Science Fiction Movies) Dear Mr. Belohovek. Thank you for joining this interview. You participated in some of the most beautiful and best films of the 80's and 90's, such as ALIENS (1986), EVIL DEAD 2 (1987) and of course ROBOTJOX (1989). Many film enthusiasts know the movies you're involved in. Could you tell us a little bit about your life before we dive deeper?
James Belohovek) I was born in 1957 and grew up in Rialto, California. I've always been interested in making things with my hands, even before I could crawl. When I was about 5 years old in the early 1960s, my older sister used to leave "Famous Monsters from Movie Land" lying around for me to leaf through. Starting in 1966, I saw series and movies on TV that piqued my interest - Sinbad's Seventh Voyage, 1933 King Kong, then Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. I wanted model kits, but my family was much too spendy to buy them for me, so I started making things out of cereal box cardboard. By the early 1970s, I had quite a collection of cardboard spaceships and vehicles. I even tried filming my Enterprise with my dad's 8mm camera. In my late high school days, I tried to shoot simple Super 8-mm film and build the miniature in it. When I graduated from high school, I went to junior college and took a 16-mm film course.
My mother pushed for me to attend college and found the California Institute of the Arts. I started attending the school in 1979/1980 and took courses in film graphics. I also met some guys who attended Disney film school, and we became good friends. While I was making props for my film in my dorm room, Joe Ranft came to visit my roommate. He took one look at what I was doing and suggested I become a model maker. I hadn't even thought of that yet. Another Disney school friend, Tony DeRosa, arranged for me to meet with a Disney Studios employee (John Van Vliet) who looked at my portfolio. I showed him my pictures of my cardboard and wooden miniatures, and he encouraged me to become a model maker. When I got home from my job, there was a phone number where I could call a girl who needed help with a model. I called her, and it was Susan Turner, who belonged to VCE Inc. She looked at my portfolio and hired me on the spot to work on a flying saucer in the movie THE THING (1982) by John Carpenter.
SFF) So your first job was on THE THIN. Were you involved in the stop-motion sequence or just at the beginning?
J.B.) I was hired to do the vents in the saucer, then some of the surface details. Then Susan gave me the job of making a double ring to hold the 144 miniature lights inside. I soldered them to a ribbon cable to connect to the special controllers ILM had made for us. After that, I went back to school to finish my courses. A few months later, Susan called me back to work on the ice cave at the end of the film that was to be created at the Hartland facilities where the makeup artists worked. I built the miniature backdrop and part of the wall behind the oil drums. Susan sculpted the wall by making it look like cut ice. I had to make all the barrels and paint cans, Susan detailed the paint cans and made everything look like it was all covered in frost. I also made some scrap furniture and office supplies to put behind the door in the background. She didn't give me credit for any of that, so Randy Cook did and listed me under the animation section in the credits.
That was the first film. Then came DREAMSCAPE (1983) and then BUCKAROO BANZAI (1984.)
SFF). You are a model maker and a fabulous master of kits. Isn't it sometimes sad to see that this great work you spend months on is only seen for a few seconds in the finished film? What actually happens to all these models when the shooting is over?
J.B.) It doesn't bother me that I might work on a model for weeks and you only see it on the screen for a few seconds. That happened to me when I built an elevator for GREMLINS 2 (1990). It was only on the screen for seven frames, then it was up.
After the model is shot, it goes to whoever reclaims it. It's rare that I get to keep a model I made. Most of the time, the place I built it gets it.
As far as kits go, I didn't build anything from a kit, I built everything from scratch by hand. No 3D printing or laser cutting. Everything was challenges. I like challenges, the more difficult the project, the more I love the work. When I'm done with a model, the visual effects company that hired me films it. Then they store it or disassemble it.
SFF.) What fascinated you about model making?
J.B.) I don't know why I fell in love with miniatures. Maybe it's because of how much detail goes into them or how they look on the screen. The challenge was to see if you could fool people once.
SFF) So what has been the biggest challenge so far?
J.B.) With every project, there have been certain difficulties. Building the Power Loader shell from ALIENS (1986) was a challenge only because we got most of the blueprints late and had to work almost around the clock to finish it.
SFF) What exactly did you build on this model? What were the concepts for this model?
J.B.) The Power Loader was my gem because it was the first time I was in charge of how the models were built. The models had to be made first so that molds could be made from them and thin fiberglass parts could be pulled from the molds. Tony Gardener was in charge of all that. The parts were paper thin because Doug Beswick didn't want to add weight to the anchor that would cause it not to work. Thin cables and dacronn were used to move the arms and legs while the doll was moved under the table. After the parts were removed from the molds, I had to clean them up and attach them to the armature. We were never able to paint the loader in Doug's shop, and all the surface details were put in a box and sent to England. I gave it a color, but it was repainted at the shop.
The Power Loader was my first work of my own. Doug Beswick was in charge of the project, but he left it up to me to decide how I wanted to build it. I was responsible for creating the models for the loader. Then Tony Gardener made molds and pulled out thin fiberglass pieces that I cleaned up and put on the armature. We had three months to do the work, but we didn't get most of the designs until six weeks after we started. In my last week, I worked 114 hours, it was Christmas Eve. It was packed into a crate along with the miniature Queen Alien to be shipped to England. I did my best with the detail work because it was going to be a wonderful portfolio piece.
The concept was designed by Jim Cameron himself, and the full size Power Loader was made in England by John Richardson's team.
SFF) Was the model of the Power Loader fully functional or were only parts of the model moved?
J.B.) The concepts for the Loader came from James Cameron himself. Once the designs were approved, the drawings were sent to Doug's workshop. The difficulty was that it was the old fax days and the signal was sometimes jammed and couldn't be printed or skipped. So the drawings had to be interpreted and measured.
Everything moved on the loader, but during the shoot Cameron had all the cables cut and they used thin plastic strings to move the arms.
SFF) What exactly did you build for EVIL DEAD 2?
J.,B.) I built the miniature backdrops for the scene with the "dancing corpse". The set, the trees and the hut. Then I removed the cabin and set up a tree for the corpse to dance around. I made it out of a mixture of papier mache and white glue and shaped it with a fork.
SFF) You've been working for films for over 40 years. Which ones did you particularly enjoy and/or were there films where you were under a lot of pressure?
J.B.) My career began in 1980 and continues to this day. I've done models, props and architectural models for theme parks like Walt Disney Imagineering comp. Time was always the bad guy. The only job I hated was working on the Terminator 3D theater that James Cameron directed. I had a bad time with the producer.
In all the years I've worked on miniatures in movies, ALIENS is my favorite. Working on Cameron's Terminator 3D theater was the worst job because people were inexperienced and didn't have time to get the job done.
SFF). How do you feel about CG compared to the model making of yesteryear? Do you think there is some kind of renaissance of this art?
J.B.) I like CGI when it is used to support the miniatures and not to overlay them in the shot. I think people know if there's a real miniature on the screen or if a flat CGI shot is being used. I would honestly rather see a miniature because the natural light reflects off the models. It just looks better.
SFF) When you worked on a model for a film, such as HIGHLANDER II (1991) , how did you go about it? How accurate were the templates, or did you do a lot of kitbashing?
J.B.) I worked on HIGHLANDER II, Ron Thornton was in charge of that. Most of the models were ready, but there were details missing. I was put in charge of the detail work, gluing molds inside the pyramid building and building a structure in the desert for vehicles to drive up to. Ron Thornton was a long-time friend of mine whom I had met at ROBOTJOX. We didn't use kit parts, but parts made for ROBOTJOX and the starship from SPACEBALLS (1987).
SFF.) Do you have a project that you have always wanted to do or is there something in the works that we can enjoy in the future?
J.B.) I always have projects, hopefully next year I can publish a science fiction book I've been working on.
SFF) When you look back on the glory days of the 1980s and 90s, what do you think?
J.B.) There were more movies in the 1980s than there are today. My phone was ringing every day because someone wanted to hire me. But the producers started cutting our budgets in half and cutting the time we had to work. It wasn't fun anymore, so I shifted my career to building miniatures for theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland.
SFF) Dear Mr. Belohovek. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview, and I wish you all the best in your future filmmaking.