About Joe Fordham

I've been writing full-time for Cinefex since 2001 (the year, not the movie). Before Cinefex, I worked in visual effects, special effects, makeup effects, miniature effects, animation and editing in LA and in London. The silhouette in my avatar is my logo for Flashfilms, a website where you'll find links to my filmmaking and creative writing. Flash was my dog.

John Bruno Q&A – James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

Deepsea-Challenge-3D-VFXQA

Visual effects supervisor John Bruno first met filmmaker James Cameron at the 1985 Tokyo Film Festival, where Cameron was screening Aliens and Bruno was promoting the visual effects of Poltergeist II. Bruno’s background – growing up in the ocean-side community of Monterey, California, combined with his experience in animation and the nuts and bolts of movie making – sparked a mutual appreciation that led to the filmmakers’ first professional collaboration, earning Bruno a ‘best visual effects’ Oscar – with Hoyt Yeatman, Dennis Muren and Dennis Skotak – for Cameron’s 1989 underwater science fiction tale, The Abyss.

'The Abyss' in Cinefex 39.

“The Abyss” covered in Cinefex 39.

Work on The Abyss involved many practical underwater dives, including Bruno’s first dive in a submersible off Grand Cayman exploring the 850-foot-deep wreck of the cargo ship Kirk Pride, which provided valuable reference for fictional scenarios. After filming, Cameron continued to invite Bruno on recreational dives until out of the blue Cameron proposed another submarine excursion, swearing Bruno to secrecy, diving on the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The footage wound up in the opening scenes of Cameron’s 1997 box office champion. “I dove with famed underwater photographer Al Giddings twice to the Titanic,” John Bruno recalled. “We had lunch on the bridge in front of the Titanic’s bronze telemotor – I had a cold hotdog, a bread roll, and a piece of broccoli; and it was best lunch I ever had! We were in the lighting sub, Mir 2, lighting the Titanic as Jim filmed from in Mir 1. So, I am in the movie Titanic, inside a submarine.”

"Ghosts of the Abyss" 2001

Bill Paxton, ‘Mir’ submersible pilot Genya Cherniev and John Bruno, “Ghosts of the Abyss” 2001 © Walden Media / Buena Vista Pictures.

In 2001, Bruno returned to the Titanic site as a producer on Cameron’s 3D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, using a pair of small, custom-engineered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore deep inside the wreck. Cameron continued to record his dives, including the 2002 Discovery Channel documentary investigating a sunken World War II battleship, in Expedition: Bismarck. A few years later, while Cameron was prepping his space epic, Avatar, Bruno learned that work was underway on a classified new submersible, a futuristic one-man vessel designed to venture into the deepest place on earth, the ‘Challenger Deep’ in the New Britain Trench, a volcanic cleft in the ocean off Papua New Guinea.

sub3

‘Deepsea Challenger’.

The sub, which resembled a vertical torpedo painted ‘Kawasaki racing-green,’ gave its name to Cameron’s latest documentary, sponsored by National Geographic and Rolex, released in special venue theatres as James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D. Bruno shared director credit on the film with Andrew Wight and Ray Quint. Wight initiated filming, but then tragically died with documentary filmmaker Mike deGruy in a helicopter accident. Bruno flew out at short notice to record the expedition that went on make history March 26, 2012, when Cameron touched down on the seabed, seven miles beneath the ocean surface. Quint directed historical reenactment scenes and oversaw Australian-based postproduction, working with Melbourne visual effects house Iloura.

John Bruno and friends on location in Pomio, Papua New Guinea

John Bruno and friends on location in Pomio, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

John Bruno described to Cinefex his experience capturing 1,200 hours of footage — which film editor Jane Moran honed to a gripping 90-minute documentary — chronicling Cameron’s latest aquatic odyssey, and exploring his filmmaking colleague’s unique spirit of adventure.

 

What’s it like to direct Jim Cameron?

Jim and I have a 25-plus-year history of working together. When he asked me to direct this project I thought, well, I have knowledge of deep-ocean submersible diving, and had insight where to take the backstory. And I wasn’t intimidated to ask questions, because we know each other so well. For example, when the expedition was underway, I was struck by an idea for something I wanted to talk to Jim about on camera. I knocked on his cabin door and said, ‘Jim, there is something I’d like you to do.’ He replied, ‘Well, you’re the director. Tell me what you need and I’ll do it.’ After that, I just got on with the job.

When you joined the production, after the helicopter accident, did you have to hit the ground running?

John Bruno interviews James Cameron

John Bruno interviews James Cameron prior to a ‘Deepsea Challenger’ test dive.

On the flight to Australia, I started to break down the script. I listed the key people involved. I had to learn everything about them and the Deepsea Challenger submersible in the next 72 hours. I had a breakdown of the 3D cameras, backup equipment and the key members of the camera crew. I needed to know where the safe zones were for filming aboard ship. Launch control officer David ‘DW’ Wotherspoon and my director of photography Jules O’Loughlin became my closest friends and allies because shooting at sea on an open-decked ship is difficult and dangerous.

On board the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

On board the ‘Mermaid Sapphire’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

Our surface vessel, the Mermaid Sapphire, was a deep-ocean pipeline survey ship. There were cranes and winches with steel cable running everywhere. It’s an industrial platform. During a sub launch, deck hands and crewmen would be straining to control the Deepsea Challenger with ropes that crisscrossed the deck and guided it over the railing and into the sea.  If a rope snapped, or the sub started swinging loose, we would have a ‘situation’ and camera operator looking through an eyepiece would not be watching his surroundings — his job is to follow the action – so we had to be self-aware, and look out for each other.

On board the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ is winched above the deck. Photo: John Bruno.

When we were out over the New Britain Trench, Jim set a record for the single deepest dive of a manned submersible – 8,000 meters, or 27,000-feet. On board the Mermaid Sapphire, we had a satellite feed to the outside world. We could post updates on the Internet and receive information. We were getting feedback about the dive. One Tweet in particular bugged the hell out of me. It said something to the effect that this was just ‘a rich Hollywood guy doing a stunt.’ That made me angry. I told Jim I wanted to change the entire line of questioning in my upcoming interviews and find people who knew him as an explorer going back 20 years.

You mean, like animatronic designer Walt Conti, who built the weight-release system on the Deepsea Challenger?

'Deepsea Challenger' is lowered into the ocean

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ begins its descent into the New Britain Trench. Photo: John Bruno.

Exactly. Walt Conti and animatronic designer Ty Boyce both worked with us on The Abyss. On camera, I asked Walt to compare Jim then and now, and he recalled how the conversation always turned to diving. It was the same with other members of the crew, the discussions would always turn to going out on some sea adventure. That led to us to incorporate footage from the making of The Abyss, the making of Titanic, the 16,000-foot dives to the Bismarck and we tied that into this documentary. Before Deepsea Challenger, Jim had organized seven deep-ocean expeditions and logged 77 submersible dives. This was no stunt. Jim made that very clear in the opening of the film, when he explained how the Deepsea Challenger was designed as a real scientific platform.

The sub is a unique-looking vehicle. Jim discusses the vertical orientation in the film; was there a reason he had it painted Kawasaki racing green?

Bruno with the 'Deepsea Challenger'

Bruno with the ‘Deepsea Challenger’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

He just thought it looked good. It was easy to see. It was either that, or white or yellow, and green was good. I really liked the design, where they had clear Lexan panels on the sides so you could see the lights of the batteries were all working. It also gave a really cool ‘sci-fi’ visual to the whole thing. It looked like a spaceship. The vertical orientation came from something we always talked about when we were SCUBA diving. Generally, divers are taught to equalize their ears as they go down, slowly, carefully and cautiously. When you dive with the James boys, if you’re going down 50 feet, you want to get to that depth as quickly as possible so you have more time at the bottom. It’s a theory that perpetuated itself, I believe, into the Deepsea Challenger design. But it makes sense. The Mir subs took two and a half hours to get down to the Titanic, at 12,500 feet. That gave us six hours bottom time, and then it took two and a half hours to get back up. The Challenger rocketed to the bottom, three times deeper than Titanic, in two and a half hours, and returned in 90 minutes — that’s three or four times as fast. The expedition journalist, Dr. Joe MacInnis, described it as ‘a gravity rocket.’

How did you fit cameras in the sub?

Cameron pilots the 'Deepsea Challenger'

Cameron emerges from a successful dive.

The pilot rode inside a 48-inch diameter sphere. It was very tight quarters. Jim and the submersible co-designer and pilot Ron Allum each dove in the sub. They had a test sphere they used to try to fit everything inside the vehicle — life support systems, recording drives, instrumentation. There was a 5K RED Epic camera mounted inside the view port. Jim had a monitor to view that image, and when he wanted to look out, he could move that camera out of the way. There was a small 3D camera mounted in a fixed position in front of him in the sub, and that camera documented his every word on the dive.

On the exterior of the sub, there were two specially built cameras designed by Jim’s engineers to withstand full ocean depth. One was mounted to the end of a six-foot boom arm, which he could pan and tilt in any direction. And the other was mounted on the manipulator arm, and was set up for macro imaging of animals and rocks.

There was also a robotic submersible ‘Lander’ following the dive. Did you use that for additional photography?

The Lander

The Lander scientific platform. Photo: John Bruno.

Our science department ran two robotic Landers. Marine engineer Kevin Hardy, formerly of the Scripps Research Institute, built those. One Lander had a 3D HD camera.

Also, on the Mermaid Sapphire, we had a very large, very yellow ROV called the Quasar, which we fitted with our own deep-ocean 3D camera and lights. On the 4,000-foot dive, Quasar got some great shots of the sub moving and working on the bottom. The Quasar was also there as a potential rescue vehicle. The plan was, if there was a malfunction on Jim’s sub and he was within its reach, Donny Cameron (no relation) who operated the Quasar, could attempt to grab the Deepsea Challenger and pull Jim back to the surface. That ROV turned out to be a much better camera platform than we imagined.

Jim’s inspiration for this expedition, as depicted in the movie, began in 1960 with the submariners Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard on the bathyscape Trieste, which made the first descent into the Mariana Trench. How did you bring that to life in the documentary?

In the script, Jim referenced the fact that he was influenced by that dive when he was a young boy. It’s what got him interested in deep-sea exploration. In fact, he brought Don Walsh on board as an advisor, and suggested it would be nice to juxtapose the Deepsea Challenger dive with the dive of the Trieste.

Russian submariner Anatoly Sagalevitch, John Bruno and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh with reference model of the Walsh's 1960 sub 'Trieste'

Russian submariner Anatoly Sagalevitch, John Bruno and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh with reference model of the Walsh’s 1960 bathyscape ‘Trieste’. Photo: Jules O’Loughlin.

After the main shoot, when I got back to Melbourne, I located period footage of the Trieste dive on-line. It was newsreel footage and filmed interviews done in 1960. They were black and white and not very high quality. Rolex was kind enough to ship us a museum display model of the Trieste submersible to study, and Don Walsh referred us to the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington D.C., where the Trieste is on permanent display. I initially thought we could film our re-enactors in the actual sub, but our research showed us that the sub had been modified since 1960, it was quite cramped inside, and it had also been painted a completely different color.

We decided if we were going to do this we’d have to build set pieces to re-tell portions of the Trieste story. I scripted and storyboarded the sequence; Ray Quint then took over in postproduction and directed and edited those scenes. To create exterior underwater shots of the 1960 dive, the Trieste descending into the abyss and returning, Iloura, a Melbourne visual effects house, built a stunning 3D replica of the Trieste as it appeared in 1960. They created some beautiful shots of the Trieste as it descended to the bottom, and then landed and returned.

There were some other interesting reenactments of Jim as a boy sitting in a cardboard box submarine. How accurate were they?

Cameron greets Don Walsh on the deck of the 'Mermaid Sapphire'

Cameron greets Don Walsh on the deck of the ‘Mermaid Sapphire’. Photo: John Bruno.

Again, that came from Jim’s script and comments he made when I interviewed him. When I discussed opening the film with that story, Jim was initially a little embarrassed about including those scenes. But, to me, the story was about what inspired Jim to want to become an explorer, what drove him to get to this point, and I felt this would help show Jim’s motivation. Jim said that would have to be my decision; so we did it.

Charlie Arneson, our expedition logistics supervisor, contacted Jim’s family, and they provided us with pictures as reference. In Melbourne, producer Brett Popplewell and Ray Quint cast a young boy that looked remarkably like Jim did back in the day, and they found some clothes that matched what Jim was wearing in the photos. Ray directed those scenes, and they turned out to be a nice way to open and close the movie.

The film also enumerates the harsh realities of Jim’s dive, especially the many terrible ways to die in the event of a malfunction at great depth. How did you broach the issue with Jim and his wife, Suzy Amis, about what you would do if things went wrong?

The 'Quasar' camera platform

The ‘Quasar’ camera platform. Photo: John Bruno.

It was tricky; especially after the tragedy of losing Andrew and Mike on Day One of the expedition. But on the way to the airport I was with Jim and Suzy and I had to ask that question, ‘Have you guys ever discussed something happening?’ Jim looked at me and said, ‘No.’ I looked at Suzy and said, ‘Seriously? You guys have never discussed it?’ Suzy told me, ‘No, it has never come up. I trust him. He’s a really smart guy. He showed me all the safety systems and how the backup systems work. Nothing’s going to happen. He knows what he’s doing.’ Suzy was a really strong woman. I couldn’t crack her. I could see why they were together.

Out on the ship, I asked Jim again, this time on camera, ‘People look up to you. You’re financially secure, successful, you made two of the highest-grossing films of all time; you’re married to a beautiful woman, and have five kids. Why are you doing this?’

He replied, ‘I wanted to set an example for my children.’ That’s when I realized the underlying theme of this movie. It’s about character and moral courage. It’s about setting examples. That’s what Jim was trying to pass on to his kids. And so I told him, no matter what happened, I was going to accurately document this dive, even if it turned out to be a forensic document of what went wrong. Luckily, that turned out not to be the case.

The 'Deepsea Challenger' crew celebrates the record-breaking dive

The ‘Deepsea Challenger’ crew celebrates Cameron’s record-breaking dive. Photo: John Bruno.

It’s a fascinating journey, and I won’t spoil Jim’s final summation, but I did find it quite moving where he reflected on what inspired him — was that a theme that he always had in mind, or did that slowly evolve as you discovered the film?

Jim is always talking about inspiring kids – his own, and the next generation of explorers. His wife Suzy has this wonderful progressive ‘green’ school, the MUSE School, which she co-founded with her sister, and Jim talks there often, giving inspiration to children. We need scientists now. Kids now want to make a million dollars in one day on the Internet; but Jim is interested in inspiring a sense of adventure. Get up, get outside, go somewhere, do something magnificent and adventurous. Explore.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D opens in select theatres August 8.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D © 2014 Deepsea Challenge, National Geographic, photography by Mark Thiessen. All rights reserved. All other imagery © John Bruno, unless otherwise credited. Thanks to John Bruno, James Cameron, Richard Edlund, Graham Edwards.

Giger Flashback

Seeing the news, last Tuesday morning, that H.R. Giger died triggered a flashback.

Back in 1995, I was coordinator for a creature effects studio in a nondescript corner of Sun Valley, when the phone rang. A whispering voice, reminiscent of Peter Lorre, asked to speak with my boss, Steve Johnson. “Who may I ask is calling?” I asked. “It is Gee-ger from Switzerland,” the voice replied.

H.R. Giger self-portrait, 1954 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH

H.R. Giger self-portrait, 1954 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

Steve was in the back of the studio, working with the artists at XFX, Inc., his creature effects studio. We had quite a few projects on the boil, including one of our biggest, an assignment for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Roger Donaldson directing, with visual effects supervised by Richard Edlund – my boss’s former boss from his days running the creature effects shop at Boss Film.

Up until recently, we’d been providing creatures and makeup effects for TV, commercials and some schlocky features. Species was not exactly high-brow – it was about a sex-crazed monster, hatched from alien DNA, who transforms into the gorgeous 19-year-old Natasha Henstridge – but it had a big-time cast of Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger, and it was to be a huge summertime theatrical release.

H.R. Giger in Hollywood, April 1980 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH

H.R. Giger in Hollywood, April 1980 © Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

More to the point, the producers had scored a major coup by securing Hans Reudi Giger – the Swiss surrealist who had won an Oscar for his design and execution of the ‘big chap’ and other alien forms in Ridley Scott’s Alien — to design the creature, and every artist in the studio reacted when they heard my announcement over the speaker system in the workshop: “Steve Johnson, H.R. Giger is calling from Switzerland on Line One.” A huge chorus of ‘Oooh’ rose up from the crew. Steve scurried to his office with a look of nervous concentration, and closed the door. Probably 45 minutes later, the door opened, emitting clouds of cigarette smoke and Steve reemerged looking drawn and shell-shocked.

This was not Steve’s first time working with Giger. More than ten years previously, M-G-M had commissioned Hans Reudi to provide designs for the Great Beast in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which Steve oversaw at Boss Film. It has been widely reported this was not a happy experience for anyone. The sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 haunted house thrill ride, Poltergeist, had capitalized on Giger’s name but, unlike Alien, logistics prevented Giger’s hands-on involvement and, when the film appeared, Giger was very critical of the results. It was a similar story on the Alien sequels. Giger had not been invited to participate in Aliens, where director James Cameron and creature effects designer Stan Winston created their own creatures, crediting Giger with the original alien design. But on Alien³, Giger had provided designs for director David Fincher and the creature effects crew at Amalgamated Dynamics, and the experience turned sour. Giger blasted the film.

H.R. Giger and Steve Johnson, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

H.R. Giger and Steve Johnson, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Since Poltergeist II, Giger’s only film involvement had been a German horror comedy, Killer Condom, about a prophylactic with teeth. Species was a return to the big time, and Giger threw himself into the project with passion. Almost daily, he’d call and share his art with us. Pre-Internet, all communication was via phone and fax, so I fed Giger’s notes to Steve while coordinating studio traffic. Species required a large crew, with makeup effects of alien transformations of Sil, the predatory alien who grew from embryonic form into makeup effects on a preteen Michelle Williams. And then, there was the adult Sil, a translucent animatronic succubus with serpentine dreadlocks and explosive breast tentacles. We also made her chrysalis, foam latex stunt suits, and gory eviscerations for Sil’s victims. With all of that going on, it was up to me to field Giger’s calls. “Take a message, can’t you?” Steve would say. “I’m in a meeting.”

H.R. Giger and Steve Johnson, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Steve Johnson and H.R. Giger, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Reams of material poured in from Switzerland, page after page of Giger’s da-Vinci-esque sketches with annotations in German and English. Soaking up all that bizarre imagery gave me vivid and disturbing nightmares. And the phone calls kept coming: “I’m sorry, Mr. Giger, Steve is in a meeting.” “Oh, he is always in a meeting!” “I know; can I take a message…?” Local time in Zurich was nine hours ahead of Los Angeles, but Hans Reudi was a night owl. Rumor had it he never left his house in daylight. Giger told me he adjusted his sleep pattern to work with us, to be free of distractions, living in his imagination. As we became acquainted, he started to ask my opinion. “Well, I don’t know, Mr. Giger,” I’d say, “I’ll convey all this to Steve.” I transcribed his ideas into memos, and to my amazement, if I made a comment, the fax machine would buzz again and whatever I had said to him emerged in further illustrations.

XFX artists Dan Rebert and Joel Harlow with H.R. Giger, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

XFX artists Dan Rebert and Joel Harlow with H.R. Giger, Sun Valley, 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

At the end of the project, Steve commissioned a special display of Sil, full torso, her back arched, her mouth open as she received one of her breast tentacles into her own throat. With Steve art directing, a photographer fogged up the studio and backlit the puppet with pinkish light. Giger adored it. He called it ‘Rose Sil’ and put it on the front cover of his Species Design book released as a movie tie-in by Morpheus International. To thank us for our work, Giger sent a giant box filled with bars of Swiss chocolate for all the crew. Included in the box were copies of Taschen’s Giger biography, and I got a copy with my name misspelled but personally inscribed in silver ink.

Creature performer Vincent Hammond inside the work-in-progress Patrick Monster, with coordinator Joe Fordham at XFX 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman.

Creature performer Vincent Hammond inside the work-in-progress Patrick Monster, with coordinator Joe Fordham at XFX 1997. Photo © Matt Ullman. Inset: conceptual art © H.R. Giger.

Fast-forward to Father’s Day, three years later. It was a Sunday but Steve had given his crew the option of coming in to meet Giger, who M-G-M had flown in to see what we’d been building on Species II. The lovely Natasha Henstridge returned, this time directed by Peter Medak. Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger were once more chasing aliens, which this time included a horny astronaut named Patrick (Justin Lazard) who became infected with alien DNA and subsequently transformed into a huge, tentacle-sprouting quadruped. Giger’s renderings of the Patrick Monster resembled a giant, squatting Sphinx, with elongated limbs. We built a puppet suspended on an overhead pulley system with creature performer Vincent Hammond inside. Giger viewed the creations with his partner and entourage, but what we were trying to do was impossible. The elegance of the designs did not translate to a giant puppet, which looked ungainly, and Giger left unhappy.

16 years later, my ex-XFX boss reflected on the experience of his three films with Hans Reudi. “All Giger wanted to do with us on Species is he wanted to be heard,” Steve Johnson recalled. “That’s it. Because nobody would listen to him unless he sculpted, painted, or created his own art with mannequins and bones. When we came into the picture, I wanted to at least try to trick him into thinking I was listening to him. After a while, I wouldn’t take his calls, because he drove me nuts, but I would take his midnight calls. And that’s all he ever wanted. He just wanted to be heard. That is all an artist wants. If you are a writer, you want your words to be heard. If you are a painter, you want your brush strokes to be seen. We tried our best on Species. I think we somewhat succeeded. In Species II we somewhat failed.”

ALIEN interpreted by Mad Magazine, art by Mort Drucker. Published by E.C. Publications © March 1980.

ALIEN interpreted by Mad Magazine, March 1980, art by Mort Drucker © E.C. Publications.

In the last decades of his life, Giger distanced himself from Hollywood, although versions of his creatures continued to appear in further sequels, spin-offs and Pepsi commercials. During production of Prometheus, rumors emerged that Giger was back working with Ridley Scott on the Alien origin story. Fox would not confirm this, and so it remained undocumented in the Cinefex story, but pictures eventually appeared of Scott and Giger seated at a table sifting through designs. It was heartening to see that Scott still valued Giger’s input, often referring to Hans Reudi as providing the DNA for the imagery of his film.

Perhaps it was this very personal imprint that infused Giger’s art as such a potent force on the few people that he trusted as collaborators. “Lots of people have died around me recently,” Steve Johnson confessed. “My mother died. My uncle died. I understand it’s all part of the Lion King Circle of Life. But when Giger died, it bugged the shit out of me. I am still not sure why. I made a complete fool of myself on social media, online, because it crept up to me in a strange way that I never would have expected. I guess it took me back to when Alien came out, I sat in that movie theatre on a sultry summer afternoon, and I saw something that I could never, ever imagine on my own. It took me to another country.”

Top: Carlo Rambaldi, Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 1978. Bottom: Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 2012. Images © 20th Century Fox.

Top: Carlo Rambaldi, Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 1978. Bottom: Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger, 2012. Images © 20th Century Fox.

In Alien, Scott instinctively understood that the allure of Giger’s art was that the images appeared to have formed out of the subconscious. He wreathed Giger’s creations in smoke, splashed them with sweat and flashed them with strobe lights. They were grotesque, but had an elegance and beauty that tapped into a fear of the unknown and a fascination with strange mechanisms of the human body. Giger was a consummate artist, a strongly principled man, and a true surrealist, but he was always sweet to me and, despite his many imitators, there will never be another like him.

Inscription by H.R. Giger, 1997.

Inscription by H.R. Giger, 1997.

Special thanks to Steve Johnson, and to Matt Ullman for XFX archival photographs. Other imagery as credited © Taschen, E.C. Publications, 20th Century Fox.

Film Renaissance

Cartoon copyright © John Van Vliet

Fujifilm was the first to go, in Spring 2013, when it announced the discontinuation of its motion picture film products.

A few months later, sensation-seeking headlines announced the Eastman Kodak Company would cease production of cellulose acetate film – the clear base upon which light-sensitive emulsions reside. Kodak was quick to clarify:

“Kodak has not stopped the manufacture of its finished goods in the 65mm, 35mm, 16mm and S8 motion picture film formats. Film remains an important creative choice for filmmakers, and the company continues to produce billions of feet of motion picture film every year….”

I grew up with film, I love 70mm, adore IMAX 15-perf, but I try to keep an open mind when it comes to how movies are made.

'Prisoners' / Roger Deakins / Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Prisoners’ / Roger Deakins / Warner Bros. Pictures

Recent productions such as Skyfall, Prisoners and Her have been stunning examples of skilled cinematographers (Roger Deakins and Hoyte van Hoytema) wielding artist-friendly digital image cameras, such as the Arri Alexa. For filmmakers Peter Jackson, James Cameron and David Fincher, the RED camera system — a loaf-of-bread-sized Lego brick of tech – has offered depth-of-field, high-frame-rates and stereographic options unfeasible on film. And then there are Hugo, Life of Pi and Gravity, Oscar-winners for cinematographers Robert Richardson, Claudio Miranda and Emmanuel Lubezki, whose digital imagery was fused at a genetic level with visual effects. I’ve been moved and awed by all of the above, regardless of their format.

'Her' / Hoyte van Hoytema / Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Her’ / Hoyte van Hoytema / Warner Bros. Pictures

Film still has its place. Fine-grain motion picture film is, from most accounts, still unbeatable for fidelity and longevity in archival purposes. But more frequently, the word ‘filming’ is misapplied, used generically like ‘Kleenex’ by folks who wave their cel phone cameras around when little Billy takes his first steps, or by doofuses at rock concert venues.

I try to pick my words more carefully at Cinefex, so I made sure to address the topic of format while covering The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I was intrigued to hear chose to shoot on film. As visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen explained:

A: I hadn’t done a movie on film for quite a few years.

Q: May I ask why did director Marc Webb choose to shoot on film this time? On the last Spidey film he didn’t, and I remember you mentioned it was quite a learning curve for you, back then, coming to grips with the very wide dynamic range of the RED cameras, particularly in the nighttime photography.

A: Well one of the main reasons is Dan Mindel, the cinematographer; he loves film, and Marc loves film. We all talked about it and we felt like, who knows, maybe this will be the last time we get to make a movie on film? Because back then, when we were starting preproduction, everything was going digital. We now appear to be in what we hope is a renaissance. Star Wars is shooting on film — and again a lot of that is probably coming from Dan, who is also shooting Star Wars now for J.J. Abrams on anamorphic 35mm and 65mm IMAX. Dan really is a great collaborator.

Have other moviemakers, or slap-happy media journalists given film a premature burial? Is photochemical filmmaking an anachronism? Or is there a beauty to this century-old technology that digital imaging will never capture?

Cartoon copyright © John Van Vliet, used with permission. ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Her’ copyright © Warner Bros. Pictures. Thanks to John, Jerome Chen, Daniel Mindel and to Judy Doherty at Panavision.

Joel Harlow’s Cthulhu

Makeup effects designer Joel Harlow — who won an Academy Award for best achievement in makeup for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, and was nominated for his work on Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger — has a thing about tentacles.

Harlow dabbled in his psychosis creating barnacled encrustations for makeup effects in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but his obsession goes much deeper, back to his childhood; back to a time when the Great Old Ones ruled the planet in an era chronicled in the journals of the great American writer of gothic fantasy, Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

HarlowCthulhu“Ever since I can remember,” Harlow recalled, “I have been a fan of the work of H.P. Lovecraft. I remember taking walks with my father while on vacations in Denver, Colorado. We would head down Colfax, hitting all the used bookstores along the way. I would sift through piles of old and worn paperbacks looking for anything by Lovecraft, and anything dealing with the Cthulhu Mythos. Authors like August Derleth, Brian Lumley, Frank Belknap Long and others soon wound up in my modest collection.”

Lovecraft’s creations have inspired writers, artists and filmmakers including Stephen King, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, H.R. Giger, Guillermo Del Toro, Clive Barker and John Carpenter. Add to that Joel Harlow’s most recent personal sculpting project, depicting Lovecraft’s most famous creation: a giant beast, awakened from the South Pacific sunken city of R’lyeh, known as the Cthulhu. As described in Lovecraft’s 1928 short story, The Call of the Cthulhu, the creature was ‘a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.’

HarlowCthulhu2“I was captivated by the idea that there could be these beings whose appearance could compromise ones sanity by simply seeing them,” Harlow elaborated. “I think that was the foundation of this piece.  I have sculpted other Lovecraftian inspired pieces (some specifically Cthulhu) in the past, but I don’t think I had achieved that idea of a shifting, shambling, formless chaos before.

“I’m not saying that this piece is it, but in trying to photograph it, I realized that there is no real way to take it all in with one shot…. it’s as close as I have come thus far, I think. It stands roughly 20-inches tall and is cast in resin and assembled from roughly 40 pieces (mostly the tentacles), painted in washes of oil color and airbrushed tattoo color.”

Thanks, Joel, for indulging us in your nightmares. As Lovecraft noted, ‘The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.’

Visit Joel’s Cthulhu gallery here.

Cthulhu artwork courtesy and copyright © Joel Harlow.

Jimmy T. Murakami

Sad news this morning. A giant of the animation industry, Jimmy Teruaki Murakami — director of When Wind the Wind Blows, and co-director of The Snowman — has died in Dublin, Ireland.

Painting by Jimmy T. Murakami.

Jimmy was born in San José, California, June 5, 1933. As a boy, he was interned with his family at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center during World War Two. He studied fine arts at the Chouinard Art Institute (forerunner to CalArts) where his classmates included animator Chuck Jones. Jimmy first worked for United Productions of America, in Burbank, on Mr. McGoo and McBoing Boing, he then went on to work as an animator in New York, Japan and London, where he joined animator Richard Williams to work on commercials at George Dunning’s TV Cartoons.

During this time, Jimmy won a BAFTA Award in 1961 for his short film, The Insects, and then returned to California to set up his own animation studio, Murakami Wolf, with animator Fred Wolf, producing commercials and more animated shorts.

With Richard Thomas on the set of “Battle Beyond the Stars”.

By the early ‘70s, Jimmy expanded his horizons and moved to Ireland to work for producer Roger Corman as associate producer and second unit aerial director on a World War One aviator drama, Von Richthofen and Brown. This led to his role directing Corman’s 1980 science fiction epic, Battle Beyond the Stars where he befriended a young art director named James Cameron.

Murakami continued to work in Europe, setting up his own studio in Dublin, and directing animation, which led him back to London, where he rejoined TVC, with producer John Coates and co-director Dianne Jackson, to adapt Raymond Briggs’ illustrated children’s book, The Snowman, creating what has become a perennial TV special.

In the mid-80s Jimmy returned to direct a feature film based on Briggs’ much darker graphic novel When the Wind Blows, which used a combination of hand-drawn cel animation and miniatures rephotographed on a rostrum.

Making "When the Wind Blows"

Making “When the Wind Blows”.

I met Jimmy at TVC, during When the Wind Blows, where I was installed in the basement as assistant film editor for a year and a half. It was fascinating to watch him work with animators as I ran footage back and forth on the Steenbeck. Jimmy was barrel-chested and robust, always smiling, and keen to invite passersby to punch him in the stomach to test his muscles. He was a ladies’ man and a bon viveur, full of life, but he was also sensitive, warm and thoughtful, and he had an immense love of film. Those qualities made a big impression on me, particularly his knowledge of acting and camera blocking, which he drew from the greats, including Akira Kurosawa.

Animator Malcolm Draper, Jimmy and producer John Coates, 1989. Photo by Mark Edwards.

Animator Malcolm Draper, Jimmy and producer John Coates, 1989. Photo by Mark Edwards.

As an example of Jimmy’s generosity of spirit, he mentored a good friend of mine, who went on to become a very talented animator and director, with a studio of his own in London. “I met Jimmy in Dublin at art college,” Paul Donnellon recalled. “He was visiting lecturer and I then ended up working as an intern in his crazy Quatero Studio in Dublin. He gave me my first job in London on When the Wind Blows and I met great friends from that time. Jimmy always encouraged me to do my own thing. Without him I would not have come to london and I would not have my own studio. About seven years ago, I flew in a helicopter from London to Cornwall with Jimmy to meet Kate Bush for a video he was making for her last album, so that is a great memory. Thanks, Jimmy. I will miss you.”

A still from “Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien” a documentary directed by Sé Merry Doyle for Loophole Films (2010).

Here’s a link to Jimmy’s website, reviewing his 50-year career, and a selection of his paintings: http://www.jimmytmurakami.com

Timing

It is not always possible to produce a lengthy, detailed Cinefex story to coincide with the release of every complicated effects film.

Some readers have taken us to task, on our Facebook page, for the timing of our editorial selections. After all, you got your Titanic issue before that movie came out, and you had Avatar to read when you got back from the theatre, right? What’s the deal with Hobbit?

Filmmaker cooperation with Weta Digital production staff, 2003

Filmmaker cooperation with Weta Digital production staff, 2004

Firstly, production of a Cinefex story relies on filmmaker cooperation. We cover the whole film, no compromises. Titanic and Avatar appeared on their release dates because Don has a unique relationship with James Cameron. Jim didn’t even mind Don ‘spoiling’ the ending of Titanic because everybody knew the ship sank. Peter Jackson, too, has been very kind to us. Ten years ago, we pulled off a coup with Peter’s King Kong and The Lord of the Rings films. But back then we had the budget to visit Wellington in person, and the filmmakers were able to spend time with us a few months before they completed their movies.

Wellington, New Zealand, 2003

Fedex from New Zealand, 2004

On The Fellowship of the Ring, Don Shay flew out to gather interviews in New Zealand, and then we all chipped in — Jody doing the writing, me doing interviews with LA-based vendors. I was solo Ringbearer for Peter’s next three films. That was a fantastic experience, particularly on The Return of the King when after a week of interviews I went on a ten-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island — for safety’s sake, I Fedexed my tapes back to Don before leaving on my hike, just in case I fell into a volcano. That allowed us, with a degree of educated guesswork, to deliver stories for those films bang on their December theatrical releases.

At Weta Digital, 2003

At Weta Digital, 2004

It was still a white-knuckle ride. Many times, I was writing blind, based on work-in-progress, which in some cases was only gray-shaded previz or pipe-dreams based on what Peter imagined might appear in the film. I had Tolkien’s books to guide me, but I vividly recall as the lights came up after my first viewing of The Two Towers I had to point out to Don that I had messed up the ending of the battle at Helm’s Deep. That page of my story had not yet been printed, so Don allowed me to rewrite one paragraph, rearranging letters like a word puzzle so he could break the type and re-set that page, at some cost, to make that portion of my story align with Peter’s film. Ironically, Peter later recut the scene for his extended edition, restoring it to how he and Tolkien originally described it: with ents attacking Uruk-hai after Saruman’s army flees Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan.

Wellington 2005

Return to Wellington, 2005

I also made a huge leap of faith while writing about Peter’s Kong. When I did my interviews for that film, three months before the movie’s completion, neither the filmmakers nor I were sure if the Central Park ice skating scene in was going to be in the movie. The miniature effects crew told me about how they built the beautiful 1/10-scale frozen lake environment, and I had to go back and re-interview the animation team to ask them about that because — I think — no one was sure how that scene would play, where the hunt for Kong through New York City essentially pauses to allow for a last moment of happiness between Ann Darrow and the ape. The scene drew some flak from critics, but I thought it was an inspired moment that beautifully set up the final tragedy, so I was very gratified to have gone the extra yard to include detail on that scene.

So it’s a high-wire act, and it’s not something we take lightly, choosing what goes into which issue of the magazine. Not only could we, potentially, sell more magazines by having a chronologically hot movie on the cover; the studios always prefer us to have ‘day and date’ delivery, hitting their release dates. It is a big feather in their caps for any publicist to get a massive 32-page cover story on their baby. But we have to pick our battles, and I am sure Don and Jody will not mind me saying our first installment on The Hobbit was a tough one, both for fact-gathering and imagery.

Misty Mountains 2003

Misty Mountains, 2004

If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s recent video production diaries for the second Hobbit film, you will know the filmmakers are currently working flat-out to complete their movie by the end of November. If we had been covering their film in our December issue, our story would have been written a month ago, and all images would have to be going to press right now.

This year, we decided we had a wealth of riches to choose from in our December issue – and, I must say, I am very proud and gratified to have been able to go into detail covering Gravity. We hope that by giving Peter and his team time to complete their second Hobbit film, our story on The Desolation of Smaug in March will be deeper and more accurate, with better images than we could ever have obtained for December. So be patient, gentle readers, you’re getting that one in the Spring.

Good things are worth waiting for.

Ringbearer 2003

Cinefex Ringbearer, 2004

Rick Baker’s ‘Steampunkenstein’

For anyone who loves monsters, Halloween is like Christmas – especially if you work in the makeup effects industry.

Many artists work year-round dreaming up new creations and working in the privacy of their home studios to design their own fantastic creations to spring on their colleagues as Halloween parties roll around the end of October each year.

Silvia and Rick Baker as Steampunk Bride and Monster

Silvia and Rick Baker as Steampunk Bride and Monster

2013 has already seen some great ones, especially at Cinovation Studios in Glendale, California, where makeup effects maestro Rick Baker recently transformed his studio into a gothic horror graveyard, in partnership with MAC Cosmetics, with whom he has recently launched a horror-themed makeup line in three flavors – entitled ‘Bride,’ ‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Zombie.’

It was a wild evening, full of bizarre and glorious creatures by many of the industry’s finest. Star of the party was Rick’s own creation – a his and hers ensemble for himself and his wife, Silvia, entitled ‘Steampunkenstein.’ Rick shared a few images of his work with us, and answered a little Q&A for Cinefex Facebook fans.

What a wonderful makeup, Rick! Can you tell us what was your inspiration for this odd-looking creature?

My inspiration was my wife – she wanted to be a ‘steampunk Bride of Frankenstein,’ so I had to make something to go with that.

We’ve seen a lot of your beautiful digital renderings and 3D conceptual work online in recent years. Did you do concepts for this piece in ZBrush, or did you sculpt straight into clay?

Steampunkenstein2I started, stupidly, in clay and did not do a ZBrush rendering. I didn’t want to be tired of the design by doing a ZB first, but making major design changes in Monster Clay, as I did many times, was time consuming and many times I would wipe out the previous day’s work.

Was there any ‘kit-bashing’ – fabricating practical model kits, or working real machine parts into the sculpture – in the machine-like parts?

Yes, I kit bashed. I found some gears in our machine shop and made a quick lab putty mold of them and pressed out clay ones. It was the same for some of the ornamental stuff.

A couple of mutual friends gave me some hints how you put the piece together. Your Wolfman collaborator David Elsey mentioned that his wife, Lou, helped a little in fabricating your costume, as well as doing the gorgeous Steampunk Bride makeup on Silvia, and makeups on the other MAC models at your party. How did you build your costume, especially that machine-like hand?

I started the costume with a huge leather coat that I bought ‘on sale’ as it wasSteampunkenstein3 defective. I made it fit me by adding grommets and such and just started building from there. The hand was an old Greystoke mechanism, which we called ‘mechanical extended finger gloves.’ I painted and added bits to it.

I know Robert ‘Freight Train’ Freitas molded the piece for you; and he told me it was a ‘glue-less’ makeup. That seems amazing to me, for such an intricate-looking piece. What did Rob mean by that? Did you self-apply the whole thing?

Having been in the situation before where I make up my family first I didn’t want to have to rush through my make up as I have done many Halloweens before, therefore I decided by making a mask I could spend time painting and finishing it before the day. So, I made it as a slip latex mask as I knew I had about seven hours of make up to do on other people, my daughters, that day. The chin is cut out of the mask and my beard sticks out. I designed sculpted cast and painted the mask – but, yes, Rob Freitas made the mold, which was a difficult one to do. After I finished the sculpture and started thinking about molding it, I got scared to do it myself. I thought that I needed an expert like Rob. He made a fantastic mold.

Congratulations, Rick, and thanks again for sharing. It was a beautiful piece, and you and Silvia made the perfect couple. Happy Halloween!

Rick Baker's sculpture, almost finished.

Rick Baker’s Steampunkenstein – the sculpture, almost finished. Image courtesy Rick Baker.

Cinefex Review: Europa Report

It’s a tricky business choosing stories to cover in Cinefex magazine.

Studios prefer our editorial to coincide with the releases of their movies, some of which are very far from finished when we start hounding the filmmakers. And it can be a high-wire act to predict what films are worth covering. Sometimes we strike out, covering real stinkers. Occasionally, we’ll delay coverage if we figure it will be worth the wait. Once in a while, we have to let some gems pass us by.

What follows is a little taste of a movie that didn’t make it into the magazine, a peek behind the scenes into our review process, featuring a rather cool little film as I presented it to Don Shay and the team. As our readers will know, we don’t review movies, we write about how they are made; but this is my report, so to speak, on Europa Report.

(I’ll spare you my intro, where I described my unsuccessful attempts to hook up my TV to a streaming video link; I only mention that here to set the scene…)

In spite of iTunes, Europa Report was a fine movie. It was intelligent and gripping, beautifully shot, claustrophobic, but clever and effective in its use of documentary-style cameras and editorial structure. The filmmakers never placed random cameras in improbable places to conveniently capture the action. They set up the rules and stuck toeuropa2 them, so you get the hang of the technique without it being distracting or annoying. The whole gag of ‘found footage’ – if it works  is to use the first person camera perspective to make the audience imagine more than they’re seeing. That worked pretty well, and it was a good fit to the story.

The story was quite simple. Six astronauts on an international, independently financed mission fly to Europa, the ice-caked moon of Jupiter, seeking life believed to exist under the frozen surface. Bad things happen to them. This is the story of what happens, as pieced together by mission control.

europa1The filmmakers allow us time to get to know their characters  Embeth Davitz, from Schindler’s List, is impressive as the tough spaceship pilot; Sharlto Copley from District 9 and Elysium plays a biological scientist, and provides a welcome touch of humor; Michael Nyqvist from the original Dragon Tattoo is an effectively sinister senior scientist on the edge of a nervous breakdown  so by the time the chips start falling, you feel for them. It gets quite heartbreaking at one point.

Visual effects are very naturalistic. The film plays with real science, and the credits include a long list of real space science imagery resources. Jupiter and Europa look like the real thing, and the shots of the spacecraft are flawless. For instance, there are no God’s eye views of the ship in space; it is always seen from cameras mounted on the europa4ship, or from astronaut’s on-board cameras, with the extreme depth of field and stark contrasts of real in-flight space photography. Space is mostly black (at least, on my laptop). And they use sounds in a Kubrickian way, from the astronauts’ perspectives, which is very dramatic.

On board the ship, the living quarters spin, thus creating an area where the space travelers (and audience) can orient themselves. But the cockpit and work areas are zero-g, where people bounce around very convincingly. It’s not as showy as Apollo 13, but I guess they could not afford the Vomit Comet, and it’s intelligently done.

Once we get to Europa, the ‘less is more’ approach applies again. We rarely see the surface except through portholes, exterior probes and astronaut cameras. As the threat builds to a slow reveal of what they find down there, it’s convincing, and quite scary, but europa3I felt the interest is maintained by focusing on how the characters react and interact, and their psychological breakdown. This is not a monster movie, although there is a monster in it. And (spoiler) we do get to see it.

The tension and the drama, and the technical execution, were all well done; although I have to say was hoping that it might amount to just a little more. It was not as satisfying as Moon, which I am sure this film will be compared to  like Duncan Jones’ film, this is a refreshing dose of adult science fiction, done apparently on a shoestring. But it is a good and solid bit of filmmaking, and it most certainly overcame the shortcomings of its online presentation.

My recommendation: An intriguing genre piece, and well worth a look. The visual effects, while well executed, are by design limited in scope. The real interest here, and what most impressed me, is the way the filmmakers knew how to use those effects.

Director: Sebastián Cordero. Writer: Philip Gelatt. Producer: Ben Browning. Production design: Eugenio Caballero. VFX supervisor: John Bair. Vendors: Phosphene – VFX supe John Bair; Method Studios – VFX supe Jim Rider; Look Effects – VFX supe Jeff Wozniak; Perception – VFX supe John LePore; Quadratic Optical – VFX supe Brendan Taylor; additional effects  Nat Jencks. Studio: Wayfare Entertainment. Distribution: iTunes / Magnet Releasing. Release date: (VOD) June 27 / (theatrical) August 2. Running time: 89 minutes.