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.”

“The Orville” – Smarter, not Harder

"The Orville" space battle - visual effects by Fuse FX

The recently aired Season 2, Episode 9 of the Fox Network’s The Orville featured an epic space battle that rivaled – and arguably surpassed – those seen previously in the Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica television series. Working under the guidance of production visual effects supervisor Luke McDonald and visual effects producer Brooke Noska, FuseFX visual effects supervisor Tommy Tran and his team delivered all but about a minute of the space battle within a remarkably short eight-week time frame, without compromising anything in terms of dynamism and realism.

Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, The Orville is, at one level, a space comedy loosely based on Star Trek; but MacFarlane and everyone associated with the show, including the visual effects teams, fully understand that satire works best when the core elements of the subject being satirized are duplicated with precision and specificity. “Comedy or not,” said Tommy Tran, “this space battle had to look and feel like a dramatic space battle, without crossing the boundary from sci-fi reality to absurdity. The sequence does pay homage to the ‘red shirt guy’ from Star Trek, and there is also a Top Gun moment in there; but other than that, the space battle was presented as cinematically as possible.”

Watch the space battle in this clip from The Orville:

In addition to the Orville starship, the sequence features Kaylon, and Krill spaceships and fighters. Though the angular, green Krill ships had been seen previously on the show – their designs already well established – the Kaylon fleet was only introduced in Part 1 of Episode 9. Pixomondo, another vendor on The Orville, built CG models from Kaylon ship designs by in-house digital effects supervisor Brandon Fayette. “Brandon is a very talented CG artist,” said Tran, “and he worked with Seth starting on Season 1 to design the look of every ship in the Union fleet, the Krill fleet, and the Kaylon fleet. However, FuseFX did design the space station from a basic concept, as well as the little robot ships that repair the larger ships.”

Integrating the Maya assets provided by Pixomondo required the use of optimization tools developed by FuseFX as a means of producing shots quickly and efficiently – crucial, given the company’s eight-week schedule. “Our pipeline TD, Changsoo Eun, created a tool that allowed us to auto-populate the shots before they went to the lighters,” Tran said. “So all the tracking data was there, and all the CG assets were there. Without that, we would have had to manually bring in hundreds of ships and place them in 3D space, which would have been daunting.”

The optimization tools enabled shots to be auto-populated not only with ships but also with explosions and space debris. “We looked at several recent films to get a sense of the look and feel of space battle scenes – the look of fireballs and explosions and so on,” recalled Tran. “That’s where we started. From there, I sat the effects artists down for about two weeks to do nothing but make small, medium and large explosions, fireballs and debris. Then Changsoo took all those assets we’d pre-built for the explosions and put them into a library. He wrote some code, so when the lighters needed an explosion, they could just go to the drop-down menu and find a fully rendered Houdini explosion we could plug in anywhere in 3D space.

“We did the same thing for space debris – bits and pieces of broken ships. We sat our modelers down for a couple of days, and said, ‘Run several varying destruction simulations.’ Each asset then was categorized in our library; and so, when the lighter needed to fill the background with space debris, he just went to the drop-down menu through our pipeline. Doing that, we could populate shots with varying amounts of space debris. That was a very robust feature. We’ve been able to auto-populate scenes before but not at this level. It was like we’d auto-populated trees in a park before; but for this, we had to auto-populate Yosemite National Forest!”

In the end, the space battle was such a monumental task, Tran brought in the help of FuseFX visual effects supervisor Kevin Lingenfelser. “He ran part of the episode with me,” Tran said. “We just split it – I’ll do this, you do that. It was a big help; the task was bigger than any one supervisor could manage That’s the thing I’m most proud of – that we were able to deliver that incredible sequence in eight weeks, to the quality that we did. We did it through optimization and teamwork and communication. We did it through working smarter, not harder.”

That’s a Wrap – “Game of Thrones” Q&A

For the past seven years, visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer has been living a transcontinental life, spending half the year or more in Northern Ireland to oversee the filming of visual effects sequences for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and then returning home to Los Angeles for the remainder of the year, working long hours in postproduction to shepherd the completion of final shots from vendors around the globe.

He is currently just a handful of weeks away from delivering the last of those shots for Game of Thrones’ final season – and so, the time seemed right to talk with Bauer about his seven-year journey through Westeros and environs …

Joe Bauer

You came onto Game of Thrones for the series’ third season, in 2013. From the beginning, the production has been based in Northern Ireland. When did you first arrive there?

I think it was May of 2012 – something like that. That first year, I was there for about six months. I remember that we were back in time for Thanksgiving. And then the next year we were back before Christmas; and the year after that, we stayed until after Christmas. For Season Eight, we stayed in Northern Ireland for a full year, from August 2017 to August 2018.

What accounted for those longer and longer production times?

It wasn’t the number of episodes – those actually diminished. In the beginning there were ten episodes per season, and in later seasons, there were six or seven. But the volume of work for all departments increased, and the length of the episodes increased, as well. Also, the visual effects work compounded dramatically – from 800 shots in Season Three to well over 3,000 shots in Season Eight.

Your first year, what kind of ‘catch up’ did you have to do to take over the visual effects supervision for a show that already had been in production for two seasons?

I hadn’t read the books beforehand, and in fact, I wasn’t even aware of the show. So, the hardest thing was just trying to get some grasp of the story and the characters. Reading the script and making sense of it all was like reading another language. I just focused on the things that seemed most likely to be visual effects, things I knew they wouldn’t be able to shoot.

Do you recall your initial discussions with the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B Weiss?

I remember one of the things they said right off was that they wanted the show to be cinematic – which was a nice thing to hear. And then we tested that immediately by asking them for some things that were unusual for production, things involving stunts and special effects. There is a horrible knee-jerk tendency out there to go the CG route. But it is so much better if you’ve got something there, even if it is just photography to match to – and I’ve been beating that drum for a long time. The idea was to go into postproduction with elements that would be much harder to create as assets or effects sims, especially in a constricted timeframe. If we shot something, I knew I could plug that in and it would look good. If you can put 70% of the shot together on the Avid, then you’re home free.

Were there any peculiarities to working in Northern Ireland?

The working style was a bit different. They work without stopping for lunch, for example, which definitely has its advantages. And so, you do a ‘walking lunch.’ You also do a 10-hour day, generally, unless everyone agrees to go longer. But that’s rare, especially when you’re shooting outdoors in inclement weather. You’d kill people if you kept them out there longer than 10 hours. Also, the crew was made up of a lot of Irish and British people, and it is the cultural tradition to head for the pub after your work is done. If we worked them too long, and they didn’t get to check that emotional box, we’d have a pretty unhappy crew.

Was it more difficult to get special equipment there?

A bit. Anything that was unusual had to come from London – or sometimes even from L.A. For example, in Season Four, we had a 30X400-foot greenscreen for the wall battle. They built this massive scaffold in a farmer’s field, not too far from the coast. A couple of nights, there was such a storm that it ripped all of the greenscreen that had been fabricated in the U.S. and shipped over. It was ripped into rags. They got more of it made and shipped, and they got some at Shepperton, but that was a big deal. Motion control equipment was brought in from the U.K. and the U.S. – so there were shipping considerations with that, as well.

You must have faced a lot of shooting challenges in your six years on the show – days in which things did not go as planned. Care to share any of those memories?

A lot of them revolve around our outdoor greenscreen needs, which increased with every season. Early on, we’d just rely on stand-by people to put up our greenscreens. We’d throw them up the best we could – but not in a way that anybody with any knowledge would have done it! For example, we did that for a scene with Hodor and Bran at the cave of the three-eyed raven, and then the winds came up and the greenscreen started falling over. We realized at that point that we couldn’t function like that any more. It was just too dangerous. So we hired Paul Hatchman as our visual effects key grip, and once we got him in, everything changed. But our worst day was before we hired Paul, and everything was blowing and falling. Most of the bad experiences I recall – those I can actually recount – were those Man vs. Elements situations, because the elements always win.

How did the workflow evolve from Season Three to Season Eight? What improvements or changes were implemented along the way to improve efficiency and productivity?

The biggest change, I think, was just the number of visual effects facilities we had to bring on. In Season Two they had one facility – I think everything was done by Pixomondo. By Season Six, we had 14 facilities. Another comparison: for Season Three we had three previs people; for Season Eight we had 22 – including several geniuses. We also brought on additional visual effects supervisor starting with Season Four – Stefen Fangmeier, Ted Rae and Eric Carney of The Third Floor.

Watch the trailer for Game of Thrones Season Eight:

You mentioned that Season Eight has 3,000-plus visual effects shots. What were the mechanics of managing that volume of work in postproduction?

After we had determined what the shot load was going to be, we told the producers that we had just barely delivered our 2,400 shots for Season Seven – and this was going to be a lot more than that! We simply couldn’t do it in the time we had. We either had to lose shots or we had to bring on another supervisor; and they opted to bring on another supe, which was Stefen Fangmeier. Stefen did the premier and I did the finale, plus the majority of the remaining shots – because I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess!

Many of the same people – department heads and crew members – have worked together on this show season after season. Tell me how that has impacted the production. I imagine there is a significant benefit to that.

Oh, yeah. Once you have a history, everyone is confident enough to own what they’re doing and not wait to be told. Confidence is the key – and once everybody has that, you can do great things. For example, for this season, The Third Floor came up with the idea of putting programmed LEDs on the walls of the stage to ensure correct moving eyelines. Previously, we’d just had numbers on the wall, and we’d be yelling out: ‘Number 1! Number 5! Number 4!’ The programmed LEDs were a big improvement – and The Third Floor just did it, because they had the confidence to do it.

Visual effects producer Steve Kullback preceded you by one season – but you’ve been working as a team since Season Three. What is that working relationship like?

Anything I want to do, Steve makes it happen. And I’m not overstating that.

That’s a great quality in a visual effects producer.

It is! Whenever I had an idea, I’d first have to sell it to Steve – and he would be the devil’s advocate, to some degree, until I held my breath and threatened to walk in front of a bus if I didn’t get what I wanted. Once I convinced him, he would march it upstairs to Bernadette Caulfield, the executive producer, and I’d hear her jaw hit the floor. But she trusted Steve, and Steve trusted me – so it worked out. He was the Great Facilitator. He put a kind of protective bubble over me and ran interference for me, so I could do what I had to do.

After working on this show and these people for six years, you must have had mixed feelings about its being over. Tell me about your final days working on Game of Thrones as the production side of it came to an end last August.

I remember that the number of effects shots was still growing, and that meant there were more and more elements to shoot. As the schedule worked out, the last elements were being shot as I was in Heathrow Airport, preparing to fly back to L.A. – and so, right there in the airport, I was getting QuickTime movies sent to me on my phone to sign off on. There wasn’t a wasted second. And everybody was on board. We had a couple of the best camera operators in the U.K. working for us, and they stayed to shoot elements! Everybody was invested in this effort, as a whole. Everybody wanted to stay and see it out.

You have another few weeks of postproduction ahead of you, and then your tenure on Game of Thrones will be over. What’s next? Do you plan to take some time off?

I’m not that kind of person – not a lay-by-the-pool kind of guy. Never have been. I’ve got some travel plans for this June, but hopefully by late summer I’ll be plugged into the next thing.

Thanks, Joe.

Cinefex 157 covers "Game of Thrones" Season Seven

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones airs on HBO, commencing April 14, 2019.