Benson’s Space Odyssey: A Book Review

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David Bowman (Keir Dullea) in “2001: A Space Odyssey” © Turner Entertainment Co. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Jacket design by Rodrigo Corral Art & Design.

50 years after its theatrical release, 2001: A Space Odyssey stands as a film that, the more a viewer brings to the experience, the more the film rewards them. Michael Benson’s recent publication, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpieceis evidence of that.

Plenty of other books have already mined this territory. From Jerome Agel’s eclectic 1970 paperback The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 was the first, to Arthur C. Clarke’s fascinating 1972 diary of his creative journey with Kubrick in The Lost Worlds of 2001, there have been many fascinating accounts of the science fiction cinematic giant. More recently, we’ve had Dan Richter’s 2002 publication, Moonwatcher’s Memoir, Christopher Frayling’s 2015 folio of production designer Harry Lange’s contributions, The 2001 File, and Piers Bizony’s 1994 account, 2001: Filming the Future, his luscious 2014 Taschen picture book, The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention Don Shay and Jody Duncan’s revealing 2001: A Time Capsule in Cinefex 85. Benson had all of these to draw from – and, for full disclosure, Cinefex founder Don Shay was one of a noble community of authors and contributors who generously shared his personal transcripts and research. What distinguishes Benson’s book is its vivid narrative and linear nature.

After a slow start, meandering around Sri Lanka – formerly Ceylon – in the home of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, the author charts a path quickly to Kubrick’s penthouse in New York, 1964. That’s when things get cooking, as Clarke and Kubrick spark ideas that, four years later, exploded onto cinema screens. Using personal letters, exhaustive interviews and voluminous archival material, cross-referenced in 31-pages of footnotes and a seven-page index, Benson adopts a novelistic tone, allowing readers to gaze into Kubrick’s ‘olive eyes’ and shiver with the cold as his two protagonists clamber up onto Kubrick’s apartment roof to peer through Clarke’s Celestron telescope. The documentary style is insightful and amusing, making for a fluent and involving read as Benson charts landmarks of Kubrick and Clarke’s collaboration. Anecdotes previously and frequently taken out of context are given new scrutiny. It’s all here: from Kubrick’s often-stated desire to make the ‘proverbial really good science fiction film’ (in his first letter to Clarke), to the congenial sparring of great minds (Kubrick hated Clarke’s taste in films).

Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), confer with their HAL 9000 computer in the centrifuge of the spaceship 'Discovery' en route to Jupiter. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), confer with their HAL 9000 computer in the centrifuge of the spaceship ‘Discovery’ en route to Jupiter. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Mysteries of Kubrick’s visual effects processes are also revealed, spelling out the contributions of its four special photographic effects supervisors, as listed in the film’s credits – Wally Veevers, Tom Howard, Douglas Trumbull and Con Pederson. Benson pulls no punches in describing effects supervisor Wally Gentleman’s frustrations that led to his near nervous breakdown and early departure, after some integral research and development. Trumbull’s role is perhaps the most vivid, sketching the experience from the point of view of an ambitious 23-year-old, and Pederson is equally candid as another gifted and outspoken young artist, last to join the team and offer up some incisive contributions. Special makeup designer Stuart Freeborn’s experiments, successful and otherwise, chronicle the production’s journey to create believable prehistoric man-apes. And Kubrick’s controversial credit as ‘special photographic effects designer and director,’ remains a sore point among visual effects artisans, although it gifted Kubrick with the film’s only Oscar for ‘Best Special Visual Effects’ in 1969. The rest is history, but suffice to say the detail is all there in Benson’s 444 pages.

Other highlights include Kubrick assistant Andrew Birkin’s travels in Namibia, capturing backgrounds for the Dawn of Man, and his aerial adventures above Scotland, Utah and Arizona for Bowman’s trip Beyond the Infinite. Production designer Tony Masters’ contributions were myriad, engineering ingenious in-camera zero gravity effects, and providing a last-minute sketch of Tycho moon base. We learn how Kubrick’s thorny encounter with scientist Carl Sagan in early preproduction perhaps haunted the filmmaker’s quest for cinematic expressions of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Benson reveals the genesis of the film’s sound design, and how those breathing sound effects were achieved. And he spells out the evolution of the musical score, relating the backstory of how composer Alex North’s original music was quickly severed and jettisoned into orbit.

Benson unsparingly relates reactions of early audiences and critics, who tore the film to shreds after its 1968 New York press screenings. Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, provides heartbreaking testimony to Kubrick’s vulnerability in these moments as the critical community piled on the invective. There is also a telling account of a more perceptive critic, teenage nephew of M-G-M president Maurice Silverstein, who viewed the film by peering through a projection booth window during the film’s first screening for M-G-M. After the icy studio reception, Benson relates, assistant film editor David DeWilde meets the boy in the booth, who announced, “It was the most amazing film I’ve ever seen.”

Stanley Kubrick lines up a shot with Kier Dullea as Bowman in one of Tony Master's sets for the enigmatic third act, beyond the infinite, in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Keith Hamshere / Getty Images.

Director Stanley Kubrick lines up a shot with Keir Dullea as Bowman in one of production designer Tony Master’s sets for the enigmatic third act, beyond the infinite, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Keith Hamshere / Getty Images.

Want to know what Kubrick removed in his final edit when he sliced 19 minutes from the film? You’ll find that here. Astonishingly, eight 70mm prints were at that point in circulation around the U.S., and projectionists received instructions where to make tape splices. The final 161-minute film went on to make history, and Benson relates that journey, too, in an epilogue that details Kubrick’s continued friendship with Arthur Clarke – a rarity for him – Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999, and his funeral on the grounds of his home in Childwickbury Manor, Saint Albans in England. Douglas Trumbull attended the small gathering and made his peace in a personal reflection. But save that for the book.

Space Odyssey is a moving tribute to a great and unique film, and will no doubt add to the resurgence of interest in time for 2001’s 50th anniversary release. However, if you have not yet bought tickets for screenings this week at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, you are out of luck. They are sold out (addendum: the Arclight added shows next week, due to the film’s popularity, but the Dome is at capacity). Stanley would have been proud.

Thanks to Sarah Reidy.

Spotlight – Gurel Mehmet

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Gurel Mehmet is an art director at Cinesite. His career highlights include The Revenant, Inception, The Dark Knight, Atonement and The Tree of Life.

Gurel MehmetCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Gurel?

GUREL MEHMET: After finishing art school, I decided I wanted to work as an illustrator. But I soon came to realize how much harder this was going to be in reality, since I didn’t have an agent and it coincided with the rise of stock photography and computer graphics.

I knew nothing about computers, and while I was struggling to make ends meet I had a meeting with a producer who took a chance on me as she needed a storyboard artist. I knew how to board – I had specialized in filmmaking at school – so it seemed at the time like a perfect reprieve from the struggle of making a living in the creative field.

That led to a brief stint working in commercials as a storyboard artist for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London, which then led to another producer asking me if I’d like to work in film, specifically visual effects. He had seen my portfolio – mostly figurative paintings and drawings – and had somehow decided that I was meant to be working in visual effects. I remember sitting with him in an interview for what seemed like the longest time, trying to convince him throughout why I wasn’t the right candidate!

In truth, I was a student of film. My main references for visual effects were the films I had grown up watching – Ray Harryhausen, Stanley Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, and most of what ILM had created with Star Wars and so forth. I obviously knew about digital effects because of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, but I had never really entertained the idea of working in this field. It seemed otherworldly to me, and I still had ideas of being a traditional illustrator.

So, I felt nervous about the offer and, despite being ambitious, I was afraid of saying ‘yes’ to a job where I was seemingly out of my depth. In the end, I accepted because being unemployed with no contacts wasn’t really an option! That experience led to work on Harry Potter as a matte painter, where a dear colleague of mine decided to course-correct my lack of knowledge. In short, he employed me because I could paint, but decided to train me up on the job. From that point on it just snowballed, and I’ve been lucky enough to be working continually since.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

GUREL MEHMET: I love the early process of a blank slate in preproduction or at script stage. At that point anything can happen, and I love seeing the disparate parts of all the departments coalesce into something that becomes a moving train. In that exploratory stage, the parameters are fast falling into place – location, certain choices that the director might make and so on. It’s an exciting time.

I enjoy creating something from nothing, but I also like working within the constraints of what is either implied in the stage direction or just the practicality of the budgetary limitations. The camaraderie of all the smart and passionate people I work with day in, day out, is infectious and a big reward. I felt like a misfit growing up because I was obsessed with illustration and movies. My colleagues are just as passionate, so falling into this field has always felt natural.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

GUREL MEHMET: Sometimes, due to time or budgetary constraints, there’s a tendency to quote or reference directly what has been made before, particularly in film. While this can be a useful shortcut, I find it quite odd to be asked to specifically emulate what has been made before rather than casting the net wider to include the history of art – or just about anything else out there. Limiting the well of design to other films can often end up producing derivative work.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

GUREL MEHMET: Trying to figure out Tony Stark’s briefcase suit unpacking for Iron Man 2 was tricky. It was hard to arrive at that point because it was a multi-disciplined and experimental approach between concept design, rigging and the animation department.

Another challenge was the Limbo coastline – and Limbo in general – for Inception. It was a very specific idea that Christopher Nolan and Paul Franklin had envisioned, namely that it was obviously architectural but had this strange geological look to it. It was a challenge to find that sweet spot in design, layer upon layer, where the environment looked like it had been abandoned – in a dream, no less – and was decaying over time, as opposed to an area ravaged by war. Early on, I kept painting concepts that looked like a war-torn Beirut, and Paul kept graciously reigning me back in. I then rewatched Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi – the Pruit Igoe scene in particular – and at last the penny dropped. Obviously, I’m contradicting what I said about limiting the well of design, but in that instance it made perfect sense!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

GUREL MEHMET: I suppose most of the stuff I’ve been tasked with is potentially weird! If you’re working as a designer in the film industry, you usually get roped in at the point where what’s required is a representation of the strange and inexplicable.

I had a really interesting time on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was on set for three months working with the visual effects supervisors and the previs team on the Obscurus sequence. I didn’t look at the entire script, but was getting daily notes from Tim Burke and Christian Manz because we were trying to figure out what the look of this dark magic was and how it would manifest.

One day, Ezra Miller, who plays Credence Barebone in the film, came on set. Tim Burke had organized an impromptu shoot for us on one of the sound stages, because we had discussed that maybe the Obscurus could be performance based. Ezra let rip and his brilliant improvised performance then became the basis for all of my concepts. He really did go for it in the moment and his guttural screams and howling changed my assumptions, right there and then, of what this thing could be. It was at that point that I realized the Obscurus was going to be a visual manifestation of depression, abuse and rage, albeit in abstract form. Suddenly the whole thing made sense. Rather than defaulting to a process of elimination, the idea had a potent impetus driving it – at least for me. The realization that such a dark subject matter was going to be played out front and center in a mainstream film was both surprising to me, and gratifying. As a contributor, it’s moments like that that make me pause and smile.

Visual effects for the Obcurus sequence, realized by Double Negative, appear in this breakdown at the 1m20s mark:

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

GUREL MEHMET: If you mean the field of design, I would say there’s been an obvious shift to have concept design be more representational and less illustrative due to the widespread use of 3D applications like ZBrush and Maya. That’s just a given now, even in the early stages of design.

Generally, visual effects has exponentially got to a point where you can do almost anything you can imagine and have it be indistinguishable from photoreality – if that is in fact the aim. Once Hollywood has finished with destroying every major city and changing the sky or lighting in any given shot because they can, it might be nice to re-emphasize visual effects as a storytelling device once again. This does happen from time to time due to the particular relationship between a filmmaker and visual effects supervisor.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

GUREL MEHMET: I’d like to see more recognition for the visual effects community in general. It’s ludicrous that some artists will toil away for hours in the dark only to be omitted from the credit roll due to some arbitrary rule about space.

Although things have started to change, I’d also like to see more effort by all vendors to re-address the equality debate and promote women at all levels, particularly in supervisor roles. I’ve been working in this industry for the better part of two decades and I’ve only worked with one studio-side supervisor who was a woman. That seems odd to me. There is a good shift at visual effects houses with women occupying lead and head of department roles, but there are still very few supervisors out there.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

GUREL MEHMET: Be nice to everyone and don’t be a dick. And don’t do it just because your self-preservation instincts are finely tuned. Focus on what you enjoy and what you’re good at, and if those are in near alignment you’re more than halfway there. Do things for intrinsic values and don’t focus too much on the eventuality of outcome – that way, in terms of position, pay or status, you’re more likely to excel at what you do and have a better time doing it. Lastly, make friends with failure. That may seem like a counterintuitive idea, but it’s during these moments when you can learn the most. None of this is particular to the effects business, but it’s served me well to keep this in mind.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

GUREL MEHMET: 2001: A Space Odyssey – I came to this film as a late bloomer as it was made before my time, so I watched it on television for the first time in my mid-teens while studying for my school exams. I didn’t understand it – does anyone? – but I had never seen anything like it and I still think it’s one of the most beautiful and hypnotic films I’ve ever seen. There are so many great shots and sequences, but I remember being disturbed by the HAL deactivation scene. The blood-red palette of the interior, the sound design of the ventilation and the astronauts breathing apparatus, and then HAL having what could be best described as a mental breakdown, after having begged for his life. It’s still upsetting.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – this is one of my favorite films, and not particularly because it’s an effects film. I had a lonely childhood, so the film resonated with me instantly. I desperately wanted to have a friend like E.T. and even at a young age I could relate to the emotional fallout of what the film alluded to about separation and dysfunctional families. As with 2001, there are a lot of beautiful iconic moments in the film. I love the final shot – the boldness of holding on Henry Thomas’ face as he watches E.T.’s departure.

My favorite scene is Elliot introducing himself to E.T. in his bedroom. The way Elliot is trying to explain his world to E.T. through his toy and trinket collection, as only a child could do, is really funny and touching. The whole scene is photographed beautifully by Allen Daviau, perfectly diffusing the sunlight through the window. The choice of that lighting setup is both technically judicious so as to hide any limitations the animatronics may have had, but there’s also a warmth and mystery to it, which perfectly matches the tone of the scene.

John Carpenter’s The Thing – Rob Bottin’s work on this is still something to marvel at, particularly the chest defibrillation scene. The film is a perfect claustrophobic meditation on paranoia. The slow build-up, Morricone’s minimalist score teasing what might be around the corner, the men bickering with the onset of cabin fever and then, when all hell breaks loose, you find yourself transfixed with pure terror. And yet, you can never quite look away. Beneath the fear, you’re trying to make sense of what you’re actually looking at. It’s part Lovecraft, part Hieronymus Bosch, part whatever the hell was troubling Bottin’s mind at the time!

*Honorable mentions would go to Alien and Blade Runner, for obvious reasons.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

GUREL MEHMET: I would ban all grazing!

CINEFEX: Gurel, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Kirsty Millar

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Kirsty Millar is a visual effects supervisor at Animal Logic. The movies in her filmography highlights include The Matrix, 300, The Great Gatsby and Peter Rabbit.

Kirsty Millar

CINEFEX: Kirsty, how did you get started in the business?

KIRSTY MILLAR: I started out in broadcast television in Sydney. I was on a working holiday in London when I was introduced to the world of compositing. Something clicked and I knew this was what I wanted to master. I moved onto Flame when it was first released and was really fortunate to have some fantastic mentors. I started at Animal Logic when digital film was kicking in, another huge stroke of luck for me as I really loved film compositing. I moved into visual effects supervision from there.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Playing around with visuals and seeing your mind’s eye translated to the monitor. And a freshly completed visual effects bid.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Delivery crunch-times that lead to crazy tiredness and silly mistakes. As a compositor on Moulin Rouge, I was screening the print of a shot I was working on and realized I hadn’t exported the last few frames. We were cutting it fine to get the negative delivered for the final grade and, at nearly three minutes duration, this was considered at the time to be the longest visual effects shot to date. The whole thing had to be shot out and developed again, which took literally days. It was a nail-biting wait. I still remember the shot code after all this time – how tragic is that? Damn you pv005_010_015!

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Trying to brief a Ukrainian crane operator via a Chinese interpreter whilst shooting on location in the Carpathian Mountains. It had started to snow and the sun was going down. But they were so lovely and patient, and we got what we needed in the end with a lot of sign language and gesturing.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KIRSTY MILLAR: At my first job in a broadcast channel, I was told to go and get some more color bars at the hardware shop because the studio had run out. I didn’t fall for it!

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Technology has changed everything. An artist’s digital toolset is now a lot more accessible in terms of cost, so artists are able to have a few more strings to their bows before they enter the workforce. Tax incentives have led to a nomadic existence for a lot of visual effects artists. That’s great when you’re younger, but difficult for families.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

KIRSTY MILLAR: I’d like to see more female directors and visual effects supervisors up on the stage during awards season.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Watch films, read books, and look at art.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Aw geez, only three? That’s tricky.

First would have to be Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I’m dating myself here, but when I saw that film as a child, I thought the scene underwater with the cel-animated bubbles and fish was literally magic.

Next would be Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This really appealed as it came out at a time when it felt like action films were the exclusive enclave of the male hero. Sarah Connor was a strong character in an effects-driven blockbuster. The CG fluid effects and morphs of the T-1000 were incredible.

Although it’s not an effects film, I have to give special mention to Panic Room. The way the camera glided around the interior of the house in the big motion control CG stitch shot was completely spellbinding and set the tension for the film perfectly.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Fantales!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Kirsty!

Spotlight – Miles Green

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Miles Green works as effects department supervisor at Animal Logic. His career highlights include The Lego Movie, Happy Feet, Walking with Dinosaurs, Australia and The Golden Compass.

Miles Green

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Miles?

MILES GREEN: It might surprise you that I was never into film, visual effects or games as a kid. I don’t think my parents ever rented a video, and they were certainly not going to buy me a games console. After leaving school and attending art college, I was keen to get into something creative like sculpture, photography or drawing, but most of the art higher education courses did not appeal to me. Luckily, I stumbled upon a course at Bournemouth in the UK – a BA in computer animation and visualization. Everyone seemed to be getting a job out of it and it was still creative, I also learned the math behind it and how to program too!

After the course, I progressed to teaching Houdini and Maya. I had been offered jobs in London but Bournemouth was laid-back and had a beach and, well, London, was grey. It had a tube of a different sort, one I didn’t want to ride no matter how long it ran for. As luck would have it, a visiting lecturer from Industrial Light & Magic visited Bournemouth one year, we got on well and after I pestered him to employ me and my fellow junior lecturers in San Francisco, he contacted us a year later with the prospect of a job in effects in sunny Sydney. That was for the film Happy Feet at Animal Logic.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

MILES GREEN: I love the amount of creative involvement you can have in effects. If you’re technical, you can build your pipeline and your tools. If you’re also creative, then you can use all those things to run your shots. You can look at the end result and say that you had a part in every step. That’s a good feeling! I like directors and designers who know what they want, who have something in mind and can tell you how best to achieve it, or paint a good-looking frame. Life in Sydney is also amazing. The sun’s always shining, it’s a short ride to work through beautiful suburbs and parks – never a bad start to the day!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MILES GREEN: Directors and designers who don’t know what they want. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they have seen it – it might be that after 99 versions they pick the first version you presented them! Also the words: “Show me something unimaginable.”

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

MILES GREEN: My first supervisor role was challenging, not so much from a technical perspective but for the sheer scale of the project and managing so many crew. It was stressful and I nearly quit effects. The best lesson I learned was that you can’t do everything. But if you try your best and tackle things in small steps you can achieve most things.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MILES GREEN: Trying to convince people to move to Australia for work. It’s sunny, has free healthcare, beautiful scenery, a population that generally understands sarcasm, and great beaches.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

MILES GREEN: Previously, talented students came from animation universities and courses. But with the advance of online learning and resources, we now pick up many self-taught students who are really good! Open source is going great guns. All these open formats like VDB, USD and alembic are taking over and custom formats are falling out of favor. Houdini has changed too. When I started, it was only available in black and white – joke! – but really not many people used it for effects. Now it’s everywhere and it’s getting stronger and stronger, as it should. SideFX is a great team that listens to the industry and cares about it.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MILES GREEN: Film royalties would be great!

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

MILES GREEN: If you’re producing your first showreel, make it concise and show only your very best work. Three to six short clips of high quality effects is fine. If you can be technical as well as creative it is a real advantage, as few people are good at both. If you are, you can join the other technical directors setting up shows and pipelines, which means you might be employed for longer than just the shot-producing part of a project. Or try to focus on just the creative aspects and have a few specialisms that you know inside out. Effects teams often like to have specialists in a few disciplines like water, rigid bodies, smoke and fire, or particles.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

MILES GREEN: I generally prefer films without effects, because I can relax and not wonder “Is that CG?” or “How did they do that?” My top would be Trainspotting, because it reminds me of the UK. Porco Rosso, because it’s weird, and The Iron Giant, just because it’s nice.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MILES GREEN: I like popcorn with sugar on it but they don’t sell it over here in Sydney. They just have salted or butter!

CINEFEX: Miles, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Tara Conley

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Tara Conley is a senior visual effects producer at Image Engine. Ask her about her movie career highlights, and she’ll tell you how much she enjoyed working on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Thor: Ragnarok, Game of Thrones, Pacific Rim and Immortals.

Tara Conley

CINEFEX: Tara, how did you get started in the business?

TARA CONLEY: I actually ended up in the visual effects industry completely by accident. I had just finished my diploma in broadcast communications at BCIT, and was working several jobs to make ends meet. One of these jobs was at Rainmaker as a scanner assistant in postproduction. Essentially, my job was to assist during the color transfer of film to tape, by syncing up the audio with the picture. After three months, a position opened up in visual effects. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to jump into a world I knew really nothing about, getting my feet wet as a visual effects coordinator.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

TARA CONLEY: I love the personal relationships I have built because of this industry. We tend to be a close-knit group since we are deep in the trenches together, at the best and the worst of times. Our crew becomes like a second family, and the camaraderie I have seen over the years is truly outstanding.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TARA CONLEY: I always make it my personal mission to protect my crew to maintain a work-life balance. I feel the best work comes out of a crew that is happy, and happiness stems from having time for all facets of our lives. When forces beyond my control impede that, it makes me feel like I have failed.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

TARA CONLEY: One of the biggest challenges of my career was being part of the Rodeo FX expansion. When I started with them in 2009, we were about 15 people working in the basement of a building in Montreal. By the time I left to head out west, we had become a global operation, working alongside what was once our bread-and-butter client Industrial Light & Magic on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, as a competing vendor. Where I was once the sole producer, by the time of my departure I was one of six producers supporting a team of over 200 artists in Montreal, 30 in Quebec City, and 15 in Los Angeles.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TARA CONLEY: I don’t know if this is the weirdest, but at the time it happened it was unique! While I was working at Rainmaker, we had taken on the daunting task of making Will Ferrell and Jon Heder into professional figure skaters. Back in 2007, CG face replacement was definitely a tricky order. It was pretty hilarious seeing these shots become a reality, and to this day many people ask me, “What were the visual effects in Blades of Glory?”

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

TARA CONLEY: The main changes in my mind would be technology. Visual effects that were once so complicated can now be achieved with great ease. I find it incredible that with the advancement of technology, and of course the talent behind it, we can create stunning photorealistic work.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TARA CONLEY: I feel visual effects is still very much a male-dominated industry. I would love to see more powerful women dive in and embrace key roles.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

TARA CONLEY: Roll your sleeves up and prepare to pay your dues. We all started at the bottom and worked a lot of not-so-glamourous hours to get to where we are now. Patience, perseverance, and a passion for the craft will get you there.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

TARA CONLEY: Okay so here we go! First things first, I would say Star Wars. I think this movie really started it all. Second up is none other than The Matrix. I think we all remember ‘bullet time,’ where Keanu Reeves dodges bullets fired at him by an agent while the camera circles around him. My third pick would be Jurassic Park. I might be biased as we are currently wrapping out of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, however in terms of creature work, I feel it was really the beginning of putting fully animated creatures into a live action environment.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TARA CONLEY: My guilty pleasure is nachos with processed cheese sauce!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Tara!

Now Showing – Cinefex 158

Cinefex 158 - From the Editor's Desk

Pow! Smash! Has there ever been an issue of Cinefex more packed with superheroes than this one? We think not!

So why all the musclepower? The reason is simple – we’re celebrating 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a special anniversary edition of Cinefex. Surrounding our coverage of Black Panther is an exclusive set of in-depth articles that explore the Marvel Studios phenomenon like never before.

Here’s Jody Duncan, Cinefex editor-in-chief, with the lowdown on the highlights of Cinefex 158:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

To borrow from Monty Python’s Flying Circus – And Now for Something Completely Different!

That’s how we feel about our special Marvel Studios 10th Anniversary Issue. Everything about it is different. With the exception of Graham Edwards’ Black Panther story, the articles run far afield of the usual Cinefex fare. The issue includes a long Q&A with Marvel Studios executive producer Victoria Alonso, for example, as well as a virtual ‘roundtable,’ in which visual effects artisans who have worked on the first 18 Marvel Studios films discuss what distinguishes the studio’s approach to epic superhero filmmaking.

Joe Fordham visited the hallowed halls of Marvel’s venerated Vis Dev group to gather commentaries for his art department story. I went through Cinefex’s coverage of the 18 films to assemble a textual ‘highlights reel’ of those films’ visual effects work. A tribute to Stan Lee rounds out the issue.

The issue was ‘different’ for our production team, as well, requiring all new layout templates and an unusual approach to image gathering. For example, the art department story is illustrated with wonderful concept art renderings – something we often wish we could get for our ‘typical’ articles, but rarely do.

All in all, creating this issue has been a lot of fun for us. We hope that it will be fun for you, the reader, as well!

Cinefex 158 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already powering its way to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

How to Motion Capture a Horse

How to motion capture a horse, courtesty of Animatrik

Motion capture is easy, right? You just put your actors in those funky suits with the bobbles on, record their antics, and use the data to drive your characters.

If only it were so simple. Any motion capture session is merely the start of a long, complex process that relies on skilled animators to adapt and interpret the data, before adding their own creative input. That’s true for human characters, and it’s also true for animals.

Sara Cameron, producer at performance capture and virtual production studio Animatrik, shared her recent experiences capturing the movement of horses for a videogame project currently in development.

Animatrik motion captured horses for a videogame project by mounting over 44 cameras on the walls and in the rafters of a riding stables.

Animatrik motion captured horses for a videogame project by mounting over 44 cameras on the walls and in the rafters of a riding stables.

First and foremost, any large animal needs a correspondingly large amount of space to move around in – and even the most well-trained horse can be unpredictable. Animatrik therefore sourced suitable riding stables in which to stage the action. “A studio just isn’t set up to have horses galloping through it,” commented Cameron.

Before the shoot, Animatrik undertook tests at an indoor riding arena specifically chosen for its low light levels – beneficial for a motion capture system that uses infrared light. The next step involved renting a life-size plastic horse. The team covered its body with retro-reflective markers to ensure the data would accurately reflect bone length, joint change and other specific elements of motion. Since the markers would need to stay in place at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, the team also tracked down a sweat-resistant adhesive made specifically for horses.

The team undertook initial tests using a plastic horse.

The team undertook initial tests using a plastic horse.

“I tested the markers on my Rottweiler and got her to run around the studio,” recalled Cameron. “The tape didn’t bother her, which is important – the animal’s safety and comfort is our first concern. But, as we discovered through shooting, dogs don’t sweat through their skin the way horses do. On the first day, the horses were dripping with sweat and markers kept falling off!”

The solution was to tape up four horses at once. If the markers fell off one horse during a gallop, the others could continue while that animal went back to a motion capture specialist to be recalibrated. As each horse dropped out, another was always available to take its place.

Each horse wore sweat-resistant markers, which were tracked by the motion capture camera array.

Each horse wore sweat-resistant markers, which were tracked by the motion capture camera array.

The final shoot lasted for two full days, during which the crew used Animatrik’s motion capture road kit to track a total of seven horses. For safety reasons, putting cameras on tripods at ground level was not an option. Instead the team mounted cameras on walls and rafters, and positioned themselves above the action on a boom lift.

Complicating the process was the fact that – just like humans – no two horses are the same. Movements that come naturally for certain animals will inevitably cause others to recoil or rear up. Managing choreography for each individual horse across over 200 shots was therefore a significant challenge.

“Going from a standstill straight into a gallop wouldn’t be suitable, or healthy, for some of the horses on set,” Cameron explained. “ I broke up the moves, grouping the shots into skills for each horse. From there, I organized them into a sequence of moves that allowed the horse to go from walking to trotting and more, all with fluidity.”

Successfully concluding the motion capture process was, of course, simply the first step down a much longer path. “The priority for our specialists was to achieve true motion properly scaled to each horse,” said Cameron. “That way, the post production team would have raw size and rotation information, and could decide on an artistic level how to add them into the game engine.”

All photographs courtesy of Animatrik. Special thanks to Georgia Dawson.

Spotlight – Raphael DeAlmeida Pimentel

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Raphael DeAlmeida Pimentel works as an animation supervisor and animation director at Luma. Picking some of his most memorable assignments from a list of over 80 screen credits, he lists No Country For Old Men, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool, Prometheus, Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther.

Raphael DeAlmeida Pimentel

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Raphael?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: The Goonies was my first ‘wow’ moment at the movies, when I was six, and Jurassic Park was my first ‘wow’ moment with visual effects when I was 14. After watching Jurassic Park, I knew I wanted to work in films and in visual effects in some facet. Also, I have always had a long attention span: if I played with my G.I. Joes, I’d do it all day; if I was using Microsoft Paint on my sister’s Windows 95 machine, I would use it all day. I think this mindset of long concentration moments as a kid has helped me in animation in a lot of ways, since animation and concentration go hand in hand.

When I attended Miami Beach Senior High School, I didn’t write my schedule in the folders, I drew the teachers. Actually, I sat near the back of the classroom and drew most of the time. But I knew when to pay attention and when to goof off. My girlfriend at the time, Emilie, asked me what I was going to do after high school, and mentioned that an art college could be a good option since I was into the arts and film. At the time, I was deciding between film or art school, or the Air Force.

In 2004, after three years and a B.A. at the Miami International University of Art & Design, I began sending my animation demo reel to a few visual effects studios in Los Angeles. Luma was the first one to call me back and setup an interview. I remember walking into Luma and being nervous, especially since I had never worked with films before. As soon as I began showing my portfolio to the CEO, Payam Shohadai – who was also the visual effects supervisor at the time – I started to feel very comfortable. I ended the interview with a very bold, borderline-arrogant statement – I promised Payam that although I had no film experience, if he only gave me a chance to prove myself, I would become his best and fastest animator. I got hired as an animator that afternoon. He kept his end of the bargain and I kept mine. Here we are in 2018, over 80 film credits later and almost 60 of those as animation supervisor at Luma.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: Tapping into the creativity of our animators and watching them become better artists. Creativity is contagious and inspiring for a team, and artists use inspiration as fuel for creativity. Being able to see a team improving and becoming more creative and collaborative through the course of a show is pretty rad.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: Man, I am a crier! Two minutes into Wall-E I was crying. Boogers running down my nose and everything. Crazy.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

Raphael-A-Pimentel-2RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: As an animator, it would be animating 20 pronghorn antelopes across two shots on No Country For Old Men. I created this entire social hierarchy within the herd, where the moms would be closer to the young bucks and does. The males were in the outer region protecting the herd with the exception of the alpha, who was more towards the center and more observant – especially having a 320-degree field of view, which all antelopes have giving the size and placement of their eyeballs. Oddly enough, he is the one that gets shot. It took me two months from block to final. I was working with the Coen Brothers for the first time and wanted to make sure they loved the work.

As a supervisor, it would probably be Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy. He had never been done before in the MCU, with the exception of a quick glimpse after the end credits of The Avengers, where we only see his face. Luma had done dozens of quality characters prior, but being a huge fan of Marvel Comics, the pressure of making Thanos as amazing as possible was more personal. I wanted to do right for the fans. The model, textures – his entire world for that matter – was built from scratch at Luma. We received facial data reference of Josh Brolin performing the dialogue, and I performed the body motion capture for his condescending dialogue with Ronan the Accuser. Our talented animation department took it from there. Fun fact: I animated the last shot in that sequence where Thanos sits back on his throne and breaks into a psychotic grin.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: Weirdest and also the awesomest. On Deadpool, I animated the severing of a goon’s head with a katana sword and then had it kicked it onto another goon, all in one move. Thank you, Tim Miller!

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: For me, the word ‘animation’ barely means what it used to. The stuff we animate today in visual effects is boundless. At Luma, most of our animators are technical artists. Some are also riggers and set up their own controllers in order to speed up their workflow. For example, we animated every single piece of the church bending on Doctor Strange, right? All rigged and setup by animators. It speeds up our workflow and iteration time for our clients, which is paramount. Most Luma animators are also proficient with physics tools, which we use to check gravity and arcs. I am a firm believer in only bending the rules once we understand the rules.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: Visual effects artists being credited properly.

Raphael DeAlmeida Pimentel

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: Moviemaking is a team sport. Most people who are arrogant, or more into themselves than the greater good of a project, tend to not stick around too long. As my mom always said, “Be nice.”

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: I would probably need two different audiences at my mini-festival. Maybe separate adults and kids screenings?

Apocalypse Now – for practical effects. Don’t hold back. Blow your budget in the first 10 minutes with massive explosions! Who cares?

The Goonies and Labyrinth – for special effects. I don’t care how many times I’ve watched them – I have so much respect for on-set animatronics, puppeteering, stop-motion and so on.

Jurassic Park – for visual effects. Hopefully some kid will see a film I worked on and feel the same way I did.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

RAPHAEL A. PIMENTEL: Oh, popcorn! With a little butter and salt. Nothing comes even close!

CINEFEX: Raphael, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Harrison Ellenshaw

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

With some people, it’s hard to describe their career in brief. That’s certainly true of Harrison Ellenshaw. By turns, he’s worked as a director, visual effects supervisor, associate producer, matte artist, second unit director, title designer, supervisor of film restoration and preservation … the list goes on. As for his screen credit highlights, where to begin? If we just listed Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Tron, Ghost and Dick Tracy, we’d be skipping over The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Black Hole, Honey I Blew Up the Kid and many more. Perhaps we should just get on with the interview.

Harrison Ellenshaw in his studio

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Harrison?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Truthfully, my first big break was being born into a family of filmmakers and artists! I grew up in England, where my father, Peter Ellenshaw, worked as a matte artist for Walt Disney Productions, MGM and Warner Brothers. When I was eight years old, we moved to Sherman Oaks in California, so my father could continue working for Disney, at the studio in Burbank.

I attended Dixie Canyon Elementary School and then Harvard School for Boys – now Harvard-Westlake – in North Hollywood. After that, I went to Whittier College in Whittier, California; its most (in)famous alum is Richard Milhouse Nixon. I graduated in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

In late 1970, I had just finished a three-year stint as a junior officer in the Navy. I was looking forward to getting back to the ‘real world’ and perhaps enjoying a successful career in advertising or marketing, living in Connecticut in a large house with a big lawn, a rose garden and two well behaved golden retrievers named Goldie and Murphy, and two cats named Fred and Ethel. It was either that, or moving to Australia and managing a self-storage facility in Perth.

Then, I changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to move, and started looking for a job in L.A. However, although my father and my grandfather, Walter Percy Day, were both visual effects artists, I had no desire to follow in their rather large and intimidating footsteps. I wanted to make a name for myself, on my own.

Soon reality reared its ugly head. The country was in a recession and jobs were hard to find, even for a psychology major. The only work available was in social services or selling life insurance. Not exactly my thing. But I was not about to panic – at least not right away. After a few more months of no job offers and a dwindling number of interviews, I was running low on cash and self esteem.

I started collecting unemployment and watching daytime soap operas. With little hope of meaningful employment, I was bored, depressed and slowly going out of my mind! Even Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns couldn’t raise my flagging spirits. Then, within a couple of months, Alan Maley, head of Disney Studios’ matte department, called and offered me a job as an apprentice matte artist. My take home pay would be $68 a week.

I took the job.

It was pretty obvious that my father had asked Alan, his former assistant, to take pity on me, promising him that I would happily wash brushes and take out the trash in the matte room without complaint. I considered it just a temporary job – certainly not the beginning of a career path I had ever really contemplated.

Nevertheless, Alan became my mentor, teaching me to paint, showing me how to load a VistaVision camera and – most important – how to run a Moviola without scratching the work print. Soon I was immersed in the world of film emulsions, f-stops, edge numbers, bi-packing, separation masters, and the joys of perspective, composition and acrylic paints. I had become seduced by the process of making ‘movie magic.’

I was at Disney less than four years when Alan, unexpectedly, decided to retire and hand over the reins of the matte department to me. The Disney execs were a bit stunned by his sudden decision and started to panic when they realized that Alan’s hand-picked successor had very little real experience in visual effects. But Alan assured them that if I couldn’t do the job, he would come back to run the department again.

I think I did okay, because Alan never came back.

I stayed at Disney for five more years. Working on all their live-action films, I even found time to take on some ‘outside’ projects, including The Man Who Fell to Earth, Star Wars and Big Wednesday.

As Industrial Light & Magic matte department supervisor, Harrison Ellenshaw oversaw the production of some 70 paintings for “The Empire Strikes Back,” working alongside matte painters Michael Pangrazio and Ralph McQuarrie and assistant matte photographer Craig Barron. Ellenshaw produced many of the paintings himself, including this artwork showing Boba Fett’s spaceship Slave One on a Bespin landing platform.

As Industrial Light & Magic matte department supervisor, Harrison Ellenshaw oversaw the production of some 70 paintings for “The Empire Strikes Back,” working alongside matte painters Michael Pangrazio and Ralph McQuarrie and assistant matte photographer Craig Barron. Ellenshaw produced many of the paintings himself, including this artwork showing Boba Fett’s spaceship Slave One on a Bespin landing platform.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: I loved shooting miniatures. I also loved stealing shots – which means guerrilla filmmaking without getting required permits – and playing wiffleball with the effects animators and staff in the parking lot of Olsen Lane & White, the independent effects facility we created from scratch in 1986 to do effects on Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Every new project was a different challenge, and I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the luminaries and legends in the business. Most of all, I’ve been fortunate to work with dozens of talented men and women who always made me look good. That is what really makes me grin!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Visiting the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C.

During postproduction on “Tron,” individual 65mm frames of film were enlarged onto 12½x20-inch Kodalith animation cels. By employing a series of reverses and holdout mattes, selected portions of the images were brought to glowing life on an animation stand using back-lighting and color filters.

During postproduction on “Tron,” individual 65mm frames of film were enlarged onto 12½x20-inch Kodalith animation cels. By employing a series of reverses and holdout mattes, selected portions of the images were brought to glowing life on an animation stand using back-lighting and color filters.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

Harrison Ellenshaw (left) and Richard W. Taylor co-supervised special effects for “Tron.”

Harrison Ellenshaw (left) and Richard W. Taylor co-supervised special effects for “Tron.”

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Three immediately come to mind. The first is Tron – we accomplished something spectacular that had never been done or seen before.

The second was dealing with the infamous Cannon Films and its owners, Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, who produced Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Those guys were double DDs – delusional and dysfunctional.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films. A cautionary tale to be sure.

I once had a meeting with Menahem in his suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London, where he insisted that I had to add dripping blood to the fingernails of Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), Superman’s nemesis in Superman IV  – even though it wasn’t in the script. Menahem had seen a billboard on his way in from Heathrow for an Iron Maiden concert with band members showing off bleeding fingernails. Of course, Menahem had never read the Superman IV script – he bragged that he never bothered reading any scripts! Additionally, he never bothered paying any of his bills either. It took me over a year, with many irate phone calls and the threat of law suit, to finally get my back salary. When I did, sure enough, the check bounced! The positive side about that whole rather unfortunate experience was that I had the opportunity to work with Christopher Reeve. Great guy. A real class act.

But perhaps my biggest challenge came in 1996, when I was trying to hold Buena Vista Visual Effects (BVVE) together as the Disney execs were determined to dismantle it and lay-off 60-plus people. It was an ill-conceived idea, since we were making a profit – something few effects facilities can accomplish – as well bringing in a lot of outside work. Go figure.

At least I was able to delay the shutdown.

Fortunately, BVVE had signed contracts, approved by the Disney legal department, to produce visual effects for two Paramount films – The Phantom and Escape from L.A. – so we could keep the facility going for an additional three or four months past the scheduled shutdown. There’s more information on that in the article Escape from L.A., Hasta La Buena Vista in Cinefex 67.

Through the summer of 1996, BVVE stayed in business – just barely – keeping the wolves away from the door. The higher-ups at Disney were having their own issues including the exit of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the brief tenure of Michael Ovitz and stockholder lawsuits galore – it was a management in deep crisis. My reporting structure kept changing, almost daily. For a brief time, I even reported to the company’s general counsel, a senior lawyer who had no experience trying to understand visual effects or even movies.

After more shuffling, I ended up reporting to the manager of studio operations. A decent guy in charge of the commissary, the gardeners and the transportation department. His day consisted of making sure the paper towel dispensers in the restrooms never ran out of paper towels, and answering a peeved exec’s question about why there was not enough won-ton in the won-ton soup from the commissary. True story – I’m not making this stuff up!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: The Man Who Fell to Earth, my first non-Disney movie, was pretty weird. In fact, very, very weird. A script that made no sense and a film that made even less sense. I’d fly out every few days to the location in Alamagordo, New Mexico, and there were entire days when the cast and director never showed up on set since they were probably still stoned from the night before!

For “Dick Tracy,” Harrison Ellenshaw joined co-supervisors Michael Lloyd and Steve Rundell at Buena Vista Visual Effects Group, where a team that included matte artists Michele Moen and Paul Lasaine created a total of 55 matte shots.

For “Dick Tracy,” Harrison Ellenshaw joined co-supervisors Michael Lloyd and Steve Rundell at Buena Vista Visual Effects Group, where a team that included matte artists Michele Moen and Paul Lasaine created a total of 55 matte shots.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: The rise in the number of ‘specialists’ needed to create an effects shot – rotoscoper, compositor, color corrector, visual effects coordinator, visual effects supervisor, visual effects producer, visual effects accountant, previs artist, IT person, assistant IT person, assistant to the assistant … and so on. Even the interns now have assistants!

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Better on-set safety for cast and crew. No shot is ever worth endangering life or limb. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: Be careful what you wish for. Nevertheless, do what you love and love what you do. Bottom line – the effects business is not going to be what you think it will be. The good news is: it may be better. The bad news is: it can be worse.

Harrison Ellenshaw was special visual effects supervisor on “Captain EO,” a 17-minute 3D film starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, shown at Disney theme parks from 1986-1996.

Harrison Ellenshaw was special visual effects supervisor on “Captain EO,” a 17-minute 3D film starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, shown at Disney theme parks from 1986-1996.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: My four favorites are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Brazil and Top Gun. They are all on my list because the effects in each movie were an integral part of the story. Though, in the case of 2001, I’m not really sure if there was a comprehensive story anywhere in the film.

Two favorite sequences stand out for me, both from 2001. The shuttle docking with the spinning space station, and the Pan Am stewardess plucking Dr. Heywood Floyd’s pen out of mid-air then exiting the rotating cabin.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

HARRISON ELLENSHAW: I don’t take snacks into a movie theater. I go there to watch a movie, not to eat. Besides, Red Vines get stuck in my teeth.

CINEFEX: Harrison, thanks for your time!

Photographs courtesy of Harrison Ellenshaw.

ATROPA: The Series – VFX Q&A

"ATROPA: The Series" - A Cinefex VFX Q&A

In the web serial ATROPA: The Series, off-world detective Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and the crew of a drifting spaceship face a cosmic mystery that not only redefines their perception of time and space, but also threatens to send them spinning to their doom. A nostalgic throwback to sci-fi films of old, ATROPA: The Series sends its cast of spacefaring characters down grimy ship corridors and confronts them with the dangers of deep space in their perilous quest for universal truth.

ATROPA: The Series began life in 2015, when filmmaker Eli Sasich made a short film — called simply ATROPA — as a pitch for a feature script. Having released the short online, Sasich went through a long development process aimed at bringing the story to the big screen, before ultimately realizing the project as a seven-episode series backed by Vimeo and released through Vivendi’s STUDIO+ platform.

Watch the trailer for ATROPA: The Series:

Cinefex talked to Sasich about the original short in a Q&A on this blog — you can read the article here. Following the release of ATROPA: The Series, we caught up with the writer-director again — joined this time by visual effects supervisor Ryan Wieber — to discuss the project in its finished form.

CINEFEX — Last time we spoke, Eli, you were trying to get ATROPA off the ground as a feature. How far down the road did you get?

ELI SASICH — We got really far. We had Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop involved — I even went out to New Zealand and looked at stage space — but for numerous reasons it didn’t end up going. But, I always remembered that we’d had a great response to the pitch film online, and I’d had such a great experience with the team that made it. So I thought maybe we could cut this feature script into episodes and make it as a web series.

CINEFEX — How did you go about doing that?

ELI SASICH — I wanted to keep the original pilot intact, so I truncated the feature script, made three characters into one, all the things you have to do to simplify. It worked really well — there were natural cliffhangers every 10-15 minutes. We were going to crowdfund it on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Then I got connected with Vimeo, and they said, “No, we’ll just pay for it!” We were thrilled!

In "ATROPA: The Series," created by Eli Sasich, an interstellar detective boards a missing starship moments before it collides with its doppelganger, sparking a chain of events that will call into question the very laws of space and time.

In “ATROPA: The Series,” created by Eli Sasich, an interstellar detective boards a missing starship moments before it collides with its doppelganger, sparking a chain of events that will call into question the very laws of space and time.

CINEFEX — You said that your intention was to leave the original short unchanged. Is that how it turned out?

ELI SASICH — It’s the exact same edit. We just added a planet in the background of the space shots. That was always in the feature script as a big story point, but in the original pitch film we didn’t need it. Our composer Kevin Riepl did an all-new score as well.

CINEFEX — The score throughout the series has an epic feel. Was that something you deliberately set out to achieve?

ELI SASICH — It was. Kevin and I really wanted to have a classic, romanticized orchestral score, because we felt the visuals could handle a really big sound. For the pitch film, we used a lot of Kevin’s score for the game Aliens: Colonial Marines. Obviously, when we turned it into the series, we couldn’t use that. But the gauntlet was already thrown down, so we made the decision to record with a live orchestra.

CINEFEX — You shot the original short at Laurel Canyon Stages in Los Angeles. Did you go back there to make the series?

ELI SASICH — We did and it hadn’t changed, which was really bizarre and kind of exciting. There was a point while we were shooting episode two, Doppelganger, when we re-created a shot of everyone looking out through the spaceship window. It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. It was two years later, and all the same actors were back and most of the same crew, and we were all just kind of looking at each other. It was surreal and wonderful. My assistant director got a little annoyed because we had to stop and take a picture!

CINEFEX — Laurel Canyon has a standing set comprising two spaceship corridors set perpendicular to each other. Did you expand that with additional sets?

ELI SASICH — Yes, but we just kitbashed everything we could find at Laurel Canyon. We took flats and different things they had built for other productions, reconfigured them and set dressed them to make new spaces.

CINEFEX — How did you structure the visual effects department?

RYAN WIEBER — The department was basically me! I had a handful of folks doing a half-dozen shots here, one shot there, just to help fill in the gaps — I was calling in any favors that I had to help get our 333 visual effects shots done. The main CG vendor was The Light Works, led by Tobias Richter — they were responsible for the all-CG exterior shots of the spaceships and they built the Core, our virtual location. I composited the Core shots but they did the comps for their space shots, and then we put on a little spit-shine of our own, like lens flares and grain. We also had over 100 shots with motion graphic display screens, which were designed, animated and composited by Ricardo Elliott II. He was creatively supervised by myself and Eli, but I let him take full ownership of that.

ELI SASICH — The Earth-based sequences in episode four were done by BluFire Studios, the company that I worked with on my short film HENRi. They did flying vehicles and set extensions, and also a robot. It was fun to have them come back and do another robot for me!

Watch a breakdown video showcasing some of the key visual effects shots from ATROPA: The Series:

CINEFEX — Let’s take a closer look at the visual effects, episode by episode. Tell me about this planet that you added to the pitch film, which is now episode one of the series, Pilot.

ELI SASICH — I always knew I wanted a gaseous planet, and I wanted it to be blue — I think I probably got that color from LV-426 in Aliens. Because of a particular story point, we talked a lot about whether it’s actually a planet at all — ultimately that’s up to the viewer. For that reason, we really wanted to keep the surface hidden. Also for story reasons, it had to have a ring.

Sasich made the original short "ATROPA" as a pitch for a feature-length project. Unchanged but for a new music score and enhanced space shots, the short eventually became episode one of a web serial.

Sasich made the original short “ATROPA” as a pitch for a feature-length project. Unchanged but for a new music score and enhanced space shots, the short eventually became episode one of a web serial.

CINEFEX — Since we covered this episode in our earlier interview, let’s skip straight onto episode two, Doppelganger. This is where we first see the Core — the reactor control room of the spaceship ATROPA.

ELI SASICH — We couldn’t build an entire Core room, but we really wanted to have some scope to that environment. So we knew we were getting into a digital set. Our production designer, Alec Contestabile, built an elevated walkway that was maybe 60-70 feet long, with a little control room at the end. The rest was greenscreen.

Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and Moira Freeman (Jeannie Bolét) meet in the Core. Production designer Alec Contestabile built the walkway and control room, which visual effects expanded using CG set extensions.

Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and Moira Freeman (Jeannie Bolét) meet in the Core. Production designer Alec Contestabile built the walkway and control room, which visual effects expanded using CG set extensions.

RYAN WIEBER — I had a concept artist, Ian Galvin, explore the general shape of the space — we wanted it to be warm and steamy, kind of like an engine room, somewhere that wouldn’t be comfortable. It was important to me to have some big structural components, and this big drive shaft coming in overhead. We had some recurring elements to sell the scale, like catwalks and little cage lights. We turned that over to Tobias, and he kitbashed and embellished it.

ELI SASICH — I wanted to make sure there were railings. Unlike Star Wars, no-one’s falling over the edge of this!

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CINEFEX — The camera is pretty mobile in some of those Core shots. Was it a big deal tracking your CG environment into the live-action plates?

RYAN WIEBER — I used SynthEyes for all of the 3D tracking that I could do myself, which was everything except the stuff in the Core. Those shots had free moves, with a lot of anamorphic lens distortion and subtle rack focusing, so I outsourced the tracking to Basilic Fly in India. I furnished them with set measurements, and they delivered back a totally rectified world space. I handed that off to Tobias and The Light Works and they built the set around it.

Freeman crosses between spaceships on a ‘mag-tether’ cable, in this shot created by a team at The Light Works, led by visual effects supervisor Tobias Richter.

Freeman crosses between spaceships on a ‘mag-tether’ cable, in this shot created by a team at The Light Works, led by visual effects supervisor Tobias Richter.

CINEFEX — In Doppelganger, there’s a sequence where Cole crosses on a ‘mag-tether’ cable from the ATROPA to her twin ship — which has just mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. How did you put those shots together?

ELI SASICH — I wanted to get as much of our actor in there as possible, so we built a little airlock door and shot a couple of days with Tony on wires in front of a greenscreen. The rest was CG with a digi-double.

CINEFEX — It’s a little reminiscent of the spacewalk between the Alexei Leonov and the Discovery in 2010, both in terms of the staging and the look of the ships.

ELI SASICH — I always wanted this be a homage to those films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. We tried to keep the CG camera moves very deliberate, to fit in with that style and also have continuity with how the rest of the show was shot. In the past, Tobias has done beautiful models of the Star Trek ships, so he’s really got paneling down! We just pushed it even further to really see every nut and bolt and give it that grungy look.

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CINEFEX — The zero-gee action continues when Cole is inside the ATROPA’s sister ship, where the artificial gravity has failed. How did you float your actor through the set?

ELI SASICH — We put him on a parallelogram on a dolly. I was nervous, because there was this giant piece of machinery and these two stunt guys pushing it through those corridors. I kept looking at Ryan and saying, “You’re sure you can erase all this stuff?”

CINEFEX — Did you shoot clean plates to help with crew and rig removal?

RYAN WIEBER — Yeah. We cleared everything out and our director of photography, Greg Cotten, did his best to re-create the shot movement and rack focusing. With a little fudging here and time remapping there, we got all the pieces that we needed. We called them ‘dirty clean plates!’

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CINEFEX — There are lots of props floating around that spaceship interior. Are those CG or practical?

RYAN WIEBER — Some were CG, but I also borrowed a few props and did an element shoot at home on a little turntable, trying to match lighting as best I could. Then, for the shot where Cole grabs the cup, we wanted it to be a real thing there and not have a CG handoff. I built a little multi-axis rotation rig with a magnet on the inside of the cup, and a motor and a stick with a magnet on the end.

Captain McKay (David M. Edelstien), Moira, Cole and Andrew Jensen (Ben Kliewer) study a holographic display that offers clues as to their predicament.

Captain McKay (David M. Edelstien), Moira, Cole and Andrew Jensen (Ben Kliewer) study a holographic display that offers clues as to their predicament.

CINEFEX — In episode three, Time, a holographic display on the bridge explains some of the mysteries behind what’s happened to the ATROPA and its crew. How long did it take to put that sequence together?

RYAN WIEBER — I did it all myself in a week! That was a big piece of trust on Eli’s part, because that scene was laying down some answers to the questions that were set up in the first episode, and also setting up the current predicament. So it was important that it made visual sense. I had ideas in my head but they were very difficult to articulate, so it was just like, “Let me do this, and trust me!”

CINEFEX — How did you create the holograms?

RYAN WIEBER — I did everything in that sequence in After Effects, because I wanted to use a plugin called Plexus which enabled me to do some nice triangulation stuff, with all these dots connecting together.

CINEFEX — Was it then just a case of comping the holograms into the live-action plates?

RYAN WIEBER — Well, the original intention was to build the whole projector box on set and just put the holograms in. Then we realized we needed to throw a lot of light onto the actors, so it ended up essentially just being a big white softbox, which we replaced. I built a CG projector out of prefabricated stuff using Element 3D in After Effects. There are two hero shots with full-frame hologram stuff, and it’s all completely CG — there’s nothing left from the original footage.

Ryan Wieber created the hologram using Adobe After Effects, combining motion graphics with CG set elements in order to integrate the display into the live-action plates. Hologram close-ups were fully digital.

Ryan Wieber created the hologram using Adobe After Effects, combining motion graphics with CG set elements in order to integrate the display into the live-action plates. Hologram close-ups were fully digital.

CINEFEX — Time also includes a blink-and-you-miss-it twinning shot. There’s a camera move that begins with Sanders, played by Chris Voss, lying sedated on a gurney, and ends on his doppelganger on the other side of the medbay. Are you going to reveal where the join is?

ELI SASICH — Maybe! To begin with, we really needed a shot to sell the two of them together. Originally we were going to do a boom up and over to the other bed, but just in terms of the geography of the set it couldn’t work that way. So we worked out a new version that was a much more complicated move, with an old-fashioned wipe in the middle of it.

RYAN WIEBER — Due credit to our actress playing Moira, Jeannie Bolét, who walks by in the shot. She was like a human motion control — she performed that perfectly every time. But she’s a misdirection as far as where you’d think the wipe would be, because when she exits the frame Chris is still over on the right. The seam is actually fully visible in the middle of the frame for a lot of the shot — we just tried to put it where you’re not really looking.

Cole started his mission on board the space station “Valley Forge,” as revealed in episode four of “ATROPA: The Series.” The Light Works fashioned fully digital wide shots of the orbital platform.

Cole started his mission on board the space station “Valley Forge,” as revealed in episode four of “ATROPA: The Series.” The Light Works fashioned fully digital wide shots of the orbital platform.

CINEFEX — Episode four is called Choices. It’s a bit of a change of pace, with nested flashbacks filling in Cole Freeman’s backstory on Earth, and also on a space station called Valley Forge — a little Silent Running reference that sci-fi fans are sure to pick up on.

ELI SASICH — That’s right. It was really important emotionally, and in terms of location, to get out of the ATROPA for a while and learn more about our characters. Having the flashbacks in the dead center of the series seemed like a nice little reprieve. I also got to work with legendary actor Michael Ironside, playing a one-off character for this episode name Captain Schreiber, who runs the space station.

A Valley Forge officer (Amir Malaklou) informs Captain Schreiber (Michael Ironside) that Cole Freeman has departed on his mission. Alec Contestabile built space station interiors by reconfiguring existing set pieces at Laurel Canyon Stages.

A Valley Forge officer (Amir Malaklou) informs Captain Schreiber (Michael Ironside) that Cole Freeman has departed on his mission. Alec Contestabile built space station interiors by reconfiguring existing set pieces at Laurel Canyon Stages.

CINEFEX — The space station looks like quite a big CG build.

ELI SASICH — That was a kitbash that Tobias did. I gave him reference of a ring-shape, and that’s what he came back with. For the hangar, I purchased a model from a guy on one of those online concept art forums, and Tobias tweaked it and put it into his Valley Forge model. That happened a lot — we’d find stuff and I’d contact the artist, because we just didn’t have time to build everything from scratch.

For shots of Cole undertaking an investigation on Earth, BluFire Studios added CG extensions to live-action plates shot on location in Los Angeles.

For shots of Cole undertaking an investigation on Earth, BluFire Studios added CG extensions to live-action plates shot on location in Los Angeles.

CINEFEX — Where did you shoot the Earth scenes?

ELI SASICH — Those were all shot in downtown Los Angeles, a few months after the main shoot. The diner was the Nickel Diner — they were very gracious to let us shoot in there for one day. BluFire added flying cars, and did a shot where we tilt down from all the overhead stuff to street level. The idea was to have a bit of a Blade Runner feel, but in broad daylight. We didn’t want to be too over the top. It’s like, “Okay, there’s flying traffic, let’s move on.”

CINEFEX — At one point, we see Cole interrogating a robot.

ELI SASICH — Actually, I rewrote the episode to add the robot sequence. Everyone thought I was crazy, because we were already deep into our effects stuff, but I really felt strongly that we needed it for world-building. BluFire stepped in with an off-the-shelf robot model that they tweaked a little bit. We had an actor do all the lines and movements, and BluFire matched that performance and added their robot to clean plates.

BluFire Studios animated a CG robot and composited it into plates shot in a Los Angeles diner kitchen.

BluFire Studios animated a CG robot and composited it into plates shot in a Los Angeles diner kitchen.

CINEFEX — Episode five, Ring, ends with a dramatic reveal that kind of tips the story on its head.

ELI SASICH — Yeah. Really, the entire story was originally developed around that reveal. When I came up with it I knew that this was one of those ‘Oh, shit!’ moments. We were really excited to try to pull that off.

CINEFEX — Without giving too much away, it revolves around a discovery made by Jensen, played by Ben Kliewer, during a trip in an escape pod. Did you build a practical pod exterior?

ELI SASICH — Yes, Alec Contestabile and his team built a little escape pod. We did a really big pull-back with a boom arm on a dolly, and then at some point there’s a handoff to a CG pod that Tobias built. We went back and forth a few times on that camera move — we wanted to go far enough to where you understand what you’re seeing, but still have the planetary ring disappear on both sides, as if it’s so big that you can’t get it in the frame.

The crew of the ATROPA ultimately discovers that their fates are inextricably linked to the nearby planet and its mysterious ring system.

The crew of the ATROPA ultimately discover that their fates are inextricably linked to the nearby planet and its mysterious ring system.

CINEFEX — Episode six, Fate, is largely confined to the interior of the ATROPA. Was it tough making that small Laurel Canyon set look like multiple locations within the ship?

ELI SASICH — It was, and I’m super proud that the guys pulled it off — although, if you’re really savvy, you can spot where we are at all times. We really had just two corridors, so making that look like a whole spaceship was all about lighting, and changing up paint and colors. We also did a couple of hallway extensions using greenscreens to fool the audience and make them believe it’s a bigger space.

RYAN WIEBER — The giveaway is any time the hallway goes back farther than 30 feet. One example is a shot that opens on Moira in a CG hallway, and then you come around and you land into the physical set. It’s effective because you start thinking that you’re somewhere real, and then you actually end up somewhere real, and you didn’t spot where it changed. Seth Donald did those shots — he took photography of the set and built it out in 3D space in After Effects.

Cole is forced to make an impossible choice in the explosive climax to “ATROPA: The Series.”

Cole is forced to make an impossible choice in the explosive climax to “ATROPA: The Series.”

CINEFEX — ATROPA: The Series concludes with episode seven, Checkmate, which includes some grandiose explosions that play out in slow motion — another shift in tone and pace.

ELI SASICH — We really wanted the ending to have a poetic feel. Going with slow motion and using the song was an important part of that. Instead of being violent, it’s beautiful and sad.

CINEFEX — There’s also a dynamic shot of Cole’s ship, Morinda, where the camera starts close on the cockpit, then pulls back and around. It echoes a similar shot seen in the first episode — was that deliberate?

ELI SASICH — When we did that first pullback for the original short, we didn’t have the room to do it on the stage because of the way things were configured. So Tobias faked the move by putting Cole on a card and comping him into the cockpit. I said, “If we ever go back, I’m going to actually move that damn camera!” This time, we were able to dolly the camera away. All the perspective worked and I was really happy about that — it really sells that handoff to the full CG ship.

Visual effects blended live-action of the Morinda’s cockpit with a CG spacecraft exterior, in a sweeping pullback shot.

Visual effects blended live-action of the Morinda’s cockpit with a CG spacecraft exterior, in a sweeping pullback shot.

CINEFEX — How would you sum up the role of visual effects in the series as a whole? Does spectacle or subtlety win the day, or is it all about balance?

ELI SASICH — If you call too much attention to the visual effects, it has the opposite effect of what you want. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There were moments where we could blow it open a little bit, and there were moments where we definitely wanted to keep it within the overall scale and scope of the project. It’s all about restraint.

Watch a montage of motion graphics shots created by Ricardo Elliott II for ATROPA: The Series:

CINEFEX — Now that ATROPA: The Series is finished, does the end result match your original ambitions for the project?

ELI SASICH — It does. It’s been an amazing journey. It was fun to tell a short-form story that’s really no different than the cliffhanger serials from the ‘30s, taking what was originally going to be a feature and then finally telling it as a web series — which is kind of like being in the Wild West. Of course, there’s always things you would do differently, but we’re really proud of what we were able to do, and I’m happy to have finally told this story. I’m very excited to have it out there.

CINEFEX — Eli and Ryan, thanks for talking to us!


“ATROPA: The Series” photographs and video copyright © Corridor Productions 2018.