Transcript of Episode 001 January 2014
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
- Interview with Daren Dochterman
- Trivia Contest
- What is an “optical,” anyway?
- Alien (1979)
- End Credits
Daren Dochterman: I’m Daren Dochterman and you’re listening to The Optical.
Mark Boszko: Welcome to the first episode of The Optical. I’ve been wanting to do this podcast for a long time because goddammit I love movies, and I also love Cinefex magazine. It’s a magazine about visual effects and all the movie magic that got me so excited about getting into film when I was a kid.
So we’re going to go back and look at the original issues from 1980 of Cinefex magazine and take a look at the movies they talked about, and the people, and the techniques, and all of that. We’re not just gonna talk about effects, we’ll certainly cover other areas of the films but just kind of using that as a framework to go back and talk about this stuff.
So in this first episode we’re looking at the first issue of Cinefex from 1980 which covers Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien and we’re gonna talk about those movies and we’re also gonna have on Daren Dochterman, who was the VFX supervisor on Star Trek: The Motion Picture — Director’s Edition, and we’ll also chat about: what the heck is an “optical” anyway?
There are so many people that I need to thank for making this podcast possible and one of them I need to mention right now is Cinefex magazine themselves who helped sponsor this podcast by getting us access to these old, out of print Cinefex magazines and we’re very grateful to them for that. Stay tuned later in the podcast for your opportunity to win a one year print subscription to Cinefex magazine.
But first, to talk about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I have on good friend and noted Star Trek enthusiast, Ron “AAlgar” Watt.
Ron “AAlgar” Watt: I think, I think by this point I might qualify as an aficionado.
Mark: He is the host of several podcasts including the Post Atomic Horror in which he and his co-host Matt Rowbotham are going through every episode of every Star Trek series ever and turning this experience into a series of incredibly entertaining comedic podcasts and some episode guides as well.
AAlgar: You’re not biased in that at all in that you’re a frequent guest and also a collaborator in the iPhone app that we made relating to the show.
Mark: No, no, not at all. And I certainly don’t have you on because I am in awe of your podcasting prowess and wanted a little crutch to get me started here.
AAlgar: Oooohh… Complimenting my prowess. Wasn’t he the guy inside the Darth Vader suit?
Mark: Yes, yes, David Prowess.
AAlgar: David Prowess, exactly.
Mark: I’m sure we’ll be talking about him in the next episode when we talk about The Empire Strikes Back.
AAlgar: Oh I want to come back for that one. You made me talk about The Motion Picture.
Mark: So why don’t we just start at the front of the film here. There’s, we get into maybe a little bit more action than the rest of the movie has. We have a really cool shot of the model, the Klingon ship models swinging around it in a wide arc and seeing them come up on the V’Ger cloud and…
AAlgar: And this would be the first appearance of the reimagined Klingons. In the original series they were just dudes in grease paint and fu man chu mustaches. This was the first time you got the nice forehead-ridgy Klingons that we’ve come to know and love.
Mark: Yeah, is that supposed to be like their spines just come up all the way up around the top of their heads and onto their foreheads?
AAlgar: I’m not sure, I’ve never actually seen a Klingon skeleton but that would be, that would be a cool thing to see cause I know like when Wharf has his shirt off, which isn’t often because they have to do this make up, he’s got sort of a spine protruding from his back as I recall.
Mark: Apparently, I don’t know about the makeup side of things, but apparently Doug Trumbull when he took over the effects — there was originally another effects company contracted to do the stuff for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was Robert Abel and Associates, and they had come up with a lot of interesting CGI stuff, like really early CGI stuff.
AAlgar: Did you say CGI in 1979? That’s impressive.
Mark: Yeah, yeah, they had done some commercials with CGI and they eventually worked on Tron which I know you haven’t seen.
AAlgar: Long running inside joke between the two of us, but no I have not seen it.
Mark: I think they kind of, they had been used to working on commercials and maybe bit off a little bit more than they could chew in the time allotted for the effects so eventually it got passed on to Doug Trumbull and his group and sub-contracted to them was John Dykstra, who had run an ILM for the first Star Wars movie, and his group Apogee, they worked together on the effects to kind of, right down to the wire to get this done on time. I think I remember reading that it was like, only a couple of days before the premier they were still splicing effects shots into the movie.
AAlgar: I think overall, just speaking of effects and set design and all that stuff, this was their first real chance to flesh out that world that we mostly had to imagine from you know, cardboard sets and you know, just cheesy paintings and stuff like that. This was the first time they had a little money and they could actually show off what Klingons look like or what the Enterprise you know, really looks like and that kind of thing and I don’t know if he approached it that way cause I got the impression he wasn’t a big Trek fan but from the perspective of Trek fans at the time I imagine this must have just completely blown them away.
Mark: Yeah, I think that’s kind of why we’re getting into San Francisco and getting back to the ship and we get, you know, this really long, by today’s standards, sequence of them — you know, something’s wrong with the transporter so they have to get over there by a little shuttle pod instead, so Scotty and Kirk are in this little shuttle pod and it must be what? Six or seven minutes of them flying around the Enterprise.
AAlgar: It’s quite long. We watched the director’s cut and I do think that that is longer, like they do a full 360 around the ship and then they come back around again.
Mark: Yeah, I mean but it’s interesting, cause I first saw that only on TV, on VHS tapes or whatever, and the quality is horrible and you’re like okay, it’s the ship, let’s get on with it but then I saw it at the AFI, you know, an actual film print in a theater and you’d look at it and it was like holy crap, there’s all this detail that I couldn’t see on home video before and it’s actually kind of nice to just, you know, sit here and stare at all the detail. You could imagine, you know, these star trek fans that, you know, the show had been off the air for a decade, they’re like, wow, let’s sit here and take a look at the Enterprise.
AAlgar: Yeah, there’s my ship! Exactly. Well and you’d even mentioned — you and I just now screened the DVD version. You had mentioned that it’s a bit muddled as compared to the Blu-ray as far as a lot of those optical effects like in the V’Ger cloud and stuff like that.
Mark: Yeah, exactly, so it’s interesting to see that even with the Blu-ray I can kind of look at it on the projection screen that I have here at home and actually appreciate the detail and the quality that went into it. It’s actually pretty cool to just sit there and stare at, you know, some of this almost psychedelic stuff flying over the surface of V’Ger and.
AAlgar: Now what I really liked as a Star Trek fan and as sort of a sci-fi fan in general, was… particularly, if we’re going to talk about V’Ger and the way it looked and all of that, it looked more alien than I can think of most other Star Trek things ever looking. Like it’s not, you’re not just looking at a human being with bumps on his head. This is a weird thing that you’ve never seen before and you, you really get that sense, and sometimes I feel like it’s sort of elbowing you in the ribs, “Hey, sense of wonder! Eh?” But for the most part it’s actually there. It’s actually like, “wow!” the Enterprise has never encountered anything like this before, what is this? You know? And that’s cool.
Mark: And there’s some shots as they’re flying, you know, through, over the V’Ger surface where you see this tiny little Enterprise in the corner of the frame and it’s amazing to get that sense of scale that like, “Holy crap, this thing is huge!”.
AAlgar: I’m always a sucker for that. When you’re in space and you see that the spaceship is just this tiny little blip in the vastness of everything, you know?
Mark: Well let’s backtrack a little bit. We get to San Francisco and we’ve got some really good matte shots with a little model shuttle craft flying through and all that.
AAlgar: We have a joke on the Post Atomic Horror which is that San Francisco is the only city on Earth because that’s the only place we ever go. Like I think one time in Into Darkness, the one that just came out this past summer, they went to London.
Mark: Yeah, that’s true. And then right off we’re off to what they call apparently the space office complex. Where Kirk is talking to some folks, conniving to get his command of the Enterprise back.
AAlgar: His ship that he loves like a woman.
Mark: Yes. And then they get in the shuttle pod and do the whole thing. It starts off the Enterprise is still being re-fit. They’re kind of rushing to get things finished so that they can launch and get out there and look at this V’Ger thing, but it’s like this dry dock area where it’s like this intricate lattice-work around the Enterprise itself with all these little fiber optic lights and apparently they had, underneath they had a big, light and all these tiny little dental mirrors reflecting little pools of light onto the Enterprise that looked like spotlights on it. But once you get out into the blackness of space there’s nothing to reflect onto the Enterprise so the Enterprise just looked black. So an interesting thing that they came up with on this one was trying to do more self-illumination. To have lights that look like they’re actually sourced from lights that were physically on the Enterprise.
Mark: You know, so the Enterprise could still be lit and look interesting even in the blackness of space when it’s not near anything else that’s casting light on it.
AAlgar: That makes sense, you gotta have that suspension of disbelief cause otherwise we wouldn’t see the ship and the ship is the cool thing, you know?
Mark: Sure. I mean there are a ton of other movies that just kind of light it, as if there’s a sun near by, but I think that was a cool, you know, nod to try and make it a little bit more realistic and, you were saying a little bit more 2001 where it’s.
AAlgar: Well that’s what I hold as sort of the standard of hard sci-fi, where it’s actually, they’re trying to make an attempt to make it real, you know? Make it as plausible to current science as they can and you know.
Mark: Which is interesting cause that was like a decade before and what prompted them to go back into doing the movie seemed to be the success of Star Wars which is kind of big space opera action, adventure.
AAlgar: Roaring engines through the vacuum of space and magic, literal magic and just, exactly the opposite of that.
Mark: And there was one thing you said at this point in the film when we were watching it, you said, “This movie looks so 70s.” What did you mean by that?
AAlgar: I can’t tell if it’s just the fact that they’re all in the pastel uniforms or if it’s the film quality, something about it just feels very, there was that wave of sci-fi movies in the late 60s, early 70s that Charlton Heston was in a bunch of them, you know, you got the original Planet of the Apes, you got Soylent Green and there’s the third one that I never remember.
Mark: Is it Omega Man?
AAlgar: It might be Omega Man, yeah. And then you got like, Silent Running like you mentioned. You got, damnit, the one where they’re not allowed to get old, and, Logan’s Run.
Mark: Logan’s Run. Yeah.
AAlgar: Yeah, but you know what I mean? And I would even put Zardoz in this category, awful as that movie was. There was a wave of science fiction pre-Star Wars that had a very distinct look to it and something about this had that similar look and maybe it was, maybe it was Trumbull’s sort of fingerprint, I don’t know.
Mark: That’s interesting, cause I think maybe they all had a little bit more of that kind of serious sci-fi vibe, like 2001 did, as opposed to Star Wars that was more action, action, action instead of you know, well let’s kind of think about this interesting concept and play through it, which there’s a lot of thinking and talking in this movie.
AAlgar: Yeah. I’m of the belief that those are not mutually exclusive things. I think it’s a hard balance to hit, but I know in this episode you’re also covering Alien, and I would argue that that’s an interesting sci-fi concept that still keeps moving.
Mark: Yeah, and then we’re introduced to Persis Khambatta. [00:12:42.11]
AAlgar: Which is a fun name to say.
Mark: It is. She plays Ilia, and she’s the bald lady in the movie if you’ve just seen publicity stills. Apparently there was like a big media event when they cut her hair for the movie and she was actually pretty nervous and maybe a bit upset about, and regretting…
AAlgar: She was a supermodel if I’m not mistaken, right? She wasn’t just an actress, she did a lot of modeling.
Mark: I believe she was Miss India.
AAlgar: Right, so, you know, her hair’s her livings, man.
Mark: And after she shaved her head, Gene Roddenberry, you know, with all of the character and forethought that he had, gave her a gift of an electric razor.
AAlgar: Oh The Great Bird of the Galaxy, you are such a sensitive man. For people who don’t know and I’m not sure who that might be. I think this may be common knowledge, but the character of Ilia I don’t know if you mentioned elsewhere that this was originally supposed to be a TV series and they ended up chopping up the pilot and I think another script and combining them into a movie when they got the go ahead to do that, but they would sort of re-do the character of Ilia and the character of Commander Decker as Counselor Troy and Commander Riker. Yeah. Which is interesting to see the character development here, there’s obviously only two hours worth versus what those characters would become in Next Gen, what they basically start out in the same place and then evolve very differently.
Mark: Yeah, it’s interesting to see where they kind of reused some stuff for Next Generation, whereas there was originally supposed to be a TV show that was going to be called Star Trek: Phase II. There were some scripts that either had a treatment written or they started writing the scripts for them, and one of the treatments was eventually written into a story by Alan Dean Foster that became the basis for this script.
AAlgar: Yeah, there’s a long and sordid history to this project.
Mark: There’s, in the Making of book by Susan Sackett that goes, like half the book is about the whole process from 1969 when it went off the air to actually getting this movie into production and there’s a lot of detail there about that. But also the music here. We get different music here from Jerry Goldsmith that eventually becomes used as the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme.
AAlgar: Yeah, and now in retrospect it feels weird, like wait, why are you playing that music? This isn’t Picard. What’s going on here?
Mark: We finally get Disco Bones. DeForest Kelley comes back on board as Doctor McCoy.
AAlgar: Yeah, wearing these bell bottoms, this shirt split down to his navel with his chest hair, wearing a medallion, yeah, and this great, just hobo beard and oh man. Just.
Mark: That’s some good stuff. I’m sad that he lost his beard half way through the movie.
AAlgar: I want to know, I know there have been novels and expanded universe stuff written but I, I’m not really satisfied. If that’s how he looks as a civilian, what does he get up to? You know what I mean? Like you call him back to duty, this is what he does in his off time. [Mark makes disco guitar sounds.] It’s just fascinating to me. He’s like the Hugh Hefner of the 23rd century.
Mark: The TV series… mentioning that, I just remember that Douglas Trumbull said that he thought the Enterprise model was too small. Apparently it was originally spec’d out for the TV series so it was only seven feet long. Only seven feet long, which sounds huge to me, but he said, you know, on his movie that he directed, Silent Running, the ship was 26 feet long and then on 2001 the Discovery was like 50, 50-some, 54 feet long I think.
AAlgar: It’s getting to the point where it’s not even a model anymore, it’s just, you’re building an actual space ship. Well, let me ask you, you’ve seen it both on film like in a proper theater and on Blu-ray, does it look like it should have been more detailed or were you satisfied?
Mark: Oh yeah, I was pretty satisfied with it, but I think, I think he wanted to get more, you know little, they call them greebles.
AAlgar: What is that?
Mark: They’re like, you know, just like little extra junk glued onto it to make it look like there’s more going on there, it’s not just a flat surface. So, we get into the sequence where they’re like, the warp engine is maybe not quite up to snuff quite yet. They’re trying to get it calibrated but Kirk wants warp now. Which one thing is really cool, the engine room… I guess it’s called the engine room, right?
AAlgar: They usually call it Engineering, but I imagine the engine room is correct.
Mark: That’s even better, they’ve got this big column of glowing, it looks like glowing plasma or something inside this tube and it was actually a practical light effect that they did on the stage. These two guys had produced some really cool techniques that they were working with. Lights are actually pointing at these drums that they rotate and on the surface of the drums is all of this stuff like crumpled up aluminum foil and colored gels so it colors the light so it passes through it and they rotate that and that kind of creates this weird swirling light effect that actually, I always thought it was a post effect that they had done, you know, after the fact, but no, it was right there on the set. It looked amazing.
AAlgar: Yeah, he engineering set in the series was, you know, some wood panels painted to look like there’s buttons on them and jumping to this, it’s like wow! This looks like a real spaceship now. This looks like a thing that could exist.
Mark: They redesigned the corridors inside so that, I think Gene Roddenberry described it as “Des Moines, Iowa Holiday Inn style corridors” that they had in the TV series but now they’ve kind of got these interesting angles and it looks a little bit more, you know, maybe like a submarine, kind of giving that quality to it. But anyway, back to Engineering. Kirk wants warp, Scotty’s like, “Oh, cannae something!”.
AAlgar: Yeah. Poor Scotty, that’s his entire job in this movie is to tell you that you can’t do it and then sigh and do it anyway.
Mark: They do it and it creates a wormhole, which I’m not sure exactly how that happens but it was a really cool effect that they built with a laser. They had this contraption that would operate the laser and move it around in such a way that it kind of made these like oscilloscope type patterns and they would for each frame they would have it be drawing this pattern and the camera would also move backwards during the exposure so that it would kind of stretch out into this kind of tunnel like effect for each frame that was pretty amazing.
AAlgar: Yeah, it looked really cool and again, it’s, I’m trying really hard to look at this movie with the eyes of someone watching it in 1979 because of course compared to stuff they can do now it looked kind of cheesy but at the time.
Mark: Yeah, looking at it from now it’s like, well this is something we could do in after effects in 15 minutes or whatever.
AAlgar: Shoot, I could do it in iMovie.
Mark: Ha! It took them you know, weeks and weeks to do this stuff. There’s actually, even during that wormhole sequence they have kind of this weird smeary, stretchy effect with like all the shots on the bridge and it’s like, they shot it and then they would like take it and kind of matte out a piece that they wanted to smear and then they would use a motion control camera to like move the camera during the exposure to smear it in a certain way and they did all of these little pieces by hand and like that little sequence, just the smearing took somebody seven months to do and there is one thing at the end of that when they finally get out of the worm hole and they get up close to V’Ger and V’Ger starts shooting these electrical things at them, that, part of it was done with like a tesla coil and a ring around it that caught all of the little sparks shooting off of it so it looked kind of that fuzzy, sparky edge to it.
AAlgar: Yeah, we called it Star Trek’s first lens flare.
Mark: Yes! And it hits the console and like Chekov screams because it’s burned his arm and apparently during production it actually burned his arm. They had some solution that would make the fabric of his uniform kind of burn and smoke but they had, you know, some asbestos padding and tin foil around it to protect his.
AAlgar: Well, nothing’s safer than asbestos, that’s for darn sure.
Mark: Yeah, but apparently it leaked in around the edge so his screaming wasn’t completely acting.
AAlgar: While he’s my least favorite character I don’t wish fire upon him.
Mark: Alright, so they’ve kind of been flying over the surface of V’Ger for awhile which is you know, some really cool stuff like we were saying before, you know, the tiny, little Enterprise in this vast landscape that looks like an enormous ship that this thing has built around itself, and then we get to this six-sided iris thing that is really weird, that rotates and compresses in in such a way that looks like it’s, you know, like a photographic iris closing but it’s actually when it compresses in that it opens in the center. It’s this very weird mechanical thing that this guy named Ron Resch designed, and I’ll link in the show notes, but there’s this 45 minute documentary about the guy that, he like, just kind of built these weird little, mechanical, kind of 3D geometries that interacted in weird ways and he thought maybe like some of our designs, just for household objects would eventually evolve in this direction. I don’t think they really have, but it’s still fascinating stuff to watch.
AAlgar: Yeah, and what did his title end up being? Geometrist or something like that?
Mark: Yeah, some sort of 3D geometer.
AAlgar: Ah, geometer, that’s what it was.
Mark: Yeah, and so we have this little iris and Spock decides to go down and give the Vulcan neck pinch to this guy with a fantastic mustache, and you know, he gets in his little space suit, which apparently Doug Trumbull redesigned at the last minute because he thought the ones he had designed for the film looked really silly.
AAlgar: They had some half decent ones, they didn’t use them very often. I can only think of two particular instances but in the third season I know they used them for “The Tholian Web,” and I thought they looked pretty okay. They could have spruced those up a little, but these didn’t look bad either.
Mark: The ones they had, they had weird little kind of helmet.
AAlgar: Like a screen door helmet.
Mark: Yeah, exactly.
AAlgar: Like a mesh helmet.
Mark: They go through, and there’s V’Ger’s home planet, they kind of projected that on this sphere and did fly-bys of that and had the giant plaster cast of what was, well, it wasn’t giant, it looks giant in the film. It was a regular size plaster case of Persis Khambatta and her little doohickey in her neck, the little glowy button thing, and you know, Spock tries to mind-meld with it and there’s all these crazy effects and multiple exposures and stuff going on there that look really amazing.
AAlgar: Yeah, they do.
Mark: You know there’s something I should mention about the, the little button, the lighted button that she has on her neck when she’s the Ilia probe. It’s a robot replication of Ilia. Well you know, obviously this is back before they had lots of LEDs and stuff like that.
AAlgar: This is back before they had robot replication of leading actresses.
[LEFT OFF HERE]
Mark: Right. You know, we have really tiny, cool sources of light now but back then, that was a big incandescent light bulb that they stuck on her neck so she’s got a power pack on her back with these tiny, little, thin wires that go down her neck and connect the lightbulb, and there’s like wires that go down another arm that connect to an on and off switch and she turned —
AAlgar: Where do they hide this stuff? She’s wearing this almost sheer, white nightie.
Mark: Yeah, well, apparently it’s this tiny, thin, they call them hair wires and they’re super, super thin and they put makeup on top of them and it just kind of disappears but I mean she turned it off between each take but it still was like, you know, this hot little light bulb on her neck and eventually gave her a little tan mark on her neck cause it was so hot.
AAlgar: All the suffering that poor woman went through.
Mark: And she has to burst through the door of the, medical scanning room. Apparently they built like eight of these doors that like, you know, it was like kind of scored down the center, and you know, it’s cardboard painted to look like it’s metal with you know, tin foil on one side. So they made eight of them and she went through every, single one of them before they got the best take and like some of them would be too easy she’d just walk right through. Some of them she’d just hack away and it would never open.
AAlgar: She’s just ramming her face into this wall repeatedly. God, poor woman.
Mark: I think it was at this point we had kind of come to the point where we’re like, yes, we know where this conversation is going that we started focusing on Uhura’s ear piece and I remember reading that that is the only piece of prop, or anything, from the original series that made its way into the movie and that only because kind of everybody forgot about it until Nichelle Nichols’ first day on the set and she’s like where’s my ear piece and they’re like, “Oh, crap!”. And they ran into the archives and picked her old ear piece of out a box, and here you go.
AAlgar: Cleaned it off I hope.
Mark: One would hope. Man, that’s been in her ear for like 20 years now.
AAlgar: Yeah, geez. What I am amazed by, and I could be wrong but I’ve never seen one, how come there’s no Bluetooth headset that looks like Uhura’s earpiece? That seems like a wasted opportunity.
Mark: Wow, you would think there would be. There was one that looked like the old school communicator with the flip top, right?
Mark: There should be out there somewhere.
AAlgar: That one’s free. You go ahead.
Mark: If I find one, I’ll put it in the show notes.
AAlgar: Ah there you go.
Mark: You can buy it and I’ll get a kickback. So they eventually, come to some sort of agreement, well, okay, we’ll actually take you to V’Ger itself. But they walk down, it’s kind of like this bowl-like structure with all sort of computer-y bits and stuff and they see that it’s actually Voyager — Voyager 6 which I don’t think ever actually existed. Apparently they were actually trying to get this kind of backup model that JPL had when they had been working on the designs for the actual Voyager spacecraft.
AAlgar: Oh cool.
Mark: And it didn’t quite work out because they thought maybe it might get damaged somehow on the set, somebody would be careless, and with talk of perhaps someone getting almost electrocuted on that set, that might have been true. That and like, you know, they had like a similar lighting to the warp core on these, you know, the reflective drums and all of that underneath the set so you’d have the gentle blue lights or the angry red lights, you know? As V’Ger gets upset and you know, those were like 10,000 Watt lights and apparently the UV output from those lights gave some of the lighting guys suntans just working on this stuff. So it didn’t seem like maybe the safest environment.
Mark: But they, you know, they get down there and talk to V’Ger and it turns out well it needs the old NASA code so it can like, finally dump out its information and you know, wants the creator to actually come and input it itself, and Decker volunteers. He wants to do this. This is his thing.
AAlgar: Yeah, which I feel came out of nowhere story wise. Like, this guy, I don’t know it would have made more sense for Spock to do it honestly. Not that I wanted Spock to leave.
Mark: I think part of it was that I think maybe that’s why they had been setting up, there was obviously a romantic involvement between him and Ilia early on and he’s kind of been giving her doe eyes even since she became the Ilia probe and she’s not a really Ilia anymore so maybe he’s just so much in love with her that’s like, this is the only way I can be with her now, I’ll volunteer to be digitized.
AAlgar: That’s noble I guess.
Mark: But they did this sequence where like, you know, it’s like kind of this ascension transformation sequence where they get digitized and kind of come together into this singular entity of V’Ger and Ilia probe and Decker and they have all this like wind coming up and they’ve got these giant, Xenon aircraft landing lights behind them that are just amazingly bright and Persis Khambatta is trying not to blink as the Ilia probe because she’s a robot, why does she need to blink? And so you know, she’s in the scene with him and Decker’s backlit and she’s like staring into this light and got retina damage for a few days, so.
AAlgar: Oh god, even more.
Mark: Yeah, so she is the true hero of this story.
AAlgar: Yeah, no kidding.
Mark: But I think it all comes back to the machine trying to find its creator, trying to tie that back into the human condition which is you know, as you said Star Trek keeps coming back to that.
AAlgar: Yeah, there’s really no more Star Trek thing you could do than something learning that being human is the best thing of all because humans are great, yay humans. I just, I feel like while it’s not the strongest movie it does definitely have it’s charms, but, I don’t know. Gene had this idea that drama had no conflict and I don’t know how he managed so long in Hollywood with this notion that all the characters get along and nothing gets in their way and everything is great. That’s not how drama works, Mr. Roddenberry.
Mark: Well, I think he was trying to do it so that internally the characters on the ship got along and it was always an external element to the conflict.
AAlgar: Right, but V’Ger isn’t really that. I mean it ends up being a big misunderstanding.
Mark: Right, and even at the end when it’s like V’Ger is gonna maybe digitize the whole planet just to find the creator, it never felt like the real threat cause you know, we know how good Kirk is at talking computers out of things, so.
AAlgar: Yeah, and that’s another thing. He should have defeated it by outsmarting it, by sending it into a logic loop and making it explode. That’s how Kirk works. No, it’s, like I say, it’s not a bad movie at all and all this visual stuff in it is pretty great and definitely worth looking at on Blu-ray and I’m curious to see all the stuff that I can’t see in my version.
Mark: And maybe just with the story we’ve just kind of become so cynical and jaded with constant action, action, action with newer movies that maybe with these older, slower stories we don’t have as much patience for it. I know with 2001, this, it held up as the holy grail of science fiction movies of a certain era and I have tried to watch it so many times and I feel bad that I don’t love it.
AAlgar: Don’t you feel like there must be something wrong with you? I feel that way about certain classic movies, not that one, but certain classic movies are just like, everyone else likes this and everyone else thinks this is something I’m supposed to like and I don’t like it. What is wrong with me? What am I not seeing here?
Mark: That’s exactly how I feel. I keep trying it, but…
Mark: On the other hand, 2001 is one of my favorite movies and I have zero attention span. I don’t find that movie slow until the very end, the light tripping scene.
Mark: How is that even possible?
AAlgar: I don’t know what to tell you, I just, I think the slowness and the deliberateness in that has to do with the way, the way space actually would be, I think it’s because it’s so real-ish, you know what I mean? Like it would take you a full minute to get across a room if you’re slowly working in weightlessness. You understand what I mean? Like all the slowness felt intentional to drum home the point that space is not this big action-y place, it’s actually very slow and tedious.
Mark: Right, which is, I mean, I don’t know, I like other Kubrick movies as well that are, you know, very deliberately paced and almost trance-like in some places but it’s, I don’t know, for some reason that one, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just been infected by Star Wars too much and expect action and adventure and explosions, and…
AAlgar: I just, I don’t think, well first of all I don’t think that that’s true. Second of all I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think you can have a very ponderous, thought-provoking high-concept sci-fi movie and also have explosions. Like I said, Alien kind of fits in that category for me. Where it still feels like an old school sci-fi movie with some interesting concepts in it that aren’t even completely explored. There’s a lot of mystery still in that movie, which I like.
AAlgar: But, it also has some action.
Mark: That’s true.
AAlgar: I think it’s possible to do both. Like while Star Trek is about the human condition and blah, blah, blah, whatever, we, they’re guys with ray guns. We want to see something go pew pew at some point.
Mark: Exactly. Well, we will get to some more pew pew in just a little bit, talking about Alien, but first let’s talk to Daren Dochterman who was the VFX Supervisor for the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and maybe we can get some more answers from him. Thanks for being on AAl.
AAlgar: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Mark: With me here is Daren Dochterman, who was Visual Effects Supervisor on Star Trek: The Motion Picture — Director’s Edition. Is that right?
Daren: That’s correct. How are you Mark?
Mark: Good, how are you?
Daren: I’m good.
Mark: So what does the job of Visual Effects Supervisor entail?
Daren: Well, usually it entails basically being responsible for the delivery and concept of visual effects shots in a project. On Star Trek: The Motion Picture I was basically employed by Robert Wise Productions, and Robert Wise is the director, and basically with myself and my two other partners in the project, David Fein and Michael Matessino, we divvied up the responsibilities of producing the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that was released back in 2001, and my responsibilities fell on being the visual effects supervisor and basically planning out and producing the visual effects shots.
Mark: Okay. From what I’ve heard there wasn’t a lot of time to get the, once the visual effects shots were getting in, kind of down to the wire on the original release, that there wasn’t a lot of time to go back and kind of trim and see where things stood.
Daren: Yeah, there was no time on the original release. It was originally going to be released on December 7, 1979 and it was and that was a drop dead date and there was no wiggle room anywhere because exhibitors had already signed and agreed to show it then, and the head of the studio, Paramount, at the time said that there will be Star Trek: The Motion Picture in theaters on December 7th, even if we have to put in blank leader.
Daren: So it was drop dead and various problems that the original company had in delivering visual effects in a timely manner.
Daren: They were let go and Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra were brought in to basically do the film in a very short space of time — about, I believe, it was 8-9 months to deliver all of the effects shots for the film. And you know, after a year had been spent with this other company. So they were getting in shots at the very last minute and honestly on some of them, the shots, the space allotted in the cut for the shots themselves were to the frame and there was no editing done to the shots as they’d come in so if you look at the theatrical edition you can see that there are some shots that have two or three frames of basically still and then the shot starts so they were from beginning frame to ending frame, just popped into the release negative and that was it. There was no finessing at all, there wasn’t even trimming. So it was, yeah, there was no cut, there was no preview screenings at all so they could adjust the timing of anything, so it was just drop dead delivery.
Mark: Holy cow.
Daren: And the music itself, the music was being recorded six days before the release.
Daren: Six days, so, yeah, it was up to the wire. So the impetus of doing the Director’s Edition was to give Robert Wise his standard two months extra post-production that he should have had back in ’79 that he couldn’t. So that’s basically how it was treated. We used the original storyboards and the original planning, where we could, to continue where it would have been in ’79.
Mark: Wow. How did you get involved with this? Cause your credits list seems to indicate that you’re much more focused on illustration usually.
Daren: Well yeah, I worked in the industry more or less for 25 years doing concept illustration and set sketching and storyboards early on in my career, so that’s basically what I’ve done and what I had been doing previously to The Motion Picture. I had worked in a visual effects capacity on several movies doing story boards and working with the effects department, so I had previous experience in that realm, but when I got involved with Dave Fein and Michael Matessino who had previously worked with Robert Wise on The Sound of Music DVD, and they had a previous relation with him, and I had worked with them on the Alien Legacy documentary and the Alien discs. I knew them and they know what a huge Star Trek fan I was and I was very insistent when they mentioned that there might be a possibility of doing the Star Trek: The Motion Picture project. I was with them all the way, and we went to Robert Wise and talked to him about the project. He didn’t want to talk about it actually at first.
Daren: Cause for pretty much 18 years after the release he was very down on the project because he didn’t have a good experience the first time around because of the scheduling and the rush of everything. He was basically dropped into this project at the relatively last minute and was trusted with finishing this project that had been in development for years and years and they….
Mark: Oh as the TV series?
Daren: It was gonna be a TV series on the new Paramount network that they didn’t get around to until the late 80s and it went through a lot of development. The original script was originally one of the scripts for the abandoned Phase II TV series, so, and plus there were two theatrical productions.
Mark: Oh really?
Daren: Yeah, two movie projects that went through various stages of development that didn’t go through — and remember all of the budgetary costs from all of those projects went immediately, day one, into the cost on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so all of that previous development work was figured in before they shot a frame of film. So immediately, day one, he was behind schedule and over budget.
Daren: So yeah, long way around on that one, I got involved with Dave Fein and Michael Matessino, and helped them pitch our involvement of the project to Robert Wise and then assisted him in pitching the idea to the studio and, you know, about a year and a half later the studio finally said yes.
Mark: Oh that’s very cool. You finally got to go back and do some of the stuff that was originally storyboarded but that didn’t have time to make it into the film?
Daren: Yeah, and do basically, give Robert Wise his director’s cut that he never got. We were lucky enough to screen the film with him at the Director’s Guild on the 20th anniversary of the release of the film. We showed it to him in the lovely theater at the DGA and he was very jazzed about it. He was saying, you know, I think we can do something with this. So, there are a lot of very subtle changes that only the crazy fans would notice in the cut itself but I have to say in looking at it and being one of those crazy fans myself, before this happened, I think changes that work best in it are the ones that just make the movie flow so much better than it did before, in my opinion.
Mark: So which shots, what were you most proud of I guess?
Daren: Well, you know what? I’m proud of all the shots that no one notices. I’m very glad that we were able to build a CG USS Enterprise model that we were able to light correctly and have it play next to other shots of the physical Enterprise and people don’t notice that they’re there.
Mark: Oh, very nice.
Daren: That was very exciting and I’m very proud of that aspect. We had then what was Foundation Imaging, which was a great effects company who did a lot of work on the later Star Trek series, and did Babylon Five and those things, and we had a great, small, little rogue team in Foundation Imaging who was doing the bulk of our CG shots. And they did an absolutely wonderful job in getting the tone and the look of the original footage, goosing it up just a little bit to make things work better with the timings and all that sort of thing, but I’m very happy. There were I think three, three or four major sequences in it that we readdressed. One was the Vulcan sequence at the beginning with Spock and the Vulcan masters in the Vulcan temple of Kolinahr, and that was replacing a few shots that were previously painted by Matt Yuricich under very short time constraint and duress, and the great paintings that he had done which were, you know, much more brightly lit and really look gorgeous, there is a couple of behind the scenes shots of that, that you know, are completely different than what we’re shown in the original theatrical release, but we went back to the style of those and made more of a daytime Vulcan setting.
Mark: Right, cause it seemed in the Vulcan shots in the original release there’s Spock kind of looking up at the sun and shielding his eyes from it with his hand and then you —
Daren: And then we cut to the reverse shot and we see well, it’s basically black space and two moon-like objects up there.
Daren: Yeah, that was very, very odd and yeah, shielding his eyes from what again? So yeah, the Vulcan sequence was a good one and we also did some reworking of the San Francisco sequence right after that, with several new establishing shots of San Francisco, and basically the wing walk sequence at the end where our crew members walk on the surface of the Enterprise and then walk across the magical tetrahedron, or dodecahedron platforms that V’Ger presents to them to go to the V’Ger island.
Mark: Right. It seemed like there was a lot more of that in the original cut and then in the Director’s Edition there was, there were very small, thin, kind of little roads made of that Giant’s Causeway kind of looking stuff.
Daren: Yeah, in the original release it was always intended to be these small walkways that V’Ger set up for them as it is in the theatrical edition it looks like the Enterprise pulls up to a loading dock. There’s you know, all these things up there, but in the original planning, V’Ger island was alone in this opening in the ship, and then it created the bridge out to them so that they could walk across, and to me that’s much more dramatic and a dynamic thing to happen. So that actually was very well story-boarded and we had those and we followed those almost to the letter.
Mark: And there was one other large shot that I noticed that I guess it wasn’t that long, but it was, you finally saw the whole of the V’Ger ship which you never quite saw in the original.
Daren: Yeah, yeah. We have the V’Ger reveal where the cloud dissipates and we see it over Earth and, you know, that was something that was always planned but they never got around to realizing it, mostly because the V’Ger actually never existed as one whole unit. The size that was necessary for shooting the miniatures at Apogee, John Dykstra’s company, each section of the miniature were about 30-40 feet long and none of them were ready at the same time. They were working on one section when they finished that they’d work on the second section and shoot on the first section. So none of it existed together, and if it had it would have been probably around 100 feet long. So you know.
Mark: Holy cow.
Daren: I think there are very few, if any sound stages where you could get a camera that far back to get the whole thing into one shot. So we had several production paintings that show the V’Ger reveal, and we were able to, with Mr Wise’s judgment, he picked the best one out of that to show both the size and scale of V’Ger and let us see what we’ve been flying around for the past half hour.
Mark: That’s great. Were there any shots that you had a really tough time with? Kind of getting into the Director’s Edition, or wish that you could have completed differently?
Daren: Well, there’s a couple little things. I mean, you know, the one that I got the most flak for was the officer’s lounge scene where we show the engines outside the windows. And first of all, that was originally planned to be a much grander lounge in the back, and when they got around to shoot it on stage they basically had no money left for stages, so they took some flats that were in the recreation deck and set them up and you know, put those orange couches in front of them and then called it a day. Andy Probert, one of the original production illustrators on the movie, had designed this great lounge that was basically behind the bridge section, a couple of decks below the bridge, and it has these huge windows that look out onto the surface of the ship and we see the nacelles back there, but at that point, when we were working on the Director’s Edition, there was really no way to efficiently and quickly rotoscope the actors away from the standing flats that were there and isolate them enough, so we, like the original production, had to compromise a little bit and we just tried to put the engines out the window in the best place that we could figure out. It doesn’t really line up with the windows in the back of the ship and that’s sort of one of those things that you have to just do your best with and work with the limitations that you have. If I had it to do again today I would allot three months for rotoscope work on that and basically replace the whole back of the shot with a version of the officer’s lounge that actually corresponds the the exterior of the ship, and that would be nice to do.
Mark: Yeah, I saw that concept on your blog. It looks really nice.
Daren: Yeah, I played around with it, you know, I’m only able to do a still of it because of all that complicated roto work and Doctor McCoy doesn’t make things any easier with the amount of flap that his pant legs do, so… But you know, that said, these days it is at least easier if not quicker.
Mark: Sure. I still think the shot came out really well. It’s nice to see that kind of relationship to the outside and the rest of the ship there.
Daren: That’s one of the edicts that Mr. Wise gave us at the beginning. He didn’t want to lose the scope of the movie, so one of the ways that they tried to in the original shooting of it was to try wherever they could to relate the interiors with the exteriors. There is a backing painting in the rec deck, that you can barely see in the recreation room scenes, that show the exterior of the ship, but when they came around to finalizing those shots they realized that, well, our version of the ship now doesn’t look like what it did in the paintings so they had to hide it as much as they could. That’s one of the problems with having on set, existing backings like that, where you’re relying on the design of visual effects that won’t occur for another year or a year and a half later.
Mark: So when you did this Director’s Edition, were the shots completed at film resolution, cause there doesn’t seem to be a Blu-ray output yet, but maybe they just haven’t gotten to it?
Daren: There is not — well, we tried. We, our proposal included a film rez finaling of the Director’s Edition, and the ability to go back to a film negative. The studio, for their reasons, did not want to hear that and because we were working through the home entertainment division they were only interested in the project being released on DVD, and so they were not interested in funding anything past that. So we were limited to outputting at DigiBeta resolution which is, I think, 720x480. So that’s how it exists. I mean it certainly, we planned everything to go at film res. All the models were built to hold up to that and, you know, we wanted to, but one of the things you have to work with is your budget and we just did not have the budget to render any of the stuff out at film rez. But, you know, that’s just how it goes.
Mark: Sure. Has there been any talk of revisiting that for a new Blu-ray edition?
Daren: From the people who would actually pay for it? Not that I know of. There certainly is a lot of interest in the fan community for it, and I think every four or five days or so I get a message from someone saying, “Hey! Has there been any talk about a Blu-ray of the Director’s Edition?” and you know, I haven’t gotten to the point where I send out a form letter yet, but the answer is, I would love to do it. I would love to have the studio come to us and say, “Hey, we’d like you to do this”. It’s harder now to use the older effects set ups that we did because the software has moved on and a lot of things are not compatible anymore, but it is possible. You know, we certainly can recreate stuff if we need to. It would have been a lot easier 10 years ago. I wish they had come around then, but that’s business.
Mark: Fair enough. But you have done some other stuff that is Star Trek related. You’ve, I understand, worked on some of the Star Trek: New Voyages which, also called Phase II, I’m a little confused about the title there.
Daren: Well, Star Trek: New Voyages started about 12 years ago, something like that, almost 10, actually, as a fan production that just these guys in upstate New York set up some Star Trek sets and just started making Star Trek.
Daren: Then you know, years later, they decided to move on and change the name to Phase II.
Mark: Oh I see.
Daren: Based on the planned but abandoned Phase II series that Paramount was going to do. They contacted me, what was it, about six years ago. James Cawley, who runs the whole thing and you know, one of the hugest Star Trek fans I’ve ever met and really fun guy. He basically started this cause he wanted to play Captain Kirk and play Star Trek with his friend and you know, I don’t blame him, that’s a fun thing to do.
Mark: That sounds like great fun.
Daren: It is. You know, I looked at their first couple of shows and you know what? The energy and enthusiasm was unmatched and you know, I’ve talked with him about it and it does have that high school play quality to it and you know, that’s understandable. There weren’t any real trained actors in it and it was mostly done for fun. The funny thing is that everything else in the production was so top notch that there was a little bit of a disconnect that, man, if they could do this with other actors or, you know, more trained actors, this would be awesome.
Mark: I understand you’ve done some acting on that as well.
Daren: A little bit, a little bit. Just for fun, you know. I wrote that review up on my blog back a few years ago and James Cawley actually sent me a note saying, listen, I saw some of your work on the Director’s Edition and I also did a pitch for redoing the original series effects in CG and replacing that, which Paramount later did, and he wanted to see if I would be interested in helping them out with their production, and I said, you know what? Sure, why not? So I went up there one summer when they were doing a shoot that David Gerold was directing at the time. David Gerold of course being the writer of “The Trouble with Tribbles” and one of the original creators of the Star Trek series and Next Generation. David is very heavily involved in working with these guys. He also got Dorothy Fontana to write an episode for them and they both got Walter Koenig and George Takei to come and reprise their roles in the show.
Daren: Yeah. It’s really fun cause you get to, it’s basically a Star Trek summer camp. It’s basically Field of Dreams for Star Trek fans. You go there and you get to work on a production and have some fun. And you know, it is a lot of fun, and I went up there just observing and helping with some visual effects stuff on that first one, and then James called me and said hey, would you like to act in one? Cause he knew that I was a bit of a ham and we were goofing around on set on the David Gerald shoot and I’d do a moderately accurate William Shatner impersonation, and we were goofing around with that, and so he said he got this script from a fan who wanted to get an episode in there and it was a sequel to the original series episode “Bread and Circuses” where they go to the Roman planet and he wanted me to play the Proconsul, the Caesar of the Roman planet. And I said you know what? That sounds like a lot of fun so he sent me the script and then a few months later I was there in upstate New York playing the Proconsul and it was a whole lot of fun.
Mark: You’re directing an upcoming episode as well, is that correct?
Daren: Yeah, well this past June I was up there and directed an episode called “The Holiest Thing” written by Rick Chambers, the same guy who wrote the “Bread and Savagery” which is the name of the episode I played the Proconsul in, and that is, we are in the midst of post production on that right now, finishing it up for a February 14th, Valentine’s Day release, because it involves, let’s just say, the meeting of Captain Kirk and… okay, I’ll say it, it’s Doctor Marcus. So, it’s our take on how they met.
Mark: Oh very, very cool. Well that will be about a month and a half after this podcast airs as well, we’ll have to link to that from the blog.
Daren: That’ll be good.
Mark: One more Star Trek related thing.
Mark: I understand you did some effects work on, was it the first episode of Voyager?
Daren: I didn’t do effects work, I did concept art work on the first episode of Voyager.
Mark: Oh sorry.
Daren: Yeah. I was hired as an illustrator on that, working with Rick Sternbach and Richard James as a production designer on the pilot, and I got to design some stuff, and it was basically just filling in because you know, Rick was busy working on designing the Voyager itself and, you know, they needed someone else to come in and pinch hit for doing some of the other stuff that was in the episode. So I was there for a few months working in a nice little office on Paramount. It was fun. It was basically my first job with the Next Generation crew which was fun. I mean not the on-screen crew, but the back, behind the scenes crew who were on Voyager. And it was a lot of fun.
Mark: Oh that’s cool. You do do a lot of illustration. What’s your experience with that? What sort of illustration have you done and what kind of stuff do you prefer to do?
Daren: Well, I really enjoy designing things and coming up with concept art and, you know, designing either sets or props or vehicles or things like that, and that’s just something that I really enjoy to do and especially working for fun people who enjoy it too. I’ve also done storyboards in the past. That is less fun for me because it’s a lot of redoing things, cause that’s just the nature of the beast.
Mark: How so?
Daren: Well, because you know, the moment you finish a sequence either the script has changed or the director changed their minds or what you came up with is entirely what they don’t want. A lot of times the job of the illustrator is to show everybody what they don’t want to do, because it’s basically the first take of what the script is going to entail. Cause a lot of people who read the script in the movie business don’t actually visualize what it’s going to be, and thank goodness for that or I would be out of a job. But the job of the production illustrator and the art department is to show them what it’s going to be and what the problems are going to be in doing it. So that’s a lot of fun but it’s also, you know, a little bit frustrating when everyone isn’t on the same page, but the job that I do is to help everyone get on that same page, and according to the director and the production designer how they want things to be, to direct things in that direction… to be redundant.
Mark: So you kind of give them that first — Oh! I didn’t realize it was going to be that way.
Daren: Yeah, exactly.
Mark: Let’s change that up.
Daren: Exactly, yeah. That happens a lot in storyboards too when they see the extent of a sequence they say oh, well we can’t afford that, let’s pare it down and figure out another way to do this. And you know, that’s fun to figure out but there are guys that are way better at that, that I would rather have do that.
Mark: So what is the difference between, what is conceptual illustration versus production, you’re listed as production illustrator on some of the movies.
Daren: It’s a very fine line, it’s basically whatever he production wants to call me. The difference is very slight but when I’m doing a concept illustration job, I’m also coming up with the ideas behind the drawings and designs and just the regular production illustrator is there to basically draw what the, either director or production designer have in mind, to show everyone else. Obviously the concept illustrator has to answer to the director and the production designer, but it’s more of a creative job than the regular production illustrator job. But beyond that it’s only a question of semantics to what they want to call you that week, so.
Mark: Are there any films that you’ve work on that you’re especially fond of having done illustration for?
Daren: You know, they’re all fun in their own way. I will say that the most of my stuff that has got into a movie is from a few years ago from The Chronicles of Riddick, where I got to work with a great team of concept guys, and the first half of that movie with all of the bad guys is all my designs and another guys by the name of Matt Codd, who is a great illustrator too, and we basically worked on the bad guys in that and designed everything, from their vehicles, and their costumes, and their environments, and all that sort of stuff and that was a lot of fun. Every frame is something that I worked on, so that’s the most enjoyment I get from designing and doing concept illustration.
Mark: Very, very cool. You’ve worked on a couple of ones that I’ve really enjoyed over the last few years of the new Tron: Legacy movie and also Pacific Rim, is that correct?
Daren: I didn’t work on Pacific Rim.
Mark: Oh okay. IMDB has it wrong I guess.
Daren: I enjoyed it though. I wonder what that is. I’ll have to check my IMDB thing. You know, maybe I worked on it without knowing it. But, no, yeah, I got to work on Tron: Legacy for a little bit in the first few weeks. I didn’t get to do any of the fun stuff though, I got to work on the real Earth time locations. I didn’t get to go and scout the original Flynn’s Arcade in Culver City and it’s now a restaurant and very boring, but the exterior looks the same, and I got to do some concept work on how the exterior would look these days where Flynn’s son goes and discovers the secret room, and all that sort of stuff. And I did a couple paintings of the dilapidated arcade machines standing idle in the show, so that was fun.
Mark: And you were also a production illustrator on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Daren: Yeah, that was a fun one, that was a fun one. Not only working with Bill Sandell, who was a production designer that I’ve worked with many times before, but also for the great Peter Weir, who I’ve loved his movies for years and years. I got to learn all about sailing ships and how they went together, and that was all shot down in the Baja Studios that Cameron set up for Titanic, the Fox Baja Studios down in Mexico. And I got to go down there and play around on the fake sailing ships, and my job basically was to come up with the way and extent of the damage that the Surprise would undergo during the various attacks, and then how they would repair it. And so I did a bunch of drawings of figuring that out, and working with the maritime advisors, and these guys who have built replicas of sailing ships and knew exactly which end was what and how they would go about repairing things in the middle of the ocean basically. So that was a lot of fun to learn about. That’s the great thing about working on movies is that for the space of a few months you have to take a crash course in all these various topics and become very knowledgeable about them in a very short amount of time, so that you can basically fake it as you go through and make everything as real as possible. And so that was a fun one and I’m really proud that my name was attached to that movie, because it’s one of my favorites and when I first read the script I was thinking, “Holy cow! This is Star Trek!”
Mark: There’s definitely like a kind of Kirk/Bones vibe between the main characters.
Daren: There’s totally that! And those books were written in I think 1972 or ’73, so I got a feeling that there was a little of that energy that the author included in the book. I really think that there was an influence there.
Mark: Master and Commander is definitely one of my top movies and having that —
Daren: It’s a great film and it really puts you, it puts you there. You know, very happy with it.
Mark: You mentioned earlier that you worked on the Alien Legacy documentary? What was your involvement with that?
Daren: Well, I was basically, as an art director on the DVD project. This was for the first, how many Alien discs have there been? Quite a few. This was before the mammoth DVD set that had everything in it. This was, I think, the first release on DVD of Alien and we did a half an hour documentary that was I think called The Eighth Passenger or something like that. Fox retitled it. It was a documentary interviewing a bunch of the people who worked on the original Alien, and that was a lot of fun because I got to go on several of the interviews with the crew. I had known Ron Cobb from years ago, my first project I worked on was The Abyss and I got to meet him on that and work on that as the Production Assistant, and that was a lot of fun, and I had always loved Ron Cobb’s designs, and was a big fan of his, particularly from his work on Alien. So I was able to be around for his interview and for Les Dilley, who was the designer on The Abyss, and was an art director on Alien, and so I got to be around for that. The role of an Art Director on a documentary is extremely little. That’s a title that I was happy with because I got to design the on-screen graphics and the title sequence and all that sort of stuff. The main thing was that I got to help with the interviews and they asked my opinion on the cut of the documentary, so.
Mark: Very nice. I used to, by coincidence we’re going to be talking about Alien in our next segment.
Daren: One of my favorites.
Mark: Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to plug?
Daren: Well, I finished a couple months on the Batman vs. Superman movie.
Mark: Oh nice.
Daren: And that’s all I can say about that.
Mark: Fair enough.
Daren: Otherwise they would kill me in a horrible way.
Mark: Fair enough. And so where can people find more about your work?
Daren: Well, they can always find what I’m doing on BetaFive.com. That’s all one word, b-e-t-a-f-i-v-e.com. They can look up my blog, blog.darendoc.com and that’s d-a-r-e-n-d-o-c.com. Look for Star Trek: Phase II on the web, they’re releasing an episode, Kitumba, which was a very big fan requested one. It’s a big original series story about the Klingons and that’s coming up the first of the year and then my episode “The Holiest Thing” on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, a love story for Captain Kirk.
Mark: Oh very cool, have to check that out.
Daren: I’m all over the place, can be found quite easily unfortunately.
Mark: Cool, well we’ll put those in the show notes to make it even easier. Thank you Daren for coming on.
Daren: Thanks so much Mark.
Mark Voiceover: This edition of The Optical Trivia Contest brought to you by Cinefex. Are you a fan of movie magic? Of course you are! And Cinefex is the magazine for you. This quarterly publication has been documenting motion picture visual effects for more than three decades. Since 1980 it’s been the Bible for the visual effects industry and a favorite magazine of movie effects enthusiasts all over the world, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color with in depth articles and interviews, and as many as 150 pages per issue, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind our most popular and enduring films. Order your subscription today at Cinefex.com or check out their new iPad edition, an enhanced version of the print magazine with even more photos, video content and interactivity. Available now on iTunes.
For this edition of the Trivia Contest, answer this question: What was the number printed on the side of the side of the shuttle pod that Kirk and Scotty took over to the Enterprise at the beginning of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Send your answer to feedback at opticalpodcast dot com by January 31st for your chance to win. One winner will be randomly picked from the correct entries to receive a one year subscription to the print edition of Cinefex magazine. That’s four issues in your mailbox.
This music, and all of the music in this episode, is from our good friend Digital Droo who also composed the theme for the podcast. The tracks that appear in this episode will be listed in the show notes but you can find more of Drew’s music at DigitalDroo.com.
Next up, our discussion with Tom Schmidt of Percolate Digital about: what is an “optical” anyway?
Mark: So for our first tech segment, I’ve brought on my good friend Tom Schmidt. Tom, how are you doing?
Tom Schmidt: Good, Mark.
Mark: And we’re, since the Podcast is called The Optical, what is an “optical?” What’s an optical shot?
Tom: Well, an optical to me, as I grew up in this industry, an optical was always that special piece of post-production magic that was in film where something that was not there when originally shot was added later, and that could be anything from a matte painting from the castle on the mountain as they’re approaching it from below, to something as noted as the Death Star hovering over a planet, to model work in the foreground where you might add some forced perspective stuff in the foreground, that would be either small cars or buildings or something along those lines.
Mark: Or like that shot in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and there’s like this shot of Spock on Vulcan and there’s kind of like this big, you know, stairs leading up to this temple that aren’t really there in real life but they’re just kind of sitting a few feet in front of the camera, and then Leonard Nimoy and everyone else are way off in the distance, so it looks like they’re the same size.
Tom: Exactly, and that’s a nuanced thing I don’t even think they do anymore, because obviously we can add stuff in in CG and composite with tracking and all that sort of thing, but back then, you know, you had to make the perspective match we’re you’re going to put your camera so it was very much limited where you could, how you could move your camera so you had to be much more careful how you set up your shots. Nowadays you know what’s replaced the optical are things like tracking dots, and set extensions where…
Tom: And CGI, you know CGI has, is you know, is still an optical, still very much placing things in the scene that were not there but, you know, the benefits to us today is that we could be much more freeform, and allow the filmmaker a far greater latitude to make it up as they go. Whereas back in the optical days, man, you just, you know, your camera is locked down, and remember you can always tell when an optical shot was coming because all of a sudden the camera would be perfectly still. You would go from panning and flying cameras to all of a sudden the camera is locked down, and we’re now on our optical.
Mark: So is the, an optical shot is probably what we would now call VFX or visual effects. At what point did that become VFX instead of an optical? Is that kind of when we went away from like actually using film and optical printers, to actually you know, put two pieces of film together versus the modern forms of digital compositing and all of that? Is that kind of when the word optical fell out of favor you think?
Tom: I think so, you know that’s an interesting question, because I think that’s one of those things where once they started to make the migration over to digital I think the industry kind of said okay, we really can’t call it an optical anymore cause we’re not using optical printers, so they had to come up with a larger term for it. I think VFX is what stuck. You know, in terms of what we do at Percolate, we’re working now in the 4K realm and we’re discovering that within the industry, 4K is the accepted name of the format that we’re working in, but in consumer, in the consumer end of the world, the preferred term is UHD.
Mark: Ultra HD.
Tom: Ultra HD. Ultra High Definition because, you know, the industry, and to their credit, realizes that people get HD. They understand HD because everybody has HD. So let’s put a “U” in front of it, and that makes more sense to people than 4K cause I can’t tell you how many people have asked us what 4K is, but they do get UHD. So there’s kind of been this migration over to UHD simply because it wasn’t informative or correct to really call it 4K and plus it just really wouldn’t stick.
Mark: Right, cause it’s actually what? 3960 pixels wide instead of?
Tom: Yeah, 3840 x 2160. I got that tattooed on my arm.
Mark: So kind of the same thing with optical versus visual effects. It’s like once they actually stopped using like actual optics, lenses, to you know, kind of put this stuff together, that’s kind of like, you know, well, why call it optics? Optical anymore?
Tom: Yeah, they had, but I always liked the term optical. You know, when you started this podcast and the website, I thought that’s such a great name for this though, because I think the majority of people that work in VFX now have a great love of the craftsmanship that opticals required. There’s a certain sloppiness we can get away with now. Back when they were doing real optical printer and they were packing film and you know, you had to go through god knows how many layers of packed film to create one optical, it was a much more — god, I just think the people were smarter, I really do, because they just simply had to come up with these incredible ways to do these really complex effects, but kind of make it happen in one pass, otherwise you’d get generational loss, cause you can’t, you know, printing and reprinting film obviously you get degradation. You don’t have that anymore in digital.
Mark: Cause a lot of times you’ll have at least five layers of film. They’ll be one element and they’ll holdout matte for that element and then another element and they’ll holdout matte for that and adding that on to the final piece of film. Just having to understand the physics of like, how the light actually bends through all of those lenses to get to the same size image on the other end of it.
Tom: Exactly. And then the color correction involved in that, and you know, just having one matte that’s just a little bit out of line, and you look at things like, the other, the scene of Enterprise leaving dry dock, I believe it was a high con [contrast], they didn’t do it on green screen or blue screen, they did it as a high con.
Mark: Oh yeah, it was like a completely white background and the model element kind of in shadow in front of it so they would have a black and white element.
Tom: And with doing it as a high con and the reflective surface of the Enterprise model you would still see a lot of tearing on the surface of it cause it simply was not a perfect matte.
Mark: Because there was a reflection from that white background on the surface of the model itself.
Tom: Yeah, if I’m not mistaken, they chose to go with a high con because it was the best way they could get a clean matte off that model because it was a reflective surface and going with green or blue was just reflecting too much and it was tearing.
Mark: Right, cause I think on that, it actually was John Dykstra’s group at Apogee, were using the high contrast mattes and Doug Trumbull’s group was using blue screen so they would use it for different elements, like try and figure out what was best for which group to do depending on what technology was going to work better. The blue screen, it was just like, there was so much blue spill reflected on that model that they just couldn’t get a clean matte out of it.
Tom: Yeah, you know, with us in the digital realm, you know, the trial and error is easy. You know? You just try, if it doesn’t work you find another compositing method.
Mark: It’s a lot cheaper too.
Tom: Yeah, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper now, but back then you had to, you know, you had to shoot it and then you had to print it and what happens if the shooting just was not going to work. You had to go back and re-shoot that stuff and that was, you know, that was a couple days of work right there. They just, they were braver, I just think they were far braver than we.
Mark: You head up the group called Percolate Digital.
Mark: And what are you guys working on now?
Tom: We are working on several projects, one of which is already out. It’s a space show called Unraveling the Cosmos.
Mark: Oh right. I worked on that a little bit.
Tom: Yes, so you might be familiar with it, and it actually was the first 4K stereo television show.
Mark: Very nice.
Tom: Yeah, we did portions of it in the cloud, we did all of it virtually with people in different cities, but everyone knew each other so we all had a good line of communication going. But it was something that had not been done before, it’s a series of really long shots taking advantage of the stereo aspect of HD, cause the series itself was created in stereo, and then the network 3net decided to make that their first 4K show. But the stereo version of the show was, it was a bunch of artists which in and of itself is not something so common. Our core group was 12 people, with three lead artists, one for each episode and with a very, very small crew, produced almost four full hours of CG in the course of a year, and that’s, I’m proud of that accomplishment because there was a lot of people that were not quite sure that we could pull that off and there were times I must be honest, sometimes you just can’t play it safe and this was one of those moments where I think we all just thought we have our shot, let’s take our shot.
Tom: And you know, but back in the day, you know, creating things like Star Wars and Close Encounters and even further back to 2001, you know, a lot of the stuff they made up as they went. You know motion control cameras, you had the rudimentary forms of them in 2001. Then you had Silent Running which, you know, was kind of built out a little further in terms of repeatable camera moves. You know there was a lot of tech that hadn’t been done before that people said I think we can do it for this. And you test it and it works fine of course in test but then when you get into the reality of production you realize ahh sh—, well now, this is not quite going the way I thought it would. Even the great stories with Gravity, every day they were doubting they could do it, and I mean I’ve heard, I’ve heard and read interviews with both George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuarón, who was the film maker, who essentially said yeah, we weren’t quite sure we could do this, and he was being nice. I mean Sandra Bullock was saying yeah, they didn’t think they could do it. And every day they would go in, not so much not thinking they could do it but knowing that they had a really, really steep mountain to climb. And I think that any advancement in technology, you know, whether it’s learning that green screen works better than blue screen and committing to green screen for an entire film, to doing all the stereo for Gravity in post-production. You know, that film was shot with a single camera, and all the stereo was created in post, and the stereo is just phenomenal.
Mark: Oh it is. I was totally surprised to find out that it was a post conversion, because — I mean, they planned for it to be that way from the very beginning and planned for you know, the way that things were shot and there’s so much CGI in the film and that of course can be rendered out straight to stereo, but it was just, that is one of the best stereo movies I’ve ever seen and it just totally floored me that it was a conversion.
Tom: Yeah, it was, I was startled to hear that too. I mean the whole thing was that way. It was one of these things where we think we can do it and even going back to Jurassic Park, you know, credit to ILM and Dennis Muren and obviously Spielberg. You know they were committing to Phil Tippet’s puppets for Jurassic Park and then, you know, Dennis Muren and his crew decided, you know something? I bet we could render a photo-realistic dinosaur in CG, and make it work for this movie.
Mark: Yup, doing that test with the running Gallimimus herd.
Tom: Yeah, and then there’s the great line where Spielberg turns to Phil Tippet and says, “well, it looks like you’re extinct” which made it into the film. Yeah, and even with the, the two great examples of how things didn’t work as planned but then made it all better, of course the shark from Jaws, when it simply did not work. The only times it did work were pretty much the scenes you see in the film, but they were able to build that slow reveal of the shark which, you know, became the benchmark for how to roll out a terror narrative. You know, let’s show a little bit of the terror, until at the very end we pay it off big. And that was simply because the shark didn’t work! And then to a further degree in Jurassic Park with the dinosaurs, you know, they built that full size T-Rex. What they didn’t count on was that they were going to be shooting in rain, and that T-Rex was made out of foam.
Mark: And it got soaked with rain.
Tom: It got soaked with rain and was just, it had like the DTs and it was trembling and it was all they could do to get that T-Rex to work, and you know. But I remember the first time I saw Jurassic Park and I’d read about the fact that they had built this T-Rex and all this sort of stuff and I’m thinking back to King Kong when they had –
Mark: Willis O’Brien?
Tom: No, no, no, the ’77, John Guillermin King Kong where Dino De Laurentiis went and built that 40 foot Kong and it was a robot that didn’t work, but they used it for all the promotional stuff, like, look they built a giant Kong! And it’s only in for like three seconds in the movie.
Mark: Oh wow.
Tom: Yeah, this thing, it looked terrible, it didn’t move right obviously and just, it was, it was just horrible. When the first time you see the T-Rex step over the wall when it’s raining, I thought to myself holy crap, Spielberg and those guys got that T-Rex robot to walk! And then I realized oh my god, I’m looking at CG. That was the first time that it really hit me, just how good CG could be. And you see the water dripping down him, and he is absolutely there. He’s absolutely there in the scene.
Mark: Very cool. I think they had kind of a similar kind of a thing with Alien, I mean they put the guy in the suit but they figured well, we really can’t show him that much cause it kind of looks like a guy in a suit. So kind of taking Jaws’ cue about like, oh, we’ll just show a little snippet of him here and there and try and put him in an awkward position and make him look interesting, and not use him too much.
Tom: Oh, I hadn’t heard that, but that makes total sense because that’s one of those great slow reveals too. That’s one of the great, gross movie monsters. That thing still freaks me out. You know, the jawed tongue — that’s just a creepy idea. People who come up with that stuff is just… I worry, I worry sometimes that you know, people in this industry if they weren’t working in this industry, they’d be like serial killers or something.
Mark: Well, we’re actually going to be talking about Alien next with Matt Rowbotham, but thank you Tom for being on.
Tom: My pleasure.
Mark: And now on to Alien. I have Matt Rowbotham with me.
Matt Rowbotham: Hey.
Mark: Matt is a co-host of the Post Atomic Horror.
Matt: That is true.
Mark: And an Alien enthusiast.
Matt: Oh yeah. I was thinking about this the other night, or last night when I was watching this. When I was growing up, like this was my trilogy rather than Star Wars. Man I loved these movies.
Mark: They’re definitely some of my favorite horror movies.
Matt: Oh yeah, and they’re each like they’re so different from one another. Like you start with the first one which is like a haunted house movie and then you move onto the second one which is like a thriller.
Mark: I thought it was really great that they kept bringing in new directors and new writers and kind of fresh blood as kind of that goes, to like, you know, tell a different story all the time.
Matt: Oh yeah, well like, that’s one of the things that’s so awesome about it. Each one of those is such a uniquely different story.
Mark: Yeah, I love the diversity of it.
Matt: Yeah. It’s just that there’s so much potential in that universe.
Mark: Yeah, cause, like in a lot of other trilogies or quadrilogies, or whatever they’re calling it now.
Matt: Yeah, we’re just gonna make up words for.
Mark: You usually get the, it’s always from the same perspective.
Matt: But with these they really took sort of the basic concept which is this, this thing and Ripley, and just sort of everything else they can just go nuts with and they can explore this weird universe they’ve got.
Mark: Speaking of that, the movie starts out with, a lot of that, just kind of like setting in place the universe in which we exist here. There’s just shots of the empty corridors and the ship kind of slowly waking up, but we don’t even see any people for what? Three or four minutes?
Matt: No, it’s like three or four minutes before we start, before the pods start popping open and the ship itself, like, it doesn’t look like something that people are supposed to live in. Like it’s cramped and the corridors are all really kind of gross and oily. It doesn’t look clean and it doesn’t look safe. Like it really looks like you could cut yourself walking down a lot of those hallways.
Mark: Oh yeah. Coming at it from the perspective of trying to make it you know, have that used feature, which I guess, you know, George Lucas said he was trying to go for a couple of years before with Star Wars, but it was an interesting thing — Dan O’Bannon who was the original writer had, you know, kept his fingers in the process throughout, he said that they really wanted to do that even on Dark Star, which was a movie he worked on with John Carpenter a few years before that, but it was like, it was a spaceship and there was an alien but it was kind of a comedy, and the alien was a beach ball, and it was not really…
Matt: Sort of, somewhat less threatening.
Mark: Yes. Not quite as high production values but they did some inventive stuff with miniatures and spaceships and stuff. There were some cool satire going on. But they tried to do it even there, kind of that “used future” but they found that like, you know, they actually kind of grimed things up on the set that didn’t look that grimy on film. He thought that Star Wars also didn’t read as grimy as he thought it should, and when we was talking with the director Ridley Scott he was like, really I think you’ve got to grime it up about three times worse than you actually want it to look in the finished film, and I think they maybe even went a little over that.
Matt: The camera may add 10 pounds but it cleans up your room by about 80 percent, is the problem.
Mark: Exactly. So then we see the folks waking up, this cool just like, little burst of air when the door to the cryo chamber opens, it just, I don’t know, it’s like these tiny, tiny little details that I love kind of in the, you know, as we’re saying, the world-building here.
Matt: And you’re seeing all this stuff and none of it’s explained to you, you know?
Mark: Right. We just go right into the breakfast scene and…
Matt: Yeah, exactly.
Mark: It’s like they’re all people who have worked together for ages, however long, and they’re just you know, getting on with their day, and we don’t get any explanation at all.
Matt: It’s so blue collar too, you know? Like, it’s just a bunch of guys having breakfast, smoking, and like, complaining and stuff, and they’re on a spaceship for crying out loud, and they’re just going about their day. They all look kind of hung over.
Mark: The phrase truckers in space has been tossed about.
Matt: That’s really good, I’ve never thought about that, but that’s really accurate for what they’re doing up there.
Mark: Yeah, they go through, they find out that they’ve been stopped because they got some sort of signal from the planets, they’ve got to go check it out and they separate from the big refinery thing, which is this enormous model with these big, cathedral like spires and all this stuff on it.
Matt: I love the look of the Nostromo so much.
Mark: Yeah, just amazing model work on it.
Matt: Just this huge, like, again, pointy, broken looking, but it’s enormous, it’s got like, they do the over, the sort of Star Destroyer shot as like, as the movie’s opening right? And it looked like the scale on it is just enormous.
Mark: Oh yeah, I had forgotten that before I watched it this past time. It just keeps going and going and going past the camera.
Mark: And I read, I think it was in the Cinefex article that they said the big model that they shot, you know, a lot of the closeups with, was 40 feet long.
Matt: Oh my god, really?
Mark: Holy cow!
Matt: Oh my god!
Mark: Yeah, they spent a lot of detail on that and on the Nostromo itself landing on the planet and they have this gigantic foot, well, it’s not gigantic, it’s a model, but it comes down and crushes these rocks and they go out in their space suits.
Matt: That’s another thing I love. They’ve got these, the bulky space suits when they’re getting out there. Everything looks so lived in, you know? Like no one’s walking out and like, like you’ve got that sleek, Spock space suit that he wears in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, right?
Matt: These guys are wearing these bulky things that look like they take forever to get in and out of.
Mark: Yeah, it’s interesting how many designers worked on this project too. Cause there’s Ron Cobb worked on the Nostromo design and the like, the interiors and exterior and everything about the ship.
Mark: And he even designed these really cool little icons that you can, once you know about them you just kind of see them popping up all over the ship. There’s like actually icons that say, well, behind this door there’s no gravity, and there’s a vacuum, and you might not want to open it. Jean Giraud, is that how you pronounce his name? Mœbius?
Matt: Is it Giraud? I don’t know.
Mark: He came in for only just a couple of days and designed most of the costumes, or at least kind of the basis of what became the costumes, but his, specifically his space suits, those are his, and they came almost directly from his drawings.
Matt: Oh I love those things.
Mark: They’ve almost got this samurai armor look to them.
Matt: Yeah, a little bit.
Mark: And then of course there’s H.R. Giger, which I don’t think it stands for “Hey Really Giger”, is that?
Matt: Possibly not in real life, but I, are you referring to the Superego podcast?
Mark: The Superego podcast, yeah.
Matt: My initials stand for, “Hey! Really Giger!”
Mark: I believe it’s Hans Rudolph Giger, or Rudy.
Matt: Yeah, I like mine better.
Mark: I do too. And he designed the alien, there was some collaboration on the different stages of the alien but the big alien was definitely all him.
Matt: Now and he also did the alien ship interior, right? The interior, the sort of the hive look and the space jockey?
Mark: Yup, that whole thing, the derelict ship itself, the creepy vagina-like portals that they have to walk through to get into the ship, and then there’s like, you know, all these walls that look like they’re made of ribs or bones or something.
Matt: Oh god, one of my most favorite designs ever.
Mark: And apparently he, like he didn’t want to leave his studio in Switzerland at first. He just like, okay, I’ll sketch off these designs and send them to London and they can do whatever they are going to do with them.
Matt: Well, he’d been working on Dune or something, wasn’t it?
Mark: Yeah, they never paid him.
Matt: They never paid him so he wasn’t really into working on film again.
Mark: Yeah, but he got kind of intrigued in it, and eventually with some of the stuff that people were kind of taking liberties with his design, he’s like you know, I want this to come out the way I drew it so he actually ended up moving out of the studios and working on stuff directly even to the point that he, once they built the set — like with all the ribs, he like sculpted one, and then they made molds and cast a bunch of them so they could make the repeating wall. But then to make it look exactly the way he wanted to have it look, he hand painted tons of that set with his airbrush and just like came in.
Matt: Oh my god.
Mark: I gotta get the shading just right, like the space jockey and the whole set around it was, he hand painted that.
Matt: Oh that’s amazing.
Matt: That attention to detail and to the craft, I really think that’s one of the things that sort of endears me to this movie so much. Like that world is so perfectly realized.
Mark: Right. So they get in there, they’ve got the space jockey, which is this really creepy thing. Apparently he built, some of his sculptures, he actually like started with real bones and then kind of built up plasticine on top of them.
Matt: Oh my god, really? I have never heard that before.
Mark: And they were saying, like you know he went to the secretary on the set and was like, I need these bones, order me lots of bones. I’m doing my horrible H.R. Giger.
Matt: You, person, bring me the bones, the human bones, I am building.
Mark: They got some of them from a local slaughterhouse, and they weren’t as dry as he was used to working with, he said. He said, “Even for me, terrible smell.” Ugh! That’s really creepy. There was so much real, animal parts that were used on this movie, it’s pretty crazy.
Mark: Yeah, I mean, that, the bones obviously, but the face hugger, when it finally comes off of Kane’s face, and they’re kind of like poking around at it to see what’s its innards are like, that’s like all, you know, oysters and mussels and stuff that Ridley Scott took a tweezers and kind of stacked them all in there so they looked gross, and when the egg opens there’s Nottingham Lace in there which is like part of a cow’s stomach, and there was also sheep’s intestines that was part of what sprung out of the egg and hit Kane in the face.
Matt: Well, that explains why the movie has that organic look to it. Wow.
Mark: Yeah, I mean they just had laxer laws in England at that point.
Matt: This is sanitary, right? What? Oh, yeah, sure. Go put your face in that cow’s guts.
Mark: Then they cut to the face hugger, which is an amazing design.
Matt: Oh god, that thing is so cool looking.
Mark: Like if you see Giger’s early drawings of it, it’s much bigger than it ended up being. It was like almost half a man’s height, but it did start out with those fingers, and they kind of latched on to, no pun intended, that idea.
Matt: And then it’s also just got like a giant penis on one end which is, pretty disturbing.
Mark: Well, it is an organ of reproduction, so. I guess that makes sense.
Matt: When I used to work at the comic store we’d get in Giger art books pretty regularly and they would always fly off the shelves like, that guy has such a unique art style, you know? It’s so creepy looking.
Mark: Yeah. I just love that design, though. It’s so functional. It’s gonna grab a hold of your face. It’s got the organ it needs to deposit whatever alien baby in your stomach.
Matt: I hope just like, it’s like a seed or something if I recall.
Mark: So Kane is, he’s okay. They’ve like, this thing has finally fallen off of him and they poke around in the oysters and stuff and it’s really gooey and gross. He seems to be fine. They lift off, which I love that shot of them lifting off.
Matt: Oh yeah!
Mark: Because the amount of like, dust and debris that’s flying around, it looks amazing, but there’s these little, tiny lights that are on the bottom of the Nostromo, in these rows, and none of them are quite straight, they’re all these little, crooked lights and I just love that bit of crookedness.
Mark: I’m sure the model builder is like, damnit, i couldn’t get it perfectly straight, it doesn’t look real! But I just love that. It adds character.
Matt: It adds to that broken crappiness to everything in Alien, you know? Like this ship is probably old as hell and falling apart and everything.
Mark: And the chest burster scene.
Matt: One of the most famous scenes in horror movie history.
Mark: And apparently only John Hurt, who was the guy who was gonna have the alien burst out of his chest, and I guess Tom Skerritt was also there while they were setting up, but none of the other crew members — I mean they read the script, they knew what was gonna happen, but they didn’t know exactly how it was all gonna work out, and they did one take, they got this little air ram that was supposed to push the little chest burster up out of the shirt and it just, they used acid to make the shirt a little bit weaker, but it wasn’t weak enough, so it didn’t quite get through.
Matt: Oh so they’re like trying to force it through there.
Mark: Yes. So they reset and scored the shirt with a razor blade so it would weaken it even more and they finally brought everybody back in for another take and BAM! It came up out of there, and there was some tubes that they were like, pushing some fake studio blood into the cavity in his chest, and you know, make it look super gross and it just so happened that one of them was kind of sticking out at an odd angle, and just completely smacked Veronica Cartwright right in the face. So she’s like soaked in blood, kind of the force of it knocked her backwards, and she fell on her ass and her cowboy boots were sticking up in the air.
Matt: Is that take still in the movie?
Mark: In the bonus features on the Blu-ray they have that actual shot and it’s like way more than there is in the actual movie, so she was completely soaked.
Matt: Oh my god, that’s hilarious. Just gets Evil Dead-ed right in the face.
Mark: I think that was a cool technique by Ridley Scott, just kind of like, try and hide it as much as possible from the actors so they don’t, they kind of have an idea of what’s gonna happen, but they can actually have the element of surprise so they can give a better reaction to the film.
Matt: You want to capture that, that look of terror when that thing comes out.
Matt: And it’s such a horrible concept. This is the first time I was watching and I really sort of paid attention to Kane when it’s coming out of him, and that dude is just writhing around on the table in agony, and he’s still alive when it comes out. I can’t think of anything as horrible as that.
Mark: They switch to the other shot and of course that’s a fake chest in front of him but it’s his real head and hands and he’s got his hands twitching, and just like, aaah!
Matt: Yeah, and I love the look that the alien gives when it’s sort of out. It’s got this sort of weird calmness to it when it’s finally born, and it’s just sort of looking around then it does that creepy sort of like zip away where it like flies across the table.
Mark: Oh yeah.
Matt: But like it looked, like for a weird little puppet, it looks really good.
Mark: Oh yeah, and apparently they put a little compressed air cylinder hooked up to an air tube, they hooked into the tail so when they let that go it’s like the tail’s just [whooshing sounds] whipping all over the place.
Matt: Oh is that how? That’s so cool.
Mark: Yeah, okay, so then, the alien’s out there, Kane is dead, they’re kind of poking around in different spaces, see if they see this little thing. Eventually Brett, Harry Dean Stanton, walks off by himself, which you know is a bad idea.
Matt: Got to go find the friggin’ cat. The amount of people who get killed because of this cat, I swear to god.
Mark: You know, that’s an interesting thread through. Yeah, they’re looking for the cat, and then he lets the cat run away, so then, you know, that’s why they gotta go find it because, well, they’re gonna mistake it for the alien or something. It just seems like there’s so many scenes where somebody gets it, and the cat is just kind of looking… like, enabling the alien.
Matt: That cat, you find out later that cat paid the alien off to bump off the crew. Yes, good. This will teach you not to feed me Fancy Feast in a crystal bowl.
Mark: Well now the alien isn’t this tiny, little thing anymore, it’s this huge thing already, which is kind of amazing but it was interesting a thing that Ridley Scott brought up in the commentary, that, kind of thought of it as maybe it had a very short life cycle in which it had to, you know, pro-create and then die pretty quickly, almost insect-like, which is maybe why it was, you know, at that end of the film when it’s kind of curled up inside the Narcissus, you know, it had just kind of like, gone find a quiet place to die at that point. There was a lot of thought that went into the life cycle of this creature.
Matt: This is one of the things I used to be, like when I was back, when I was in high school, I was fascinated by trying to figure out how this all worked.
Mark: So then Dallas goes crawling around in the air vents and obviously that’s a bad idea. But I love that in both of these encounters we hardly see anything of the alien.
Matt: No, it’s very Jaws-like in that sort of, you know, like you see as little of it as possible in the beginning.
Mark: Right, I think, that was something they mentioned too in the editing, as they went from rough cut and you know, kind of did further and further versions of the cut, there was less and less and less of the alien in each version. It was much more effective to just kind of, you know, let the audience imagine it and not to show as much of it.
Matt: Oh yeah. You combine that sort of unseen-ness to what you can see, and what you can see of the alien is so, it’s just so different from anything else, right? That big, elongated head with the double teeth.
Matt: Like it does, when it kills Brett for the first time you get that close up of the like basically the steel teeth.
Mark: And then later we get to see you know, he opens his mouth and there’s the tongue with another set of teeth.
Mark: It almost seems like an animal that’s engineered for a certain purpose.
Mark: Just to eat things and kill and, ugh. Okay, and now that the captain is dead, Ripley should be next in line for command and she goes to the computer, and isn’t allowed to know everything about the orders that are supposed to be going on, and she eventually overrides it and figures out that the science officer, Ash, is hiding something.
Matt: The computer, MU-TH-UR, which is this room that’s basically full of computer.
Mark: There’s so many lights.
Matt: It’s all computer. And this tiny little Commodore 64 monitor, which I love, I love computers in 80s movies, or 70s movies in this case, where they’ve got that sort of, the blurry monitor screen. It’s the same thing as in The Thing.
Mark: So they we’re back to Ash about to give her what for, and the big guy, Yaphet Kotto.
Mark: Parker, thank you, bashes him with, I don’t know, a fire extinguisher or something pretty heavy, and his head just comes right off.
Matt: Falls off.
Mark: And, which reveals that he’s an android, which I thought was pretty, pretty cool. That was like the one thing that Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett said that, that wasn’t part of their original script, and these other guys who, there was this whole fight over writing credit on this film, but these other guys, that was like the one main, new idea that they contributed. And I thought that was really cool. If you’re this huge company who’s sending these guys out however many millions of miles, and they have to be in cryosleep cause it’s so damn long, you know, wouldn’t you want to keep an eye on your assets, this ginormous, multi-billion dollar refinery in space?
Matt: Yeah, well the other thing.
Mark: These seven people who are running it, maybe one of them decides well, I’m gonna, you know, steal the ship and take it somewhere else.
Matt: Well, I mean look at Brett and Parker, these are not the most reliable employees you could possibly have.
Mark: [mimicking Brett] Right.
Matt: One of the things I love is that reveal that he’s an android just is so, it’s so cool and the interior of him is so, like different than what you would expect from, you know.
Mark: Yeah, there’s no circuitry.
Matt: There’s no circuitry, it’s just this weird milk stuff and these little, it’s almost like bubble wrap or something inside of him, you know?
Mark: And there’s like little tubes connected to little glass balls and who knows what it does, but.
Matt: Yeah, like it’s.
Mark: It looks fascinating.
Matt: I’ve seen this movie so many times, I wish I could go back and have watched it the first time before I knew all of the, like all of the surprises in this, cause, I will tell you right now, not knowing that he’s an android, I would have no idea what’s going on. When he starts sweating milk like right before he’s about to kill her with the magazine, it’s so weird.
Mark: Yeah, I love that aspect of this where it’s like, it’s almost so futuristic that we don’t even have a frame of reference for what sort of technology he is, and I think it works really well cause it’s something that’s pretty simple as far as the design of it. You’re not trying to make it look like, you know, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation where he’s full of circuits.
Matt: No, you pull off his head there’s a Christmas tree in there, yeah. No, but I like that concept, I mean, since we find out the company is basically setting them up, like of course they’re gonna want someone on the ship who’s not, who the alien isn’t going to want to attack or anything.
Mark: But that is an interesting point though, since he’s not human and maybe not, I don’t know, maybe a little organic, but not in any way the alien would want to eat him. He’s the one who will probably survive, and you know, they can’t really get back home now in the Nostromo, and the alien comes and grabs Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright. The actors, not the characters. He actually killed the actor.
Matt: Come on man, I’m just trying to get to work here!
Mark: At that point Ripley’s like okay, I’m the only one left, I’m gonna take the cat and go. Which I don’t know why she wants to take the cat, but…
Matt: Gotta take that cat.
Mark: And I love the futuristic cat carrier.
Matt: Oh yeah, right?
Mark: It’s almost made to the same degree as the spaceship models, where these little you know, bits of, I call them like greebles, like little tiny bits of detail glued on to the outside to make it look futuristic. But I love, when she goes in to do the self-destruct of the Nostromo, I love all this crazy different mechanical stuff, pulling these levers and pulling up these little tubes and pushing these. It’s like there’s so much stuff that she has to do to do the self-destruct and I love that. It should be hard. In Star Trek it’s just a couple of voice commands.
Matt: Yeah, computer blow up ship. “Blowing up ship in ten, nine…”
Mark: I love that it doesn’t feel like a cheap effort.
Matt: It’s like it’s a self destruct but it’s like she actually has to do something. Like she’s like, what is it, like she’s leaking coolant or something? They have some explanation I can’t remember what it is now.
Mark: Yeah, they’re essentially overheating the main drives or something like that.
Matt: Yeah, but like she’s physically pushing these things into these slots and it’s so cool.
Mark: Yeah. Again, attention to detail.
Matt: That lived in universe where everything works. Everything’s there for a reason.
Mark: And then there’s, like the smoke, that’s there for a reason, right?
Matt: Oh yeah, totally. And that room that dumps water for, that I haven’t been able to figure out since I watched this movie the first time.
Mark: Condensation. I don’t know.
Matt: It’s apparently clean enough that Brett can just drink it. That drove me crazy.
Mark: Yeah, that’s kinda gross.
Daren: It’s this room with like chains hanging from the ceiling and he’s just like, oh this is really good.
Mark: Mm-mmm. Even the earlier scenes with the two guys, Brett and Parker working on the stuff down in the lower decks and there’s smoke everywhere, and you know, even beyond what you would think of as visible steam or smoke, or, there was always smoke on that side and it just make it a little bit thicker air, thicker atmosphere so it just kind of looked a little creepier and more real and in the case of some of the models and stuff, and it was something the actors complained about. It was like constant smoke all of the time, and they’re just like, they would go home just covered in this burnt paraffin residue.
Matt: Well again, it’s like that idea that the ship is not, it’s not made for people to be on. Like it feels like that’s the reason that they get frozen, like in addition to just being these huge journeys they have to go on, like this, it feels like the entire Nostromo is built for a very specific purpose and that purpose is mining, and so little of that is given over to, the, basically the skeleton crew that’s supposed to be running it.
Mark: Right. I mean pretty much the only big space that they have is that area around the, you know, the dining table.
Mark: Everything else is like they’re in a little pod, or they’re crammed into this tiny seat in the bridge, and it’s barely made for people.
Matt: Yeah, for a ship that big there’s no room for anything.
Mark: But you know getting back to that smoke, it’s like I love that when she’s, she set the self destruct and she sees the alien who is, you know, looking at the cat, they’re having some sort of trading deal, I guess, and Sigourney runs off and goes and get the flame thrower that Dallas was trying to use on it earlier, which was like a real working flame thrower that they made for this thing, and like apparently the director and the cinematographer almost got toasted on one of the shots when Dallas came around the corner with his finger on the trigger. But I just love the quality of light there at the end, where it’s just like, you know, it’s the strobe lights and klaxons and the big, you know, lights spinning around and the flame thrower, it’s, that combination is…
Matt: There’s that shot when she turns the corner and it’s just there, right? And just the way it looks is just so cool.
Mark: Just the way it’s kind of crouched down, and it’s always in an odd position.
Matt: Yeah, well I mean, I’ve seen pictures of the guy in the suit, right?
Matt: And if you don’t have that thing like in those weird sort of crouched positions it looks really weird.
Mark: Well it looks like a guy in a suit, is the problem.
Matt: Yeah, exactly. Like the alien should not have good posture.
Mark: I think, and it was like this guy who they found, he was a graphics arts student in London at the time and he was Nigerian. It was this guy, he was like seven feet tall and thin as a rail, just amazing serendipity that they just kind of stumbled across this guy.
Matt: Sort of the Doug Jones of… Yeah, like she sees the alien and she basically turns around to go shut the self destruct off and she finishes up, she’s like two seconds late. And I love, she’s almost pleading with the computer. Like mother, I did it, I turned it off! “Self destruct in five minutes.” Oh you! I just, I love that so, just like — oh come on, what else can go wrong today?
Mark: I do love that. But then she does make it into the Narcissus to escape, and they have the nuclear explosion looking that goes off, which is you know, it explodes like three times. That’s pretty amazing, this like explosion in space, you know, just thinking on what nuclear explosions look like under water and stuff. It’s very much along those lines.
Matt: Oh is that sort of what they went by? That’s really cool.
Mark: They didn’t say that anywhere, but I’m just kind of like thinking of this documentary called Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie and they have like tons of footage of atomic tests and stuff, and there’s definitely some stuff.
Matt: I’ve never seen an atomic bomb under water.
Mark: Yeah, pretty amazing footage.
Matt: I bet it would be, yeah.
Mark: The interesting thing here too in the commentary Ridley said that yeah, Ridley, my close personal friend Ridley Scott.
Matt: Your good friend Ridley.
Mark: Said that that was like really the first time that people had really tried to, like, shake the camera a lot to make it look like there’s some violent shaking going on in the ship or whatever. I mean, we’ve seen bits of that before in Star Trek but it’s usually just kind of like move side to side. But it like actually kind of almost to the point where you’re hitting the camera, bang-bang-bang-bang-bang to kind of get that you know, very fast motion.
Matt: Oh yeah.
Mark: I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s him blowing smoke or if that’s really the first time people had done that.
Matt: If that’s true that’s a huge influence on the way we shoot, the way we shoot sci-fi movies now. Like I mean the new Battlestar Galactica was basically built around that feeling of the camera actually being in real life.
Mark: Right, actually zooming in on stuff and not, it’s not that kind of staid composition from a single position the whole time.
Matt: The idea that the, what’s happening in the film is actually effecting the camera is a really cool concept.
Mark: Another thing that Ridley Scott said, apparently once she got in the Narcissus and was gone, that was actually going to be the end of the movie, and it was Ridley went to the producers and said no, we need to do a little epilogue here and give me another four days to shoot this, and that’s you know, when she discovers the alien is actually in the Narcissus with her, and she has to you know, get into the space suit and kind of maneuver around and try very quietly to get the door open to blow him out into space. I love that when she’s doing that, she’s humming this, I don’t know if it was like a real song?
Matt: It sounds like she’s saying “you’re lucky” over and over.
Mark: It’s like “you are my lucky star” is what she keeps saying.
Matt: That’s it, that’s it.
Mark: It’s like she’s singing it to herself to kind of calm herself down. I don’t know if it was like a real song at that point, or if it was just something that she made up on the set, but I love that where she’s like finally relaxing a little bit.
Matt: It’s been a weird week let’s just…
Mark: And it’s like, you know, the finally discovering that the alien is in there with her still, is just the point where it’s like, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, or you know, I gotta sing to myself to just kind of like, I’m going to distract myself from the fact that there’s an alien over there, and I’m just going to concentrate on pushing these buttons over here and, [humming] to you know, get him out of there.
Matt: That sort of reveal of the alien is also, it’s so well done. I love the way the head blends in with those pipes that they have on the wall.
Mark: Oh yeah, it looks like the same kind of shiny black surface all the way through.
Matt: Yeah, and then when it wakes up, like it does that sort of thing where it sort of sticks it’s hand out, right, and you get that good look at the six-fingered hand which I love.
Mark: I love that.
Matt: Just one more weird thing.
Mark: Yeah, something that Dan O’Bannon had suggested to Giger, to add that on there where it’s like you’ve got a second opposable thumb on the other side. That’s, I mean that’s just creepy in and of itself where it’s like man, this creature is super-useful.
Matt: Yeah, can hold a pen with both sides of it’s hand. The perfect writing machine.
Mark: And she finally gets the buttons open to open the door out in the space so she can vent the air out and blow the alien, and finally shoot him with a harpoon gun from some James Bond movie. To actually push him out.
Matt: I borrowed this from Batman. [whoosh sound]
Mark: I love that the last shots are when the alien finally gets outside and you see the shots from outside the ship, there’s that full size model of, at least a good chunk of the ship, that it was hung from the ceiling so the engine ports are pointing down, and they actually sprayed water out of the instrument ports and it’s back lit with these like giant bright lights to make it look like, I don’t know, some sort of plasma venting, something. I love that it was just kind of like such a simple combination that looks really, really cool.
Matt: Oh yeah. Also I love that they, she actually has to sort of get it into the engine cause not even vacuum will kill it. Like you just can’t beat this thing.
Mark: No. Oh, we didn’t even mention the acid blood!
Matt: Oh my god, of course we didn’t.
Mark: Which is amazing. That was something that Ron Shusett — cause Dan O’Bannon was writing it, I’m kind of stuck here, cause why don’t they just stab this thing, or you know? Or somehow kill it, and they came up with that idea that was like, well, what if it had acid for blood? And it’s like, well, then you kind of can’t kill it in a normal way. They can’t just crush it or stab it or something. I guess trying to hit it with the flame thrower was what they came up with after that, but, just the even seeing that where they had the face hugger, and they cut into it and the acid spurts out, and just eats a hole in the floor.
Matt: Starts eating away, eating through the hull.
Mark: And then had little a bit of flat styrofoam that they poured some, it was actually a pretty corrosive fluid that they put on it — a couple of different types of acid and some stuff mixed up together, and it actually did, you know, eat through it.
Matt: That scene when they, like they’d been chasing the acid basically through the ship trying to stop it, right? It sort of wears out on the third or the fourth deck down and Dallas borrows Brett’s pen and sticks it in there sort of moves it around and it comes out all smoking. That looks so cool.
Matt: Really sort of simple way of showing what that stuff does.
Mark: Very, very effective and gives them a reason for not being able to just kill it easily.
Matt: Well and I love when they go to remove it the first time and the tail tightens around Kane’s neck. Like that shouldn’t, like it’s almost snakelike and it’s really cool.
Mark: Oh yeah, and that was, that was done so simply too. They kind of vaseline’d it up and stuck a piano wire on one end of the tail and just pulled on it, to tighten it around his neck, but the way they did it, it really looks like the alien is doing the tightening there.
Mark: Man, that’s super creepy. Well, thank you Matt for being on.
Matt: Yeah, of course.
Mark: For a great discussion of Alien.
Matt: One of my favorite movies, one of the best horror flicks ever made.
Mark Voice Over: Thank you so much for listening to the podcast! There’s just so much that we wanted to cram in here and I don’t know even that we got all of it in with the two hour running time, but… Perhaps we should split these up into smaller podcasts, I don’t know. Do you have feedback? Send it to feedback at opticalpodcast dot com, or follow us on Twitter, @opticalpodcast, or facebook.com/opticalpodcast. See the show notes for this episode and daily posts of cool movie stuff at OpticalPodcast.com. Special thanks to our guests Ron “AAlgar” Watt, Matt Rowbotham, Daren Dochterman, and Tom Schmidt for being on the show. Couldn’t have done it without you. Al and Matt can be found at PostAtomicHorror.com and Tom Schmidt can be found at PercolateDigital.tv. Theme music for The Optical and all of the interstitial music in this episode by Digital Droo that you can find at DigitalDroo.com. Our awesome, The Optical logo by the inimitable Mike Gower.
And last but not least, special thanks to Cinefex magazine for helping sponsor the podcast. If you’ve marveled over the effects in the hit film Gravity like we did earlier be sure to check out the current issue of Cinefex now available at Cinefex.com. The new issue features a cover story on Gravity with 26 pages of in-depth, meticulously illustrated and researched coverage of the film’s amazing journey to the big screen. It’s also packed with details and exclusive imagery on the making of Ron Howard’s thrilling making of Formula 1 Racing biopic Rush, Thor: The Dark World, and the remake of the classic horror film Carrie. There’s even more to whet your whistle in the enhanced iPad edition of Cinefex, available on iTunes. Prepare to be wowed by even more photos and break downs of effects shots, plus exciting video content and interactivity. It’s Cinefex on steroids. Visit Cinefex.com for more information on all three editions of Cinefex: print, online, and iPad.
Thanks for listening!
[v04, edited 2015-01-11]