Scurrying for the spotlight

What do King Kong, Frank Langella flambe, spaceships and marauding cockroaches have in common? They’re all the product of cinematic trickery — the movie-making device commonly known collectively as “special effects.”

And that was the topic of a forum — called, appropriately enough, “Special and Visual Effects” — presented by the Asheville Film Commission. The event was held at the Asheville Community Theatre (thanks to ACT Artistic Director Peter Carver) on Monday, Feb. 18.

The forum — hosted by Asheville Film Commission member Gayle Wurthner and featuring guest speakers Kelley Ray and Tom Barkstedt — proved to be both instructive and entertaining. And the question-and-answer period that followed the lectures revealed once more that Asheville is a movie-savvy town. After all, you know you’re in the realm of pretty serious film buffs when speakers are fielding questions about the deep-focus techniques of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane!

Crawling with fear

Setting the tone for the evening, Wurthner, a professional scenic designer, spoke of her own adventures in the realm of effects work. “Much of my most interesting work that I did as a scenic artist and designer is now done entirely by computer,” she explained, adding by way of example, “Before we could digitally remove [telephone wires] out of period buildings … we had to paint them out. We painted Styrofoam(R) to look like brick or stone or whatever.”

Wurthner’s experience in this area, however, is by no means limited to the naturalistic. She worked on the George Romero-Stephen King collaboration Creepshow back in the early ’80s, and horror fans will doubtless recall the film’s climactic episode in which veteran character actor E.G. Marshall, playing a vile-tempered old man, meets his just fate when his germ-free penthouse is swarmed by cockroaches — a grisly affair requiring the importation of barrels of roaches flown in from Brazil.

“The script called for these roaches to stampede, but the roaches didn’t read the script evidently, because as soon as ‘action’ [was called], they were spilled out of their barrels and scattered in opposite directions. Roaches, as it turns out, don’t like crowds,” revealed Wurthner.

Obviously, some adjustments were necessary. “We created 4 x 8 sheets of faux roaches,” explained Wurthner. “We took 4 x 8 sheets [of paper] and attached wax and nutshells and those brown candies with striations in them — that old-fashioned hard candy — and made them look like roaches,” continued Wurthner, shedding some light on just one of the many strange methods employed to fool the viewer.

“The plan was for the real roaches to run over these [fake roaches],” remembered Wurthner. “Take two: lights, camera … and the faux roaches looked fabulous, but the real roaches, instead of running toward the camera, turned around and ran the other way, because roaches — in addition to not liking crowds — are also camera shy: They don’t like light and they don’t like heat.”

If nothing else, the production crew member were quickly becoming experts in roach behavior.

“This prompted George Romero to ask, ‘Well, what if the area they’re leaving is hotter than the area they’re going to?’,” continued Wurthner. That sounded reasonable, so another attempt was made: “We created a metal ramp followed by [these] 4 x 8 sheets of faux roaches, and we closed the sides so that they couldn’t run off camera and we heated up the metal at the starting gate, so they’d be forced to run over this toward [the] camera, [where it was] cooler by comparison.”

But some of the roaches — now amputees — came across the sheets and got stuck in the faux-roach wax that had been reactivated from the heat. It was a total shambles. Wurthner remembers Stephen King asking, “‘Gayle, what are we going to do now? Make little skateboards for them?'”

Negative space

Digital-effects supervisor Kelley Ray of Rex Ray, Inc., had his own latter-day roach stories — proving that the more things in Hollywood change, the more they remain the same. Ray, an award-winning artist who has worked for such filmmakers as Roman Polanski, Paul Verhoeven and Peter Hyams on such diverse movies as The Ninth Gate, Starship Troopers and The Musketeer, explained the difference between special effects and special visual effects (which includes digital effects).

“Special visual effects, I consider the art of deception,” he said. “They trick the eye and the mind into thinking you’re seeing something you’re not — putting things together that don’t really exist, [while] special effects are something that I would consider more mechanical … things that can be done on the set and on location when you’re doing principal photography.”

When most people think of effects, there’s a tendency to think of more extravagant cinematic hijinks — whether it be stampeding insects or exploding spacecraft.

Ray was quick to point out that this is only part of the job. “Those are the ones we get all the buzz about. In reality, it’s probably about 30 percent of our job. About 70 percent are invisible effects, and if we do our job right, you don’t see what we’ve done, and you have no idea that it wasn’t all there.”

Ray’s video presentation of some of his work and how it was done revealed exactly what he meant. Though filled with such elaborate and visually exciting moments as Frank Langella setting himself ablaze in The Ninth Gate and an actress hallucinating that her body is transforming into snakes, roaches and other none-too-cuddly critters in The Craft, Ray’s “demo reel” offered much evidence of far subtler — but equally important — work. This ranged from simply “electronically painting out” objects — and even people — that aren’t wanted in the final film to elaborately manipulating the background of a scene. In Peter Hyams’ The Musketeer, for example, the director was horrified to realize that his long-shots of a runaway stagecoach through green fields didn’t match his insert shots of the hero climbing onto the coach against a brown background. The solution? Digitally “paint” the brown background to match the long-shots.

Sound simple? Well, it isn’t. Consider this: “Motion picture film is projected at 24 frames per second, so we go in at every single frame and manipulate all the images in each frame,” said Ray. “So for two seconds we have 48 pictures that we have deal with. And four seconds is 96 frames, and if you’ve got a couple hundred layers of pictures in each frame, you see how complicated this can get. It’s not unusual [for such manipulation] to [cost up to] $50,000 a second.”

Smoke and mirrors

Tom Barkstedt, creative director of Asheville’s Blue Ridge Motion Pictures, is also a veteran of effects work. He was involved with such films as Sharky’s Machine and The Mosquito Coast, as well as Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew commercials. Barkstedt, however, is from the older school of effects work, where the illusions are largely created for the camera at the time of filming — what’s known as mechanical and physical effects. His approach goes back to the earlier days of filmmaking when, as he put it, it was “smoke and mirrors and funky special effects, where there was very little CGI [computer-generated imagery] work involved,” leading to the days of Star Wars, which “created a whole new dimension in what we expect for special effects.”

Addressing the many aspects of physical effects (“These include fire, smoke, wind, rain and snow”) and mechanical effects (“Having things move, grasp, break, fight, swim, fly or float”), Barkstedt demonstrated the difference between this approach and most of the work done by Ray. His is a more home-grown artistry and is sometimes thought quaint today. Watching a clip from the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, with its full-size mechanical monster, it’s easy to see why such an approach might be thought of that way — but there is an undeniably solidity to physical effects that is sometimes lacking in today’s more technically innovative work. Barkstedt himself humorously recognized the occasional limitations, remarking during the Jaws footage, “This is one of the scenes where it actually works … sort of.”

Interestingly, Kelley Ray’s work utilizes many of the same techniques — combined, of course, with CGI work. And there are times when the physical-mechanical effects practiced by Barkstedt are very much still the way to go.

Simpler such effects may be, but they are not without their own unique sets of challenges. These kinds of effects can, by their very nature, be potentially dangerous. What’s more, they also lack the luxury of time and correction afforded to post-production computer manipulation.

“It all has to perform while the camera runs,” explained Barkstedt, adding, “And there’s not that many times we can afford to have multiple takes.”

In the end, it’s not a case of warring factions with the newer approach eclipsing the older one. It’s often a simple matter of economics.

“They call up Kelley and ask him his price, and then they call up me and check my price,” Barkstedt concluded.

Asheville Film Commission forums

“Special and Visual Effects” was one of a continuing series of forums presented by the Asheville Film Commission to encourage local interest in filmmaking. This latest forum was also part of an ongoing collaboration between the Asheville Film Commission and Asheville Community Theatre. Watch Xpress for news of upcoming Asheville Film Commission events.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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