Science Fiction Filme) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think you´re work have got a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like ALIEN 3 (1992), APOLLO 13 (1995) ) of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films you are involved. Could you please tell us something what you did before you come into film business? Why have you chosen the way of being into special effects?
Michael Possert jr.) I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, USA. I made my first miniature when I was five. It was a model kit of the USS Arizona battleship. So, I have always been making things. This is something I have always done. And I have always been interested in movies. My mother enjoyed movies and we often went to the matinees as a child. It was cheaper and back then they always showed cartoons before the movie. When I was eight years old, I found an old Standard 8mm movie camera at a local yard sale. It was only 50 cents U.S. I spent the summer doing chores to make money to buy a roll of film for it. Over the next few years I would make short movies with the neighborhood kids. A couple of years later I moved into Super 8mm film. When I was twelve, I saw Star Wars on the opening week at a huge Detroit movie palace. It really blew me away. I was changed by that screening. It's all I thought about after I saw it. How did they do all that? I had been making horror films up until then. I immediately started making science fiction shorts after that. And learning how to do visual effects (it used to be called special effects back then). I began making model spaceships and sci-fi sets then filming them and trying to get good effects. I was certain I wanted to go to Hollywood and work in visual effects. In college I got a degree in film. All during high school and college I went to as many film festivals in Detroit and Ann Arbor that I could get to. While in college, I met a guy that did an internship as an illustrator in Hollywood. He had some contacts that I used to get going in VFX. Shortly after graduation I moved to California. And that's how I got started.
SFF.) I love movies a lot. One of my very first experiences was ALIEN and THE TIME MACHINE 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 favorite movies in your business? What event on the big screen or on television (if any) fascinated you so much that you said to yourself, "I want to do that too"?
M.P.) I had been building up to Star Wars for years. I was always fascinated by sci-fi, fantasy, horror and anything odd ball or cult. Movies like Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Jaws, Westworld, Logans Run, and the Godzilla movies were great influences on me. The budget of the movie wasn't a worry for me. Whether it was millions of dollars or low budget cult and b-movies, it didn't matter. I was in it for the story and how they brought it to life. That was the fascinating thing for me. And other science fiction movies that came out shortly after Star Wars like Alien, CE3K, Time After Time, ESB, Poltergeist, Mad Max, Starcrash, Battlestar Galactica, Raiders of the Lost Ark and finally Blade Runner, only furthered my interest in film making. But it was Star Wars that pushed me toward the world of visual effects using miniatures and movie magic. I became more aware of visual effects in service of story telling after Star Wars.
SFF.) In your opinion, are there any key skills you need to survive in your industry or in film in general?
M.P.) Persistence. Stubbornness. And a real passion for the life style. Rarely do you have any job security. It is project to project. And unless you are in a union, you are always petitioning for better pay and hours. The hours can be grueling. But once you are in, you have to have the skills to do the job. It requires being flexible. Most of the time, when production hires you to do the work, it is late in the movies process. So, you are dealing with quick turn around deadlines and demanding supervisors and producers. You just have to be the type of person to decide this is how you want to live. The results, often times, is seeing your good work on screen, even in an otherwise terrible movie.
SFF.) You have done a lot of fabulous works in TV-Series like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. 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?
M.P.) TV tends to be shorter on effects shots. If the TV series is renewed, you could have some repeat work from the same studio or shop for a few years.Movies tend to have more work in a defined time. Otherwise they tend to run the same at the studios or shops.
SFF.) When you compare the working conditions of earlier films and those of today, what are the biggest differences in terms of creativity? Has it become easier today, even in the context of CGI, or has the pressure increased? Maybe it's all in balance?
M.P.) It remains, largely, the same. Deadlines are hard and quick and that has been normal for a long time. It also varies with the people in the art department and higher level production. If they don't know what they are doing or cannot come to a decision about an important shot, then even the biggest funded projects can be in trouble. Art directors, production designers and effects supervisors and directors, of course, have a tremendous effect on their crew below them. If they don't know what they want, then how can we professionally build it? But, that is common in many types of work and not just movie making. CGI continues to nibble away at the practical work. Much of the fabrication has moved to 3D printing, props that actors must interact with and stop motion animation. I bounce between the three worlds to make a living.
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?
M.P.) its hard to point to just one movie. The Abyss made me take notice of computer effects for the first time. It was undeniable once you saw the water tentacle in that movie. The computer was here.
Many people contributed to the early use of the computer and clearly James Cameron pushed the technology very hard early on. Many movies used miniatures for many years after, but it was clear that the amount for each movie continued to dwindle. Movies I worked on in the 2000s like Aviator, Mission to Mars, The Mothman Prophecies, Stealth and Xmen 3, all had several miniatures. But many were enhanced quite a bit with CGI. I think the dwindling happened for two reason. First, supervisors and below, that could move into CGI, did. And those calling the shots as to how a shot would be done, started relying on the computer more then the art department fabricators. At some point, everyone at the top that decides how movies will get made, will have no experience in practical effects and it will be further reduced or eliminated. I believe that will come with AI. And probably sooner than I would like.
SFF) You're involved in a lot of SFX, after all. Is there one area that you particularly love? And if so, why?
M.P.) Sitting in dailies and seeing the shot you just spent days, weeks, or months on. To see if the look has been achieved and if it is going to work is a huge satisfaction. Can we awe you or fool your eye one more time?
SFF) You also make props for certain movie scenes, like the shotgun from the chase scene in TERMINATOR 2. Can you please explain how to make such a stunt item using this example?
M.P.) The Terminator 2 shotgun was an interesting and fun project. I was contacted by production to make stunt shotguns from the real gun. I was loaned the Winchester 1887 shotgun from Stembridge Gun Rentals, who was providing the weapons on the movie. I carefully and thoroughly plugged along all the seams and openings of the shotgun. It was a functioning gun and I did not want to ruin it by clogging it full of mold rubber. I clayed up the underside of the gun, to the center line along the entire weapon, placed a box around it and poured silicone rubber. The first half of the mold was done. I flipped it once it cured, pulled all the clay and poured the second half of rubber. Then let that cure. When I opened the mold and pulled the shotgun, I was happy there were no leaks. The real gun cleaned up nicely. I then had two halves of the gun. Production had ordered two hard-shell and two foam stunt shotguns. The hard-shell guns were a black gel surface coat and a layer of fiberglass and polyester resin.
I then fused the two halves together with a thick mixture of resin, around the edge of the gun, before clamping the mold halves shut. Once that is cured I would pull the copy out. Its basic seam clean up and paint at that point. I did the foam guns next. I cut a hole in the mold in the butt end of the stock. I clamped the mold halves together and poured a two part expanding polyurethane foam into the mold. The foam was self skinning with some back pressure. The coin sized opening provided just the right amount of release and back pressure to give them a nice skin overall. Its then the same process – clean the seam and any voids, then paint. The foam guns had a bass wood shaft through it for a spine to hold shape. It was placed inside before clamping. The idea for all of these stunt guns were safety. If the stunt rider or Arnold went down on the motorcycle, the shotgun would be one less piece of metal flying around him and less likely to harm them. Recently I was commissioned to restore an original hard-shell stunt shotgun from a private collector. It was fun to visit an old project like this one again. I posted before and after photos of this restoration on my Instagram account as circa1964.
SFF) You also built the model of the EEV from ALIEN 3. What specifications did you have? Who designed the concept? The recently deceased Norman Reynolds?
M.P.) I worked mainly from drawings provided to Boss Films from production. We printed them at the size the model was to be for shooting. That was all I had to go by.
SFF) How many versions were there of the EEV? Did you use a lot of kitbashing for this?
M.P.) There was only one model of the EEV. However, we did make a mold of the top half of the EEV. Then several copies were made to build the wall of EEV's that the main one ejects from. Once shots of the EEV model ejecting and falling to the planet were finished, it was returned to me to make the damaged version. Very little kitbashing happened. A bit for the details above each sleep bay on top. The circular detail in the main nose was made by me and had some kitbashing. More on that next.
SFF) There are some pictures circulating that show the surface of the EEV where you can see a facehugger. You can enlighten us. Was there one that was supposed to be "placed" there or is the whole thing a pure invention of the internet?
M.P.) It is true! We hid a small facehugger among the details of the circular nose detail. That idea was Laine Liska, lead puppet animator on Alien3. He also sculpted the facehugger and mold and cast it. I helped him coil it around the details in that port. We thought it might be caught by others, but it wasn't. It went through. Those pics of it close up are on my Instagram too. When the EEV came back to me for the damage work, I took the facehugger off and kept it. You can barely see it in the movie. But it's there.
SFF) ALIEN 3 was pretty much bashed by audiences and critics when it came out. Nowadays it's the other way around and many even feel this part is the best. How do you see it? How do you feel about the film in 1992 and how do you feel about it today?
M.P.) I have grown to like it more now then back then. You have to remember how crazy the pace of Aliens was. I was young and I think I wanted something like that. The studio version also suffered a bit I think. But, over time I have grown to enjoy it much more. It has a very different tone then the first two and that's good. The Assembly Cut that reworks the movie with more of the directors story is better.
SFF) You've also been in the industry for a few decades now. Is there a project where you are angry that you didn't agree to do it and also the other way around where you agreed to do it and it didn't go well?
M.P.) That was more common in the 80s and 90s when there was still a lot of vfx movies with miniatures in them. Yes, several projects I had to pass on because I was already committed to another project. I had to turn down Titanic, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Armageddon and more. I don't really have a project I regret working on. I do wish some of the projects I had worked on were done better. Usually the effects supervisor or director don't know how to shoot visual effects. Our miniatures tend to suffer on those projects. That's always disappointing.
SFF) Besides being self-employed, you have also worked for some SFX/ VFX companies like Digital Domain, Boss Films or Dream Quest Images. What do you take away from that time? What exactly is the advantage of being self-employed in your industry?
M.P.) Working in practical visual effects is very nomadic. It is an insecure lifestyle. You work project to project, then are let go. You have to want to be this kind of a craftsman or artist. Sometimes when you get into a popular studio or shop, you can stay on and run through several projects. Most large studios have their “core” crew that they rely on and keep around. But that is not common especially today. The longest run I have had was usually a year in vfx. In stop motion animation I did a 7 ½ year run for Laika Studios where I worked on 4 movies with them. That is my longest run anywhere. Is there an advantage to being self employed? I'm not sure there is a choice. It is the nature of my end of the industry. Project to project, then you move on.
SFF) When you look back on your filmmaking life, is there a project where you say today that you would have liked to have done better (even with the resources of that time) and if so please explain?
M.P.) Nothing large stands out. There are always things that you wish you did better but couldn't. Usually it's because of little time and tight deadlines. I would do some things different on The Rocketeer.
They tend to be small things that are process or build related. The main thing on The Rocketeer was sealing the zinc coated rocket pack with a lacquer gloss coat. It ended up not being durable enough for shooting and got scratched and chipped. Luckily it looks good throughout the movie. We should have gone with a catalyzed two-part urethane gloss coat. That would have been tougher. The way I made the helmet mold I would do differently now. And I would lay them up in fiberglass cloth and polyester resin. We slush cast the helmets with urethane resin and that created a lot of problems when we had to put the lenses in. These concerns usually are the result of age and experience. I know more now then I did when I was in my mid 20s. So, now I make better choices and create less problems for myself – usually. I am in the process of writing a book on the crew I was part of on The Rocketeer. I go into some of this in the book. I hope to have it finished by early 2024.
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?
M.P.) As awesome as some of my vfx action films are, the world of stop motion animation can be very fulfilling for an artist. An example would be The Boxtrolls done at Laika Studios. The model shop, which I was in charge of during that movie, fabricated over 22,000 individual miniatures. A record for any stop motion animation film. All those models made by a crew of about 20 over eighteen months. We did so many different pieces utilizing dozens and dozens of techniques and tools. The story also highlights how different and misunderstood entities (the Boxtrolls) are discriminated against. And how in the end, they overcome it. I am very proud of my work and leadership on that project even if the movie was not a huge success. It has a strong following of fans today.
SFF) Do you have some advice for young sfx-artists?
M.P.) There is not much left in the way of physical miniature effects anymore. I would encourage them to learn the computer and camera. That is where the new exciting things are happening like on the The Mandolorian using the “volume” stages for shooting. If you are going to try and get in, it will be difficult, with periods of no work. You have to want it and maybe to the detriment of other things you want. But I remember how determined and stubborn I was in my 20s. You can't tell anyone that age what to do. But I would encourage people to go into the computer and build stuff for themselves as a hobby. Sadly, that's what CGI and computers have done to this part of the industry.
SFF) You've worked on films by many well-known directors. Is it a great difficulty to realize the visions of each director?
M.P.) Sometimes very much so. Like the director of The Hunt for Red October. The director could not communicate what it was he wanted to see in the way for underwater footage with the miniature submarines. So, in frustration, he pulled the miniatures from Boss Films and took them to ILM. That's on the director, not the Boss Films crew. But usually the director has a very specific idea of what he wants. You just have to listen to his desires and concerns and execute them. Some directors can't verbalize exactly what they want to save their life. Those are the most worrisome directors. If you repeatedly miss the mark, you can get into trouble. And maybe not be asked back to that studio or shop in the future. Luckily I have not had that happen to me.
SFF) Do you have any favorite work of yours?
M.P.) One of my favorite projects was Solar Crisis, a science fiction film done at Boss Films. I had only been doing vfx miniature work for a few years. It was the first time I got to build a model entirely by myself. It was the small Helios spacecraft that was docked at the space station in the movie. The design was by Syd Mead. The crew had to make a four foot or 122 cm diameter version of it. We used my finished 14 inch or 35.5 cm diameter version as reference for making the large one. That was very cool. I did other stuff for that movie but the Helios stands out for me.
The EEV for Alien 3 is also a favorite. I was a huge fan of the first two Alien movies. So to work on number three was great. And to work on the only new spacecraft in it was a thrill too. That movie was my first screen credit.
For prop making, The Rocketeer is right at the top. His helmet and rocket pack are iconic designs and known the world over. Very proud of my work on that.
And finally, my recent work on Wendell and Wild, a stop motion animation movie on Netflix. Directed by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Xmas fame. I did a lot of good work on that, including many of the vehicles.
SFF) Like many very good works for little screentime in other films. Doesn't that annoy you when you only ever see the fruits of your labor so briefly?
M.P.) Yes, it can be very annoying to put so much effort into some miniature shots and it goes by in a few seconds. Especially if the models are particularly beautiful. But what is more annoying? When effects supervisors and directors don't understand visual effects and how to shoot for them. An example is the movie Cabin Boy. We made two beautiful scale miniatures of the main ship – The Filthy Whore. They were finished all around – 360 degrees. Very well made models. They were under utilized in the movie. It is my opinion that they could have been shot better.
SFF) I held up with the most important question at the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
M.P.) There are many. A film is like a giant rocket launch. You do all this work and it could just blow up on you. One example I will share is from the movie True Lies. There was to be a scene where Arnold is in a helicopter that crashes on the side of a mountain and it slides down the mountain side. It was to be shot practically with a miniature helicopter mounted on a pipe rail built into the side of a miniature mountain. We spent a couple months making the mountain set, outdoors. It was probably 40' or 12 meters across the front and 60' or 18 meters deep. And at the highest point about 30' or 9 meters tall. It was made out of chicken wire and sprayed with an expanding foam that we sculpted into a mountain side terrain. A few hundred trees of several scales (to force the perspective a bit) were also made. We started painting it on a Friday then went home for the weekend. That Friday night the director cut the shot. A demolition crew was hired to come in over the weekend and destroy the mountain side and haul it away. We came in on Monday and it was gone. It was weird. Something so big was just gone. That was frustrating and a bit demoralizing.
SFF) Dear Mr. Possert jr. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future.
M.P.) Thank you so much for reaching out and showing interest in my work. I am very happy to talk with anyone about this work. Thank you again. Cheers!