Science-Fiction-Filme) A lot of movie maniacs know the films you´re involved. Especially because for films like TRON, SPACEBALLS or the tv-series X-FILES, SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND or CHILDREN OF DUNE of course. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into film business? Why have you chosen the way of being into special effects?
Glen Campbell) From age 10 on, I was always interested in VFX. When you grow up watching Ray Harryhausen epics like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) you get hooked. At first, I just wanted to know how they were made. How do you make skeletons fight people? Learning about stop motion animation wasn't easy because there weren't that many magazines or books that discussed it in any detail, but magazines like “Famous Monsters” did the best they could. So I wanted to be the next Harryhausen until 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY premiered in 1968. Suddenly at age 12, I wanted to make model spaceships and film them. I bought “The making of 2001” and read it cover to cover. Then it hit me: This was a job. There were guys who got up every morning and got PAID to do that stuff. I wanted that job. I bought a super 8 camera and filmed badly lit models against black, sculpted little monsters out of clay and animated them, learning the rules of VFX. I found back issues of American Cinematographer and devoured any articles involving VFX films. I was a nerd bursting with VFX knowledge and no place to put it to use until 1977. STAR WARS hit, and suddenly every studio wanted to make a copy of it. “We need nerds!” they cried, and there I was, one of the right guys at the right place at the right time. That's how I got into the industry.
SFF.) One of your first jobs was on STAR TREK - THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). There you were responsible for the photographic effects photography. Could you please explain to us what exactly this kind of work entails? What experience did you take with you from your first movie?
G.C.) I was hired to work on the animation stand on STMP. I worked night shift with a great guy named Robert Friedstand. Together we shot things like the readout graphics you see on the screens as the Klingons and Enterprise approach V'ger, but our most difficult work was doing the moire energy patterns when Deckard melds with Illia. The art work was comprised of black lithographic cells that were mostly solid black but had hundreds of white lines inscribed on them. If you put two such pieces on a light box and lit them from below, you could drag one piece over the other, using motorized peg bars, and the light that leaked out from where the white lines crisscrossed would animate. It took hours to shoot these, but they looked spectacular in the final film. Robert Swarthe was the genius who designed them, and you can also see his work on the bottom of the Mothership in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THRID KIND (1977). The upside down rainbow sparkly dome on the landing zone is his magic at work.
I learned a lot about the importance of focus from that first job. A mistake could cost days of fixing or repair, so you had to get it right as often as possible. Good discipline. I made good lifelong friends, because we were all under the same pressure, which bonds you.
SFF.) One of the most groundbreaking films of the 80s was TRON (1982), where you were the animation compositing cameraman. What exactly was your job there?
G.C.) I was the night shift supervisor. Most of the old school Disney animation cameramen wanted nothing to do with all that new fangled computer stuff. They actually requested to NOT work on TRON. Peter Anderson, My old boss from BUCK ROGERS (1979), brought me in specifically because I was used to doing multi pass back light animation photography and I knew motion control. Disney commissioned a custom built motion controlled animation stand from a company called Cinetron. I was sent to Atlanta, Georgia for a week to learn the system and I wrote the operator's manual when I returned. Because of my prior experience, I was made supervisor, because I could fix problem art, figure out alternate ways to do things, and interpret a complicated 40 pass shot at 5 in the morning.
SFF.) When you look back today at the time you were shooting TRON, what would you say was the biggest challenge from a purely technical point of view?
G.C.) The biggest challenge was making all the artwork. The movie was technically shot 3 times:
1. the original photography on set
2. every frame was rephotographed and turned into black and white animation cells
3. every animation cell was rephotographed through color filters onto new film.
The sheer number of hand painted artworks to hide faces, reveal eyes and teeth, frame masking and such was staggering.
SFF.) You can't compare TRON with films from the modern era. But did you know what a masterpiece you would make with this film?
G.C.) We knew we were making something that had never been done on this scale before. Bob Able had done cool backlight graphics, MAGI had done cool CG stuff, but NO ONE had dared put them together for a feature fim. We knew there were things people had never seen before and were very thrilled to be part of history.
SFF.) Can you please explain in detail how the Blue Matte Pass that you used on the Eagle 5 in SPACEBALLS (1987), among others, works?
G.C.) Jon Erland developed reverse blue screen for the movie FIREFOX (1982), because they had a shiny black airplane model, which was very difficult to use against blue screen because of reflections. Jon coated the models with an clear paint the was inert and clear under normal lights but glowed red under ultra violet light. We would shoot the model against black with normal lights, which we called the beauty pass. Then we'd bring in a ring of UV lights, and turn off the normal lights. The model would glow red against the black BG. That was called the Matte pass. The optical department would take that pass and print it onto black and white film, which could used to generate hold out and cover mattes. From there traditional optical compositing would commence.
SFF.) On which films did you also use this technique and were there many hurdles with these Apogee-developed processes?
G.C.) Reverse Blue screen was used on FIREFOX, LIFEFORCE (1985), JAMES BOND 007 – NEVER SAY NEVER (1983), INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) ans SPACEBALLS (1987), just to name a few. The main problem with the technique was that things did not glow evenly. Light colored parts of models looked great, but things like black tires, black stripes, or deep grooves caused problems. We always had a roll of UV paint coated adhesive tape, that we would carefully apply to hide and block these items, giving us a solid pure red silhouette shape on film. This took a lot of time sometimes.
SFF.) You were employed by some companies that are or were real giants in the SFX industry like Apogee, Dream Quest Images or Sony Picture Imageworks. Looking back, what did you enjoy most about that time?
G.C.) I loved working at every one of those companies for the same reason I still enjoy working in this field: the job and the people. Every day, we get asked to create new things, design new things, and solve both technical and artistic problems. We do it, surrounded by the best and brightest brains in the world.
SFF.) Before we go into a little more detail from SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND (1996), let's talk briefly about the X-FILES (1993 -2018). As far as I know, you were the VFX supervisor for the design of Area 51, did you have a lot of freedom in designing the effects?
G.C.) I was part of a team at Area 51. I made a lot of initial setup decisions onset up in Vancouver, but guys like owner Tim Mchugh and artists like Scott Wheeler made a lot of contributions that at the end of the day only Chris Carter could approve.
SFF.) What was the special challenge with the X-FILES?
G.C.) X-FILES had terrible schedules. Every show aired at 9 pm sunday night and frequently the final broadcast tape wouldn't be finished until Saturday night or Sunday morning, which was almost unheard of. The producers and directors fiddled with the show until the very last second.
SFF.) Let's move on to SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND. How did you get involved with this series?
G.C.) Tim Mchugh, the owner of Area 51, landed the series and felt he'd need some help. He knew he'd have to go shoot the pilot in Australia and needed someone to prep the VFX back in the States. Ultimately he elected to stay and properly build the team and company while I went to Australia to supervise the VFX plate photography. I brought a copy of Lightwave 3D along with a few preliminary CG models, and was able to set up and design shots with the Director and Producers right there in the studio.
SFF.) Were there any particular challenges in designing the VFX for this series? If so, what were they?
G.C.) The producers had ONE requirement: they said the CG could NOT look like BABYLON 5 (1993 – 1998). They hated the look. Tim commissioned the next generation of LightWave talent and designed an aesthetic that worked out well for the show.
SFF.) At that time, you certainly had to create a lot of new things in the field of computer graphics. You were the visual effects supervisor for the show. How do you see the evolution of the show in terms of effects? Did you have to rethink a lot of things?
G.C.) Besides using the next level of texturing and detail, Tim decreed that everything should always be backlit. It didn't matter where they were going, every angle of the ships were backlit. It’s a total cheat, but that's why the show looks cool. We did roughly 85 shots per episode, so we had to be creative. We took the individual nose art off the ships for the series so that we could use shots over and over. The one thing everybody remembers from the 1978 BATTLESTAR GALACTICA was the constant reuse of VFX shots. You could only produce just so many shots with actual models on a stage. Our best innovation was what we called the Stock Redo. We would reuse shots, but we'd load the original scene files, leave the model motion alone, but move the camera and shift the keylight. Voila Instant new shot!
SFF.) What would you do differently today?
G.C.) Nothing, honestly. That show ran like a well oiled machine and we loved working on it
SFF.) You were also the lead visual effects compositor on CHILDREN OF DUNE (2003). How big were the hurdles in the realization of this material?
G.C.) CHILDREN OF DUNE was an improvement on SyFy's Dune in every way. The new Director hated the ugly giant photo blow up backdrops that were used on the first film, so every exterior on COD was done on blue screen. There's not a single frame of that film that was shot outdoors, so the 3D world build and the number of compositing shots was enormous. He loved to move the camera, so there was a tremendous amount of roto and tracking required as well. Ernie Farino was the VFX supervisor and made sure we got plates that were well shot and documented. That made our job so much easier.
SFF.) Did you take a lot of cues from David Lynch's version in terms of concepts and execution, or was the conceptual planning absolutely free from the '84 version?
G.C.) We hated all the spaceship designs from Lynch's version, but we all LOVED Carlo Rambaldi's worm. We wanted to do something similar but were given a specific worm design on the first SYFY film because they'd actually built a small puppet worm and shot it for a week in a miniature sand pit. We were told to match the design in case they needed more strenuous things for the worm to do. The model stuff didn't work, so it was never used. Had we known that was going to happen, we could have designed a cooler worm, but we'd been ordered to match the practical model, which wound up never appearing on screen.
SFF.) Could you please tell us something in general about the work on this miniseries? what were the best moments for you? Where were there difficulties?
G.C.) The best moments were watching the spectacular city of Arrakeen and the Palace come to life. We built the city, the shield wall, and miles of desert in real world measurements. The opening title sequence is one of my favorite scenes because you could put the camera anywhere and fly around until it looked neat then start cranking out great shots.
The hardest scene was also the most fun. The worm capture sequence was just a line in the script. They catch a worm. We thought, HOW do they do it, and then haul it away? The idea eventually emerged that they'd lure a worm onto the surface with a Thumper, surround it with deadly water, make it crawl onto a giant net, which prevented it from diving under the sand, then scoop up the 4 corners of the net with a huge CarryAll, and haul it off the planet. Everybody pitched in building assets, figuring out how to do water, which has never been a LightWave strength, adding dust, comping in the blue screen Fremen, etc. The Director was delighted when he saw the final scene. He had one contribution; he said “Someone needs to die”, which is why there's a bit where a worker gets caught on a cable, flung into the air, and eaten by the worm.
SFF.) I myself do not and did not live in Hollywood. I see everything through the eyes of the viewer of movies. I could well imagine that already in the 1980s and 90s it was sometimes difficult to gain a foothold in Hollywood and that not everything always went smoothly and nicely. That's just a guess. When you look back on that time, what is the quintessence of the experience you gained there?
G.C.) I learned there are three kinds of people in Hollywood:
1. Artists, who need the medium of film and TV to tell their tales.
2. Craftsmen, who love to solve the problems of telling those tales
3. Asshats, who got into the business because they want money and power.
The asshats are the least numerous but make life hell for everybody else.
SFF.) I am a teacher for disabled children in real life. You have to be enthusiastic at this job. What else do you need to complete your kind of job?
G.C.) Well, your job is far more important and valuable than mine. I make entertainment, you make people's lives better. We both need enthusiasm, which can be in short supply when the day goes wrong. There has to be a level of dedication that transcends the hours or money. Most people would do our jobs even they weren't getting paid.
SFF) Thank you, sir. In your opinion, what do you need in particular to carry out your work besides passion?
G.C.) Honestly, the single most important aspect is the ability to hold the image of the final shot in your head. You can put up with the drudge work of roto and tracking, of cleaning up bad art, long hours, jerk bosses, etc., if you remind yourself that all that boring work is going to look so cool on the screen. That's what keeps us going.
SFF.) What do you think of the "fight" (if there is any) of CGI against practical effects?
G.C.) There's no fight against CG. People use what they're comfortable with. Many practical film tricks are great, but VFX has now grown to the point that natural phenomenon like smoke, fire, water, and explosions can now be safely, and more importantly realistically depicted. You save no money doing it live anymore and now you don't have to rent a fire truck, a water truck, a fire marshal, a Pyro guy and assistant, bunch of stunt people, clean-up crew, police security, etc.
Old timers use old methods because they still work. Cheap studios use CG because they want stuff fast and relatively inexpensive. CG means they can change shots up until the last minute. Back in the old days, you had to make a decision and stick with it if something turned out less than perfect, but not anymore.
SFF.) If you have to choose three tools which you need for your work; which would it be and why?
G.C.) For VFX you will always need 3 tools: 1. A 3D program for making and animating 3D assets, 2. A 2D program for making textures, adjusting/cleaning/modifying images, as well as making elements for compositing, 3. A compositing program to generate your final shots.
A few years ago I would have said the top three programs you needed would be MAYA, Photoshop, and NUKE.
Today, I would say you need Blender, UNREAL 5, and Davinci Blackmagic Studio Pro. These three programs turn a single computer into a full featured production studio.
SFF.) Imagine you meet an extraterrestrial one day. He wants to know why you were stuck into movies with just one movie to explain, which will it be and why?
G.C.) It’s VERY hard to pick just one movie to explain the magic of movies. Which movie best embodies all the things that made me want to work in this business? Want to create impossible images? Want to sit in a dark room full of people you don't know, sharing a special experience like no other? Which movie made me feel that way?
It would be a choice between 2001 and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Those two movies made me want to do VFX for a living. They put me in a different world where anything was possible, and the skill and artistry on display was head and shoulders above any similar work that had been done, which made me dream of doing it too. The VFX in those movies made the events depicted look REAL. I'd never known it was possible to do that, particularly in the case of 2001. Those two movies made me switch from just WATCHING movies to wanting to MAKE movies, specifically ones with VFX.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
G.C.) I do have two scripts I've been developing for possible TV series, both sci-fi comedies. It’s hard to tell these days what people will like, so all you can do is write something YOU want to see and hope other people feel the same way.
I'm currently editing my third film for the Asylum. I didn't write it but my Girlfriend and I co-directed it. It's a totally bonkers concept, and it'll premiere on TUBI around July or August 2022 I believe. I can only give you one hint: Pink Floyd. It'll all make sense a few months from now.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
G.C.) Tough question, because there are a few shots you struggle with for one reason or another. Some are conceptually difficult to design or execute, some are just laborious. Probably one of the most memorable was from the infamous X-Files episode "HOME". We had to do the shocking reveal of the armless, legless mom being pulled out from under the bed. It was obviously going to be a visual effect, but I had to figure out the practical production staging BEFORE we shot it as well.
I designed the shot to be done as a crane shot that would start close then pull up to reveal the horrific final image. That meant we needed to use a motion control camera, so I could do multiple passes.
The biggest problem was coming up with a way to remove the actress's real limbs on set as much as possible. I concieved the idea of a low rolling gurney with 4 holes strategically placed in it. The actress could lie on the gurney, poke her arms and legs through the holes, and the Makeup Dept could apply "Stumps" to her visible body parts. her real legs would be sticking out from under the gurney but we could remove those by shooting a clean plate. The Art Dept designed and built the prop based on my idea and delivered it to set, ready to go.
On the first pass, we just rolled her out from under the bed while the camera rose up to it's final position. The actress clutched her butt under the gurney, thus keeping her real arms hidden while her real legs were left poking out from under the gurney, dragging across the floor.
On the second pass we simply shot the same move on the empty set, giving us a clean plate.
At the post house we roto'ed the gurney and comped in the clean floor, removing her legs. This gave us a twitching nightmare writhing on the gurney and also gave the rest of the world nightmares for years. I'm very proud of that. 🙂
SFF) Thank you very much for giving such generous information and I wish you only the best.