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    The Enduring Story of Matte Painting in Film

    Editor's note: This story by Cinefex's Graham Edwards is part of the 'VFX ABC' series exploring the lexicon of special effects. It's republished here with permission. In the VFX ABC, the letter "M" stands for "Matte Painting".

    Take any film aficionado's top ten list of favorite movie tricks, and the chances are you'll find the venerable art of matte painting near the top. But what actually is matte painting, and what makes it so special?

    To put it in a nutshell, a matte painting is a piece of artwork used to fill in part of a scene that can't otherwise be photographed. Take a cathedral interior, for example. Assuming you can't find a real cathedral to shoot in, do you really want to shell out half your precious budget on constructing that mile-high vaulted ceiling? Wouldn't you prefer to build your set up to a convenient height of, say, ten feet, then use a painting to patch in the rest?

    Or, let's say you want to photograph Count Dracula's castle perched precipitously on top of a mountain. Are you prepared to ship a construction crew all the way out to the Bavarian Alps? Are you ready to face a mob of locals with torches and pitchforks protesting about how you're defacing the landscape? Doesn't it make more sense to photograph a suitably rugged portion of rocky terrain, then hire a skilled artist to paint in the vampire's looming lair?

    In short, isn't the most straightforward solution to use a matte painting? Of course it is.

    Unfortunately, matte painting isn't quite as simple as that…

    In Brief: John Lasseter on the Role of Technology in Storytelling

    On Medium, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has recently been posting transcripts of speeches given at its events, such as tributes to filmmakers from directors Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. The latest is a wonderful speech by Pixar's John Lasseter, given at "The New Audience" panel discussion in May. It's about his approach to storytelling, and the relationship filmmakers and audiences have with technology. Well worth the 10-minute read, or you can watch the video of Lasseter's talk, embedded below:

    Building a District 9 Alien Rifle Replica, Part 2

    Over the course of this month, Punished Props' Bill Doran is building a 1:1 scale replica of the alien assault rifle from District 9 to unveil with us at Comic-Con. Bill's build logs and videos will walk through his design and fabrication process, and his finished piece will be paired with a surprise at SDCC. Place your questions for Bill in the comments below!

    Welcome to the second installment of the District 9 rifle prop build! The project is moving along at a good pace and I've made a lot of progress. While the main body of the gun was made mostly in flat layers, there are a bunch of cylindrical pieces and it would be a pain to build them from flat sheets of material. Instead, I opted to bust out my lathe.

    Working with Foam

    For these pieces, I used a urethane tooling foam called RenShape. It comes in several densities. I ended up using the most dense foam I had. This stuff is so dense that you would think it's made of rock.

    I was also made aware by my pal Harrison Krix that sometimes this kind of foam could cause curing inhibition in platinum cure silicones, so I performed a simple test. I took a small sample of each of the four densities I had on hand and dumped silicone over them all. Sure enough, the two least dense foams caused some inhibition, while the two most dense ones did not. Hence the decision to use the most dense stuff!

    Chris Walas' Makeup Effects for 'The Fly'

    We recently profiled the work of Chris Walas, who created the incredible animatronic creatures for Gremlins. Walas other memorable works include effects on films like Enemy Mine and David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. His make-up effects for The Fly were wonderfully sick, and with Walas's help, Cronenberg gave us a sci-fi horror film that blew away the original. We were fortunate enough to get Walas to talk about that project.

    Walas had a hell of a learning curve on Gremlins. In the days of practical effects, effects artists had to reinvent the wheel to make something come to life, and it was a hard process to make an army of animatronic creatures. As Walas recalls, "I should say that I was personally terrified for the entire show. It was a gigantic project for me, beyond anything I had done before, and time and the schedule were not on my side."

    Once he got Gremlins under his belt, "It was a very empowering experience for me," Walas says. "I think I gained a lot of confidence out of it. The Fly wasn't really that much of a leap so much as it was a journey down a different path. The Fly was all about the make-up and the emotional reality of the work. It was less crazed fantasy and was less puppets from start to finish like Gremlins was."

    For Walas, one of the most important lessons he learned from Gremlins "was the fact that there is always more than one way to do an effect. There's always another option. We developed a lot of our own technology for Gremlins that we adapted to The Fly, particularly along the animatronics line, so we had an existing library of hardware available. That became critical on The Fly as we had to rethink some effects due to the tight schedule."

    As far as his creative relationship with Cronenberg, Walas says the director "is fascinating to work with. He's very intelligent, observant, and understanding. He's also challenging and supportive. He has a very clear idea of what he wants and how he sees things, so the design phase tends to go quickly. His design directions also tend to be more emotional and psychological than most directors. Most directors will describe what they want physically. They'll say, 'It needs to be bigger; make the eyes red; add more horns.' David's descriptions were more like, 'It needs to be in more pain, and I want to see confusion in its eyes.' I would say David's style is much fuller and covers a wider design approach than most directors."

    How Legacy Effects Built Jurassic World's Apatosaurus

    No big spoilers for Jurassic World, but this behind-the-scenes video from Legacy Effects shows the design and fabrication of the sole animatronic dinosaur that got screen time in the new blockbuster: "For Jurassic World's most touching scene, Legacy was asked to bring a gentle giant to life. Go behind the scenes with the Legacy team as they use both new and traditional methods to create an animatronic Dinosaur!" It's a beautifully animated robot that really contributed to the scene. Bonus: another SoundWorks Collection featurette profiles the sound design and editing on the film at Skywalker Sound.

    Jim Eustermann - Episode 15 - 6/19/2015
    Frank and Len welcome out guest Jim Eustermann, an actor/SFX makeup designer who has worked on Species, Pirates of the Caribbean and much more. Does Jim consider himself an actor or a SFX person? Listen in to find out. Thanks for your support of the show and thanks to Tested for providing us a happy home. Got an idea for a guest or a topic for a future CreatureGeek? Sound off in the comments!
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    Building a District 9 Alien Rifle Replica, Part 1

    Norm's note: We're super excited to announce a new collaboration project with Bill Doran (aka Punished Props) and Smooth-On. Over the course of this month, Bill is building a 1:1 scale replica of the alien assault rifle from District 9 to unveil with us at Comic-Con. Bill's build logs and videos will walk through his design and fabrication process, and his finished piece will be paired with a surprise at SDCC. Place your questions for Bill in the comments below!

    It's no secret that I love me some space guns, and District 9 had some of the most incredible weapon designs from the mad geniuses over at Weta! Ok enough gushing, let's dive into this build!

    Design and Reference Material

    The design for this gun was mostly based on the 1:1 replica that Weta released a couple of years ago, but I also took a lot of inspiration from the 1:4 scale replica that I have sitting on my desk. I took measurements from these sources and laid out the gun in SketchUp. The 3D design was layout in flat layers, in the thicknesses that I knew I would be using from the MDF wood stock.

    Once all of the layers were designed, I was able to have them printed out, full scale, as 2D blueprints for each piece. These shapes were then spray glue adhered to flat MDF stock to prepare for cutting and gluing. The idea is that I can build up a prototype of the gun in layers, clean it up, and then mold and cast pieces for finishing.

    It took a lot of extra time to "build" the gun in SketchUp, but the effort was worth it. The blueprints I was able to print out made for a pretty fantastic kit, once all the parts were ready to be cut out. Also, I had already pretty much gone through the entire build once, planning it all out before even buying my material.

    ILM Introduces VR/AR Arm: ILMxLAB

    Today ILM and Lucasfilm announced the creation of the ILMxLAB, a new division of ILM that will explore the emerging technologies of AR and VR to tell stories in ways that have never been possible before. In this clip, I saw many tools being used, including the HTC Vive, projection rooms, the Structure Sensor, and more.

    The Talking Room: Adam Savage Interviews Andy Weir

    Adam Savage welcomes author Andy Weir to The Talking Room! Andy wrote 'The Martian', the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars--it's a book we can't recommend enough. Adam and Andy talk about the research that went into writing the book, the portrayal of astronauts in fiction, and the upcoming film adaptation!

    In Brief: Mad Max Effects Before and After Comparisons

    We've given Mad Max: Fury Road a ton of praise for its storytelling, editing, and use of practical stunts, but here's a big tip of the hat to the effects artists who build the digital post-apocalypse around the Namibian desert where the film was shot. FX Guide's in-depth feature on the visual effects of the film show a sample of the 2000 effects shots that combined the unbelievable stunts in the original plates with color grading and environment tweaks to create the illusion of one cohesive car chase.

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    Tested Builds: Millennium Falcon Studio Scale Replica, Part 1

    This week, we're starting a new long-term build series, and it's a replica prop from Star Wars! We've ordered the DeAgostini Millennium Falcon kit, a 1:1 replica of the shooting model used for The Empire Strikes Back. The kit is being released a piece at a time every month, and it'll take about two years for it to be completed. It's a true endurance build, and we'll have friends join us throughout the series to help out. Follow along with us for the rest of this build by signing up for a Tested Premium Membership here!

    Rick Baker's Make-Up and Special Effects Legacy

    Make-up and special effects legend Rick Baker just announced his retirement from film production, coinciding with the auction of his vast collection of original props, puppets, and animatronics. In this final piece from our visit to that collection, we have an extended conversation with Rick about his work and celebrated career--a lifetime of having fun and improving his craft. Thanks so much to Rick and Prop Store for this incredible opportunity!

    Crafting the Practical Creatures of Gremlins

    Gremlins was a big breakthrough for director Joe Dante, who previously gave us the genre greats Piranha and The Howling. Gremlins would also be a big step forward to animatronic effects, thanks to Chris Walas, who did similar slimy magic for David Cronenberg's The Fly.

    Before the success of Gremlins, Dante worked for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, making his debut comedy, Hollywood Boulevard, in 1976. Next he followed up with Piranha in 1978, then The Howling, which was a big horror hit in 1981, and also broke a lot of ground in make-up effects with Rob Bottin's werewolf creations. While The Howling was a success, Dante didn't make a lot of money from it, and his career was stuck in limbo afterwards, which is why he was surprised when the screenplay for Gremlins arrived at his dump of an office on Hollywood Boulevard. Dante didn't know Spielberg then, but Steven was a fan, Piranha was his favorite Jaws rip-off, and he was apparently inspired by The Howling to cast its star, Dee Wallace Stone, as Elliot's mother in E.T.

    Gremlins was written by Christopher Columbus as a writing sample, and as Dante recalls, "He hadn't written it with the idea that it was something that was going to be produced, so there was a lot of stuff in the script that was pretty hard to do." Initially Spielberg wanted to make Gremlins as a low budget, non-union horror film in Oregon. Yet Dante tells us, "As we developed it, it became apparent that were weren't going to be able to make it very cheap, and it was going to have to have the studio behind it in order for us to pull off what was in the story."

    Previously, make-up artist Chris Walas was working on a remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon with Dante, but Universal decided to scrap the project and made Jaws 3D instead. "I was devastated," Walas says. "I'm a huge Creature fan, and was thrilled to be working on that one."

    Then Dante sent over the script for Gremlins, and Walas says, "I was overwhelmed at the amount of work in it, and that was when the script was (just) a simple horror movie without any characters, just little monsters. I normally make notes on a script as I read it, but I was too astonished at the Gremlins script to make many." Once Walas finished reading the script, he wrote one note on the cover page: "HA!"

    Walas started making some simple sketches with Dante, his producing partner Mike Finnell, and Chris Columbus all providing feedback. "Joe used Chuck Jones cartoons as a reference for the Mogwai," Walas says. "He wanted them to have the same emotional range of some of the Warner Bros cartoon characters."

    ILM Reel Celebrates 40 Years of CG Effects

    For its 40th anniversary, effects house Industrial Light & Magic released this minute-long supercut of the over 300 films its worked on since George Lucas founded it for Star Wars. Their YouTube channel always has great behind-the-scene explorations of specific film shots. Wired's latest cover story is a pretty comprehensive retrospective of the company's work as well. Great photos by Dan Winters, too!

    First Images From The Martian

    It's no secret that I love a good spacesuit, and the first stills from Ridley Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's fabulous novel, The Martian, have me excited. I'm not sure that Mark Watney's Martian spacesuit is a project I'm going to take on, it's going to be a tough costume to replicate, but I'm thinking about it.

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    The Anatomy of an R2-D2 Astromech Droid

    What makes up an R2-D2 Astromech? We chat with members of the R2 Builders club to learn about the process of building your own droid--the materials, power systems, and electronics needed to get started. Chris James of the Bay Area club chapter opens up his own R2 and shares the custom controls and components he's designed to make his droid come alive!