Special Effects

Edge of Tomorrow BTS

As you all know, Edge of Tomorrow is the story of a man facing a grueling mid-life crisis who can only save himself by escaping a workday grind where every day poses the exact same set of existential irritations and wide-mouthed aliens who want to blow him into tiny bits. We’ve all been there. The movie required a lot of projectiles and explosions for Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt to run away from (or to), and this B-roll footage (via ScreenSlam) shows the pair doing their own stunts while practical fireballs blaze in the background. It’s tough to say whether Edge of Tomorrow had more practical special effects than other big action flicks (I once saw a car thrown at another car while driving near the Transformers set), but it definitely feels like it. The kind of explosions and stunts they’re pulling off without CGI are really fantastic. The body-flinging segment at 3:00 is genuinely startling, and I’m waiting for someone to explain how they safely shot rockets (missiles?) above the heads of dozens of extras and movie stars. That’s the kind of phone call Ned Ryerson waits his whole life for. Questions aside, this video is damned impressive, and it makes me want to see Cruise and Blunt star in a Zhang Yimou movie as soon as possible.

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King Kong

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that could only have been made in this moment. Think of it like Avatar or InAPPropriate Comedy; a film that owes its very existence to modern technology. You wouldn’t stage an all-out ape war without the assistance of lifelike computer apes any more than you’d try to film a Rob Schneider “comedy” about apps (is it really about apps? I’m not exactly sure) in a time before apps ever existed. Yes, the road to this weekend’s monkey mayhem is a long one. Because primates have been waging bloody vengeance on each other (and us, mostly) for more than a century, but only now is photorealistic chimp warfare a legitimate thing we can pay ten dollars to see. So let’s start back at the very beginning, and trace cinema’s primate special effects from their origins to the present day; from King Kong to King Kong to King Kong. Also a few other movies in between.

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JoeyOroscoPaintsTriceratopsonLocation01

You’re going to need some foam core, a few Jeeps and some black-tinted KY jelly. Such is the glamour of the filmmaking business. With Jurassic Park in theaters again, renowned special effects artist Shannon Shea joins us to talk about what it was like building dinosaurs and being on set for the Steven Spielberg picture. He was also nice enough to share some very rare behind-the-scenes pictures (and a dramatic reading of a scripted scene that never made the film). For more from us on a daily basis, follow the show (@brokenprojector), Geoff (@drgmlatulippe) and Scott (@scottmbeggs) on the Twitter. And, as always, we welcome your feedback. Download Episode #13 Directly Or subscribe Through iTunes

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Jurassic Park Raptor Suit Winston

How does a human fit inside a raptor? The standard way would probably be as bite-sized chunks, but if you’re Stan Winston and the effects team behind Jurassic Park, you’d want the human being to be in one piece. This amazing behind-the-scenes video takes the raptor from a “garbage bag” test in foam to the terrifying final product. The actor inside the suit, John Rosengrant narrates and explains the process (as well as the challenges). The video is part of a larger blog post from the Stan Winston School which features even more information and still photos, but the video itself is remarkable (if only to watch a raptor ripping up a towel in front of The Terminator). There’s no doubt that this movie had a profound impact on audiences, and that scene in the kitchen is one of the keystones that made raptors a household name more frightening than T-Rex. It’s priceless to be able to see the ingredients that went into it, partially because seeing how the trick was done only manages to make the magic more impressive. More like this, please.  

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Through his work on things like the first two Star Wars films, Temple of Doom, and the Robocop series, Phil Tippett has established himself as something of a legend in the world of creature effects, puppeteering, and stop-motion animation. One thing he was never able to do, however, was create his own animated short. He tried, earlier in his career, to put together a project called Mad God, which he describes as being, “an experimental, hand-made, animated film, set in a Miltonesque world of monsters, mad scientists, and war pigs.” Unfortunately for fans of interesting and weird animated things, it never quite got finished. As Tippett recently explained to Indiewire, “I started shooting on 35mm film way back in the early 90s and then the project kind of fell into disrepair when the digital age hit. So I had to recalculate and spend a lot of time re-engineering our business from photographic to digital, so Mad God kind of went on hold.”

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It’s taken 33 Commentary Commentaries, 33 different movies we’ve heard all kinds of people from directors to actors to whatever was going on with Cannibal: The Musical, but we’ve finally gotten to AH-NOLD. That’s right. This week we’re looking into Total Recall, that mind-melting actioner from 1990 wherein Arnold Schwarzenegger uses a completely innocent bystander as a human shield, loses his memory, and saves just about every mutant living on Mars. He doesn’t save the girl with three breasts, though. That probably deserves a spoiler alert. But it’s time to hear what Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven have to say about the whole experience. With the remake headed our way this Summer, we felt it was time to find out everything we could about this modern classic. Maybe this time next year we’ll have a Total Recall 2012 commentary from Colin Farrell and Len Wiseman. Wiseman has already offered a commentary for his film’s trailer, but there’s no way in the world it’s going to be as entertaining as listening to Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger. No way. Let’s get our asses to Mars, shall we?

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Until now, Snow White and the Huntsman seemed like another exercise in name recognition – especially since two studios were tackling the same iconic figure at the same time. After this new trailer and feature – especially since the feature is essentially a 5-minute-long trailer with some incredible scenes – it’s clear that this thing has the potential to be amazing. The effects that director Rupert Sanders has built with Hydraulx, BlueBolt and others is definitely the star here. Still, Charlize Theron is proving to be a terrifying presence that embodies that confusing fear that comes from someone so beautiful being so murderous. Plus, Kristen Stewart looks like she’s bringing some real life to her character, and Chris Hemsworth isn’t slouching here either. Add to that a killer cast of character actors, and you’ve got a promising mix of visuals and story. Check out the new trailer and the truly excellent feature for yourself:

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The Best Short Films

Why Watch? From the sweeping soundscape of industrial music to the first-rate CGI effects to the raw and dynamic visuals, everything about this short film is stunning and fantastic. The imagery is conflicting and toys with the mind – a cow meanders down a highway with a decaying billboard in the background, a happy mascot sings the joy of a new solution to radiation-riddled cities while the husks of civilization prove otherwise. All of this delivered along with the gritty narration of a man with cracked lips and a voice worn from swallowing gravel creates a huge rust-covered impact. Watch it, and the District 9 connection should be clear, but this is an animal all its own. Amazing work from Factory Fifteen. What will it cost? Only 6 minutes. Skip Work. You’ve Got Time For More Short Films. Special thanks to Hector P. for sending this to us.

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Boiling Point

The 84th Academy Awards have come and gone: let the bitching begin! As someone who is more of a genre fan than anything, I’ve never really cared too much about the Oscars, but that sure as hell doesn’t prevent me from complaining about them. Granted, over the years, some great films have won. I’m a big fan of Unforgiven and I dug Shakespeare In Love. I just think far too many good films are ignored in favor of “Oscar movies.” I can’t say that I was particularly impressed with any of the films nominated this year, but there were a few categories were I feel like the little golden man statue when to the wrong film. Luckily, the internet exists and I can complain about it!

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Why Watch? A thrilling WWII dogfight on a low budget. Writer/Director Nick Ryan‘s glorious short film is proof that with the right artistic eye, some effects equipment and a hell of a lot of time, you can create something truly jaw-dropping for a price that will drop that jaw even lower. And you can even do it with a great story and rock solid acting. Starring Toby Kebbell (RockNRolla), this short tells the story of a fighter pilot who chases down a Nazi ace who shot down his friend. Part revenge story, part morality play, it’s beauty injected with adrenaline and Spitfire fuel. Eat your heart out, Howard Hughes. Nick Ryan has a promising career waiting for him. What does it cost? Just 10 minutes of your time. Check out The German for yourself:

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We packed the truck that would travel to location in Palenque, Mexico a few days before we traveled via airplane. The set crew: Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Shane Mahan, Brian Simpson, Richard Landon and me. Stan Winston would be with us, supervising the set work, understanding that we would only be gone for two weeks. At least that is what our work visas indicated. Palenque, Mexico was not a location easily reached. It required one flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City, another to Villa Hermosa, and finally a long ride in a Volkswagen bus through miles of rough country until we reached our hotel that was, from what we were told, the best in the area. It sat in a large clearing, surrounded by trees; two wings of rooms branched out from a central building that housed a restaurant/bar. Later, we discovered that Arnold Schwarzenegger had taken over the entire upper conference room and had turned it into a gymnasium that was open to anyone on the crew. As we settled into our rooms we were told that there would be screening of the film the next day for the cast and crew. My understanding was that this was for the benefit of the new crew members to get a chance to catch up and understand the shots needed to complete the film. A screen and projectors were set up in Arnold’s gym.

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By now, most fans credit Steve Wang and Matt Rose for the creation of the Predator. However, in my conversations with Steve, in particular, he feels that an unfair amount of credit has been given to him; it was a team effort bringing the Predator to life, and he couldn’t be more correct. During Monster Squad, Matt and Steve, who had been responsible for the Gillman, had worked through the weekend, grabbing precious few hours of sleep, while they established and painted the final suit. On Monday morning, it stood in the middle of Stan Winston’s satellite shop in all of its amphibian beauty. Stan saw it and his jaw bounced onto his chest. He had NEVER seen anything like it. It impressed him so much, that he, literally, stopped the work in the studio, gathered all of his employees around it and heaped praise upon these two kids (Matt was roughly 21 and Steve 20…maybe?). He said it was the best thing he had seen in his career thus far. Probably not the best strategy in the world. Months earlier, he was in England with his crew working on the Queen Alien, and now he was recognizing these two studio newcomers as the best. Where most of us in the shop agreed with Stan, there was some dissension.

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There are events that define one’s existence that go beyond being learning or growing experiences. They become scars. Battle scars. They may fade in time, but they don’t go away. They persist. The memories of the events may become blurry, but every now and then, you run your fingertips along the raised, healed wound and remember. It all comes back like a punch in the nose. I had been on movie sets before and believed that I had been trained. The snarky ADs , the disinterested teamsters, the hustling, the waiting, they were all nearly second-nature to me, especially with the close of my on-set involvement with Monster Squad. However, nothing could prepare me for what I was going to face. My first location experience. My first time out of the country. My first time working set on a big budget film. My first time supervising a team. Predator would be all of those things and it would change my life forever.

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After working with both Mark Shostrom and Sonny Burman on Evil Dead II, I had ended up back at Stan Winston’s studio. Stan and his permanent crew of John Rosengrant, Shane Mahan, Tom Woodruff, Jr., and Richard Landon were back in the shop from England and Aliens, and had just completed the Robert Zemekis episode of Amazing Stories, “Go to the Head of the Class.” The next assignment was a mechanical boar for the Debra Winger/Theresa Russell vehicle Black Widow. No, you didn’t miss anything. The sequence was cut just as we finished the puppet. Alec Gillis returned to the studio in time for the next Amazing Stories episode “Miss Stardust” for which we created three intergalactic beauty contestants. Ironically, it was during the shooting at Universal Studios, that Stan told us what the next assignment was going to be: A cross between The Goonies and Ghostbusters entitled The Monster Squad. Okay, confession time here. I do like the original Universal films Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman; I’m not a huge fan of The Mummy. Yes, my brother and I saw all of the films and collected the Aurora model kits (so good) but my love of monsters truthfully was for giant monsters: King Kong, Godzilla, Ray Harryhausen pictures, dinosaurs – those were the monsters that really ignited my imagination. I was partial to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but technically, this was a 50s monster and not a 30s monster like its cousins. So when Stan told us […]

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You never know. You just never know. I wonder if back in 1930, Universal Studios make up artist, Jack Pierce while constructing his “monster” make-up on actor Boris Karloff, had wondered if he was creating something transcendent. Something that would forever infuse itself into the western culture generation after generation, becoming the mental image that every brain would access when it heard the name “Frankenstein.” I bet he didn’t. I bet ol’ Jack had an assignment, did the best job that he could, collected his meager paycheck and was grateful to be working during the depression. Truly, that is the way it is. You never can tell what will connect with audiences. You just do the work, collect your salary, and thank God you are not pounding the pavement looking for your next job. Evil Dead II is one of those cult favorite films that so much of has been discussed and revealed through interviews, articles, supplemental videos on DVD’s, convention panels, etc., that I’m not sure what I can add to all of this information besides my individual view point. Forgive me if you’ve heard much of this information before; just know that what you are now reading is not being pushed through the filter of a reporter. I was there in Mark Shostrom’s South Pasadena studio. And although, again, I didn’t go to location in North Carolina, what I designed and sculpted at Mark’s would follow me to this day.

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I realize that I am one out of millions when I say how much influence the original Star Trek series had on my life when it premiered in 1966. I was four years old then, had an older brother of seven and we were hopelessly addicted to the adventures of the USS Enterprise and her crew. When Star Trek conventions started popping up in New Orleans in the very early 1970s, I even put together a “Gorn” costume (the lizard creature from the episode “Arena”) and won an honorable mention. When Star Trek disappeared from television, it was a bit shocking for us young fans, and it would be a few years before it reappeared in syndication, at least in New Orleans. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened, I was in High School. Already tainted by the adventures of Luke Skywalker and pals in Star Wars, I was a bit less enthusiastic by this big screen effort. However, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in college a few years later, I knew that Star Trek was back on track! I was a fan again. Getting the call from make-up effects artist Richard Snell was one of the early highlights of my career. I had worked with the bay-area artist on House but our paths had diverged since. I knew that the Star Trek IV job was “floating” around Hollywood because I had done some bid sketches for James Cummins who was also pursuing the project. […]

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In theory, CGI should never break your suspension of disbelief (unless you’re watching a Syfy Original or Birdemic, in which case it was never there in the first place).  In practice, budgets get tight, time gets short, and even mega-blockbusters like Lords of the Rings or Harry Potter will have a couple of crappy looking scenes. But sometimes movies that don’t even really need much CGI will toss it in for a short sequence, whether it’s just to show off,  save money, or even to mask Bill the microphone guy’s fuck up. Inevitably, though, at least one of those scenes ends up looking like the production company outsourced the job to someone’s Nintendo 64. When big budget movies have bargain basement special effects, everyone wins. And by “everyone,” I mean “no one,” and by “wins,” I mean “is paying attention to the movie anymore because they’re too busy laughing.” I’ve taken the liberty of considering this part 1 of a multi-part series, because I know that this is an endless well from which I can perpetually draw. In related news, I am lazy and uncreative.

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Doug Beswick’s career, like many creature makers, began with a love and practice of Stop Motion Animation. My understanding is that he met Rick Baker when they both worked at Cascade Studios (most famous for doing the claymation for the series Gumby & Pokey) and later had joined Rick’s crew as a mechanical, animatronics designer. I don’t know the details of how and why Doug decided to open his own shop, but his facility was in a small, industrial park, north east of the San Fernando Valley in Sunland. Prior to my arrival, Doug had gained some notoriety with a couple of projects. The first was Terminator in which, Beswick had built and animated the endoskeleton miniature for the few full body shots of the robot walking. The second was a Disney live action film entitled My Science Project. For that film, Rick and Doug had teamed up to build an impressive, miniature, mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet. It is interesting to see how logical progressions occur (albeit rarely) in Hollywood. Doug had built a sophisticated, miniature, mechanical puppet that looked phenomenal on film, AND he had prior experience working for James Cameron. The result: Doug was hired to build the miniature mechanical puppets for Aliens. See how that worked?

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Why Watch? Technology is getting cheaper by the minute. The long, Kurzweilian talk about technology aside, there’s a major news story that makes this short timely. It involves the scrapping of The Lone Ranger due to its inflated budget. It’s a blockbuster, sure, but studios are now realizing that effects work is being innovated by many, and the cost of shots is coming down. To that end, here’s a Coke commercial from The Purchase Brothers who utilize that inexpensive CGI pedigree better than most. It’s a stunning use of popular imagery that Neill Blomkamp and Andy Warhol would both be proud of. Is it an ad? Yes, but it also tells a story, and it’s the best kind of bizarre. What does it cost? Just 1 minute of your time. Check out Coke Babies for yourself:

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For newbies to the column, I’m recalling defining moments that made me what I am: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. The time is 1985, and I have finished a tour of duty for Stan Winston’s Studio. I am 23 years old. Freelance. Footloose and fancy-free. Unemployed again. I had tasted of the good life and knew that, somehow, I needed to return to Stan Winston Studios. It was everything I imagined working in a Hollywood special make-up effects studio would be and more. It certainly was first class all of the way but at the moment, it was irrelevant. Alec Gillis and Rick Lazzarini had left and joined Stan and the rest of the crew in England to continue work on Aliens. I, on the other hand, needed to find work. Toward the end of Invaders from Mars, a rumor began circulating that Rick Baker was putting together a crew to build a Sasquatch suit for a film entitled Harry and the Hendersons. Now, regardless of what others may or may not think, I knew that my work was below the established standard of excellence at Rick’s studio. This was confirmed when I interviewed with him and I wasn’t hired.

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published: 12.17.2014
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