Filmmakers have used all kinds of tricks over the years to show low or zero gravity on screen, from wire work to underwater shooting, and more recently even blasting off to capture the real thing.
Many early sci-fi films simply ignored the realities of being in space. The 1964 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, for example, shows its Victorian astronauts walking around the “lunar” surface without any attempt to disguise the earthly gravity.
But as the space race heated up, and audiences were treated to real footage of astronauts in Earth orbit, greater realism was required from filmmakers. None met this challenge more determinedly than Stanley Kubrick, who built a huge rotating set for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The set was based on a real concept of artificial gravity: spinning the spacecraft to create centrifugal force that pushes astronauts out to the circular wall, which effectively becomes the floor. Kubrick’s giant hamster wheel allowed him to film Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) running around this circular wall.
Ron Howard chose to shoot in real weightlessness for his 1995 film Apollo 13, a dramatisation of the near-disastrous moon mission that saw astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise temporarily stranded in space after an explosion in an oxygen tank. Howard and his team – including actors Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton – took numerous flights in the KC-135 “vomit comet”. This NASA training plane flies in a steep parabola so that passengers can experience 25 seconds of weightlessness on the way down.
612 parabolas were required for Howard to capture the pieces of the action he needed. Apparently few people lost their lunch, though minor bumps and bruises were sometimes sustained when weightlessness ended. “It was difficult to do,” said the director at the time, “but it was an extraordinary experience.” The vomit comet footage was intercut with lower-tech angles where the actors were simply standing on see-saw-like boards which grips could gently rock up and down.
For a 2006 episode of Doctor Who, “The Impossible Planet”, the production team used Pinewood Studios’ underwater stage for a brief zero-gravity sequence. MyAnna Buring’s character Scooti has been sucked out of an airlock by a possessed colleague, and the Doctor and co watch helplessly through a window as her body floats towards a black hole. Buring was filmed floating underwater, which enabled her long hair to flow out realistically, and then composited into CGI of the black hole by The Mill.
On the whole though, wire work is the standard way of portraying zero gravity, and a particularly impressive example appeared in 2010’s Inception. Director Christopher Nolan was inspired by 2001’s weightless scenes, for which Kubrick often pointed the camera straight upwards so that the suspending wires were blocked from view by the actor’s own body.
Inception sees a fight in a dreamscape – represented by a hotel corridor – becoming weightless when the dreamers go into free-fall in the real world. The scene was shot with a 100 ft corridor set suspended on end, with the camera at the bottom shooting upwards and the cast hung on wires inside. (Miniature explosions of spacecraft traditionally used a similar technique – shooting upwards and allowing the debris to fall towards the camera in slow motion.)
2013’s Gravity filmed George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in harnesses attached to motion-control rigs. Footage of their heads was then composited onto digital body doubles which could perfectly obey the laws of zero-gravity physics.
But all of these techniques were eclipsed last year by Vyzov (“The Challenge”), a Russian feature film that actually shot aboard the International Space Station. Director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild blasted off in a Soyuz spacecraft piloted by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov in autumn 2021. After a glitch in the automatic docking system which forced Shkaplerov to bring the capsule in manually, the team docked at the ISS and began 12 days of photography. Another glitch temporarily halted shooting when the station tilted unexpectedly, but the filmmakers wrapped on schedule and returned safely to Earth.
At the time of writing Vyzov has yet to be released, but according to IMDb it “follows a female surgeon who has to perform an operation on a cosmonaut too ill to return to Earth immediately”. The ISS footage is expected to form about 35 minutes of the film’s final cut.
While Vyzov is not the first film to be shot in space, it is the first to put professional cast and crew in space, rather than relying on astronauts or space tourists behind and in front of camera. It certainly won’t be the last, as NASA announced in 2020 that Tom Cruise and SpaceX would collaborate on a $200 million feature directed by Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Jumper) again to be shot partly aboard the ISS. It’s possible that Vyzov was rushed into production simply to beat Hollywood to it. While realistic weightlessness is a definite benefit of shooting in space for real, the huge amount of free publicity is probably more of a deciding factor.
Spaceman from Pluto is a 1985 sci-fi comedy starring Eric Stoltz and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd plays Professor Brown, an eccentric scientist with a pet chimp, who builds a time machine out of an old fridge. Stoltz portrays a teenage video pirate, Marty McFly, who is accidentally sent back to the 1950s in the machine. After almost wiping himself from existence by endangering his parents’ first meeting, Marty returns to his own time using the power generated by an atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert.
Fortunately this movie was released in some alternate version of history. In our timeline it went through a number of changes in writing and production to become the blockbuster classic Back to the Future.
For co-writer and producer Bob Gale it all started when he came across his father’s highschool yearbook and realised that, had he and his father been peers, they would never have been friends. Spotting the comedy potential in the concept of a teenager going to school with his parents, Gale sat down with co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis to develop a script.
The pair knew they needed a time machine and decided that it would be created by a backyard inventor rather than some government organisation. “I can’t really put my finger on when I stumbled on the idea of time travel,” said Gale in 2002, “whether it was from watching The Twilight Zone, reading Superman comics, or when the H.G. Wells Time Machine – the George Pal movie – came out, but I do remember being totally fascinated by that film.”
Getting Back to the Future made proved challenging. Most of the studios that Gale and Zemeckis approached found the script too sweet and innocent compared with the typical R-rated teen movies of the time. Disney, on the other hand, felt that the mother-falls-for-son plot was too taboo.
Making matters worse was the duo’s less than spectacular track record. Their first two feature films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, were both box office flops. They even had the dubious honour of writing the least successful film of Steven Spielberg’s directorial career so far, 1941.
Everything changed when Michael Douglas hired Zemeckis to direct 1984’s Romancing the Stone. The adventure romp was a hit and suddenly everyone in the notoriously fickle Hollywood wanted Back to the Future. Spielberg, who had always loved the script, signed on as executive producer and – after a false start at Columbia – the movie was green-lit by Universal Pictures.
Studio president Sid Sheinberg requested a number of script changes. Professor Brown became “Doc” and his chimp became a dog. Marty’s video piracy (which would have explained his possession of the camcorder with which he films the time machine’s test run) was written out, as the studio were understandably unwilling to promote the revenue-slashing crime.
Sheinberg also hated the title Back to the Future and wanted it changed to Spaceman from Pluto, a reference to the comic clutched by the Peabody children after the DeLorean crashes into their barn on arriving in 1955. Zemeckis and Gale turned to Spielberg to help them dodge this title without offending Sheinberg; his solution was to send a memo saying what a big laugh they all got out of Sheinberg’s joke. The studio president never mentioned it again.
The title Back to the Future was retained, but the barn scene did prompt another change. By this point the writers had realised that an immobile fridge was not dramatic or practical as a time machine, and were searching for a suitable vehicle for Doc to build it into. They chose the slick, stainless steel DeLorean with its futuristic gull-wing doors so that the Peabody family could mistake it for a UFO.
Budget concerns drove the elimination of the A-bomb scene. Shooting on location and building the miniatures of the bomb and its test tower were estimated to cost $1 million. Switching the power source to a lightning bolt not only saved this money by keeping all the action in Hill Valley, it enhanced the time metaphor represented by the clock tower as well as giving Doc an active part in the climax rather than being stuck in a blast bunker with a walkie-talkie.
The filmmakers’ first choice for the role of Marty McFly was Michael J. Fox, the 23-year-old star of sitcom Family Ties. But that show’s creator, Gary David Goldberg, refused to even let Fox see the Back to the Future script, fearing the actor would love it and resent Goldberg for not releasing him from his Family Ties commitment.
A disappointed Zemeckis accordingly began screen-testing other actors, eventually narrowing the choice down to C. Thomas Howell (best known for the coming-of-age drama The Outsiders) and Eric Stoltz (who had appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life). It seems that Sid Sheinberg was Stoltz’s most vocal advocate. Gale recalled the studio president declaring: “I’m so convinced that Eric is going to be great in this part, if it doesn’t work out you can recast it and start all over again.”
No-one expected that to actually happen.
Filming began on November 26th, 1984. The logistics of transforming a real town into Hill Valley in both 1955 and 1985 were daunting, so instead production designer Lawrence G. Paull adapted the town square set on Universal Studios’ backlot, which had originally been built for the 1948 film noir An Act of Murder.
Special effects supervisor Kevin Pike had taken three DeLoreans and, working to concept art by the legendary Ron Cobb amongst others, fitted them with a variety of aircraft surplus parts and other junk to create the iconic time machine. The “Mr. Fusion” generator added to the vehicle in the final scene started life as a coffee grinder.
Cast in the role of Doc Brown was Christopher Lloyd, whose prior roles included a Klingon commander in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a psychiatric patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and five years in the sitcom Taxi. In another alternate timeline he wasn’t involved in Back to the Future either, having binned the script in favour of a stage role in New York; it was his wife who made him reconsider.
Basing the character on the conductor Leopold Stokowski, Lloyd made the Doc larger than life. Eric Stoltz had a very different approach, a method approach, focusing on the serious aspect of Marty’s out-of-time predicament and apparently ignoring the fact that he was starring in a comedy. “Eric didn’t get it,” camera assistant Clyde E. Bryan remembered in 2015. “Eric didn’t understand the physical, pratfall type of humour that Bob [Zemeckis] was looking for.”
By the sixth week of filming, almost halfway through the schedule, Zemeckis knew he had a huge problem. After conferring with Gale and his fellow producer Neil Canton, the director asked Spielberg to come to the editing suite and watch the 45-minute rough cut of everything that had been shot so far. All the filmmakers agreed that Stoltz had to go.
Unwilling to have Universal shut down the film and suffer the attendant negative press, Zemeckis kept filming with Stoltz for another week, with most of the cast and crew unaware of the situation. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Canton worked out exactly how much reshoots would cost ($4 million) while Zemeckis and Gale went back to Goldberg at Family Ties, begging him to let Michael J. Fox take the role. Goldberg agreed on condition that the TV show would take priority. Fox himself claims to have merely weighed the script in his hand before agreeing to do it.
During the lunch break on Thursday, January 10th, 1985, halfway through filming the DeLorean’s test run in the car park of the Twin Pines Mall, Zemeckis called Stoltz into his trailer and broke the bad news. By the following Monday, Michael J. Fox was Marty McFly.
The young actor’s schedule was exhausting. He would wake at 9am, work on Family Ties from 10am to 6:30pm, get driven to Universal and shoot Back to the Future until 2:30am. Any scenes that required Marty in daylight had to be filmed at weekends.
Nonetheless, Fox somehow managed to squeeze in guitar lessons in preparation for Marty’s performance at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. He already had some experience with the instrument, but was determined to learn to play “Johnny B. Goode” note for note so that he could finger-sync perfectly to the pre-recorded track. Marty’s singing voice was provided by Mark Campbell, while the energetic choreography of his performance incorporated the signature moves of Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as well as Chuck Berry.
The scene is one of the most memorable in the movie, but Zemeckis and Gale were very worried about it during editing. “It’s the only scene that doesn’t advance story or character, and we didn’t know how that was going to play,” said Gale. A preview screening in San Jose removed any doubts; the audience loved “Johnny B. Goode” and everything else about the movie.
After a second preview, this time with Sid Sheinberg in attendance, Universal realised they were onto a winner and moved the film’s release date up to the July 4th weekend, paying through the nose to accelerate post-production.
“I want it to be violent,” Zemeckis told the animators creating the effect of the DeLorean breaking the time barrier, “something akin to a Neanderthal sitting on the hood of the car, chipping away at the fabric of time in front of him.” The hand-drawn cell animation combined with built-in lighting on the car and actual fire trails that had been captured on location, plus additional pyrotechnics overlaid after the fact, created the signature effect.
Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri assembled the largest orchestra in Universal’s history to record Back to the Future’s iconic score, and a tie-in single was provided by Huey Lewis and the News. The latter took a couple of attempts to get right; Lewis’ first submission was a minor-key track that didn’t work at all, according to Zemeckis. It was only after the filmmaker showed Lewis the skateboarding scene that he understood the upbeat mood required and composed “The Power of Love”.
Fox was away filming a Family Ties special in England when Back to the Future was released. He was surprised to get a call from his agent telling him that it was the biggest film in America. It spent 12 weeks at the top of the US box office charts and quickly became part of popular culture, with even Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior giving speeches about taking the country “back to the future”. To date it has grossed almost $400 million.
Summing up the film’s appeal in 2002, Gale offered: “There’s something very special about this story that everyone can identify with, the idea of trying to imagine what your parents were like when they were kids – that just touches everybody.”
When Back to the Future was released on VHS in May 1986, fans noticed a small change from the theatrical version. There as expected was the DeLorean’s lift-off and departure to the future – originally intended by Zemeckis and Gale simply as a joke on which to end the story. But now, sandwiched between that final scene and the end credits, was a caption.
How were visual effects achieved before the advent of computer generated imagery (CGI)? Most of us know that spaceships used to be miniatures, and monsters used to be puppets or people in suits, but what about the less tangible effects? How did you create something as exotic as an energy beam or a dimensional portal without the benefit of digital particle simulations? The answer was often a combination of chemistry, physics, artistry and ingenuity. Here are five examples.
1. “Star Trek” transporters
The original series of Star Trek, premiered in 1966, had to get creative to achieve its futuristic effects with the budget and technology available. The Howard Anderson Company was tasked with realising the iconic transporter effect which enables Kirk’s intrepid crew to beam down to alien planets. Darrell Anderson created the characteristic sparkles of the dematerialisation by filming backlit aluminium powder being sprinkled in front of a black background in slow motion. Hand-drawn mattes were then used to ensure that the sparkling powder only appeared over the characters.
2. “Ghostbusters” proton packs
The much-loved 1984 comedy Ghostbusters features all kinds of traditional effects, including the never-to-be-crossed particle streams with which the heroes battle their spectral foes. The streams consist of five layers of traditional cell animation – the same technique used to create, say, a Disney classic like Sleeping Beauty – which were composited and enhanced on an optical printer. (An optical printer is essentially two or more film projectors connected to a camera so that multiple separate elements can be combined into a single shot.) Composited onto the tips of the Ghostbusters’ guns were small explosions and other pyrotechnic effects shot on a darkened stage.
3. “Lifeforce” energy beams
This cult 1985 sci-fi horror film, most notable for an early screen appearance by Patrick Stewart, features alien vampires which drain the titular lifeforce from their victims. To visualise this lifeforce, VFX supervisor John Dykstra settled on a process whereby a blue argon laser was aimed at a rotating tube made of highly reflective mylar. This threw flowing lines of light onto a screen where it would be captured by the camera for later compositing with the live-action plates. The tube could be deliberately distorted or dented to vary the effects, and to add more energy to certain shots multiple brief elements of a flashing xenon bulb were added to the mix.
4. “Big Trouble in Little China” portal
A mixture of chemical and optical effects were employed for certain shots in the 1986 action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China. Director John Carpenter wanted an effervescent effect like “an Alka-Seltzer tablet in water” to herald the appearance of a trio of warriors known as the Three Storms. After many tests, the VFX team determined that a combination of green paint, metallic powder and acetone, heated in a Pyrex jar on a hotplate, produced an interesting and suitable effect. The concoction was filmed with a fisheye lens, then that footage was projected onto a dome to make it look like a ball of energy, and re-photographed through layers of distorted glass to give it a rippling quality.
5. “Independence Day” cloud tank
By 1996, CGI was replacing many traditional effects, but the summer blockbuster Independence Day used a healthy mix of both. To generate the ominous clouds in which the invading spacecraft first appear, the crew built what they called the “Phenomenon Rig”. This was a semi-circle of halogen lights and metal piping which was photographed in a water tank. Paint was injected into the water through the pipes, giving the appearance of boiling clouds when lit up by the lamps within. This was digitally composited with a live-action background plate and a model shot of the emerging ship.
“These are small,” Father Ted once tried to explain to Father Dougal, holding up toy cows, “but the ones out there are far away.” We may laugh at the gormless sitcom priest, but the chances are that we’ve all confounded size and distance, on screen at least.
The ship marooned in the desert in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the cliff at the end of Tremors, the runways and planes visible through the windows of Die Hard 2’s control tower, the helicopter on the boat in The Wolf of Wall Street, even the beached whale in Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus – all are small, not far away.
The most familiar forced perspective effect is the holiday snap of a friend or family member picking up the Eiffel Tower between thumb and forefinger, or trying to right the Leaning Tower of Pisa. By composing the image so that a close subject (the person) appears to be in physical contact with a distant subject (the landmark), the latter appears to be as close as the former, and therefore much smaller than it really is.
Architects have been playing tricks with perspective for centuries. Italy’s Palazzo Spada, for example, uses diminishing columns and a ramped floor to make a 26ft corridor look 100ft long. Many film sets – such as the basement of clones in Moon – have used the exact same technique to squeeze extra depth out of limited studio space or construction resources.
Even a set that is entirely miniature can benefit from forced perspective, with a larger scale being used in the foreground and a smaller one in the background, increasing the perceived depth. For example, The Terminator’s “Future War” scenes employ skulls of varying size, with background ruins on an even smaller scale.
An early cinematic display of forced perspective was the 1908 short Princess Nicotine, in which a fairy who appears to be cavorting on a man’s tabletop is actually a reflection in a distant mirror. “The little fairy moves so realistically that she cannot be explained away by assuming that she is a doll,” remarked a Scientific American article of the time, “and yet it is impossible to understand how she can be a living being, because of her small stature.”
During the 1950s, B movies featuring fantastically shrunk or enlarged characters made full use of forced perspective, as did the Disney musical Darby O’Gill and the Little People. VFX supervisor Peter Ellenshaw, interviewed for a 1994 episode of Movie Magic, remembered the challenges of creating sufficient depth of field to sell the illusion: “You had to focus both on the background and the foreground [simultaneously]. It was very difficult. We had to use so much light on set that eventually we blew the circuit-breakers in the Burbank power station.”
Randall William Cook was inspired years later by Ellenshaw’s work when he was called upon to realise quarter-scale demonic minions for the 1987 horror movie The Gate. Faced with a tiny budget, Cook devised in-camera solutions with human characters on raised foreground platforms, and costumed minions on giant set-pieces further back, all carefully designed so that the join was undetectable. As the contemporary coverage in Cinefex magazine noted, “One of the advantages of a well-executed forced perspective shot is that the final product requires no optical work and can therefore be viewed along with the next day’s rushes.”
A subgroup of forced perspective effects is the hanging miniature – a small-scale model suspended in front of camera, typically as a set extension. The 1925 version of Ben Hur used this technique for wide shots of the iconic chariot race. The arena of the Circus Maximus was full size, but in front of and above it was hung a miniature spectators’ gallery containing 10,000 tiny puppets which could stand and wave as required.
Doctor Who used foreground miniatures throughout its classic run, often more successfully than it used the yellow-fringed chromakey of the time. Earthly miniatures like radar dishes, missile launchers and big tops were captured on location, in camera, with real skies and landscapes behind them. The heroes convincingly disembark from an alien spaceship in the Tom Baker classic “Terror of the Zygons” by means of a foreground miniature and the actors jumping off the back of a van in the distance. A third-scale Tardis was employed in a similar way when the production wanted to save shipping costs on a 1984 location shoot on Lanzarote.
Even 60 years on from Ben Hur, Aliens employed the same technique to show the xenomorph-encrusted roof in the power plant nest scene. The shot – which fooled studio executives so utterly that they complained about extravagant spending on huge sets – required small lights to be moved across the miniature in sync with the actors’ head-torches.
The Aliens shot also featured a tilt-down, something only possible with forced perspective if the camera pivots around its nodal point – the point within the lens where the light focuses. Any other type of camera movement gives the game away due to parallax, the optical phenomenon which makes closer objects move through a field of view more quickly than distant ones.
The 1993 remake of Attack of the 50ft Woman made use of a nodal pan to follow Daniel Baldwin to the edge of an outdoor swimming pool which a giant Daryl Hannah is using as a bath. A 1/8th-scale pool with Hannah in was mounted on a raised platform to perfectly align on camera with the real poolside beyond, where Baldwin stood.
The immediacy of forced perspective, allowing actors of different scales to riff off each other in real time, made it the perfect choice for the seasonal comedy Elf. The technique is not without its disadvantages, however. “The first day of trying, the production lost a whole day setting up one shot and never captured it,” recalls VFX supervisor Joe Bauer in the recent documentary Holiday Movies That Made Us.
Elf’s studio, New Line, was reportedly concerned that the forced perspective shots would never work, but given what a certain Peter Jackson was doing for that same studio at the same time, they probably shouldn’t have worried.
The Lord of the Rings employed a variety of techniques to sell the hobbits and dwarves as smaller than their human friends, but it was in the field of forced perspective that the trilogy was truly groundbreaking. One example was an extended cart built to accommodate Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and Elijah Wood’s supposedly-diminutive Frodo. “You could get Gandalf and Frodo sitting side by side apparently, although in fact Elijah Wood was sitting much further back from the camera than Gandalf,” explains producer Barrie Osborne in the trilogy’s extensive DVD extras.
Jackson insisted on the freedom to move his camera, so his team developed a computer-controlled system that would correct the tell-tale parallax. “You have the camera on a motion-controlled dolly, making it move in and out or side to side,” reveals VFX DP Brian Van’t Hul, “but you have another, smaller dolly [with one of the actors on] that’s electronically hooked to it and does the exact same motion but sort of in a counter movement.”
Forced perspective is still alive and kicking today. For Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, production designer Kevin Jenkins built a 5ft sand-crawler for shooting in the Jordan Desert. “It was placed on a dressed table at height,” he explained on Twitter, “and the Jawa extras were shot at the same time a calculated distance back from the mini. A very fine powdery sand was dressed around for scale. We even made a roller to make mini track prints! Love miniatures :)”
In 1983, up-and-coming director James Cameron was hired to script a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. He had to pause halfway through to shoot The Terminator, but the subsequent success of that movie, along with the eventually completed Aliens screenplay, so impressed the powers that be at Fox that they greenlit the film with the relatively inexperienced 31-year-old at the helm.
Although the sequel was awarded a budget of $18.5 million – $7.5 million more than Scott’s original – that was still tight given the much more expansive and ambitious nature of Cameron’s script. Consequently, the director and his team had to come up with some clever tricks to put their vision on celluloid.
1. Mirror Image
When contact is lost with the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is hired as a sort of alien-consultant to a team of crack marines. The hypersleep capsules from which the team emerge on reaching the planet were expensive to build. Production designer Peter Lamont’s solution was to make just half of them, and place a mirror at the end of the set to double them up.
2. Small Screens
Wide shots of Hadley’s Hope were accomplished with fifth-scale miniatures by Robert and Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions. Although impressive, sprawling across two Pinewood stages, the models didn’t always convince. To help, the crew often downgraded the images by showing them on TV monitors, complete with analogue glitching, or by shooting through practical smoke and rain.
3. Big Screens
The filmmakers opted for rear projection to show views out of cockpit windscreens and colony windows. This worked out cheaper than blue-screen composites, and allowed for dirt and condensation on the glass, which would have been impossible to key optically. Rear projection was also employed for the crash of the dropship – the marines’ getaway vehicle – permitting camera dynamics that again were not possible with compositing technology of the time.
4. Back to Front
A highlight of Aliens is the terrifying scene in which Ripley and her young charge Newt (Carrie Henn) are trapped in a room with two facehuggers, deliberately set loose by sinister Company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). These nightmarish spider-hands were primarily puppets trailing cables to their operators. To portray them leaping onto a chair and then towards camera, a floppy facehugger was placed in its final position and then tugged to the floor with a fishing wire. The film was reversed to create the illusion of a jump.
5. Upside Down
Like Scott before him, Cameron was careful to obfuscate the man-in-a-suit nature of the alien drones wherever possible. One technique he used was to film the creatures crawling on the floor, with the camera upside-down so that they appeared to be hanging from the ceiling. This is seen when Michael Biehn’s Hicks peeks through the false ceiling to find out how the motion-tracked aliens can be “inside the room”.
6. Flash Frames
All hell (represented by stark red emergency lighting) breaks loose when the aliens drop through the false ceiling. To punch up the visual impact of the movie’s futuristic weapons, strobelights were aimed at the trigger-happy marines. Taking this effect even further, editor Ray Lovejoy spliced individual frames of white leader film into the shots. As a result, the negative cutter remarked that Aliens‘ 12th reel had more cuts than any complete movie he’d ever worked on.
7. Cotton Cloud
With most of the marines slaughtered, Ripley heads to the atmospheric processing plant to rescue Newt from the alien nest. Aided by the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) they escape just before the plant’s nuclear reactor explodes. The ensuing mushroom cloud is a miniature sculpture made of cotton wool and fibreglass, illuminated by an internal lightbulb!
8. Hole in the floor
Returning to the orbiting Sulaco, Ripley and friends are ambushed by the stowaway queen, who rips Bishop in half. A pre-split, spring-loaded dummy of Henriksen was constructed for that moment, and was followed by the simple trick of concealing the actor’s legs beneath a hole in the floor. As in the first movie, android blood was represented by milk. This gradually soured as the filming progressed, much to Henriksen’s chagrin as the script required him to be coated in the stuff and even to spit it out of his mouth.
9. Big Battle
The alien queen was constructed and operated by Stan Winston Studios as a full-scale puppet. Two puppeteers were concealed inside, while others moved the legs with rods or controlled the crane from which the body hung. The iconic power loader was similar, with a body builder concealed inside and a counter-weighted support rig. This being before the advent of digital wire removal, all the cables and rods had to be obfuscated with smoke and shifting shadows, though they can still be seen on frame grabs like this one. (The queen is one of my Ten Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time.)
10. Little Battle
For wide shots of the final fight, both the queen and the power loader were duplicated as quarter scale puppets. Controlled from beneath the miniature set via rods and cables, the puppets could perform big movements, like falling into the airlock, which would have been very difficult with the full-size props. (When the airlock door opens, the starfield beyond is a black sheet with Christmas lights on it!) The two scales cut seamlessly together and produce a thrilling finale to this classic film.
Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.
Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.
There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park(1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.
One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.
As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens look had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.
I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:
I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.
I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.
And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?
A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.
Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.
The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.
Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.
I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.
When it comes to shooting elements for VFX, green-screen gets all the press. But certain kinds of elements can be tricky to key well, and sometimes it’s not the right look. In the last few days Kate Madison and I have needed to shoot last-minute elements for some shots in Ren: The Girl with the Mark, and we turned to monochromatic backgrounds.
Why? How does it work? Well certainly you can key out black or white just like you’d key out green, but the most powerful way to use these backgrounds is not with keying at all, but by a bit of basic maths. And don’t worry, the computer does the maths for you.
If you’ve ever used Photoshop, you’ll have noticed some layer modes called Screen and Multiply. Final Cut Pro has the same modes (it also has Add, which to most intents and purposes is the same as Screen) and so do all the major editing and FX packages.
Screen adds the brightness of each pixel of the layer to the layer underneath. Since black has a brightness of zero, your black screen disappears, and the element in front of it is blended seamlessly into the background image, with its apparent solidity determined by its brightness.
Multiply, as the name suggests, multiplies the brightness of each pixel with the layer underneath. Since white has a brightness of one, and any number multiplied by one is that same number, your white screen vanishes. Whatever element is in front of your screen is blended into the background image, with darker parts of the element showing up more than lighter parts.
One of the elements Kate and I needed to shoot was a flame, to be comped onto a torch. We lit a torch and clamped it to a stand, shooting at night with the pitch black garden in the background. It was the work of moments to comp this element into the shot using Screen mode.
Fire is the perfect partner for black-screen shooting, because it generates its own light and it’s not solid. Solid objects composited using Screen/Add or Multiply take on a ghostly appearance – perfect for, er, ghost effects – but not ideal in other situations; because of the way Screen mode works, anything that’s not peak white will be transparent to some degree.
We shot some fast-moving leaves and debris against black, but only the high level of motion blur allowed us to get away with it. In fact, if you know you’re going to have a lot of motion blur, black-screen might be the ideal method, because it will be tricky to get a clean key off a green-screen.
Other things that work well against black-screen are sparks, smoke and water/rain, again because they’re not solid. If you want to add rain or snow to a shot, black-screen is the way to go – check out my post about that here.
Yesterday Kate and I needed to shoot a whirlwind element. One of the VFX team suggested swirling sand in a vase of water. After a few experiments in the kitchen, we ended up using dirt from the garden. We used fluorescent softboxes for the background, ensuring we got a bright white background, and made weird arrangements of white paper to eliminate as many of the dark reflections in the vase as we could.
A few weeks back we shot hosepipe water against black, inverted it and used Multiply to superimpose it as blowing dirt.
With a little thinking outside the box, you can shoot all kinds of elements against white or black to meet your VFX needs. I’ll leave you with this featurette I made in 2006, breaking down the various low-tech FX – many of them black-screen – that I employed on my feature film Soul Searcher.
After countless viewings on VHS and DVD over my lifetime, I finally got to see Labyrinth on the big screen today. The imagination and detail in this film are just astonishing. Every scene has little puppet creatures wandering or flying about in the background to bring the sets to life. In today’s screening I noticed, for the first time, that there are two bottles of milk – presumably delivered by the Goblin Milkman – outside the door of Jareth’s castle. How brilliant is that?
Anyway, while there are many awesome things about Labyrinth, one of the techniques that I think is put to particularly good effect in the film is in-camera substitution. Typically this involves one type of puppet leaving frame briefly, and a second puppet – of the same character – reappearing in its place. Puppets are often limited in the actions that they can perform, and while scenes will commonly use different versions of the puppet in different shots to cover the full range of actions, Henson sometimes uses different versions of the puppet in the same shot to sell the illusion of a single, living creature. And though many of these effects are fairly obvious to a modern audience, you can still admire their ingenious design and perfect timing.
Skip through the movie to the timecodes listed below to see some of the best substitution effects.
1. Goblin Under the Bedclothes – 11:40
In the film’s first puppet scene, Sarah’s parent’s bedroom becomes infested with goblins, building up to David Bowie’s big oh-so-eighties entrance. One goblin crawls along the bed, under the sheets, before emerging. It looks like the initial crawling is achieved by pulling a rough goblin shape along on a wire under the sheets. The shape then drops out of the end of the bedclothes, behind a chest, and a moment later a puppet pops up from behind the same chest. This substitution effect obviates the need for a custom-built or chopped-up bed, which would have been necessary to permit the passage of the proper puppet and its puppeteer under the bedclothes.
2. Sir Didymus’ Acrobatics – 58:35
This shot appears to employ three different models of Sir Didymus, the honourable but fighting-crazed guardian of the bridge over the Bog of Eternal Stench. The first is a floppy version which is thrown behind some rocks by Ludo. After a practical puff of dusk, a second Sir Didymus – this one in a more rigid, leaping position – is launched from some kind of catapult hidden behind the rocks. He flies out of frame, to be replaced a moment later by the Muppet-style hand- and rod-puppet which is used for the majority of Sir Didymus’ shots.
3. Cowardly Ambrosius – 1:16:25
To his infinite chagrin, Sir Didymus’ bravery is not matched by that of his canine steed, Ambrosius. During the battle with Humongous, the petrified pooch rears up, throwing off his valiant rider, and retires shamelessly into hiding. The rearing up is accomplished with a rather unconvincing puppet dog. After he drops back down out of frame (aided by a slight zoom in to help lose him), a real dog enters in the background, running into hiding.
4. Double David – 1:27:53
In the film’s finale number, “Within You”, David Bowie’s Goblin King messes with our sense of direction as he jumps and flips around the disorientating Escher artwork brought to life. Early in the sequence he jumps off a ledge, only to reappear simultaneously in a background doorway, now seemingly obeying a pull of gravity at 90° to that which acted on his leap. A shot of Bowie jumping off the ledge cuts to another of him coming through the doorway. The doorway is filmed with the camera on its side, and to finish the action of the first Bowie’s leap, a body double is pulled across frame on a dolly. This can be seen at 25:36 in the behind-the-scenes documentary:
This kind of low-tech but ingenious filmmaking is in danger of dying, as CGI is perceived as the only tool to create illusions. But with a little thought, a little planning, cunning framing, and a knowledge of how to use editing (or lack thereof) to your advantage, very effective illusions can still be created in camera.