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.

What Makes an Award-Winning Visual Effect?

Actor John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the Best Visual Effects nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Actor John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the Best Visual Effects nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Photograph by Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.

The Oscars are just around the corner. The 14th Annual VES Awards will be presented later today. Among the memorable movies nominated for extraordinary achievements in visual effects this year are Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

14th Annual VES AwardsBut just how do you choose between a sexy robot, monumental vehicular carnage, extra-terrestrial super-science, trials and trauma in the North American wilderness, and an entire galaxy filled with beeping droids and exploding spaceships? In an age where seamlessly-integrated, photoreal effects are taken completely for granted, what constitutes a “good” visual effect?

In search of some answers, we asked an international panel of visual effects professionals this simple question:

“How do you go about judging award-winning visual effects?”

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: "Ex Machina" - Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett. Image copyright © by Universal Pictures.

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “Ex Machina” – Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett. Image copyright © by Universal Pictures.

It’s a question that could take us into some rocky territory. Luckily for us, Randall Smith, visual effects supervisor at Pixomondo, has sketched out a road map to help us on our way:

“I judge visual effects based on three criteria. First I’m looking for accuracy and photorealism — visuals so realistic that the viewer accepts what they are seeing, and their disbelief is momentarily suspended. Secondly, I’m looking for pure, artistic expression. The best effects stand out when the artists aren’t held back by the limitations of a cost-effective solution, and instead aim towards new discoveries within their art. Last — and most importantly — the measure of a great effect will always be its success in storytelling. It’s amazing that a Muppet, with a team of artist’s hands shoved up its backside, can create a compelling story with a huge range of emotion. In comparison, some of most expensive effects shots often fall flat, losing the narrative and thereby losing the viewer.”

Parallel to Smith’s three basic criteria, Marque Pierre Sondergaard, texture artist at Atomic Fiction, suggests studying visual effects through two different lenses, which he describes as the “yin and yang of visual effects”:

“On one hand, you have visual effects that impress you when you are later told that the sequence was actually CG, and you never guessed. On the other hand, you have visual effects that seduce you with dazzling visuals and make no attempt to blend with the wallpaper. An example of the first would be Jurassic Park. At the first viewing, I kept asking, ‘How did they have real dinosaurs on set?’ The second could be exemplified by Guardians of the Galaxy, where the over-the-top world of a comic book makes no excuses for bending the laws of physics if it results in cool images.”

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: "Mad Max: Fury Road" - Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

What’s the Story?

There’s no shortage of people ready to agree with Randall Smith’s assertion that successful storytelling is the key to great visual effects. Here’s what Alex Hessler, CG supervisor at Tippett Studio believes:

“The effects which tend to win awards are those that play the largest role in telling a great story. The technical advancements of visual effects come second to how good the story is, and how well that story uses the effects. So often, the script and direction is the deciding factor.”

Start thinking about story, and you’ll probably find yourself contemplating the film as a whole. But narrative also exists at the level of an individual shot, as Kent Matheson, environment artist at Tippett Studio, points out:

“Like Douglas Adams’ secret to flying, generally I judge visual effects shots by whether or not I can forget I’m watching an effect. I want my imagination to be carried along with the story. And not only the story of the film or sequence. Each shot has a mini-story in itself, and everything in that shot has to work together, and be balanced and integrated in support of that.”

For Will Cohen, CEO/executive producer at Milk VFX, the power of story has never been in doubt:

“Outstanding visual effects must always support the storytelling.”

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: "The Revenant" - Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “The Revenant” – Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

Art VS Science

It’s all very well talking about story, but what about the nuts and bolts of creating visual effects? In an industry that relies on artistic vision and technical excellence in almost equal measure, surely there’s a place for innovation at the awards table? Storytelling advocate Will Cohen agrees that there is:

“Award-winning work should be somehow special and — by definition — push the boundaries in some way, whether artistically or technically.”

However, herein lies a problem. Faced with one bunch of visual effects that’s dripping with artistic achievement, and a second that’s technically out of this world, which do you vote for? Nicolas Chevalier, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite, mulls it over:

“Now that techniques allow us to create highly complex imagery, we need to rely on the artistic side of the work. Of course, you still have to obey certain rules to make a visual effect believable — lighting and physics to start with — but ultimately the work needs to serve the story, at any price. I guess this year’s Oscars selection reflects this.”

Some people — such as Mat Krentz, visual effects supervisor at Image Engine — consider technical achievement to be the most important check-box when making that final judgement call:

“Because of my compositing background, the first thing that I look for is if a shot technically works. If I spot any problems, then I immediately take note. I try to break down the process of how a final shot was achieved, and figure out what steps might have been taken to get there. I’m always impressed when seeing something new or inventive, as long as it was executed and finished appropriately.”

While maintaining a balanced view, Rudy Grossman, CG supervisor at Atomic Fiction, notes that technical innovation itself has many different facets:

“Great visual effects seamlessly support and tell a film’s story through aesthetic visuals created by an innovative use of technology. However, innovation isn’t always the development of new technology; it can also be a creative use of existing tools to make successful visuals in a new way.”

The Martian - Cinefex 144 Extract

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “The Martian” – Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence, Steven Werner. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

The Quest for Reality

We’ve gone into this debate under the assumption that visual effects need to look photoreal in order to be considered ‘good’ — but is that really the case? Jim Gibbs, visual effects supervisor at Atomic Fiction, is confident about what modern movie audiences expect to see:

“We’ve reached a point where visual effects are expected to look seamless to audiences that have become more discerning, and accustomed to a high level of detail and realism.”

So, what are the advantages of serving up visual effects that look realistic enough to be called ‘invisible’? Peter Rogers, creative producer at Bait Studio, offers his opinion:

“I think that truly unforgettable visual effects are those that go unnoticed on first viewing. Those kinds of shots add to, rather than detract from, the narrative, helping to enhance the director’s vision, and building a truly believable world on screen. If you can forget you are watching a visual effects shot despite having industry knowledge, because you are so immersed, then you know that it’s doing the job it was intended for.”

While most seem to agree that photorealism is critical, where does that quality feature on the list of awards criteria? Shawn Walsh, visual effects executive producer at Image Engine, ranks it near the top:

“While respecting the banal, yet crucial, on-set data acquisition and chosen methodology of execution in post-production, ultimately seamlessness is always a must-have element in the success of the work. In the case of something like Chappie, we want the audience to forget they’re looking at a computer-generated robot.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

88th Annual Academy Awards nominee for Best Visual Effects: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould. Image copyright © by Disney/Lucasfilm.

Putting Everything in Context

So far, we’ve looked at ways of measuring visual effects by breaking them down. Do they tell the story? Are they artistically or technically successful? Do they look real? But can we really study visual effects, and their component parts, in isolation? Isn’t it really all about the complete moviegoing experience? Mark Stetson, creative director and senior visual effects supervisor at Zoic Studios, suggests that it might be:

“I try to watch visual effects the same way I watch ‘best picture’ candidates — as an emotional response to a matrix of every aspect of filmmaking. Since our work is like a subset of almost the entire production — including production design, cinematography, performance, editorial, and image finishing — so must our work sit in the movie. If anything technical jumps out, we failed. If filmmakers find a new way to integrate the visual effects work into the production, we win. Despite the feeling that we can do anything in visual effects, there are still many boundaries to push, especially in the realms of animation — and more especially in virtual human actor performance. So I see plenty of opportunities for more ‘Wow!’ moments to come!”

As far as Shawn Walsh is concerned, context really is king:

“When I judge visual effects work, the context for the work is very important. Where is the location? What is the narrative implication of the action? How will this work affect the viewer?”

Likewise, Jim Gibbs believes that the very best visual effects succeed because of their contribution to the production as a whole:

“Visual effects that receive acclaim are well woven into the filmmaking process. They develop clever ways, and/or new technologies, to help achieve the director’s vision with the resources available. The final shot or sequence appeals to the audience as a vehicle for story-telling, and the process appeals to the visual effects and moviemaking community as interesting and forward-thinking.”

If you take the advice of Andrew Morley, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite, you won’t dream of judging the merits of an individual visual effects shot without also assessing its impact on the rest of the movie:

“Assuming technical correctness and excellence, a ‘good’ visual effect is hard to define, and consequently to judge. Shots make scenes, scenes make sequences, sequences make the film. A single shot — whether it contains visual effects or not — can influence the audience’s immersion within the entire film. Likewise, the qualities of the film, the story, the performances of the actors, and the vision of the director can all affect the feeling of an individual shot. The work needs to be judged taking into account the whole film. So, a mind-blowing, clever, beautiful visual effects shot that is ‘good’ will only ever enter the realms of ‘unforgettable’ if the film itself is up there in the stratosphere of the best films. If the film is forgettable, certainly the visual effects will disappear into the pixel grave of history.”

Interstellar

Winner of the 87th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Interstellar” – Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott R. Fisher. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

How Much is Too Much?

One criticism frequently levelled at today’s effects-heavy tentpoles is that the sheer weight of visual imagery threatens to overload viewers’ senses and derail flimsy storylines. Randall Smith is as familiar with the trend as the rest of us:

“Much of what we see today is visual effects for the sake of visual effects, effects that are distracting the viewer, begging for attention.”

Jim Gibbs agrees that, when it comes to judging films in a best visual effects category, excess should not necessarily lead to success:

“In an age of movies with gratuitous and over-the-top effects for the sake of visual spectacle, those that truly stand out are those which not only instil a sense of wonder in the audience, but are absolutely necessary to the film and the way the story is being told.”

Another person who also prefers quality over quantity is Aladino Debert, creative director at Digital Domain:

“Given the maturity of the industry, and the evolved expectations of what constitutes award-winning work, I’d say it comes down to a combination of uniqueness, art direction and technical prowess. I believe you need those three elements in order to really make me pay attention and consider it worthy of an award. Quantity does not impress me, but creative choices and the smart use of visual effects do.”

Winner of the 86th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: "Gravity" - Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Winner of the 86th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Gravity” – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould. Image copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

It’s a Tricky Business

One thing’s for sure, the more you break down the business of creating visual effects, the more you appreciate just how challenging the craft really is. Given their complexity, is it even possible to judge visual effects at all? Mike Janov, VFX supervisor at Atomic Fiction, is all too aware of the difficulties involved:

“There really is no one way to judge ‘award-winning visual effects’ — there are so many aspects that go into a final image. There are many decisions made on-set that act as a canvas for whoever is doing the visual effects — camera, lens, camera movement, composition, lighting, and so on. After a shoot wraps, it’s up to the talent of a visual effects studio to bring the shots to life. More decisions need to be made based on the previous on-set choices. How do you take a plate to the next level? Are the effects making the image a more emotional experience for the audience? Are they being pushed to a level of realism never seen before? Is the intention of the visual effects clear, making the overall viewing experience better?”

Even when you do identify ways to facilitate the judging process, there are plenty of ways in which logical argument can get subverted, as Anders Beer, animation director at Image Engine, remarks:

“At its core, visual effects work is about creative problem-solving. That much has never changed. So, measuring great visual effects means weighing the difficulty of the problem against the quality of the solution — measuring the quality of the solution is always going to be subjective. Unfortunately, some of the most challenging visual effects problems that get solved are too dramatic or political to make it into the visual effects breakdowns. And many of the solutions are misrepresented in the breakdowns to promote studio marketing or even personal agendas.”

One of the big challenges for visual effects professionals is how to present their work to judging panels made up of people who know little — if anything — about visual effects. Aidan Fraser, VFX supervisor at Atomic Fiction, identifies some of the issues:

“Nowadays, one can’t determine the line between CG and practical simply by watching the film. The judges of visual effects awards need to see breakdown reels even to know what is visual effects and what isn’t. The obstacles a team had to overcome and the innovations they made along the way must also be considered in judging the final image. For example, our hope is that you watched The Walk and believed that Joseph Gordon Levitt learned to juggle five clubs while balancing on a slack line. However, to judge the visual effects in the film, you would have to know that those shots were digital face replacements. Also, the massive 1970s New York environments become more of an achievement when you know the time and budget constraints of the film, not to mention the scale of cloud computing never before seen in cinema. You have to understand the process to accurately judge the product.”

No two visual effects shots are the same. Similarly, every awards ceremony differs from the next. That’s why Guy Williams, visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, adjusts his judging criteria according to the prize that’s up for grabs:

“For the VES awards, I judge a shot by its merit against other effects – in other words, I take into account the difficulty of the effect, and the creativity of the solution. For the Academy, I base it more on how the effects contribute to the storytelling. For both awards, quality is also a main concern – although the industry is so evolved now that most nominated films are skirting the edge of perfection, so it isn’t usually a deciding factor.”

In an age when the term “CG” is seen by some uninformed individuals as a dirty word, visual effects professionals can take heart from the knowledge that much of their work is going more unnoticed — and is therefore more successful — than ever, as Peter Rogers observes:

“Recent successes like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have both led to audiences praising the return to ‘all-practical’ effects. This shows how seamless really good visual effects can be.”

Here’s another thought. Because many judging panels are ignorant of the visual effects process, is the “context is king” model really the best way to measure success in the craft? Brooke Lyndon-Stanford, visual effects supervisor and owner at Atomic Arts, and chair of the London branch of the Visual Effects Society, shares his personal reflections on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting process:

“For me, it is extremely important to take the visual effects out of their context — we are here to judge the quality of the actual work, and nothing else. To this end, it is vital that we understand what we are looking at, and judge it on its own merit. A badly scripted film can still contain excellent effects, and just because a film is by a great director should in no way elevate the perceived quality of the effects.

“Having sat through the AMPAS VFX branch bake-off on a few occasions, it is clear that the way we should judge visual effects is very different from how the Academy judges them. I sat beside a senior studio executive at the bake-off for the 2012 Oscars, for which a movie we had contributed to — Rise of the Planet of the Apes — was nominated. Seeing the other films in contention, in my naivety, I declared that Apes would be a shoo-in for the Oscar. It was the first ever live-action movie where the lead was totally computer generated — a pivotal moment in movie history. The exec disagreed — history showed that, where there was a movie in contention by a director favoured by the Academy which wasn’t quite good enough to receive ‘serious’ awards, members would vote for their film in other categories. I was astounded that this could ever happen, and genuinely didn’t believe him. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, won the 2012 Academy Award for Visual Effects.

“To be fair, Academy judges are hindered to a great part because the Academy (which incidentally has a median age of 62), still does not allow breakdowns in the reels shown to them, so how can they be expected to understand what they are looking at? I chatted to a couple of grey-haired Academy members after the bake-off who were amazed at how we got the apes to act so well on camera.”

The bottom line has to be that visual effects is, at is always has been, an incredibly difficult category to judge, as Will Cohen admits:

“Creativity will always be difficult to judge. Much of the time, what is perceived to be award-winning work is subjective opinion and personal taste, and will depend on the comparative quality and impact of the batch of works that are created in a particular year.”

Winner of the 85th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: "Life of Pi" - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer, Donald R. Elliott. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

Winner of the 85th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Life of Pi” – Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer, Donald R. Elliott. Image copyright © by 20th Century Fox.

The Feelings of the Panel

Our panel of experts has discussed at length the myriad ways by which visual effects can be judged. However, perhaps the most useful insights they can give us are concerned not with what they think, but how they feel. So away with the commentary — let’s allow the emotions to speak for themselves:

“When watching a film, I’m always hoping for an emotional experience that is unforgettable. Ideally, when there are visual effects, I’m not evaluating the image technically, simply enjoying the experience and being left wanting more!”
Mike Janov, VFX supervisor, Atomic Fiction

“The visual effects which hold a special place in my heart are those that leave an emotional imprint, long after the initial viewing. Cutting through the fog of obligatory effects found in most features are a few, rare beacons of how this craft can truly shape an experience. That happens when the creators are so good that you genuinely feel joy or sadness for an illusion made of triangles. In those moments, an artist transcends the medium, and the computer vanishes.”
Vince Cirelli, visual effects supervisor, Luma Pictures

“In recent years, we have learned the hard way that bums on seats and big budgets alone don’t necessarily produce award-winning, eye-watering and envy-inducing visual effects. We shouldn’t strive to pull the rabbit out of the hat with as much fireworks and fanfare as possible. What turns heads is when you can subtly feel the passion, the pain, the endurance and creativity a project demanded of its crew. When disadvantages get turned into advantages, when problems turn into solutions — that’s when a show reaches its ‘bliss point’ and turns from a 99-cent fast-food burger into a well-aged French Camembert, melting in your mouth, challenging your nose and tickling your taste buds.”
Guido Wolter, 2D supervisor, One of Us

“Once in a blue moon, you will find a visual effect that includes both extraordinary amounts of artistic vision and near-perfect realism. The moment may go overlooked by the audience, because it fades so completely into the story supporting it. These moments will be studied for years to come.”
Randall Smith, visual effects supervisor, Pixomondo

“For me, award-winning visual effects are always those that are the deepest, richest, and most captivating — not the largest or most flashy. The effects which facilitate a visual result that is otherwise unachievable, and in so doing return incredible value to the filmmaker.”
Shawn Walsh, visual effects executive producer, Image Engine

“Perhaps the best visual effects are the ones that fool the experts — when even we, as professionals in the industry, forget that we are watching a character, event, or place that never actually existed.”
Rudy Grossman, CG supervisor, Atomic Fiction

“Good visual effects tell a story that can’t be told using any other tools. If you were to remove the effects, you’d leave an irreparable hole.”
Niketa Roman, PR manager, Tippett Studio

“As is true with all artistic challenges that go into the making of a film, we are in the business of contributing to the director’s vision. One should judge the success of a visual effect by its artful addition to a film, the ingenuity that went into its creation, and by the degree to which it creates an exceptional experience.”
Brian Flora, art director, Atomic Fiction

Winner of the 84th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: "Hugo" - Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, Alex Henning. Image copyright © by Paramount Pictures.

Winner of the 84th Academy Award for Best Visual Effects: “Hugo” – Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, Alex Henning. Image copyright © by Paramount Pictures.

And Finally …

Of all our contributors, only one was brave enough to offer up a working blueprint of what actually constitutes an award-winning visual effect. Frankly, we’re not convinced that Dominic Parker, VFX supervisor at One of Us, was entirely serious when he compiled his ultimate checklist. Nevertheless, if you’re a visual effects artist keen to display one of those heavyweight gold trophies on your shelf, maybe you should try following his step by step instructions:

“An award-winning visual effect should have an A-list actor in front of a greenscreen, three or more practical elements, a complex CG pass — maybe of some kind of space creature or something being blown up — with multiple angles of view, there should be a non-nodal camera move, and when all this stuff is stuck together there should be some kind of cool effect over the top which makes it feel organic.”

Thanks to all our contributors from the following companies:

Special thanks to Jenny Burbage, Alex Coxon, Dave Gougé, Sophie Hunt, Ella Keeven, Geraldine Morales, Sepi Motamedi, Helen Pooler, Niketa Roman, Tiffany Tetrault and Sirena Ung.

Cinefex 145 Cover Reveal

Wondering how best to reveal the cover of our upcoming issue, we invited our friends at Industrial Light & Magic to do the honours.Since the cover of Cinefex 145 showcases ILM’s spectacular work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they were only too happy to oblige.

Not only does Cinefex 145 feature in-depth coverage of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it also takes you behind the scenes on Spectre, The Revenant, and The Finest Hours. And, since we love the film as much as you do, we’ve also managed to squeeze in a bonus feature on the Oscar-nominated Ex Machina.

Cinefex 145 hits the streets mid-February. With its eye-popping Millennium Falcon front cover, it’s sure to get snapped up fast. But don’t worry – you can preorder your copy today from our online store.

The Millennium Falcon Flies Again

The Millennium Falcon speeds over the Jakku desert in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What’s your favourite movie starship? If Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon isn’t on your shortlist, there’s something wrong with you. And if you haven’t yet enjoyed the crazy aerobatics of the galaxy’s most iconic hunk of junk in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s something really wrong with you.

For the latest film in the staggeringly popular space saga – featured in the February issue of Cinefex – the Falcon gets a new pilot in the form of Rey, a lonely scavenger from the desolate planet of Jakku. However, just as Rey isn’t the first person to sit behind the controls of this much-loved spacecraft, so the Falcon seen in The Force Awakens is hardly the first version of the ship to have graced cinema screens over the years.

So just how many Falcons have there been?

ILM modelmakers work on the original Star Wars "pirate ship", later repurposed as the Rebel Blockade Runner.

ILM modelmakers work on the original “Star Wars” pirate ship, later repurposed as the Rebel Blockade Runner.

The very first Falcon of all was created for the original Star Wars in 1977. To begin with, she didn’t even have a name – Lucas and the rest of the crew referred to her simply as the “pirate ship”. What’s more, she didn’t look one bit like the retrofitted saucer now familiar to fans around the world.

Constructed by the model department at Industrial Light & Magic, that first Falcon was long and thin, with a cluster of chunky engines at the back. Late in the day, when the lovingly-created six-foot miniature was more or less ready to go in front of the camera, director George Lucas decided the ship looked too much like the Eagle transporter from TV show Space: 1999. Suddenly, it was all change on the Falcon front.

The final Falcon design, worked up by effects illustrator and designer Joe Johnston following a brainstorming session with Lucas and mechanical effects supervisor John Stears, reimagined the vessel as a souped-up hot-rod shaped like a hamburger. With the production clock ticking, the complete design was turned around – incredibly – in less than a week.

Rather than waste all the work they’d already done on the prototype pirate ship, ILM repurposed their model to become the Rebel Blockade Runner seen in the film’s opening scenes, fitting a new hammerhead-style prow to replace the original glass-fronted cockpit, which now sat proudly on the flank of the new, improved Falcon.

Although the Falcon redesign came together quickly, it took a little longer to decide just how the new ship should fly. Interviewed in issue 65 of Cinefex, ILM model shop supervisor Lorne Peterson revealed:

“The original concept called for the Falcon to sail like a giant sunfish. It would lift off on its horizontal axis, then rotate into a vertical configuration and fly upended on edge with the front mandibles pointing forward. We never actually shot it that way, though, because George decided he liked the look of it flying horizontally.”

The ILM crew prepare the four-foot diameter Millennium Falcon model for a motion control bluescreen shot in "Star Wars".

The ILM crew prepare the four-foot diameter Millennium Falcon model for a motion control bluescreen shot in “Star Wars”.

ILM built their hero Falcon model at a large scale, to ensure the detail held up under close scrutiny. Indeed, at around four feet in diameter, it could hardly be called a miniature at all. Mounted on a pylon in front of a bluescreen, the model performed a dizzying series of manoeuvres in front of ILM’s revolutionary Dykstraflex camera, flying not by the seat of Han Solo’s pants, but under strict computer control.

Under the supervision of production designer John Barry, the Star Wars production art department replicated ILM’s Falcon model as a full-size set built on a soundstage at Elstree Studios in the UK. Well, they built the right-hand half of her, at least. The poor dear was so big she wouldn’t fit on the stage in her entirety. Furthermore, the partial ship was so darned heavy that it couldn’t be moved around. So, after scenes had been shot of the Falcon sitting in Docking Bay 94 on the desert planet Tatooine, the surrounding scenery was torn down and replaced with the shiny interior of the Death Star hangar.

Barry also constructed interior sets for the fast-moving freighter. Add those to the full-scale exterior, and ILM’s miniature, and that brings our initial Millennium Falcon count to three. But it doesn’t stop there. For a wide shot of the Falcon in the Death Star hangar, artist Harrison Ellenshaw created a detailed matte painting to flesh out the partial set.

Then came the sequels.

ILM's smaller, more manageable two-foot model of the Millennium Falcon was used extensively in "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi".

ILM’s smaller, more manageable two-foot model of the Millennium Falcon was used extensively in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”.

When The Empire Strikes Back went into production, the ILM team took one look at the script and decided that the four-foot Millennium Falcon they’d built for the original movie was just too unwieldy for all that mucking about in asteroid fields. So they complemented it with a smaller, two-foot version that was easier the throw around. For really wide shots, modelmaker Mike Fulmer fabricated a truly tiny Falcon no bigger than a half dollar coin.

While the miniatures got smaller, the full-scale ship got bigger. Based at Pembroke Dock in Wales, Marcon Fabrication constructed a complete, 65-foot-diameter Falcon. Weighing in at over 25 tons, the giant vessel broke into sixteen pie segments, and had to be moved around on the Elstree stages using compressed air pads.

Artists Harrison Ellenshaw, Mike Pangrazio and Ralph McQuarrie took up the matte painting reins for The Empire Strikes Back, with the department turning out artwork showing the Falcon in locations including the Rebel base on Hoth, the asteroid cave, and the sun-drenched landing platform in Bespin’s Cloud City.

For a shot in "Return of the Jedi", visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund lines up the four-foot Millennium Falcon model, preferred for its extra detail whenever the ship appeared in closeup.

For a shot in “Return of the Jedi”, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund lines up the four-foot Millennium Falcon model, preferred for its extra detail whenever the ship appeared in closeup.

The full-size Falcon came out of mothballs for one last trip to Tatooine on the first day of shooting for Return of the Jedi, appearing briefly in a scene that was ultimately deleted from the theatrical cut, in which Han and his buddies reunite following the fight on Jabba the Hutt’s Sail Barge. A few weeks after the set was struck, the enormous spaceship was ceremoniously burned.

The miniatures used in the previous films also came out of storage, for use by ILM in their space scenes, while the matte department delivered a pair of paintings planting the pirate ship neatly in the hangar of a Rebel cruiser.

In the years following the release of the original Star Wars trilogy, the use of computer generated imagery steadily supplanted the traditional optical techniques used by visual effects artists. Little wonder, then, that the next incarnation of the Millennium Falcon was in digital form.

For the Special Edition versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, ILM created a CG asset of the classic Corellian freighter. Seen briefly in a few shots in the first film, it swooped to centre stage when Han Solo flew it in spectacular fashion through a digital Cloud City in the revised edition of Empire.

ILM's digital Millennium Falcon soars over Cloud City in the Special Edition of "The Empire Strikes Back".

ILM’s digital Millennium Falcon soars over Cloud City in the Special Edition of “The Empire Strikes Back”.

As for the prequel trilogy, well, in a narrative set many years before Luke Skywalker walked into the Mos Eisley cantina in search of an ace pilot with a fast ship, there’s no place for a spacecraft that allegedly made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

Or is there?

If your eyes are sharp, you probably noticed a pair of shots in which a suspiciously familiar starship appears. The first, from Attack of the Clones, is a wide shot of the Naboo spaceport. Look carefully, and you’ll see a pair of parked YT-1300 freighters on the far left of frame. Could one of them be the Falcon. You’ll find the second shot in Revenge of the Sith, when another such vessel coasts into the Coruscant docking facility. Are these blink-and-you-miss-it appearances just Easter eggs to please the fans? Or is there a young Han Solo at the controls?

Could one of those Corellian freighters glimpsed on Naboo in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" be the Millennium Falcon?

Could one of those Corellian freighters glimpsed on Naboo in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” be the Millennium Falcon?

A quick tally of the overall Falcon count suggests that, across the first six Star Wars films, the Millennium Falcon exists in over a dozen different forms. If you count all the variously configured versions of the interior sets, gimbal-mounted cockpits, and all those secret corners where Han, Chewie and their companions hung out, that number rises to well over twenty.

As for the new movie, well, over a year ago, leaked photographs of a new, full-scale Falcon under construction at Pinewood Studios sparked excitement around the globe, as fans woke up to the knowledge that Han Solo’s interstellar hot-rod would soon be carving up the spacelanes again. When teasers and trailers made good on that promise, showing the Falcon speeding through the ruins of a crashed Star Destroyer on Jakku, the excitement went through the roof.

Now that the film is out – and breaking box office records the world over – the time is ripe to explore how teams led by visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and makeup effects supervisor Neal Scanlan brought the many worlds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to life … and helped the Millennium Falcon to flyagain.

That’s a story for another day. But you don’t have long to wait. We’ll be bringing you extensive coverage of the visual, practical, and creature effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in our next magazine issue, Cinefex 145, out in February. Preorder your copy at our online store.

All photographs copyright © 1977-2016 and courtesy of Lucasfilm Limited and Industrial Light & Magic.

Crimson Peak – Cinefex 144 Extract

Crimson Peak - Cinefex 144 Extract

Are you ready for this week’s final peek inside our new issue, Cinefex 144? Our extract this time is from Joe Fordham’s A Monstrous Love, which prowls behind the scenes of Guillermo del Toro’s chilling Gothic romance Crimson Peak.

The film combines the talents of makeup effects supervisor David Marti and DDT Efectos Especiales, visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi at Mr. X, and special effects supervisor Laird McMurray.

In this exclusive extract, Guillermo del Toro describes the approach he adopted in bringing Crimson Peak’s quintet of supernatural characters to the screen:

DDT created five ghost characters, working from designs initiated by art department conceptual designers David Meng and Guy Davis, and del Toro’s distinctive graphic treatments. “I asked DDT to take into account the fact that I wanted to do the movie in a very theatrical way,” remarked Guillermo del Toro. “It was my concept that the ghosts had to be red. I wanted to link everything that was evil to the color red, and that was linked to the red clay under the house.”

Ghosts incorporated the unique physicality of performers Doug Jones and Javier Botet. “I wouldn’t call Doug just a suit performer; he is a great actor, and I love working with him. Doug has certain traits that make him identifiable to the fans, so I didn’t want him to play all five ghosts; and so, I shared the characters with Javier, who did an incredibly creepy job in Mama. Javier can dislocate his arm and move in a very different way. We then used an approach similar to what we did with the Reapers in Blade II and part of the makeup on Abe Sapien in Hellboy – we designed digital effects to enhance the makeup.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features The Martian, Everest and In the Heart of the Sea.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

In the Heart of the Sea – Cinefex 144 Extract

In the Heart of the Sea - Cinefex 144 Extract

It’s time for the third extract from our brand new issue, Cinefex 144. This time the article we’re previewing is Jody Duncan’s High Seas Drifter, a detailed look behind the scenes of Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, which is based on the true historical events which inspired the classic novel Moby Dick.

Visual effects were supervised by Jody Johnson and delivered by Double Negative, Rodeo FX and Scanline, while special effects supervisor Mark Holt delivered the movie’s full-scale 19th century whaling ship into one mother of a storm.

In this exclusive extract, Johnson reveals the secrets behind the stand-in whales used during production to help with the actors’ performances:

Both the interior tank and open sea shoots employed bucks that stood in for the whales to guide the actors’ eyelines. “We used jet-skis with prosthetic whale heads attached to the front to give everyone, including the camera crew, a sense of where the whale was,” said Johnson. “They gave the actors something to focus on and to point their harpoons at.”

The jet-ski stand-ins had to be replaced with a more sophisticated prosthetic when the crew moved to the Canary Islands. “Our marine consultants pointed out that the jet-ski with the whale head stuck to it would sink once we were in open waters. So we had prop builders create a buoyant whale rib with a head on it, and we swept that around the actors in the boats to give them something to look at and aim at. It was very difficult to orient oneself when we were at sea, because there were few points of reference and everything was moving all the time. The bucks helped everyone to keep track of what was happening and where the whale was at any given time.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features The Martian, Everest and Crimson Peak.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Everest – Cinefex 144 Extract

Everest - Cinefex 144 Extract

For our second peek between the pages of Cinefex 144, we’re climbing to the highest place on Earth for a sneak preview of The Death Zone, Joe Fordham’s in-depth article on Baltasar Kormákur’s high altitude tale of tragedy and terror, Everest.

Special effects supervisor Richard Van Den Bergh worked hand in hand with visual effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson to transport audiences to the Himalayas, together with artists at Reykjavík Visual Effects, Framestore, Important Looking Pirates, One of Us, Union VFX and Milk VFX.

In this exclusive extract, Einarsson recalls the early stages of the production, which included a dramatic location scout around the mountain itself:

To review what portions of the drama could be filmed on Everest, Kormákur retraced the steps of the 1996 expeditions with key production staff, including visual effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson, co-founder of Reykjavik Visual Effects – an Icelandic visual effects and animation studio with whom he had previously collaborated on the ocean survival drama The Deep.

“Baltasar is a very physical director,” noted Dadi Einarsson. “He wanted the performers to feel the conditions that they were supposed to be acting in, and it was important for him to be authentic with as much of the film as was logistically possible. That’s why he always wanted to get the principal performers to hike in to Everest.” Production scouts began with a flight from Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. “From there, we trekked up to Base Camp and stopped off at Namche Bazaar and Tengboche Monastery. We then went up to Base Camp and took a helicopter flight up and down the Khumbu Valley, up the Western Cwm and around Everest, shooting reference photos.”

Aerial perspectives were hugely impactful. “It’s difficult to convey the scale of Everest with a camera. When you’re there, it’s everything you thought it was, but three times bigger. It is immense, stunning and awe-inspiring. We came away from that trip knowing that we had to convey that sense of scale. That became the subtext we wanted to achieve with all our visual effects.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features The Martian, In the Heart of the Sea and Crimson Peak.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

The Martian – Cinefex 144 Extract

The Martian - Cinefex 144 Extract

What’s the best way to celebrate the launch of Cinefex 144? A sneak preview of all the articles it contains, of course. First up is An Abundant Solitude, in which Jody Duncan travels through space to report on Ridley Scott’s hit science fiction film The Martian.

Under the guidance of production visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers and visual effects producer Barrie Hemsley, the film’s 1,100 VFX shots were divided neatly between Framestore, MPC and The Senate, with special effects supervisor Steven Warner and his team adding their practical skills to the mix.

In this exclusive extract, MPC visual effects supervisor Anders Langlands describes the subtle ways in which colour was used to transform locations at Wadi Rum, Jordan, into the film’s spectacular Martian landscapes:

MPC removed the foliage in the photography by either painting it out, or adding CG rocks over the top. MPC also replaced the bright blue skies in the Wadi Rum plates with more alien-looking, amber-colored skies. In preproduction, Lev Kolobov, working closely with Richard Stammers, created a series of color grading temps that would give the skies their warm hue.

“Richard was very keen to avoid its looking like we just put a tobacco filter onto the lens when we shot it,” commented Anders Langlands. “He didn’t want it to end up looking like sepia film or something like that. Also, it wasn’t just a matter of keying off the original blue sky or roto-ing it off, because, obviously, all of that skylight illumination fell onto the ground and rocks, as well. We found that if we took out too much blue from everything, we killed all of the nice color variation in the landscape.

“So Lev came up with this nifty little series of grades that enabled us to replace the sky with whatever color or series of colors that we wanted, and still preserve all of that natural color variation in the landscape – which is what made those plates look so gorgeous in the first place. We ended up with skies that had a coppery feel, with some green tones going off to deeper, orangey-brown tones. Often, we exaggerated the natural gradients in the sky to create a more dramatic effect.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 144, which also features Everest, In the Heart of the Sea and Crimson Peak.

All content copyright © 2015 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Now Showing – Cinefex 144

Cinefex 144 - From the Editor's Desk

Batten down the hatches! Close the airlocks! The new issue of Cinefex has reached the summit, and the view from the afterlife is spine-tingling!

Forgive me for mixing my metaphors, but when you’re faced with a quartet of movies as varied as these, you run out of potatoes real quick. Not potatoes. Words.

The first film on the Cinefex 144 call sheet is The Martian, Ridley Scott’s space odyssey about a stranded astronaut with a passion for, yes, growing potatoes. Next up – and up, and up, and up – is Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, based on true events in which the members of a mountain-climbing expedition eat potatoes and meet with tragedy and terror (I may be wrong about the potatoes).

The third film showcased in Cinefex 144 is In the Heart of the Sea. Ron Howard directs Chris Hemsworth in this true and tragic tale about the attack on the 19th century whaling ship Essex by a monstrously large and aggressive potato. Sorry, sperm whale. Our fourth and final article explores the spine-chilling delights of Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural Gothic romance Crimson Peak. No potatoes in this one. Pretty sure about that.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to talk about the latest issue of the world’s premier visual effects magazine …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

I recognize that superheroes, monsters and spaceships are our bread and butter here at Cinefex, but I do enjoy the occasional exploration of other visual effects-created phenomena. Issue 144 is our travelogue issue, with forays to the summit of Mount Everest, to the desert terrain of Mars, to the waters off the coast of 19th century Nantucket, and to the decrepit mansions of Victorian-era New York. I came out of it as exhilarated as Anthony Bourdain during Sweeps Week (without having to eat the weird food).

What unites these four very different films – Everest, The Martian, In the Heart of the Sea and Crimson Peak – is that they are all “people” stories. Three are about people struggling against Nature, whether it takes the form of Earth’s tallest peak, a formidable and hostile planet, or a massive whale. The fourth is the story of one person against the supernatural. But the struggle is the same, and can be boiled down to this most basic theme: “Something – the mountain, the planet, the whale, the ghost – wants to eat me, but I will fight to survive.”

I had a headstart on the issue, having written In the Heart of the Sea several months ago, when it was originally slated for a spring 2015 release. The film – and hopefully, my article, complete with wonderful commentary from Ron Howard – will be worth the wait. I thoroughly enjoyed writing about Ridley Scott’s The Martian – loved the book and the movie, and loved the backstory, as well (geeky unknown author self-publishes e-book and makes good).

Joe Fordham did exhaustive research for his fascinating story on Everest, Baltasar Kormákur’s feature, with an A-list cast, about the well-documented 1996 disaster on the mountain, in which eight climbers died. Joe also got to return to the singular world of Guillermo del Toro for the Gothic-horror-inspired Crimson Peak. We love Guillermo, and from what we hear, the feeling is mutual.

I really hope you enjoy reading issue 144 as much as we did writing it. It’s going to have photographs and everything!

Thanks, Jody!

So, put on your pressure suit, grab your harpoon, and spear yourself a copy of Cinefex 144. Once you’ve done that, plant yourself on a comfortable mountain peak and let those potatoes send a shiver down your spine.

Not potatoes, dammit. Articles.

 

O is for Optical Printer

O is for Optical Printer - Cinefex VFX ABCIn the VFX ABC, the letter “O” stands for “Optical Printer”.

So what is an optical printer? Simply put, it’s a piece of equipment designed to copy motion picture film. A typical optical printer has a projector at one end and a camera at the other. By running film through the projector, and rephotographing it with the camera, you can create a near-perfect duplicate of your original.

But that’s just the start. By moving the camera and projector around, or zooming their lenses in and out, you can change the size and orientation of the final image. You can alter the timings to slow things down or speed them up. You can employ filters to change colours or introduce blurs. Through the clever use of masks, you can create animated transitions between shots, or combine lots of separate images into one. In short, with an optical printer, you can create almost any visual effect you like.

Many histories of optical printing begin in the mid-1940s, when the Acme-Dunn optical printer hit the market as the first mass-produced device capable of doing all the above (and more). In reality, the Acme-Dunn machine was the culmination of many years of research, innovation and experimentation by a host of dedicated cinematography and visual effects pioneers.

Diagram by Roscoe C. Hubbard illustrating the difference between early contact and optical printers. Image source: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, February 1927.

Diagram by Roscoe C. Hubbard illustrating the difference between early contact and optical printers. Image source: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, February 1927.

Early Years

Long before television — let alone DVDs, Blu-rays or streaming services — rudimentary optical printers were being used to service the growing demand for a home cinema experience. In 1918, Moving Picture World described one such machine as “an ingenious device for printing from a standard size motion picture negative on to a smaller film used by one of the many small home projecting machines upon the market1.”

An early optical printer. Photograph: Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918

An early optical printer. Photograph: Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918

These basic devices were not exactly commonplace. Nor did they conform to any kind of standard design. Nevertheless, many film enthusiasts had already identified them as the shape of things to come. In May 1922, addressing the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff bewailed the general lack of progress being made in developing a sophisticated and reliable optical printer for professional use.

“There are several good step printers and one continuous printer on the market,” Wyckoff said, “but to my mind they are antique. We should be able to do with our printing machine even more than we can do with our camera. It should be so flexible that we can take any part of our positive and make a new negative; that will enable us to do trick work that as yet has not been seen. There is nothing of this kind as yet on the market.2

In fact, such machines did already exist, although in severely limited numbers. Responding to Wyckoff’s plea, Pathescope’s Willard B. Cook updated the Society on the availability of optical printers for research purposes: “Mr. A. F. Victor built twelve of them, which are distributed among different laboratories over the country.3

Making Strides

Optical printers gained ground through the 1920s, performing such mundane duties as copying original negatives, as well as resizing them from 35mm to 16mm, and vice versa. These early printers often used daylight to expose the film, and their output was generally destined for the educational or non-theatrical market. At the same time, enthusiastic inventors continued to explore the creative possibilities of the technology for the rapidly-expanding theatrical motion picture industry.

Press advertisement from 1928 for a Depue-Vance daylight optical printer.

Press advertisement from 1928 for a Depue-Vance daylight optical printer.

In 1927, A. B. Hitchins of Duplex Motion Picture Industries Inc. presented his latest optical printer to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. As well as enlarging, reducing, and handling routine optical effects such as lap dissolves and wipes, the Duplex optical printer also boasted a special effects attachment comprising a matte box, multiple exposure device, circular and rectangular vignette, curtain shutter, and blade cut-out.

“The Duplex optical and reduction printer is the result of an insistent demand for improved and more flexible printing methods,” Hitchins stated. “Directly we enter the field of optical printing, we open up a practically unlimited range of printing possibilities; every phase of trick and effect photography can be readily accomplished, limited only by the ingenuity of the operator. With a machine of this type at one’s command many expensive sets need never be built, for any desired detail or background can be printed in by double exposure or with silhouette negatives.4

The 1927 Duplex optical printer Type A featured a built-in special effects attachment and matte box. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, September 1927.

The 1927 Duplex optical printer Type A featured a built-in special effects attachment and matte box. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, September 1927.

The Society benefited from further optical printing insights the following year, when cinematographer Carl Louis Gregory presented “an optical printer for trick work”, designed by himself and built by Fred A. Barber.

Gregory illustrated the challenges of “trick work” by describing the process of putting a mermaid on to the screen. His proposed solution (requiring an optical printer, of course) required the filmmaker to “make negatives of a nude woman swimmer and of a shark or a minnow and from these … dissect the trunk of the woman and the tail of the fish and assemble a mermaid that will almost make you believe in the existence of the fabled creatures.5

Critical to the success of this operation was the ability to perform the final assembly with great accuracy. “The solution of this difficult problem,” Gregory advised, “is in an optical printer where every mechanical move can be controlled with micrometric precision.6

Mounted on a six-foot lathe bed on a concrete foundation, the Gregory-Barber optical printer was a “three-head” device. This meant it carried three key optical components — camera, lens and projector — each mounted on its own moving carriage. The carriages, or “heads”, were capable of independent movement up, down, left and right, in increments of one eight-hundredth of an inch.

The Gregory-Barber optical printer was a precision-built optical printer capable of head movement to within a tolerance of one eight-hundredth of an inch. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928.

The Gregory-Barber optical printer was a precision-built optical printer capable of head movement to within a tolerance of one eight-hundredth of an inch. Photograph: Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928.

Fixing it in Post

By the 1930s, optical printers were essential tools relied upon by all the major motion picture studios. Not only did they offer boundless creative possibilities, but they also made financial sense by saving time on repetitive tasks. In 1931, RKO’s head of special effects Lloyd Knechtel said, “Within the past few years the motion picture has almost universally adopted the system of optical printing in its many and varied uses and forms, and has found it invaluable as both an artistic and an economic aid.7

Much of the work running through the gate of a typical optical printer was drudgery — fade-ins and fade-outs, dissolves and all the countless wipes and iris effects familiar to early cinema audiences. However, filmmakers were also seeing in the optical printer the potential for correcting errors made during principal photography — what is now commonly called “fixing it in post”.

“There are ever increasing demands made on the optical printing experts,” Knechtel observed, “to ‘doctor up’ scenes that have already been photographed and which require certain ‘adjustments’ in order to make them usable in a production.8” Optical fixes might include correcting the accidental under or overexposure of a scene, reducing contrast, using coloured filters to create “day for night” effects, or blurring out unwanted details such as a rogue company name on an advertising billboard.

The editor of International Photographer, commenting on an article by Maurice Hughes of Pacific Title and Art Studio, likened optical printer technicians to combat medics: “It is [Maurice Hughes’] belief that the optical printer has been the emergency doctor in many successful operations performed on film9.”

Turning Tricks

King Kong 1933

Trick work — what is now called visual effects — enjoyed a boom period during the 1930s, as films ranging from King Kong (1933) to a seemingly endless stream of Busby Berkeley musicals conjured optical illusions to dazzle audiences seeking escape from economic gloom and political upheaval. It was in the field of trick work that optical printers came into their own, not only by stirring audiences with fabulous spectacles, but also by helping producers to cut costs.

In 1934, cinematographer Linwood Dunn noted, “As studio executives become more familiar with the artistic and money-saving possibilities [of optical printing], I feel assured that they will take more and more interest in this branch of trick photography10.” A few years later, in 1937, J. A. Norling identified the economic benefits of the optical printer as the key to its ongoing success: “There is no better way to insert a background in composite photography than by background projection or by the Dunning process, but some composite scenes requiring background insertion can be made on the optical printer at less expense, if the picture action is suitable11.”

The sequence of images below breaks down the different elements used to create a typical visual effects shot of the period. It was created for the film So Ends the Night by Cosgrove Special Effects Department at RKO Pathé Studios, Culver City, under the supervision of Jack Cosgrove12.

For this RKO composite shot, the original live action (top left) was shot on a stage at Universal. The man and dog were further isolated by what would later be known as a “garbage matte” (top right). This was achieved by projecting the original footage on to a white layout board, drawing in the rest of the silhouette by hand, and rephotographing the result. Cosgrove Special Effects combined the result with a stock shot of a sunset sky (bottom left) using an optical printer, with the final composite image (bottom right) achieved after much experimentation with different light levels and a range of high contrast films. Image source: International Photographer, December 1940.

For this RKO composite shot, the original live action (top left) was shot on a stage at Universal. The man and dog were further isolated by what would later be known as a “garbage matte” (top right). This was achieved by projecting the original footage on to a white layout board, drawing in the rest of the silhouette by hand, and rephotographing the result. Cosgrove Special Effects combined the result with a stock shot of a sunset sky (bottom left) using an optical printer, with the final composite image (bottom right) achieved after much experimentation with different light levels and a range of high contrast films. Image source: International Photographer, December 1940.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Indispensable though the equipment had become, even by 1940 there was still no such thing as a “standard” optical printer. Individual machines were meticulously hand-crafted, with each studio’s special effects department pioneering its own variations on the theme. As the benefits of optical printing became increasingly apparent, the race was on to mass-produce a truly reliable, standardised device.

One man hoping to be the first past the post was William Draper, who in 1940 described his frustration in trying to get one of his ever-evolving prototypes into production. “With the issuance of letters of patents in 1938,” Draper remarked, “[I] determined to make one grand effort to put [my] system to work. Believe it or not the effort is still in the process of incubation. It seems incredible that such a simple idea would present such a multitude of problems13.”

William Draper's optical printer of 1940, configured with a travelling matte in the camera head. Photograph: International Photographer, April 1940.

William Draper’s optical printer of 1940, configured with a travelling matte in the camera head. Photograph: International Photographer, April 1940.

Driven by a desire to improve both productivity and reliability, Draper dreamed of an optical printer that would “reduce thirty minutes of a skilled workman’s time to five minutes of a printer’s time” and give filmmakers “a more standardised, dependable product … as near foolproof as possible14.” However, the complexity of the challenge seemed insurmountable. Working with business associate J. W. Fitts, Draper tinkered endlessly with “an optical printer with a few extra gadgets [which] reminds one of the perpetual motion machine that was constructed by the student of theosophy in the Philosopher’s Stone. When it was contained in a cigar box it lacked one gear of being ready to function. When it had outgrown the house it still was short one gear. No matter what is added, it still suggests the addition of something else15.”

"Here are the details of the ‘perfect’ optical printer that would be the answer to the prayers of motion picture camera operators for a mechanically foolproof device that even eliminate tests” - William Draper, International Photographer, June 1940.

“Here are the details of the ‘perfect’ optical printer that would be the answer to the prayers of motion picture camera operators for a mechanically foolproof device that even eliminate tests” – William Draper, International Photographer, June 1940.

The Acme-Dunn Optical Printer

Shortly before the end of World War II, everything changed. On 18 October 1943, Linwood Dunn, first cinematographer and head of optical printing at RKO, presented to a technical conference in Hollywood “an optical printer of radically new design and construction … Besides doing all of the conventional optical printing effects, the Acme-Dunn optical printer can make automatically driven dolly or ‘zoom’ shots at any practical speed, make horizontal or vertical frame slide-off effects, wipe off in any direction at any speed, do frame-combination printing within a 12-frame cycle, and enlarge from 16mm, including successful 3-frame separation negatives16.”

The Acme-Dunn was the world's first mass-produced optical printer. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

The Acme-Dunn was the world’s first mass-produced optical printer. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

Built by Acme Tool Company of Burbank, the Acme-Dunn optical printer differed from the many and varied Rube Goldberg contraptions turned out by studio workshops by being constructed as a single complete unit, with a cast-iron base and housing. The Bell & Howell camera was fully integrated, and all threading and operational controls were accessible from one side of the device.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the Acme-Dunn optical printer was specifically designed for mass-production.

Describing his invention as a “dream printer”, Dunn said, “[It is] a machine which can do anything that has been done on any all-purpose optical printer, with special emphasis on ease and flexibility of operation … When an imaginative optical printing specialist is not hampered by the limitations of his equipment, his value to his studio can be tremendous17.”

All the controls for the Acme-Dunn optical printer were accessible from one side of the machine. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

All the controls for the Acme-Dunn optical printer were accessible from one side of the machine. Photograph: The Cine-Technician, May/June 1944.

Initially, the Acme-Dunn printer was manufactured purely for governmental use, with the first machine snapped up by the U.S. Navy’s Central Photographic Laboratory in Washington, D.C. After the war, widespread production began and the Acme-Dunn became what motion pictures had always lacked: an industry-standard optical printer.

On 15 March 1945, the Academy Research Council bestowed a Class 3 Award on Linwood Dunn, Cecil Love and Edward Furer for the design and construction of their new optical printer, commenting, “This machine exemplifies technical advancement necessary to keep pace with the ever increasing scope of the motion picture art18.” Nearly forty years later, in 1981, the Academy recognised the same three men for the same achievement, retrospectively awarding them a special Oscar for technical merit.

Experiments in Optical

Press advertisement from 1962 for an Acme optical printer.

Press advertisement from 1962 for an Acme optical printer.

Once standardised, the optical printer solidified its reputation as a piece of essential equipment capable of performing a multitude of onerous tasks without complaint — and saving the production valuable dollars to boot — as illustrated in this laconic report from a 1956 edition of Motion Picture Daily: “C&G Films Effects, New York City, announce the acquisition of a new optical printer that does everything but write dialogue … The idea, of course, is to save time in the industry where time is money19.”

Even though the optical printer was rapidly becoming an old dog, it was still capable of learning new tricks. For example, during the 1950s, Raymond Spottiswoode, an early proponent of 3D cinema, published a number of papers citing the optical printer as a useful tool in the delicate task of adjusting stereo displacement effects. And in 1957, Oxberry introduced the first commercially available aerial image optical printer, so named because the receiving camera was focused not on the plane of the film it was copying, but on a “virtual” or “aerial” image floating in empty space between its own lens and that of the projector.

Experimental filmmakers found even more creative uses for various kinds of printers. In 1963, Stan Brakhage created the short film Mothlight by pasting moth wings and other fragments from the natural world between two strips of mylar, and running the result through an contact printer20.

Watch Mothlight by Stan Brakhage:

However, even as artists were exploring the creative possibilities of the optical printer, countless machines were being mothballed as the big Hollywood studios began closing down their special effects departments. By the 1970s, the appetite of audiences for big-screen thrills had waned. Nobody cared about visual effects, and those filmmakers still passionate about them found themselves well-served by in-camera techniques such as front and rear projection, or latent image composites.

Once a highly-evolved organism, the optical printer was rapidly going the way of the dinosaur.

Resurrection

Star Wars 1977In 1977, Star Wars took the world by storm. To deliver the fast-moving visual effects envisioned by director George Lucas, the newly-formed Industrial Light & Magic developed a computer-controlled camera platform known as the Dykstraflex. The resulting footage was perfect for Lucas’s needs, but in order to combine the many separate elements generated by the Dykstraflex into a single image, ILM was going to need the granddaddy of all optical printers.

To create their complex composites, ILM repurposed an old VistaVision machine, originally built by Howard Anderson in the 1950s and used in the production of epics including The Ten Commandments. Resurrecting the large VistaVision format was a deliberate choice — the subsequent reduction to 35mm anamorphic in the “Anderson” optical printer helped retain the definition and clarity of the original images.

For The Empire Strikes Back, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund championed the design and construction of a brand new aerial image optical printer. The “Quad” had no less than four projector heads, allowing many shots to be assembled in a single pass. However, the monster machine’s complexity made it difficult to load, so when ILM came to scale the visual effects mountain that was Return of the Jedi, they took a “divide and conquer” approach and split the Quad in half. One of the resulting pair of printers continued to go by the original name, while the other was christened the “Workhorse”.

Ken Smith at the controls of ILM's "Workhorse" optical printer. Photograph courtesy of ILM.

Ken Smith at the controls of ILM’s “Workhorse” optical printer. Photograph courtesy of ILM.

Just as the early optical printers of the 1920s and 1930s were hand-crafted labours of love, so ILM’s machines were one-offs. Many used second-hand components, and each had its individual quirks. For example, most optical printers had the receiving camera positioned to the right of the projectors, and were thus considered “right-handed”. The Workhorse, due to the nature of the projectors scavenged for its construction, was “left-handed”; perhaps it was no coincidence that the man who oversaw its development, ILM’s optical photography supervisor Bruce Nicholson, was a southpaw too.

Having elevated optical printers into the spotlight once more, ILM continued to use them all the way up to 1993, when the venerable Anderson printer — still in working order — was finally decommissioned.

Cut and Print

Eastman-Kodak trade advertisement from 1947.

Eastman-Kodak trade advertisement from 1947.

Optical printers continue to be used today by photochemical diehards, experimental filmmakers, film archivists and restorers, and in the educational market. When it comes to feature films, however, the optical printer has been almost completely supplanted by its digital successors. Yet its memory lingers in the vocabulary of the modern visual effects artist, who might casually speak of “elements”, “passes”, “mattes” and “wipes” without once reflecting on how and where the terms originated.

They might also be surprised to discover that their objective in putting together their brave new digital composites is exactly the same as that proposed by Carl Louis Gregory back in 1928, when he described the incredible accuracy necessary for the creation of convincing visual effects:

“The components must be reassembled with a mathematical precision so fine that the new combinations shall not reveal the joining lines between the welded parts even when magnified hundreds of diameters on the screen.”

Creating the joins. Not seeing the joins. Ultimately, that is the aim of all visual effects artists. And exactly what the optical printer was built to do.

Article updated July 14 2016. Special thanks to Greg Grusby and Mark Toscano. “Star Wars” photograph copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm, Ltd.

1. Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918, “Reduction Prints for the Home Market”; 2,3. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, May 1922; 3. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, May 1922; 4. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, September 1927; 5,6. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928, “An Optical Printer for Trick Work”; 7,8. Cinematographic Annual, Volume 2, 1931, “Optical Printing”; 9. International Photographer, June 1940, “Laps ‘n Wipes”; 10. American Cinematographer, April 1934, “Tricks by Optical Printing”; 11. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, February 1937; 12. International Photographer, December 1940, “Special Effects at RKO”; 13,14,15. International Photographer, April 1940, “Factory Methods Come to Pictures”; 16,17. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, January 1944, “The New Acme-Dunn Optical Printer”; 18. The Film Daily, 16 March 1945; 19. Motion Picture Daily, 20 February 1956; 20. An Introduction to the American Underground Film, Sheldon Renan, first published 1967 by E.P.Dutton & Co. Inc., Released to the Internet Archive by the Author in 2011.; 21. The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, J.W. Rinzler, first published 2010 by LucasBooks.; 22. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1928, “An Optical Printer for Trick Work”

The Cinefex Quiz 2015

Well, it’s been another great year for movies. Here at Cinefex, we’ve been proud to bring you in-depth coverage of some of the best that 2015 has had to offer. From Interstellar to Jurassic World, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Ant-Man, we’ve taken you behind the scenes like nobody else can.

So, with the year rapidly coming to a close, it’s time to flick back through this year’s issues of Cinefex and test your knowledge of all the movies we’ve explored in the past twelve months. Sixteen articles. Sixteen questions. How many will you get right?