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.

Smooth Moving Spaceships

Everyone has a favourite spaceship. Let’s face it, one of the reasons we like a good sci-fi movie is to ogle the hardware, right?

But beauty’s more than skin deep. As every visual effects afficionado knows, it’s not enough for an interstellar hot-rod just to look pretty. Motion pictures are all about – you guessed it – motion.

Here’s a Top 3 list not of my favourite spaceships, but my favourite moves.

Smooth Moves - The Empire Strikes Back1. Millennium Falcon approaches asteroids – The Empire Strikes Back

It’s a no-brainer that Han Solo’s pirate ship should be on this list. But she’s such a smooth mover that picking just one shot from an entire saga is a real challenge.

The shot I propose comes right at the start of the asteroid field chase sequence, just after Han’s opined that the Empire would be “crazy to follow us.” The shot’s square-on from the side, with the Falcon flying right to left, gaining a little in the frame. Deploying one of her trademark drunken rolls, she veers hard to port to avoid a spinning rock, swoops right up to the camera until she fills the screen, and shocks approximately half the audience into jumping violently enough to hurl their popcorn in the air.

On paper, it’s just a throwaway editorial beat. In practice, ILM’s effortless wielding of the motion control camera combines with John Williams’s triumphant score to create the cinematic equivalent of a sharp intake of breath before the exhilarating rollercoaster plunge.

Smooth Moves - Aliens2. Dropship exits SulacoAliens

Some spaceships mean business. Ships like the dropship from Aliens. It looks its absolute best in the audacious shot that comes at the climax of the “prep for drop” sequence, during which the Colonial Marines get psyched for planetfall. You know, the one where that futuristic Apache doesn’t just exit the Sulaco‘s hold … it plummets.

This dynamic shot was produced by Brian Johnson’s company, Arkadon, using a 100-foot motion control track. Conceptually, it’s a stunner. The camera starts off looking straight up at the Sulaco while the dropship plunges towards it. A rapid track and pan enables the streamlined craft to perform a close fly-past before powering away from camera and diving into the planetary atmosphere.

Technically, the last few frames are creaky, with visible matte lines and shaky tracking of the background plate marring the comp. I can forgive that. At its heart, this is a dizzying, celebratory shot, perfectly timed to ram the narrative unashamedly into a higher gear.

Smooth Moves - Apollo 133. Command Module falls towards Earth – Apollo 13

Sometimes (often in fact) less is more. Of all the gorgeous space shots produced by Digital Domain for Apollo 13, my favourite is the one that heralds the final re-entry sequence. It follows the moment Tom Hanks tells his fellow astronauts it’s been a privilege flying with them.

The shot begins with the Earth’s limb occupying most of the frame,with just a sliver of starfield visible top right. As the camera performs a gentle roll, the command module enters from camera right and drops away in a smooth, straight line towards the centre of the screen. Barely three seconds long, you could say the shot performs the same “take a deep breath” trick as the Empire shot. You could also argue that it resembles the Aliens shot in that it features a ship falling towards a planet.

But the Apollo 13 shot is chalk to their cheese. No high-octane thrills here, just the simple message that here is a shining silver capsule with three living souls trapped inside. The tiny craft looks impossibly vulnerable before the immense face of its parent world. And it’s falling …

Every shot tells a story. The ones on my list tell theirs supremely well. Now it’s over to you. Can you come up with moves that are smoother than mine?

Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

Superman looks ridiculous.

I’m not talking about the whole underwear-on-the-outside thing. Nor that curly bit of hair that always hangs down over his brow. I’m talking about how he looks when he’s flying across a movie screen. I’m sorry but, however well it’s executed, the visual effect of Kal-El zooming through the skies is just fundamentally wrong.

Before all you Supie fans clench your Kryptonian fists and punch me through the nearest wall, I should probably qualify that statement. The shots I specifically take issue with are the classic “speeding bullet” ones. You know, the shots where our hero is racing along in a prone position with one or both hands thrust forward. The shots that make it look like the poor sap’s been shot out of a circus cannon.

The shots that work better are the ones where Superman is landing or taking off, and especially the ones where he’s just kind of hanging around. The very best shots in Man of Steel are those where he looks like an angel.

I have a theory about why this is.

When I was young, I often dreamed I could fly. But not once did I adopt the speeding bullet pose. Instead, I floated. I drifted. I was thistledown on the wind. I believe this rapturous fantasy of flight is not only commonplace, but deeply rooted in the human psyche. It may well derive from the kind of out-of-body experiences enjoyed by shamans in ancient societies. Now let’s factor in the angel idea. Many religious stories have images of people taking to the air, often in a state of rapture. Unaided human flight has nothing to do with blasting through the stratosphere. It’s a vision, a delirium.

In short, it’s a real trip.

That’s why I think Superman looks great when he’s all floaty, and mildly absurd when he’s doing his impression of a cruise missile. Unlike Iron Man, who just looks cool.

“Aha!” I hear you cry. “Why the double standards? What’s Tony Stark got that Supie doesn’t?”

First, he has a suit. There’s nothing magical about Iron Man’s ability to defy gravity. He’s not a god. He’s a pilot. We instinctively know this, so when he makes with the aerobatics, we instantly buy into what we’re seeing. Second, Tony holds his arms down by his sides. This makes him look like a skydiver. We know skydivers really exist, and again we buy the illusion.

Of course, what I’m touching on here is a much bigger issue, namely: “How do you go about making a visual effects shot look convincing if the underlying concept is essentially absurd?” Oh, and by ‘convincing’ I don’t mean artistically and technically beautiful (heaven knows Man of Steel is positively bulging with shots fitting that description, including the speeding bullet ones I’m lambasting) – I’m just talking about shots that look right. But I think I’ll save that argument for another day. Right now, it’s poor old Kal-El that I’m worried about.

As I see it, Superman has two choices. He can work on his “angel” routine and commit to swapping speed for floatiness. Granted he may not always get to the bad guys in time. Granted a few more innocent bystanders may get iced. But, when the Man of Steel does eventually arrive to save the day, at least he’ll look awesome.

Supie’s other option is to give Tony Stark a call. I’m sure they could work something out. After all, Stark has plenty of spare suits. Kal-El with afterburners? Now that’s what I call a superhero!

So how about it? Do you believe a man can fly?

Warning! May Contain Monsters

Warning - May Contain Monsters

Why are you here?

It’s a profound question. But don’t panic – I’m not going to get bogged down in all that “I think, therefore I am” nonsense. I just want to know why you’re here. As in here reading the brand-new Cinefex blog.

To help you get to grips with this tricky existential question, I’ve devised a simple checklist. Using it couldn’t be simpler. Just scan the items and make a mental note of every one that applies to you. Ready? Set? Go!

  1. You like robots, monsters, dizzying cityscapes and anything that explodes.
  2. You’re able to use the term “subsurface scattering” in everyday conversation.
  3. You always stay in your movie theatre seat until the last credit has rolled.
  4. Your online avatar has spent most of this year tinted green.
  5. You’ve just about worn out the frame-by-frame viewing button on your Blu-ray player’s remote control.
  6. You always look for the join where the live action meets the matte painting.
  7. You know at least 10 different quotes from Star Wars.
  8. Your friends are always telling you to shut up about how the shot was done and just watch the damn film.
  9. Your blood runs cold whenever you hear the phrase, “We’ll fix it in post.”
  10. You know where the zipper is in the back of the monster suit.

How did you score? If just one of the above rings a bell, the Cinefex blog is the place for you. If you identify with all ten, I hope you’ll settle in and make yourself comfortable, because I reckon we have a lot in common.

So, now you’re reading the blog, what can you expect to find here? Well, stuff about visual effects, obviously. I’ll be here with a new article every Tuesday. Cinefex publisher Don Shay nabbed yesterday’s inaugural slot (well, it is his magazine, after all), but as a special launch bonus I’ll be here all through this week, with a new post on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, before settling into my regular weekly routine.

My plan is simply to ramble on (as only a good geek can ramble) about whatever’s caught my fancy in the VFX universe. It’s a big universe, one that not only boasts a rich, romantic past, but also holds the promise of some quite astounding miracles still to come. As for what’s happening here in the present, well, that can get pretty exciting, too.

It’s a fair bet some of the articles will feature robots. Others will undoubtedly contain monsters. From time to time, I may even throw in a little subsurface scattering. If you get tired of all that, we’ll take a flight over a dizzying cityscape or two.

Very occasionally, something might explode.

Wait a second. Rewind. We never did answer that opening question, did we? Why are you here? Now’s the time to tell me. Whether you’re an active VFX professional or a movie-obsessed couch potato, I’d love to know what it is about visual effects that makes your pulse race … or maybe your blood boil. Just post your answers in the comments box below. Don’t be shy – you’re among friends.

In the meantime, I’m going to try and get out of this suit. Wouldn’t you know it, the zipper’s stuck again …