Science Fiction Films) Dear Miss Smith. One can say without a doubt that you are a luminary in your field. Countless great films have been made with your help like for example THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) , THE MUMMY (1999) and the STAR WARS-Franchise of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films you´re involved. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into film business? Why have you chosen the way of being into modelling?
Kim Smith) Growing up, I enjoyed sculpting very much, especially animals and people. When my then-husband got a job in LA, I tried to get a job sculpting in the Disney workshops. They told me in no uncertain terms that they did not use women for sculpting. Later, I made models for Landmark Entertainment in Los Angeles. I primarily built and painted miniatures and set pieces for elaborate art director’s models for theme parks. When I later moved to the San Francisco Bay area, I applied for a job with ILM and got one right away working on a simulator ride for Disney World. I started doing mostly Creature work, but then, with Hunt for Red October, I was tasked with resurfacing and painting miniature submarines. That began a long career in the ILM Model Shop painting vehicles. I’ve been blessed with being able to apply myself to most artistic jobs, detailing, sculpting and painting both creature subjects and hard-surface subjects.
SFF.) What was your first film you were working on and how did you get the job?
K.S.) I did some scenic work for a film called “Hanoi Hilton” in LA. I also did a very small amount of work for MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987), also in LA. My first feature film at ILM was INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) doing creature work, stage support and model work.
I worked on Kurosawa’s DREAMS in 1989, but I’m not sure how it fell in the chronology. My next film was GHOSTBUSTERS II (1989) doing model making, creature work, and slinging slime. My third (or fourth) movie, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER solidified my career at ILM. For lack of someone else, I was given the lead on resurfacing the miniature submarines so they would read well, and to scale, for our dry-for-wet shooting environment. We had inherited this job from Boss Films and it was a real “911” emergency.
The directors were pleased with my approach to the painting, so I and an electronics specialist, Jon Forman, spent two months on the set babysitting the subs and the “underwater” environments. The sets were located in Point Richmond CA, in a fruit warehouse which allowed the depth of field necessary for these fairly large miniatures and sets. After RED OCTOBER I began to be used for detailing and painting vehicle models.
SFF.) I love movies a lot. One of my very first experiences was ALIEN and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. 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 favorite movies in your business?
K.S.) BLADE RUNNER (1982) was the movie which entranced me, though this was before I had worked in film. In fact, if anyone had told me that I would be making models for movies, I would have been astounded. Everything about BLADE RUNNER was clever, sophisticated and necessary to the story. Now I count several of the model makers working on Blade Runner as my friends and colleagues. I have worked closely with Bill George and Sean Casey on many projects, especially STAR TREK, and Bill, my life partner John Goodson, and I worked with the Smithsonian to restore the Original Series Enterprise, now back on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
As far as “idols” go, so many people I’ve worked with I just think of as great friends but they are idolized in the Visual Effects industry. I generally don’t have “idols” because, as they say, you should never meet your heroes.
SFF) I´m a teacher for children with special needs. I´ve had done this for nearly 22 years right now. I know my job because I want to do it, I´m enthusiastic and I have several educations to work with kids. What is your opinion about education to become an expert in modelling? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
K.S.) My answer to this will be slightly oblique, and will also refer to what YOU do.
I’ve considered becoming a docent at local zoos and Natural History Museums to tutor children in the activity of drawing. I was taken with this idea when I had some time to draw at the Houston Zoo, where busloads of children “at risk” and “special needs” were being unloaded. They crowded around me, completely taken with what I was doing. I talked a bit to one of the chaperones, who told me that I had already broken through to at least one of the children, who was typically non-respondent. I thought about the importance of the connection born out of observing an animal carefully; communicate with it; look at it eye-to-eye; see how it moves and reacts; interpret the observations on a piece of paper. Drawing allows them to explore on their own terms, but also educates them. This keen observation is also a factor in successfully making miniatures. Why is an earth-mover built the way it is? Why is an airplane or a helicopter built the way it is? What is the difference in how they each move in the air? Why is a car engineered the way it is? A cheetah? An elephant? A tree? What about color? Why is a tree so often have green foliage? All kids can enjoy the process, no matter how expert their interpretation.
SFF) You've worked on films by many well-known directors. Is it a great difficulty to realize the visions of each director?
K.S.) Sometimes, though this process is usually funneled through the Production Designer, Art Director, and Visual Effects Supervisor. If I had one of their jobs, I would have to answer YES to this question.
SFF) One of the films you worked on was DREAMS by Akira Kurosawa. What exactly did you do for this film?
K.S.) I helped carve Mt. Fuji out of foam and also helped puppeteer the pieces crumbling away from the top of the volcano during the shoot.
SFF) Mr. Kurosawa has always been a director who thinks and shoots very visually. Was it difficult to realize these visions? Were there challenges in this regard?
K.S.) I understand that Mr. Kurosawa was not very happy with his experience using Visual Effects for this movie. Thus, I’m sure there were many challenges for ILM, but this was early in my career at ILM and wasn’t as privy to the insider information as I was later. I heard through the grapevine, right or wrong, that he never wanted to use extensive VFX again.
SFF) Is it easier to work with a director who thinks in big, fantastic images or can that be rather counterproductive for your work?
At my level, we did as we were asked, so, big or small, these decisions were handed down from the Art Department. For us, I would say we enjoyed doing the big fantastical things, though engineering them was part of our job and sometimes seemed impossible. We always came through. There was always someone who had a good solution since the model makers came from all kinds of backgrounds. The Stage Department was very important to success, as so many projects involved the complicated rigging which was one of their strengths.
SFF) You told me that your work for DREAMS brought you to ILM. Can you explain that a little bit more?
K.S.) Once I moved to the Bay Area, I had been continuing to work free-lance for the entertainment company I had worked for in Los Angeles, Landmark Entertainment. I had always intended to apply to ILM, but had been so happy working on my own art in my studio I had delayed applying. Then I heard that ILM would be doing the effects for DREAMS, and being a fan of Kurosawa, I applied. As I mentioned before, it would be a little while before DREAMS would begin, but they hired me right away for the Disney project.
SFF) For many decades, handmade, practical special effects in films were an integral part of the fantastic field. Then, at some point, CGI took over. Do you think there's a film that represents a kind of end of the line in classic modelling? If so, which one and why?
K.S.) Some people would have you think that model making stopped abruptly with JURASSIC PARK (1993) but that was not true. The ILM Model Shop had the busiest 10 years of their existence after JURASSIC PARK, hiring the most model makers. CGI was not mature enough to take over from practical model making at that point. It was a gradual process. For me, the writing was on the wall in 2002, when I decided I would have to make the switch to CGI in order to save my career. JURASSIC PARK was a turning point, for sure, but many other films marked huge developments in CGI.
SFF) It can be observed that in today's movies and TV series there is a kind of renaissance of the "good old" special effects. What do you think people associate with these grandiose visual effects? Why are people turning back to them? Is it an overkill of visual impressions?
K.S.) It is nostalgia and even Public Relations, not thrift, that has brought some directors back to using models. My understanding is that it is cheaper to use CGI, but the other side of that coin is that directors and art directors can keep changing their minds and noodle the work to death, because they CAN. There are still so many aspects of the CGI look that bother me. Lighting is often very unnatural, though the newer methods of shooting in an LED virtual environment volume has been a huge boon to VFX and will no doubt influence the shooting of miniatures. But people love the idea of something handmade; something they might be able to see and touch. It helps people connect with their youth, perhaps.
SFF) Was or is there a kit that presented you with enormous challenges, and if so what were they?
K.S.) The ILM Model Shop did use kits whenever possible, as it was a cheaper way to go, but so often the kits were cannibalized, or kit-bashed. I often used kits for physical detailing but didn’t build a kit “as is” myself. We had to be careful not to use common or recognizable pieces from popular kits. The biggest problem I ever had with the kits is trying to paint over the red dye used in some of the plastics.
SFF.) Correct me if I'm wrong. You have worked for over 30 years in the film industry in various positions. Which ones did you particularly enjoy and/or were there films where you were under a lot of pressure?
K.S.) My favorite movies usually turned out to be good movies as well. HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003), and GALAXY QUEST (1999) were among the most fun. The most pressure was STAR TREK – THE FIRST CONTACT (1996) the most sleepless movie I ever worked on. Working on physical models was far more fun than working in CGI, and the bond between the physical model makers has remained very strong, like family. I can’t think of any CGI film I worked on that I would consider “fun” due to the lack of personal interactions and physical problem-solving.
SFF) When you worked on a model for a film, for example STAR TREK – THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991) what was your approach? How accurate were the templates or did you use a lot of kit-bashing?
K.S.) My job on STAR TREK VI – THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY was to help restore the Enterprise A from a prior shoot, plus several of the miniatures including the Space Dock, Star Fleet Headquarters and a Bird of Prey. The “A”’s paint had been impacted by a dusting of white paint from the prior shoot. I had to restore the surface pattern so the ship would have at least a suggestion of its previous glory, but we did not have the ability, given the time restrictions, to get or use the original interference paint. I wound up using a pearlescent paint which worked adequately for our needs. We also built a 10-foot “A” saucer for a shot with a torpedo blast from below. Star Fleet Headquarters, from STAR TREK VI – THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY was built by my partner John from several kits, and I painted it.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
K.S.) I am currently retired from VFX and working in my own studio. However, I never say never to a future project, but it IS hard to tear me away from my studio. I have had a number of offers but have not accepted any so far in almost two years. The one place I had wanted to work and didn’t was Pixar, though it seemed close a number of times.
SFF) Do you have any favorite kit, diorama or model of yours?
K.S.) Recently I was asked to transform a woman’s designer shoe into an art project, and it became a miniature jungle scene with a lioness peering out, ready to pounce. The idea was a bit like a jungle slowly absorbing a Mayan temple. I made all the trees and sculpted the lioness, using scale silk or plastic foliage. It was quite fun.
SFF.) Like many very good works for little screen-time in other films. Doesn't that annoy you when you only ever see the fruits of your labor so briefly?
K.S.) I can only remember once when I was saddened by the destruction of something I worked on, and that was the destruction of the Interceptor in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL. I became very attached to that ship. It is quite fun to blow things up!
SFF.) Could you please explain, with an example, with which materials you can work best and why?
K.S.) I make the biggest contribution in paint and sculpture, being reasonably decisive at both. I don’t have much preference as to material. I was well-taught in the studio arts. My training is broad enough to apply my skills to most model needs other than electrical (though I’ve done that successfully), but I’m faster at some things than others.
SFF.) What do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art?
K.S.) I think it is both technical and artful. I have found that people revere miniatures. Attention to detail is respected everywhere. A few film model makers went on to a career exhibiting their personal art in miniature, like Michael McMillan, who incidentally worked on Blade Runner. Ron Mueck now makes outsized figures rather than normal or miniature sized figures. They were often trained as artists before they worked in the film business, like me. Miniature art is delightful and mysterious.
SFF) What is more difficult to design: real existing objects like submarines or those that are imagined?
K.S.) This could be a controversial question but I would guess that though known objects don’t require so much imagination, they require precision. Imagined objects leave lots of room for creativity, but they must also make sense and that concept is not always carried out successfully. In the end, both can be difficult.
SFF) Do you know what happened to all the models you worked on? Where are they now?
K.S.) I know where some are. Some are in the Lucasfilm archive, one is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, some are in private collections and some are in other museums.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult effect/ model you were working on and why?
K.S.) The Enterprise E was the most stressful model I ever worked on. It was fraught with problems from the beginning, but it came out so very well in spite of all that. Of all the models I worked on, I am most attached to that model and consider it my model-baby.
SFF.) Dear Miss Smith. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
K.S.) Thank you! It has been a pleasure to remember these times. What good questions! And good luck in your own very important work.