The Visual Effects Oscar Race Begins

VFX Oscar Longlist 2016

On 2 December, 2016, the latest visual effects Oscar race began in earnest, when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 20 films up for consideration by the Academy’s Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee. Later this month, that list will be halved when committee members decide on the 10 films that will be eligible for nominations voting. Everything comes to a head on 26 February, 2017, at the trophy ceremony for the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

Alice Through the Looking Glass, Arrival, The BFG, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Passengers, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, Sully, Warcraft, X-Men: Apocalypse.

Once again, science fiction and fantasy makes a strong showing, with 90 percent of the movies sitting squarely in that ever-popular genre. Of these, one third feature the antics of superheroes ranging from Marvel’s squeaky-clean Captain America to the down-and-dirty reprobates of DC’s Suicide Squad.

Mind you, not since 2004 has a superhero actually won the battle for the visual effects Oscar, when John Dykstra, Scott Stokdyk, Anthony LaMolinara, and John Frazier picked up awards for their work on Spider-Man 2. Will the 89th Awards mark the moment when the famous gold statuette sports spandex once more?

Squaring their shoulders against the sci-fi onslaught are Sully and Deepwater Horizon, a pair of true-life tales that are themselves as different as chalk and cheese. Then there’s the wild card that is Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika’s fantasy adventure that relies as heavily on cutting edge visual effects as it does on its devotion to stop-motion.

Some might think that the overwhelming presence of science fiction and fantasy movies in this awards category is just a sign of the times. Not so. Every film that won a visual effects Oscar during the 1980s was either solid genre fare, or was at least coated with a dusting of fantasy — and if you disagree that Raiders of the Lost Ark counts in that regard, I’ll gladly debate the point. During the 1990s, the only award-winning movie to break the mold was Titanic, a feat matched in the 2000s only by Gladiator. Like it or not, robots rule, wizardry wins, and spaceships score bigtime.

Of course, there’s sci-fi and there’s sci-fi. Last year’s visual effects Academy Award winner was Ex Machina, an absorbing character piece in which the on-screen magic was subordinate to the story. Will this year’s Academy voters be similarly wooed by slow-burning Arrival, or will they give their blessing to a bells-and-whistles spectacular like Doctor Strange or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? And what of the movies that relied heavily on state of the art virtual production techniques, notably The Jungle Book, The BFG and Warcraft?

Just like you, we don’t have a crystal ball. But we do pride ourselves on the fact that since Cinefex was first published in 1980, every single visual effects Oscar-winner has featured in the magazine. As for this latest crop of contenders — you’ll find in-depth articles covering no less than 17 of the movies on the Academy’s longlist in our recent and upcoming issues.

None of us in the Cinefex office knows who is going to walk away with the next Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but we’re having a lot of fun guessing. What’s your prediction?


Related articles:

The Cinefex Quiz 2016

Can’t face Black Friday? Still stuffed with Thanksgiving turkey? Here’s the perfect way to ease into the holiday weekend. Yes, it’s the annual Cinefex Quiz!

There’s one question for every article we’ve published this year. So, if you’ve been diligently reading your copies of Cinefex throughout 2016, you’ll have no trouble at all. Except wait — our final issue of the year won’t be published until December! Can we really be sneaky enough to ask you about articles we haven’t even published yet? You’ll have to do the quiz to find out …

Ron Thornton’s Model-maker Mantra

An Earthforce Starfury starfighter, from "Babylon 5" -- Ron Thornton's original 22,840-polygon digital model, lit and composited as a high-rez rendering by the ship's original designer, Steve Burg.

Visual effects designer Ron Thornton’s original 22,840-polygon Starfury star fighter, built for the Emmy-award-winning television series “Babylon 5”, lit and composited as a high-rez rendering by the ship’s original designer, Steve Burg. Photo © Steve Burg, 2016.

‘Slap a few nurnies on it, coat of paint, walk away.’ Those were the words that miniature effects maven Ron Thornton used to prod aspiring model-makers who were perhaps being too precious with their projects and, more importantly, our budget.

Ron Thornton builds the Wanderer-class cargo ship, Scorpio, for BBC TV's "Blake's 7," circa 1980.

Ron Thornton builds the Wanderer-class cargo ship, Scorpio, for “Blake’s 7” © BBC TV, 1980.

Ron was a bit of a legend when I met him in the late 1980s, fresh off the boat from England. Ron was the man that built the Scorpio spaceship for Blake’s 7, the Robin-Hood-in-space BBC TV series created by Doctor Who writer Terry Nation. And Ron had also forged his own little niche in Hollywood as a bit of a bad boy model-maker from across the pond, with credits at Apogee’s model shop for the impossibly long spaceship in Spaceballs, the Canadian TV series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and David Allen’s model crew on Robot Jox which achieved jaeger spectacle with car-sized model robots in the Southern Californian desert.

Ron and his Yakovlev Yak-52 Soviet trainer aircraft. As well as animating ships in flight, Ron was a passionate aviation enthusiast. His Yak was his second love. Photo © NewTek.

Ron and his Yakovlev Yak-52 Soviet trainer aircraft. As well as animating ships in flight, Ron was a passionate aviation enthusiast. His Yak was his second love. Photo © Robert Cazzell.

When I joined Ron’s team as production assistant, Ron put me to work doing bits and pieces of model-making work. I was hopeless at it. But I had a big truck, which was useful for hauling things around, I was willing to learn, plus I’d made a few short films of my own and knew my way around a camera, so we hit it off, and we shared a similar love of movies. Ron was also a fabulous chef, with a bawdy sense of humor, and a rich vocabulary of Monty Python references.

After some time running around for Ron’s company, Foundation Imaging, which grew from his garage into a small industrial unit in North Hollywood, Ron sent me on an errand to go fetch his latest toy. I drove to a computer store on Colorado Boulevard in Santa Monica and handed over a check for an Amiga Video Toaster.

Ron greeted this with glee and he soon took to noodling in an early version of Lightwave’s 3D modeling program. His first project, I remember, was a British-racing-green Flash Gordon style space vehicle, a 3D reconstruction of one of his old Blake’s 7 vehicles. He built out all the nurnies, slapped it all together, gave it a coat of paint very reminiscent of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbird 2, and animated it trundling through space. He asked me what I thought. As a card-carrying Spielberg fan, I told him it looked good, but as the shot was panning past a sun, shouldn’t there be a bit of a lens flare? Ron said, ‘Great idea!’ and he got on the phone to the Toaster makers at NewTek. Little did I know I had just suggested one of the biggest clichés in computer modeling, foreshadowing the Knoll Light Factory lens flare plug-in — at least, that was my memory.

The space station at he heart of "Babylon 5," modeled and animated at Foundation Imaging as a five-mile-long rotating cylinder, housing 250,000 intergalactic souls as the 'last, best hope for peace.' Photo © NewTek.

The space station at the heart of “Babylon 5”, modeled and animated at Foundation Imaging as a five-mile-long rotating cylinder, housing 250,000 intergalactic souls as the ‘last, best hope for peace.’ Photo © Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc.

Ron’s 3D experiments, and his collaborations with NewTek eventually won him an Emmy award for the visual effects he created for Babylon 5, Joe Straczynski’s Casablanca in space, a hotbed of intergalactic intrigue set on board a five-mile-long rotating space cylinder. Ron made all the space ships on NewTek’s software and blew everybody’s minds. In 1993, no one had done anything on that scale for television. We built a few miniatures, too, and John Criswell and Greg Aronowitz and their creature effects teams made many crazy aliens, but pretty much everything else was done with off the shelf PC software.

What Ron brought to that format was not only a nerdy love of tech. He still had the same hands-on approach, using CG tools as building blocks, with a three-dimensional sensibility to lighting, texture and camera blocking. It served him well, and years after I stopped working for Ron I saw his face looming out of the pages of Cinefex magazine, in advertisements for the DAVE computer graphics school where he mentored students as ‘The Godfather of CG Visual Effects.’

"The Godfather" in Cinefex 107, October 2006

“The Godfather” in Cinefex 107, October 2006.

I last saw Ron at a memorial service, and he gave me a hard time for not answering his emails. We had gone our separate ways. Ron founded another studio in New Mexico, and worked as a freelance visual effects supervisor. I’d been working for Cinefex for years and never got around to covering one of Ron’s numerous shows.

Foundation had become a staple of the Star Trek universe, revamping The Motion Picture effects for director Robert Wise’s video re-release, as well as providing animation and effects for Nemesis, Deep Space NineVoyager and Enterprise. Ron also produced his own Saturday morning TV fare, with Hypernauts – I wrote a script, which never saw the light of day – and Roughnecks, an animated spinoff of one of Ron’s favorite sci-fi novels, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Ron Thornton. Photo © NewTek.

Ron Thornton at 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, Van Nuys, California. Photo © Kevin Quattro.

Ron’s final credits included a remake of George Romero’s The Crazies and a handful of television shows. We last spoke in person about five years ago, when I happened to be in town for Christmas. Ron called out of the blue, wanting to go for a drink. Sadly, I was working that evening and when I got clear of my deadline, he was not around. But that was Ron’s style. He went where the wind took him, so I didn’t think anything of it. Ron was probably out carousing.

A few months ago, I heard that Ron was not doing well health-wise, and one of Ron’s NewTek colleagues, Chuck Baker, confirmed he was raising money to help cover Ron’s medical expenses. I was glad to be able to offer some help by posting a link to Chuck’s fundraising page, assisting Ron’s medical expenses, on the Cinefex Facebook page (see below). The Internet responded with a huge outpouring of sympathy, all those lives he touched, from fans to industry insiders.

Sadly, Ron passed away November 21. I’ll miss him. He was a larger than life character, but I am grateful to him for giving me my first safe harbor in the LA film community. And all the knowledge that I’ve accumulated since then has served me well in the multifarious disciplines that I cover every day writing for Cinefex. He taught me not to be too precious. Get your hands dirty. Slap a few nurnies on it, coat of paint, walk away.

The Thornton Design model-making crew poses in front of the "Highlander II" Shield Corporation pyramid, North Hollywood, 1990. L to R: Tom Gleason, Joe Fordham (with puppy Flash), Mike McFarlane, James Belohovek, Karen Mutter, Ron Thornton, Mark Ellis.

The Thornton Design model-making crew poses in front of the “Highlander II” Shield Corporation pyramid, North Hollywood, 1990. L to R: Tom Gleason, Joe Fordham (with puppy Flash), Mike McFarlane, James Belohovek, Karen Mutter, Ron Thornton, Mark Ellis. Photo © James Belohovek.


Ron remembered:

“Many of you are finding out that Ron Thornton passed away. The Babylon 5 ranks keep thinning. We had a rolling coaster ride of a friendship, lots of laughs, many many great dinners, a few tears and thank god, memories that no one can take away.

“I first met Ronnie in Toronto on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. He’d been brought in to run the model shop and serve as the art director, along with Dale Fay, of the miniature shoots. We became good friends on that show. He was a mad visionary and brought a special perspective to everything he worked on. After Captain Power, we worked on a couple of ‘industrials’ for Lockheed and the Air Force. Ron and I shared a love for all things aviation. You may or may not know that Ronnie’s 56 seconds of animation that was essentially a shot that could not have been done with models, was what finally pushed the executives to give Babylon 5 a shot with a pilot.

“Ron continually pushed the envelope to visually enhance the storytelling on the projects he worked on in new and exciting ways. And he was a gentle soul as well. As I think back on the years, Ron and I went from a post apocalyptic Earth to aerial combat over the Fulda Gap in Europe, to the far reaches of space and finally winding up with wooly mammoths in the last ice age. Quite a span.

“Ronnie, you were such a mad visionary and hopefully a little rubbed off on the rest of us. Godspeed ol’ friend.”

— John Copeland, producer/director


“Ron always saw the potential. He could look at a solid wall and see the door that ought to be there, and if there wasn’t a door he’d make one. He was like that with people, too. I never met anyone with a better knack for hiring unknown, untried talent and really letting people shine.”

— Steve Burg, conceptual designer


“I had the honor of being Foundation Imaging’s first employee; Ron took a chance and hired a 3D novice because he saw in me the most important characteristic for the job: enthusiasm. ‘You can teach anyone the software,’ Ron told me a few years later, ‘but you can’t teach them to love their job.’ And love it I did. I — and so many others in the business right now — wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for this gentle, genius of a man who contributed so much and asked for nothing in return.”

— Adam ‘Mojo’ Lebowitz, digital artist


It’s so heartbreaking that the visual effects community has lost a great pioneer of VFX. Ron, you had a vision, and saw the potential for desktop VFX to be used for television way back on Babylon 5. To hundreds upon hundreds (including me), you were a mentor, a teacher and a good friend. Thank you for believing in me and allowing me to start compositing on the second season of Babylon 5. You were so generous with your knowledge and shared so much of it on a bunch of kids who were learning the ropes of visual effects back then. Thanks for teaching me so many things, from how to paint in Photoshop (version 1.0!) to rendering in Lightwave, to how to shoot a proper blue/green screen, to how to make a great roux (you were such a great cook)!! As so many have said before me, we were all a family at Foundation… from the BBQs, the parties, to developing creative content for television together. Thanks for believing in all of us you mentored, thank you for encouraging so many of us to pursue our dreams and help create visual effects all around the world.

— Sherry Hitch, digital artist


Modelmaking at Thornton Design, circa 1990, featuring detail of the hydrogen miner from the ABC TV pilot "Plymouth" and the Shield Corporation pyramid from "Highlander II: The Quickening". Photos © James Belohovek.

Nurnies galore, featuring detail of the Thornton Design hydrogen miner from the ABC TV pilot “Plymouth” and the Shield Corporation pyramid from “Highlander II: The Quickening”. Photos © James Belohovek.

I never considered myself a ‘star’ model-maker, I was always learning from others. Ron gave me the job of detailing out some of the miniatures for Plymouth (the 1991 ABC TV moon colony drama). I had never done that before and told him so. He gave me a few pointers and then let me go at it. It was a fun time. Best of all, he liked what I did, God bless him.

— James Belohovek, model-maker


“I met Ron through Steve Burg, a fellow New Jersey-ite who went to Cal Arts with my wife, Kathy Zielinski. Steve was working on the Stuart Gordon film Robot Jox, taking over the design task from Ron Cobb to build robots and sets. It was while visiting Steve in a small Burbank shop space that I met Ron Thornton who was fabricating the rather large miniatures for the film. It was really cool stuff to see in person, and Ron and I hit it off immediately. I mean, come on! Building giant robots?

“Soon after, I went to Ron’s apartment where he showed me something on a small Amiga computer he had been working on. If I remember correctly, it was a TIE fighter flying through some asteroids. The thought I kept to myself was, ‘This poor guy… This is never going to look good enough for film or TV!’ Well, I guess, I was wrong about that. You think? Ron had faith.

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver and his wife Kathy celebrate Ron's birthday. Photo © Kevin Kutchaver.

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver and his wife Kathy celebrate Ron’s birthday. Photo © Kevin Kutchaver.

“Ron kept pushing the new technology, while never forgetting his love of physically building models, and I was excited to see what he was up to on a new television series called Babylon 5. He showed me some of his work, which knowing the desktop computer solution was pretty groundbreaking! He also showed me a sequence done on a Paintbox system in the edit bay of some glowing orb animation that cost a small fortune to do, and Ron asked me, ‘You could do this, couldn’t you?’ With Ron’s blessing I was compositing a national TV show at home surrounded by seven Macintosh computers. Ron had faith in thy ability to figure it out. And just in time, I did. And Ron’s invitation forever changed the path of my career.

“When Ron was pitching his Hypernauts series, he asked me if I wanted to do the music for the reel. He had heard some of the music I had done (just playing around) and I thought it would be really fun to do something out of my comfort zone like that. Once the series sold, Ron then asked me to do the music for the series. I kind of freaked out. I told him ‘I pretty much gave you everything I have in he demo.’ I was pretty sure I would run out of ideas halfway through the first episode. Ron was actually disappointed, but I thanked him for letting me do the pitch reel and explained to him I didn’t want him to hate me once I failed to deliver. The point is, he was the type of person that was willing to give a novice, ‘musician’ the keys to his series kingdom because one of his talents was he was able to persuade people to do their best work.

“I only worked at Foundation Imaging for a brief time, but I know he and his partner, Paul, had built what is now a rarity in this business: A small group of talented, enthusiastic people that were more a family than they were employees. And the number of people that were brought into the business for the first time by Ron is pretty impressive, as well.

“Ron was a person who could always see what was possible, and worked constantly to make it happen. He did it not out of any ego, or personal gain, or hidden agenda, but for the reason most of us got into VFX. It was what we do, and it was fun and Ron really loved doing it, and through osmosis, we loved working with him. He was a tireless source of ideas and enthusiasm, and he was a loyal partner in any project. I’ll miss that dialogue with him as he runs a new idea or project by you, and the infectious feeling of thinking, ‘I have to do this with him!’

“Ron Thornton was a good friend, and to everyone who knew him, a truly good person. Gifted, willing to share and, in the best way, a big kid at heart. To realize I’ll never hear him call and tell me about his next adventure is the saddest thing imaginable. To say Ron Thornton was a visionary would be an understatement. To say I really miss him is another…”

— Kevin Kutchaver, visual effects supervisor


Thanks to Tim Scannell, Tom Gleason, Steve Burg, Chuck Baker, John Copeland, Sherry Hitch, Mojo, James Belohovek, Kevin Kutchaver, Robin and Ron Cobb for contributing to this article.

On Seeing “Arrival”

Arrival PosterLast month, I finished my Cinefex article on Arrival, which you’ll be able to read in our upcoming December 2016 issue. As so often happens, I didn’t actually get to see the movie until this weekend, long after submitting my final draft. This happens a lot in this job, thanks to a complex dance of release dates, studio embargoes, and our magazine’s long lead time.

On top of that, as part of my research I’d also read the story on which Arrival is based – Ted Chiang’s rather marvellous Story of Your Life. So, by the time I found myself seated in my local multiplex waiting for the titles to roll, I knew an awful lot about the movie.

Sometimes it’s no fun knowing what’s coming next (believe me, when you’re interviewing for a Cinefex article you hear a lot of spoilers). In the case of Arrival, I was delighted to discover it didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit.

The reason is simple, I think. Arrival is a class act. It’s that most delicate of creatures – a science fiction film that actually makes you think. The questions it raises are challenging, profound and moving, and yet somehow it manages to wrap them up neatly in an entirely accessible story about humans reacting to first contact with an alien species.

The movie looks gorgeous, by the way. Director Denis Villeneuve and director of photography Bradford Young constantly manipulate the camera’s depth of field to keep intimacy and tension in constant balance, and find beauty in the overcast light of what would be just another damp and ordinary day, if not for the strange vessels found suddenly hanging over twelve locations around the world.

The ships themselves – not to mention their shadowy occupants – are iconic and enigmatic. The alien aspects of Arrival are adroitly handled by a team of visual effects facilities including Hybride Technologies, Rodeo FX, Oblique FX, Raynault FX, Framestore, MELS VFX and Fly Studio, all under the expert eye of visual effects supervisor Louis Morin. What’s more, Villeneuve allows the camera to linger on their work, giving folk like you and me ample opportunity to spot the imperfections. Except there are no imperfections. There is only a stark, alien beauty. The work is that good.

We don’t often review films here at Cinefex. It’s not the Cinefex way, you see. We treat every film as equal – it’s our job to tell you how it was done, not how it made us feel. Occasionally, however, something exceptional comes along.

Something like Arrival.


Have you seen Arrival yet? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments box.

Now Showing – Cinefex 149

Cinefex 149

We’re big fans of Steven Spielberg here at Cinefex. So, with the whizzpopping fizzog of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant fronting our brand new issue Cinefex 149, we wondered: “How many Cinefex covers have featured a movie directed by Spielberg?”

Our first Spielbergian cover came in January 1983, with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The following year we led with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, after which we skipped nearly a decade before releasing Jurassic Park onto the cover of our August 1993 edition.

Dinosaurs continued to rule with our monstrous 1997 cover for Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and we stuck with Spielberg in 2001 when our cover story was A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We followed Spielberg’s science fiction journey in 2002 with Minority Report, and in 2005 with War of the Worlds. That gives us an impressive running total of seven Cinefex covers.

We have to confess, it’s been a bit of a gap since our last Spielbergian cover. So we’re delighted to bring the grand total up to eight with Cinefex 149’s truly spectacular cover image for The BFG.

Cinefex isn’t just about cover stories, of course. As well as our in-depth coverage of The BFG, our 2016 Halloween issue also contains larger-than-life articles on Suicide Squad, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ben-Hur and Approaching the Unknown, with exclusive interview content and images you won’t find anywhere else.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to reveal more …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

During its first few years of publication, Cinefex typically covered two movies per issue – for a darn good reason: Don Shay was the magazine’s sole writer, not to mention its sole layout designer, business manager, circulation manager, and answerer of phones. (Don never did have a receptionist or administrative assistant. From his first day as a magazine publisher to the day of his retirement three years ago, if you called Don’s Cinefex number, he was the one who answered.)

As we brought on more writing help, we upped the number of movies covered to four – and we’ve maintained that formula, for the most part, for a number of years. Every once in a while, however, we stumble onto an extra project that we want to cover – something that might not qualify as the super-boffo visual effects film that is our usual fare; but something that we think the readers will find interesting.

In this issue, Approaching the Unknown was that project. The most frequent question we get from readers is, ‘Why don’t you cover more old-school effects?’ My usual response is: ‘If you can find somebody using old-school effects, we’ll cover ‘em!’ We hear that a group of intrepid filmmakers used a cloud tank, and we are there, tape recorders in hand. And that was the case with this independent, small-budget film, covered in Graham Edwards’ wonderful article.

But of course, the issue still has its four effects-extravaganza subjects: Joe Fordham’s in-depth articles on Suicide Squad and The BFG – whose lovely face graces the cover – and Graham’s coverage of Ben-Hur, which includes lots of behind the scenes information on staging the famous chariot race. My article on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children finishes out the issue, Tim Burton-style.

Have a scary – but safe – Halloween!

Issue 149 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, a gigantic hand will be thrusting your copy through a convenient upper-story window very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Star Trek in Triplicate

Star Trek Beyond Barco Escape

The concept of multi-screen projection is nearly as old as cinema itself. In 1927, French film director Abel Gance presented the final reel of his historical epic Napoleon in triptych form, with spectacular battle scenes projected on three adjacent screens.

Years later, in 1952, the demo movie This is Cinerama helped to launch the film world’s obsession with ever-bigger, ever-wider theatrical experiences, with a refined three-panel process that almost – but not quite – erased the seams between the three pictures.

In the summer of 2016, the triptych returned to theaters with a special Barco Escape presentation of Star Trek Beyond. Kicking in during key moments of the film, a trio of movie projectors expanded the intergalactic action across two additional Cinemascope screens.

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Talking to Cinefex, Star Trek Beyond co-producer and visual effects producer Ron Ames explained:

“We took the animations on the center screen on our all-CG shots, and extended everything you see off to the left and right, giving you kind of a horseshoe view. During some of the live-action scenes, we used the space almost three-dimensionally. For example, if you had a wide shot of the bridge, on the left and right screens you’d see details of viewscreens, or people’s reactions. It was three-dimensional storytelling, which was kind of fascinating.”

Watch a video of Barco Escape before and after clips from Star Trek Beyond by Prime Focus World:

Sharing digital assets with main visual effects vendor Double Negative, a team of 120 artists at Prime Focus World created the additional content needed to fill the extra screens. You can read the full story here on the Prime Focus website. Commenting on the process, Merzin Tavaria, chief creative director of Prime Focus, remarked:

“Essentially we were creating one huge 6K image across a 270 degree field of view. We realized early on that the scenes that we would be extending were already impressively wide shots on the single center screen, with focal lengths of around 100mm. If we’d applied similar focal lengths to the left and right cameras, we’d have been looking behind ourselves! We had to come up with intelligent and creative ways of using the extra screen space.”

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Star Trek Beyond is still playing in selected Barco Escape theaters across the United States, Europe, Mexico and China. Visit the Barco Escape website to find three screens near you.

Now Showing – Cinefex 148

Cinefex 148

Pop quiz – how many times has the U.S.S. Enterprise graced the cover of Cinefex? As our header image demonstrates, the answer is now “five.”

Starfleet’s iconic starship first appeared on the front of our inaugural issue, way back in 1980, when Cinefex issue 1 delivered exclusive coverage of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (we’ve covered every single Star Trek theatrical feature since, with the exception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

The Enterprise‘s next cover gig came in 1989 with Cinefex 37, when we voyaged into the world of television to explore the visual effects of Star Trek – The Next Generation. Fast-forward to 2009 and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, and there’s the Enterprise soaring across the cover of Cinefex 118, only to return in 2013 for Cinefex 134 and our in-depth story on Star Trek Into Darkness.

Now the Enterprise is back, up close and personal on the front cover of the brand new Cinefex 148, in a stunning image that was specially beamed to us by Double Negative. Inside you’ll find galaxy-spanning articles on four blockbuster movies – Star Trek Beyond, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Legend of Tarzan.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to tell you more about our latest edition …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

In Cinefex 65, published in 1996, we dedicated much of our coverage to Industrial Light & Magic, in honor of the celebrated company’s 20th anniversary. I was given the task of writing a survey of ILM’s work up to that point, covering – in a paragraph or two – the effects in each of ILM’s film projects spanning that period.

No effort has ever made me appreciate Cinefex more. I quickly found that if the film in question was one we had covered, I had a wealth of information from which to draw. On the few occasions I had to write about a film not previously covered in Cinefex, I was doomed, because no such information existed. Many visual effects artists have made the same observation, and have said to me: “Before Cinefex, getting information about how a film’s effects were done was almost impossible.”

I mention this because, when assigning myself the Independence Day: Resurgence article for our current issue 148, my first thought was: “Thank God, we covered the first Independence Day 20 years ago.” I knew that I could re-read that article and learn all I needed to know – for compare and contrast purposes – about how they had done the effects for the original film. I also knew that my new article would benefit from our long association with visual effects supervisor Volker Engel, who in 1996, in 2016, and in all the years between has been the very best kind of ally.

Warcraft director Duncan Jones, too, was an ally as Graham Edwards dove deep into that film’s effects. Graham also covered Star Trek Beyond, the subject of one of our sexiest covers ever. (Yes, the Enterprise is our cover image yet again – but no one complained when Elle Macpherson graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition three years in a row!)

Finally, Joe Fordham brings us extensive coverage of the effects in The Legend of Tarzan, which includes some fascinating stories of shooting background imagery in Central Africa’s Gabon – a remote, deeply forested landscape never before seen in a Hollywood film.

That’s Cinefex 148 – enjoy!

Issue 148 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, clear those Tribbles out your mailbox – your copy will be docking very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Q is for Queen

In the VFX ABC, the letter “Q” stands for “Queen”.

Science fiction and fantasy films delight in carrying us to strange lands and even stranger planets. As we explore these brave new worlds, chances are we’ll encounter a thoroughly alien society. And who will we find sitting on the alien throne?

An alien queen, of course.

In 1924, a Russian silent film called Aelita, Queen of Mars whisked audiences across the far reaches of space to meet the scantily-clad Martian monarch. Directed by Yakov Protazanov, Aelita showcased lavish constructivist sets by Isaak Rabinovich and a fleeting glimpse of a funky balloon-shaped spacecraft – the movie’s miniatures are credited to Viktor Simonov.

A thinly-disguised treatise on socialism, Aelita bombed at the box office, yet its innovative production design appears to have influenced later and more memorable science fiction films including Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis and Universal Pictures’ 1930s Flash Gordon serial.

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker's revolution in the 1924 Russian film "Aelita, Queen of Mars."

The sovereign ruler of the Red Planet finds herself leading a worker’s revolution in the 1924 Russian film “Aelita, Queen of Mars.”

When it comes to alien queens, however, there’s one monarch who reigns supreme. Yes, I’m talking about the vengeful, egg-laying xenomorph from James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens. Created for the production in both full-size and quarter-scale versions by artists at Stan Winston Studio, this big bad momma simultaneously pushed special effects technologies to the limit and created a movie icon that towers tall even to this day.

Here’s what James Cameron had to say about his original concept design for the alien queen, in the pages of Cinefex 27:

“For me, the queen is really a blend of what [H.R.] Giger does with what I wanted to do, which was to create something that was big and powerful and terrifying and fast and very female – hideous and beautiful at the same time, like a black widow spider.”

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston's crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

The alien queen battles Ripley’s power loader in “Aliens.” Stan Winston’s crew operated the full-scale animatronic queen. For shots showing only the upper half of the loader, its mechanical legs were removed to afford greater maneuverability for operators Sigourney Weaver and John Lees.

In the same interview, Cameron commented that somebody had likened the queen to “an anorexic dinosaur.” In the film, Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley famously refers to her as “you bitch!” Which got me wondering – how did the Stan Winston team refer to their creation while they were on set?

As it turns out, the answer is prosaic. John Rosengrant and Alec Gillis, part of the original Aliens creature crew, told me they referred to her quite simply as “the Queen.” Gillis elaborated: “We were so dogged tired that one-syllable words worked best!”

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

For a shot in “Star Trek: First Contact” showing the assembly of the Borg queen’s body parts, actress Alice Krige was positioned with her head in a prosthetic neck-and-shoulders piece fashioned by Todd Masters Company. Bluescreen material masked her legs and torso. ILM digitally combined the result with footage of the biomechanical suit.

Ten years after the release of Aliens, in 1996, concept artist Ricardo Delgado compared his design for the Borg queen of Star Trek: First Contact with the same deadly arachnid that had inspired James Cameron – the black widow spider.

Alice Krige performed as the cybernetic sovereign, wearing prosthetic makeup by Mike Westmore and crew, with Industrial Light & Magic deploying some smart digital effects for a shot in which a descending apparatus introduces the queen’s fleshy head and shoulders to a waiting biomechanical body.

Genre films in subsequent years gave us a healthy succession of notable queens (or at least characters close enough to royalty to count in my book).

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace benefited from the graceful presence of Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala, while in 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence treated us to a glimpse of the queenly Blue Fairy, voiced by Meryl Streep and digitally keyframed by ILM to emulate the retro qualities of 1950s Disney animation.

In the year 2001, a rather different kind of queen made audiences tremble with fear. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the heroic young wizard played by Daniel Radcliffe goes up against a giant chess set brought to life by sinister spells. Photographed on a full-scale set, with practical effects and pyrotechnics by special effects supervisor John Richardson and digital animation by Mill Film, the chess sequence features a sword-wielding queen driven by a particularly aggressive kind of magic.

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."

Harry, Ron and Hermione face the perils of a giant chess board in “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.”

No queen is complete without her castle. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Sony Pictures Imageworks constructed the freezing environs of the castle of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch (who looks a lot like a Snow Queen if you ask me). Meanwhile, for Snow White and Huntsman, Baseblack and BlueBolt built the brooding castle environments within which Charlize Theron as Queen Revenna worked her endlessly wicked ways.

In 2010, director Tim Burton concocted an arresting vision of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, for which artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks used digital warping and clever composition to enlarge the head of actress Helena Bonham Carter, techniques they revisited for James Bobin’s 2016 sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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As I write this in the summer of 2016, alien queens are big again – in this case, very big. Following James Cameron’s lead, Roland Emmerich gave us “something we hadn’t seen yet” in Independence Day: Resurgence. The 200-foot-tall queen of the alien invaders was brought to the screen by visual effects artists at Weta Digital. You can read the full story of how they did it in Cinefex 148.

Not every movie queen requires motion picture magic to put her on the throne. Nevertheless, some of cinema’s most memorable monarchs were helped into power by teams of artists from the fields of visual and special effects. The result of their work is frequently spectacular, which just goes to prove one thing.

Queens rule.


Aliens photography copyright © 1986 by Twentieth Century Fox. Star Trek: First Contact photograph copyright © 1996 by Paramount Pictures. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone photograph copyright © 2001 by Warner Brothers. Alice in Wonderland photographs copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.

All Eyes on Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek BeyondI think I must have a split personality.

Leastways, that’s what I thought last Sunday, while I was enjoying Star Trek Beyond in my local multiplex. “Enjoying” is the right word, by the way. I thought the movie was fresh and fun, with bags of inventive action neatly balanced by solid character moments and a warm inclusive heart. I really hope feisty alien scavenger Jaylah gets to join the crew, don’t you?

So why did the movie make me feel divided? Because I was watching it through lots of different sets of eyes, all at the same time.

The first set of eyes belonged to a middle-aged moviegoer primed and ready for some escapist entertainment. That version of me left the cinema highly satisfied, and confident that the reboot series has plenty of dilithium left in the tank.

The second set of eyes belonged to a Cinefex writer who spent most of May interviewing the people responsible for Star Trek Beyond’s eye-popping effects. My victims included the visual effects teams at Double Negative and Atomic Fiction (who were ably supported by their fellow artists at Kelvin Optical). Special effects supervisor Cameron Waldbauer told me how he blew stuff up and generally threw things around, while head of prosthetics Joel Harlow talked at length about Krall, Kalara and the rest of the 50-plus alien species that he and his team brought to the screen. To my delight, I even managed to grab 15 minutes with director Justin Lin.

Everything I’d learned – and everything I’d written – was going through my head while the movie played. Sometimes that meant I knew what was coming next. Often it left me delighted by the sheer visual finesse of a sequence I’d only ever had described to me in words. Throughout, it made me grateful that I’d had the good fortune to get a solid glimpse behind the scenes … before I’d actually seen those scenes.

Cameraman Hoyt Yeatman checks alignment for the final shot of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," photographed using a special rig that allowed the camera to swing on a 180-degree arc down and under the Enterprise.

Cameraman Hoyt Yeatman checks alignment for the final shot of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” photographed using a special rig that allowed the camera to swing on a 180-degree arc down and under the Enterprise.

The third set of eyes belonged to the teenage version of me – the eager young fellow who sat drinking in the stunning visual effects created by Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra for Star Trek: The Motion Picture back in 1979. Sure, all those Enterprise and V’ger flybys seemed to go on forever, but by golly, weren’t they gorgeous to behold?

The eyes don’t stop there. There was a fourth and even more youthful set with me in the cinema this weekend. These nostalgia-rich peepers belonged to the little kid who for many years ate his evening meals in front of the television, avidly watching reruns of the original Star Trek series. That kid was thrilled to see Kirk, Spock, Bones and all the rest of them given new life and a whole new frontier to play in. Justin Lin told me that he too grew up with the show, and his love for Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek is plain to see, shining out from every frame of Star Trek Beyond.

As if four sets of eyes weren’t enough, I was all ears too. Michael Giacchino’s score for Star Trek Beyond – an extension of the music he composed for the previous two reboot movies – is a real treat, somehow managing to sound fresh while still sharing DNA with the classic themes written by Jerry Goldsmith for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and James Horner’s exhilarating score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. These days, it isn’t often I leave the cinema humming the theme tune. I’m humming Giacchino’s Star Trek theme as I write this blog.

I guess there’s nothing unusual in my many-eyes experience of moviegoing. It’s something we all share, don’t you think? No film exists in isolation – least of all the latest iteration of a franchise going back an epic 50 years.

How many sets of eyes did you take to Star Trek Beyond? And what did they see?


Cinefex 148 is out this month, with in-depth behind the scenes coverage of Star Trek Beyond, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence and The Legend of Tarzan. Preorder your copy now.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture photograph copyright © 1979 by Paramount Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved. Special effects unit still photography by Virgil Mirano.

Cinefex Vault #12 – Team America

"Team America" from the Cinefex Vault

Concluding our tour through the Cinefex Vault of long-lost online articles, we’re going out with a bang. Associate editor Estelle Shay took the plunge, in 2004, interviewing miniature effects supervisor Lou Zutavern about his adventures – with the late, great special effects supervisor Joe Viskocil and friends – producing Gerry-Anderson-styled marionette mayhem for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s R-rated satire, Team America: World Police.


Team Spirit – article by Estelle Shay

Team America team leaders Joe (Trey Parker) and Chris (Matt Stone) lead the charge to put the 'F' back in Freedom in Paramount Pictures' "Team America: World Police."

Team America mission leaders Joe (Trey Parker) and Chris (Matt Stone) put the ‘F’ back in ‘freedom’ in Paramount Pictures’ iconoclastic “Team America: World Police.”

Where would James Bond be without his Aston Martin? The same might be asked of the superheroes in Team America: World Police, a raunchy spy spoof by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Relying on an all-puppet cast to poke fun at everything from politics to Hollywood’s fondness for over-the-top action films, Parker and Stone called upon miniature effects artisan Lou Zutavern to oversee design and construction of a slew of tricked-out vehicles for the marionetted superheroes, armed to the teeth with terrorist-defying weapons and missiles.

Team America airborne strike force.

Team America airborne strike force.

The Team America all-star jet.

The Team America all-star jet unleashes a freedom-seeking missile.

Zutavern – a veteran of such iconic films as Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Starship Troopers, and a longtime fan of Thunderbirds, the sixties-era Gerry Anderson puppet show that inspired Parker and Stone – jumped at the chance to work on the project. “I’d spent a lot of time studying the work that Derek Meddings and his crew did back in the sixties for Thunderbirds,” said Zutavern. “I’d also worked on Super Adventure Team for MTV, which was a marionette show; so I understood the limitations of the puppets.” He was equally well-equipped to handle the directing duo’s ‘on-the-fly’ approach to filmmaking. “I originally came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, where you learn how to do things very cheaply and in-camera. I loved the old Republic Picture serials, and researched how the Lydecker Brothers did all that stuff. They had no budgets back then, and, as it turned out, neither did we.”

Model makers Phil Hartman, Jason Kaufman and Bruce MacRae working on Team Hummer.

Model makers Phil Hartman, Jason Kaufman and Bruce MacRae working on Team Hummer.

Model makers Jason Kaufman, Ken Swenson and Phil Hartmann working on Team Hummer.

Model makers Jason Kaufman, Ken Swenson and Phil Hartmann working on Team Hummer.

Hummer test-fit in jet Osprey.

Hummer test-fit into Osprey fuselage.

Osprey framework while test-fitting the nose.

Osprey framework, test-fitting the nose.

Operating out of stages in Culver City, Zutavern and a skeleton crew of ten that eventually grew to 20 began fleshing out designs for Team America‘s miniature vehicles and assorted aircraft. The script called for a Lamborghini limo that transforms into a flying craft, and a boxy, Hummer-like utility vehicle equipped with hidden missiles that serves as the team’s main means of transport. Additional vehicles included a motorcycle ridden by Gary, the team’s newest undercover recruit, military-style Osprey and Black Hawk helicopters, a sixties-style jet, and a submarine – all of them featured prominently throughout the film. “There were jet-to-jet air battles,” noted Zutavern, “terrorist jets trying to shoot down the Team America vehicles, submarines underwater, shooting ballistic missiles and torpedoes, and vehicles on land chasing each other and exploding. Pretty much, if you’ve seen it in a Michael Bay film, you’re going to see it here.”

The vehicles were built in sizes ranging from 1/3 scale to accommodate the 22-inch puppets, to 1/35th scale, making it easier to use off-the-shelf model kit parts. From the start, Zutavern found himself relying heavily on his Roger Corman roots. “Roger used to walk in and go: ‘Here’s $2,000. Make it last,” recalled Zutavern. “And that would be my budget. I remember having to do a tabletop model one time, and we had enough lumber to build the tabletop, and that was it. But I needed trees. So I went down to Pier One Imports one night and trimmed their hedges for them. They just assumed the gardeners did it. That’s kind of what we were doing here. I brought in boxes of old model parts, and asked my distributors for all the kits with parts that were missing. For the jet, I literally went down to one of the local hobby distributors and bought a bunch of kits, and started chopping them up until we got something we liked the look of.”

Street level detail.

Street level detail.

Zutavern and his crew also created interiors for scenes shot inside the various Team America transports, all designed to reflect the personas of the protagonists. “Their whole thing is once they blow up a country, it’s time for a libation,” observed Zutavern. “So everything was done as if it’s basically a lounge.” Though modelmakers often used chopped-up model molds, discarded parts and prop bin rejects to detail the interiors, one exception was the tricked-out limo interior. “It was very slick, completely upholstered, with carpeting, neon lights, two videoscreen feeds and a bar built into the door. There was a back seat and a front seat that fit together, and the front seat and the dash came off so you could stick a camera in and get a view of two puppets sitting back there having a conversation.”

Model Foreman Caius Man and Model maker Eric Cook work with cars on miniature New York streets.

Model foreman Caius Man and model maker Eric Cook position cars on the miniature New York streets.

At Zutavern’s urging the production hired special effects and pyro expert Joe Viskocil to handle the mechanics of motivating the vehicles and rigging explosions for the various action sequences. “With few exceptions, everything was pulled on cables,” noted Zutavern. “We couldn’t use radio control all that much because there was a lot of wireless communication from the marionettes and static from our lighting rigs, which would have interfered.”

Shooting the miniatures proved challenging, as constant script changes came down the pike from Parker and Stone, who kept devising more and more outrageous scenarios. “We’d have five different sets, and three guys running between them,” said Zutavern, “with three setups going, and two getting ready to shoot. I remember one instance where we had a bunch of taxicabs, and we realized we had no people in the cabs. So one of our modelmakers raced over to the craft services table and got a bag of cashews and raisins, and glued them together with the raisin as the head, and the cashew as the body. We stuck those in as drivers, and nobody could tell the difference.”

Special Effects Lead Tom Zell and Special Effects Technician John Chaldu working on Sub model-shot.

Special effects lead Tom Zell and special effects technician John Chaldu work on the sub model.

Water tank shoot.

The Team America crew employed a classic Derek Meddings underwater miniature technique, seen in many episodes of Gerry Anderson’s “Stingray,” shooting the miniature sub ‘dry’ through a water tank foreground.

Though the vehicles were built with steel chassis to better withstand abuse, Zutavern was hard-pressed to keep them in play during the no-holds-barred action scenes. “We’d have a bag of parts,” recalled Zutavern, “and just glue them together; and then the painters would spend all night doing these dazzling paint jobs. They’d be just barely dry, but they would go straight to the stage in the morning.” Once on stage, Viskocil and his crew would crash the cable-driven cars at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour, model pieces flying upon impact. “It got to the point where we kluged the models together so many times, the only thing keeping them together was the paint. People would look at them and go, ‘That looks horrible!’ And we were like, ‘Well it didn’t used to.'”

Despite such challenges, there was no shortage of modelmakers willing to work on Team America. “When they saw what we were doing and how much fun it was, even though it was really hard work,” Zutavern remarked, “everyone wanted to work on this show. Any big effects film from the last 30 years — somebody in my crew was on it. But this was more fun for them because they could get back to their roots. Modelmakers don’t usually get a chance to design things. Usually, they’re given a set of drawings and told to make it just like that. Here, they could jump in and really be creative. Of course, sometimes I’d say: ‘Yes, you can design this whole interior. But you’ve got to deliver it right after lunch!'”

Photos © 2004 Paramount Pictures; behind the scenes images courtesy of Lou Zutavern.