Science Fiction Filme) Mr. Begg. You are, and I'm going out on a limb here, a living sfx/ vfx legend. Many films would not be what they are without you. Take LARA CROFT (2001), BATMAN BEGINS (2005) or of course the films of the JAMES BOND franchise. Let's start, as always, with the question: How did you get into special effects?
Steven Begg) I got interested in special effects thanks to watching a lot of tv shows by Gerry Anderson (STINGRAY, THUNDERBIRDS, UFO, SPACE 1999) and Irwin Allen (LOST IN SPACE, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) when I was a kid, that featured a lot of miniature fx and occasional optical fx work. Also, Ray Harryhausen and George Pal movies really had a big impact on me. I borrowed the schools 8mm camera and started playing around with it learning the basics of cinematography and filming my own crude models etc. Then I left school I worked as a computer operator which was the most boring job I could have got, but it helped finance my acquisition and use of a Bolex 16mm camera, were I learned slightly more sophisticated camera techniques such as stop-motion, double exposure and high-speed (well 64fps) photography.
S.F.F.) You just mentioned Gerry Anderson and Ray Harryhausen. Two giants, like you. Were there key experiences that moved you to also work with special effects?
S.B.) I was at a holiday camp with my parents, and one day I saw JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and a couple of Bond films for the first time, and that was the lightning bolt moment where I felt I just had to get involved in the effects side of the industry, no matter what. I was lucky to be introduced to Gerry Anderson through a friend years later and show him some of my homemade 16mm epics which he liked and said stay in touch, which I did to the point of probably annoying him. Months later he gave me a job designing and storyboarding on a puppet show called TERRAHAWKS, and when the FX director screwed up, I got offered that job till they found someone else. Luckily for me they didn’t. It was like being at a film school learning a lot about camera fx and blowing stuff up..
S.F.F.) You didn't just continue the great tradition of Derek Meddings on the JAMES BOND films. You also worked with him. What do you think Mr. Meddings left behind for this world? I don't mean "just" what you see on celluloid. What did he mean to you?
S.B.) Dereks work utterly amazed me, initially on the earlier Gerry Anderson shows then movies like FEAR IS THE KEY, ACES HIGH and of course the Bond movies, from LIVE AND LET DIE onwards. I felt he brought a sense of style to a lot of his effects work, something lacking in a lot of others work. As he was a brilliant artist, he would often design the hardware and design of a lot his shots, particularly on the Gerry Anderson shows, and you could see it in a lot of his feature work. It greatly inspired me. Thanks to his kids watching TERRAHAWKS and his appreciation of our fx work, I got to work with him as a technician on BATMAN (1988). I liked working with him observing a lot of his tricks and techniques which I’ve used in a lot of my work, plus he was a great guy to hang around with and socialise with. Great story and joke teller.
S.F.F.) I would immensely like to know more about Mr. Meddings. You wrote that he was a great storyteller. What exactly could he teach you in terms of working with models?
S.B.) Derek had a great talent for creating miniature sets out of various materials that arent obvious for model use. He used coal for rock textures and moss the green plant you find on the ground and on rotting wood in forests and woods for grassy landscapes. It scaled perfectly infront of the camera.
S.F.F.) I also had an extremely informative and long interview with Brian Smithies. He told me, among other things, what materials they used to use for explosions. What about the productions you've worked on? How do you plan explosions? What preparations are necessary?
S.B.) On the explosion front, the best thing is to test if possible the pyro infront of a camera, playing with mixtures and camera speeds. For fiery bangs I found that rubber dust (a derivative of tyre remoulds) and naphalene (which you find in mothballs). both of them ignite when airbourne into nice small-scale flames. Lycopodium is another element thats used sometimes. The MI6 explosion in Skyfall was a 5th scale miniature blown up with 24 Naphalene bags in the charges.
S.F.F.) What criteria do you use to select your projects? Looking a little bit at your filmography, it seems that you love good genre films: James Bond, Kingsman, The Avengers or even Lara Croft or The Golden Compass. Were these films looking for you or did you find them?
S.B.) I don’t particularly choose projects other than go for things I feel I can contribute to. I have an interest in hardware and believable i.e., real world fx work so I’m slightly biased that way. I hate fantasy projects where you can be subject to the directors or producers’ taste, or lack of it.
S.F.F.) In your opinion, are there any key skills you need to survive in your industry or in film in general?
S.B.) Having a good eye and keeping up to date on latest techniques, but not at the cost of dismissing older tricks, which married with newer technology can give interesting results.
S.F.F.) That is a wonderful sentence. You have done a lot of fabulous works in TV-Series like SPACE PRECINCT (which I love). 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?
S.B.) Well, back then the main thing was bigger budget and usually a longer schedule on movies. On PRECINCT it was roughly 6 shots a day, which was ridiculous and that’s why some shots still have a Thunderbirds feel as I had to resort to flying a lot of craft on wires in the city shots, to deliver them in time. We also had a Motion control unit (2guys) who did a couple of shots a day. Their shots were better than Star Trek Next Generation’s I thought. Modern TV vfx work has a rapid turnaround but the experience of a lot of vfx personnel plus bigger budgets mean that the quality threshold between feature and tv has pretty much vanished, nowadays. In fact, some of the vfx Ive seen on tv recently puts some feature work to shame.
S.F.F.) 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?
S.B.) You had to be a lot more disciplined pre-CGI as there was no easy fix if something was shot badly. It stayed bad! Nowadays they want to rush everything and because they only see the end product, they have no idea of the work to fix shoddy, rushed film making. The new digital tools are simply amazing, but if you start with properly shot material the post work on those shots is a polish to make them great, not a fix..
S.F.F.) Which brings me to the next question. In your opinion, is there a film that represents a kind of end point in the field of classical modelling? If so, which one and why?
S.B.) I like to think I’ve worked on a couple of classics at the end of the model fx era with BATMAN BEGINS, CASINO ROYALE and SKYFALL. Batman Begins was a blast with something like over a hundred miniature shots or elements, with most of the rooftop chase done in 3rd scale miniature. For some reason THE DARK NIGHT gets more coverage for a handful of model shots, than BB does, and they used the same Batmobile built by our team. Casino is my favourite of the Bonds I’ve worked on, and Imo the best recent Bond. It used a huge variety of model shots coupled with CG. Apart from the 12th scale Skyfleet S570 and hangar all the aircraft activity in the background of the Miami airport chase sequence are cheap Airfix kits with bright LED lights bought from Woolworths, shot against black and comped in. The highlight being three shots where Bond has just jumped off the Tanker and there’s a huge Virgin Airlines 747 coming into land behind him, that’s about 14 inches long with led light!!s. The Venice end sequence features a 3rd scale model collapsing villa which I went for due to the water interaction, and supervised-directed the Venice plates for our model to go in. The last major miniature work I was involved in was the MI6 explosion in SKYFALL and the helicopter crash at the end.
S.F.F.) Without you and your crew, the Craig Bond movies wouldn't be what they are. You can't tell (and that's how it should be with a good special effect) what's real and what's not. what's small or big. How do you go about planning that? Are there any pre-visualizations?
S.B.) Yes, everything is storyboarded and prevised on a computer just to make sure were all on the same page.
S.F.F.) How do you decide what scale to build a model or miniature in? Let's take the Tumbler from BATMAN BEGINS as an example. it came in different sizes. what does it depend on which version of the model you need for which scene?
S.B.) As I said it was 3rd scale for the rooftop action and used again for the forest approach and jump in and out of the waterfall that hides the Batcave. The monorail train crash at the end was 12th scale as any bigger would have made it unwieldy. It filled the huge George Lucas stage at Elstree, at that scale. There was a smaller version of the Tumbler built for this sequence, but you don’t see it.
S.F.F.) You told me before this interview that there was a miniature for SPECTRE, but it wasn't used. I'm interested in that. Which miniature and why wasn't it used?
S.B.) Because of the success of the miniature work on Casino and Skyfall, they wanted a miniature for the final collapse of the MI6 building in Spectre, but I felt strongly against it as it would have to be strong enough to support itself but weak enough to collapse into small debris believably, which is quite a task, model engineering wise, plus as it would be bloody big, we’d only get one go. However, I was over-ruled, and a miniature was built for a test which was a bloody disaster, like I predicted! They hired me for my expertise but ignored it. Luckily Id commissioned a high-res CG building as a backup simultaneously and that’s what’s in the movie. Also, all the shots are moving so that wouldn’t have made it easy to composite the model in.
S.F.F.) You're involved in a lot of SFX, after all. Is there one special work area that you particularly love? And if so, why?
S.B.) I like model shots obviously, but augmented with digital post work, but matte painting also fascinates me even if there isn’t so much painting nowadays.
S.F.F.) 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?
S.B.) BLADE RUNNER 2049 was offered to me immediately after SPECTRE, but I wasn’t feeling well and turned it down as they wanted me to start straight away. I’m still sad about turning it down career wise but happier from a health point of view, as it was quite serious at the time but thankfully gone now...
S.F.F.) You've worked in many areas of sfx and vfx: matte paintings, effect animator, visual effects technician, and more. Did you want to build a broad field to cover a wide range of knowledge for your career in this field?
S.B.) Yes, I’m fascinated by all aspects of visual trickery (I even wanted to be a cartoon animator) so have been lucky to have been immersed in most areas at one time or another, from special effects bullet hits and explosions to stop-motion, matte-painting, miniatures, cinematography to digital effects. I find it very useful to have a grasp of all the various approaches as I often like merging old-school with new school as you get interesting results. On a recent job I tried to get some miniatures on a giant LED screen, but a schedule issue screwed that up.
S.F.F.) 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?
S.B.) I did a low budget TV movie of ‘20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1997) for Hallmark about the same time they were doing a big budget version with Michael Caine, and I think our one looked pretty lame, and we had a boring design for the NAUTILUS. I went for too small a scale on our sea miniatures to as any bigger would have blown the budget I was told. Also, SPACE PRECINCT had a lot of shots at the beginning that I’m not happy with. I pleaded with them not to give us too many city shots at the start as we didn’t have a lot of model buildings built initially to imply a city, but they ignored that. I had to go raiding other productions and we got a load of buildings left over from THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986) and others. It got better as the show progressed; I think.
S.F.F.) Was there a film you worked on that you say pushed you forward?
S.B.) Yep definitely LOST IN SPACE (1998) were I mostly directed the miniature shots but did the bulk of the digital fx animation, lightning etc and three digital matte paintings, my first. I couldn’t believe I was doing electrical effects coming from the robot, something that wowed me as a kid on the original tv show’s robot.
S.F.F.) How difficult was it to do the digital matte paintings for LOST IN SPACE in 1997/98? what were the biggest hurdles?
S.B.) The digital matte paintings in LOST IN SPACE where fun to do as it was the first time Id used photographic elements to make the final image and the color sampling of course makes life easier. I used Avid's Matador to paint these. Matador had first been used famously on Jurassic Park. All in all it was a hell of a lot easier than doing Matte Paintings optically which is a laborious process but some people where brilliant at it like Albert Whitlock who I was lucky to meet years before.
S.F.F.) What fascinates you about models and miniatures? After all, you've done an immense amount for the industry and created great works (just think of the scene in Venice in CASINO ROYALE).
S.B.) I like the thought that they are real, just scaled down real, and the trick is to film them, so nobody is aware of the size and assumes they’re full-scale if you’ve done your job properly.
S.F.F.) Is there a favorite scale you build models with and if so why?
S.B.) Scale wise, the bigger the better if you have fire or water in the scene with the miniature. We had the Batmobile 3rd scale in Batman Begins due to the close action we had to film with it and the collapsing Venice villa at the end of Casino Royale also 3rd scale thanks to its interaction with water as it sunk. With bigger scales however you need bigger rigs and various to move these Minatures around though. I go for smaller scales if we're shooting motion control, thanks to the fact the cameras are usually shooting at 4fps or slower so a greater depth of field.
S.F.F.) You've worked on films by many well-known directors. Is it a great difficulty to realize the visions of each director?
S.B.) Some are great and involve you in the creative decisions and designs which is a lovely feeling which motivates you greatly and there are quite a few assholes who do the opposite. They are usually insecure and try to hide it by being hostile.
S.F.F.) Do you have any favourite work of yours?
S.B.) I like the sequence revealing the Skyfleet S570 in CASINO ROYALE were I think the miniature construction and moco photography is sublime, and the Jupiter 2 crash-landing in the LOST IN SPACE movie that I worked on.
S.F.F.) 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?
S.B.) Yep, sometimes when there’s an explosion you just wish they’d held for a few frames more when a bit of debris landed unplanned in the foreground or there’s a great bit of detail when a spacecraft flies by, but they cut beforehand.
S.F.F.) I held up with the most important question at the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
S.B.) There isn’t just one, but maybe the transformation in the middle of THE WOLFMAN (2010) which was suddenly thrown our way in post when they abandoned Practical effects (which I wasnt involved with) during the shoot with no warning on that sequence. The final effect was designed on the fly and I still stand by it, proudly.
S.F.F.) Dear Mr. Begg. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this interview and I wish to see much more from you.