Now Showing – Cinefex 171

Cinefex 171

We on the Cinefex editorial staff were about a month into our two-month research and writing period for issue 171 when, in a single day in mid-March, four of the five films we were covering had their release dates pulled due to pandemic-related movie theater closures. We dubbed it the ‘Saint Patrick’s Day Massacre,’ and it left us shell-shocked. Worse, it left us with no new movies to cover, and precious little time to come up with new content.

Our dilemma paled in comparison to those who had fallen ill with the virus, or those who were losing loved ones. To paraphrase a great silver-screen philosopher, the problems of a few visual effects journalists amounted to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But we had to come up with something for our next issue, and we had to do it fast.

What was most important, we grasped immediately, was to get ourselves back on solid ground, and off the quicksand of constantly shifting film release dates. What could we count on? What entertainment content was going to be there, no matter how bad the pandemic got, or how long the shelter-in-place orders remained in effect?

The answer was obvious: content from streaming channels would still air as planned, no matter what, and likely to an even larger audience. We had briefly talked about doing an all-streaming issue in the past. If ever there was a time to do it, it was now.

So, here is our all-streaming issue, with coverage of six of the most compelling and popular shows airing during the Great Stay at Home of spring 2020: Westworld (HBO), Devs (Hulu), Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access), Tales from the Loop and The Boys (Amazon Prime), and Altered Carbon (Netflix).

Sit back, relax, and read the pages of Cinefex 171 to learn about these fascinating productions. What else do you have to do? Wishing you all good health!

The print edition of Cinefex 171 is available to order from our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon arrive in your mailbox. You can also download our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Now Showing – Cinefex 170

Cinefex 170 covers Mulan, The New Mutants, 1917, Watchmen and Underwater.

Of all the different types of films we cover in Cinefex, my personal favorites are those that are not visual effects films – no monsters or creatures, no spaceships, no alien landscapes or Death Star explosions. I most enjoy covering reality-based movies in which visual effects play a pivotal but nearly invisible role.

Sam Mendes’ 1917 is one of those, and Joe Fordham covers it beautifully in Cinefex 170. Reality doesn’t get grittier than a story set in the trenches of World War I, but visual effects were essential to the film’s conceit of one very long, uninterrupted shot as the action plays out in real time. It’s a fascinating read about a fascinating film.

Director Niki Caro’s Mulan – a live-action retelling of the 1998 Disney animated classic – is similarly grounded. No wise-cracking dragons or ghostly ancestors in this remake – just utterly realistic 7th-century China environments, and an impressively dynamic avalanche sequence. Graham Edwards brings us exhaustive coverage of The New Mutants, as well, and we round out the issue with HBO’s Watchmen and Underwater.

Cinefex was well into production on this issue, the four-color presses already humming, when the world went into quarantine to stop the spread of Covid-19. It was a pandemic of a scale not seen since – well, since 1917, oddly enough. At its onset, I joined many others in wondering if this bug was going to prove to be the society-destroying ‘Captain Trips’ virus of Stephen King’s novel The Stand.

Fortunately, as I write this, we seem to be beating Covid-19 into at least partial submission, and there is the promise of better days as this strangest of all springs turns to summer.

We wish you all good health and a swift return to normalcy. Who knew the idea of ‘normal’ could sound so good?

The print edition of Cinefex 170 is available to order from our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon arrive in your mailbox. Our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content, will be out soon.

Now Showing – Cinefex 169

Cinefex 169 - celebrating 40 years of the journal of cinematic illusions

We’re proud to present the 40th anniversary edition of Cinefex!

It was tempting to make this special celebratory issue, Cinefex 169, all about the past – after all, Cinefex is a grand old lady, and reminiscing is what grand old ladies do. But we quickly discarded the idea as too pat, too self-indulgent, too expected. Instead of looking back, we decided to look forward. We would talk to visual effects supervisors and directors, and though, inevitably, there would be some shuffling down Memory Lane, the focus of our discussions would be the future.

It was a big idea, but we think we’ve pulled it off.

Inside our 40th anniversary issue are interviews with George Lucas, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Robert Zemeckis, all of whom have delivered some of the most spectacular and innovative films covered in the pages of Cinefex. We also offer a roundtable discussion of visual effects past, present and future with 21 Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisors.

We round out Cinefex 169 with detailed coverage of The Mandalorian and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which seemed fitting for an anniversary issue of Cinefex. By launching a new era in visual effects, the original Star Wars was, in part, responsible for the magazine’s inception, and The Empire Strikes Back graced the covers of both our second and third issues.

All of us offer our profound thanks to readers, subscribers and advertisers for making Cinefex possible these 40 years. We trust we’ve given you something valuable in exchange for your support!

Cinefex 169 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon be landing in your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Q&A – The Genius of Ub Iwerks

Don Iwerks’ book, Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks, is a fascinating account of the decades-long collaboration between his father and Walt Disney, and the many technical and artistic innovations that arose from that partnership. It is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the ‘good old days’ of filmmaking and effects, when ingenuity, hands and gears, rather than strokes on a keyboard, put spectacular images on the big screen.

Don spoke with Cinefex about his book and the legacy of his father, Ub Iwerks.

Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks

Your father was both an artist and a self-taught mechanical engineer — disparate skillsets not often found in a single person. Which was dominant? Was Ub Iwerks a mechanical guy with some artistic ability, or an artistic guy with a bit of mechanical ability?

It’s hard to choose one over the other, but I think his technical skills were the most important. He was very good at animation, drawing and painting, but there’s no question about his excellent technical skills. 

Where and how did your father’s relationship with Walt Disney begin?

They met in Kansas City, Missouri, when they were both working for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. They became friends and worked together on many projects there.

There’s an interesting story in the book about Universal cheating Walt Disney and your dad out of a successful cartoon character, Oswald the Rabbit, and how that led to increased secrecy surrounding their early work with Mickey Mouse. Was Ub also protective and secretive about his technical innovations?

Well, he wasn’t going to tell the whole world, and Walt was the same way. They didn’t patent anything early on, because they didn’t want to disclose what they were doing. But for the most part, he wasn’t that worried about secrecy when it came to technology. He’d find a better way to do something, and then just do it.

Mickey Mouse was initially your father’s design and animation. Did he ever resent Walt’s getting so much of the credit for that character?

People would ask him about that, and his answer was always: ‘It’s not the original creation that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts. You can draw pictures all day long, but Walt did something with it.’ So he gave Walt full credit for that.

You tell the story about Walt coming in at night, after Ub had gone home, and changing his animation for Steamboat Willie. There must have been some tension over that.

From what I understand, my dad got upset that Walt was changing the timing of his animation. He confronted Walt about it, and they had a little bit of head knocking over it. Walt relented, but then it happened again. Around that time, my dad got an offer to set up his own studio, and he decided to do that.

He returned to the Disney organization ten years later, in 1940. Not long afterward, war broke out, and they began making training films for the U.S. military. You mention in the book that those films required a combining of live-action and animation. Why?

Well, they had to make them on the cheap, so they had to come up with what they called ‘gags’ – things that would allow them to convey what they were trying to say very simply.

That led to Ub’s development of the aerial image optical printer. Explain what that was.

In the early days, they would combine mattes and images by bi-packing the film. But the difficulty was that mattes could shrink, resulting in matte lines around characters, and there would often be dirt and scratches – all because they were coming into physical contact. My dad reasoned that he could build a printer that had two heads, one for the primary image, and a second for the matte, which would be projected onto the primary image. The lens projecting it had east/west. north/south and in/out controls so he could adjust size and placement, which eliminated matte lines, and since the matte was suspended in space, rather than on a surface, it eliminated dust and scratch problems.

Another innovation Ub introduced to the studio was the sodium traveling matte process. Explain what that was.

It was actually a J. Arthur Rank patent that my father became aware of. It involved photographing principal characters against a screen that was yellow in color, but was illuminated with sodium lamps. On the color spectrum, that was a very narrow band that could be removed and allow you to make a matte. That allowed him to photograph two films and create a matte at the same time, at 24 frames per second. It was a big breakthrough.

Tell me about how wet-gate printing contributed to the nature films Disney began making.

Walt bought a lot of film shot by nature photographer Alfred Milotte and his wife, and he made it into a film called Seal Island. That ended up winning an Academy Award, and that encouraged him to make more of those kinds of films. The problem, though, was that the nature footage was shot on Kodak’s commercial Kodachrome, which shoots a low-contrast original and created very grainy prints. There was also a consumer Kodachrome available, which had virtually no grain at all and beautiful color and contrast, but it was an end-use film, meaning what you shot in your camera is what you projected.

So it wasn’t designed to be duplicated.

Correct. In the course of duplicating it, the contrast almost doubled and the blues and greens went very dark. Details were lost in the shadows, and highlights all washed out. So that was the bad news about this consumer Kodachrome, and my dad set out to fix that. He devised a masking system that reduced the contrast so significantly that by the time you duplicated it, you were back to normal again. He found a way to fix the color shift as well. To fix scratches on 16mm film that showed up when it was projected onto a big screen, he printed it while it was submerged in a solution, which made the scratches disappear. That allowed Walt to make his nature films.

In your book, you talk about the animation department’s being in peril in the early 1950s. Why was that?

Walt’s brother, Roy, took care of the financial part of the business, and he mentioned to my dad one day that he was going to recommend to Walt that they quit making animated films because they were so costly. They didn’t make much money, either, and what money they did make was tied up for a long time. So my dad began thinking about a way to make animated films more efficiently, and he realized that hand-inking cels was a part of the process that was very expensive and time consuming. About that time, Xerox machines came on the market, so he bought one and began experimenting with xerography as a way to mass-produce inked cells.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first animated feature to use the process, wasn’t it?

That’s correct. They’d used it on a fifteen-minute short called Goliath, and for a crowd scene in Sleeping Beauty, but One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first time they used it for a full-length picture.

You worked for Walt Disney Productions for 35 years, starting in 1950. What did you do there?

Mostly I was in the machine shop, where most of the inventions my dad came up with were fabricated. I was eventually promoted to foreman of that shop, and then manager, and my task was to make sure that my dad’s work was getting done.

Ub Iwerks died in 1971. What was he working on when he died?

He was working on the Hall of Presidents for Walt Disney World. That was a show Walt had always wanted to do, but couldn’t get a sponsor for because it was going to be so expensive. It was going to involve a huge 250-foot-wide screen and my dad devised a way to put five 70mm projectors side-by-side to project film onto that screen. Then he had to figure out how to do the photography, and so he designed a special animation type camera that would photograph an aperture that is the same proportions as the screen.

It’s clear from your book that Ub Iwerks was a really ingenious guy, but also humble about it.

That’s true. His character was such that he always looked ahead. If he figured out how to solve a problem, he didn’t boast about it and keeping thinking about what he’d done – he just moved on to the next problem. That’s the way he was.

Thank you, Don.

Now Showing – Cinefex 168

Production companies can be a great deal of help to Cinefex or a terrible hindrance, depending on a number of factors – their confidence in a film, their confidence in Cinefex, their support of the visual effects team, overall. The worst, for us, is when we get this worn line: “We don’t want to spoil the magic” – as if it will come as news to Cinefex readers that a cyborg assassin didn’t really grow metallic weapons from the end of its arms!

Netflix won the Cooperation Blue Ribbon for its assistance in our coverage of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. They arranged for an early private screening of the film, no one in the theater other than Netflix’s Julie Miller, visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman and me, and Julie continued to help us every step of the way. Readers will be intrigued by the story of ILM’s four-year development of a markerless performance capture system that enabled Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to do that brilliant thing they do, sans helmet-cams and tracking markers. It’s a fascinating story.

Cinefex was only four years old when we covered James Cameron’s breakout hit, The Terminator. Graham Edwards’ reporting on the making of Terminator: Dark Fate felt like returning to one’s alma mater for a Homecoming game and engaging with the old gang. It became an especially poignant return with the recent passing of Gene Warren, the mastermind behind so many of the original film’s effects. Graham also gives us the story of Roland Emmerich’s masterful re-creation of history in Midway.

Joe Fordham covers the best racing movie since Rush in his in-depth story about the effects – physical and digital – that made Ford v Ferrari such an exciting ride. It had special resonance for me, as many of the real-life events, including the death of racecar driver Ken Miles, played out just a few miles from where I live, at the famed Riverside International Raceway – which is now, alas, a shopping mall.

And speaking of shopping malls – I wish you joyful shopping and the happiest of holidays!

Cinefex 168 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon terminate its journey to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Now Showing – Cinefex 166

Cinefex 166 covers "The Lion King," "Spider-Man: Far From Home," "Game of Thrones" and "MIB: International."

I’ve never been a ‘fan.’ Even as a teenager, I was alone among my friends in never hanging a poster of Bobby Sherman (yes, when I was 13, that was the poster) on my bedroom walls. No John, no Paul, no George, no Ringo.

If I’ve been a fan of anyone in the years since, it has been Jon Favreau – and it started long before he began making the kinds of movies we cover in Cinefex. I watched nearly every episode of his conversational television show, Dinner for Five. I thought Elf was hilarious, and Couples Retreat remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Favreau’s Iron Man was when I took notice of him professionally, covering that film – to my mind, the most entertaining origin-story superhero movie ever – in Cinefex 114.

So, it was with a great deal of personal pleasure that I wrote about Favreau’s remake of The Lion King. Not only is he a great talker – he jokes that his idea of directing is talking – I quickly saw that what they were doing to create that film, both on the virtual production stage and at MPC, was truly remarkable. The story’s all here in Cinefex 166.

I’m also a fan of Game of Thrones; but since I was up to my eyeballs in lion fur grooms, I entrusted our coverage of the final season to Graham Edwards’ capable hands. In his story, Graham balances the physical on-the-ground effort with the equally extraordinary postproduction work. Graham also gives us the behind-the-scenes scoop on Spider-Man: Far From Home, which includes commentary by director Jon Watts.

Cinefex covered the first Men in Black 22 years ago, when writer Joe Fordham was but a callow youth. The much matured Mr. Fordham digs deep into the making of MIB: International in a comprehensive story that covers everything from alien design to makeup to on-set special effects to witty MIB-style visual effects.

We were there for Men in Black in Cinefex 70; we’re still here for Men in Black in Cinefex 166. The Circle of Life, indeed.

Cinefex 166 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already roaring its way towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Now Showing – Cinefex 165

Cinefex 165

When the time comes to write a ‘From the Editor’s Desk’ piece for the current issue, I usually think back over the previous two months – during which time we wrote the editorial content for that issue – and whatever bubbles up to the surface of my brain, that’s what I write about.

What bubbled up this time was profound gratitude for my writing team, Joe Fordham and Graham Edwards. Every two months, these dynamos generate about 60 pages of editorial content. To put this in perspective: remember in college when you had that ‘big’ ten-page, end-of-semester paper due? Remember the dread with which you approached that project? Joe and Graham write ten pages every few days. A three-page paper? Shoot – they  do that before their first cup of tea in the morning! And what they produce isn’t exactly easy-breezy content. It is often highly technical, dense and complicated – but for the reader, Joe and Graham have to make it, in the words of Albert Einstein, ‘As simple as possible, but not simpler.’

They came through again in our current issue, Cinefex 165, with articles covering Godzilla: King of the Monsters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Amazon Studios’ Good Omens series. I wasn’t sitting around eating bon-bons, either. I wrapped up ten years of covering Marvel Studios productions with my long article on Avengers: Endgame.

Each article carefully balances technical detail with the more human story of why creatives made the decisions they made, what they were going for, their victories and frustrations. The movies are big, the stories are big, the effort – every two months – is big.

Thank you, guys.

Cinefex 165 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already stomping its way towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Now Showing – Cinefex 164

Cinefex 164

Spring is here, and it reminds me that, for Cinefex, every year is a bifurcated one. Roughly, the six-month period of April through September brings with it the release of many large-scale, effects-heavy movies – the kind of movies that are our raison d’être. In contrast, the six months between October and March offer up a very different – shall we say, ‘more serious’? – type of film, those in which Nicole Kidman’s fake nose piece in The Hours is the most effects-y thing on the menu. Those are the ‘What the heck are we going to cover?’ months for us – not always, of course (thank you, movie gods, for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Interstellar and First Man) – but often.

The lineup for Cinefex 164 features the effects spectaculars we’ve come to associate with flowering blossoms, warm breezes, and purchases of Costco-sized bottles of Zyrtec. Captain Marvel graces our cover and is the fascinating subject of Joe Fordham’s comprehensive story, liberally laced with commentary from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend, and effects principals at no fewer than 13 top-drawer visual effects companies.

Graham Edwards’ interview slate was similarly extensive, both for his exploration of Hellboy, and for his second article on the history of animals – real, stop-motion-animated, animatronic and digital – in the movies, from Rin Tin Tin to Caesar.

And speaking of cinematic beasts, we round out the issue with my coverage of Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Full disclosure: I’d never seen the 1941 original, but spent a lovely afternoon with my four-year-old granddaughter to watch it in preparation for my story. (Her review: It was sad when Dumbo’s mommy went away.)

Happy Spring!

Watch a video preview of Cinefex 164:

Cinefex 164 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already speeding towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

“Playtime” – Q&A with Alec Gillis

"Playtime" by Alec Gillis and StudioADI

Co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, Alec Gillis has been in the film industry for 38 years, creating – with partner Tom Woodruff Jr. – makeup and practical characters and creatures for films such as Tremors, Death Becomes Her, Alien 3, Starship Troopers, Jumanji and It.

Gillis has now written, directed, produced and performed roles in Playtime, a 13-minute short – presented on ADI’s YouTube channel – that explores the question: what becomes of an animatronic star in the digital age?

The protagonist of Playtime is Billy, a ‘Chucky’-like 80’s-era animatronic doll whose hopes of returning to the big screen are raised with Variety’s announcement of a current-day reboot of the ‘Playtime’ horror film franchise. Billy is ready for his closeup – until he learns that his role will be played by a computer-animated character.

I spoke with Gillis about the film’s evolution and message, and where he – and animatronics – fit within today’s movie-making machine.

Writer/director Alec Gillis coaches Billy, the animatronic star of his satirical short film "Playtime," available to view on the studioADI YouTube channel.

Writer/director Alec Gillis coaches Billy, the animatronic star of his satirical short film “Playtime,” available to view on the studioADI YouTube channel.

CINEFEX: How did Playtime come about?

GILLIS: A number of things converged to make Playtime happen. After all these years in the business, I’m constantly trying to stay relevant, and it is a challenge, especially as technology changes. So I’m always thinking about that. And then, I started immersing myself in silent films, and looking back at those people who didn’t make the transition to talkies – a subject that is brilliantly portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. There’s another movie, The Comic, about a silent film star who ages and ends up sitting on a park bench.

CINEFEX: As does Billy.

GILLIS: Exactly. The character in The Comic is named ‘Billy Bright,’ and that name stuck with me. I love all those stories of Hollywood, partly because they point out how superficial we all are in the industry, and how we attach so much importance to what we do – which is ultimately just entertaining.

CINEFEX: So your experiences and observations from inside the film industry were the inspiration for this movie.

GILLIS: Yeah – I joke that it’s an autobiography, but in a way, it really is. And then, of course, if it makes a statement about practical effects, which is my first love, and if I can create a character that emotes and even gets some emotion out of the audience, then I’m enforcing the idea that animatronics are still viable as a technique. Those are all the dry reasons I made this movie – but ultimately, I love writing and performing comedy, and I wanted to have some fun with this. I wanted to do something where I would be unfettered by commercial concerns or movie executives.

Watch Playtime on the studioADI YouTube channel:

CINEFEX: You not only wrote, directed and produced Playtime, you are the voice of Billy, and you play the role of movie producer ‘Robert Gorman.’

GILLIS: I really wanted to play that part because I sometimes find myself in a producer role, adopting a producer-like sensibility; and then, Billy is arguing the other side. The dialogue they have during that exchange, the producer explaining why Billy can’t be in the new movie – what Gorman says in that exchange are all paraphrasings of real things that have been said to me by executives. Things like, ‘Reality isn’t inspiring.’ So I loved this character – this producer who has a thin veneer of courtesy, but really, he’s just tolerating you, and he feels as if he is doing you a favor by entertaining your silly little notions of using practical effects.

CINEFEX: ‘Robert Gorman’ – can’t help but think of ‘Roger Corman’ in that name.

GILLIS: It’s a deliberate homage to my old boss, Roger Corman – who, by the way, never had that attitude. But I had to pay homage to him, one way or the other.

CINEFEX: You even wrote and sang the end credits song – Hahahaha Hollywood.

GILLIS: That was fun. Actually, Ben Brown, who shot the movie, wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics. I’m always writing dumb rap poetry, usually for my family. But then I thought: ‘Why should I contain my genius to the family? I need to share my gift with the world!’

CINEFEX: And the world thanks you. Tell me about how Billy’s design evolved.

GILLIS: Obviously, he’s a riff on Chucky from Child’s Play, but beyond that I wanted a design that would play to the strengths of animatronics. Rather than come up with a design I fell in love with, and then do anything to build to that design, I decided to come at it from the other direction. What do I need? I need good facial expressions, emoting and performance – and that required a head that was proportionately larger than any real doll’s head. Dave Penikas, our animatronics designer and engineer here, said, ‘As long as you don’t give me a head that’s too small, I’ll be able to give you a beautiful performance.’ So that was the start of the design – this oversized head that would enable us to fit in all the animatronics we needed for a good performance. Then I brought in Tim Martin, who is an excellent sculptor, and he designed Billy’s face based on his own kid.

CINEFEX: When we first see Billy, in the 1980s ‘Playtime’ movie, he’s a pristine looking doll. But when we cut to current-day Billy, he looks very much the worse for wear.

GILLIS: Yes – so we shot all of that beginning, with the kid and the babysitter in the mock Playtime movie, first. And then I went in and jacked up Billy’s look. I glued the eyelids down and made the skin look like it was peeling. I actually used the forehead mold of Pennywise the clown from It on Billy’s forehead, so it would have that cracking, corroded look. And then I painted him with a kind of Norma Desmond-ish makeup, making him look as ghastly as I could.

CINEFEX: There is so much expression in Billy’s face – that must have been a fairly sophisticated piece of animatronic machinery.

GILLIS: It was, but it was mounted on top of a cable-articulated body, which was not a particularly sophisticated bit of machinery. I knew we needed his face to perform and emote, but that his body could be a little funky. It was okay if the body looked like a cheap animatronic. So we built the body in a very simple way, but the face was very complex and realistic.

Alec Gillis and puppeteer Mike West put Billy's cable control system through its paces.

Alec Gillis and puppeteer Mike West put Billy’s cable control system through its paces.

CINEFEX: In the movie, there are three people puppeteering him – was that the actual number?

GILLIS: Yeah, it was – Dave Penikas, Mike West and Zac Teller, and they all worked on the build, as well. Dave was in charge of the head, with assistance from Mike West; and then Mike was in charge of the motion control system, where I pre-recorded all of Billy’s facial performance. Normally, we do facial functions live so the performance can be directed by the director. But in this case, since I was the director, I just blocked out the scene in my mind and did some rough storyboards, and then I preprogrammed all the facial expressions. We had complete control over the eyes, brows, cheeks, and there was even a little animation in his hair, so the wig could move back and forth. And then, Mike West preprogrammed all the lip-synch animation.

CINEFEX: Even though the point of the film was to use practical effects, there must have been some visual effects necessary.

GILLIS: We had a couple of visual effects shots. One was when it is revealed that Billy is watching his old movie – he walks up to the television set, and his reflection is in the TV, and the image degrades to look like VHS static. Andrew Ceperley did those shots. There were also visual effects shots for the little greenscreen demo you see on a kid’s iPad, and in a shot of girls outside a convention hall, screaming ‘Billy, we love you!’ Those shots were done by Stephen Norrington, my old buddy who directed Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He thought the project was a hoot, and so he wanted to help out.

CINEFEX: Any visual effects required for Billy operator paint-outs?

GILLIS: No, we always just framed them out – except for those moments where I wanted to show them for comedic effect.

Puppeteers Mike West and Zachary Teller with Billy on the ADI stage.

Puppeteers Mike West and Zachary Teller with Billy on the ADI stage.

CINEFEX: At the end of the movie, Billy discovers that there is still a place for him in the film industry – that there are fans of what he represents.

GILLIS: That’s autobiographical as well. Because there are a lot of fans of practical creature effects, and there is no reason to have a knee-jerk negative response to all things digital – because digital frees you. I wish fans of practical effects would embrace the overlap between the digital and the practical. There’s nothing wrong with CGI; it’s just that techniques should always be used to their strengths, no matter what the technique is. I wanted to end the movie with a message about the practical and the digital coming together.

CINEFEX: Do you have plans to enter Playtime into any film festivals?

GILLIS: I haven’t done that. I did this primarily for Studio ADI’s channel on YouTube. It was kind of a gift to fans of practical effects.

CINEFEX: Thank you, Alec.

“True Detective” Prosthetic Makeup Effects

Mahershala Ali stars as Wayne Hays in Nic Pizzolatto's "True Detective," aged into his 70s in Season Three by Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance.

Mahershala Ali stars as Wayne Hays in Nic Pizzolatto’s “True Detective,” aged into his 70s in Season Three by Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance.

In Season Three of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, the two main characters – Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) – inhabit three different time periods: the 1980s, 1990s and present day. The storyline called for both characters to be aged into their 70s, a task awarded to prosthetic makeup designer Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance in Englewood, New Jersey.

The more dramatic of the two age makeups is that created for Wayne ‘Purple’ Hays, a long retired detective exhibiting signs of dementia as he grapples with a child abduction and murder case that has haunted him throughout his career.

As it happened, Mahershala Ali’s own grandfather had been a police officer in Los Angeles, and though he was a bit older than the character in the series, he served as fitting inspiration for what Hays might look like as an old man. “I already had a relationship with Mahershala from a previous project,” recalled Mike Marino, “so we had ongoing conversations about it via texts. Then, when I met with him to do the lifecast, we talked more about how his grandfather had aged, and I kept that in mind as I designed the makeup. Mahershala gave me photographs of his grandfather and I used those as reference.”

Marino also considered the character’s psychological traits and life experiences in designing the makeup. “He’s a detective,” Marino noted, “a very worried guy, a drinker, a smoker. I had to take all of those things into account. If someone says, ‘create a prosthetic makeup for someone in their 70s,’ there are a hundred different ways to go just because people age so differently. There are 70-year-olds who look like they’re 50!”

The age makeup was sculpted over a lifecast of Mahershala Ali.

The age makeup was sculpted over a lifecast of Mahershala Ali.

More than anything else, the actor’s lifecast dictated the direction of the final old-age makeup. “I couldn’t just randomly make up wrinkles,” Marino explained. “I had to study Mahershala’s face very carefully and go from there. I took a series of photographs of him in all different facial positions – squinting, raising his brows, smiling, making weird faces – so I could identify where his own wrinkle pattern would be. Once I determined where those wrinkle patterns were, I knew where I could accentuate them.”

Marino did the lifecast of the actor in silicone. “The advantage to silicone is that you can do a lifecast in much thinner layers,” said Marino. “The cast is much less distorted by the weight of the casting material; and so, you get a more accurate cast than what you got in the 80’s or 90’s with alginate.”

Marino sculpted the old-age look over the lifecast, and from there produced nine prosthetic pieces made of a custom formulation of encapsulated silicone, working with prosthetic makeup artist Mike Fontaine. The prosthetics included a neck-and-half-cheek piece, eyebags, outer-corner eye pieces, inner-corner eye pieces, a center brow piece, an upper lip, lower chin, and a forehead piece. A wig finalized the look.

“My prosthetics are a little strange and unorthodox,” commented Marino. “I’ll sometimes do half-cheeks, or even a quarter of a cheek, or an eyebag that is only half an eyebag. I try to cover the face only where it is absolutely necessary. I avoid excess prosthetics so I can retain as much of the natural face as possible. And I can do that because I’m not afraid of landing an edge in the middle of nowhere. I know I can paint it and glue it down so it’s invisible; and so, I’m not worried about hiding anything. I’ve put edges where you would normally never want an edge and made it work. That approach allows me to use partial prosthetics, rather than having to cover an entire area; and that allows me to better retain the actor’s likeness and essence.”

Michael Marino and Göran Lundström apply the age makeup to Mahershala Ali, a process that took around three hours.

Michael Marino and Göran Lundström apply the age makeup to Mahershala Ali, a process that took around three hours.

Marino’s ability to do partial prosthetics is due, in part, to the custom silicone material, which has properties that mimic real flesh. “It responds with a really great memory,” Marino said. “If you touch real soft skin, even aged skin, it bounces back very quickly – it doesn’t stay pushed in and mushy. A lot of silicones, when you press them, they stay pressed in a little too long. My formula of silicone reacts more like real skin, and that’s part of the reason for the makeup’s success. But it is also about the design. The material doesn’t give me the license to add prosthetics wherever I want. The design still has to be right for the character. In this case, there was so much movement and acting that had to come through in this character, I didn’t want to overdo it.”

Prosthetic Renaissance also created age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West.

Prosthetic Renaissance also created age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West.

Once Marino and crew members Kevin Kirkpatrick and, later, Göran Lundström got into the swing of the project, application time was three hours. The application of the old-age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West, took a bit longer due to Roland’s longer hair and scruffy beard. “We first had to flatten his hair down with a resin paste and blank out the color of it,” Marino recalled, “and then put a bald cap on him and a prosthetic piece over that. A thin, gray partial wig was then combed into his own hair. Another additional step on Stephen was his stubble, which was important to the essence of this character. We flocked his beard onto his face using a special gun that works with static electricity. We put glue on his face, and then we shot these little prepared chopped hairs onto it. When we combed it out, it looked like hair was actually growing from the face, sticking out like a beard would, rather than laying on top of the face. The hair and beard added about a half hour to Stephen Dorff’s makeup application time.”

To avoid the grueling prospect of the actors enduring the makeup chair for three hours or more each day, production scheduled old-age scenes for a maximum or three to four days per week; for the remainder of the week, the actors were either off or shooting their 1980s and 1990s scenes. “It would have been too much to have the actors in prosthetics five or six days a week,” Marino stated. “The producers on the show were the best ever because they really navigated the schedule to accommodate the makeup needs.”