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    In Brief: Dayton Allen's Custom Alien Figures

    One of my favorite magazines growing up was Wizard's ToyFare, which in addition to reporting on new action figure releases, showcased the custom toy modifications and builds and sculptors who made their own figures. These makers could take a Punisher figure, for example, and swap out its head and paint job to make it a kick-ass Bullseye figures. Custom figure sculpts have come a long way since then, and the quality of figures like the ones made by artist Dayton Allen are just as good (if not better) than the sculpts done by toy companies. The Verge has a fun report on a project that Allen started in 2011, custom sculpting the entire cast of Ridley Scott's Alien--in addition to building out the Nostromo bridge and corridor sets for those 4-inch figures. Allen's Flickr gallery of his work in progress is awesome. Bookmark it! And if want to get your hands on your own Alien figure without making a custom sculpt, the NECA series of Nostromo spacesuit figures just went on sale last week!

    In Brief: Know Your Star Wars Action Figure Variants

    Even though I was too young to buy the original Kenner Star Wars action figures, I can appreciate the fervor and fandom around collecting these iconic toys. So many Star Wars fans who grew up in the 70s have stories memories about their first or favorite Kenner figures, or the coveted ones they were never allowed to buy. My visit to Steve Sansweet's Rancho Obi-Wan almost two years ago now was the first time I was exposed to the world of Kenner rarities--the variants of figures most sought after by collectors. StarWars.com just published an in-depth examination of these vintage toys--a really fun read for toy collectors. I also want to recommend this Steve Sansweet book that catalogs every Star Wars action figure ever produced (so far), and call out this hourlong documentary about the history of these Kenner figures. Vimeo just picked it up to distribute online.

    Adam Savage's One Day Builds: Barbarella's Space Rifle

    It's time for another One Day Build! You know the drill: Adam tackles a project at his shop from start to finish, explaining his build process along the way. Today's build is a replica of Jane Fonda's iconic Barbarella rifle. The challenge: this iconic sci-fi prop only appeared once, on the cover of a 1968 issue of LIFE Magazine. That's not a lot of reference material to work with!

    My 12 Favorite Coffee Table Books of 2014

    One of my very favorite things to buy, read, and collect are coffee table books. I'm just a sucker for them. These large format tomes--some surpass 500 pages--are like gorgeous picture books for adults. Their size and scale make them ideal to showcase illustration, photography, and layouts. And as someone with a print magazine background and a strong affinity print design, a well laid out spread in a large coffee table book is deeply satisfying.

    I also have a few rules for coffee table books. First, I'm not a big fan of the behind-the-scenes art books that coincide with new film releases. They may indeed have hundreds of production photos and storyboards I'd love to see, but the text accompanying those images is lacking in depth. Those kinds of art books are too often cash grabs timed to capitalize on public mindshare, and put together hastily without enough insight or distance from the production. It's a fine line between the celebration of a subject and promoting it as marketing. Instead of grabbing The Art of Captain America: The Winter Soldier this year, I'll wait for the collected retrospective of Marvel Phase II films that's bound to be written a decade from now.

    My second rule with coffee table books is that I have to actually read them. They live on my coffee table until I've gone through them before being shelved. The bookcase is a hibernation chamber for books, and I like keeping an active roster of books to shuffle through on any given evening.

    So without further ado, here are a dozen of my favorite coffee table books I bought this year. Not all of them were released in 2014, but these are the ones I stumbled on in bookstores, reviews, museum exhibits, and from recommendations. They're a reflection of my journeys and wandering interests, which may intersect with your own. I'd also love to hear what coffee table books you love and have discovered.

    In Brief: Dolby's Answer to IMAX

    The Hollywood Reporter has details about Dolby's vision for a large format theater system to rival IMAX and other premium theater experiences. Simply called Dolby Cinema, it's a combination of Dolby's Atmos Sound system and its in-development Dolby Vision image standard. The latter is a post-production process that hopes to retain the color and contrast of a filmed scene (some people are calling it HDR for film) by widening the color gamut pipeline. Dolby Vision produced films would be projected on dual 4K laser projectors, and Dolby is investing in the format by paying for the projectors and hoping that theater chains will get on board with screen renovations. To pay for all of this, ticket prices for Dolby Cinema showings are expected to start at $18.

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    Colin Cantwell's Pre-Production Work on Star Wars

    Most Star War fans know the name Ralph McQuarrie, the concept artist who laid the foundation for the look of the original trilogy. And some people even know the names of the more celebrated ILM modelmakers, like Lorne Peterson and Don Bies, whose teams at the ILM miniatures shop fabricated the actual shooting models for the films. But not many people know the name Colin Cantwell, even though they might be familiar with his work. Cantwell was a modelmaker at ILM, who was actually the first to prototype Star Wars' iconic vehicles from McQuarries' paintings. His prop model prototypes of the Death Star, TIE Fighter, X-Wing, and numerous other ships are like the missing links between McQuarrie and what we saw on screen.

    Image credit: Colin Cantwell

    Jason DeBord, who runs the Original Prop Blog, had the privileged of sitting down with Mr. Cantwell for an extended interview about his work in special effects, which ranges from design on 2001: A Space Odyssey to conceptualizing the look of the NORAD command room set for WarGames. The eight-part interview is on YouTube (and embedded below), and DeBord's post about his visit features some fantastic artifacts from the production of Star Wars. Not only do we get to see some of Cantwell's original sketches and art for Star Wars for the first time, but also production illustrations for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Close Encounter of the Third Kind, and WarGames. Cantwell has also put up his collection for sale, with an auction just started this morning. You can read more about his collection on the auction site, as well as see what pieces are available.

    The Make-Up and Production Design of Planet of the Apes

    It’s not easy to make a world full of apes. In recent years, it hasn’t been cheap either. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes series reboot cost close to a hundred million, and this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cost a reported $170 million. So it’s remarkable to realize that the original Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, cost only $5.8 million, which even in those days wasn’t that expensive. With the franchise successfully reinventing itself in modern day, the original still holds up well after all this time, a genre classic that meant so much to fans growing up, and a film that helped create a generation of make-up talent. “Planet of the Apes is one of the most important make-up movies ever,” says Rick Baker, the make-up FX master of An American Werewolf in London and Men in Black fame. “It inspired a whole generation of kids to become make-up artists.”

    A great movie has to have a great team behind it, especially if you want audiences to take a film with talking monkeys seriously. Richard Zanuck, who was then the head of 20th Century Fox, was captivated with the screenplay for Apes, but he knew it was crucial that audiences found it believable, or the movie would be a laughing stock, so he brought in director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon), and cinematographer Leon Shamroy (The King and I).

    Charlton Heston had a good working relationship with Schaffner, and was eager to come aboard the Ape train, but before the project landed at Fox, it was turned down everywhere. Linda Harrison, who played Nova in the film, recalled, “Nobody wanted it, but Dick Zanuck really believed in it.” In the AMC documentary on the Apes series, Heston recalled the reaction was, “Spaceships? Talking monkeys? You’re out of your mind, that’s Saturday morning serials, get out of here.”

    Enter make-up artist John Chambers, who was recently celebrated in Argo. As recalled in the book Planet of the Apes Revisited, Chambers built his make-up talent during his time in the Army, creating prosthetics for wounded soldiers that replaced noses, arms, legs, chins and more. He went into television in the early fifties, then branched into movies in the sixties. Whether Fox would give the green light to Apes depended on a screen test with Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Linda Harrison, and James Brolin. The make-ups Chambers created for the test were still crude, but it gave the studio a fair idea of how the movie, and the make-up, would turn out, and they finally gave it the go ahead.

    Until the unprecedented success of Star Wars, the major studios didn’t take science fiction seriously, but that wasn’t the main reason the budget for Planet of the Apes was low. As Harrison recalls, “They had to go under the radar. The board of directors at Fox wouldn’t greenlight the movie if it was over six million, so they had to come in under six million so they wouldn’t have to deal with the board.” Production designer William Creber was up for the challenge. “I had done a lot of Irwin Allen’s TV shows,” he says. “It was fun, it was challenging, and we had to do it for a price.”

    In Brief: Examining the Typography of Alien

    There are a few blogs I follow that don't get updated frequently, but when they do, the wait is worth it. Writer Dave Addey's blog Typeset in the Future, which I first shared with you guys back in February, is one such site. Addey scrutinizes in-depth the use of typography in science fiction film, with 2001 and Moon being his first two explorations. His newest post tackles the design in Ridley Scott's Alien. In addition to calling out the typefaces used in various scenes (Futura! Helvetica! Pump Demi!) Addey digs deep into the origins of more obscure elements, like the type labels used in the Nostromo's emergency self destruct keyboard--now that would be a cool prop to replicate. There are many shout outs to Moon in this post as well, so it's well worth relinking back to Moon production designer Gavin Rothery's amazing behind the scenes blog for that film. If you recall, we chatted with Rothery in our story on Cold War-era Sci-Fi propaganda art.

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    Remembering the Wonders in Famous Monsters Magazine

    In the world of science fiction, fantasy and horror fandom, one man's enthusiasm for genre film was arguably stronger than anyone else's. With the founding of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Forrest J. Ackerman created a must-read genre guide that inspired generations of fans. The magazine, and the enormous collection of memorabilia Ackerman accumulated throughout the years, proved to be a true testament to his love of fantastic film and literature.

    In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King sang the praises of Famous Monsters: “I didn’t just read my first issue of Famous Monsters,” King wrote. “I inhaled it…I poured over it…I damn near memorized that magazine and it seemed eons until the next one...Ask anyone who has been associated with the fantasy- horror –science fiction genres in the last thirty years about this magazine and you’ll get a laugh, a flash of the eyes, and a stream of bright memories – I practically guarantee it.”

    King wasn’t kidding. Just a few of the fans who grew up loving Famous Monsters include Rick Baker, Frank Darabont, John Landis, Kirk Hammett from Metallica, Peter Jackson, Joe Dante, and countless others. In Ackerman's massive movie poster collection, there was a one sheet for Close Encounters autographed in silver marker by Steven Spielberg: “A generation of fantasy lovers thank you for raising us so well.” Guillermo Del Toro also recently told the New Yorker that he discovered Famous Monsters in the magazine section of the Supermarket, and he was determined to learn English so he could read it.

    Ackerman (or Forry, as he was known) had been a collector of movie memorabilia since 1926. When he was in his twenties, he would write to Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal, for movie stills from their classic horror films, and would travel by streetcar to pick up them up. (He eventually accumulated 125,000 stills). His collection included every issue of the old sci-fi pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, which he bought when they were new. He owned a copy of Frankenstein that was autographed by Mary Shelley when she was 19. He also had the creature from the black lagoon costume a janitor at Universal took home for his kid to wear on Halloween. Not to mention Bela Lugosi’s cape, the model pterodactyl the original King Kong battled, one of the model Martian ships from the original War of the Worlds, and much, much more.

    Forry’s collection never stopped growing, and like a malevolent 50’s science fiction monster, it ended up consuming his house, a four story, eighteen-room mansion in the hills of Los Feliz, which he dubbed the “Ackermansion.” According to one report, the house became so overcrowded with memorabilia that Ackerman and his wife had to park on the streets because their garage was too full.

    The Ackermansion was open for tours every weekend, and making the pilgrimage to Forry’s home was a badge of honor for any true monster fan. Its been estimated that over 50,000 people came to visit when he lived there, and when you arrived, he would greet you through the intercom: “Who dares disturb the tomb of the vampire?” And yes, Ackerman was also the co-creator of Vampirella.

    Ackerman also coined the term “sci-fi” and he told GQ Magazine that he would say “science fiction” every night before he goes to sleep because if he died before he awoke, he wanted “science fiction” to be his last words. Who better to write the definitive magazine on monsters?

    In Brief: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes

    I'm in a bit of a Kubrick kick lately. After visiting the Kubrick touring exhibit last year, I picked up several books related to the show--the companion book from the original Berlin exhibition, a book about artist Ken Adams' set designs for Kubrick's films, and most recently, Taschen publishing's massive tome celebrating and studying Kubrick's films. (So bummed I missed out on Taschen's $1,000 2001: A Space Odyssey book). A friend referred me to this 2004 article published in the Guardian about Kubrick's legendary personal archive of research and reference material stored in his Childwick estate, offering just a glimpse into the director's organizational obsessions. The story is republished at Cinephilia & Beyond, a website that I can't believe I've only heard about recently--you could spend hours here poring over essays about all aspects of filmmaking. Also embedded below is a 45 minute short documentary on Kubrick's archives.

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    Pixar Explains the Math Behind Smooth Character Rendering

    Ready to give your brain a little workout? See if you can follow along in this Numberphile video as Tony DeRose of Pixar Research explains some of the mathematics behind the rendering and animation of characters in modern CG films. It went over my head at around the five-minute mark, but the gist is that the use of certain math principles and algorithms let rendering programs subdivide vertices in geometry for smooth curves and surfaces. Computer scientists know this as the Catmull-Clark algorithm.

    In Brief: Photo Gallery of Ray Harryhausen at Work

    io9 has a lovely gallery of photos showing stop-motion effects pioneer and legend Ray Harryhausen at work on some of the films he's best known for: Mighty Joe Young, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen, who passed away last year, inspired a generation of effects artist and animators, including still-active legends like Phil Tippet. The gallery is accompanied by a few video clips of the finished animation sequences, some behind-the-scenes interviews, and a great time-lapse GIF of a veteran Harryhausen revisiting an iconic skeleton puppet from Jason and the Argonauts for a stop-motion demo.

    The Terminator and the Legacy of Stan Winston's Designs

    With photos and story details of the upcoming Terminator reboot coming to light, we wanted to take a look back at the original film and examine how and why it still holds up after all these years. Like a lot of movies that became cultural touchstones and phenomenons, The Terminator was under-estimated, dismissed by Orion Pictures as a low budget drive-in film that would come and go in a week. Yet The Terminator became a major sleeper that connected with audiences in a big way. It was the top movie at the box office for six weeks, but beyond its commercial success it also made Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, and Stan Winston superstars in their respective professions.

    At a screening celebrating The Terminator’s third decade, Cameron said the movie is still remembered because “I think it’s just a lean, mean thriller that works.” But there’s clearly more to it that than. In celebrating The Terminator, we spoke to John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan of Legacy Effects, who both broke into the big leagues by working with Stan Winston, and who helped build the indestructible killer, and the seemingly indestructible franchise, from the ground up.

    It was thanks to the kindness of make-up master Dick Smith that Stan Winston got The Terminator gig. Smith, who many considered the greatest living make-up artist, was well-known for the magic he did for The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Amadeus, just to name a few, but his career was winding down, and The Terminator was clearly going to be a big job.

    Cameron wanted Smith, but Smith kept telling the young director that Stan Winston was the man for the job. Winston had been steadily working for years, he did a lot of TV and low budget B-movies, and had already won two Emmys, but The Terminator would prove to be the big breakthrough that made him one of the most in demand creature builders in the business. (Cameron and Winston would also form a strong personal and professional bond that would continue until Winston passed away in 2008.)