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.

Phil Tippett Talks “Mad God”

Phil TippettAsk any visual effects fan who Phil Tippett is, and they’ll probably answer: “He’s the guy who did all the animation in the original Star Wars trilogy.” Or you might get: “Didn’t he do Dragonslayer and RoboCop?” They might tell you he’s the Oscar-winning stop motion expert who entered the digital age when he became dinosaur supervisor on Jurassic Park. They may also know he’s the founder of acclaimed visual effects company Tippett Studio, based in Berkeley, California.

What they may not know is that, having served up top-drawer visual effects to Hollywood for nearly forty years – including recent work on Cloverfield, the Twilight saga and Ted – Phil Tippett has just released a film of his own. It’s called Mad God, it’s Kickstarter-funded, and it chronicles the journey of a character known only as The Assassin through a bizarre underworld populated by macabre creatures and unholy monsters.

Here’s what Phil Tippett has to say about the movie:

The final form of Mad God isn’t the film itself, but the memory after you watch it. It’s bringing you to that moment just after waking up from a dream, frozen, exploring fragments of your feral mind before they fade back into the shadows. That’s the moment. Mad God is just a way to get you there.

In an exclusive interview for Cinefex, Phil spoke to me about Mad God, independent filmmaking and the craft of stop motion animation …

Phil Tippett animates a shot for "Mad God"

For people unfamiliar with Mad God, could you describe what the film is, and its genesis?

Around the time I was doing the RoboCop movies, Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers, I spent the better part of ten years going around pitching projects. I developed maybe ten different things: lots of key art and scripts. After a period of rejection, Ed Neumeier – who wrote Starship Troopers and RoboCop – told me all my ideas were “art-damaged” … meaning, I guess, they were just too weird. I took that to heart and just stopped.

Mad God - original storyboard

Original storyboard for Phil Tippett’s “Mad God”

One of the projects was Mad God. I’d shot about six minutes worth of film on 35mm, but the project had got too big, and around that time the digital revolution hit, so I had to completely re-gear how I thought about things. Then, about three or four years ago, some of the guys at my studio – including Chris Morley and Randy Link – saw me archiving all this ancient Mad God material. They were really excited and relaunched the project.

It started where I would do a few setups, and then go off and shoot a movie for my day job. There was a great deal of interest from people wanting to volunteer to help, so I put together this team that was really skilled and talented, with good eyes and good thoughts.

Since then we’ve been gaining more and more momentum – albeit glacial, this being stop motion work. I did this Kickstarter thing, so we got some funds that paid for the stage rental and lunches for the crew, and we’ve just wrapped up Chapter 1. I’ve got four segments planned out, and each is going to be about twelve minutes long.

A tortured creature from "Mad God"On the Kickstarter video, Chris Morley describes making Mad God as a “therapeutic process”. Could you explain that?

It’s about making things. As opposed to computer graphics, if you work with objects there’s a “zone” that you get into where the objects start talking to you. You’re not telling them what to do; they’re telling you what to do. It’s a different kind of creative process.

Mad God is the antithesis of my day job, where there’s a lot of filmmaking rules. I thought of it like a painting that I would work on a for a long period of time, maybe shoot something over here, and something over there, and not really know exactly how they were going to link. I studied my dreams. I read a lot of Jung. I wanted to use the unconscious to drive the thing. And that takes more time. You have to let things cook for a while. I wanted to do something without the trappings of story and plot. There’s a narrative, but it’s not a story per se.

Tom Gibbons animates Mad God

Tom Gibbons animates a stop motion shot for “Mad God”

The lead animators that I’m working with – Chuck Duke and Tom Gibbons – are really great, experienced, professional stop motion animators. They’re totally in love with the process. They work for me in the day job now as computer graphics animators, and then we do Mad God at the weekend. Gibby and Chuck and I do most of the animation, and we’ve got a team of maybe six to eight people coming in also that I can task.

A miniature set from "Mad God"

Could you talk us through how a typical stop motion shot from Mad God is set up? How much is it planned out? What’s going through your head during those long hours when you’re animating?

Well, the direction I give to most people is: “Don’t think!” I look at animators like they’re actors. It’s all about performance – this different, weird kind of performance.

You’ll get into a shot and not really know where you’re going for the first twenty frames. Then, all of a sudden, it starts to make sense, and you just keep going. The shots can double or triple in length, but they still have a good momentum – they fulfil everything the narrative needs but they might build and build and build on it, and you don’t even know it until you’re actually in there doing it.

Animating The Assassin for "Mad God"

I think that will surprise some people. I think there’s a perception that animation is meticulously planned to the nth degree.

It depends on your skill level. At a certain level it’s like playing a musical instrument, where you’ve intuited all of this stuff so much over your life that you can just do it without a great deal of thought. Because the process is so slow, you’re working yourself into a meditative state. Certainly, the concentration level is really high. That’s just what it takes.

(Mad God’s immersive and atmospheric soundtrack features an original score by Dan Wool and sound design by Richard Beggs.)

Dan Wool came on board when I had only six minutes of the original material. He created a score that we were able to break up and move around while we were creating the film. The main theme is a very beautiful, fragile theme. Dan works in other more ambient, industrial noise, but it’s still scored as music.

I also got really lucky to work with one of Dan’s collaborators, Richard Beggs – one of the great sound designers. When I showed it to Richard for the first time, he said, “You know, not much is happening in this, but there’s a lot going on.” And I said, “That’s the movie I’m trying to make!”

The Assassin fro "Mad God"Can you tell us about the different characters in Mad God?

We call the main character The Assassin. He leads us through the film. The way I think about it – and I don’t preach this to anybody – all of the characters in Mad God are members of a ghost or spirit world, disconnected entities that don’t have any kind of solid background. Backgrounds are insinuated but they’re never specifically delineated.

For The Assassin, do you have a number of puppets in different scales?

I work in what I call a “Ray Harryhausen scale”, so the puppets are about the size of a small cat. It’s something you can easily get your hands around and manipulate. So, for the main characters, there’s usually just a one-off.

The Shitmen from "Mad God"

The Shitmen

In Chapter 2, there’s a section with these zombie-esque guys that we call the Shitmen. They’re built in different scales, because I’m doing some forced perspective stuff. I’ve got lead heroes with really good ball and socket joints, and then probably sixty others that are much more simplified, with wire armatures, that are foam-cast.

The outer surfaces of the Shitmen puppets are taken from my vacuum cleaner at home – a lot of dust and cat hair. I found that when I glued all of that on to these foam rubber things, it looked really great. It’s generally the kind of thing you stay away from when doing stop motion work, because the surface is very unstable. Every time you touch the thing, the surface shifts and changes. In a way it was like the 1933 King Kong.

Where the fur ripples.

Right. It has that same feeling, where the surface is agitated all the time.

As well as animated characters, the camera is very animated too. (The cameras used for Mad God were Canon EOS Rebel T2is with Nikon prime lenses.) There are sweeping shots where the camera moves round a big miniature. What sort of rig do you use?

I’ve got a lot of equipment left over from the photographic era, stuff from the RoboCop movies. I have lathe beds that I can attach cameras to that allow for tracking shots. I’m intentionally staying away from motion control. I like to leave myself open to changing things at any given moment. I don’t want the preordained camera moves to influence the performances; I want the performances to drive the camera moves. So I can always at any point go in and slow things down, or speed things up, or bring things to a stop.

The ammonite shot from "Mad God"There are a number of shots showing The Assassin’s diving bell descending on a rope through all kinds of bizarre environments.

For example, there’s one shot where the diving bell drops down in front of a gigantic ammonite, with the light from the capsule playing dramatically up the ammonite. Are these in-camera shots or composites?

Miniature diving bell from "Mad God"

The ammonite that I have in my collection is probably not more than four by six inches. Matt Jacobs animated a light going down and illuminating the ammonite. We took that, and used it as a background plate, and projected that up like Ray Harryhausen would have done (the background plate was displayed on a large TV monitor). Then we built a tiny diving bell – not much more than an inch tall. Chris Morley animated it going down on invisible wires, timing it to the lighting effect that Matt had shot.

(While Mad God is around 90% stop motion, there are a number of live action inserts. These inserts were shot using a pixilation technique originally developed for a scene in Chapter 3 …)

The Charnel Hospital from "Mad God"

The Charnel Hospital

Twenty years ago, cinematographer Pete Kozachik and I did this big shot for Chapter 3 in what we call the Charnel Hospital: ten floors of hospital rooms with operating tables where victims have been disassembled. The camera booms down and moves in, and we dissolve to a live action set.

My first intention was to do straight live action, but it looked crappy. It felt like a sitcom or something. So I came up with this pixilation effect that worked out really well.

In the scene, Niketa Roman plays a nurse, and our lead compositor Satish Ratakonda plays a doctor. I would have them rehearse a move until the performance beats were drilled in. Then, when we shot, I would have them do the same pantomime, but backwards, and as slowly as they possibly could. And there was no way they could do it – no possible way! So there would be these little screw ups and inconsistencies. I would take that footage, reverse it and speed it up by about 800%, so I would get a shimmering, kinetic texture.

(This technique was subsequently developed for use in Chapter 1, and proved an efficient way of creating inserts such as a shot of The Assassin opening up his jacket and looking at a map, or close ups of feet and hands. The pixilation effect helped to integrate the live action with the artificial stop motion world.)

There’s a certain amount of digital finessing, like the flak during the opening sequence.

Yeah, there’s quite a bit of compositing work, including the flak. I try and keep as many setups as I can stop motion and in camera. There’s a wide master shot where The Assassin walks into this big junkyard. In the foreground is a big pool of green slime, and in the background there are fires burning. I would sweeten shots like that by comping in the lake and the fires.

Junkyard composite shot from "Mad God"

The Junkyard composite shot

You said you had six minutes of film going back twenty years or so. How much of that has made it into the final cut?

I’m using just about everything. We take the Ray Harryhausen philosophy, which means 99.9% of the time we get everything in the first take. What I tell everybody is: “You can’t do anything wrong. Whatever you do is going to be right.”

You’ve described your improvisational approach to Mad God. In a visual effects shot for a theatrical feature, if you’ve got a three-second cut where you know the dinosaur’s got to get from point A to point B, is the process of animation inevitably more mechanical, or do you still get “in the zone”?

All of that is very heavily driven by the budget. Everything has a dollar attached to it – every single frame. So everything is boarded out, and from the boards you create your budget, and the budget drives the schedule. So you pretty much know what you’re doing all the time. Mad God is more in the tradition of the puppet film. The world is totally artificial. That gives you a great deal more freedom to do pretty much whatever you want to do.

We’ve seen some successful stop motion features in recent years, and it seems to be a relatively healthy craft. Do you feel optimistic about the future of stop motion?

There’s a grass roots interest that keeps it alive. Theatrical features with stop motion appear to be dwindling, unless you’ve got a billionaire behind you. I don’t think the last couple of films did that well at the box office. Studios don’t like to do it any more, it’s too complicated! But I don’t have that problem. When I don’t have a schedule, I can let things cook and simmer.

A homicidal creature from "Mad God"The influence for Mad God was totally out of Vladislav Starevich and Jiří Trnka – I like that eastern European darkness. I’m not such a big fan of the Tim Burton/Pixar approach. They’re driven by the economic needs to reach a big audience. In this country, everybody thinks that animated features have to be PG, and you have to start off with a little kid that’s got some huge thing that he has to deal with and ends up saving the world. To me that’s just a big yawn. There’s a great deal of skill and craftsmanship that goes into it, but it’s driven by the presumption that that’s the kind of thing that sells.

The Kickstarter crowdfunding model has worked very well for you. There’s clearly an enthusiastic audience out there.

If you go to a studio and try to get money for something, it’s like pulling teeth. What I found with Kickstarter was that it’s more a like a magazine culture. People that are interested in this kind of thing are very altruistic. They want to see something. They want to participate. They want to give you money! And it’s like, wow! A bunch of nice people want to give me money to make this thing!

So much so that you’re able to look ahead to another three films on top of this one.

Right. I’ve broken Mad God into four films in total. The way I’ve articulated the chapters is pretty much driven by the Kickstarter model. I’m trying to get the production time down so that I can create each ten to twelve minute section within a year.

A doomed creature from "Mad God"Actually, there may be a little confusion about how I’ve approached this. In some of the initial trailers, I have elements from Chapters 1, 2 and 3 mixed in. And so some people that have seen Chapter 1 are saying, “Wait a minute, I was expecting more stuff”

When I get these four movements done, I’ve got ideas about how to go back in to any given point and open it up with other material. I might tell the back story of The Assassin. I haven’t decided if I’m going to do that or not – I’ll probably want to think about it for a few more years.

The ability to evolve it over time goes back to what you said about it being like a painting.

Yeah. And it’s about how you engage yourself in a creative process. I look for ways of making things that get you back to being a child: working in a milieu of play where you don’t have all of the answers. The answers find you. As a consequence, you get surprised.

Creativity as a voyage of discovery, rather than a preconceived notion of what the end result will be.

Definitely. The day job I would describe as “architectonic”. If you have any business being in the commercial theatrical film world, you had better dang well know that the foundation that you’re pouring is going to support the twelve-storey building, because you don’t want to get up on the fourth floor and realise that you’ve got to jackhammer everything back down. And there’s just huge sums of money involved. When you don’t have that burden, it allows for a very different kind of process.Phil Tippett at work on "Mad God"

Finally, talking of theatrical features, the visual effects community is excited at the news that you’ve got the job of Dinosaur Supervisor on Jurassic World. I think people need to know if you’re going to be able to keep the dinosaurs under control this time, Phil, or are more people going to die?

You know, I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, everybody makes mistakes, don’t they? I make no promises.

Special thanks to Niketa Roman. All images copyright © Tippett Studio 2014. Used with permission.

The Trouble With Movie Stars

Night sky image by ESO/Yuri Beletsky

Hollywood stars are simply too big for their boots.

To clarify, I’m not talking about those charming actor-types known affectionately as the talent. I’m talking about actual stars. You know, those sparkling points of light that form the perfect backdrop for a swooping spaceship, or twinkle delicately over a farm at night, shortly before a gigantic killer robot squashes the barn.

Putting stars on the screen has always been a tricky business. Once upon a time, a night shoot meant stopping down, taping a blue filter over the lens and hoping in vain that the audience might actually buy the whole concept of day-for-night.

For me, the best old-school night skies appeared in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Remember those fabulous Doug Trumbull starscapes suspended over Greg Jein’s miniature landscapes? For the first time in movie history, we saw stars that really looked like stars.

Reflecting on some of the sci-fi movies I’ve seen recently, it struck me just how realistic the stars looked (well, someone’s got to think about these things). Whether you’re tweaking your noise nodes in Nuke, plugging in particle systems with Maya, or just spraying yourself a nebula in good old Photoshop, the tools are available to help you make a starfields that are indistinguishable from the real thing.

But how realistic are they? To find out, let’s go stargazing

First, let’s choose ourselves an empty meadow, far away from city lights. Follow me to the middle of the field (mind that cowpat). Now we wait half an hour for our night vision to kick in. Finally we look up … and see spread above us the most gorgeous filigree of cosmic light. I mean, just look at it. It’s incredible, don’t you think? In particular, can you see how tiny each individual star is? I mean really tiny?

So here’s my question: if you were a visual effects supervisor charged with replicating that awesome view, how could you possibly make the stars small enough?

Time to crunch some numbers.

Most of the stars we can see from our meadow just look like points of light to our human eyes. In other words, they have an imperceptibly small angular diameter, which makes them impossible to measure. Luckily for us, however, there’s one star up there that’s bigger than the rest. It’s called Betelgeuse and, according to data from the Hubble Space Telescope, it has an angular diameter of around 0.125 arcseconds. One arcsecond is equivalent to 1/3600th degree. Or, if you prefer, pretty darned small.

Brr! Cold out here, isn’t it? Let’s go somewhere a little warmer. I vote for a movie theatre.

Everyone sitting comfortably? Right, let’s project a scene showing the same night sky we were just looking at. The scene’s been shot digitally at 4k resolution, which means we’ve got 4,096 pixels spanning the screen horizontally from left to right (for this exercise, I’m going to ignore the vertical). The scene’s been shot with a lens giving us a “normal” field of view of 55 degrees. That’s equivalent to a dizzying 198,000 arcseconds.

Next we need to work out the ratio of pixels to arcseconds. To do this, we divide 4,096 by 198,000. That gives us an answer of almost exactly 0.02. In other words, a single arcsecond spans just one fiftieth of a pixel.

The apparent diameter of Betelgeuse is one eighth of an arcsecond. So, in order to visualise the star “realistically” on screen, it’s got to be just one four hundredth of a pixel wide.

Correct me if I’m wrong but, by definition, one pixel represents the smallest single point that can be resolved on a movie screen. And Betelgeuse – the biggest star in the night sky – is four hundred times smaller than that!

There are only two possible conclusions we can draw from this bombshell. The first is that, with current digital technology, it’s literally impossible to project an image of a star at a size that’s genuinely representative of what the human eye would see.

The second possibility is that I’m really terrible at maths.

Frankly, I’m quite prepared to believe the latter. I’m also prepared to take flak on all the things I’ve failed to account for, such as atmospheric haze, which produces a glow around a star that greatly affects its apparent size. Or the fact that no film director is going to show you half an hour of black footage just so your pupils can dilate wide enough for him to show off his ultra-realistic stars.

As for all you optical and mathematical wizards out there, I can hear you furiously thumbing your calculator buttons already. So I’ll leave you with an open invitation to tear my argument apart and beat me over the head with its remains until … well, until I see stars.

Night sky image by ESO/Yuri Beletsky

C is for Composite

The VFX ABC - "C" is for "Composite"In the VFX ABC, the letter “C” stands for “Composite”.

The humble composite is the backbone of all visual effects. If you doubt me, check out the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a composite as “anything made up of different parts or elements”. If that doesn’t describe almost every visual effects shot ever created, I don’t know what does.

To trace the development of the composite shot, we need to wind the clock a long way back. Even before moving pictures began to, uh, move, still photographers took great delight in bamboozling people with camera tricks. They used double exposures to create vaporous ghosts. Forced perspective illusions made large things appear small, and vice versa. With their clever painted backdrops and miniature sets, they transported ordinary people to extraordinary locations.

In short, the camera has always lied.

Cottingley Fairies

The Cottingley Fairies

Sometimes, these early composite images really did seem like magic. In 1917, the eminent author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by a series of photographs taken by two English girls, in which the youngsters appeared in the same frame as a troupe of pint-sized fairy folk. It wasn’t until 1980 that the photographers – now old ladies – confessed their pixie playmates had been nothing more than cardboard cut-outs.

Early filmmakers borrowed still-frame techniques and used them to create a host of early moving composites. But, while the simpler tricks translated well to the motion picture medium, more complex illusions proved difficult. It’s one thing taking individual photographs, cutting them up and patching them together, but how do you make a complex collage when the pictures are whipping past at 24 frames per second?

One of the earliest answers to that question was mattes. A matte is simply a mask – a means of blanking off part of a photographic frame during an initial exposure, allowing a later exposure to fill in the missing piece of the puzzle.

Matte shot from Elizabeth and Essex

Matte shot from “Elizabeth and Essex” showing masked area – American Cinematographer, January 1940

Finished composite from "Elizabeth and Essex"

Finished composite from “Elizabeth and Essex” – American Cinematographer, January 1940

To understand mattes, let’s imagine a typical early composite shot of an actor walking up to the door of a gigantic castle. First, the director shoots his actor, in a minimal set, through a sheet of glass. The upper part of the frame – where the castle will appear – is masked out on the glass with black paint. The exposed film is then stored in its undeveloped – or latent  – state, while an artist paints the rest of the castle, also on glass. The camera is lined up with the castle painting, and the undeveloped film is wound back and exposed a second time, this time with a black mask protecting the part of the frame where the actor is walking.

Slightly more tricky than the latent image matte is the bi-pack matte. Here, the live action of the actor is shot without any masking, developed, and then loaded into the same camera as a reel of fresh, undeveloped film. This camera is set up in front of a glass painting of the castle, in which the live-action area has been left clear of paint. The fresh film is then exposed twice. The first time, the painted castle is unlit and a white light is shone through the clear glass area, contact-printing the live action directly on to the fresh stock behind. Both strips of film are rewound and a second exposure is made, this time with the castle painting illuminated and a black cloth behind the glass preventing any further exposure through the live-action portion of the frame.

Both the latent and bi-pack methods work well with static shots like the one I’ve described, in which the masked area is fixed and the actor stays well away from the blend line between the two elements. But what happens when you want your actor to pass in front of the painted castle?

For that, you need a travelling matte.

Early travelling mattes were created using a variant on the bi-pack method, invented by Frank D. Williams in 1916 and known, not surprisingly, as the Williams Process. Here’s how it works. First, you shoot your actor against a blue screen. By carefully printing this footage on to high-contrast film, you can generate a black silhouette of the actor moving against a pure white background – a holdout matte . Reverse-printing the holdout matte then creates a corresponding cover matte  – a white silhouette against black.

Composite shot from King Kong

Composite shot from “King Kong” (1933) with live action matted over a miniature background using the Dunning Process. Semi-transparent foreground figures betray the limitations of the technique.

To create your final Williams composite, first load your previously-shot castle background bi-packed with the holdout matte. Next, use a white light to print the combined footage on to a third, unexposed piece of film (the holdout matte allows everything to print except the moving silhouette of the actor). Finally, rewind the film and load up your actor footage, bi-packed with the cover matte, to print the actor’s image neatly into the black hole left in the castle footage. (The Dunning Process, developed by C. Dodge Dunning in 1925 and used to great effect in King Kong in 1933, works in a similar way, except it uses yellow light to illuminate the actor, improving the separation from the blue screen.)

These techniques worked well enough throughout the black and white era, but the advent of colour film threw a spanner in the works. Luckily, by the 1930s, it had become possible to synchronise movie cameras with the latest, high-illumination projectors, heralding the era of rear projection .

Using rear projection, you can shoot your castle background in advance – and in colour if you choose – and then project it on to a large screen. Your actor can prance around in front of this projected image to his heart’s content, allowing you to capture his every antic in-camera. You can even do clever things like having your actor walk on a treadmill while the background pans behind him, to create a moving camera composite. On the downside, you’ll have to deal with a hotspot in the centre of the screen and fall-off at the edges, not to mention a nasty increase in grain and contrast in the reprojected footage.

A typical Dynamation setup - image available at http://www.rayharryhausen.com

A typical Dynamation setup – original image available at http://www.rayharryhausen.com

One way or another, reprojecting film lies at the heart of almost all subsequent compositing developments during the photochemical age. That’s just as well, because if I’m to wrap up this whistlestop tour before bedtime I’m going to have to speed things up a little. Suffice it to say that the next sixty years saw the refinement of both rear and front projection techniques, and the development of the optical printer (which is really just a highly engineered way of rephotographing previously shot material), not to mention any number of proprietary processes ranging from Dynamation to Zoptic, along with curiosities like Introvision, which brought old-school theatrical effects into the mix in the form of the beam splitter (a half-silvered mirror positioned at 45° in front of the camera).

Composite shot from Return of the Jedi

Composite shot from “Return of the Jedi” (1983). Inset shows a reconstruction of the holdout and cover mattes used to create the shot. Screen image copyright © Lucasfilm Ltd.

In 1977, Star Wars  combined the almost defunct blue screen with a computerised motion-controlled camera and a precisely machined optical printer, turning the craft of compositing into a laser-accurate art form. At the same time, people like Doug Trumbull were keeping the spirit of the early pioneers alive by pushing latent image matte techniques to the limit in films such Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. To get clued up on how a typical composite was put together at ILM back in the 1980s, you can’t do better than this BBC Horizon documentary from the period, which breaks down classic shots from Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Then the world went digital, and everything changed.

Or did it?

The modern compositor has access to vast range of computer software options. But the techniques, and the mind-set behind them, aren’t really anything new. In a simple AfterEffects setup, for example, you might build a shot using flat layers stacked in a virtual 3D space. That’s little different to what Disney artists were doing with a multiplane camera back in the 1930s. Nuke may take things to a whole new level, but the single most significant advantage any digital tool has over its photochemical counterpart is that you can duplicate elements without any loss of quality. Everything else is down to the skill and imagination of the user.

What the digital tools do give you, however, is improved workflow and an extraordinary level of finesse. In the photochemical days, the best you could hope for was to hide the join by smearing a little Vaseline on the lens of the optical printer. Now, compositors wield lens flares and chromatic aberrations with casual abandon, feathering edges and flashing in atmospheric haze in order to blend hundreds, if not thousands, of elements into a seamless whole.

Composite shot from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Deep composite shot from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011). Image copyright 20th Century Fox.

The new kid on the block is deep compositing, in which every pixel rendered for a visual effects element contains information not only about colour and opacity, but also depth. This crucial z-plane data enables compositors to layer up separate elements without having to worry about those pesky holdout mattes (yes, that term is still in common use, even after all these years); the depth information contained within each element determines which should appear in front of the next. For a crash course in deep compositing, check out this video from The Foundry in which Robin Hollander of Weta Digital talks about the Golden Gate Bridge sequence from Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

If the history of compositing were a shot in a movie, it would be a helluva complex one, packed tight with elements all fighting for their place in an integrated whole. This potted history has been necessarily brief, so feel free to wade in and tell me about all the pieces I’ve missed, like the smoke and mirrors of the antiquated Schüfftan Process, or the meticulous work of the rotoscope artist which, to this day, conjures travelling mattes from shots where you’d swear the edges are nowhere to be seen.

Compositing is one giant jigsaw puzzle. Where does your piece fit in?

Happy New Year!

The Cinefex Blog 2014Happy New Year! We have tons of great stuff planned for the Cinefex blog in 2014, starting tomorrow with the next entry in our dictionary of visual effects – the VFX ABC. We’ve reached the letter “C” which, as everyone knows, stands for … uh, hold on … it’s on the tip of my tongue … oh darn, let’s just hope that by the time you come back tomorrow I’ll have remembered.

So what else can you expect from the blog this year? Well, we’ll have the usual mix of columns and commentary, interviews and industry reports, fireworks and fun, as we train the Cinefex lens on the magic realm of visual effects – past, present and future.

The blog is just one part of the whole Cinefex experience, which has at its core the classic quarterly magazine (available in print, online and iPad editions) and also includes our popular Facebook page, with its regular daily updates. Oh, and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.

Now, what is it that “C” stands for again? Anyone?

The Cinefex Quiz 2013

Did you enjoy the visual effects articles in Cinefex this year? Yes? Excellent! But did you really pay attention to what you were reading?

Now’s your chance to prove your worth, by taking part in the Cinefex Quiz 2013. We’ve put together seventeen questions, one for each of the films covered in the magazine this year. Are you ready to go? Then just click the banner below, and you’ll be whisked to our special Polldaddy quiz page. Don’t forget to let us know how you scored!

Good luck … and a Happy New Year from all of us at Cinefex!

The Cinefex Quiz 2013

Let It Snow

Every Christmas, I make a point of watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Talk about heart-warming. I never get tired of seeing George Bailey throw a lasso around the moon and Clarence get his wings. Ah, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

Plus, I’m a big fan of the special effects.

Yes, I know, Frank Capra’s best-loved film isn’t exactly famed for its camera trickery. Sure, there are a couple of nifty matte paintings, but otherwise it’s just a cosy seasonal tearjerker, right? Well …

James Stewart on the set of "It's a Wonderful Life"

Image copyright © Martha Holmes – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In 1948, the RKO special effects department – led by Russell Shearman – was presented with a Technical Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for inventing a whole new way of making snow for the movies. The film for which the new technique was developed was, you guessed it, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Before Shearman came along, one of the favourite ingredients used for cooking up fake snow was bleached corn flakes. Health issues aside (nobody wants to breathe corn dust all day and, boy, do the rodents love their breakfast cereal), those early efforts generally looked pretty good. However, as soon as the silent era gave way to that of sound, a new problem presented itelf: corn flakes are crunchy. As soon as the actors started walking around, the noise of their footsteps drowned out the dialogue.

Shearman’s innovation was to use Phomaide – the foam material employed in fire extinguishers. Sprayed in front of one of the new low-noise Ritter fans, Phomaide simulated falling snow in a way that was safe, silent and pleasing to the eye. As for the drifts of fallen snow you see in It’s a Wonderful Life, they’re made up variously of burlap-and-plaster banks, piles of gypsum and shaved ice and, yes, heaps and heaps of Phomaide.

In 2011, the Academy’s Science and Technology Council held a special It’s a Wonderful Life event hosted by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. Here’s a great little video from the event in which special effects supervisor John Frazier demonstrates the Phomaide phenomenon.

Kristoff battles eternal winter with reindeer Sven in Disney's "Frozen"

Image copyright ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Fast-forward to the present day and what do we find? New ground has been broken yet again in the quest for realistic movie snow. This time the innovators are Walt Disney Animation Studios, the snow is digital, and the film is Frozen.

For Frozen, the Disney team developed an innovative material point simulation called Matterhorn, using a hybrid approach that combines particle/mesh sims with the grid-based approach of fluid sims.

Matterhorn allows for the creation of highly realistic snow that is at the same time both fluid and sticky. By dialling various parameters up and down, the snow can be made more or less powdery, compelled to clump together, and spread so as to present a resistant crust to the downward thrust of a character’s footfalls.

Disney’s material point simulation was presented at Siggraph earlier this year. If you want to read more about it – and watch a stunning video showing a range of applications for the process – check out Ian Failes’s recent article over at FXGuide.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra uses his spanking new Phomaide snow to great dramatic effect. When trainee angel Clarence whisks the disillusioned George Bailey into a world where he was never born, the snow stops falling. When George returns to the here-and-now, the flakes start descending again. Capra’s message is simple: snow is like fairy dust. It’s magic.

Today is Christmas Eve. For me, it’s the one day of the year I always feel that maybe … just maybe … the fairy dust might be real. Whatever festival you may be celebrating this holiday season … whether you’re shovelling snow off your driveway or basking in antipodean heat … I beg you to indulge me, just for a moment.

Tilt back your head and gaze up at the sky. Imagine a host of little white flakes tumbling down towards you. Forget the 70 years separating It’s a Wonderful Life and Frozen. Forget about whether blizzards look better when they’re made of old-school frothing foam or cutting-edge prancing pixels. Remember that all the best movie moments, old and new, are sprinkled with fairy dust. Dusted with magic.

Let it snow.

The Cinefex Awards 2013

The Cinefex Awards 2013

Here at Cinefex we’ve just finished voting for our favourite visual effects of 2013. The result is the very first Cinefex Awards – our own personal thoughts about the movies we’ve featured in the magazine this year.

“What’s that?” you say. “When you guys report on a film’s visual effects, you set aside all emotion and just give us the facts. In the world of Cinefex, opinion is not an option.”

Damn right. That’s the ethos on which Cinefex was built. When it comes to the Cinefex Awards, however, we like to set aside our Vulcan qualities and bring out the human side. Forget objectivity – you want to know what we really think. Right?

Our awards shortlist comprises all the films featured in Cinefex issues 133-136. You’ll find the full list of nominees at the foot of this article.

The Cinefex "Jaw On The Floor" Award

The “Jaw On The Floor” Award … goes to the VFX that left us totally amazed

Don Shay – “Is there a soul on Earth (or above it) who wasn’t blown away by the very first shot in Gravity, a virtuoso 13-minute blend of artistry and technology, boldly conceived and exquisitely executed? Or by any of the other extended-take shots in this gripping tale of survival at its most extreme and terrifying? Alfonso Cuarón took us all into space, and without a rocket booster. James Cameron declared Gravity the best space film ever made. Well … yeah.”

Jody Duncan – “My winner is the ’embryo’ shot in Gravity. My amazement at the shot wasn’t for its dynamism or technical fireworks, but rather for its lyrical, graceful beauty.”

Joe Fordham – “The award goes to the opening shot of Gravity. I think I held my breath for 13 minutes.”

Gregg Shay – “Gravity was a truly amazing 3D IMAX experience.”

Janine Pourroy – “I’ve grown accustomed to being terrified or thrilled by VFX movies, and sometimes touched or even dazzled. But Gravity shifted my perspective like nothing else has, while also being thrilling and moving and dazzling … and also wonderfully, exquisitely quiet. It made me feel in my bones a notion too big for me to grasp in my head: my place in the vastness and loneliness of the cosmos.”

Graham Edwards – “Hard to articulate this, as my jaw is still on the floor after seeing Gravity. Actually, I reckon the Framestore-led VFX team has bagged this award under false pretences. I didn’t see any visual effects in Gravity at all. Alfonso Cuarón shot it all in space, right?”

The Cinefex "What Did I Just See" Award

The “What Did I Just See?” Award … goes to the invisible VFX we didn’t even spot

This one divided the team, with Ron Howard’s Formula 1 movie just managing to steal the chequered flag.

Don Shay – “Rush gets my vote for invisible effects. Sure, some of the racing shots are less than perfect – what do you expect when you’re doing such ballsy tricks as cloning real race cars from 30-year-old stock footage and dropping in digital replacements? But I’m willing to bet that I, and probably you, failed to notice most of the film’s effects shots, so beautifully integrated were they into the live-action racing footage.”

Graham Edwards – “The thrill of writing my first article for Cinefex  – on Rush – was matched only by my astonishment when I finally got to see the movie. Having spoken at length with the guys at Double Negative, I thought I knew what I was looking for. Yet, throughout the film, my VFX radar obstinately refused to blip. On leaving the cinema, I immediately served myself a large slice of humble pie.”

In this category, Jody cast her second vote for the Gravity embryo shot, commenting, “I only realized later, after reading Joe Fordham’s article, how much work went into it – the replacing of Sandra Bullock’s leg and so on.” Joe picked World War Z. “With the zombie doubles,” he said, “some of those closeup critters completely fooled me.” And Gregg opted for Skyfall, confessing, “I thought the scorpion was real.”

Janine was particularly impressed by Captain Phillips. “This one is really an award for ‘the invisible VFX I didn’t even think about until many days later’. When I wrote about Waterworld in the mid-90s, I had the nerve-rattling privilege of visiting the location shoot in Hawaii. They had to film water for real in those days, or just about, and the tension on the set was palpable. A long, expensive set-up could be ruined by an unexpected freighter chugging slowly through the background – and Mother Nature made the vast Pacific more foe than friend to the production every single minute … of every single day. To give the water not a THOUGHT during Captain Phillips is only a footnote to my appreciation for the film. I was with Tom Hanks and the rest of ‘em in real time – and taken in by the story so completely I forgot I was watching a movie. And isn’t that just the best?”

The Cinefex "Hmm, That's New" Award

The “Hmm, That’s New” Award … goes to the most innovative VFX

Joe Fordham – “I vote for Gravity – specifically the ‘baby’ shot. My mind slowly exploded as the filmmakers explained to me how this was put together.”

Janine Pourroy – “Gravity. Make that “WHOA! … That’s New!”

Graham Edwards – “Gravity wins hands-down. On the rare occasions I was able to detach my mind from the film’s compelling narrative drive, the thought that kept recurring to me was, ‘How the hell are they doing that?’ Now I’ve learned some of the behind-the-scenes secrets, my respect for the filmmakers has only increased.”

Gregg Shay chose Gravity too, heaping particular praise on Bot and Dolly, the innovative motion-control IRIS cameras used in the production.

Don resisted the temptation to vote for Gravity. “Since I’ve already given that one my ‘Jaw on the Floor’ award,” he conceded, “I’m going to spread the wealth a bit and go with World War Z and its startling and audacious assault on Jerusalem by hordes of zombies. Maybe that scene doesn’t represent true innovation in visual effects, but it sure passed my test for ‘Wow, that’s something I’ve never seen before.’ World War Z also gets my secondary award for ending with a taut, suspenseful, cat-and-mouse sequence, rather than a big visual effects battle. Am I the only one out there feeling battle fatigue these days?”

The Cinefex "Oldie But Goodie" Award

The “Oldie But Goodie” Award … goes to the best use of old-school visual effects

A split decision, with Eli Sasich’s science fiction short measuring up well against a host of big features.

Jody Duncan – “HENRi gets my vote, for the filmmaker’s attempts to use old-style rod puppetry – even though most of it was ultimately replaced with a CG character. I loved the photos in the magazine of the miniature sets with big ol’ heads peeking in to line up a rod-puppet shot.”

Janine Pourroy – “Sometimes new technology is the right tool to fuel the magic, but sometimes ‘oldie but goodie’ is the way to go, and we can see that pretty clearly with indie films like HENRi — or last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild – both of which have earned my admiration. Even so, old-style approaches continue to find their way into big-budget blockbusters. They’re just not always obvious. And there’s a respect for these old traditions among new generations of artists that delights the heck out of me.”

Don Shay – “Every year or so, if we’re lucky, we get to cover a film whose director favors old-school techniques over workstation alchemy. Christopher Nolan took a break this year, after wrapping his Dark Knight trilogy, but, happily, Sam Mendes stepped in to exercise that aesthetic on Skyfall, using large-scale practical effects and miniatures seasoned with just enough digital artistry to get the job done. How about a round of applause for stunts and gags that obey the laws of physics?”

Gregg Shay – “Skyfall featured lots of great practical stuff.”

Joe opted for Oblivion, specifically the Skytower front projection scenes: “The shots putting clouds around Tom Cruise’s apartment in the clouds get my vote. It was pretty thrilling to see this in-camera technique used so effectively again, and to such beautiful effect.”

The Cinefex "Eye Candy" Award

The “Eye Candy” Award … goes to the VFX that looked plain gorgeous

Graham Edwards – “Pacific Rim has divided audiences, but I enjoyed it immensely, and I loved how it looked. Giant robots staggering out of the mist, sparkling in the neon lights of Hong Kong or wading thigh-deep through frothing ocean waters … just fabulously beautiful. Oblivion came a close second. I loved the clean, crisp look of the Skytower scenes.”

Don Shay – “Personally, I prefer brain candy or heart candy to eye candy, but I guess I’ll have to go with Pacific Rim – somewhat begrudgingly, because I thought the film was a failure by almost any standard I care to apply – 131 minutes in fruitless search of a story or character I could care about. But the effects were spectacular and the film looked great.”

Joe Fordham and Gregg Shay also chose Pacific Rim. “Hong Kong fight,” said Joe. “So pretty.”

The Cinefex "Wake Me When It's Over" Award

The “Wake Me When It’s Over” Award … goes to the VFX that left us cold

Don Shay – “The big question was not whether you’d believe a man could fly (no sweat, these days), but whether Superman could be resurrected as a viable franchise. For the first hour and a half, I was fully onboard with Man of Steel. Then came the battle of Smallville, followed in an eyeblink by the battle of Metropolis, and I was lost in the overlong orgy of digital destruction as Superman and General Zod slugged it out for … well, I didn’t really care at that point. Man of Steel was the year’s most flagrant example of ‘more is better’ effects-think.”

Jody Duncan – “The standout is the entire final battle sequence in Man of Steel. As always, for me, it’s not the VFX shots themselves – which were state-of-the-art and, in many cases, spectacular – but rather the context in which we see them. Whatever psychological or physiological element it is that’s required to make such a sequence elevate one’s adrenaline levels – a ‘Y’ chromosome, maybe, or a lifespan that measures fewer than 19 years – I ain’t got it.”

Joe Fordham – “Man of Steel – the visual effects were well done, but horrifyingly violent.”

Graham Edwards – “Man of Steel. I loved the Krypton sequence, and the early Clark stuff. Playing up the ‘alien on Earth’ angle worked well. But once the fighting started, and went on … and on … I’m afraid I came close to dozing off.”

The Cinefex "Big Cheesy Grin" Award

The “Big Cheesy Grin” Award … goes to the VFX moment that made us feel like kids again

Janine Pourroy – “This one goes to Skyfall, for sure. I loved the perfect timing of Daniel Craig’s cuff-straightening after he lands in the train carriage during the chase sequence in Istanbul, and I really, really loved the opening credits montage (weren’t they just great?). But, truly, every time the famous James Bond music swelled to punctuate a quintessentially ‘Bond’ moment, I believe a ‘big cheesy grin’ is exactly what I had.”

Joe Fordham – “The moment in Skyfall when, after chasing a criminal through the streets of Istanbul and driving a multi-ton digger up across the back of a speeding train, James Bond hops down into the back of a passenger carriage and adjusts his cufflinks.”

Graham picked Star Trek Into Darkness. “I’m voting for the sequence near the beginning where the Enterprise rises out of the Nibiru ocean. It seems like everyone’s doing big water sims these days, but the sight of that iconic starship shedding approximately sixty gazillion cubic feet of water while powering its way up into the stratosphere was without doubt my air-punch moment of the year.”

Iron Man III was the movie that put a big smile on Gregg’s face: “I loved the big battle with all of the suits at the end.”

The Cinefex "One That Got Away" Award

The “One That Got Away” Award … goes to the best VFX in a film we didn’t cover

There was no clear winner in this category … but there was still plenty of opinion.

Don Shay – “There are always worthy films that don’t get covered in Cinefex. An abundance of competing projects is most often the reason, followed closely by bad timing and/or the inability to get interviews and images when we need them. Sometimes, to be honest, no one on the writing staff wants to see certain films, let alone write about them. I’ll let you guess which category this one falls into, but the film I most regret not covering this year was The Great Gatsby, an over-the-top Baz Luhrmann extravaganza that was breathtaking in its ultra-stylized evocation of the Jazz Age. Talk about eye candy.”

Joe Fordham (who’s decided to make this the “Two That Got Away” award) – “I had lots of fun with Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake, much more than I expected, as it’s also probably the bloodiest film of the year. To tell the truth, I didn’t even want to see it, as I was a fan of Sam Raimi’s nutty, grubby original. But they put a clever spin on the plot, turning the familiar cabin in the woods scenario into a drug intervention, and Jane Levy was spectacular as the possessed junkie hero. Inventive and ferocious, but most definitely not for the squeamish.

“Far less gory, and overlooked, I also greatly admired All is Lost, the Robert Redford ocean survival story directed by J.C. Chandor. Some people called it the ‘anti-Gravity’ because it’s a similarly single-minded story about a lone survivor struggling against all odds, yet it was done on a comparative shoestring. I admired it for its invention and its ability to create empathy and tension in an almost-wordless story. Amazing sound design, too, by two of Skywalker Sound’s top guys, Richard Hymns and Steve Boeddeker, who signed on for the heck of it.”

The Cinefex "Never Mind The VFX" Award

And finally … The “Never Mind The VFX” Award … goes to simply the best movie of the year

Jody Duncan – “Gravity. It was innovative, moving, suspenseful, and the effects served the story, instead of the other way around.”

Graham Edwards – “I went into Gravity expecting to be wowed by the visuals. But I hadn’t expected to be so transported by the story, and by its telling. Story is everything, right? It gripped me, exhilarated me, and moved me, more than any film I’ve seen for quite a while. Oh, and even though this is the ‘Never Mind the VFX’ award, I have to add that the visual effects are possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Period.”

Joe cast a provisional vote for Gravity, commenting, “Ask me again in January. BAFTA is still shoving awards contenders down my throat. I’m looking forward to Spike Jonze’s Her, and I enjoyed the Coen Brothers’ new one Inside Llewyn Davis, but Gravity is right up there.”

Gregg voted for Skyfall, while Don opted for Captain Phillips. “I could make a strong argument for a couple of little indies hardly anyone saw,” said Don, “but if I limit myself to mainstream Hollywood fare, Captain Phillips jumps to the top of the list. I’m sure there were effects in that film, but I was so gripped by the narrative that I never thought to look for them, or remember them if they passed through my mind, subliminally. Anchored by first-rate performances from old pro Tom Hanks and first-timer Barkhad Abdi, this true story of piracy and abduction on the high seas, crackling with Paul Greengrass’ genius for taut, suspenseful, documentary-style filmmaking, makes this film my best of the year.”

That concludes the Cinefex Awards 2013. Now it’s over to you. You’re familiar with the awards categories. You’ve surely seen at least some of the movies on our list of nominees. So what gets your vote?

List of Nominees

  • Skyfall
  • Oz: The Great and Powerful
  • Jack the Giant Slayer
  • Les Misérables
  • Iron Man III
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
  • Oblivion
  • White House Down
  • HENRi
  • Elysium
  • World War Z
  • Pacific Rim
  • Man of Steel
  • Gravity
  • Rush
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Carrie

The Difficulty With Dragons

Smaug's Eye - Image property of Weta Digital and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Dragons. They get everywhere, don’t they?

In Europe, the dragons of fairy tale and folklore are best known for roasting knights and eating virgins. In China, the colourful serpent is a symbol of power and good fortune. If you journey to Australia, you’re likely to trip over the Rainbow Serpent, creator of the world and denizen of the Dreamtime. The Americas have Quetzalcoatl, winged god of the dawn, while in Africa snakelike dragons slither limbless through some of the most ancient mythologies on Earth.

Smaug, the latest dragon to fly across our movie screens, is famous for hoarding gold. His anatomy follows the traditional European model: four legs, scaly armour, huge leathery wings and a propensity to breathe fire. However, he’s more than just a monster, possessing as he does the power not only of speech, but seduction too.

As I write this, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is poised to hit cinemas across the world. Tolkien fans are hoping that this latest excursion to Middle Earth delivers the definitive Smaug. All that expectation must weigh heavily on the creative team, and I’m as curious as the next guy to see what Weta Digital have up their sleeves. You see, there are some very real problems associated with bringing to life a creature like Smaug.

In short, dragons are difficult.

Difficulty #1 – Dragons Are Big

It’s tricky to put a massive creature next to a tiny hero and get any kind of relationship going other than your basic visceral thrill. In the Harry Potter films, we see Harry first battling a Hungarian Horntail, and later riding a Ukrainian Ironbelly. The former is your standard arena beast. The latter provides a hazardous mount for Harry and his chums as they flee Gringott’s Bank, but it’s little more than an exotic ride.

When a beast gets too big, it’s hard to see it as anything other than, well, a beast. It’s hard to frame your shots. Pull back enough to see the whole dragon and your human protagonists are reduced to dolls. Go close on their faces and the dragon is just a mass of scales.

Dragon - Die Nibelungen

Picture credit: Decla Bioscop – The Kobal Collection

Difficulty #2 -Dragons Are Dangerous

I don’t just mean they’re dangerous in the stories. I’m talking about the hazards on set. In Cinefex #25, Eric Kettlehutt describes the fifty-foot articulated dragon he created for Fritz Lang’s 1924 epic Die Nibelungen (released in the US as Siegfried):

“The head and neck of the dragon were as hard as iron and moved around hastily and incalculably. An unfortunate stroke of this heavy mass could have broken a man’s bones.”

Fortunately, actor Paul Richter survived not only the physical jousting, but also the risks associated with the dragon’s fire-breathing apparatus – a hazardous assembly of acetylene fuel, lycopodium powder, assorted hoses and a pair of bellows, all of which combined to create jets of flame up to thirty feet long.

Difficulty #3 – Dragons Are Reptilian

Okay, on the face of it this doesn’t sound like a difficulty. But, if you’re trying to create something more than a monster, it’s a real problem. In order to engage with a character, we usually need to see something human in its countenance – and when you’re faced with a long, crocodile snout, rigid scales and eyes with vertical slits, that’s a big ask.

Draco – star of Rob Cohen’s 1996 movie Dragonheart – is a decent compromise between human and reptilian. Not only does his short muzzle allow reasonable articulation for spoken dialogue, but the artists at ILM also managed to incorporate into his face echoes of Sean Connery (the actor who provided Draco’s voice). The downside of this is that Draco ends up looking more like an exotic dinosaur than a bona fide dragon.

Vermithrax Pejorative - DragonslayerDifficulty #4 – Dragons Can Fly

One of my favourite dragons of all is Vermithrax Pejorative in Matthew Robbins’s 1981 film Dragonslayer. Beautifully realised in both miniature and full-scale form – and benefiting hugely from ILM’s then state-of-the-art go-motion system – I think this iconic creature still looks terrific today … most of the time.

Like the Potter dragons, Vermithrax Pejorative is not really a dragon but a wyvern. Unlike the six-limbed Draco, she has the anatomy of a bat, with two legs and a pair of wings. When she walks, her clumsy loping gait is brought perfectly to life by animator Phil Tippett. When she hovers, huge wings beating the air, she looks glorious. Sadly, when she’s swooping around, all she does is glide, and a lot of the drama is lost.

The decision to use minimal wingbeats was made by writer/director Robbins and his co-writer Hal Barwood. ILM’s Ken Ralston, who animated the flying scenes, fought against it. In Cinefex #6, Ralston says, “The first flying dragon I shot was not at all the way it ended up in the film. It was a slower, more serpentine thing; and there was much more flapping.” Robbins rationalises the changes he enforced by saying, “I wanted it to move with very little wing movement. The more it had to flap to stay airborne, the more it sort of seemed to be struggling.”


After all that, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: it’s hard to put a really memorable dragon up on the screen. I reckon the Hobbit crew have got their work cut out checking all those boxes. In a recent video production diary, director Peter Jackson proves he’s ready for at least the first of my challenges by promising  to serve up a dragon that truly fills the screen: “The one thing that I knew I wanted from the very beginning,” he says, “was to make him just massive.”

So will Jackson succeed in his ambition? Will he deliver a dragon without difficulties? We’re about to find out.

UK Government Announces VFX Tax Relief

Last week, VFX artists in California held a rally drawing attention to issues raised by differences in subsidies throughout the global visual effects industry. The difficulties currently faced by VFX facilities in the USA stand in stark contrast to the benefits being enjoyed by their counterparts in the UK.

Today, in the UK Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, it was announced that, from April 2014, UK film tax relief is to be extended to support Digital Visual Effects. A key contributor to the Government’s decision-making process was UK Screen, the trade association for the film and TV facilities sector. They in turn took advice from Europe’s largest visual effects facility, Double Negative.

Alex Hope - Managing Director of Double NegativeAlex Hope, managing director of Double Negative, had this to say about these latest tax changes:

“Adjusting the film tax relief so that it reflects changes in the production process will enable the UK industry to capitalise on its strengths in VFX and cutting-edge production technologies. This makes financial and creative sense.

“Digital technologies have transformed the film-making process, and will continue to do so, giving film-makers new ways to tell their stories. VFX sits in the vanguard of these changes, with increases in VFX budgets from between 10 and 50% of the overall budget. This can be £20m-£25m on just one film.

“It is vital that the UK has an integrated approach to the digital future of the film industry. The Government has recognised this with the support announced in April’s budget for R&D into digital content production through the Technology Strategy Board, and support for skills development in the sector, through the Skills Investment Fund. Today’s announcement is crucial in giving VFX companies confidence to continue investing in their UK-based operations and generating further growth for film and the creative industries.

“Over the past 15 years the UK’s VFX businesses have made significant investment in infrastructure, skills and training and the UK has established itself as a global centre for VFX, winning Academy Awards® and securing further incoming production business. The UK film industry has benefited from being able to offer a complete service covering all aspects film-making activity, but until today’s announcement the structure of the tax relief, whilst attracting production activity to the UK, has resulted in some films shooting in the UK taking VFX work overseas.

“Today’s measures target the integral role of VFX in film-making and productions that would not otherwise qualify for tax relief and incentivise them to bring VFX or production business to the UK, representing a significant growth opportunity for the UK film industry.”


Transformation scenes have always pulled in the crowds. Victorian theatres were packed with hidden stage machinery designed to turn pumpkins into princesses, or make entire castles materialise under the gaze of the astonished audience. Even before the days of smoke, mirrors and Pepper’s Ghost, Shakespeare shifted some shapes of his own when he turned the hapless Bottom into a braying donkey.

Over the years, the movie business too has offered up all manner of magical metamorphoses. Early experiments involved simply stopping the camera mid-shot and replacing one actor with another. As filmmakers perfected optical tricks like dissolves and wipes, transformation effects became more subtle. At the same time, developments in make-up and mechanics permitted ever more elaborate illusions to be played out right in front of the lens.

Given the extraordinary variety of shapeshifters that have writhed their way across the silver screen, it’s hard to choose a favourite. Here are three of mine:

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde TransformationDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

In Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fredric March plays a brilliant physician who creates a potion that unleashes his monstrous alter ego. In the central transformation scene, we see March change from gentle Jekyll to homicidal Hyde in a single shot. The special effects for this sequence were masterminded by Wally Westmore.

The master shot begins on Jekyll’s face, which contorts in agony as the potion takes hold. The flesh around his eyes darkens and his cheeks appear to sink. The camera pans to Jekyll’s hand clutching the arm of the chair on which he’s sitting, before returning to his face. Each time this move is repeated, the actor’s face has changed further. By the end of the shot, Jekyll has become Hyde, complete with unruly hair, an upturned nose and a set of ferocious teeth.

It’s easy to guess how some of the gross changes were done, with unseen artists altering March’s face while the camera was pointed at his hand. Less obvious – and infinitely more clever – is the way layers of different-coloured make-up were applied to March’s face, with each layer revealed in succession by switching coloured filters in front of the lens. Photographed in black and white, the shifting colours read as fluid changes in the actor’s physiognomy. As with all great illusions, the changes happen right before your eyes.

An American Werewolf in London TransformationAn American Werewolf in London

Until An American Werewolf in London was released in 1981, filmmakers had relied mostly on clever cutting and nifty optical dissolves to turn their leading men into lycanthropes. Director John Landis changed all that when he briefed Rick Baker to create what still stands as the best werewolf transformation ever.

In an Oscar-winning tour de force of animatronic and make-up effects, Baker shows us every painful contortion of David Kessler’s body as his anatomy reshapes itself from human to lupine form … while all the time Bobby Vinton sings Blue Moon. Using home-made pneumatics, a super-stretchy urethane-elastomer flesh substitute called Smooth-on #724 and upwards of ten operators, he reshaped actor David Naughton into a horrific, hairy beast.

I hardly need describe the sequence, so iconic has it become. But I will remind you how everything – the extending fingers, the vertebrae snapping out of Naughton’s spine, the juddering extension of his jawline into the muzzle of the werewolf – plays out in bright daylight in an ordinary London apartment. No horror-movie lighting here, no shadows to hide the joins. I’ll also point out how successfully Baker’s effects integrate with the editing and sound design. The result is compelling storytelling, agonisingly presented from the poor protagonist’s pain-racked perspective.

(1981 was a bumper year for werewolves, with Rob Bottin’s decidedly more funky transformations in The Howling giving Baker a run for his money. In my opinion, Baker wins this one hands down.)

Dark City TransformationDark City

Shapeshifting isn’t just about fantasies of the flesh. In Alex Proyas’s Dark City, released in 1998, entire city blocks are on the move. Yes, I’m talking about a marvellous metropolis metamorphosis!

Now, I know there are still lots of you out there who haven’t seen Dark City. For that reason, I’m going to avoid spoilers – this is one of those films you really do need to see without any preconceptions. All I’ll say is, if you like Blade RunnerThe Matrix and Inception, and don’t mind a film that’s a little rough around the edges, this one’s definitely for you.

In Dark City‘s transformation sequences, whole buildings twist and turn. A brownstone tenement elongates to become a skyscraper. A mall becomes a church. A moody and vaguely gothic skyline rearranges itself in an ballet of architecture. Why does this happen? In story terms, I’m not telling you, but I will reveal that the visual effects are the product of what at the time was boundary-pushing CG and miniatures work, created by Sydney-based DFilm Services, now part of Animal Logic.

Okay, what was boundary-pushing in 1998 looks a little dated now. The morphing of the buildings, extraordinary as it is, is somehow just a little too smooth and mathematical. But I don’t care. The concept is so visionary, and the execution so brave and ambitious, I can forgive the sequences – and indeed the film – any minor shortcomings. And that’s all I’m prepared to say, other than to encourage you to dust off that DVD (make sure it’s the superior Director’s Cut) and give Dark City a second look. If you’ve never seen it before, prepare yourself for a treat.

Well, I’ve shared my own trio of transformations. Now it’s over to you. Have you got a favourite shapeshifter?