Archive for the 'Fantastic Films' Category

Fantastic Films #17 (July, 1980): Interview with Richard Edlund

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There were a number of interviews with the special effects crew of The Empire Strikes Back in Fantastic Films #17. Here’s the first. It gets pretty technical, because that’s Edlund’s field, but anyone can appreciate what he says about the now famous asteroid chase sequence:

There’s a star background, a far background, and an asteroid background, plus individual asteroid foreground elements. Individual rocks get photographed separately as do belt layers. So all that adds up to about 20 stage elements. A shot like that requires about 100 separate pieces of film…

Notice that Edlund says “he became a hippie” during his early career. Some of the album covers he photographed and designed can be seen at Discogs. A couple of the psychedelic 7 UP commercials he worked on for visual effects pioneer Robert Abel are here and here. A shot of Edlund working on Star Wars is here.

Edlund went on to do visual effects for films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, Fright Night, Big Trouble in Little China, Die Hard, and, of course, Return of the Jedi.

Fantastic Films #27 (January, 1982): Interview with Jim Steranko

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Comics and illustration genius Jim Steranko on his Raiders of the Lost Ark pre-production art:

The first Raiders painting I did established the character of Indiana Jones. There was really no actor discussed at this point, at least not with me […]

I got a note from George’s [Lucas] secretary describing Indiana Jones, which said that Indy should have a jacket like George wears. That was the only instruction. Fortunately, I knew what kind of jacket George wears. It all worked out very well. I perceived Indiana Jones as a cross between Doc Savage and Humphrey Bogart […]

The definitive image appears on Kenner’s 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark Game.

Raiders Board Game

Steranko’s Outland adaptation was serialized in Heavy Metal from June, 1981 through January, 1982. You can read the first few pages here.

The movie it’s based on, written and directed by Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, 2010), is generally dismissed as a heavy-handed retelling of High Noon (1952). That’s a mistake. As Steranko says, “[Outland] struck me as being the first noir science fiction film, somewhat in the ‘Chandleresque’ vein.” The film also verges on cyberpunk, and it came out a year before Blade Runner.

It’s fitting that Steranko, deeply influenced by the pulps, also did the cover for the Marvel Super Special Blade Runner cover.

Marvel Blade Runner

Fantastic Films Collectors Edition #20 (December, 1980): Interview with Tom Savini

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Tom Savini’s first makeup effects job, at the recommendation of George Romero, was Deathdream (a.k.a. Dead of Night), a brilliant 1972 film about a G.I. in Vietnam who dies in the war but returns to life—and comes home—as a vampire. After that, Savini did makeup for 1974’s Deranged (written by Alan Ormsby, who also wrote Deathdream), loosely based on the grisly career of Ed Gein. Martin (1976), another outstanding vampire film (kind of) written and directed by Romero, was next. Savini, already a theater veteran, wanted to play the lead. He did makeup and stunts instead.

After Martin, Savini returned to the theater, taking the part of King Philip in a production of The Lion in Winter. When that wrapped, Romero called him in to do effects for Dawn of the Dead (1978), the greatest zombie movie ever made, and easily in the all-time horror top 10. On to Friday the 13th (1980), whose realistic effects sent the American slasher film into the mainstream. (Bob Clark, who directed Deathdream, also directed the first true American slasher: 1974’s underrated Black Christmas. Clark is best know today as the director of A Christmas Story.)

No one in the makeup effects business did more to define the modern horror genre than Savini, not even Rick Baker or Stan Winston. His experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam gave him a unique (and terrible, I would think) insight into death.

Not at all the grisly brooder or the “deranged butcher” people expect, Savini emanates an easygoing affability in interviews. It’s clear that he loves life, and he’s giddily dedicated to his craft. All of that comes through when FF asks him if he had fun on Friday the 13th:

Oh, it was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had. The weeks in the Poconos, riding around without a helmet, taking my time and doing really elaborate things, and having a fortune to spend. Toward the end, I received a Dear John phone call from my girlfriend, which at the time seemed to destroy the whole experience. But as I look back on it, it didn’t at all. I just had a terrific time.

Despite his genius for illusion, Savini saw himself as an actor first. Romero finally gave him his chance in Knightriders (1981), a misunderstood movie about a jousting motorcycle troupe that’s also an elegy on the decline of the ’60s counterculture. Savini plays one of the leads, opposite a 30-year-old Ed Harris, and more than holds his own.

(The first and second installments of Fantastic Films #20 are here and here, respectively.)

Fantastic Films Collectors Edition #20 (December, 1980): Interview with Chuck Comisky

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Chuck Comisky was the special effects supervisor on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), a fun, clever sci-fi adaptation of The Magnificent Seven. His interview defines what was great about B movies when the people who made them had the integrity and talent to turn serious time and money constraints into lasting artistic triumphs, many of the productions outdoing their big budget counterparts. Here’s Comiski summing it up:

And what we’re doing is we’re substituting ingenuity, hard work, and a little bit of common sense for a big budget. When you don’t have money and you don’t have a big budget, it forces you to think creatively. You have to say, “How the hell are we gonna’ get the shot and make it look good: We don’t have any money to do it with.” So then you find yourself manufacturing some of your models out of greeting card racks and terrariums and developing systems… to avoid matte problems.

Comiski has some curt words for the first art director on the film, who “never took the trouble to look at the [spaceship] models and try to match up the interiors to the ships.” Comiski and his crew had to sort all of that out in addition to doing all the effects. The first art director was fired before shooting started and Comiski hired a replacement: James Cameron*. It was Cameron’s big break, and he went on to do some really brilliant work for other notable B features, including Escape from New York and Galaxy of Terror (both from 1981).

Comiski has great things to say about the visual effects in Star Wars, but he pans The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture for being bloated and unimaginative—for substituting money for “creative imagination.”  Fantastic Films asks him if he would have done more elaborate effects if the budget had been bigger. “No,” he says. “If I had more money, the one thing I would do is pay my people more money.”

Cameron, after Titanic made all that money and won all those Oscars, would return the favor and hire Comiski as visual effects supervisor for Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and, later, as 3D specialist on Avatar (2009). The irony is almost painful: Avatar is the most bloated sci-fi production in history, a textbook case of throwing money at effects to gloss over a hackneyed script. I won’t say it doesn’t look like shiny candy, or that it didn’t make a gazillion dollars, but I’d much rather rewatch Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s a superior film with, yes, better special effects.

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*In The Directors: Take One, Volume One (Ed. Robert J. Emery), Cameron says: “I was actually hired by the head of visual effects on a movie called Battle Beyond the Stars… Then they fired the art director because he wasn’t prepared… So I said, `Oh, I’ll do that.’ So I became the art director on the film.”

The Wikipedia entry on Battle Beyond the Stars reads, in part: “after the original art director for the film had been fired, Cameron became responsible for the special effects in Battle Beyond the Stars, or, as Cameron later put it, `production design and art direction.'” This is incorrect. Comiski was in fact responsible for special effects, which are not the same thing as production design or art direction.

Charles Breen appears to be the art director who was fired. Breen was assistant art director on, go figure, Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

(The first installment of Fantastic Films #20 is here.)

Fantastic Films #20 (December, 1980): Thundarr the Barbarian Article

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Thundarr the Barbarian is, hands down, the greatest American cartoon of the 1980s. Here’s why.

(1) In the opening sequence alone, set to the darkest, most epic cartoon theme song of all time, the Moon blows up, the Earth is ravaged by tidal wave, volcanic eruption, and earthquake—“man’s civilization is cast in ruin.” Then, 2000 years later, we see the “reborn” planet, now ruled by “savagery, super science, and sorcery.” (Yeah, super science.) A massive ocean liner, illuminated by the riven moon, sticks lengthwise out of the jungle muck into the fuming, noxious atmosphere. A masked wizard conjures up a slimy, Lovecraftian demon. Thundarr, a barbarian slave, “bursts his bonds” and vows to fight for justice, waving around his “fabulous Sunsword” from the back of a white steed. Ookla the Mok is a giant, foul-tempered raccoon with fangs and a mane. Princess Ariel is a bad-ass, raven-haired sorceress.

This ain’t Super Friends, kids.

(2) The show was and is a pretty sophisticated combination of literary (When Worlds Collide, Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane stories, Jack Kirby’s Kamandi) and cinematic/television (Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Seven Samurai, Kung Fu, The Lone Ranger) sources. It also predates Escape from New York and The Road Warrior, two brilliantly realized post-apocalyptic visions that have been imitated (but never bested) ever since.

(3) Alex Toth (Space Ghost, The Herculoids) designed the three main characters, while Jack Kirby (‘Nuff said) designed the secondary characters, many of the sets and backgrounds, and the Sunsword.

(4) Like the early marvel creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, Thundarr is grounded in the Western mythic tradition. The idea of the wandering hero goes back to Odysseus and especially the knight-errant (errant, from the Latin itinerant, means “traveling”) of the Medieval romance. I don’t want to overstate the importance of a cartoon about a barbarian wearing a fur monokini, but there is something of the heroic in the series, as Thundarr and his friends somberly wander the festering ruins of America seeking out the dispossessed and persecuted. Nothing lasts forever, they know, and danger is everywhere, but they choose to do what good they can with the time they’ve got.

The article above features some dazzling pre-production art from Kirby and Toth, and Thundarr co-creator (with Joe Ruby) Steve Gerber comes off as a really intelligent, quick-witted guy who is struggling to overcome serious creative restrictions. I didn’t know just how strict the censors were at the time, so I’ll quote him on it:

The Program Practices will still not allow our main character to throw a punch or to hit anybody… The criteria seems to be what children can emulate. If Thundarr sticks out his foot and trips a couple of werewolves, that’s emulable… If, on the other hand, Thundarr picks up a boulder and throws it in the path of the werewolves, thereby tripping them up, that’s not emulable, and we’re allowed to do that…

The big thing that we’ve had to overcome is that the censors tend to treat children as if they’re not just morons, but lunatics, potentially dangerous creatures.

And Thundarr’s sword posed a problem, since “knives and other sharp objects are outlawed on Saturday morning.” (The last drawing on the first page shows our hero holding a metal sword.) They couldn’t do a laser sword because of Star Wars, so they went with a “lightning sword.” I had just assumed all these years that they were trying to emulate the lightsaber.


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