The Illusionists — Paul Franklin

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Paul Franklin

CINEFEX — What was the first time you realized there was such a thing as visual effects?

PAUL FRANKLIN — I didn’t know it was called visual effects at the time, but I remember watching an edition of the BBC children’s television show Blue Peter in the early ‘70s. They had a guy called Mat Irvine on the show — he did a lot of the effects for Doctor Who at the time. He was talking about a little-remembered show called Moonbase 3. There was a shot of a lunar shuttle taking off, and they were showing how they created the dust cloud from the rockets with a little air blower.

CINEFEX — Just the sort of thing to capture the imagination of an impressionable lad.

PAUL FRANKLIN — Yeah, I was fascinated by this idea of creating a world in miniature that you could photograph, and it would appear to be real. At least, it looked real to me at the age of seven or eight. By the time I graduated from art school in ‘89, I’d read a lot of behind-the-scenes articles and so I knew quite a lot about the process. I’d also met some filmmakers by that point. But, because it was quite a niche industry, it felt like a bit of a closed shop, particularly for someone who grew up in rural Cheshire.

CINEFEX — If it felt like a closed shop, how did you open the doors?

PAUL FRANKLIN — The computer democratized it. I already owned a computer by the time I graduated at the age of 23 — a Commodore Amiga, I think — and my friends and I were making short films in our spare time. They weren’t fantasy or visual effects things, but there was a need for computer animations to help tell the story, and that was my way into visual effects. I was in the right place at the right time. That side of filmmaking took off like a rocket, and I hung on and rode the rocket up into the sky.

CINEFEX — What was your first experience working on a feature film?

PAUL FRANKLIN — Well, through the ‘90s, I worked as an animator in videogames for a couple of years, then moved down to London to join MPC as a computer animator, doing a lot of television idents and commercials. It was a great training ground, because the turnaround times are so quick in that business that you learn stuff really quickly. At the time, MPC was beginning to do its first feature film work, and so a group of us all worked together on that early Angelina Jolie film, Hackers. I mostly did graphic displays for the monitors — like this galaxy of numbers representing the worm program that the hackers uncover in the course of the story. For me, Hackers was very much the crossover — the last of the old analogue ways of doing things. We had hand-drawn effects animation and physical miniatures representing graphic items, and we were using digital animation and compositing as well.

CINEFEX — What scenes were the miniatures used in?

PAUL FRANKLIN — We used them to represent the internal guts of the computer. We built this amazing city of Perspex cubes and shot it with motion control over at Magic Camera Company in Shepperton. It’s the only time my digital elements have ever been composited optically. Peter Chiang was visual effects supervisor on that film — actually, that was the first time the core team of what became DNEG all worked together.

CINEFEX — You’ve used miniatures quite a bit through your career, not least on the films you’ve done with Christopher Nolan.

PAUL FRANKLIN — Absolutely, but let’s be clear: the decision to use miniatures in the Dark Knight movies, Inception and Interstellar came from Chris himself. He wanted a very specific aesthetic that fitted with his real-world approach to filmmaking. Some people would say you can tell when something is a miniature, but you can also tell it’s real. The snow fortress in Inception collapses in a chaotic fashion that would be very difficult to create as a simulation. Reality behaves in this unpredictable way. That’s why Chris had this real desire to use miniatures on those films — in fact, he was pretty insistent about it!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — John Gaeta

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Gaeta

CINEFEX — How did you first get into visual effects?

JOHN GAETA — I went to film school at New York University. As soon as I got out of film school I found myself in Greenwich Village in the center of the arts and culture community. I decided to throw my lot in with the folks who were doing experimental animation — mostly short-form music videos and such. Everyone revered what was happening in California — the work of Doug Trumbull and Industrial Light & Magic. Those were the shining cities that someday, maybe, you might find your way to.

CINEFEX — And so you found your way there?

JOHN GAETA — No, I got lucky. They came to me, when Doug Trumbull moved to the east coast. I started working for him and that was my way into visual effects. Computer graphics were becoming introduced during that time and, for me, Doug was the pivotal transition figure. I can’t be more appreciative, or feel any more lucky, to have worked with masters in both physical and digital across the years.

CINEFEX — You started out with Doug photographing miniatures, didn’t you?

JOHN GAETA — Yeah, but Doug was always the limit-pusher, so the model work became rather sophisticated with the invention of new systems of photography and motion control. After that, we entered into the era of trying to figure out how to integrate digital things with these miniatures.

CINEFEX — You’ve made a habit of allying yourself with visionaries. Doug Trumbull in the early years, later the Wachowskis, notably with The Matrix.

JOHN GAETA — The Wachowskis came into filmmaking after participating in other platforms as young people. They appreciated the potential trajectory of things like videogames, and imagined at some point there might be flawless simulations. They allowed us to experiment in particular techniques that had not really been established yet, almost with a deliberate naiveté. That was a fairly high-risk approach, but it was the key to unlocking methods that were in fact an early emulation of the subject the story was about.

CINEFEX — You mean that, in order to make The Matrix, the Wachowskis encouraged you to develop Matrix-like techniques?

JOHN GAETA — Absolutely. We were looking at image-based rendering, new forms of capture, really trying to sketch some of the methods that virtual reality would eventually deploy. The breakthroughs we made formed the foundations that a lot of our careers built on for decades after.

CINEFEX — You’re now involved with developing futuristic immersive experiences. Does that interest spring directly from your career in visual effects?

JOHN GAETA — Well, look at it this way. Since the beginning, visions of the future have been written about, painted, acted through theatre, shown through cinema. By telling these stories in film, we’ve basically been sketching out the future. That’s the role cinema has in shaping the next era. Everything you see being produced today can be threaded back to some inspirational moment from some story that’s been told. Ask any founder of a major Silicon Valley company, and they will cite inspiration they’ve gained from folk working in cinema and visual effects.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Mike Fink

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Mike Fink

CINEFEX — What sparked your interest in visual effects?

MIKE FINK — Well, I’m older than your average bear — I was born in 1944, in the waning days of World War II. As a child, I used to go with my neighborhood friends to the Saturday matinees at our local movie theater. Buck Rogers was one of my favorites. There were these corny miniature spaceships on wires with little sparklers poked in the back. Also, I was always drawing, or building little models of tanks and planes. I would arrange my models in the backyard behind our house, create little battle tableaux and take photographs of them with a twin lens Rolleiflex my father had found on the El in Chicago. I taught myself the basics of things like focus and depth of field by doing that.

CINEFEX — When did you break into the film business?

MIKE FINK — Oh, that wasn’t until close to my 34th birthday. First I went to business school, then spent some time as an army officer, then went to work managing pension funds and trusts for wealthy people in San Francisco. One day, I said to my first wife, “I’m going to leave my job and go to art school.” She thought it was a great idea, so the two of us went off on this adventure that wound up with me getting a Masters degree from the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.

CINEFEX — What did you do with your degree?

MIKE FINK — I became a starving artist! I found all my starving artist friends were picking up money working on movies — mostly building miniatures and doing little techy things. One of them, Stuart Ziff, got a job working at Industrial Light & Magic on the first Star Wars. Some time after, Stuart called me up to say he had a job for me. Next morning, six o’clock, I went to work on The China Syndrome. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It tapped into my desire to do creative things, and I also had some technical skills. Also, it was collaborative. I would get to work at six in the morning and leave around midnight. Every day, seven days a week, right through Christmas and the holidays, from the first day I was hired.

CINEFEX — What did the work involve?

MIKE FINK — We built a computer to simulate a nuclear reactor control room. When the actors would flip a switch, a sequence of events would play out. Richard Hollander did the lion’s share of the programming and I mostly dealt with the hardware, installing interface boxes into the sets and making it look good. It wasn’t really a visual effects job. It wasn’t even a special effects job, because special effects guys didn’t do computer things back then.

CINEFEX — What did you do when that project came to an end?

MIKE FINK — I finished after five months with a pocketful of money, went back to my art studio and was horribly lonely. I missed that collaborative way of working, so I got a job at Universal’s Hartland visual effects facility, working on television shows, delivering 50-60 shots a week, which at that time was unheard of. That’s where I got into optical compositing. I knew very little about it, but I had used composites in my photographs, so I understood matte strategies, layers, rotoscoping, things like that. I helped develop new ways to shoot bluescreen for miniatures so they could be composited more efficiently.

CINEFEX — Was it after Hartland that you worked with Doug Trumbull on Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

MIKE FINK — Yeah. That was 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for seven months. The only saving grace was that I lived three blocks from the place I worked — close enough to walk home. Working with Trumbull was unbelievable, the experience of a lifetime. There was me, Hoyt Yeatman, Scott Squires, Scott Farrar, Mark Stetson, Bob Spurlock … we called ourselves the ‘gizmo crew.’ We just invented things. That was our job: inventing new ways to get shots done because really we had no time to do anything. What could we do that was faster and better and still looked good?

CINEFEX — After that, you went to work on Blade Runner?

MIKE FINK — That’s correct. Ridley Scott was a revelation. I’d never been around a director who was so visually creative. I didn’t do visual effects — I was an art director. But I wasn’t in the art director’s guild, so I couldn’t be called an art director. They conjured up this silly title for me: ‘action props supervisor.’ A great deal of the movie was shot at night, so I was on set working around the clock — again!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Volker Engel

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Volker Engel

CINEFEX — What films inspired you when you were young?

VOLKER ENGEL — I have to say the original Star Wars. I had just turned 14 when I saw it, and it really was the moment I first thought, “Oh, you can actually do this for a living.” I tried to figure out who these people were and how they did that, which was incredibly difficult in my hometown in Germany. I went to the library and asked if they had any books on films. This lady took me to the film section and recommended a book about Italian New Realism in the 1930s. I said, “That’s not exactly what I’m looking for. Do you have something like The Making of Star Wars?” She just shook her head! A couple of years later, I went on a three-day school trip to London. I vividly remember the stores I went to and the stuff I bought there — Cinefantastique and various books. By then I had really been bitten by the bug. I bought my first Super 8 camera, tried doing multiple exposures and all that.

CINEFEX — Ah, the thrill of winding the film back in the camera and praying you were getting everything lined up. Did that experience help you with the early films you worked on with Roland Emmerich?

VOLKER ENGEL — It did. We actually did multiple exposures on some of the wide shots in Moon 44. That film was 99 percent in-camera effects, sort of like Thunderbirds. In Universal Soldier, we had several purely miniature scenes.

CINEFEX —Then came Independence Day. Most of the effects work on that was done with miniatures, too.

VOLKER ENGEL — Yeah, we only dived into doing CG for things like all those jet fighters, where it just didn’t make sense to film them as separate elements. The air battles were a mixture of miniatures shot with motion control and CG jets, which we did with Pacific Ocean Post, using real backgrounds based on stitched-together photographs of skies. A company called VisionArt had this flocking software where you could tell a jet fighter to follow an alien fighter and not collide with it in mid-air. It was a very early version of what you would later see in The Lord of the Rings.

CINEFEX — In many ways, Independence Day felt like a celebration of all the effects techniques that had been developed up to that point.

VOLKER ENGEL — Absolutely. Roland Emmerich is totally open to technology, but he’s absolutely not a tech geek. He understands what’s possible and embraces that, but on Independence Day he was never saying, “Oh my god, there’s digital now — let’s do it all digital.” For Roland’s it’s always about what’s the best tool to do this job.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — John Bruno

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Bruno

CINEFEX — How did your visual effects career begin?

JOHN BRUNO — I got into visual effects through animation. I’m from northern California, and there were a lot of published cartoonists living nearby — people like Hank Ketcham and Charles M. Schulz. I was mentored by those guys at an early age, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I got a bunch of reference letters from them, went to Disney Studios and said, “I want to be an animator.”

CINEFEX — And they hired you?

JOHN BRUNO — They hired me and I started working in film animation for Chuck Jones. I did a film with Richard Williams, then eventually got a call from Ivan Reitman at Universal. We met and he showed me a magazine called Heavy Metal. He opened it up to this page with a character called Arzach, drawn by Jean Giraud — you know, Moebius. Ivan said, “Can you do animation to look like this?” I said, “Sure.” I moved to Montreal and we started doing Heavy Metal as an animated feature.

CINEFEX — So what prompted the move from animation into visual effects?

JOHN BRUNO — George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Richard Edlund were looking for somebody to do Poltergeist. Richard invited me to a meeting and I showed them my Heavy Metal reel. Before I knew it I was at Industrial Light & Magic, setting up an animation department.

CINEFEX — You stayed with Richard Edlund when he left ILM to form Boss Film Studios.

JOHN BRUNO — Yeah. The first film we did at Boss was Ghostbusters. I remember Richard coming into the office and saying to me, “You know this guy Ivan Reitman. You worked with him before on Heavy Metal. Well, he wants to do a kind of comedy Poltergeist with the cast of Saturday Night Live!”

CINEFEX — Did you have any idea what an iconic film Ghostbusters would become?

JOHN BRUNO — We never thought about it. There were just eight of us in the room watching dailies. We would laugh and say, “I think it’s funny, but I don’t know if anybody else will.” We did all the ghost stuff just like we were doing it at ILM — guys in suits, miniatures, animated effects — and we got the movie out in just ten months. That totally screwed up things in Hollywood, because suddenly everyone was shaving six months off their postproduction schedules. We got heat for that.

CINEFEX — A few years later, you were visual effects supervisor on The Abyss.

JOHN BRUNO — That’s right. I’d met Jim Cameron at a showing of Aliens in Westwood, and then again at the Tokyo Film Festival. That’s where we became friends, talking about favorite films like Mysterious Island, and old-school techniques like rear projection, stop-motion, puppets. We ended up using all that on The Abyss — 65mm rear screen process, full size sets underwater, miniature submarines. We used every technique imaginable, including computer animation for the water tentacle.

CINEFEX — Did it feel natural, moving from animation into visual effects the way you did?

JOHN BRUNO — Never at any time did I think it was strange or weird. Think about it. Animation has backgrounds, overlays, underlays, character elements, special effects elements. In visual effects, you have a background plate, you’ve got a character, you’ve got overlays, you’ve got mattes. You need to understand how to separate those elements, and how to manipulate time and space. A good knowledge of animation is good for any visual effects supervisor, even if you’re making a live-action film.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Bill Westenhofer

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Bill Westenhofer

CINEFEX — Can you pinpoint the moment when you first become interested in visual effects?

BILL WESTENHOFER — I know the exact moment. I was nine years old, watching the Star Destroyer fly overhead at the start of Star Wars: A New Hope. That was it, 100 percent. I went out and bought every Hasbro action figure — only they kept coming out with new ones and eventually I couldn’t keep up any more. I would make little videos with those figures. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of my moviemaking.

CINEFEX — What was the next step along the way for you?

BILL WESTENHOFER — The next major moment was when Jurassic Park came out. Having grown up as a huge dinosaur fan, to actually see them moving around and breathing was mind-boggling. I’d been studying computer graphics in college and I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to get there!” It became the kick in the butt I needed to raise my game, get resumés out and make it happen.

CINEFEX — So both Star Wars and Jurassic Park blew your mind at critical moments in your life.

BILL WESTENHOFER — Right. But, you know, it’s really hard today to blow your mind to the degree we all felt when Star Wars first appeared. Keeping up with audience expectations, coming up with new and creative things — it gets harder and harder.

CINEFEX — You’re no stranger to aiming high. Richard Parker was a real milestone, the tiger in Life of Pi. Then, with Gemini Man, you took on the challenge of creating a digital human, which has long been considered the Holy Grail of visual effects.

BILL WESTENHOFER — Yes, ever since I started 25 years ago, it’s something people always talked about. But, even after doing Gemini Man, people are already asking, “What’s next?”

CINEFEX — So what is next?

BILL WESTENHOFER — Well, as much as we love touting the next new tools, it’s more what you do with those tools that’s exciting. If you think back to some of the advances in computer graphics techniques, a lot of things happened fairly quickly, like getting texture mapping really working. I don’t want to say it’s slowing down now, but I don’t feel the technology changes themselves are as important as they used to be.

CINEFEX — It’s more about the creativity?

BILL WESTENHOFER — Of course. I do worry that some people still feel that visual effects is technology, and don’t appreciate the amount of creative input we bring to the table. We’re not just technicians coming to fix problems in the background. We’re really adding story. A visual effects supervisor will suggest script ideas to help tell something better, maybe even suggest shots. If you look at a write-up in Variety, by default they always call out who the cinematographer was, but it’s rarely they mention who the visual effects supervisor was — even in an effects-heavy movie. That does get frustrating sometimes.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — John Knoll

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Knoll

CINEFEX — What drives the spirit of innovation that we see so often in visual effects?

JOHN KNOLL — Well, most big advances don’t really happen because somebody decides they want to develop a new piece of technology. It’s more that a script lands on a desk, and someone reads it and says, “How are we going to do that?” Back on the first Star Wars movie, it isn’t like somebody wanted to do motion control and then figure out a way to use it in movies. It happened because George Lucas had this reel of World War II aerial combat and said, “I want to do shots like this, where the camera’s panning with the ships and the motion is very fluid.” Motion control was the solution to that problem.

CINEFEX — So you don’t consciously try to innovate? It’s purely about answering the brief?

JOHN KNOLL — It’s a little bit of both. Take the on-set capture we did for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I had done the first Pirates movie with Gore Verbinski, where the challenges were the skeletal pirates. The transitions from the live-action to the animated characters and back were particularly challenging. The methodology was that we shot the actors in wardrobe on the set, matchmoved them in post, painted them out and put in the CG.

CINEFEX — Matchmoving the actors from the plates must have been tricky, especially back then. Why didn’t you do separate motion capture shoots?

JOHN KNOLL — The matchmove was really hard, but here’s the thing. At the end of the first movie, Jack Sparrow becomes a skeleton as well. There were a number of transition shots, and about half a dozen where he’s a skeleton for the duration of the shot. For those all-CG skeleton shots, we did get Johnny Depp in a motion capture suit and have him redo his on-set performance on a motion capture stage. But when Gore looked at the results we immediately got busted, because he really liked what he had shot on set. He said, “I’ll be really up front — I’m going to torture you guys until this performance matches exactly what we shot on stage!” And he was right to do that.

CINEFEX — So when you came to do the second movie, you knew Gore would want to direct his actors on set, even though Davy Jones and his crew would end up as CG.

JOHN KNOLL — Exactly right. We started a conversation with R&D to find a way of capturing motion on set. We needed something as good as what we would get from an optical motion capture system. It had to be robust and lightweight enough to take out on location, and it couldn’t put any restrictions on the filmmakers. We were aware this was something nobody had done before. We knew we were innovating. But, it was all in the service of solving our problems from the first film, and letting Gore work the way he wanted to work.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Joe Letteri

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Joe Letteri

CINEFEX — Early in your career you were at Industrial Light & Magic, pretty much at the start of the digital revolution.

JOE LETTERI — Yes, but before that I was working for a company doing commercials in Los Angeles. I got to ILM right in the middle of their work on Terminator 2, although I did not work on that film. I did a couple of commercials for them, then got put onto Star Trek VI. I worked on the opening shot — that big ring-of-fire explosion of Praxis. That was the first shot I ever did on a film, and it made me want to keep going and do more.

CINEFEX — Soon after that you sunk your teeth into Jurassic Park.

JOE LETTERI — That’s right. That film opened up a new avenue of exploration in that we were doing organic characters. As cool as Terminator 2 was, with the T-1000 as a moving character with real performance, we now had to figure out how to do the dinosaurs’ skin, the skeleton, the muscles, all that organic movement. A lot of work went into making that happen believably for what I think was the first time.

CINEFEX — Were aware of how revolutionary the work was?

JOE LETTERI — It certainly felt pretty new at the time we were doing it. But we were flying by the seat of our pants, just eyeballing it: “I think this looks good. This looks about the right exposure.” We really had no way to measure things like that at the time. That worked for 65 shots on Jurassic Park, but now, when we’re doing thousands of shots in a film, we need ways to really understand what we’re looking at.

CINEFEX — Every year you’re called upon do more and more shots, of ever-increasing complexity. How has that changed your thinking?

JOE LETTERI — In visual effects in general, we’ve started to take a really broad approach. This started for me on Avatar, where we had so many components to work out. We weren’t just putting a character or a creature in a background plate — we were creating a whole world. First time around, we hand-dressed that Pandora forest. Then we spent years thinking about how forests really grow, writing software to mimic that whole process. That came in really handy when we did the avalanche scene in the third Planet of the Apes film, when were able to deploy this software to grow the forest.

CINEFEX — On the flipside, is there anything in your thinking that hasn’t changed?

JOE LETTERI — Really, what we’ve always done with visual effects is try to convince an audience that they’re seeing what was in front of the camera on the day everything else was shot. But we also have to add a fantasy element — because that’s what we’re doing, right? We’re shooting things that could not be shot, by definition. So we’re always looking at reality — things like having the correct weight in an animated movement — but with an eye towards making something a little bit more fantastic to serve the film.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Rob Legato

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Rob Legato

CINEFEX — When did your interest in visual effects begin? Did you enjoy watching effects movies when you were young?

ROB LEGATO — Quite frankly, whenever I saw movies that had something odd or fanciful in them, I just knew I didn’t like it very well. I know this is a blasphemy, but even when I saw the Ray Harryhausen stuff, like the skeletons fighting, it looked kind of strange to me. I guess I was starting to identify that things looked weird without motion blur — not that I knew what motion blur was at the time. But there were also things that were incredibly well done, like hanging miniatures and the Schüfftan process, all those things the masters did so many years ago.

CINEFEX — Early in your career, you made a name for yourself working on Star Trek: The Next Generation. How did that come about?

ROB LEGATO — I started out working in commercials, using videotape compositing in standard definition — more analogue than digital. I also became pretty proficient in shooting miniatures with motion control against bluescreens. I was recommended to the people doing the television remake of The Twilight Zone. To make their show on time, they switched from film opticals — where you could only do two or three shots per show — to doing it this more expedient way. When Star Trek was reborn as this new television show, they were looking for ways get the right production value in a short amount of time, and I was the only one around who had the requisite skillset: I had on-set experience, I knew visual effects, I knew postproduction compositing, and I had already worked on a television show.

CINEFEX — You were essentially a one-man band.

ROB LEGATO — Yes. I was shortcutting the system because I could shoot eight ship shots in a day, make the shots up, supervise every composite. I learned that the more you do yourself, the more you can do it expediently and inexpensively, and hence get much more production value. That show became my training ground to try things out. If an idea didn’t work, I’d just try another one next week.

CINEFEX — These days, easy access to the latest technology means almost anyone can become a one-man band.

ROB LEGATO — Absolutely. When I first started, there was only a handful of people who could do this stuff. Now, there’s amazing films coming out of film school by people who are self-taught. It’s like, “Holy shit, you would have had to be a genius to do that when I first started.” You can do almost anything at home on your laptop and in just a few months get experience it took us years and years to get. There’s lots of Mozarts out there right now waiting to flourish.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Ken Ralston

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Ken Ralston

CINEFEX — When did you first get interested in movie magic?

KEN RALSTON — As a kid, I was always interested in monster movies and monster makeups, and I read Famous Monsters like a lot of us bozos did way back then. Then I started to see the films of Ray Harryhausen. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew there was something amazing about what I was watching. I can still remember being in a little theatre watching The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad — I think it was a reissue on a Saturday matinee. I was mesmerized by it, just obsessed. It changed the wiring in my brain and off I went in my awkward, clumsy way. That’s what really kicked me into gear.

CINEFEX — Your career was well-established long before the digital revolution, with films like Star Wars, Dragonslayer, Cocoon. What was it like making the transition to the new technology?

KEN RALSTON — It was more frustrating than you might think. The technology was so complicated and awkward. In those early days at Industrial Light & Magic, you had to fight for the smallest amount of space to do digital shots in a movie. And you couldn’t do that many because it was too difficult and just took too damn long.

CINEFEX — You’ve worked a lot with Robert Zemeckis over the years. Have you got any anecdotes from the set of one of his films?

KEN RALSTON — Here’s one from Death Becomes Her. You know the shot where Meryl Streep pulls her head way up, and her neck stretches, and then her head snaps down? One of the things I asked Meryl to do was wear this kind of a beard that was the same color as her hair. It was basically a hairpiece to help us fill in the area around her neck later. Of course, Meryl wanted to know why she was doing this. Bob said to her, “Whatever Ken wants, just do it. You can trust him with your life.” That kind of trust is incredibly important because, when you’re in these weird moments trying to get the raw material to do the work you have to do, you sometimes have to ask for some really stupid things!

CINEFEX — When you have an ongoing relationships with a director, does that help the trust to develop?

KEN RALSTON — Oh, yeah. As the years went on, Bob and I developed a shorthand that was great. It also helps you feel free to try new things. If the director’s confident about what you can do, maybe it opens up different shot design ideas. Younger supervisors, or people without the kind of credits I’ve been lucky enough to get, may have to beat people over the head to do the right thing.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists