The Illusionists — Mike Fink

by Graham Edwards

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