Archive for the 'Sci-Fi Production Design' Category

Manhattan Miniature from Escape from New York (1981)




In the first two photos, Bob (dark hair and beard) and Dennis Skotak, two legends in the visual effects field, work on the model. In the third, Bob inspects the finished product. To achieve the computer navigation sequence as Plisken is flying his glider into the city, reflective paint was applied to the edges of the black buildings, which were then shot under black light. While reportedly James Cameron’s idea, it was almost certainly John C. Wash. Cameron was a director of photography on the film (as was Dennis Skotak), and he did some great matte work as well.

(Images via Matte Shot and Fuck Yeah Behind the Scenes)

Movie Theater Marquees: Alien (1979)

Alien Criterion 1979

Alien Egyptian 1979

Alien Egyptian 1979-2

The first photo shows the Alien premiere at the Criterion Theater, New York, 1979. The second two are of the premiere at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

The showing at the Egyptian was special. Many of the props, models, and even parts of the set were on display. After you stood in line for an hour or two, you got to walk through a corridor of the Nostromo to get into the lobby, and in the courtyard sat Giger’s massive “Space Jockey.” The masterpiece was promptly vandalized and had to be removed (note the hand touching it in the photo).

All of the pics below are from Lisa Morgan, who unearthed them a few years ago.

Alien Egyptian 1979-3

Alien Egyptian 1979-4

Alien Egyptian 1979-6

(Images via Bow Tie Partners, Aliens and Predators Tumblr,, and cinriter/Lisa Morgan)

The Black Hole Portfolio Folders (Mead, 1979)













Ertl’s Die-Cast Blade Runner Cars (1982)

Blade Runner Ertl-1

Blade Runner Ertl-2

Blade Runner Ertl-3

Blade Runner Ertl-4

Blade Runner Ertl-5

Blade Runner Ertl-6

Blade Runner Ertl-7

My mom took me to see Blade Runner at the theater because I convinced her that it was a Star Wars sequel. I was 10. After Leon shot Holden in the first five minutes (“My mother? Let me tell you about my mother…“), she tried to forcibly remove me, but I wouldn’t budge. I was totally mesmerized by Ridley Scott’s haunting, desperate, Promethean vision of the future. I still am.

I’d forgotten about the toy cars, but they really did exist, and that makes me happy. Kids would have seen the “spinners” (designed by conceptual artist Syd Mead) prominently featured in the trailer, but most wouldn’t have been lucky enough (or duplicitous enough) to get a peek at the movie. It was a brilliant try by Ertl, anyway.

Toys and other kid-marketed merchandise were almost always designed to extend the experience of the production they were based on. (I’ve talked about this before.) In the case of Blade Runner and other R-rated features, that merchandise was meant to replace the experience of the film. Think of all the Alien stuff from ’79: Target Set, Movie Viewer, Board Game, Trading Cards, Kenner’s wicked 18″ action figure.

We’d seen the previews, we gleaned what we could from the adults willing to talk to us, but that’s it. Like Ridley Scott, we had to invent a world and a story for those spinners and that alien to inhabit.

UPDATE (5/8/15): David Augustyn spotted a mistake on the four-pack. Rachael’s Spinner is labeled as Bryant’s Police Spinner and vice versa. The Spinner second from right is clearly a cop car and even has “Police” written on the side.

(Images via eBay)

What the Future Looked Like: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)












(Most images via The Lucid Nightmare and John Kenneth Muir)

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

FF CE #20 pg. 8

FF CE #20 pg. 9

FF CE #20 pg. 10

FF CE #20 pg. 11

FF CE #20 pg. 12

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.


*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.)

What the Future Looked Like: Antonio Margheriti’s Gamma One Quadrilogy (1965 – 1967)

Gamma 4

Gamma 3

Gamma 7

Gamma 8


Gamma 6

Gamma 9

Gamma 10

Gamma 2

Gamma 11

Gamma 12

The Gamma One Quadrilogy is Wild, Wild Planet (1965), The War of the Planets (1966), War Between the Planets (1966), and The Snow Devils (1967). The films were shot consecutively in about four months using many of the same sets and actors. The miniatures seen above were used in all the films.

I’ll review Gamma One separately, as I’m a great fan of colorfully inane Italian sci-fi, this series in particular.

(All images via modern_fred/Flickr except the last one, which is from Cinema Knife Fight)

The Black Hole Concept Sketches (1978/1979)

Black Hole PD

Black Hole PD-2

Black Hole PD-3

Black Hole PD-4

Black Hole PD-5

Black Hole PD-6

Black Hole PD-9

Black Hole PD-7

Black Hole PD-8

According to the seller (Beach Parking/eBay), these are from the estate of a Disney animator. It’s a shame we don’t know his/her name or the history of the drawings, because I find them pretty interesting. The basic storyline appears to be in place, but instead of the gorgeously gothic vision we ultimately (and thankfully) got, the artist here presents much cheerier (i.e. typical Disney) fare.

In place of the dreary, massive, cathedral-esque Cygnus, we have the rotund, smiley-faced New Cosmos. And instead of lobotomized zombie slaves, we have a perfectly jovial crew traipsing about the amenity-laden ship like so many Eloi.

The miracle of The Black Hole is that its darker elements were allowed to shine through. That’s a big reason I’m so fond of the film despite the mediocre script.

UPDATE (4/3/13): Please see AcroRay’s comment and link below. These sketches appear to be of prequel stories designed for educational media kits. The kits are, naturally, very rare. If anyone comes across one or has more info, please let me know.

What the Future Looked Like: Forbidden Planet (1956)

Is it not beautiful?

(All images via thefoxling‘s awesome Forbidden Planet Flickr set)

What the Future Looked Like: Planet of the Vampires (1965)

pov 1

pov 2

pov 11

pov 12

pov 3

pov 4

pov 5

pov 6

pov 7

pov 8

pov 9

pov 10

(Images largely via Dallas1200am’s Flickr, but a few shots are from Behind the Couch and Bloody Pit of Rod)




Donate Button

Join 1,103 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: