Steven Spielberg And Special Effects

How SFX became the director's lifeline

by Ian Freer |
Published on

"Steven, Have They Figured Out What I'm looking Up In Awe At Yet?"

How SFX became the director's lifeline


Where would Steven Spielberg be without the power of special effects? Well, a billion dollars poorer and, probably, about to start production on Dude, I Still Can't Find My Car. The genius of Spielberg has been inspired and fulfilled by those effects boys — but it was never going to be easy.

When first thinking of how he might realise the aliens that emerge from the Mothership at the end of Close Encounters Of The Third
 Kind, Steven Spielberg came up with the most ridiculous conceit that has ever emerged from his mile-a-minute mind — 100 chimpanzees dressed in flimsy ballerina-esque costume, sporting latex beads and riding on hidden roller skates.

"The first thing that happened of course was 
that he fell down," recalled Spielberg about the
 test film featuring a solitary simian. "The chimpanzee tried it again but couldn't quite get 
his balance on the eight pairs of wheels and ball bearings, and kept making these Charlie Chaplin pratfalls. He was all over the place and he was laughing — he had a great time doing this — but 
I sort of saw the picture of the whole movie
 flashing before my eyes. At one point the chimpanzee pulled off his rubber head and throw it at the crew. That was his way of telling me, 'Find another way'."

It is possibly the most low-tech moment in a filmmaking career that has thrived on the bleeding edge of visual effects trickery. All his feature films have included some kind of special effect, from barnstorming showstoppers — the across the moon bike sequence in E.T., the rollercoaster ride in Temple Of Doom, the T-Rex attack of Jurassic Park — to grace notes — the flash of light as the Nagasaki bomb explodes in Empire Of The Sun, the speeded-up cloud effects above the mailbox in The Color Purple, the digital vistas of New Hampton in Amistad — that subtly enhance a story or imperceptibly create an environment. If George Lucas has forged the current state of the art, no one has wielded it with more showmanship and finesse than Spielberg.

That he has subsequently worked with the best artisans in the business — A.D. Flowers, Carlo Rambaldi, Douglas Trumbull, Richard Edlund, Stan Winston and Dennis Muren at ILM — has enriched and enlivened the most vivid imagination working today. Spielberg films have invented special effects techniques, such as the "Pie In The Sky" previsualisation process of A.I. and the cloud tank of Close Encounters. But, more importantly, if less noticeably, these films have raised the bar on the way effects are showcased. Before Spielberg, the visual effects sequences in a movie often snapped audiences out of the moment through an artificial crystal clear clarity. In, say, Close Encounters and E.T., effects took on the same diffuse, intricate look as the rest of the film. The distinction between live action and the completely artificial slowly began to blur.


Steven Spielberg emerges from E.T.'s spaceship

Even as an adolescent filmmaker, Spielberg was always up for embellishing reality, be it through the crudest sleight of hand. To create explosions for wartime drama Escape To Nowhere, Spielberg dug two holes in the ground, put a balancing board loaded with flour between them which was then covered with foliage.

"I'm some sort of movie masochist. I like to inflict pain and suffering and sleepless nights on myself about special effects."As the kiddie actors playing soldiers ran over it, the flower made a believable geyser in the air. During his Close Encounters dry run Firelight, the fledgling filmmaker created elaborate effects better than many an Irwin Allen film. In a sequence where a child (played by Spielberg's sister Nancy) is abducted by a UFO, Spielberg rewound the film in camera, then double exposed it adding a spacecraft created by a lamp with a red gel and glass dishes filled with red "jello". The film also featured elaborate stop-motion effects as the army fight aliens in front of a papier-mâché mountain and the scene of disintegration of the body with actor Clark Lohr, photographed in various states of vaporisation, eight frames at a time, the final shot being a plastic skull.

Some 17 years later, Spielberg perfected this shot for the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark: after fake heads were generated through plaster cast moulds of the actors and then packed with blood bags and latex flesh, Toht's melting face was dissolved with heaters and captured with time lapse photography, Dietrich's imploding head was achieved through deflating balloon-like cheeks and Belloq's exploding noggin was detonated by an air cannon and two shotguns. During ILM tests for the shots, executive producer George Lucas asked for "More blood! More blood!" After seeing the particularly graphic results, Lucas shouted, "Less blood! Less blood!" Saving Private Ryan saw a less cartoony, more horrific approach to viscera. To realise the bloodletting on Omaha beach, the effects crew fitted 20 amputee stunt men with prosthetic limbs, which were separated from the soldier by a breakaway joint connected to a squib (17,000 squibs were used in the production overall) —
 as explosions erupted all around them, stuntmen were catapulted into the air on wires by a 50 tonne crane. ILM subsequently increased the intensity with digital bullet hits and wounds indistinguishable from the prosthetic viscera. Ingenuity and technology merging to form nerve- shredding carnage.

Bruce The Shark

Robert Shaw takes a break from the shoot alongside Bruce the Shark.

In the days before digital, it seemed that Spielberg was systematically working through every effects discipline. Indeed, the choice of project often appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to the previous experience; the nightmare of shooting a mechanical shark on Jaws led Spielberg to the complete control offered by optical effects on Close Encounters; the subsequently painstaking process of optical effects led to the instant gratification of shooting (and blowing up) miniatures on 1941. In the pursuit of indelible imagery, Spielberg has never been afraid to make life difficult for himself and his crew. A simple decision on Hook to give Tinkerbell movement in her wings in almost every shot saw the ILM workload skyrocket from 44 shots to 243.

Production members could well come across E.T. smoking a cigar, picking his nose, even pinchinq the screenwriter's derrière."I guess I'm a sort of movie masochist," Spielberg said in 1982. "I like to inflict pain and suffering and sleepless nights on myself about special effects cost
 overruns and about the fear of being able to spot the blends
 and being the first to notice all the inconsistencies that come out of the special effects movies. I guess that's my lot. I must, somehow, enjoy it."

Nowhere was the "pain and suffering" more evident than on Jaws. Having scrapped plans to train a real- life shark, Spielberg hired mechanical effects expert Robert A. Mattey to build a polyutherane Great White
, A.K.A. Bruce. Three models were built: two 25ft steel critters
 that ran along
 a 70ft underwater
 platform and
 one all version that could be towed behind a boat. How could it possibly fail?

"The shark was a disaster," recalled producer Richard Zanuck. "It let us down tremendously. We were starting to lose confidence in Mattey. We were very scared. We thought, Jesus Christ we're making a picture called Jaws and we don't have the fucking shark."

An early venture saw Bruce whack his nose on the towing platform — the subsequent dent had to be hammered out. Once fixed, the shark later "exploded" after being towed against the tide. Yet the real nadir arrived as the shark jumps on the Orca to bite Quint. On impact, the boat began to sink and all hell broke loose as the crew struggled to save the equipment and themselves.

As if bloodied by the experience, Spielberg subsequently had better luck with all his mechanical dramatis personae. Designed by Carlo Rambaldi, Close Encounters' alien emissary Puck — described by Spielberg as a mix between "a foetus and a Dickens' character" — performed perfectly, controlled by 15 
levers, with Spielberg operating the smile function 
himself. (This is a further demonstration of Spielberg's child-like desire to roll his sleeves up and get involved in effects filming — he also played the hands that pulled the flesh off the parapsychologist's face in Poltergeist.)

Spielberg and Rambaldi took the technology to new levels with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. While often thought to have been visualised through Spielberg cutting and pasting pictures of Albert Einstein's eyes onto images of a baby's face, a more pertinent influence comes from a Rambaldi painting Ladies Of The Delta and the designer's Himalayan cat. On set, the crew exploited the creature's astonishing dexterity (85 different moves, 35 facial tics) for comedy value: startled production members could well come across E.T. smoking a cigar, picking at his nose, winking at chicks, waddling around with a gauze mask in fog-heavy sets, even pinching screenwriter Melissa Mathison's derriere.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Spielberg's romance with the miniature world began with Close Encounters. Throughout the production, giant coloured arc lights acted as UFO eyelines for the cast. "The name of the book I will never write," quipped Richard Dreyfuss, "is 'Steven, Have They Figured Out Yet What I'm Looking Up In Awe At Yet?' because throughout that movie Steven hadn't figured out what we were looking at." Initial designs grounded the UFOs in recognisable earth bound shapes such as the double arches of the McDonald's sign, the aliens' way of making us feel at home. Eventually, Spielberg hit on a design akin to a 747 approaching with the landing lights on. As such, burger, conical and "gasmark"-shaped models were fitted with neon and shot in a smoke filled room to make beams of light visible.

Yet the jewel in the CE3K crown was the Mothership. Spielberg's original conception was a hulking shape that blacked out the night sky stars. But this was dropped after the director saw an oil refinery at night in India and decided the top should look like a City Of Light travelling from galaxy to galaxy whereas the underside would resemble a huge breast and nipple (hence Mothership). Perhaps the most majestic model ever to grace the screen, model supervisor Greg Jein constructed an intricate 6ft, 401b structure of plexiglass, steel and plywood, laced with a multitude of neon and quartz bulbs. Note: the Mothership rises up from behind Devil's Tower. How it hid unseen behind the mountain for all that time remains one of cinema's great unanswered mysteries.

There we were watching our future unfolding on the TV screen, so authentic I couldn't believe my eyes.If Close Encounters features the most single impressive model in a Spielberg film, the most consistently impressive miniature work crops up in his next picture, 1941. Jein built a miniature Los Angeles — Hollywood Boulevard, The Hollywood sign, the Los Angeles basin, La Brea Tar Pits — that famously makes no geographical sense whatsoever, but dazzles in its attention to practical detail: the Ocean Pier Amusement Park alone has bicycles in racks, shooting galleries with miniature prizes, all weathered with oil thinner for a realistic, lived-in finish. The scaled down version of the Japanese sub that fires on a Ferris wheel was 26ft long and later recast as a German vessel in Raiders. Beautifully realised aircraft miniatures were flown down model streets by a sophisticated wire system that allowed the planes to do barrel rolls and fly upside down.

Indeed, Spielberg's miniatures have often been put at the service of his love of aviation. All three Raiders movies have featured small scale aircraft. Empire Of The Sun's fleet of radio-controlled Japanese Zeros, American Mustangs and a single B-29 bomber were among the largest ever assembled for a film, so large that they could share a shot with the actual actors and still retain the look of full size aircraft. Always' flying scenes — shot by Jurassic Park III helmer Joe Johnston — rejected the radio controlled option for flying model aircraft through burning forests (consisting of Christmas trees) on wires.

For the money shot — an Invader hurtling straight at the camera— ILM shot the scene in a mirror so as not to endanger the camera crew, even remembering to reverse the aircraft number and lettering so it would read the right way on film. Genius or what?

Jurassic Park T-Rex computer wireframe

*Before and after: Jurassic Park's T-Rex 3D animation process

Contrary to popular belief, Jurassic Park did not represent the first time that Spielberg had worked with digital effects. Having produced Young Sherlock Holmes, which boasted a stained glass knight generally cited as the movies' first CGI creation, Spielberg had employed digital manipulation on Empire Of The Sun 
(a wave of CG bombers), Last Crusade (the rapid ageing of Donovan) and Hook (the Neverland island, Peter's CG shadows on clouds, wire removal). But Jurassic was something else entirely.

In breathing life into Michael Crichton's Mesozoic menagerie, Spielberg initially turned to Bob Gurr, creator of Universal theme park's King Kong attraction, to pursue the idea of building full sized robotic critters. When this was deemed impossible, the challenge fell into the lap of Stan Winston, Oscar-winning designer of The Terminator and Aliens to come up with believable dinosaurs: from the gremlin-like dilophosaurus to a surprisingly poignant ailing triceratops (the first animatronic to go before the camera, Winston blamed any malfunction of movement on the dino's ill health), from a 20ft high 13,000 pound tyrannosaurs to hardnut, crowd-pleasing raptors, Winston created staggeringly realistic beasts that performed beautifully.

For head-to-tail dinosaur shots, the initial plan was to augment Winston's work with ILM's sophisticated animation technique Go-Motion, headed up by Phil Tippett. Spielberg had commissioned Dennis Muren to go digital on one scene — the herd of fleeing gallimimus — the consensus being that CG was not sophisticated enough to perfect living, breathing entities for sustainable periods of screen time. But the consensus was not shared by everyone. Muren and his team secretly built a CG skeletal tyrannosaur going through various run and walk cycles, quickly progressing to a fully articulate creature moving through a still background of rolling hills. No jerky stop motion. No lizards with plastic bits stuck on their back. No men in suits — this was the real deal.

"There we were watching our future unfolding on the TV screen, so authentic I couldn't believe my eyes," noted Spielberg about the first CG viewing. "It blew my mind."

Spielberg quickly scrapped the Go-Motion footage 
("I was shattered by the decision initially... but the CG was amazing", recalled Tippett, whose animation skills were sensibly retained) and upped the CG shot roster to 52 shots. Spielberg even rewrote the end to accommodate his new technology: originally, the two raptors moving in on the heroes were killed by John Hammond firing a bazooka and the second was crushed in the jaws of the T-Rex skeleton. Not only would the T-Rex return to save the day (underlining the film's theme that nature always finds a way) but visual effects (and summer blockbusters) would never be the same again.

The Spielberg film that followed Jurassic had a mere handful of effects: some digital matte paintings, a smattering of bullet hits and the colourisation of a small girl's coat. No amount of bluescreen could conjure up the visions Steven Spielberg was about to undertake. What was needed now was artistic courage.

Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection Blu-ray box set available to order now.

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