Science Fiction Filme) Dear Mr. Gentry. It has been a while now since we have worked together so wonderfully. The feedback on our little documentary for the release of SPACE TRUCKERS (1996) is always positive. You have not only worked on this film but on many other great films like ROBOT JOX (1989), STUFF (1985), CAVEMAN (1981) or CLIFFHANGER (1993). Could you please tell us how you got into vfx? What did you do before you entered the film industry?


Paul Gentry) I wanted to be part of the entertainment industry, more as a filmmaker, since a kid.  I wanted to make more of the fantasy and sci-fi family films I loved!  But I was raised in a family with zero industry connections and the grounded family feeling it was most likely an unobtainable goal.  But visual effects was a back doors way to get into the business and I was always entranced by the aspect of how VFX was the noticed icing on the film & TV cake.  And as a result they were in scenes people remembered.  It certainly was the kind of thing I myself remembered. 


Like most of my visual effects contemporaries I was smitten by the usual round of movies I saw growing up like anything Disney (animated or live action), Ray Harryhausen films, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, George Pal movies (especially The Time Machine), Jack The Giant Killer, Invaders From Mars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and other notable fantasy TV shows etc.. Plus a visit to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Ackermansion in 1967 and seeing props and items from the TV shows I loved, including a Zanti Misfit stop motion puppet.  Not to mention reading DC & Marvel comic books!  It was a great time to be a kid with big dreams.


I made these little short & sweet Star Trek movies with a friend in junior high (1966-67) in Simi Valley, CA and when my Dad moved us to Seattle in late 1969 I had to seemingly reset my expectations being much further from Hollywood.  I had just started my junior year in high school.  The high school I moved on to though (Mount Rainier High School) had a film class taught by Frances Van Aalst and I made a Super 8mm film called COUNTERPART that had extremely crude visual effects by today’s standards.  But I remember having to explain to my film teacher what I was doing with all of my various methods (using Super 8mm film projectors and slide projectors) of doing visual effects on a nothing high school student budget then – all self taught.  (I read anything I could lay my hands on, which wasn’t much then.) 


With my teacher’s help I entered it into a teen film contest put on by PBS, the educational broadcast network in the United States.  It won first place in Washington State and was automatically entered into the national PBS contest where it won 3rd place, after two animated films (mine was live action).  It was exciting to be pulled out of class and directed to the school’s main office where there was a call waiting from New York telling me I’d won 3rd place.  It was truly unreal and my class erupted in applause when I came back and told them.  My teacher was obviously very pleased.  My film teacher and I became friends even after school was finished and she stayed very encouraging to me until she passed many years later finally graciously saying I was now the master and she the student.  There was a PBS show in May of 1971 called THROUGH OUR EYES that showed clips from the winning films and hosted by comedian and director David Steinberg (I later met Steinberg when working on the first ADDAMS FAMILY movie in Hollywood and he told me I was the only winner who ever came up to him and welcomed me to the biz).  So to say it was an encouragement to craft a career in showbiz is/was an understatement!


I moved back to California (with my high school girlfriend and soon wife) and worked in a couple film labs in Burbank and Hollywood but ultimately it was not where I wanted to be.  I also met some folks at a 1973 L.A. Star Trek convention who became friends for life.  One of those was famous makeup artist Steve Neill (I knew many makeup people like Ve Neill and Rick Baker) who introduced me to producer Bill Stromberg who was making a low budget stop motion animation dinosaur film later called THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER.  I was hired to shoot stills and behind the scenes 16mm film footage.  Soon after I arrived I caught the Director of Photography running an empty Arri BL camera next to the soundman running his Nagra IV production recorder “listening” for the crystal sync.  I explained to both of them “that’s not how it works” and went into the technical explanation with an old grizzled Hollywood veteran who was temporarily directing (as Bill Stromberg was still acting in the film) listening in nearby.  He looked at me ominously and said “I’m gonna make a call and find out.” 


As if the “true” information might get me fired.  Instead he came up to me the next day and said “You’re the soundman now.”  When Bill stopped production to assess what had been shot he saw that the DP had been “crossing the line” which resulted in characters and eyelines looking like they were not talking to each other.  A basic filming technique that the current 35 year old DP seemingly was not aware of.  Bill was so mad he started throwing pencils at the projection screen.  When we went out to scout a location for a skinny dipping sequence (something later shot by me and Bill but never used) he suddenly turned to me and said “You’re the DP (Director of Photography) now.”  I was only 23 years old at the time.  They say “luck favors the prepared” and so being as knowledgeable as possible even at a young age important.  Not easy in those pre-Internet days. 


Bill and I went to a low budget film distributor in Los Angeles Crown International (with Phil Tippett’s plesiosaur stop motion puppet) to get additional financing and got their interest (Crown head Mark Tenser couldn’t take his eyes off the puppet, no doubt seeing multiple dollar signs) and Bill decided to restart the film, direct it himself and find another actor to play his Doctor part and shoot up in a much nice location in Lake Huntington, CA.  They started to drain the lake (in a 1976 California drought) the moment we arrived so we had to shoot all lake scenes immediately.  The film came out in drive-ins and theaters a few months before STAR WARS, which of course changed everything.  I went from that to doing a commercial job with David Stipes for Cascade (in it’s death throes) using a spaceship model built by Greg Jein and after that moved over to CPC which was kind of the same company only reformed under different leadership and at a smaller location around the corner.


After CPC was sold to Coast Visual Effects I floundered a bit doing odd jobs but eventually came to work for David Allen which were some of the funnest times of my career.  David was a great guy to work for.  And extremely funny with his witty observations of human nature.  And sayings, often at his own expense, like “Yesterday’s technology at tomorrow’s prices – TODAY!”


SFF.) One of your first films was LASERBLAST (1978) where you did the laser effects among other things. Can you give us a technical insight on how they did those effects back then, on such a production?


P.G.) LASERBLAST was a Charles Band production with precious little money trying to capitalize on the Star Wars craze.  He had all these laser shots and there was no way he had the time or money to do proper opticals so I offered to do them via rear process.  With David Allen’s advice and acting as a go-between I rented the rear process projector from Bill Hedge and did them in my Panorama City garage.  I believe David lent me one of his Mitchell cameras with an animation motor (I later bought one for myself).  I shot through a pane of glass at a 45-degree angle and had a simple white light box reflecting in and aligned to the frame off to the right side with cutouts & color gels that defined the blast effect as needed frame by frame and depending where it was in the frame.  Sort of like a Schüfftan effect or in a front/back light setup. 


I remember looking at a Star Wars example and noticed that while you would never see a real laser I had to animate them at about 3-4 frames in motion.  Fast enough to see, not too slow to look dumb.  In my ignorance at the time I did not get flashed prints (to control contrast) nor with a Bell & Howell camera perf made (so the shots stayed steady) so the shots look a little jumpy and dupey.  But I literally did all of the laser shots in a day or two and Charles Band was delighted with the shots, getting the shots so quickly, and paying me only a $1,000 for them - $250 of which was the projector rental.  I don’t know how he would have done it otherwise with the lack of time and budget on his part.


SFF.) Are there people and artists in your industry that you say have been instrumental in pushing visual effects work forward, such as Douglas Trumbull or even the Lydecker brothers?


P.G.) In terms of practical visual effects certainly Doug Trumbull & the Lydeckers but also people like Arnold Gillespie (that tornado in Wizard of Oz!), George Méliès, Linn Dunn, Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Marcel Delgado, L.B. Abbott and more modern practical visual effects artists like Dennis Muren and John Dykstra.  Gene Warren Jr. and Jim Danforth are also owed kudos for their exemplary work.  So many have made contributions.  Everyone wanted to move the industry needle forward and surprise and impress their colleagues. In the day we all appreciated the advances in practical effects but they were pretty incremental.


SFF.) In the world of effects, there are a lot of professions that are unfortunately not known to the general public.  That is unfortunately the case. Can you please give us a definition of certain descriptions of your work? What does a still photographer do, what do you do with special photographic effects and MoCo operator as in PREDATOR 2 (1990)?


P.G.) A still photographer can be many things in production - doing behind the scenes shots, PR related shots, promotional shots, poster shots, you name it.  A motion control operator uses a computer controlled and repeatable move camera usually in some kind of motor controlled pan/tilt/boom arm on top a robust dolly linear rails system so as to be exactly repeatable.  Every aspect of the camera’s movement is controlled.  Objects seem to fly, twirl or bank but it’s the MoCo camera doing the work along with a model mover hooked up with motors similarly.  Keyframes of positions are taken as needed on a shot by shot basis and “splines” of those moves in the MoCo software are then manipulated to get the move as smooth or rough as needed.  In the old days we would shoot “RAR’s” which was black and white footage that could be quickly processed and bipacked with the 35mm background footage in a Moviola or flatbed film editor to see how the move works against the actual background.


In PREDATOR  2 the Alien disc weapon had to line up with hanging meat racks matching in space when sliced pieces fell off and finally going through one of the characters.   These have to be plotted to the background plate so the weapon is where it was supposed to be at the correct time to be believable.  Then composited to put them all together.


SFF.)   You were starting your career in the glorious decade of the end 70s til 90s. What do you think about that time? Why do people love this period of movies?


P.G.) The reason people love movies from the 70’s to 90’s is because everything they looked at actually existed!  Plus it was an inventive time in the industry where practical effects techniques had advanced and were at their zenith and more of our contemporaries were directing the kinds of movies we wanted to see.  Stuff lost on our parent’s generation.  The movie’s may not have been perfect but there was an undeniable charm and realism.


SFF.)   What is your opinion about education to become an expert in visual effects? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?


P.G.) The greater aptitude you have for the arts, artistic ability and world knowledge the better.  You never want to pigeon-hole yourself or limit your focus.  Having a broader knowledge can help you sometimes in unexpected creative ways.  In practical effects days I would have said knowledge of electronics and mechanics was a good idea.  As what happened to me because I knew how camera and sound worked in 1976 I jumped from being a small crew member shooting BTS pics to being the soundman and then the DP of the same film.  All because I had done extensive reading of my area of interest beforehand.  And ALL areas of production interested me.  You never know when you might be tested or special knowledge that you have advances you.


SFF.) Your Portfolio is a wonderful compilation of fantastic work. Do you have some favorite works of yours and is there a project that, unfortunately, never came to fruition, even though you had already designed a lot for it?


P.G.) I loved working on CORALINE, FORTRESS, THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, ROBOCOP 2, CABIN BOY, DROP DEAD FRED, ROBOT JOX, CLIFFHANGER, ADDAMS FAMILY and  AIRPLANE!.  And others.  Some films have baggage that detracted from enjoying the experience more.


FORTRESS was supposed to have a much bigger designed action VFX end sequence that the budget could not afford and they regretted not doing it as the film did very well, better than expected, and probably would have done even better.  Same with Crater Lake Monster which was supposed to have a big final animation action/dinosaur scene but had to be trimmed down because of time and budget.  While Crown did not have a high opinion of the film (due mostly to their own sabotaging efforts to dumb it down and decrease production quality substantially) it remains one of their most profitable films BECAUSE of the stop motion animation.  They had even turned down Bill Stromberg’s offer of paying for a custom music score from John Morgan and instead used this insidious and ridiculous “needle-drop” library score with incongruous music styles.


SFF.) Every film has its challenges in terms of effects. You specialize in miniature shots, among other things. Let’s take CLIFFHANGER (1993) for example, where you worked with the great John Richardson. Where was the biggest challenge in terms of miniatures?


P.G.) Working with John Richardson was great.  John was tasked with redoing a sequence another group had tried and failed to successfully execute.  I saw the footage and it was pretty bad.  So, the challenge was to improve it substantially which we did.  I suggested we pile up the snow and have the plane burst through it.  While in the process of getting that shot we almost killed my camera assistant!  The plane was being pulled with a special pulley system tied to a truck and it overshot it’s end position (due to a cable issue) while barreling into the camera and my assistant Rick Taylor set up at the end of the run (and theoretically “safe”). 


When they put Rick into an ambulance to have him checked out he pleaded to me “Don’t replace me…”. That footage and other shots we looked at with the director Rennie Harlin, and we used another production’s editing gear to look at it.  That show was MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK being directed by Bob Ballaban.  Everyone was knocked out by the shot and Bob thought we had done it for real!  I took Bob out to where we were shooting on the studio lot (at Santa Clarita Studios) and he was impressed with the small scale setup.  At the Academy VFX Bakeoff that year when they ran CLIFFHANGER footage from our VFX re-do’s there was a great audience reaction – only everyone thought Boss Film, Richard Edlund’s VFX company, had done it.


We also blew up some planes and used a Photosonics camera to get a beautiful high speed slow motion explosion, which looked mostly to scale.  The light was going though and we rolled just as it would have been too late a minute later.  But the shot came out great.  One of the things male crew members in particular can never get enough of is blowing things up.  Comes from childhood I think.


SFF.) Can you tell me about your work for the television series 24? What exactly were the biggest hurdles here, also with regard to the time component?


P.G.) I knew Rodney Charters the DP of that show from a show we both worked on called ROSWELL.  We used to drive some of the older directors mad with all our “tech talk” while shooting.   (One of the great things of being the VFX Supervisor is sitting in Video Village with the director and DP.) On 24 we did some fairly simple shots and were trying to do some CG plane shots at a cheaper price than they were getting.  But the vendor I was using didn’t do the complete job I was hoping for so I ended up embellishing the shots myself.  This was mostly about connecting with Rodney again.  In the end it meant nothing to my career.


SFF.) You once said that the film THE FIFTH ELEMENT is the swan song for motion control and miniatures at Digital Domain. What exactly do you mean by that?


P.G.) We were shooting the cab models for the foreground elements and they used CG for background ones.  This was a Mark Stetson show so Mark wanted to make sure any CG models held up to close visual scrutiny and they were on the cusp of achieving that at Digital Domain.  Any other big model seen close (Mondoshawan, Fhloston Paradise, cop cars, buildings, etc.) was shot practically too for the same reasons.  Set extensions were CG though.  The Mondoshawan ship, as big as it was, was testing its scale with the closeup shots at its bottom.  I wasn’t sure the shots would work but they did.  Normally you’d build a special larger scale section version for closeup work.


SFF.) Is there anything you miss about the FIFTH ELEMENT in terms of the models?


P.G.)   They were nicely built models though many felt the battleship could’ve used a little more work.  The camera was very close to it.  I was hired on the show to augment Bill Neill’s work and reduce his load.  I was supposed to shoot the Fhloston Paradise but was told that Bill would be able to do it after all and at that point my work was done.  Mark Stetson was great to work for.


SFF.) If you look at one of your works from today's point of view, what would you do differently with today's means, or is there perhaps nothing at all?


P.G.) Well in FORTRESS  I would have loved to populate the decks of the beautiful underground prison model David Sharp built.  I did do some little things like adding arc welding at the bottom of the miniature to give it more life (that was done by shooting some NTSC video of arc welding at Praxis and using a small monitor down in the base and having the video play back a frame at a time via motion control – thanks to MoCo Operator Michael Karp). 


On MUPPET CHRISTMAS CHAROL we were using pretty new digital effects and compositing at Computer Film Company and my digital artist was Janek Sirrs who later won an Oscar for VFX supervising THE MATRIX.  Along with opticals at Kent Houston’s Peerless VFX company in London. But I would have preferred to do it all digitally but digital compositing was pretty brand spanking new.


The main thing is better shot compositing.  I think practical effects as a technique could have gone a bit longer with great digital compositing.  Remember knowing a monster was on it’s way in a Ray Harryhausen film because of the added film grain?  (I wish Harryhausen had used VistaVision plates as we did at Phil Tippett’s on ROBOCOP 2 and other shows.  VistaVision should have been a standard for shooting plates instead of being used so sparingly and being rediscovered by Rob Blalack on the first STAR WARS.)  Like in ROBOT JOX too which has a lot of mediocre optical compositing which also means generation loss.  On Space Truckers we used a London-based company that had a terrible time scanning & outputting back to film.  It just looked dupey and bad.  So digital means nothing if the people doing it don’t know what they’re doing.  By way of contrast Computer Film Company, also in London, consistently did a beautiful job years earlier on MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL.  But this was in the early days of digital.  Now of course the product stays digital usually from capture to exhibition.  I hated telegraphing an effect by virtue of analog film generation loss and the obvious added grain – the same problem Harryhausen had.


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? Does it make the progress easier?


P.G.) The problem with all effects work, practical and digital, is having the time and budget to do it properly.  A common problem in Hollywood.  Even when they are spending $200 million on a tentpole franchise they are not always getting the best effort due more to time deficiencies and release schedules.  The advantages of digital compositing are huge, but 3D work is dependent on the quality of the animation, MoCap, rendering and shot design.  And of course the vision of the director.  Studio interference can also send things south pretty quickly.  One thing fans of older practical effects films know is everything they are seeing was real and not a virtual construct and it’s a nice feeling.  The Millenium Falcon was REAL!!  There are things you just can’t do practically and then digital is indispensable.  If it was me I would do everything as practical as possible with perhaps augmentation later in post.  (As I did when I was VFX Supervising.). And many of the younger directors now see the wisdom in this.  In the end CG is a tool and like any tool the quality of the result is in the hands of the wielder.


SFF) If we look back to the movies you have done, we see that you did a lot of genre-movies. I am really into science fiction (or fantasy movies in general) because I think, that those kind of movies are the best way to show actual political and social events. For example, SOYLENT GREEN or SILENT RUNNING. Do you believe that these genres can transfer something to the people?


P.G.)  TV shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, STAR TREK and OUTER LIMITS were largely about hiding social & political issues under the cover of acceptable fantasy and science fiction genres when you could not simply embrace the issue out loud on its own.  It’s been a long standing tradition in television and movies to convey messages this way.  And most people get it while still being entertained.  Messages are sent often even in films that are not science fiction or fantasy.  Writers can’t resist.


SFF.) You work for both: cinema and television-series. Could you please give us an overview of the extent to which the working methods in these media are different?


P.G.) Of course movies have longer planning periods, longer shooting schedules and longer post production than television where you often were flying by the seat of your pants.  So things had to be designed for television to be executed quickly.  If you were using 3D elements you had to start the post house on creating those elements months in advance.  VFX budgets were also shifted around with an average episode budget and then saving up for a big episode (maybe spending 5X more than usual) for sweeps week when ratings would help set advert rates.  Of course today everything has been up-ended with fewer episodes per season and much longer post periods with the expectation of feature level quality.  So TV and streaming shows now are starting to be more on par with feature work with higher budgets to match.  But of course many features I worked on were budget starved and you didn’t always have the time and money you needed.  I always said “This isn’t the best quality I can do, it’s the best quality that the time and money would allow.”  Which is why if you’re a big name VFX Supervisor you insist on the best quality result as it will affect your reputation if the work is inferior.  I never had that luxury.


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?


P.G.) Perhaps WIZARD OF OZ  with it’s aspirations for a better life, humans with their friends overcoming adversity and bravely confronting corrupted authority.  Then there’s the imagination of the literary work and creation of a world unlike our own and the desire to visit these places.  Unlike Dorothy though we WILL always venture beyond our own front yard.  It’s imperative.


SFF.) I held up with one of the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult effect shot you were working on and why?


P.G.) The most difficult shot I ever did was probably on CORALINE though there are few “easy” VFX shots.  The scene had Father & Coraline watching a train move around on a table.  The camera had to do a flying shot through the tabletop train tunnel which required a special camera move and additional larger scale tunnel miniature to accomplish with a scaled move to match.  Then composited together in post digitally to create a seamless shot and none the wiser. 


SFF.) Dear Mr. Gentry. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.