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 THE ABYSS, BATMAN RETURNS or ALIENS of course. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into filmbusiness. Why have you choose the way of being into special/ visual effects?
Dennis Skotak) Before anything, I want to state that my brother Robert and I have collaborated closely since we were kids. Any time I refer to our work includes him, even if not directly stated in my comments. There are very few projects where that wasn't the case.
Before being involved in film, my life was working in the professional photo lab business. Right out of high school, at about 19 years of age, I got a job working at the car company American Motors, where I did a lot of darkroom work as well as still photography. But the attractive part of the job was that I had a chance to work on the film that was being done for in-house production about car styling. I was able to learn to use 35 mm motion picture cameras. I learned to do lighting as well as loading camera and general camera assistance. After a period of time when the film was done, I went on to doing more darkroom work more than I really wanted to do; but it was very good pay. At that point, in addition to doing that for pay, I, along with my friends, made a number of short 16mm films. Before having even worked at the car company, my friends and I made a number of 8 mm films. Usually these were comedies; and usually they were fairly elaborate, including the fact that our films had sound. This was no simple process because sound recording equipment was either expensive, unwieldy or not really practical for 8 mm. But it was fun. And educational. My original interest was stills photography, although eventually motion picture filming became more dominant. So while I had my job working in the darkroom by day, I spent my off hours doing filmmaking along with Robert and some dedicated friends.
One of the more ambitious projects was our version of HG Welles' THE TIME MACHINE. I decided to shoot it in regular 8 mm anamorphic widescreen (!); and of course, it had to have sound and starred our best amateur actor friends that were willing. But the one other thing that it needed now was some special effects. Thus, the beginning of our real interest in and need for special visual effects.
We were able to create some rudimentary but very effective effects using what would be called glass paintings if it were done professionally. Robert was the one who did the artwork. He would paint something like an extension of the ceiling for example, for a scene requiring a high ceiling but because we were shooting in my parents' basement it had a very low ceiling. Problem solved. There were some large set pieces that were needed, but we couldn't possibly build them. So Robert came up with a method where he painted the missing objects onto poster board. For example, we needed to have a building where sirens lured the Eloi, which were being controlled by the Morlocks. We mounted the painted building onto a "borrowed" glass window pane. We took that out to a nearby park and, in perspective, lined up our shot with our Eloi walking up to the Sphinx-like building. Well, because of that and other scenes that required effects, by using simple techniques, we were able to do a film in a way that would not be possible with so little financing. Special effects opened up our world to a whole lot of possibilities. We read anything we could to find about how effects were done in our favorite films, which then gave us ideas for many more projects.
SFF) What was your first feature film?
D.S.) The film was THE DEMON LOVER. We got the job because we knew the director, Donald Jackson, who was a friend and an amateur filmmaker who loved films as a hobby. He wanted to make a film while we were still living in the Midwest (Michigan) and managed to find enough people to contribute dollars to a really low budget. He made this fairly awful movie that I'm not proud of. Robert was very involved in all aspects of the production, as well as the making of a very interesting and well-done creature, the Demon itself, as it were. The film did not do great business, but it was a great way to practice the craft some more, this time in a film that, although shot in 16mm, was ultimately blown up to 35mm! A real "professional movie" (or so we thought).
We were involved with building the sets, photography, sound recording, and even editing. So it wasn't a very good film over all, but we learned a lot about the film production process. Donald Jackson, no longer with us, went on to shoot a wrestling documentary in Detroit, I LIKE TO HURT PEOPLE, which has a fan following and includes several historical interviews with a number of famous wrestlers who are no longer with us. Afterword, he went on to direct ROLLERBLADE and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN in Hollywood.
SFF.) Do you have any personal idols or favorite movies in your business?
D.S.) Robert, who is five years younger, and I have an uncle who had a great interest in SF. He exposed us to the film genre as well as written SF and also, very importantly, science. Robert saw DESTINATION MOON in 1950 at the age of two, while I was seven. HG Welles' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was, and still is, a personal favorite of ours. We loved all of George Pal's films, which happened to be filled with special effects, of necessity. By the way, we were terrible critics of the effects and thought we could do better! It's always good to have goals and aim high, but later we would come to discover how very easy it is to be a critic! Watching these classics led us to consider the possibilities; but of the whole film experience, not just special effects. Their purpose was to help tell the story, effects not for their own sake, which seems to be the case more and more today. Stephen Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is another great example of using effects to complete the story, impossible otherwise. Also I did like the visualizations of his extraterrestrial visitors. Hopefully, we shall see some real ones soon!
ALIEN is right up there as our top film, Science Fiction or not. We are among its biggest fans. We all actually took time off from the model shop while working on the BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS miniatures to see the very first screening of that film in LA. It was inspirational, but it also was a very well-constructed film from a story and character development standpoint. We saw it again at the midnight showing on the same day! Our Aliens experience therefore was an amazing bit of good fortune!
Another example is John Carpenter's THE THING. This has been a favorite with our crews for years; they would often quote lines from the film, all while working without missing a beat! I swear they could've recreated it as a stage play, really.
SFF.) The movie BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS was your first collaboration with director James Cameron. Years later you were working on his films ALIENS, THE ABYSS and TERMINATOR 2. Four different movies with four different budgets. What do you prefer: big or not so big budget movies in order of creative working (I don´t want to say low, because I believe there is no low, just economical budget)?
D.S.) Well, it was a real thrill as we went on to supervise the effects for ALIENS. A dream job, to be sure. That eventuality came true because of our close, (if occasionally combative at Corman's facility) relationship with Jim Cameron. During BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, we were sharing a miniscule budget. Both Robert and Jim are artists, and there was a de facto battle going on for dollars. We thought Roger Corman was the common "enemy", a Scrooge. Of course it turned out the real enemy was money or rather the lack of same. Despite that, the thrill came from the fact that Roger wanted quality but without spending quality dollars; and the trade-off was that he left us to be creative, by any means. He knew that he had a good crew and pretty much left us alone to make the most of the budget. As long as it was on time and on budget (or faster and cheaper)! So much freedom is very rare on a large budget project.
In the case of Cameron's films, Robert and Jim have a relationship that's based on mutual artistic respect. Additionally, Jim knows that if we say we will do something, it will be done with the most of every kind of quality for the money, and usually even more than the minimum for the money. The lowest budget "large" film was ALIENS. It was incredibly low for the needs of creating an entire alien world that had very little that didn't need to be created entirely from scratch, which is often the case with science fiction films, by the way. At every turn, there was a challenge. Fortunately, we developed some great relationships with our crew at Pinewood Studios, UK. That become a necessity when out of your usual comfort zone where one knows where to get supplies from, for example. Where to get the best price for everything right down to cellophane tape? And so on.
Large films have their own sets of problems: it seems that every department will spend as much as they can get away with to justify their existence, I suppose. Also the larger staffs create the possibility of loss of clear, direct communication between departments. For example, on a (non-Cameron) film, there was a need for a rather large detailed miniature house in a setting requiring weather effects. It was built using the blueprints supplied directly by the art department. It was filmed, and worked out very well; and the resulting footage was even applauded in the dailies screening. Weeks later, after the miniature set was destroyed, we moved on. As it turned out, the art department was given the wrong information by another department in the production instead of our direct request based on our needs. The entire complex miniature and setting had to re constructed and reshot, at the production's expense. Nobody came out well there. This didn't happen often, but the possibility that it could made for much nervousness. Despite this kind of occurrence, our issues on Jim's larger films were pretty uneventful. But Robert and I have had a strange fondness for the challenges of low budget projects. They felt more relatable, I guess.
SFF) I´m a teacher for children with special needs. I´ve had done this for nearly 20 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 special/ visual effects? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
D.S.) The best education is actually a general one. But two very helpful and necessary areas of special attention are the sciences and art. So much that is done in special/visual effects requires a sense of inventiveness. Thus, it helps to know how things work and the principles behind how that happens. Many times, effects sequences have never been done before; and a method needs to be created. Thinking out of the box, as they say, becomes important to solve these problems. At times, we operate in the same basic way as creating a magic trick, especially when everything has to be done "in camera". Art is also an important factor where the "look" of an effect has to meld into the scene with seamless continuity: to not jump out and be an obvious special effect but rather to help tell the story seamlessly.
Another useful ability is the need to draw story boards, which are drawings that will visually demonstrate the composition and action that needs to take place in a scene. At least rudimentary ones help illustrate and clarify the approach that will be taken for a shot or sequence. Even a very crude drawing many times is be all that is needed. No high concept art skills will be required, just reasonable competence.
Actually, many times, the best method for learning how to do effects is with "play". We started making our own films as kids, and it's amazing how useful that turned out to be later in our careers.
So much of visual effects today is digital that much learning can be done inexpensively at home even with "demo" or tryout versions of software. A good way to learn is, after practicing basics in software, to try to copy your favorite shot or scene from your favorite film. We did that with our version of THE TIME MACHINE. Although we were doing it physically with paintings and miniatures, the same approach works digitally.
And practice, practice and play, play, play. Lastly, because at times this can be frustratingly difficult, good work habits are an absolute necessity. We've hired people based on work habits over just talent. Really.
SFF.) Do SFX get enough recognition?
D.S.) Well, it is nice to get an award from your peers, after all! No objection there. It just helps validate one's work quality. It's necessary to have high standards. But ultimately, the audience is the one paying for the viewing of your work, so we owe them nothing but our best, of course. And we've signed our names on our work.
The ultimate consideration has always been art before technology, any more than the value of an artist's painting having equal importance to the canvas and paint's manufacturing. At least, that's always been our effects philosophy. Robert and I are really filmmakers at heart actually. Filmmaking is such a collaborative undertaking that many compromises need to be made to have visual effects blend in to the overall production as well as tell the story without being the "star" of the film.
A lot of very popular features these days (such as the proliferation of "superhero" ones) are examples of special effects becoming the real star. We are overwhelmed at every turn, the next bit of action or explosion more spectacular than the first! There is plenty of recognition by the audience of their presence. At the end of the film, most of the audience members don't know or really care who were the many hundreds of artists and technicians that were necessary to create that extravaganza.
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?
D.S.) As I've already stated, visual effects have taken over a large percentage of current "blockbusters". The majority involve CGI. The general discussion concludes the regular filmgoing public seems to have acknowledged those as "those CGI effects were awesome" or "that's were pretty awful stuff". Generally, the audience's expectations are pretty great as they have become more sophisticated. CGI's ability to create virtually anything that comes into the imagination can lead to excess and calling attention to itself, I believe.
Not all that long ago, before computers were so ubiquitous in effects, the psychological effect of seeing somebody skiing off a cliff and popping open a parachute at the beginning of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, well, it was breathtaking. And now, unless Tom Cruise is hanging off a helicopter (supposedly) or free climbing a sheer cliff face or some such thing, it isn't very exciting watching action films with CG stunt men. There does seem to be a movement in that direction recently. I think there is a need for balance because, once again, mankind does not exist on action films alone.
There is a need to tell stories that have heart and soul that can lend themselves to a mix of traditional and computer effects approaches. The best example is probably TITANIC. Although Cameron used CG when needed because it was not possible or practical to do them any other way, most were done with physical effects. I prefer that term to "old school" which is pejorative. Using that description, a scene where a stunt double is actually hit by a car in an action scene or a real building is blown up. Should that also be considered "old school"? I think not. Bottom line: use the best tool for the job. After all, one could "cut" a piece of wood with a hammer. Not wise.
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 fantasymovies 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?
D.S.) The immediate example that comes to mind in a genre film that we were involved in was TERMINATOR-2. We illustrated viscerally what might occur if nuclear weapons were unleashed in the destruction of Los Angeles. Even though the fictional Skynet was the instigator of that event, it serves that general purpose of alerting us to the potential horrors of nation-to-nation conflict. Another issue obviously central to this particular story is the issue of Artificial Intelligence. It may not be so far away as a number of technology experts have posited. It is possible humans will lose human control of their own destiny. The decision to continue along that path seems to be preordained. There is no evidence that that movement is slowing down. We may have no control to stop it!
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK brought out the issue of crime in that large city. New York was indeed a very gritty place during the time that it was shot. Perhaps, if one could ignore the sillier aspects of it, it may have had some minor influence to highlight those issues. It's a bit unsettling in retrospect, that the President's plane crashed into the side of a building. A premonition of 9/11? A little disturbing. At least, it wasn't the World Trade Center…..although Snake Pliskin landed on its roof!
Some time ago, Robert put together a presentation of Russian science fiction films titled Red Star Rising. The purpose was to illuminate the large number of films made during the Soviet era that remain largely unknown to most of the Western world. The process would have helped preserve the old film negatives and prints for film posterity. They reveal the history and behind the scenes in great detail regarding how the special effects were accomplished, many of which were very elaborate, cleverly conceived, which stand up quite well today. But the real reason they are so interesting is surreptitious political commentary relating the life under the suppression of a Communist dictatorship. Hidden messages spoke of hardships and repression in ways that were disguised in fictional characters in civilizations on other planets, for example.
This naturally leads to STAR TREK, which we've not worked on but have a close personal connection, being married to DC Fontana myself. How well integrated are the political messages of life in this world starting in the 1960's, a time of great political turmoil. During a time of great racial conflict, a white man kisses a black woman on television! There was a bold statement! And then there's Dr McCoy: “There are certain absolutes, Mr. Spock, and one of them is the right of humanoids to a free and unchained environment, the right to have conditions which permit growth.”…back to the Soviet issue.
I'm not sure how much of an effect all this has. Is the world a better place for those efforts? Apparently, it's a work in progress.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
D.S.) Well, at this time, we are involved in a restoration project for Jim Cameron. Possibly, it's for a private museum. A number of miniatures from most of his films are being stored in a Hollywood facility. This includes the beautiful Titanic 45-foot model that was used as the film's primary ship miniature, as well as the sunken version, the engine room, a number of full-sized set pieces such as the car that was in the cargo hold. This is where Rose and Jack managed to steam up the windows, so to speak. Also on display and restored are the scale model submersibles from THE ABYSS, the Harrier jet from TRUE LIES, as well as the Alien Queen and Power Loader from ALIENS. Quite a collection! The years of storage haven't been kind to them, as a large number of broken or missing pieces were discovered.
The plans for the near future include a personal project for which Robert is writing the script. It's an extension of our desire to make, when we were young, what we called our "space film". Alas, we couldn't make our film as kids living at home. Because we grew up with science fiction in in all forms, it was a natural desire. Resources were scarce as kids; and our parents, who were basically supportive, and let us pretty much do as we wanted, would not finance it! Finally, we can do it now. Robert designed and, with the help of friends, built the sets from inexpensive materials, some of which have been found items that were discarded; lots of treasures, for sure. It is a work in progress with no fixed deadline, but with some time limits. Stay tuned.
Another fun project that is in the works is a retrospective magazine that will cover movies we grew up with but were not well covered at the time of their release. In the manner of a serious "fanzine" that we published in the 70's, Fantascene, the new magazine will dive into the deep innards of films like INVADERS FROM MARS, THE ANGRY RED PLANET and, of course, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and a lot more. There are so many from the 50's and 60's that were never given a serious consideration by most publications of the era and generally treated as silly or unimportant. But not us!
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
D.S.) So what was the most difficult effect you worked on? Hmmm. As stated earlier, ALIENS was extremely difficult but for reasons that are not due to a specific special effect (except one), but rather that the entire project was fraught with problems, mostly regarding its low budget.
As for the actual most difficult single effect, it is the entire sequence in TERNINATOR-2, which is referred to as "Sarah Connor's Nightmare". The series of shots where she dreams that Los Angeles is destroyed by nuclear weapons instigated by Skynet. It is a very powerful scene, basically designed by Robert, which was based on footage of actual atomic tests conducted in the United States, primarily in the 1950's. Our attempt to duplicate the horrific destruction in a realistic manner, with almost no CG involved, proved to be quite the challenge. At that time, computer simulations of this type of action simply did not exist in any practical way. It was made possible using software created for this purpose by some friends who incorporated it into their animation suite, Electric Image. The only portion that was CGI is a single silhouette element of the building shadows used in the widest shot of the city which was combined with a physical series of matte paintings, projections, double exposures and blown-apart miniatures that is almost impossible to describe. Robert has done so, and a search on the internet will reveal those details.
Along with the above are the destruction of a series of miniature buildings, cars, a bus, palm trees and the other pieces of a city. For some reason, we wound up doing eight takes of each shot in the sequence because of a number of unpredictable non-working elements that spoiled every other take except the eighth! The rebuilding of buildings and vehicles that were reduced to rubble over and over is, well, excruciating! And no digital touch ups to fix problems were available in that era. Everything had to work on film in camera! By the way Robert received an Oscar for Visual Effects for T-2
Oh, and that one shot from ALIENS? It's a shot of the Alien Queen in the egg chamber. After Ripley destroys her eggs, she separates herself from the egg sac with a struggle. It's just a simple close up of the "goo" that connects her to it pulling away. Hard to believe? It was a mini-nightmare. Arrgg. But then another Oscar.
SFF.) Dear Mr. Skotak. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
D.S.) Thanks for your interest in our efforts. It makes all our work worthwhile.