Latest StoriesMovies
    The Low-Budget Movie Gimmicks of Cinema Past

    With so many people watching movies at home with Blu-ray or through streaming services, Hollywood has been desperate to bring people back to theaters. This is why we’ve had the big 3D revival. With the success of films like Gravity, IMAX has also been a hot ticket. And overseas, 4D cinema has been very successful as well.

    4D is a cinema technology that can encompass many different experiences, and one that used to be most associated with the gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. In Asia, there are theaters that pump scents into the theater, providing the audience with the extra "dimension" of smell. There has been some effort to try and have theaters like this in the States, and Robert Rodriguez tried a similar version with scratch-and-sniff cards, unsuccessfully, for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. (Perhaps he shouldn’t have made a soiled diaper one of the scents.)

    As silly as this gimmick may sound, when you look back in cinema history, it was something that was attempted way back in 1960. In fact, there have been many gimmicks that tried to give audiences much more than a regular movie could provide, often with a much smaller budget and less resources than the major studios had to play with.

    As we’ve previously reported, the first 3D feature film, Bwana Devil, was an attempt to get people into theaters again, because a brand new technological innovation, television, was keeping a lot of people at home. In fact, the ads for Bwana Devil promised you would be seeing something “Newer than television!”

    And even in the case of 3D, it was a cheaper technology because it was trying to give audiences something spectacular that was much less expensive than Cinerama widescreen, which required major reworking of theaters to support. With other gimmicks that followed, a lot of filmmakers have tried to bring audiences into theaters for cut-rate prices, and many of these innovations are amusing to look back on today. Here are some of my favorites.

    The Zoidberg Project, Part 10: Mold Finishing and Foam Latex

    The primary mold for the Zoidberg sculpture is complete, but there are still a few things to do to make this mold functional for casting masks. The first thing I need to do is to drill the bolt holes and add T-nuts to the flange of the mold (the flat parts around the outside that connect the two halves together). Because of the rigidity of the flange, I don't need to put a gajillion bolts in it to keep the mold stable. I start by drilling in a few typical places: near the bottom at the end of the flange, in the middle (corner of the neck) and up at the top of the head (one on either side of the large registration key).

    When I'm placing my bolt holes, I need to pay attention to how close/far away from the sculpture they are. I like getting them as close to the sculpture as possible to keep the mold tight, but keeping in mind the outside of the mold--meaning that if I put the hole too close to the sculpture, I won't be able to get a bolt through the flange. This usually ends up being about an inch or inch and a half from the sculpture. Sometimes, my process leaves a bunch of extra land on the flange, but I like having that extra land for when I'm prying the molds open. If the flange is too short, you can barely get a pry bar or screwdriver in between them to get any leverage for prying. It's all about finding happy mediums.

    To make the mold easier to open and close, I love using T-Nuts. These are little nuts with a flat flange and teeth on them. This makes it so I can glass them onto the outside of the mold and then they won't spin. Since I don't have to fumble with the nuts when bolting and un-bolting the mold, I have the t-nuts permanently attached on the back side. To do this, first I brush a little wax onto the bolt (just to ease the removal) and tighten the T-nut onto it. I cut small squares of the glass cloth and mix up a small amount of freefrom air dough. By spreading the weave a tiny bit in the center of the square, I can push it over the T-nut and laminate it onto the flange with a little Epoxamite 102. Then I'll take a tiny bit of dough and put it around the T-nut and laminate one more square of glass to sandwich it all together. Once this is set up, I'll trim any glass that might be hanging over the edge, and back the bolts out and sand off any glass or resin that is still sticking up where the bolt used to be.

    Inside Adam Savage's Cave: Gladiator Armor

    Adam geeks out over some new costume armor he just received: a movie-quality replica of Russell Crowe's costume from his final fight in the movie Gladiator. The convention-ready costume was fabricated by Todd Coyle, who also made Adam's Indiana Jones jacket that he's worn on Mythbusters.

    Star Wars Featurette: The Birth of the Lightsaber

    "Star Wars creator George Lucas, actor Mark Hamill, and sound designer Ben Burtt discuss the concept and creation of the lightsaber. George Lucas recalls that Star Wars was influenced by pirate and swashbuckling films of the '40s, which showcased the romantic side of fighting, illustrated in characters like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. With Jedi, who were heroes in this tradition, the director needed a weapon that would match their ideals."

    The Motion Picture Camera: Past, Present and Future

    For the past two months, I've been slowly making my way through The Story of Film, an epic 15-part documentary about the history and state of global cinema. It's at parts an academic study, a history lesson, and also a sincere love letter to the art of film-making. (And also on Netflix!) This montage video makes a lovely companion piece for the documentary series, combining iconic shots from the breath of cinema with images of the filmmakers and equipment that made them. It was edited for the Society of Camera Operators' 2014 Lifetime Achievement Awards. (And makes deft use of John Murphy's score from the Danny Boyle film Sunshine!)

    The 3D Godzilla Movie That Almost Was

    The next big remake of Godzilla is just around the corner, and the buzz from the trailer is pretty good so far. Many fans, myself included, are hoping that this is the Godzilla remake will finally get it right. Many of the right elements are there: nuclear testing, the monster towering over and knocking down skyscrapers (instead of weaving between them), and even hints at other monsters like Rodan. Things that the 1998 film never got. Another difference is that this will be a Godzilla movie released in 3D. But if the news of an American incarnation of Godzilla in 3D sounds familiar to you for some reason, you might recall that back in 1983 there was an attempt to make a big U.S. version of the big G in 3D that was in development for several years before it finally fell apart.

    Reports of a 3D Godzilla first started gaining traction in the summer of ’83 when 3D was making a minor comeback. That summer had a big influx of movies in the format, such as Jaws 3D, and Friday the 13th Part 3D, which at the time was the highest grossing 3D movie in history. In fact, the director of the third Friday, Steve Miner, was also going to helm the 3D Godzilla film as well.

    Sculptor Shawn Nagle's diorama using William Stout's Godzilla designs.

    As Miner told writer Steve Ryfle, “I had always been a fan of Godzilla since I was a kid. Once seeing it as an adult, I realized that this could be remade as a good movie. I had just done Friday the 13th in 3D, and wanted to do a good movie in 3D.” The screenplay for this version of Godzilla was written by Fred Dekker, who also directed The Monster Squad and RoboCop 3. Dekker was honored to get the assignment, it was his first big Hollywood job, but he wasn’t a huge Godzilla fan, and wanted to elevate the monster genre to a higher level. For everyone involved, the whole idea was to treat this movie seriously, and make it on a big, Spielberg blockbuster level instead of lowballing it.

    Artist William Stout, who was a production designer on Conan the Barbarian and who also designed the poster for Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, did extensive storyboards for Miner’s Godzilla, and he’s very proud of his work on it to this day. (Stout calls this incarnation of Godzilla “the greatest film project that never happened.”)

    William Stout's concept art for the proposed 1983 Godzilla 3D.

    Miner wanted a lot of “presentation art” for Godzilla, so the studios could get a good idea of what the finished movie would look like. (A great deal of “presentation art” had to be created for Fox to understand Star Wars.) Stout was very impressed with the screenplay he was helping bring to life, telling us, “We were working from a great script, I think Fred Dekker really outdid himself with it.”

    Photo Gallery: Star Wars Prop and Costume Exhibition

    Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination is a traveling exhibition organized by Boston's Museum of Science and Lucasfilm. It opened in 2005, and houses props and costumes from all of the Star Wars films, but also emphasizes new areas of research in science and technology as seen through the lens of Star Wars. The exhibit has been traveling around the world since 2006, and made its final stop at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose last October, finishing a 20-venue tour this past weekend. I took a bunch of photos during my visit, which I wanted to share with you guys.

    Star Wars and the Explosion of Dolby Stereo

    When Star Wars came out on May 25, 1977, the cinema experience was changed forever. While some critics feel that Star Wars changed movies for worse by contributing to the modern blockbuster syndrome, there’s no doubt that for technology and special effects Star Wars was a huge leap forward. In particular, the way Star Wars cemented Dolby Stereo’s dominance in sound transformed the way we would listen to movies in theaters and at home.

    Sean Durkin, the director of corporate communications at Dolby, gives us a sense of what it was like before that day. “When you think about the ‘70’s, it represents a new era for film. When people think of Star Wars, they think of really iconic moments, and one of them is early in the of the film with the massive imperial destroyer chasing the rebel ship. That was the first Dolby experience for a lot of people. It gave people a different way to think about sound in a movie, and filmmakers and sound designers now had the ability to deliver these big experiences.”

    Image credit: SFgate.com

    As legendary sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) said in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Star Wars was the can opener than made people realize not only the effect of sound, but the effect that good sound had at the box office. Theaters that had never played stereo were forced to do it if they wanted Star Wars.” The executives at Dolby said, “We need our own Jaws” to make Dolby a force to be reckoned with, and it turned out to be Star Wars because it took a movie that big to push the technology through, and finally make it stick.

    Bay Area filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were always fascinated with the possibilities of sound. Coppola worked closely on his films with Murch, and Lucas’s sound wizard was Ben Burtt, who created R2-D2’s beeps, Darth Vader’s heavy breathing, the hum of the light sabers, and more.

    Stephen Katz began working at Dolby in 1974, and he was also a sound consultant on Star Wars. He remembered the day Ioan Allen called, telling him to come up to San Francisco to meet with a producer and director who were interested in using Dolby in their movie. Katz flew up and met George Lucas and Gary Kurtz, who said they initially wanted to use Sensurround in Star Wars, a short-lived gimmick that was used in Earthquake and several other films.

    Superman with a GoPro (Phantom Drone Footage)

    CorridorDigital put a GoPro on a DJI Phantom drone and composited the footage with green screen effects to make it look as if Superman was wearing a GoPro, flying around Southern California. The result is pretty breathtaking, largely due to the smooth transitions and deft drone piloting from DroneFly's Taylor Chien. (We previously interviewed Chien about the DJI Phantom 2 at this year's CES.) You can watch the behind-the-scenes video here.

    In Brief: The Cinematography of The LEGO Movie

    If you've seen the LEGO Movie, you'd believe it when I say that it's a marvelous technical achievement. It's one of the first [nearly-all] CGI movies that approaches photorealism--the animation looks convincingly like actual stop-motion, photographed in the real world. Just ask our pal Jeremy Williams. The movie's 3D artists have talked about using microscopes to photograph and scan the texture detail of minifigs and other LEGO pieces, and the lighting gives the characters an almost hyper-real quality. Craig Welsh, a cinematographer and the Lighting Supervisor on the film, wrote this blog post about the research he and his team at Animal Logic conducted to explore how LEGO pieces look under different lighting conditions and the "virtual lenses" of CG renderers. I love that they looked to macro LEGO photography for atmospheric references, as well as their use of fingerprints and floating motes of dust to give the minifigs a sense of scale. (h/t Brandon Blizard)

    Norman 1
    Game of Thrones: The Exhibition at SXSW 2014

    In between filming each season of Game of Thrones, the beautiful props and costumes are put on tour in a traveling exhibition, open to the public. The exhibit is making its way across the globe, and stopped for a weekend in Austin to coincide with last week's SXSW conference and festival. We waited in line with other fans to get a close look at costume designer Michele Carragher's stunning embroidery and "dragonscale" work, seen on dresses worn by the characters of Cersei, Daenerys, and Sansa. I took a bunch of photos using my pocketable Sony A7 full-frame camera, which worked great in the low-light conditions of the costume gallery.

    The 2014 CinemaTech Awards: Our Favorite Sci/Tech Movies

    With a little guidance by Adam Savage, the second annual PopMech CinemaTech Awards hands out some hardware that really matters—including best alternate universe, coolest vehicles, and best explosion. Can Pacific Rim, Iron Man 3, or Europa Report stop the geek juggernaut Gravity?

    Sci-Tech Movie of the Year: Gravity

    Was there another choice? Alfonso Cuarón's story of two astronauts' incredible battle for survival 220 miles above Earth is intense, fresh, and so groundbreaking in its storytelling that it's hard to think of another effects-heavy film with such impact. It's a simple story perfectly told; the drama is never overshadowed by the stunning effects. Cuarón has reset the bar for what's possible with digital environments and 3D, all while keeping his actors' mesmerizing performances front and center. It's an astonishing achievement.

    How The Criterion Collection Restores Classic Films

    Missed this wonderful Gizmodo-produced short film from last month about the roles and responsibilities of Criterion Collection technicians, who painstakingly scan, color correct, and restore classic films for release on Blu-Ray. There are a few neat insights in the clip, such as the time it takes to scan a film reel in 4K resolution, and how subjective image correction is conducted based on studies of directors and cinematographers' bodies of work.

    Why The E.T Video Game Was Made at All

    Last December, Xbox Entertainment Studios announced that it would be producing a series of documentaries about the rise of digital entertainment. The first installment will be about E.T. the game, and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) is directing it. Wait a second…the Atari E.T. game? One of the biggest disasters in gaming history? Yep, and it’s actually a fascinating way to launch this series.

    It would be much easier to make a documentary about a huge success in the gaming world. How about like how Tetris launched an industry? But success is very easy to take for granted. You can learn a lot more from failure, and it’s often way more interesting to dissect a flop in a post-mortem kind of way. The failure of the E.T. game is especially perplexing in that Atari just had its biggest year, and E.T. was at that point the highest grossing film of all time. How could something like this be on the biggest losers in video game history?

    In 1981, Atari was riding high. The company had come a long way from the humble origins of Pong, and the company was growing by leaps and bounds. Atari was founded under its original name, Syzygy, by Nolan Bushnell in 1972. Their first games, Pong and Tank, were hits, and the company was doing well with sales in excess of $39 million in 1976.

    It wasn't long before Atari was bought out by Warner Communications, but the first couple of years under the Warner umbrella Atari wasn’t making money. Once Bushnell was replaced by Raymond Kassar in 1978, the company finally took off. In 1979, Atari earned a profit of $6 million dollars, then the company scored nearly $70 million in profit a year later. Then in 1981, they hit a billion dollars in sales, with a profit of $300 million. As business reporter Connie Bruck wrote, “There had probably not been another company in the history of American business that grew as large, as fast, as Atari.”

    Yet many will tell you that when a company explodes this fast, it makes investors nervous because it means they can go downhill just as fast. One person who knew Atari wouldn’t be a phenomenon forever was the late Warner chairman Steve Ross. Ross was one of the few naysayers who proclaimed that this kind of success wasn’t going to last, and many didn’t believe him.

    An Argument Against Binge Watching TV

    Last night, my wife and I watched the fifth episode of True Detective, which means that we’re officially caught up with the show, if only for a few days. This is something of an accomplishment for me, as it’s the first time I’ve been caught up on a scripted TV show since I stopped watching 24, midway through the fourth season.

    That’s right. Since then, I’ve been “behind” on pretty much every show I’ve dedicated myself to watching. Now, the modern answer to that “problem” is binge watching. Binge watching, the act of consuming entire seasons of television shows in days or weeks instead of months or years, is the fast and trendy way to catch up on serialized dramas that make up most of the best TV shows today.

    Photo courtesy of Flickr user martinhoward

    I don’t like binge watching TV. By condensing the post-viewing refractory period of a TV show from seven days down to the time it takes to make a snack, I diminish my ability to absorb each episode. In The Talking Room, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said the best thing TV has going for it is that you have a hundred hours to develop characters, learn their nuances, and tell their stories. I say if you blast through those episodes too quickly, you won’t have time to appreciate that effort.

    In the days after I watched the fourth episode of True Detective, I re-watched the final six minutes at least four or five times. The first time I watched to ensure I hadn’t missed any plot points or dialog. The second time I watched the actors, to see how they handled such a long, elaborate scene. The third time I watched the camera movements and the location, to figure out the mechanics of the shoot. The fourth time I just watched the scene again, marveling at all the pieces that had to come together perfectly during what had to be a challenging location shoot. And for the fifth viewing? I watched it one more time after I’d read a couple of articles explaining how they accomplished the whole thing and why it worked. That step over the fence still blows my mind.

    For a handful of days, I spent considerable time thinking about one incredible moment of television. I watched that episode the day after the next episode aired. I could have literally rolled straight into it, traveling back into Louisiana and letting the plot wash over me. But if I had, I likely would have been too obsessed trying to figure out the secret of the Yellow King to consider the accomplishment that was the previous episode.

    When I encounter something that is as carefully constructed as True Detective is, whether it's a TV show, a book, a videogame, or a movie, I like to take my time with it. The way I see it, you only get to experience that work for the first time once. To me, each episode of a show like True Detective is something to be cherished. Each episode deserves time to live in my head. To do less is not only a disservice to myself, it feels disrespectful to the show's creators--they put thousands of man hours into making one hour of television. Blasting through the episodes simply to see what happens at the end just feels wrong to me.

    If I was going to make a bad analogy now, I'd say that binge watching is like putting a drive-through window in an art museum. Sure the window would allow more patrons to appreciate the art in a quick, convenient context, without the opportunity to internalize the experience. Lucky for you, I'm going to skip the analogy and just tell you about the time I ruined Lost by binge watching it instead.

    A Tribute to the 1966 Batman TV Series

    This January, the news broke, via Twitter, that one of the longest superhero rights debacles had finally been untangled. The sixties Batman TV series was finally cleared to arrive to DVD and Blu-Ray, and it should be available to purchase some time later this year. (And likely to appear on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Streaming.) Conan O’Brien actually broke the news with an enthusiastic tweet. And if you’ve ever wondered why the show has never been released on home video, let alone on DVD or Blu-Ray already, it was due to a big rights dispute between Fox, who own the show, and Warner Brothers, who own the character.

    Image credit: DC Comics

    For people of Conan’s generation, and for many of us who grew up watching this show in syndicated reruns, this is indeed great news. The 1966 show, as campy as it was, is one of those touchstones for a certain generation of geek. That includes director J.J. Abrams, who told Vanity Fair when he was a kid, “I was just out of my f*cking mind over Batman. I remember my first day of kindergarten and crying because I was so sad I was going to miss Batman.”

    Yet when a lot of younger fans watch this Batman TV show today, they don’t get it at all, because a lot of people don’t watch things in the context of the culture in which it was created. Today’s young audiences are more familiar with Christopher Nolan's darker interpretation of the character, a serious tone that topped even the Burton take on Batman in the late 80s and early 90s. (Adam West reportedly likes to joke that he was “The Bright Knight” instead of the dark one.) The show, which only lasted on television for three years, was done with a much more campy approach, and the "serious" comics fans didn’t like it even then. But the Batman series was such a touchstone for so many of us growing up, and it was the gateway for many of us to become life-long bat-fans.

    Its origins are stuff of legend as well. The series was in the works since the early sixties. It was first envisioned as a weekend show for kids, like the George Reeves Superman, and The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore. The story went that the serial version of Batman from the forties was being shown at the Playboy Club in Chicago, and an ABC executive who saw them at Hefner’s hideaway thought the character could make a good modern series.

    Iron Man 3 Scanline VFX Breakdown Reel

    One of the best sources of behind-the-scenes footage is the wealth of visual effects reels that effects houses release after their work on a film. This one by Scanline VFX for Iron Man 3 caught my eye. Another recent one of note is this breakdown of effects for HBO's Game of Thrones. These reels not only call attention to the advancements in CGI to transform what's shot on film, but also the tremendous amount of artistic talent and work that goes into visual post-production. There's a crisis going on in the visual effects business these days, with effects houses shutting down even after high-profile projects and critical success. This upcoming short documentary about the bankruptcy of VFX house Rhythm and Hues is an examination of these tragic times and existing business practices that have brought us here.