Science Fiction Filme) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think your work has got a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like ALIEN, THUNDERBIRDS and SPACE: 1999 of course.
Could you please tell us something what you did before you come into film business? Why have you choose the way of being into special effects?
Brian Johnson) I left school in 1956 with no qualifications and worked at Cement and Concrete Research at Wexham Springs in Buckinghamshire UK. For six months I mixed cement with various aggregates into 5 inch cubes and tested them to destruction after 3 weeks curing. All for the new Motorway bridges to be built.
One Friday evening I was in my local pub, the Dog and Pot and a neighbor Les Bowie offered me a job sweeping the floor in a Film Studio near Shepperton Middx.
Les was an established Matte Artist and FX Supervisor.
I swept the floors and also learned to load 35 mm film int camera magazines, Arriflex, Mitchell, Eymo, Bell and Howell, and many others.
Les was teaching Ray Caple, Derek Meddings Bob Archer how to paint Mattes on glass sheets. He was using the studio of Anglo Scottish Pictures to do the work.
SFF.) If I´m right informed you were working with Derek Meddings. How did you get this job and was there anything you enjoyed the most at that time? Was it difficult to develope your own point of view for miniature and special effects?
B.J.) Derek was working at night for Gerry Anderson to earn more money and I was now working for Anglo Scottish Pictures as a camera Clapper/Loader and also Location Manager and Crew Transport Driver! I also handled the Location Petty Cash as well…. After my RAF National Service [2 years] partly in Wildenrath and also Sylt in Germany I started working for Les on The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The Derek, now working full time for Gerry Anderson offered me a job doing model and FX work on a TV series called Supercar.
SFF.) I love movies a lot. Is there any special event or movie which made you think: “Alright, I want to do the same thing.” Do you have any personal idols or movies in your business?
B.J.) Fantasia, First of the Few, Things To Come, Robin Hood, all influenced me as a boy.
SFF.) You have done a lot of fabulous works in TV-Series like THUNDERBIRDS or SPACE: 1999. But you also stuck into movies for the cinema. What is, in your own opinion, the difference between working on television and movies for the cinematic world?
B.J.) Basically the same but Movies have bigger budgets and more time.
SFF.) Could you please explain why you received a BAFTA Film Award for best visual effects for ALIENS (1986) but no Academy Award although it was the same film?
B.J.) I was asked by Jim Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd to do the FX on ALIENS. I started but then Jim wanted to use some of his US FX crew [Bob and Danny Skotak - really great technicians too] The UK Film Union FX branch said no at first then the new FX Chairman said yes because the US crew had special cameras we couldn’t supply.
A US Company LA Effects came over and started on the show. The problem was that they didn’t do very much and Pinewood Studios made life difficult for Bob and Denny to work the way they normally did. SO eventually Jim and Gale asked me to come back and take over, partly because I offered Bob and Denny my Studio, Arkadon, based in Borne End , not far from Pinewood to do their model work. Also Arkadon was shooting all the Motion Control shots LA Effects had failed on.
When ALIENS was in final stages of Post Production I found out that John Richardson our Union Chairman was also employed by LA Effects!!! John had done some superb FX work on ALIENS and was included in the Oscar Nomination FX list but my place was taken by the LA Effects owners wife as she had once been a hairdresser.
Despite Jim and Gale lobbying the AMPAS Committee I was excluded from an FX Nomination. BAFTA nominated me however.
So the ALIENS Oscar was Robert Skotak, Stan Winston, John Richardson, and Suzanne Benson [my Oscar!]
The next year the Academy changed the Nomination for FX to only include FX crew not out of work Hairdressers!
Jim and Gale had a huge Tiffany’s Crystal Diamond shape engraved with my name and ALIENS NOMINEE inscribed on the facets. Weighs about half a Kilo!
A really kind and generous gesture!
SFF) CGI nowadays could be a curse or a blessing. What do you think about it comparing to “old school”- films back in the days?
B.J.) CGI has altered the Movie Production in so many ways but in my humble opinion there is a good reason to enhance Production with a combination of Model FX and CGI enhancement.
SFF.) Where did you get the inspiration for your designs i.e. the spaceships in SPACE: 199 or in 2001. Are they scientifically based?
B.J.) I designed nothing on 2001 but when Douglass Trumbull and I were modifying Harry Langes excellent MoonBus I did sketch a modified Moonbus using an overhead support structure with a Maserati multltubed space frame as per their Sports Racer Birdcage design. I binned my sketch when I was clearing my desk months later!!
The Space 1999 was offered and the Eagle craft needed designing I recalled the Moonbus alternative and resurrected the space frame idea and the Eagle was born.
SFF) Stanley Kubrick was meant to be a very strict director with a clear vision. And many people say it was hard to work with him. What do you think about him? What exactly did you do on 2001?
B.J.) Stanley gave me the job of looking after all the models and photographing them with a plate camera [Polaroid 3000 B&W fine grain - special stock used by NASA]
I set the models up. He lit them. with infinite care and I processed the film on stage and fixed it and dried it and then MGM Studios Ken Bray produced the prints which were stuck on sheets of glass and photographed in Wally Veevers ‘Sausage Factory’.
SFF) In ALIEN you were working again with Nick Allder. Where did you two first met and would you be so kind and tell us about your relationship.
B.J.) Nick’s father John Allder was the Best camera engineer in the UK. He taught Nick how to use lathes, weld, rivet when Nick was a kid. When he joined Bowie Films Nick was taken under Les Bowie’s wing and Les said that Nick had great potential but needed an iron band round his head to be tightened when he got too cocksure.
So I knew Nick when he first started in the industry. We would mainly work on different projects until Space 1999 came up and I was looking for FX technicians.
The ALIEN came along and Nick worked on that and also EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Somewhere while I was in the USA working at ILM Nick upset the Producer Robert Watts. It was to do with alcohol and because of that I didn’t see any place for Nick as I needed to be sure of my crew and their responsibilities. He lives in East Europe somewhere so I haven’t seen him for years but the work he did on ALIEN and SPACE 1999 was superb.
SFF) I could ask you tons of questions for ALIEN. I´ve got a huge collection of merchandise and other stuff for this film in the cellar. But let me ask you just this: did you think during the production, that this movie would become such a huge milestone? And for the case you say “no”; why?
B.J.) When I first read the script I had no doubt it would be a hit. Particularly when Ridley Scott took over as Director.
SFF.) You won an Academy Award for ALIEN. Did this influence your way of choosing future projects maybe because of multiple offers you got or for other reasons?
B.J.) I already had EMPIRE to do after ALIEN and as I was asked to do DRAGONSLAYER by George Lucas after that, it was when DRAGONSLAYER was not Nominated that I was approached by Dieter Geissler to do Die Unendliche Geschichte.
SFF) I held up with the most important question at the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
B.J.) I think my hardest job was to complete what we called THE NEVERENDING STORY!
I had to find UK and German technicians and move all my equipment to Bavaria Atelier and build the world’s largest Blue Screen with the brightest fluorescent tubes powered by new Seimens high frequency ballasts. Build a new Go- Motion Animation System, use a [previously untried] double density blue screen from Stewart Screens who would not take responsibility for the double density or the use of the screen in cold conditions. At the Neue Lampen Halle where the screen was set up, the doors had to be closed and the stage kept warm. Notices were placed all around the stage but one Saturday morning I went in to find the stage doors wide open and the outside temperature was -15*C!!! The screen got damaged by a Bavarian electrician but we repaired the massive hole in time to start shooting on the Monday! Just when things seemed to be getting bad we had Robert Gordon Edwards arrive to look after the Production side [He had done Death in Venice for Visconti and was used to smoothing things out!]
That was my most difficult Effect!
SFF.) Dear Mr. Johnson. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
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