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.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Set between the wars, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of hotel concierge Gustav H and lobby boy Zero Moustafa as they become entangled in a plot to steal a priceless Renaissance painting. Visually spectacular – and brimming with director Wes Anderson’s trademark quirky touches – the film showcases a number of large-scale miniatures constructed by a Berlin-based team, led by Simon Weisse.

Weisse began his career working as a trainee with Richard Conway on Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He later worked on features including The Never Ending Story II and IIIThe City of Lost Children and Event Horizon. Over time, as new technologies steadily reduced the demand for traditional miniatures, Weisse and his crew moved into special propmaking. Recent films include V for VendettaSpeed RacerCloud Atlas and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Simon Weisse in costume as an extra on "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Simon Weisse in costume as an extra on “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

I spoke to Simon Weisse shortly before the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel about his work on the film.

How did you get involved with The Grand Budapest Hotel?

The production manager, Miki Emmrich,
who I’d worked with on Cloud Atlas, came to me and said, “There are some people from America, and they’re wondering if there’s anybody who can still make miniatures.”
So I said, “Yes, I can do that. Who is it?”
Miki said, “Oh, it’s Wes Anderson.”
And I said, “What?!!’

Wes is really interested in the way models look. They look a bit old-fashioned, a bit artificial, but that works for the artistic look of this film. They did add some visual effects, and I think that’s okay. You shoot models, and then you use the new techniques to make them believable.

How much creative input did you have? Were you working from drawings provided by the art department?

We had a wonderful production designer – Adam Stockhausen – who did 12 Years a Slave. The concept artist was Carl Sprague. He did sketches for us, but we didn’t have exact plans. We had a very precise initial idea, but we also put in our creativity to make it work. That was nice. Wes was amazing – he knew exactly what he wanted. Sometimes we weren’t sure what was needed, so we just asked him the question, and within a few minutes we got the answer.

Tell me about the main hotel miniature.

The building itself is one-eighteenth scale. It’s about four metres wide and three metres high. When we speak about “models”, some people think it’s a tiny little thing. But it’s really quite big. If we’d built the hotel too small, it wouldn’t have worked for the camera. Things just look better if they’re bigger. Also, if they’re too small, they’re harder to build.

What’s the model made of?

Mostly wood. It’s very traditional. For the windows, we just made one original, took silicon moulds and cast them in resin. Along the roof, we had very thin decorations made from etched brass. There are also some statues – the only things we did on a 3D printer, using models we found on the internet.

Are there any rooms behind the windows?

Yes, there are rooms with lights in them. But they’re just photographs. They shot the film in a very nice old town called Görlitz, about 100 miles from Berlin, where they transformed an old department store into the inside of the hotel. We took pictures of the sets and glued the photographs in boxes behind the windows of our miniature. Easy!

How did you construct the Observatory?

We built the Observatory at one-twelfth scale. The building is timber, and the metal structure is soldered brass. The rocks are Styrofoam. I had two sculptors working on them – one shaping the rocks and the other doing the painting. For the snow we used very fine icing sugar. In the film, there’s a nice view of it in the landscape: a digital matte painting, with our model incorporated. It’s funny – even the background painting looks a bit like a model.

Funicular railway cars

Where does the funicular railway fit in?

You have to take the funicular to go to the hotel, because the hotel is on the top of a hill, and the town is at the bottom. The slope of the funicular was steep – about 35° – so we built the whole thing on its side, and tilted the camera over as well, of course.

We didn’t have any drawings for the cars, so we found some pictures of funiculars on the internet. The car chassis are made mostly of brass, with various pieces like the wheels turned on a lathe; at that scale you have to do everything yourself. It was fun! The cars move on a very thin rod, which we pushed or pulled by hand. We did it that way because, if you have a rope or wire, there’s no real control.

Shooting the funicular railway

What scale are the trees in the forest miniature?

About one-eighth scale. But you never know exactly with trees. We made the trunks from turned wood. Then we stuck real tree branches in the trunks. The snow on the trees was done by The Nefzers using snow from Snow Business. The snow on the ground is rolls of fiberfill, just like you’d use for sofa cushions.

Did you shoot the miniatures outside?

Yes. Wes Anderson and the producer Jeremy Dawson wanted everything to be shot in natural light. We had a studio ready in case of heavy rain, but we were lucky – in April last year we had sunshine every day.

Wes Anderson and Ralph Fiennes at the US premiere of "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Wes Anderson and Ralph Fiennes at the premiere of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – Image copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Where are the models now?

We broke the hotel into twelve pieces to set it up for the premiere in Berlin. After that, it was packed in crates and went to New York. They wanted to exhibit the model at the US premiere, which was great for us. It’s a kind of recognition from the director and the producers.

The tram and the funicular went to the modelmakers who built them. I gave the deer on the mountaintop to the girl who sculpted it. But all the other stuff is just too big to keep. I’ve had some models from recent films go to museums. There’s quite a lot of stuff in the Musée Cinéma et Miniature in Lyon. That’s an amazing place. One of the spaceship models from Event Horizon is there – I was part of the team that built that.

Do you change your modelmaking techniques depending on whether the movie is shot on film, or digitally?

The Grand Budapest Hotel was shot on film. I’m not a cameraman, but I’ve been told that shooting models with a digital camera doesn’t work as well as traditional film. I don’t know if it’s true. Frank Schlegel – the visual effects supervisor for the model shooting – did the POV shots of the bobsleigh run with his Red camera, because the film camera would have been too heavy to run through the model. They worked well, because on the computer you have all these filters that make it look like film.

Is there one miniature shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that you look at and think, “Yeah, we did a good job”?

The hotel itself worked well. They even used it for the poster, which is great. But I must say that the Observatory, on that mountain, is really fantastic. Also, all the simple shots we did with the trees and the bobsleigh. When I tell people that was a miniature, they say, “I thought it was digital!”

It’s a strange kind of compliment.

Very strange!

Mountaintop deer statue - The Grand Budapest HotelIs modelmaking in decline? Is it harder for you to get work now?

Yes, it’s much harder. I was in California two or three years ago, and met a lot of people I knew from before – all the old modelmakers – and saw all the shops closing down there. It’s a pity, but what can you do? Now I’m mostly doing propmaking, and I’m quite happy with that.

But sometimes modelmaking comes back. For The Three Musketeers 3D, we made models of the airships and they scanned them, because it was cheaper and easier to do that than to build the whole thing in the computer. And the film I’m working on now has miniatures, like The Grand Budapest Hotel. Some directors are fed up with too much CG, you see. They want something real.

Can you sum up your experience on The Grand Budapest Hotel?

It was fantastic, because we had a kind of freedom, and everybody was happy. To be honest, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve had these last few years. But jobs like this – they don’t happen very often now.

Simon Weisse's modelmaking crew

Images by Simon Weisse unless otherwise stated. Special thanks to Jeremy Dawson, Roya Vakil and Berton Pierce. If you’re a fan of traditional miniatures, check out Berton’s feature length documentary Sense of Scale.

Roger Christian – Lightsabers and Space Tugs

Last week, Roger Christian talked to me about his short film Black Angel, which supported The Empire Strikes Back during its initial theatrical release in 1980. In the concluding part of this article, he looks back at his experiences as set decorator on Star Wars, and art director on Alien.

Graflex + Roger Christian = Lightsaber

Star Wars

Roger Christian’s Star Wars odyssey began while he was working with production designer John Barry in Mexico on Lucky Lady, building rum-running sets based in 1930s America. “George arrived on one of the sets I was dressing – an old salt factory – and we talked about Star Wars. I told him I’d always imagined that spaceships would be oily, like they were always in and out of the garage being repaired. And George said, ‘That’s exactly what I want. I don’t want anything designed specifically. I want it all to look natural and real.’ So I was on Star Wars right from the very start, and George always says I was one of the only five people who stood by his side throughout.”

One of Christian’s first tasks, together with art director Les Dilley, was to make a prototype R2-D2. “I hired a carpenter – Bill Harman – who’d made all the props for Monty Python. He was brilliant – you could give him anything and he’d make it work. We had no money, not even enough to buy timber, but Bill had marine plywood at home, which he bent around the frame we’d built. In an electrical store, I found an old lamp from the 1940s and fitted that on top. I carved the little moving prongs on the front, and we stuck some aeroplane bits on and got him approved.”

Christian was also instrumental in developing the look of the film’s various weapons. “I went to a gun hire place and got a Sterling sub-machine gun. I glued a T-strip around the barrel, put on a short magazine and stuck an old army rifle sight backwards on the top.” In a similar way, Christian retrofitted a Mauser pistol to create Han Solo’s blaster. “Then I nervously called George and said, ‘You’d better come and see what I’m doing.’ George loved them, which was the signal that he and I were on the same wavelength. He stayed with me and we made Princess Leia’s gun together. The gun hire place gave me a little back room and just let me choose guns. The whole film was kind of done like that.”

The two lightsabers used in the film were also built by Christian using found objects. “In this old photography studio, I found a box with a Graflex inside. The Graflex was a press camera from the 1940s. You could bolt a flash on the side; it had a round chromium disc that made the flash really bright, and the handle had a red fire button. And that’s what became the laser sword. I just sat in my office with superglue, stuck a T-strip round the handle, put a D-ring on the end and stuck on bits from a pocket calculator. It was weighty and it looked beautiful. I think I made it for about £8.”

Plane Wreck + Roger Christian = Nostromo

Alien

After Star Wars, Christian went on to art direct Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In its first incarnation, however, the film was cancelled, allowing him to segue neatly on to Alien. Director Ridley Scott and production designer Michael Seymour had already decided to try Christian’s technique of using scrap material to detail the interior of the Nostromo, but the process had proved more difficult than they’d anticipated.

“They’d tried it a little bit, and I could see it hadn’t worked,” Christian recalled. “So we went round England buying scrap aeroplanes and breaking them down. It cost £50 for half an aeroplane, because it was sold by weight and aeroplanes are very light. I trained the prop boys in the technique of using the scrap, because you can’t just randomly do it – in a real aeroplane or a submarine, everything is in order and has a function. We painted everything army green, and I used aging techniques that John Box had taught me when I was tea boy for him on Oliver!, aging down the pipes, adding oil and drips and little graphic symbols. And that became the look of the Alien interiors.”

The interior sets were built as a complete unit, with every part interconnecting. “ You walked in, and you were inside the Nostromo. You followed the corridors round and came to each set in turn. I loved watching people’s reactions when they came to visit. The bridge set was massive – an amazing set. It took months to put everything into it. I wanted it so that, every time one of the crew flicked a switch, a light would come on, or something would react.”

Christian speaks with great pride about his work on Scott’s seminal science fiction horror film. “I think we got it right on Alien,” he asserts. “The dressing, the guns, the props – everything fused together. I think the audience accepted that we’d gone out and found a spaceship, rented it and filmed inside it, and that it was old and battered and used.”

Christian reveals all about his experiences working on Star Wars and Alien in a new book called Cinema Alchemist. Edited by JW Rinzler, the book is poised to secure a publishing deal in the near future.

Life After Pi

Life After Pi Main Title

On February 24th 2013, Rhythm & Hues Studios received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, in recognition of their groundbreaking work on Life of Pi.

In an ironic twist of fate, just two weeks earlier, the LA-based company had declared bankruptcy and, in the space of three hours, laid off 254 employees.

Directed and edited by Scott Leberecht, Life After Pi is a documentary chronicling not only this extraordinary chain of events, but also its effects on the visual effects industry as a whole. In addition, it outlines with masterful clarity the complex issue of government subsidies, the economic effects of which have forced many visual effects artists to adopt a migrant lifestyle.

Life After Pi does all this in a calm and measured way, telling a tragic story without once resorting to sensationalism. Its poignant message is all the more powerful for the restraint with which it is delivered.

The film’s real triumph lies in its extensive use of first-hand interviews. A range of staff from Rhythm & Hues – from animators and visual effects artists to the company’s founders – talk candidly about their experiences during the company’s collapse. Less than two minutes in, Animation Layout Supervisor Lulu Simons sets the tone by saying, “What do I love about Rhythm & Hues? Mostly the people.”

Those people are the reason to watch this film.

By all means, watch it to witness the last sad days of one of the truly great LA visual effects companies. And yes, watch it to learn exactly how an on-stage debacle at the Oscars led to an international campaign in which social media icons turned green overnight, spreading the message: “This is what your movie would look like without visual effects.”

Watch it also if you want to appreciate the nomadic life of a “pixel gypsy” living out of hotel rooms in the rootless pursuit of employment, chasing visual effects work as it circles the globe in search of the next cheapest place to set up shop.

Do all that. But above all, watch Life After Pi for the faces on the screen.

The “Go Green” campaign for better working practice in visual effects is in part driven by anger. That’s understandable. Anger is a natural reaction to the human “fight or flight” response to threat. And what is the visual effects industry facing currently if not threat?

However, if misdirected, anger is a destructive force. Only last week I was dismayed to read a torrent of abuse unleashed in the comments stream of an industry blog against a well-respected visual effects professional, all triggered by an out-of-context quote in a British newspaper. The anger represented in those comments may be real, but it depresses me to see it turned against the very industry it wants to save.

That’s why Life After Pi is essential viewing, not just for visual effects professionals around the world, but for everybody in the film industry. It spells out clearly and concisely the state of play in the world of visual effects – and does so with a dignified strength that’s simultaneously calm and irresistible.

More importantly, it reminds us that visual effects is not about pixels, but people. You’ll find no clearer evidence of this than in Rhythm & Hues founder Keith Goldfarb’s simple assertion that, “My best friends in my life are people that I’ve met here.”

That’s why, when you watch Life After Pi, I urge you not to see the people on the screen as fellow professionals fighting against overwhelming odds.

Instead, see them as friends.

Life of Pi shot breakdown

Here’s what Don Shay, founder and publisher of Cinefex, had to say about the film:

Frank, but not inflammatory, Life After Pi takes us behind the scenes of the ironically-timed demise of Rhythm & Hues, and puts a very human face on an industry-wide tragedy that finds award-winning visual effects companies struggling to survive and talented effects artists leading migrant lives in search of gainful employment – all in crucial support of movies that make billions at the boxoffice.

All of the artists and Rhythm & Hues executives interviewed for the film were well-chosen, thoughtful and articulate, with views ranging from sadness to anger to resignation. In particular, I found much of what the company’s soft-spoken founder, John Hughes, had to say quietly heartbreaking.

Life After Pi presents its case and calls for change, but offers little in way of solutions – or even hope. And should it? Possibly not. Why, after all, would film studios, which hold all the cards, change a terribly flawed business model that works so obviously in their favor, unless they are, quite literally, left with no one to make their tentpole extravaganzas?”

For up-to-the minute reporting on the continuing campaign for a better deal for visual effects artists, start here:

Roger Christian’s “Black Angel”

Were you in the audience when The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980? If so – and if you lived in the UK, Scandinavia or Australia – you may remember the short fantasy film that supported it. The film was called Black Angel, and it was directed by Roger Christian, the Academy Award-winning set decorator of Star Wars, and Oscar-nominated art director of Alien.

After its run with Empire, Black Angel was forgotten. In time, all known negatives and prints were lost. Christian’s film entered the very realm of myth it had sought to conjure up.

Then, in 2012, a copy of Black Angel was found by an archivist from Universal Studios. It had been in storage in a WWII bunker in the UK and gone missing. In October 2013, after painstaking restoration by David Tanaka and Brice Parker with Athena Studios, it was shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, California.

“I stood up in front of the audience,” said Christian. “The cinema was full and they were very expectant. Black Angel was the closing film and I said, ‘Please set your clocks back 33 years.’ You see it’s not fast-paced like today’s films. But a lot of young people really liked it. I grilled them afterwards and they told me the pacing still works, that it really gets into your mind.”

On February 25th 2014, Black Angel continues its journey back into the light at the Glasgow Film Festival, after which it will embark on a short tour of Scotland, where it was originally made. Christian also plans to make it available to a wider audience. “I’m determined to get the film out as fast as I can after Glasgow. Everyone’s telling me I should make Blu-rays and DVDs, and take them to the sci-fi conventions. We’re arranging to do that in Toronto – they have a huge fan expo there through the summer. But the main thing is to get it online.”

"Black Angel" - the maiden

Black Angel tells the story of a mediaeval knight returning from an overseas war. Finding his homeland destroyed and his family dead, he decides to return to the war. On the way, he falls into a river and is transported to a mystical realm where he has to fight the Black Angel – a figure representing death itself – to save a maiden in distress.

Christian first started thinking about Black Angel while at film school, in which he enrolled following his work on Star Wars and Alien. Despite more offers of design work, he dreamed of become a film director. “I remember sitting at home – I was eating a bowl of brown rice and I was absolutely broke – when I was offered the design on Conan the Barbarian,” he recalled. “I turned it down because I was trying to get Black Angel made – but I couldn’t afford to get it made at film school.”

Fate stepped in while Christian was sitting in on a sound mixing session for Alien. “Sandy Lieberson, the head of Fox, came in. I told him the story of Black Angel  and he said, ‘Fax it to me tonight.’ The next day he called me and said, ‘Do you mind if I send this to George Lucas? He got really upset with us at Fox about the short film we put out with Star Wars.’”

Liking the story – in particular its mythological themes – Lucas gave the go ahead to produce the film using money from the Eady Fund. “Typical of George, he told Fox nobody was to touch the movie. I was to finish it completely, and then he would be the first person to see the finished product. So we went and made this film, as an act of faith and with no money.”

Inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, Christian scouted dramatic locations in Scotland. “I always had Eilean Donan castle in mind. There’s a certain pre-Raphaelite romantic fantasy idea about the mediaeval world, which I love, and I knew that this had to be the location.”

Roger Christian and Roger Pratt on location for "Black Angel"

Roger Christian (right) and Roger Pratt on location for “Black Angel”

Black Angel was shot in seven days on a budget of £25,000, with Christian’s tiny crew of eight driving frantically between various Scottish locations including Dornie, the Kyle of Lochalsh and Dunoon. “I gambled on going right at the end of the fall,” said Christian, “because the skies up there are amazing at that time of year. When we’d finished – literally as we were driving back to the airport in Glasgow – the snow came with a vengeance. So I lucked out.”

Luck remained with Christian throughout the intense, guerrilla-style shoot. For example, in the fight scene in which the knight Sir Maddox first encounters the Black Angel, Christian wanted specifically to re-create the atmosphere of a Frank Frazetta painting called The Death Dealer. “I found this arena in the pine trees,” he explained, “ and we put in smoke with a little hand-held smoke machine. It looked pretty nice but it wasn’t quite there. And then God struck. The sun burst through the clouds for one minute and made veins of light around this black knight. We just panicked and shot it, and it was exactly what I’d imagined. Things like that just kept happening, and they made a huge difference to the film.”

The Black Angel

To help create the right mythical ambience, Christian hit on the idea of spraying cobwebs into the air. “As we started shooting, the fights weren’t working for me, but I had so little film that I couldn’t experiment. I’d brought cobweb spray for the armour, so I had my costume designer Charles Knode spray it in the air and it came down like gossamer. When it was slowed down it gave a great, weird look.”

The decision to slow down the fight scenes was borne out of necessity: “I didn’t have enough footage to meet my contract of 25 minutes.” After some experimenting, Christian and editor Alan Strachan decided to use step-printing to extend the fights, bringing the film up to the required length. “We duplicated each frame three times, and it looked amazing. It’s different than slow motion. They used the same technique on the fight in the cave in Empire.”

The low budget nature of Black Angel also impacted on the special effects. “I really wanted a dragon, but I couldn’t afford one. So we made a bat instead! An animatronics company made it out of rubber, and we strung it on a fishing wire and had it fly off the Black Angel’s shield. We even got it to spin and flap its wings. It was down and dirty but it worked.”

Black Angel was shot in 35mm Cinemascope, using short ends left over from The Empire Strikes Back. “We had all these tins of film, and Roger Pratt, the director of photography, was just trying to mix and match.” When it came to the lighting, Pratt decided early to go with his gut. “I saw him staring and staring at his light meter. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, ‘This thing’s saying there’s not enough light, but it looks stunning through the camera.’ So he threw the light meter over his shoulder and said, ‘I’m going on instinct.’ And that’s how we did the whole film.”

Those present at the first screening of Black Angel included George Lucas, Gary Kurtz and Irwin Kershner. To Christian’s great relief, the film was warmly received. “It was kind of terrifying when I shot it. I went out on this limb, and I made this thing, with no idea where it was going really. But they loved it.”

Christian tells the complete story of the making of Black Angel in a new book called Cinema Alchemist. He also reveals all about his experiences working on Star Wars and Alien. Edited by JW Rinzler, the book is poised to secure a publishing deal in the near future.

Tune in again next week when, in the second part of this article, Roger Christian talks Star Wars and Alien.

Special thanks to Phil Guest for putting Black Angel back on my radar

Cinefex 137 – cover reveal

Cinefex 137

Dragons don’t come much more magnificent than Smaug. So it’s no surprise he’s on the cover of the next issue of Cinefex, which is just about to hit the presses. Featured articles will include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Game of Thrones, RoboCop and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Issue 137 spreads its wings and takes to the skies in mid-March.

D is for Dinosaur

VFX ABC - D is for DinosaurIn the VFX ABC, the letter “D” stands for “Dinosaur”.

The word “dinosaur” was coined by Victorian naturalist Sir Richard Owen in 1841. Derived from the Greek, it means “terrible lizard”.

The modern meaning is, of course, “humongous slavering monster that tramples the getaway car, eats the supporting actor and fills the IMAX screen from top to bottom.”

As well as giving dinosaurs their name, Owen was one of the first to recognise their entertainment potential. In 1852, following London’s Great Exhibition, he oversaw the creation of 33 life-size concrete dinosaur sculptures. After the giant models had been artistically placed in parkland surrounding Crystal Palace, Owen hosted a flamboyant dinner party inside the hollow mould that had been used to make the Iguanodon.

After that, dinosaurs swiftly rampaged through popular culture, including early cinema. In 1925, Willis O’Brien – one of the earliest visual effects practitioners – chose them as a subject for his revolutionary stop motion animation techniques in The Lost World, a film which took Owen’s Victorian concept of the dinosaur tableau and made it live and breathe.

Willis O'Brien and a dinosaur from "The Lost World"

Willis O’Brien and a dinosaur from “The Lost World”

For nearly seventy years, stop motion remained the technique of choice for bringing extinct creatures to life. In 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms saw Ray Harryhausen using O’Brien’s methods to resurrect a long-dormant Rhedosaurus – a fictional dinosaur awoken from its slumber by an A-bomb test.

More Harryhausen dinosaurs followed in 1966, when One Million Years B.C. showcased his Dynamation process in glorious Technicolor. Three years later, he repeated the trick yet again with The Valley of Gwangi. Impressive though Gwangi’s dinosaurs were, the film ultimately lacked the box office bite of its prehistoric predecessor (perhaps because it swapped Raquel Welch in a leather bikini for a bunch of cowboys).

The Rhedosaurus from "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms"

The Rhedosaurus from “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”

Stop motion may have been king of the dinosaur world, but moving a complex puppet frame by frame is time-consuming … and therefore expensive. And you know movie producers: they’re always looking for ways to cut corners. Enter the “slurpasaur” (AKA a lizard in a dinosaur suit).

One of the earliest slurpasaurs appears in The Mysterious Island, made just four years after The Lost World. You can almost hear the conversation during the preproduction meeting:

“Hey guys, is this dinosaur going to be an animated model?”
“Nah, let’s just stick a plastic horn on a baby alligator.”

Slurpasaurs continued to offer a low-rent alternative to stop motion dinosaurs into the ’50s and ’60s. Even the great Willis O’Brien found himself consulting on costumed iguanas for the 1960 remake of The Lost World – a far from satisfying experience for the master of stop motion. (Did Obie ever actual lower himself to getting hands-on with a slurpasaur? I’m not sure. If you know, leave a comment below and tell me all about it!) 

Slurpasaurs battle in "The Lost World" (1960)

Slurpasaurs battle in “The Lost World” (1960)

As you’ve probably realised, in tracking the evolution of movie dinosaurs, we are in fact dissecting the DNA of a much broader subject: creature effects. Name a technique, and I guarantee it’s been used to make a dinosaur. Man in a suit? Check. While you might associate this option with such flops as The Last Dinosaur or Baby: The Secret of the Lost Legend, how about all those Godzilla movies? (Was Godzilla a dinosaur? Discuss.) Nor should we forget the amazing Velociraptor suits created by Stan Winston Studio for Jurassic Park and its sequels.

Stan Winston Studio's velociraptor suit - "Jurassic Park"

Stan Winston Studio’s velociraptor suit from “Jurassic Park”

How about puppetry and animatronics? Check again. The challenge of making mechanical monsters was taken up in the 1970s by Roger Dicken in a series of Amicus productions including The Land That Time Forgot. The results may not be VFX gold but, when viewed with a few beers inside you, they’re entertaining enough. Some years later, Doug Beswick made a valiant attempt to resurrect the technique by creating a rod-puppet tyrannosaur for My Science Project (unfortunately, the puppeteers never got the rehearsal time they needed to do Beswick’s impressive miniature justice).

The Land That Time Forgot

“The Land That Time Forgot”

Most film directors prefer to have their performers on set. The sheer size of your average dinosaur has always made that a literally enormous challenge. Many of the films I’ve mentioned saw hapless actors stuffed into full-size replicas of chomping jaws, but it was Stan Winston who finally achieved the impossible when he populated Jurassic Park with full-scale dinosaurs that not only looked stunning, but delivered great performances too.

Jurassic Park also drew a line in the digital sand, heralding the arrival of the truly convincing CG creature. When Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) got his first view of a Brachiosaurus and exclaimed, “It’s a dinosaur!” I believed him, and I’ll bet you did too. And by the time the Tyrannosaurus Rex brought the house down at the climax of the film, I was ready to agree that dinosaurs really do rule the Earth.

ILM's digital T-Rex from "Jurassic Park"

ILM’s digital T-Rex from “Jurassic Park”

Jurassic Park spawned two sequels that steadily upped the ante in both the digital and animatronic arenas. The third movie features a stunning fight between a T-Rex and a Spinosaurus which, for my money, still stands as the definitive dino dust-off. Since then, you could be forgiven for thinking dinosaurs have become extinct all over again (unless you count the mediocre monsters served up by cash-ins like Carnosaur and Dinosaur Island, or the endless stream of straight-to-SyFy flicks with titles like Nuclear Tyrannoshark or Crocoraptor).

Full-scale T-Rex and Spinosaurus by Stan Winston Studio, as seen in "Jurassic Park III"

Full-scale T-Rex and Spinosaurus by Stan Winston Studio, as seen in “Jurassic Park III”

But you can’t keep a good dinosaur down. This year brought a whole new generation of prehistoric critters to our screens with Walking With Dinosaurs 3D. While this family-friendly film barely snatched a Rotten Tomatoes score of 25%, Marco Marenghi, Animation Director at Animal Logic, calls their work on the film “game-changing”. A new automated muscle system called Steroid took over control of the interaction between the dinosaurs’ skin and the internal anatomy, with a second system called RepTile taking care of skin and scales. Read more about Animal Logic’s work on the film on their website.

Animal Logic's state-of-the-art dinosaurs from "Walking With Dinosaurs 3D"

Animal Logic’s state-of-the-art dinosaurs from “Walking With Dinosaurs 3D” (Image: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

And there’s more to come: Jurassic World is scheduled for a summer 2015 release with ILM and Tippett Studio partnering up to deliver the dinosaurs. I’ve no idea what sort of reptilian revolution they have up their sleeves, but here are three of my personal predictions:

  • Flesh … As Animal Logic have shown us, the beauty of the very latest digital creatures is more than just skin deep. Life of Pi gave us a tiger whose muscles tense in anticipation of its every move. In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the titular dragon boasts a virtually complete anatomy moving under that scaly skin. I’m in no doubt the dinosaurs of Jurassic World will be fleshed out like no other prehistoric creatures we’ve seen before.
  • Science … Taking its lead from the Michael Crichton novel on which it was based, Jurassic Park based its dinosaur designs on cutting edge scientific thinking, imagining warm-blooded, intelligent creatures that ran in herds, looked after their young and hunted in packs. If Jurassic World takes account of recent archeological developments, we’re likely to see even more emphasis on interesting behavioural traits. We may see some very big dinosaurs … perhaps even some very, very big dinosaurs. And, despite recent heated debate on the subject, I suspect we may see at least one dinosaur with feathers.
  • Awe … Taking an audience’s breath away is a tall order. Jurassic Park did it by showing us something we’d never seen before. I want Jurassic World to do the same. I want beautiful dinosaurs that really tickle my sense of wonder … as well as delivering that special thrill you get when the object in the mirror really is closer than it appears.

None of us really knows what the future holds for movie dinosaurs. I’ll leave the last word, then, for Jurassic Park‘s cynical mathematician Ian Malcolm:

Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we have the faintest idea of what to expect?

In the VFX ABC, “D” stands for “Dinosaur”. I’ve shared some memorable ones here, but I’m sure you have your favourites too. Tell me about them in the comments box below.

Oh, and while you’re at it, tell me what you’d like to see in Jurassic World. A little Pterodactyl tells me some of the people working on the movie may well be reading this blog, so who knows – maybe your vision of the past could help shape their designs for the future of prehistory.

Making a Splash

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

So wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798. Given the current trend for massive water simulations in big effects movies, I reckon he wasn’t writing poetry at all, but predicting the future of visual effects. Making a splash is a trend I’ve remarked on here before: think BattleshipLife of Pi, Star Trek Into Darkness or Pacific Rim. But is the current VFX obsession with water really anything new?

Realistic water has always been a challenge for the effects artist. It’s just hard to get the scale looking right. It’s one thing building a convincing model of an ocean liner, for example, but it’s quite another creating a correctly-scaled ocean for it to steam through.

In James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, the problem was solved by comping a miniature ship into a digital sea. Back in 1958, the makers of A Night To Remember – an earlier film about the same maritime disaster – had no choice but to use real water. And nothing kills the scale of a miniature quicker than a seemingly gigantic water globule wobbling across the frame. The effects in A Night To Remember are good, but sadly a few such globules do make their inevitable appearance.

It’s just really hard to make a splash.

Over the years, artists have used many ways to avoid the curse of miniature water, like disrupting its with compressed air jets to create finer droplets. As with most miniatures, overcranking the camera makes a big difference. Others have experimented with additives: wallpaper paste to increase the water’s apparent density; paint to alter its colour and opacity; detergent to reduce its surface tension. Sometimes water was abandoned altogether. Need a distant waterfall? Why not use a stream of marble dust?

However the illusions were created, there’s no doubt that water effects have contributed to some of cinema’s more memorable scenes. Here are three of my personal favourites.

The Dam Busters - breaching the Mohne DamThe Dam Busters – destruction of the Möhne Dam

In Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters, a squadron of Avro Lancasters from RAF Bomber Command mounts a daring raid on the dams of the Ruhr. For the climactic attack sequences, enormous models were built of the dams and surrounding countryside. A moving camera created aerial views of the miniature reservoirs, which were filled with real water. Tricky stuff. But the shots of the explosions, in which the famous bouncing bombs creating huge plumes of spray, proved more tricky still.

The explosion shots were created optically, with footage of practical water plumes composited into the miniature scenes using hand-drawn traveling mattes. The results look either quaint or awesome, depending on your taste. Personally I love their sheer ambition. Imagine the sweat on the brow of the poor rotoscope artist as he tries to track the movement of the camera by eye on an animation stand, while drawing frame by frame an articulated outline of a nebulous and constantly moving column of liquid and foam.

(For more about the effects of The Dam Busters, visit Peter Cook’s gold mine of old-school effects: Matte Shot – a tribute to Golden Era special fx.)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - mine floodIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – flooding the mineshafts

We’ve all been there. No sooner have you stopped a runaway mine cart using only the soles of your boots than you find your feet are on fire. What other option is there than to yell, “Water!”

When intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones found himself in this precise predicament while escaping from the Temple of Doom, he got more than he bargained for – namely an almost Biblical wave of water pouring towards him through the flooded mine tunnels. For a shot where the water spirals through a tunnel, crossing over itself and causing an explosion of spray, Dennis Muren’s team at ILM fired water at an angle of 45° into a miniature set, using baffles to control its flow and operating the camera at between 80 and 120 frames per second.

The effect is spectacular, but Muren had no doubts about the challenge of scaling water. Here’s what he had to say in Robert P. Everett’s article on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Cinefex #18: “We looked into various ways of thinning water. I’d heard for years that there were ways to do it … but we sure couldn’t find them. So what we ended up doing was blasting tons of air at it from the front and from the sides … to break up the droplets. That seemed to do a pretty good job.”

Yeah, pretty good, I’d say.

(The digital edition of Cinefex #18 is available for iPad at the iTunes store.)

Cast Away - post-crash ocean swellCast Away – post-crash ocean swell

On its release in 2000, Robert Zemeckis’s survival story Cast Away was praised for its innovative use of invisible visual effects. Even today, the seamless integration of digital skies and seas still looks, well, seamless.

The shot I’m picking doesn’t quite fall into the “invisible” category. It comes at the end of the crash sequence, when Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) lies sprawled on an inflatable life raft while the plane he was flying in sinks to the bottom of the Pacific. It’s night. There’s a storm. The shot starts close on Hanks, gradually craning up until the raft is a tiny mote riding on the back of a truly gigantic heaving ocean. And that’s all.

I love this shot for its perfect placement and pace after the harrowing crash scenes. It’s simultaneously peaceful and threatening. Analyse it, and you’ll discover you see very little. Lightning flashes on the flank of an enormous wave. The raft rides the swell. The sea is slowly revealed as not just immense, but vast beyond comprehension: an endlessly fluid and alien realm.

Most respectable 3D packages now come out of the box with water plugins that are infinitely more sophisticated than the antiquated algorithms used by Sony Pictures Imageworks to create this digital ocean back in the year 2000. Shots to equal the artistry of this one, however, are still few and far between.

So there they are: some of my favourite water shots. While I’m mopping up the mess, why not dive into the comments pool and tell me some of yours?

Predictinating the Oscars with Todd Vaziri

Todd Vaziri fires up The Predictinator - cartoon by Graham Edwards, CinefexAs a movie-mad Chicago kid, Todd Vaziri dreamed of being a stuntman. He never did get to ride a horse along the top of a moving train, but he did get to work in the movies – as a visual effects artist.

Todd began his career at Banned From The Ranch, under mentors Van Ling and Casey Cannon. “I got my feet wet in the crazy world of compositing and rotoscoping,” Todd told me, “using a brand new tool at the time called Commotion, which was developed by Scott Squires.”

Todd eventually moved to Industrial Light and Magic, where he’s worked for the past thirteen years in a job he describes as “absolutely a dream come true.” Recently, he was a sequence supervisor on Star Trek Into Darkness, and handled a number of shots on The Lone Ranger. Both films are Oscar-nominated for their visual effects in the 86th Academy Awards, which brings us neatly to Todd’s secret obsession: devising a foolproof method of predicting VFX Oscar winners. It’s called … The Predictinator!

So, Todd, the Predictinator – what is it, and what does it do?

It’s a formula that my wife and I came up with. Taking the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects nominees, and based on quantifiable criteria, it accurately predicts the winner of the visual effects Oscar.

What inspired you to create it?

It all started out of an attempt to investigate how and why The Golden Compass beat Transformers in 2007. Transformers was very near and dear to my heart – I spent a year of my life on that movie, and thought it deserved to win. But the Academy voters thought otherwise. After many discussions with colleagues, we wondered how we could get inside the heads of the Academy voters. Why is it that some years it’s a slam-dunk, and other years it’s just weird?

My first attempt was to ask, “Which is a better predictor? Critical acclaim or box office?” Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator, I used its percentage value as my quantifiable gauge of critical acclaim. Then I took domestic box office as a measure of popularity. I can’t remember exactly, but in maybe two out of three cases, critical acclaim was a slightly better predictor than box office.

I wrote a series of articles about that on my blog FXRant. When I showed them to my wife, she said, “This is nice, but it’s kind of fuzzy. You should make a formula. You know what’s happened in the past, so why not craft a single formula to predict which will win, and see how it works in the future.”

So in late 2009, we came up with this formula. Working out the criteria was fun. We included critical acclaim and box office performance, then we reverse engineered it.

The Predictinator's brainWhat criteria does The Predictinator use to make its prediction?

Well, the full Academy has something like 6,000 members, and most are actors or retired actors – so we ask what do they look for in a film? Oscar season is typically in the Fall, so do some Academy voters have a shorter memory span? How many additional Academy Award nominations did the films get? Is the film a sequel? Looking over the statistics since 1989 (which was when we decided to start the data) we noticed that sequels, even if they had great visual effects, were not generally winners – especially if a previous film in the series was a winner.

After a lot of trial and error, we got many of the previous winners to “win” with this formula, but there were a couple that really stuck out. It was very difficult to come up with additional criteria to make those films win, particularly The Golden Compass over Transformers, and Babe over Apollo 13. So we came up with what I call the “fuzzy creature” question, which asks, “Are the primary effects for that picture organic character animation?” Not robots, not hard surface stuff – creatures. If the answer’s yes, we then ask, “Does it involve facial acting?” A film gets extra points if it fulfils those two pieces of criteria.

The final difficulty was films like Death Becomes Her and What Dreams May Come. They were somewhat critically acclaimed and got modest box office, but didn’t have the hallmarks of other visual effects Oscar winners. We realised that both of those films had lead actors who had won an Oscar before. So we gave points for that, which allowed them to win. We rationalised that the Oscar-winning star power of a lead actor in a visual effects film pushed the Academy voter to support that film.

All that gave us a formula that worked historically from 1989 to 2008. In the four years since, it has correctly predicted Avatar, Inception, Hugo and Life of Pi.

The Predictinator results for the 86th Academy Awards

Click on the image to read Todd’s in-depth analysis of The Predictinator’s results at FXRant

Do you tweak the formula each year, or is it set in stone?

We’re intending to lock it. It was really, really difficult to come up with this one formula, and it was a point of pride that the same formula we developed back then would work into the future. We had to adjust it a little bit when the Academy finally allowed for five nominees instead of three. Also it’s a lot of work to change it. But it’s all working just fine, and we’re very proud of it.

This year, the five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects are Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger and Star Trek Into Darkness. The Predictinator predicts that Gravity will win. Some people might say that, as predictions go, that’s a no-brainer. How would you answer that?

You could say it’s a no-brainer, sure. But that’s an emotional statement. Gravity was a big hit, near universally loved by critics, with two extremely likeable stars. It has ten Academy Award nominations. Alfonso Cuarón just won the DGA Award. That’s not to mention the innovative visual effects; the process that created them is unlike any other, and pretty much everyone would agree they were nearly flawlessly executed.

But those are all subjective statements, and my counterpoint would be that the formula breaks all that down to the level of data. I would also add that while the formula works for the “no-brainer” years – like the Avatar year – it also worked for the Hugo year. A lot of folks weren’t picking Hugo with lots of confidence. The good money was on Rise of the Planet of the Apes or the final Harry Potter film. But no, Hugo was picked by The Predictinator … and it won!

So what’s next? Will you expand your offering to include other awards? Can we look forward to The Predictinator 2.0?

We’ve considered it. I just pitched to my wife the other day: “You know, maybe we could do this for animated features. Maybe there’s a correlation between box office and …” and she was like, “We have enough on our plate!”

The other categories where it might be possible to do a Predictinator-type treatment would be the “technical” categories: things like editing, cinematography and sound. I personally don’t have any interest in tackling those – it’s a great deal of work. But I applaud and support anybody who wants to go ahead and do this. Let me know and I’d love to help.

How does it feel to have your work showcased in the Academy Awards nominations? Were you even a little bit tempted to skew the results to Predictinate one of your movies into the top slot?

Of course not! This is a thing of science! But seriously, when I wrote my article about The Predictinator’s results, I didn’t want to mention the fact that I had participated in two out of the five pictures. I didn’t want to give even the remotest semblance of skewing the data.

The Enterprise rides out of the Nibiru ocean

Could you talk about your work on Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger, picking a favourite shot from each film and describing its creation?

I was on Star Trek Into Darkness for almost an entire year, in charge of the space jump that Kirk and Khan do between the Enterprise and the Vengeance, and the Enterprise falling towards Earth. I also worked on some of the early Nibiru volcano stuff, and composited the shot of the Enterprise rising out of the water. Lee Uren was the lighter, and he rendered and simmed all of the water for that. It turned out to be a really, really great shot – a really collaborative effort.

(Among the shots composited by Todd were the shots of the Enterprise regaining power and firing her thrusters, triumphantly reversing her headlong plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere.)

The Enterprise falls to Earth

It’s a sister shot to one in JJ Abrams’s original Star Trek movie, where the Enterprise emerges from Saturn’s rings. Roger Guyett and Pat Tubach, the visual effects supervisors, were very open to ideas about how the thrusters turn on, and so was JJ. We saw the thrusters very briefly in the original Saturn shot. But there was no atmosphere, and it was zero gravity, so we decided we could diverge from that look if we wanted to.

(Using practical elements alongside CG, the shot includes details like tiny puffs of smoke that precede the actual firing of the thrusters.)

It’s like a dirty chamber being burned up as the rocket fuel comes out, just to give it a sense of reality and scale. It came out pretty well.

The Enterprise recovers from her fall to Earth

(After Star Trek Into Darkness came The Lone Ranger, which saw Todd working under visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander. One of Todd’s shots had the Lone Ranger riding his horse Silver along the top of a moving train. An instant before the train enters a tunnel, our hero spurs his horse in a spectacular leap down on to a flatbed car, narrowly avoiding being smeared against the tunnel entrance. During the shot, the camera tracks behind the stuntman’s shoulder as the horse performs its jump.)

It was actually quite a brilliant shot design that Gore Verbinski and Tim came up with. It started with a full live action stuntman, in costume, on a horse, galloping on a full bluescreen set, shot outside. That made it look very real.

The jump was only two or three feet, but it was enough to get things going. You could feel the horse pull all of its muscles and tense, so we got that true organic motion. Then we transitioned to a fully CG Lone Ranger and horse for the rest of the leap. I had to do a blend morph from the live action to the CG, with nowhere to hide.

I’m so incredibly proud that both projects got nominated for Oscars, particularly The Lone Ranger. Despite the amount and density of the visual effects work, we’re hoping that people aren’t thinking about the visual effects at all – that the effects are truly invisible.

The Lone Ranger

The Predictinator's nuclear powerplantFinally, Todd, it’s time to come clean. We both know The Predictinator isn’t a formula at all. It’s a machine you’ve built in your basement using old household appliances and bootleg body parts. So tell me, does it run on regular unleaded, or is that sucker nuclear?

No, it’s not nuclear! It’s electrical! But I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need. Besides, the stainless steel construction makes the flux dispersal much more smooth. You know that! I know that!

Star Trek Into Darkness images copyright © 2013 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved. The Lone Ranger images copyright © 2013 by Walt Disney Pictures. Special thanks to Greg Grusby, ILM.

Launching the Cinefex Classic Collection

Cinefex Classic Collection for iPadStop your grinnin’ and drop your linen! Yes, it’s true: the entire Cinefex back catalogue is now available to download for iPad!

Every issue of the quarterly visual effects magazine – starting with issue 1 from 1980 – has been digitised, with searchable text and the original images restored and, where possible, enhanced. The issues are presented both in their original magazine layout, as well as a tablet-friendly scrolling view. Produced by New Scribbler Press, in collaboration with Cinefex, the Cinefex Classic Collection is the essential resource for visual effects professionals and fans alike.

If you’ve any doubt as to the mammoth scale of the effort it’s taken to bring every Cinefex ever published to the iPad, check out New Scribbler’s stats on exactly what the collection comprises:

  • 126 issues
  • 8,970 magazine pages
  • 31,141 photos/ads
  • 45.7 million characters

Phew! With all that visual effects history at your fingertips, you may never leave your couch again.

Those people who helped fund the Cinefex Classic Collection project via Kickstarter should already have received a code to release their rewards. If you aren’t one of the original backers, don’t worry: you can download the app for free and start your collection now. Each classic issue is priced at just $4.99, and the option to download the complete collection in one purchase is coming shortly!

Here’s what Cinefex publisher Don Shay had to say about the launch:

I tend to be an old-school paper-and-ink kind of guy, but I’m in awe of how the Cinefex Classic Collection has rejuvenated our back-issue catalogue, with restored photos looking better than they ever did, and with a host of digital features – the most awesome being an intelligent search function that can scan the entire collection and put you on the page you want within seconds. With nearly 9,000 pages of articles, that’s an invaluable tool for researchers or effects artists – or even those of us on the Cinefex staff. Our hats are off to New Scribbler for delivering on their vision – in spades!

The CG Elephant in the Old School Room

ElephantWe’ve been hanging out together for a while now. I’ve said some things. You’ve answered back. We’ve drunk coffee, occasionally downed a few glasses of beer. I think we can call ourselves friends. But, if this relationship’s going to move forward, there’s a question we’ve got to get past.

In short, there’s an elephant in the room.

The question’s a simple one. Nevertheless I hesitate to ask it because it frequently sets people off ranting. But fortune favours the bold, so here goes:

“Which are better? Modern CG visual effects, or the old school practical variety?”

I’m going to throw this hot potato high in the air by offering you my own personal opinion. To stop myself rambling on, I’m limiting myself to just one sentence:

When it comes to visual effects, I want it all, which means I want to be amazed by spectacle, entertained by storytelling and misdirected by cleverness, and quite frankly I don’t care whether you achieve that by wielding gaffer tape and piano wire or juggling geometry and pushing pixels, just show me something that looks freakin’ fantastic, and at the same time respects the truth that visual effects as a discipline has a long, long history that informs every single decision a VFX artist makes even today – especially today – and which reflects my own experience as someone who once made short animated films for theme parks using an ancient iteration of 3DS Max, creating digital models and camera setups that I knew – just knew – were influenced by all the old school techniques I’d ever read about in the books and magazines and (of course) in Cinefex, so much so that on one occasion when I had to rework a shot of a space station to incorporate an astronaut waving through a window (don’t you just love those clients who think you can add an entire animated human being into a shot in the blink of an eye?) – a change so last-minute that my best option was to replicate the camera move on a stock figure driven by a motion-captured waving gesture from an equally stock library and use a hasty travelling matte to comp the result into my already-rendered exterior, going in frame by frame with Photoshop to do a little extra tweaking – on that occasion what I had going through my head was not a breakdown of the digital world I was manipulating, but a powerful sense of how this humble shot held echoes of a thousand similar shots created over countless years by practitioners infinitely more skilled than me, whether it be tiny wooden people planted physically on the deck of the Venture in the 1933 King Kong, or live action stage footage of Luke, Leia and the droids projected into the window of the medical frigate for the final spectacular pullback shot of The Empire Strikes Back, or a digital First Officer Murdoch trotting nonchalantly over the deck of James Cameron’s miniature Titanic, and with all that in mind, and while I’m as susceptible to nostalgia as the next man when faced with a glorious Albert Whitlock matte painting or a particularly crafty photochemical comp, and go all gooey at the thought of all those romantic old school artisans toiling with real materials in the real world (much as I might go gooey at the sight of a magnificent and equally romantic tall-masted clipper ship sailing majestically over the ocean), I respectfully suggest that modern CG visual effects are absolutely as inspiring as their old school counterparts, because I firmly believe that by standing on the shoulders of giants you can see one hell of a long way, and I would also add that the behind-the-scenes stories – the VFX creation myths, if you like – are as endlessly fascinating as they ever were, because what drives them is not the gaffer tape, is not the pixels, is neither hardware nor software but wetware, by which I mean the human beings whose artistry, ingenuity and honest sweat continue to solve problems most of us can never dream of solving, and to deliver to our screens the most astonishing visions, the most compelling stories, the most dazzling, glorious moving pictures – in short, visual effects is all about the people, and that, in all this craft’s long and honourable history, is something that hasn’t changed, and never will.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Now it’s your turn to throw your hat in the ring. Just tell me what you think in the comments box below. But please, like me, keep your answers brief. I wouldn’t want anyone to start ranting.