Back when visual effects were created by magicians and not programmers…

Following the tragic news over the weekend, about the passing of Ralph McQuarrie, I thought I would repost this documentary about the genesis of ILM (Horizon – How To Film The Impossible) – I posted this a year or so ago but at the time I didn’t have a YouTube account that could upload clips over 15 mins – and now I do – so here it is in its entirety.

While this Horizon is not about McQuarrie himself, it is about the ILM / Lucas heyday, a world in which McQuarrie was hugely influential. It’s about a time when innovation was made in a machineshop and not via lines of computer code. In many ways it’s a love letter to a bygone era when visual effects were more akin to a stage illusionist tricks or the slight of hand of a magician.

Anyhow, it was a seminal moment for me. I hope it brings back fond memories for you.

Onwards and upwards

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author

7 Responses to Back when visual effects were created by magicians and not programmers…

  1. Robert Grant March 5, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    I love this! We’re showing a documentary called “Sense of Scale” at this years SCI-FI-LONDON about exactly this with Q&A from some of the participants. This kind of modelmaking is such a dying art. If you’re interested there’s a trailer:

  2. dd_opco March 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Hi Chris.
    Absolutely loved this programme but worried about the sentiment expressed in the text. Constantly hearing VFX folk disparagingly described as nerds or here as programmers because they work with PCs as opposed to hand crafting. We don’t apply that criteria to editors who now almost exclusively cut with PCs.

    Having tried my hand at modelling, lighting and animation I’d have to say it’s as far from programming as playing farmville.

    As is the case in practical FX you are required to be artist, architect, scientist, Production, editor in four dimensions!, Designer and DoP. The PC can only output what it’s given (research and time being the most important) and If you look at the best (seamless) effects in film they are always the ones where the director, practical and CG effects teams / companies are there working together from the start.

    If filmmakers treat CG VFX as alien concept separate from filmmaking or an afterthought then that’s how the VFX will look. When you work with VFX companies from minute one, they can and do produce the amazing.

  3. Chris March 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Forme its simple – back in the day, VFX were created with smoke and mirrors. Innovation, when it happened, be it The Thing and gooey prosthetics, stunning matte paintings, stunts, Blade Runner etc. All were crafted by hand with an illusionists mentality – we tfilm it this way, hiding this from the audience, so they think ‘that’… Now if you can imagine it, you can create it. There is no invention in that way, and audiences know it. When I was younger, one question I always heard was ‘how did they do that?’ I havent; heard that phrase in years. Nostalgia? Sure. Not about right or wrong, good or bad, just how it is. And yes Digital VFX people are artists, though I feel they have less in line with magicicans than old school VFX and stunt folk.

    • dd_opco March 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

      I am with you on the magic of practical VFX and stunts. I watch a old school martial arts flick at least once a month because there is nothing, absolutely nothing that comes close to matching the level of physical skill and mastery of a medium. (except maybe Gene Kelly dance numbers)

      There will never be a time where kids watch Hollywood’s Greatest Rag Doll Dynamics and say “look at the way they accurately simulated a 2 story fall”

      However, I don’t think the romance of practical should lead us to dismiss what is being done by some VFX companies now and to remember that the best effects are still the ones we don’t notice. Practical or Digital..

  4. Don McVey March 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    I remember getting up close to the spaceship from 2001, on a trip to Universal Studios when I was 10. Realising that this simple plastic model had created such stunning images on screen. Really felt like I was in the presence of magic!

  5. Andy March 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    An artist is an Artist whatever the medium. Regarding smoke and mirrors, The fact that we as Audience are more sophisticated and know more about the process is more to do with DVD Extras than anything else. Before DVD’s you would have to see the rare documentary like this or seek out Cinefex magazine to know how things were achieved.

    And because you have not asked that question doesn’t mean that many others don’t. My own girlfriend and many other friends not in the industry still have no idea how things are done. They just say things are CG whatever – although a lot of the time they are completely wrong.

    Prosthetics are still used a lot and models are often sculpted and 3D models takend from that. Models are often used for minitures – Quite a lot of the transformers movies were miniatures Original Matte painters have moved to digital and wouldn’t go back. The opportunity to revise and edit invaluable. And again most Digital artists still start on paper.

    Practical VFX are always used where possible as the term ‘we can fix that in post’ is normally the producers worst nightmare as Digital effects are not cheap.

    Also a massive amount of of digital effects are invisible to people – wire removals – set extensions etc.

    If you went back 50 years and showed one of the innovators of Effects what they could do now they would drop their glue and stop motion cameras in a second as as you say they are innovators and will always go with the best option.

    I think the most important thing is to know what to go digital with or keep practical – a skill that is sometimes completely ignored. Jabba the hut in Star Wars for example the original worked as a model and the completely broke it but Lucas seems to have a knack for that. But the Ship sequences are fantastic in CG. Other time CG is just so badly executed it looks like it’s just stuck on the frame – most SyFy channel movies of the week.

    The key is to be subtle.

    Oh and and I love the way the clearly ‘paid to speak, has no idea about the subject’ VO guy says Darth VaRder at the start.

  6. Jon Walker March 6, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Great doc, thanks for sharing.

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