Latest StoriesMovies
    How The Evil Dead's Tom Sullivan Mastered Low-Budget Effects

    When Sam Raimi went to college at Michigan State, he formed a tight group of filmmaking friends. Scott Spiegel, who wrote Evil Dead 2, bonded with Raimi over their mutual love of The Three Stooges. Bruce Campbell became Raimi’s square jawed leading man, and Rob Tapert would become Sam’s long time producer. Another important member of that filmmaking fraternity was Tom Sullivan, who did the make-up effects for The Evil Dead. If Raimi's seminal horror debut is renowned for its low-budget production, it was Sullivan who gets the credit for providing those memorable scares with such limited resources.

    Part of what made The Evil Dead so enjoyable was its very homemade feel. It was a completely independent movie, and like the best low budget movies that break out into the mainstream, enthusiasm and spirit triumphed over whatever technical flaws the movie had. Sullivan was a major facilitator in bringing Raimi’s insane vision to life, and as a long time horror fan, I welcomed the chance to talk to him about his memories of working on The Evil Dead.

    Tom Sullivan first met up with Sam Raimi because his girlfriend was attending Michigan State as the same time as the wunderkind director. Sullivan had heard about Sam’s Creative Filmmaking Society, where he would show his 8mm movies he made in junior high and high school, and charge a buck or so for admission. “Sam was surrounded by a group of friends who were all interested in filmmaking and acting,” Sullivan says. “He had his own little company.”

    When Sullivan met Raimi, they immediately hit it off because Tom was fascinated with stop-motion animation, special effects, claymation, and puppets, and these were all filmmaking techniques that were right up Raimi’s alley. All were solitary pursuits for Sullivan, and now he found a filmmaker with a like mind he could collaborate with.

    Animating Robocop 2's Cain Robot with Phil Tippett

    One of science fiction film's most memorable and menacing creatures is the Cain cyborg from Robocop 2. Cain was brought to life with a full-size robot prop and several intricately machined stop-motion puppets, all which have survived and live at Tippett Studio. We get up close with these iconic props and chat with legendary special effects animator Phil Tippett about the process of designing and animating Cain.

    Alternative Universe Movies: John Boorman's Lord of the Rings

    John Boorman is the director of such masterpieces as Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance, Excalibur, and more. He also almost directed Lord of the Rings, and to think what he could have done with the classic Tolkien tale absolutely boggles the mind. At that point, there was no way a major studio would have backed three movies that told the whole story. It was a miracle New Line Cinema went ahead with three movies when Peter Jackson tackled the trilogy decades later. Still, with a brave and experimental filmmaker like Boorman, you get the feeling it could have been a hell of a movie if he had the opportunity to make it.

    Boorman wrote a bit about his opportunity to direct Lord of the Rings in his autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy. Boorman had just made Leo the Last for United Artists, and David Picker, who was then the head of the studio, approached the director about potentially adapting the Tolkien epic. The first problem was, you guessed it, trying to cram the entire story into one movie. “To compress the three volumes into a three-hour movie was a hugely ambitious undertaking,” Boorman wrote. “But I was grateful to have the chance to try. I was interested in the central metaphor, that the One Ring is of such power that it corrupts whoever possesses it.”

    To help him, Boorman hooked up with Rospo Pallenberg, an Italian architect living in New York who wanted to be a screenwriter. Pallenberg first became aware of Boorman’s work when one night he had an argument with his wife, and walked out into the rain in a huff. Seeking shelter, Pallenberg ducked into a movie theater, which was playing Point Blank, Boorman’s classic crime thriller starring Lee Marvin. Pallenberg loved the film so much, he sat through it twice that night.

    Eventually Pallenberg was introduced to Boorman, who was in New York staying at the Sherry Netherland, having a meeting in his suite about Leo the Last. After the meeting, Boorman took Pallenberg into the suite’s closet, turned on the light, and thrust the three Lord of the Rings books at him. “Do you know them?,” Boorman asked. “Maybe we can write a screenplay together.”

    How To Walk Like an Ape (for Performance Capture)

    For the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, motion-performance actors went through some schooling to teach them to walk like quadrupeds. We chatted with Apes' movement choreographer Terry Notary about how to act and move like an ape, and take a hands-on lesson!

    The Special Effects of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    "We actually call it performance capture." That's how Matt Reeves, director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, quickly corrected me when I asked him a question about the state of motion capture technology. This was two weeks ago, at the press junket for the new film. Reeves, along with the film's actors and visual effects supervisors, fielded questions for an hour from a packed hotel suite of entertainment reporters. It was the first junket for a big hollywood film that we've been invited to, and the experience was a little surreal. It felt a lot of like a Comic-Con panel, but for just 30 people instead of 3,000. And we had all seen the movie at an early screening the night before (it's really good). And with that opportunity to speak directly to the filmmakers, I wanted to learn about the process of filming a movie on location with the latest in motion performance capture technology. Unlike some films that use performance capture with primarily green screened sets (think Avatar), Reeves chose to build out many of the film's locations as actual physical sets, like the massive ape village, for the actors--both for human and ape characters--to interact in. And the computer generated characters were maybe the best I've ever seen in a live action movie. At this junket, I was able to ask a few of these technical questions to Reeves, actor Andy Serkis, and the film's Visual Effects Supervisors Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon. Here's what they had to say.

    Credit: 20th Century Fox

    Tested: Matt, you've talked about how directing this movie differs from directing one without performance capture, without a lot of CG, and how that required you to shoot scenes many times over. Can you go over that process?

    Director Matt Reeves: My biggest fear, having never done this [kind of movie] before, and being such an admirer of Andy’s--specifically being affected so deeply by his performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes--was “How was that done?” I didn’t really understand [the process]. As much as I understood the technical side from the outside, I had this fear that somehow the technology would get in the way with my interaction with Andy. Because there would be this technology between us.

    So then, I looked at all the footage, and what I saw was Andy, working with the other actors, and he’s amazing. The trick to what gives Caesar such soul is that Andy has soul. So that part of it was immediately demystified. I was very happy to see that. The hard part comes after that [inital filming].

    So [first], I’m working with Andy, we’re talking through a scene, and then he does this beautiful scene with the actors. Then we’ve got that shot in reference. And then we’ve got to shoot that shot again. Sometimes, when there aren’t humans in [the scene], we have to shoot it with no one in the shot. The camera operator has to try to reproduce what he did when he was trying to follow Andy, including the sometimes surprising moves that he would make. And other times, I would have to get the humans, who had just played a very beautiful scene with Andy, to play the scene by themselves. Because those shots, were then used to put Andy, [rendered] as Caesar, into the scenes.

    So the shots where the actors have had that beautiful connection with Andy, often were not the shots that were going to be used [in the final film], so I had to let them know “Your performance is still not in the movie yet. We have to get it right now--you have to remember what Andy did. And Andy, then, would get on a microphone, and try to talk the other actors through, the beats they’d just experienced together. It was a very unusual process.

    How the Original Star Wars Comics Saved Marvel

    Back in January, Lucasfilm announced that the Star Wars comics were heading back to Marvel, after being published by Dark Horse, who had been putting out Star Wars comics series since 1991. This wasn’t a surprise because Marvel and Lucasfilm are now both under the Disney umbrella, and Star Wars comics actually debuted at Marvel way back in 1977. In a sense, it's returning home.

    Some have credited the Star Wars comics for keeping Marvel in business back in the ‘70’s, and it also became part of the film’s enormous merchandising bonanza when the saga became a blockbuster. Before all that, however, the movie--and the comic series--were a tough sell.

    Roy Thomas, the former editor in chief of Marvel, remembered first meeting George Lucas and the film’s publicist Charles Lippincott, in early 1975. “They were eager for any kind of publicity they could get,” Thomas recalls. “I don’t think there was exactly any media blitz in the works from 20th Century Fox. You’d think there would be, but it wasn’t advertised much. I don’t remember much about the conversation except they talked about it being a sequence of movies, and it was called The Star Wars, it still had the word ‘The’ attached to it.”

    Lucas and Lippincott had already approached Stan Lee about a Star Wars comic and were turned down, so they went to Thomas to see if they could get something set up. In early 1976, they came to Thomas again, armed with the Ralph McQuarrie production sketches for the movie. “They started showing me the sketches, Charlie Lippincott flipped each one over, and he told me the story. It wasn’t likely I was going to be swayed because science fiction hadn’t sold very well in comics, and Marvel hadn’t really done movie adaptations that much.”

    Still, as Lippincott told the story of Star Wars, and flipped through the illustrations, Thomas’s head started spinning. “It was the first time I was hearing names like R2-D2, C-3PO, Obi-Wan, Planet Tatooine…Then they flipped over to the drawing of the Cantina sequence, and I said ‘I’ll do it.’”

    As Thomas recalled, Stan Lee changed his mind when he learned Alec Guinness would be in the film. Marvel decided to do a six-issue adaption, and Lucas and Lippincott were hoping now-veteran artist Howard Chaykin would illustrate the comic.

    Michael McMaster Builds a Droid for Lucasfilm

    Friend of Tested (and real-life Wall-E robot builder) Michael McMaster has revealed that he's been working on a new Star Wars astromech. It's name is Chopper, and the droid is one of the key characters from the upcoming Star Wars Rebels animated series. Chopper is just the latest of McMaster's many robot projects--the veteran R2-D2 builder is currently also working on a brand new "ultimate" R2 unit, as well as an R4-P17! We have to visit his shop again to check them out!

    Engineering Alien's Original Xenomorph's Head

    H.R. Giger's recent passing has brought to light some new accounts of the film production for which he was best known, Ridley Scott's Alien. The Strange Shapes fan blog recounts the little known story about how the original headpiece for the eponymous creature was created for infamous reveal shot. Apparently, two effects teams were hired to design a mechanized head for the scene--one at Shepperton studios which had previously build the R2-D2 droids for Star Wars, and a second led by Italian effects master Carlo Rambaldi, who was then best known for designing E.T. for Spielberg. (This is the same Rambaldi who took the E.T. design job away from Rick Baker.)

    As the story goes, both teams failed to please Giger (who was famous for being difficult to collaborate with) and rushed to build their animating Xenomorph heads by the shoot date in Fall of 1978. Rambali's team won out with a complex skull made of fiberglass, metal tracks, and puppeteering cables, while the Shepperton team was given the task of mechanizing the creature's tail (which was eventually just puppeteered with external wires). There was a lot of politicking on-set between the teams, it's the kind of tension and drama that happens on every film production that behind-the-scenes fans love to hear.

    Scott wound up not using most of Rambaldi's mechanisms, opting for an extended close-up of the Xenomorph for its glamour shot. But the Alien franchise would continue to have a close relationship with practical effects artists--Stan Winston's studio created the animatronics for the sequel, and released its own effects test videos not too long ago (embedded below).

    Animating Adam Savage's Workshop

    Adam invited animator Marty Cooper to the Cave to geek out about traditional hand-drawn cel animation and Marty's creative augmented reality cartoons. Using overhead projector transparency sheets and a stop-motion app, Marty lets loose one of his creations in the shop!

    Animating AT-AT Walkers' Stop-Motion, in Time-Lapse

    From director Joe Johnston, who was the effects technician and concept artist on Star Wars: "Original Trilogy fans...here's the digitized super 8mm clip of Phil Tippett, Jon Berg and Doug Bestwick stop-motion animating a snow walker shot from The Empire Strikes Back. As I watch this for the first time in thirty-five years I am truly amazed at the amount of work that went into the creation of just one shot in this iconic sequence. I love stop motion with all it's archaic flaws and charm. This is a great example of what will hopefully not become a lost art form." Johnston's personal YouTube channel has plenty of lovely behind-the-scenes stories and time-lapses of his drawings.

    In Praise of the Mechanical Typewriter

    When was the last time you used a mechanical typewriter? With the current state of computing, there's no need at all to use one--even the computer keyboard is losing ground to touch and voice interfaces. Yet if you grew up with a typewriter, and learned to spell your name on one, you’ll be happy to learn that like vinyl, typewriters are indeed making a comeback. Even if not to be used regularly, then at least to be appreciated.

    All around the world, typewriter enthusiasts have been organizing events to celebrate the history and design of the machine. The American one has been dubbed the “Type-In,” and have been hosted in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles. Louise Marler, an L.A. artist who organized the event, tells us, “It seems like the day the news was published that the last manufacturer of typewriters was closing it doors, it was a call to action among the niche typewriter community to come to the rescue."

    Berkeley Type-In event in 2013. Photo credit: Flickr user mpclemens via Creative commons

    Says Marler, “Typewriters have been out of the market and general use just long enough for the younger generation to be intrigued by the industrial age antiques. The kids took right to it. Once the younger ones were shown by their parent how it worked, it was natural for them. They could make sense of the action and reaction, press key and see it strike page and leave mark... They really liked it, stayed, played like with any other toy. And it was a blast to see the education and joy taking place.”

    The Type-In even had famous typewriters on display that were owned by John Lennon, Orson Welles, and Ted Kaczynsky, aka The Unabomber. “The LA Times published an article about Steve Soboroff's famous authors typewriter collection,” Marler explains. “I found him on twitter and sent him a short note. He responded instantly after reading my history at TypewriterStories.com and LAMarler.com. He invited me to the Malibu Library Reopening where he was offering typing on them as fundraising for them. Mr. Soboroff is just as nice and approachable as he is rich and powerful.”

    It’s also amusing to think that for some artists, hanging on to your typewriter is a luxury. Most screenwriters have to be part of the computer age to write and turn in a script, but Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen had a faithful typewriter repairman in New York, who only retired last year. Bino Gan, the owner and operator of Typewriters ‘N Things, repaired the typewriter Coppola wrote The Godfather on, an Olivetti, as well as Woody Allen’s faithful Olympia.

    As for why typewriters have had a recent resurgence, many will tell you it’s much easier to focus on a typewriter than it is on a computer. Reuben Flores, owner of US Business Machines tells us, “The generation of the last seven years wants to slow down so they can go forward. A typewriter only allows one thing, to be creative. A typewriter can help them be more creative and be more focused. I’m seeing more college students using typewriters because computer monitors irritate them give them headaches.”

    Animatronic Android Head for Prometheus

    Disney's Imagineers may have invented the animatronic robot half a century ago, but their approaches to cinematic puppetry are now more based on CG animation and light projection than rigged mechanics. So we're fortunate that creature FX artist Gustav Hoegen carries on the animatronics tradition, designing and building amazingly life-like puppets for films such as The World's End, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Prometheus. This video from 2012 shows the test of a detached Android head--Michael Fassbender's David--and its full range of expressions and movements. It's both mesmerizing and creepy. Hoegen's showreel has more examples of his work, and here's an interview with Blender Cookie in which Hoegen details his process.

    The Craft of Foley Artist Gary Hecker

    And oldie but a goodie. "From "The Empire Strikes Back" to "Robin Hood", award-winning Foley artist Gary Hecker of Todd-AO says it takes "timing and a huge creative mind" to be the man behind the sound. Here, he shares tips and tricks he's learned during a career that has spanned more than 200 films." The side-by-side comparisons of the film action and Hecker recording the foley are the best. My favorite: the sound of a sword being unsheathed is that of a metal spatula being dramatically brushed along the edge of an old blade.

    Logan's Run: The Sci-Fi Blockbuster That Wasn't

    In the future, you can live a life of complete pleasure, but you have to die when you turn twenty-one. Not everybody’s going to go along with the program of course, and two people decide to flee for their lives. That’s the premise of the novel Logan's Run, which differs a bit from what eventually became the cult classic film. And among your Hunger Games and Divergents and Maze Runners, it's the kind of story that could make a great blockbuster for today’s audiences. In fact, Hollywood’s been trying to remake Logan’s Run for the last eighteen years, most recently with a script being penned by game designer Ken Levine. Whether or not this version gets off the ground and makes it to the theater is anyone's guess, but this is is one sci-fi story that actually deserves a second chance on screen.

    When you go back and watch the 1976 version of Logan’s Run, it really feels like a missed opportunity. The film came out the year before Star Wars, before science fiction films proved they could reach a mainstream audience. Logan’s Run definitely had big ambitions, and you get the feeling that there's a great movie hiding in between the frames of the finished reel. We chatted with the writers of the novel the film was adapted from, as well as the son of the film's director, to hear what the original vision was for the story.

    George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan wrote the first draft of Logan’s Run--the novel--back in 1965. “I came up with the idea of reversing the old cliché of ‘life begins at forty,’” Nolan says. “In my original concept, life ended at forty, which I scaled down to twenty-one in the novel. It was much more frightening to have young people just out of their teens being executed by the state.” This was, of course, a very dark idea, and there’s a strong message at the core of Logan’s Run that society could learn from, but Nolan says, “As a writer, I feel that you must never preach to your readers. The message must always be subliminal. In Logan’s Run, the message is that you can’t run a civilization with middle-aged and older people eliminated. The society collapses on itself."

    Edge of Tomorrow/All You Need Is Kill SPOILERCAST - 6/24/2014
    This week, Adam, Will, and Norm discuss the Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt film Edge of Tomorrow, which is based on the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. We talk about the differences between the book and the film adaptation, the Trinity problem in action movies, and time-travel plotholes. WARNING: Spoilers abound!
    00:00:00 / 30:38
    In Brief: In-Depth Reading of Star Trek's "Darmok"

    One of the most beloved episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is Darmok, in which Picard is trapped on a planet with the captain of an alien ship, forced to find a way to communicate with a species whose linguistics conventions are so distant from our own. It is the quintessential Star Trek episode: the conflict lies not in hostility or aggression, but in the strained cultural differences between two races who are determined to find a common understanding. Atlantic contributor (and notable game design researcher) Ian Bogost has written an epic in-depth analysis of the linguistic theory at the crux of Darmok, in which he posits that the resolution of the episode is incomplete--that depicting the alien race's language as one based on metaphor and image is semantically incorrect. "[The Federation] can’t help but interpret Tamarian through their (and our) cultural obsession with mimicry: Metaphorical language operates not by signification, but as poetry, by transforming the real in a symbolic mirror." Bogost argues that allegory and strategy may be a better way of interpreting the alien language. There's a great example of science fiction apologetics in Bogost's piece as well, addressing fan nitpickings of the episode. A must-read for TNG fans. (h/t Gary Whitta)

    Norman 5
    What Jurassic Park's Dinosaurs Would've Looked Like in Stop-Motion

    The Academy tribute to the groundbreaking effects of Jurassic Park made me recall that Phil Tippett had previously shared some of his early work for the film before the dinosaur animation switched over to computer-generated imagery. This video is one of several pre-vis animations done with stop-motion puppets to plan out the design of Jurassic Park's most iconic sequences. And while this rough stop-motion animation isn't as fluid as the eventual scene (which combined CG with Stan Winston's life-size puppets), there's a distinct sense of craftsmanship that you get from watching stop-motion--you can appreciate how an animator adjusted the raptors' movements and body language in every frame. Tippett also uploaded the stop-motion test for the T-Rex Jeep Attack sequence here.