Episode 170 — Cinefex Magazine, PART I

 

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Episode 170 — Cinefex Magazine, Part I

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 170! I’m speaking with the writers at Cinefex, on the last 40 years of visual effects and filmmaking. I say it a lot — but I’m really excited about this one. I’m sure 99.9 percent of you know what Cinefex is. A lot of us grew up on this magazine / amazing looking book; and you’d have a stack of them on your desk as a professional. It’s been the backbone of our business, even before the internet.

Getting to discuss the history and stories behind Cinefex with Jody and Graham has been great! There is a lot of great knowledge they’ve shared. The second part of this interview will come out later this week. The latest issue of Cinefex comes out this month: http://www.cinefex.com/next_issue.htm. The magazine will cover feature films Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen (I interviewed Kevin Baillie a few weeks back: www.allanmckay.com/148); Fantastic Beasts and a behind-the-scenes story about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Loads of really cool stuff!

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[00:46] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

  • Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;
  • Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film, tv or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[02:44] If you want to check out my Venom training, please go to www.allanmckay.com/venom. I’ve been working like crazy on this. It’s finally out! Make the most of it!

 

INTERVIEW WITH CINEFEX, PART I 

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since its 1980 launch by its Founder Don Shay, it’s been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

The next issue of Cinefex No. 162 is out in mid-December 2018: http://www.cinefex.com/next_issue.htm. The Issue will cover feature films Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Aquaman. It will also include a story by Don Shay that covers the behind-the-scenes of the 1953 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in an interview with Director Richard Fleischer.

In this Podcast, Cinefex Editor in Chief Jody Duncan and Senior Staff Writer Graham Edwards discuss the history of the magazine from its launch by its Founder Don Shay to its most iconic issues that covered the biggest VFX breakthroughs.

 

[04:35] Allan: Thanks, guys, for taking the time to chat. I’m really excited for this. Do you want to introduce yourselves?

Jody: Sure! I’m Jody Duncan, I’m the Editor in Chief of Cinefex magazine. I’ve been with the magazine, in one way or another, from the very beginning; starting with clerical work and worked up to Editor in 1992.

Graham: I’m Graham Edwards. I’m Senior Staff Writer at Cinefex. I’ve been with the magazine for about 5 years. I started as the blog editor and then moved sideways to be a writer for the magazine (while still being the blog editor).

[05:30] Allan: That’s really cool! Starting out, can you describe what Cinefex is? I feel like it’s such an iconic [publication] for all of our industry.

Jody: Go ahead, Graham!

Graham: Well, Cinefex is — as it has been from Issue No. 1 — is a journal of cinematic illusions. It’s a critical line you need to remember, even when talking about visual effects: Our mission is always to start with what the cinematic illusions are in a film. We start with visual effects to special effects, special make-up effects, creature effects and miniature effects. Sometimes that leaks into production design, maybe cinematography. We like to talk to the directors. My colleague Joe Fordham, the Associate Editor [and] the third part of our team, likes to use the term “soup to nuts”. We start from the beginning and go through the end and find the story that they put up on the screen — and how they did it.

[06:56] Allan: You’re right! You’re covering it more as illusions. Visual Effects have become the attention grabbing, but a lot of the things we do today, who’s to say we’ll be using them 10 years from now. It’s always an evolution. I love the fact that you’ve documented every aspect. Jody, how did Cinefex first got started?

Jody: The Founder Don Shay (who has just retired a couple of years ago — very happily!) had written some big articles. He did a big piece on Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Cinefantastique. He had a different idea of how he wanted to do it. Cinefantastique wasn’t just a visual effects publication and Don thought the technology and the art of it has gotten so far that it deserved its own magazine. He decided to start it. He did everything — and I mean everything! — for that first Issue. And that’s in 1978! You can imagine what a laborious process it was! He wrote everything and it took him a year; and he got that Issue out. It looked remarkably like it does now. A lot of magazines when they start out look like a xeroxed newsletter; and they grow. Cinefex Issue No. 1, with the exception being staples bound, pretty much looks like it does now, with its weird shape and its photography. That was very important to Don.

And now that we that we had a magazine, how would we get it out there? So Don and I took boxes of it out. We found comic bookstores in LA. I’ll never forget it: At one of the bookstores, they had a distributor rep there. The guy looked at the magazine and said, “Wow, this is a nice magazine but it’s never going to happen! It’s a weird shape and it’s going to get lost behind other magazines. How much did it cost you? You’ll never make a profit on this.” He just shot us down. It was very grassroots, homespun, mom-and-pop operation. We went to the Science Fiction Convention in ’79 or ’80. We had a booth there, handing out subscription cards, and that helped. That’s how it started.

[10:49] Allan: That’s really cool! Talking to that distributor, did you find the harsh questions be helpful?

Jody: No! Don didn’t change a thing. That’s the thing about Don: He’s the immoveable object. He didn’t change one thing: not the shape, not the cost, not the quality. Nothing!

[11:29] Allan: I think that’s cool. If you have a vision and you stick to it, it definitely has some advantages. I think that’s great! I was thinking about this last night. I used to make a joke when we had to do some post-photos, “Quick! Do the Cinefex pose!” — and everyone would have to point at the screen. It’s always been a part of our industry. Did you, guys, always have any anticipation of how well Cinefex would be received in the industry? It’s something you flip through when you need that extra bit of inspiration.

Jody: Did we anticipate it? No, I don’t think so. Don went into this just for the love of the craft. He’d interviewed Willis H. O’Brien’s widow and was given access for all kinds of stuff for, I think, a 20,000 words piece on King Kong. I think he had such a love for the subject matter! And I almost think (maybe I’m underestimating his business plan) he did it out of love and out of passion; and the fact that it ever took off and made money — is a happy accident.

[13:21] Allan: I like that though! That’s typically the success stories you hear about behind anything that’s good. I love the fact that it hasn’t changed. It works so well. I was trying to explain what Cinefex is to someone: It’s a collector’s item. We never had Cinefex in Australia. Once I did hold of one — it was a treasure! At the same time, when it came to the first few Issues, what was that process like? By now, you’ve nailed your expectations. But back in the day, what was it like to get access to all the information and people?

Jody: Well, in some ways, it was a lot easier — and in other ways, it was a lot harder. It was easier because there were only about 3-4 visual effects companies. And Don was kind of known from that Close Encounters article he had done. So as far as getting access to people, it was easy. You called them directly, they didn’t have PR departments. There were no barriers between us and Dennis Muren. Don called them or just showed up. In that way, it was much, much easier. But the actual production before digital, I don’t even know the terminology. [There was] the wax paper that you put down, and it was a very analogue like process. If you had a correction, you cut it out with a raiser blade. That’s why it took him a year to do the first one. Access to people was much easier than it is now. Now, we have a lot of hoops we have to jump through.

[17:13] Allan: I thought with Muren, you’d just have to stand outside a Starbucks all day and wait for him to walk through, from Building 1 to Building 2. I’m just joking, of course!

Jody: I don’t think there was a Building 2 at the time. I don’t know, do you have a perspective on this, Graham?

Graham: As a relative newcomer, I stepped into a relatively well oiled machine. But we have to set up a lot of stuff ahead of time. We have to get clearances, go through a lot of agencies to get through to the people we need to talk to, for sure.

[18:07] Allan: What do you think the five most popular iIssues? There are so many iconic movies coming out, but which ones have been the most favorable with the readers so far?

Jody: No. 9, the Bladerunner Issue! It sold out right away, so if you ever find that in a garage sale — grab it! No. 21, The Terminator Issue. We almost didn’t cover that film, but it turned out to be a best seller. I believe the Titanic Issue was the only one where the demand was so high, we went back and did a second press run on it. Those three come to mind. And obviously, the Jurassic Park Issue No. 55! Do any others come to your mind, Graham?

Graham: The very earliest ones are now highly priced. If you have Issue 1, then you’re a lucky person!

[19:40] Allan: With The Terminator, I didn’t know much about special effects back then. I’m curious about what your idea of your film was at the time; and [whether] the special effects make-up would cover the illusions you mentioned.

Jody: One of the things that Cinefex never covered was slasher films. We try to stay out of something like that. Don’s impression was — just from the ads — that Terminator was going to be a lower-budget, nothing movie. So for Issue 21, he had other articles lined up. And then his son [and now our publisher] Gregg Shay wanted to go see the film. Don probably wouldn’t have to see it had it not been for his son. Don came back saying, “That is a terrific film. This director has got some real potential.” So he scrapped what we were going to do for that Issue and went with The Terminator. Thank goodness! What a legacy that has been! That was by happenstance. It was a last minute thing we didn’t expect. That’s how that happened.

[22:24] Allan: I asked you about fan favorites. Are there particular Issues that are close to your heart?

Jody: You go first, Graham!

Graham: Well, certainly for me, one of my favorite Issue was the first one I bought: It’s Issue No. 6. I [was at] this dusty little comic shop and I found this strange magazine. There was no clue as to what the content was going to be. The cover was Dragon Slayer which I had just seen. There was a visionary article in it on the state of computer graphics. That’s my most beloved copy.

Another one that springs to mind is the one with my first article: Issue No. 136. I wrote this story on Rush, Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film. And that was my baptism by fire into the Cinefex process.

Jody: My first article was Cocoon. I think that was Issue 24. You’ll notice we never have a human being on a cover of Cinefex. We can have gorillas or spaceships, but never a human being. But [on this Issue Cover], there is Brian Dennehy revealing his alien eye. Because my first article was published in that Issue, it is dear to me.

The Terminator 2 Issue is dear to me because Don and I wrote an article on the making of Terminator 2. And then because I love the subject matter so much — the Apollo 13 Issue.

[25:19] Allan: With Terminator 2, knowing the success from the first film, were you, guys, ready to dive into the whole process?

Jody: You’re right, we were because we were writing the book. Which means that we were in on it, from the beginning. They shot of lot of it at an abandoned steal mill out here in the Inland Empire. So instead of driving to a movie set for 2 hours, it was a hop, skip and a jump for us. And Don had a really good relationship with James Cameron by then. And we had written a whole book by then, so writing an article [was easy]. I spent a lot of time with the Stan Winston Studio people because of the Terminator Issue. So we had a long standing relationship with Stan and his guys; and they did a lot of the practical effects for Terminator 2. That was a great experience!

[26:33] Allan: That’s cool! So you, guys, actually wrote the behind the scenes book for Terminator 2?

Jody: Yes! We did.

[26:41] Allan: That’s cool! I love that [book]! It is one of those iconic films. There was a big shift in CGI and make-up. Did you know that this film would be the catalyst for a lot of shifts in the industry?

Jody: I think so. But I think of Young Sherlock Holmes, it had some CGI work there. Terminator 2, of course, had the liquid metal Terminator, of course. It’s still felt kind of fringy, digitally. Maybe like what VR was a couple of years ago. It still felt like fringe stuff. It wasn’t really until Jurassic Park that it went from fringe to mainstream. I’m not sure any of us completely knew. Dennis Muren said he knew that digital was going to be the future — he just didn’t know the future would come so dang quickly. You know? It happened a lot faster than anybody expected because of the computers. Nobody foresaw that computer power would get so democratized, everybody would have it. I remember for a couple of years, there was a whole unit at ILM called the Mac Unit. We weren’t allowed to mention them

[25:33] Allan: That’s the Rebel Unit? It’s so common too. You would never mention it.

Jody: Craig Barron showed me his graveyard on silicon graphics. People invested millions of dollars in this stuff and they were really obsolete within a couple of years. People just waited for Apple to get going. That’s just the evolution.

[29:44] Allan: It’s kind of like if you look at Flame and all the old workstations. It wasn’t because they were the best, you were buying the brand. It was a status thing.

Jody: It was! It was partially to impress movie studio executives and producers. And also, it made it sound like they were wizards that had access to something no one else had.

[30:36] Allan: I think it was like that with Maya too. When Maya came out, certain things were a buzz word. These days it’s so diluted! I live in Portland where Autodesk is based. What was the state of the art: I believe Terminator 2 was the first feature to use Photoshop. Again, those are tools we use day to day. It was originally a pivotal piece of software.

Graham: Certainly now, we asked to walk us through the pipeline that’s used on a show. It’s fairly rare that something unusually comes up. They’re modeling in Maya and rendering in Katana and RenderMan; the effects are done in Houdini. Occasionally, someone will bring up Flame; and even more occasionally, something rare will come up. But overall, the industry has matured. We certainly don’t ask what machines they were using and how much RAM they had. The industry has matured so much, that’s certainly not what we want to be writing about.

Jody: Reminds me of the war that went on there for a while between Betamax and VHS, you know? Finally, VHS emerged as the winner. Before Maya, everyone was using Softimage. Then Maya took precedence. And that’s kind of settled. And that’s why when someone does use something new, or develops a new piece of software, Graham, Joe and I jump on that like a cat on a cat toy! You have to really look for those things. Otherwise, you’re just writing the same thing over and over again. So we really do seek out new approaches, not just in software (that’s a little boring) — but when they’ve found a new way to do something.

[34:13] Allan: Yeah, that’s really interesting! Whenever I’m doing talks, that’s the one question that comes up: What’s the best software? I always think of Stephen King when he got asked what pen he wrote with. It’s funny! There are certain routines people go through. The whole pipeline has commonality between different studios. Whereas 20 years ago, there was a lot of exploratory time.

Graham: The thing is, from our point of view, none of that matters. Because what we’re after — is the story! Whether the artist is using Houdini or Maya — or their hands are in a tub of superglue — it doesn’t matter! What matters is the genius thinking that they’re using to solve the problem of how to get these illusions up on the screen. And that’s the thing that hasn’t changed over the years. That’s where we the story is and what we’ll always try to dig up.

[36:15] Allan: Yeah, you nailed it! For both of you, what were the first movie sets you got to go on, for Cinefex?

Jody: Hmm. For me, wow! The ones that stand out are Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park (but not when they were in Hawaii). I remember when I was starting out, it was all so new to me. Mainly, I stood in the corner in terror that I was going to walk through a shot or talk when I wasn’t supposed to. I made myself as invisible as possible: Don’t trip on the cables and don’t walk through the shot!

Graham: I think it’s fair to say we don’t get out to many sets these days. But I remember that first article. For the Rush articles I wrote, I remember the Sup Jody Johnson at the time had moved to another production with Ron Howard. It was very hard sitting in the room to interview him about Rush surrounded by all this gorgeous production art. I just wanted to keep leaping up and asking, “Jody, can you tell me where this one is from?!” Productions can be pretty distracting. It’s better to do these interviews in a gray box.

Jody: And that’s why Graham’s Rush article has all this reference to water tank works.

[39:13] Allan: Can you talk a bit about Jurassic Park? Jody, what was it like documenting that film? There is no more iconic film for our industry.

Jody: Well, again, Don and I wrote the Making of Jurassic Park, the book. They didn’t something that no one else has done. Jurassic Park people said, “We want this done right. Please come!” I think we joined them when they were still in pre-production. They were still drawing things. Because we had that long year before the movie came out, I had such a rich backstory there! That would be wonderful to have everything that we wrote. That was a joy! I really got in, in an organic sort of way because I was on it for so long, and saw the art on the wall, and I’d been on sets where there were building the T-Rex. Also, we knew it was going to be a game changer. It was on the fringes and getting ready to go mainstream and shake up the industry and the technology completely. I had an opportunity to see Titanic, I think 3 months before it came out; and that was horrible to sit on this thing for 3 months. And that was the same with Jurassic Park too, knowing that something was going to be unleashed on the world. And that was exciting!

[41:49] Allan: In terms of game changers, what are some of the other films that became those?

Graham: Wow!

Jody: Just related to that: I remember seeing the first digital cameras on set. It was for the second installment of the Star Wars trilogy. What a pain in the neck those things were! Huge cables! It was hard to believe that was going to be a thing. It all worked out and now it’s user friendly.

[42:51] Allan: On Superman Returns, we used the Genesis camera. Newton Thomas DP’d that. Just cables and not enough hard drives. Times have changed!

Jody: What’s happening with virtual production, I was just on the set (if you can call it “a set”, it was just a black box) for the Lion King film that’s coming out. It’s just astonishing! They have it all set up now. Put on the glasses and fly over the plains of Africa. That’s becoming an unbelievable change in the industry.

Graham: The subject of virtual production comes up almost for every thing. We cover both large and small. War Craft was the first big virtual production films. And the story is immense. It would be easy to write the whole article on it. But then it went down to virtual scouting process. I covered Solo earlier this year and I spoke with James Clyne, the Art Director at ILM. He was talking about the train that sped through the mountains. He designed this thing. They were asking if one character could jump train cars. So he went down to the [ILMxLAB] and put his simple blocking into it; put his goggles on and tried it out. Yup, you can do that! It really permeates every part of production.

[46:14] Allan: So cool! Do you think films like Lord of the Rings or Matrix are some of the iconic films?

Graham: I think the Matrix is absolutely up there! For me personally, it’s the Holy Grail of visual effects Supervisor. Or what every Sup is asked to deliver. And Lord of the Rings has every trick in the book and invented new ones! I’ve personally never seen that before.

[47:22] Allan: With Lord of the Rings, you have a studio that’s in a bubble but has been doing stuff behind the scenes. For them to come up like that!

Graham: Yes, and in terms of global workflow and the logistics that go hand and hand with that. You’ve got 60 vendors working around the world. You have people working 24/7. And the techniques that allow you to achieve that, like cineSync. It would be hard to imagine it!

[49:40] Allan: I think globalization was long overdue. If you weren’t in the pockets of LA or London, you weren’t part of it. I actually interviewed Rory McGregor, the CEO of cineSync, last week (www.allanmckay.com/167). It’s fun to talk about these tools we take for granted! I worked at ILM and you could get access to all the cineSync sessions. There are all these tools that are linking up the world. You look at that and San Francisco that used to be an outsider, but proved it didn’t need to be in Hollywood. And now, it shifted to Vancouver. I love the fact that they whole world is now playing this game!

 

I hope you really enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Jody and Graham for their time. Part II will be coming out later this week.

I highly suggest checking out www.cinefex.com to get the latest Issue.

Until later this week —

Rock on!

 

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