Wave, and Gods of Egypt

Gods collide in the brand new edition of Cinefex, featuring Joe Fordham’s superhero-sized story on this year’s biggest gladiatorial smackdown, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The action doesn’t end there – there’s also my in-depth article on the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time, Deadpool, plus Jody Duncan’s extensive coverage of the youth-oriented alien invasion movie, The 5th Wave.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also a lavishly illustrated article on the Coen brothers’ quirky period comedy Hail, Caesar!, plus a special Q&A with Eric Durst, visual effects supervisor on Alex Proyas’ epic Gods of Egypt. Jeepers – how do we fit it all in? Here’s our editor-in-chief to reveal all …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

In Mel Brooks’ 1987 film, Spaceballs, he spoofs the ubiquitous warp-drive effects in space movies, coining the term “Ludicrous Speed.”

Now that we’re on a bi-monthly, rather than quarterly schedule, the USS Cinefex NCC-1701 is always at Ludicrous Speed. In the editorial department, we had just printed out our final articles for issue 145 when we realized that our 146 articles were due – like, now!

And, when the freshly printed issue 145 arrived, rather than take a moment to congratulate ourselves, offer a champagne toast, peruse the issue at our leisure, and luxuriate in the heady aroma of printer’s ink – all of which we would have done, at least metaphorically, on the old schedule – the new schedule demanded that we take a quick look, high-five one another, chug a beer, and get back to work.

The difference in pace is that between a Turn-of-the-20th-Century Ice Cream Social and a Rave. We’re dancing as fast as we can, the beat is incessant, and we’re working up a sweat.

It is exhilarating!

Fortunately, Ludicrous Speed hasn’t negatively impacted the final product. Issue 146 looks as beautiful as any previous issue, and the content is top-drawer: Joe Fordham’s in-depth coverage of the effects in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Graham Edwards’ fascinating Deadpool article, and his exploration of how the Coen brothers and their visual effects team brought the look of old-school effects to Hail, Caesar!, my own story on The 5th Wave, and a Q&A with visual effects supervisor Eric Durst on the making of Gods of Egypt.

And now, if you’ll excuse me – issue 147 is calling!

Thanks, Jody. Now quit wasting time writing columns for the blog, and get back to some real work!

Issue 146 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, stand by your mailbox – your copy is already on its way. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

P is for Puppet

P is for PuppetIn the VFX ABC, the letter “P” stands for “Puppet”.

Everyone knows what a puppet is. Or do they? Just so we’re clear, here’s Howard Berger, co-founder of KNB EFX, with his definition:

“A puppet can be anything you want it to be. It can be a paper bag with googly eyes drawn on it. It can be a sock. It can be a million-dollar mechanical T-Rex. It is whatever the puppeteer wants to bring to life.”

What a puppet is not – for the purposes of this article at least – is the kind of cunningly-jointed figurine used by stop-motion animators. Our topic here is real-time performances created by manual or mechanical means. (Don’t worry, the VFX ABC will get to stop-motion soon enough – what else do you think the letter “S” stands for?)

Puppets in the Past

Puppetry is ancient. Greek historian Herodotus was writing about it in the 5th century B.C., and you can bet your life that puppets are a good deal older than that. Certainly, by the time the motion picture industry took off at the start of the 20th century, puppetry was deeply embedded in cultures worldwide, with a dizzying range of techniques on offer, from hand puppets to marionettes, Japanese bunraku to Java’s shadowy wayang kulit.

"The Witch" by George Méliès, a 1906 film featuring giant puppets.

“The Witch” by George Méliès, a 1906 film featuring giant puppets.

Hollywood embraced puppetry from the beginning. Georges Méliès, grand master of stage illusions, conjured countless fantasies that relied on large-scale puppets for their visual effects, including his 1906 film The Witch, which features a bizarre menagerie comprising a giant frog, an oversized owl, and a sinuous fire-breathing dragon.

An even bigger dragon puppet roared onto cinema screens in 1929, when Fritz Lang unleashed Die Nibelungen, featuring a 50-foot-long mechanical serpent called Fafnir. Concealed inside the puppet’s head was a can of gasoline hooked up to a pair of bellows, a basin of burning acetylene, and a generous supply of lycopodium powder. When this health and safety nightmare let rip, the result was a burst of flame 30 feet long.

Watch a scene from Die Nibelungen in which Siegfried slays the dragon:

Starring Roles

Already active in supporting roles, puppets soon found themselves taking centre stage, in films like Jack Harrison’s Dimples and Tears, a seven-minute vaudeville short from 1929, with singing and dancing puppets by Gorno Italian Marionettes. Reviewer Raymond Ganly, writing in the September 14, 1929 edition of Motion Picture News, couldn’t get enough of the little troupers:

“The possibilities of these little puppet shows are practically limitless – there are so many things that they can do with them. This series opens doors to cinematic entertainment with something distinctly different to offer.”

It was one thing to point a camera at a miniature stage. However, the growing popularity of early cel-animated shorts like Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, and George Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons series of the 1930s and 1940s, encouraged filmmakers to ask whether more imaginative forms of staging were required.

In the June 1930 edition of Close Up, journalist Hay Chowl asked marionette filmmaker John Grierson if he intended always to film his puppets through a proscenium arch, or if he planned to “break down those limitations with close-ups, rhythmic cutting and so on.” Grierson replied:

“Well there enters a problem yet to be worked out. It is possible to succeed too well. In a previous Marionette film, a Wild West Rough Rider leapt over canyons and raced the prairie with such filmic perfection that the sense of marionette-show was lost … I think we shall prefer to keep a reminder in the film that it is a marionette performance that the audience is looking at. Doubtless we shall break up the Visuals, but in such a way that the cuts assist the grotesquerie and stress the rhythm.”

Despite the popularity of puppet shorts, there remained a notable lack of puppet features. In 1966, Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds Are Go brought the marionettes from the Thunderbirds TV series to the big screen, but it wasn’t until Jim Henson showed his hand that puppet movies hit the big time.

Henson’s string of puppet films began in 1979 with The Muppet Movie. Three years later came The Dark Crystal, a dark Tolkienesque fantasy that performed only adequately on its first theatrical release, but which has gained popularity over the years. In 1986, Henson’s puppet-centric Labyrinth was an outright flop, yet has since attained the same almost legendary status as its predecessor.

A four-armed urRu, or "Mystic," from the 1982 puppet fantasy "The Dark Crystal," directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

A four-armed urRu, or “Mystic,” from the 1982 puppet fantasy “The Dark Crystal,” directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

The Special Effects of Puppets

Feature films that are entirely performed by puppets may be few and far between, yet puppets have graced countless live-action movies in supporting – or even leading – roles.

In George Pal’s 1953 production of The War of the Worlds, the iconic scene in which an invading Martian puts its three-tentacled hand on the shoulder of Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) involved the use of a full-scale puppet. Here’s Pal himself, writing in the October 1953 issue of Astounding Science Fiction:

“The Martian was the handiwork of our talented young unit art director Albert Nozaki who worked throughout with us from start to finish under Paramount supervising art director Hal Pereira. After Nozaki finished his design I called in a sculptor, make‑up man and artist named Charles Gemora … He built it out of papier mâché and sheet rubber, created arms that actually pulsated – through the use of rubber tubing in them – and painted the whole thing lobster red … Gemora is a short‑statured man who could fit into the contraption too, so we hired him to operate it. When he got inside he moved around on his knees, holding his arms hunched out. His hands came just to the elbows of the Martian’s formidable looking tentacles … It was a startler all right, something right out of your worst nightmare.”

Speaking of nightmares, puppet techniques were also behind what’s arguably the most terrifying movie alien ever – the biomechanical predator from Ridley Scott’s Alien, which scared not only theatre audiences, but also special makeup effects professionals like Legacy Effects co-founder John Rosengrant:

“The alien insert puppet head from the original Alien is a combination of great design and ‘What the f*** is it?!’ That crazy inner tongue with teeth coming out of its mouth!”

"Alien" mechanised head by Giger and Rambaldi

The “Alien” head was sculpted by HR Giger and mechanised by Carlo Rambaldi. Much of the rich detail was obscured by a smooth translucent shell (absent here) which covered totally the upper portion of the head.

Dreams can sometimes be sweet. The 1980s sent a whole troupe of cute critters trotting across movie screens, including Carlo Rambaldi’s alien star of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Gizmo, the adorable mogwai created by Chris Walas for Gremlins. Sophisticated combinations of cable controls, servo motors and pneumatic bladders – allied with traditional hand- and rod-puppet techniques – enabled such creatures to deliver complex, subtle performances, as Gino Acevedo, creative art director at Weta Digital, will testify:

“If I had to pick my all-time favourite puppet, I would have to say E.T., simply because he was alive in my eyes when I saw him. It was a case when everything fell into place to make a great character: strong design, sculpture, fabrication and puppeteering.”

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

Puppets have also colonised an eerie middle-ground, facilitating the transformation of human actors into supernatural forms. For John Landis’ 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London, Rick Baker deployed an ingenious array of puppets to effect the metamorphosis of David Kessler (David Naughton) into a slavering lycanthrope. To power his bone-wrenching collection of “change-o” heads, Baker supplemented push-pull cable controls with pneumatic rams, enabling a full-scale replica of Naughton’s face to elongate right in front of the camera lens … and before the eyes of astonished audiences.

However, few films can match the extraordinary blend of technical sophistication and muscular performance exhibited by Lyle Conway’s storeful of puppets in Frank Oz’s 1986 fantasy musical Little Shop of Horrors. Conway’s team built and operated a staggering array of carnivorous plants to portray the ever-growing alien infestation known as Audrey II. Capable of lip-syncing to a pre-recorded music track, the twelve-and-a-half-foot “Mean Green Mother” functioned via cables moved by steel control rods that were over five feet tall. The operation of this behemoth – which Conway likened to “lip-syncing a pair of mattresses slapped together” – required a physical therapist to be on the set at all time, just to manage the physical strain imposed on the puppeteers.

Director Frank Oz orchestrates the singing finale of "Little Shop of Horrors." In addition to the basic pod and stem articulation, the huge "Mean Green Mother" puppet required fifteen mechanical vines, thirteen baby pods, three roots and a variety of wall vines. When everything was working at once, more than fifty puppeteers were required.

Director Frank Oz orchestrates the singing finale of “Little Shop of Horrors.” In addition to the basic pod and stem articulation, the huge “Mean Green Mother” puppet required fifteen mechanical vines, thirteen baby pods, three roots and a variety of wall vines. When everything was working at once, more than fifty puppeteers were required.

With Heads Held High

John Rosengrant operates a Chip Hazard puppet from "Small Soldiers" during a practice session held at Stan Winston Studio. The problems associated with framing up to five puppeteers out of shot ultimately led to the abandonment of the rod puppet approach in favour of self-contained, remote-controlled puppets.

John Rosengrant operates a Chip Hazard puppet from “Small Soldiers” during a practice session held at Stan Winston Studio. The problems associated with framing up to five puppeteers out of shot ultimately led to the abandonment of the rod puppet approach in favour of self-contained, remote-controlled puppets.

Through the 1990s and beyond, puppet techniques continued to bring to life characters of all shapes and sizes. For Jurassic Park, artists at Stan Winston Studio fashioned numerous full-size dinosaurs, none bigger than the 20-foot, hydraulically-operated T-Rex, the initial clay form of which took a team of eight sculptors 16 weeks to complete.

At the other end of the scale, Winston’s team created more than 200 puppet versions of the 12-inch protagonists of Joe Dante’s 1998 film Small Soldiers. Actuating systems for the diminutive Commando Elite warriors, and their sworn enemies the Gorgonites, incorporated tiny radio-controlled mechanisms with the intricacy of Swiss watches.

Even recently, puppetry manages to hold its own. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has championed the practical approach in films from Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak, frequently integrating puppet elements with performance suits. Hellboy II showcases a host of weird and wonderful characters created by Spectral Motion. These include the winged Angel of Death, performed by Doug Jones in a mechanically-controlled costume, and the lumbering Mr. Wink. This latter is a winner in the eyes of Pietro Marson, workshop operations analyst (formerly head of animatronics) at Weta Workshop:

“I’d have to say my favourite animatronic suit is Mr. Wink from Hellboy II. It’s such a big, powerful character, and the movement is so natural-looking. The facial animatronics are superb, and the facial skin works really well with all of its deep creases and heavy texture. That’s one character I go back to for inspiration.”

Watch a Spectral Motion showreel, featuring the Angel of Death from Hellboy II:

The reputation of practical effects – of which puppetry is an integral part – has been further strengthened by its use in features as recent as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the marketing for which made quite a fuss about the film’s employment of “old-school” effects. A team led by Neal Scanlan developed a bevy of adorable BB-8 droids as functional props, working with Industrial Light & Magic’s CG robot to form a well-oiled tag-team that seamlessly fused practical and digital techniques.

Movie Puppets – A Round Table Q&A

Now that we’re all up to date, let’s see what four of today’s puppet professionals have to say about the state of the art.

Which movie puppet really got you thinking, “How in the heck did they do that?”

JOHN ROSENGRANT – Rick Baker’s puppets from An American Werewolf in London.

HOWARD BERGER – My all time favourite movie puppets are in Little Shop of Horrors. The way Audrey II is puppeteered and photographed in slow motion, to make sure each syllable was correct, is sheer genius – I think it was the first time this had been accomplished. I saw the film when it opened and could not believe my eyes. How did they do that? How does it look like the puppets are actually forming words, let alone singing? It was true movie magic.

GINO ACEVEDO – That would have to be Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. When I first saw this film, I could not believe the fluidity of the motions and lip sync. I watched it again recently, and still felt the same. CG couldn’t do any better!

Rod puppets, hand puppets, cables, animatronics … which control system do you favour, and why?

PIETRO MARSON – I love rigid linkages and direct servo connections with animatronics, and avoid Bowden cables whenever possible because you are always plagued with cable management and adjustment thereafter. If everything can be self-contained that makes on-set life much easier.

HOWARD BERGER – It’s all about organics. It’s not enough that it moves – it has to make sense and be familiar, so the audience says, “Hey, that looks real.” I love hand puppets. I feel you can get more out of that type of puppet than anything else. It also connects the puppeteer directly with the puppet, which means the performance will be great. When you have a cable or radio-controlled puppet, it takes many brains to make one character come to life. If you have a weak link with one of your puppeteers, then it’s all gone to custard.

GINO ACEVEDO – I love a mix of all techniques. For the gross movements, hand puppetry can give you that natural, fluid movement you only get from a human performer. Then, you can add in animatronics for the facial movements, rod puppetry for arms and legs, and cable control for hand movements. All are still great mechanisms to use, but you need to realise their limits, and you need great puppeteers who understand natural movement.

JOHN ROSENGRANT – All the above! It’s all job or shot specific. I love them all!

Watch a Legacy Effects showreel:

What’s the secret of a great puppet performance?

HOWARD BERGER – Feeling like the character when puppeteering. Bob Kurtzman would always make noises when he would puppeteer. If it was a creature, he would growl and roar. It was awesome. Monster-makers make the best monsters. It’s all part of the Dr. Frankenstein syndrome.

JOHN ROSENGRANT – You simply have to think of it as a character. It’s an actor, not an effect.

GINO ACEVEDO – Two things: having great mechanisms to work with, and having a great puppeteer who understands natural movement. If you don’t have either one of the two, your performance will not be believable.

Of all the puppets you’ve created, which one are you most proud of?

GINO ACEVEDO – Among my favourites are the Jack Nicholson and James Spader puppets we created at Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. for the film Wolf. I loved the design, based on Rick Baker’s makeup. We used silicone, which was then pretty new to the industry as far as using it for skins. On Death Becomes Her – again with ADI – we created some animatronic puppets of Meryl Streep. I believe that was the first that this silicone skin was put on screen. I developed a technique for painting the silicone then which I still use today.

PIETRO MARSON – An early test goblin animatronic mask for The Hobbit trilogy. It was the first time I had created an animatronic mechanism solo. The design of the creature was very different to anything that was ever seen on screen, but it had a really fierce snarl. In about two days, I put together a test animatronic mask rig controlled by real-time facial motion capture. The performance from the eyes and brow area was uncanny.

JOHN ROSENGRANT – The Terminator endoskeleton, the Queen Alien and warrior puppets from Aliens, the T-Rex and Spinosaurus from Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 3, numerous puppets from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Real Steel, and the Apatosaurus from Jurassic World. I’m very proud because they all became iconic film characters. That is truly what I enjoy the most – creating characters.

HOWARD BERGER – I love the Deadite Captain from Army of Darkness, as that was the very first slave mechanism we ever built at KNB. Wayne Toth was the mastermind behind all the puppets on that show. That puppet worked so well on set. It weighed 75 pounds – it broke my back, but I was young! It was like wearing a red badge of courage to carry that sucker around for months in the desert at night. Director Sam Raimi would destroy them all the time during takes, but Wayne had designed them so well that they could come apart in moments and have parts replaced.

Watch a Weta Workshop showreel:

What value does the craft of puppeteering bring to the movie set?

JOHN ROSENGRANT – The first thing is a presence on set – another “actor” for the actors to react to. It offers a chance for the spontaneous performance that happens between actors, that little bit of magic. In today’s world, the side benefit is that it anchors the character into the real world, and makes the CG versions that much better, in my opinion.

GINO ACEVEDO – It gives the actors and director something to react to, and the director of photography something to light. Now, there are cases where a CG character  is the only way to achieve the effect – like Gollum, or Caesar in Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With Caesar, I remember when it was announced that Weta Digital were doing the film. A lot of my colleagues back in L.A. asked if we were going to use prosthetics. I said no, because these apes were still very much normal-looking apes. The exception was Caesar himself, who was based on some of the features of Andy Serkis, but he still had the anatomy of a chimpanzee, which a human performer could not have got away with.

PIETRO MARSON – Despite what visual effects can do to a shot, there is nothing like a performer’s reaction to a physical puppet on set. From my perspective, it’s all about the interaction between puppets and actors, rather than just how the puppet performs.

HOWARD BERGER – I love every aspect of what we do. I love makeup, suits, puppets, you name it. I also love the resurgence of stop motion – Anomalisa was brilliant, one of my favourite films in 2015. At KNB, Greg Nicotero pushes the envelope with wanting to use as many puppets and radio-controlled severed heads as he can. Mike Elizalde at Spectral Motion is a huge advocate for puppets, and has one of the best mechanical geniuses working with him, Mark Setrakian. But I think that, for some reason, pre-production is a dirty word now in filmmaking. If you spend more then two weeks prepping a film, you are wasting the production’s money – the bean counters don’t understand that we do this for the love and art of filmmaking. We are professionals, and have lasted this long for a reason. It would be great if people would listen to what we bring to the table.

Watch a Stan Winston School Monster Maker interview with Howard Berger of KNB EFX:

Special thanks to Ri Streeter Alien photograph copyright © 1979 by 20th Century Fox, production still unit photography by Bob Penn. Little Shop of Horrors photograph copyright © 1986 by The Geffen Film Company, photograph by Murray Close. Small Soldiers photograph copyright © 1998 by DreamWorks SKG and Universal City Studios, photograph by Chuck Zlotnick. Death Becomes Her photograph copyright © 1992 by Universal City Studios.

Cinefex 146 Cover Reveal

Cinefex 146

In an alternate universe, a lone survivor from the dying planet Krypton goes head to head with a chiropteran crimefighter, before teaming up with a squad of shape-shifting (and extremely shiny) Ancient Egyptian gods to fend off a devastating alien attack and recover a kidnapped movie star, while all the time a potty-mouthed superhero looks on from afar, making sarcastic comments.

Sounds like a crazy movie mashup? Well, it isn’t. It’s what you get when you jumble together the contents of our upcoming magazine issue, the cover for which we’re now proud to reveal.

Out mid-April and available to preorder now, Cinefex 146 takes you inside the caped crusader’s mech-suit for “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world,” with our extensive article on Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. There’s more superhero action in this issue’s in-depth story on Tim Miller’s smash hit Deadpool, and that’s before you even get to our lengthy articles on Gods of Egypt, The 5th Wave, and the Coen brothers’ quirky period comedy Hail, Caesar!

Lavishly illustrated with dozens of behind the scenes images, and packed with detail about the making of the films, Cinefex 146 is another in a long line of issues you really won’t want to miss.

Preorder Cinefex 146

The Fullness of Time

Preorder Cinefex 146

It’s been nearly five months since I boarded the Good Ship Cinefex as senior staff writer, and oh boy, have I learned a lot.

The biggest lesson has been that there’s no such thing as a typical Cinefex assignment. Every one is different, and for a multitude of reasons.

Take Spectre, my first article for the magazine as a full-time member of the team. The schedule was such that, by the time I came to conduct interviews with Steve Begg, Chris Corbould, and the team of facility supervisors who laboured with them to put the latest Bond movie on the screen, the film was already in the can. Heck, I even had the luxury of seeing the damn thing before my copy deadline.

So, not only did I get to speak with people about work they’d already done, but I actually experienced the fruits of their labours for myself, while I was writing about them.

As I’ve since discovered, that ain’t always the case.

Deadpool - coming soon in Cinefex 146

In our upcoming issue 146, due out next month, you’ll find my stories on Deadpool and Hail, Caesar!, plus my Q&A with Eric Durst, visual effects supervisor on Gods of Egypt. Each one of these assignments differed wildly from my secret service mission with agent 007.

With Deadpool, for example, I found myself speaking with director Tim Miller while he was still deeply immersed in post-production on the film.

He, along with visual effects supervisor Jonathan Rothbart, and the many other supervisors and artists I interviewed, was incredibly generous with his time, and more than willing to discuss a movie that wasn’t even finished yet … and which I certainly had no chance of seeing before submitting my final draft to Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan.

Hail, Caesar! was different. That was down not so much to timing, but to the production’s more diminutive scale, which saw me teasing details about the Coen brothers’ 1950s period piece from a single, small team at Psyop, rather than wrangling reams of interview transcript from multiple visual effects facilities spread around the world. As for Gods of Egypt – a late addition to our issue 146 editorial lineup – I had to turn that round at something approaching lightspeed, squeezing the back-story to a 2,550-shot show into the brisk and breezy confines of our Q&A format.

X-Men: Apocalypse - coming soon in Cinefex 147This week, I’m finalising my article on X-Men: Apocalypse. Different again? You’d better believe it. Scheduled for Cinefex 147, due out in June 2016, this one had me conducting interviews even as director Bryan Singer was posting photos on Instagram from a late pickup shoot, on a film that was still very much being put together, and very much under wraps.

My colleague, Cinefex associate editor Joe Fordham, wrote most eloquently about the challenges of timing in this appropriately-titled blog article – Timing. As the newest member of the team, I can now personally vouch that everything Joe said is true.

Now, as I turn my attention to the two films on my slate for issue 148, timing is still at the front of my mind. One of the movies, like Spectre was, is wrapped. The other is still a long way from completion. No prizes for guessing which one I plan to tackle first.

As for what those films are, well, I’ll keep that to myself for now. You’ll find out soon enough.

In the fullness of time.


Cinefex 146, published April 2016, will feature in-depth stories on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Hail, Caesar!, The 5th Wave, and Gods of Egypt.

Now Showing – Cinefex 145

Cinefex 145 - From the Editor's Desk

Wait! What? That’s not right. It’s only two months since the last Cinefex was out. It can’t be time for a new issue already.

Yes, it can! We’re now publishing Cinefex every two months, instead of every quarter. That’s six issues annually instead of four – 50% more from the world’s premier visual effects magazine, each and every year!

And what an issue to launch our new publishing schedule with. If you haven’t already guessed by the cover, Cinefex 145 transports you to a galaxy far, far away, with in-depth coverage of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In the article, Roger Guyett and his team of artists discuss the film’s visual effects, Chris Corbould talks about the nuts and bolts of the practical effects, and Neal Scanlan peels back the masks of all those amazing creatures. On top of that, there’s exclusive interview material with director J.J. Abrams, plus a host of behind-the-scenes secrets you won’t read about anywhere else. Trust us, you really won’t want to miss this one!

Chris Corbould also features in our article on Spectre, where he gives us the lowdown on the latest Bond movie’s record-breaking special effects, while visual effects supervisor Steve Begg navigates us through the film’s seamless VFX, ably assisted by an international multi-vendor team.

As if that’s not enough, we’ve got expansive articles on The Revenant and The Finest Hours, not to mention a little extra in the robot department … but wait, I’ll let Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan tell you all about that  …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

Issue 145 marks a happy return to Star Wars, the franchise that was a catalyst not only for major advances in visual effects, but also for the creation of Cinefex itself.

So top-secret were the details of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our story’s writer, Joe Fordham, had to operate in spy mode. Not only did he slip into Industrial Light & Magic under cover, but he also signed a non-disclosure agreement in blood, underwent Enhanced Interrogation Techniques to determine if he would break under pressure … okay, not really – but the security around this project was intense, and Joe went to great pains to protect the film’s secrets. His final piece spills the beans with details and behind-the-scenes insights that you won’t find anywhere else.

Speaking of spies – Graham Edwards, in his inaugural story as Cinefex senior staff writer, offers the definitive coverage of the effects, both practical and digital, in the latest Bond film, Spectre. Then there are my two articles, both concerning non-effects films that could only have been made using visual effects – my favorite type of story. In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance and ILM’s animated grizzly combined to deliver cinema’s most realistic and terrifying mauling sequence ever. Likewise, MPC’s CG stormy seas in The Finest Hours delivered much of the drama surrounding four Coast Guardsmen who set out to rescue the crew of a tanker cleaved in two.

We round out the issue with a visual effects supervisor Q&A for Ex Machina, a little film that had slipped under our radar, but which then earned our attention – and Oscar’s, as well.

I hope you enjoy Cinefex 145 – the first issue to be produced on our new bimonthly schedule!

Thanks, Jody!

Issue 145 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, stand by your mailbox – your copy is already on its way. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Oh, and when you’ve read the new issue from cover to cover, don’t despair. Now that our new bimonthly publishing schedule is up and running, you won’t have long to wait before the next one!

Cinefex has gone bimonthly