“The Beyond” — VFX Q&A

The Beyond - sci-fi feature by Hasraf Dulull

In the independent sci-fi feature The Beyond, a group of cyber-enhanced astronauts voyages through a mysterious wormhole in space. Following their unexpected return, space experts investigate the enigma surrounding mankind’s first interstellar journey. Structured as a faux-documentary, The Beyond marks the directorial debut of Hasraf ‘Haz’ Dulull who, in addition to writing and producing the film, was the driving force behind its visual effects.

Having cut his filmmaking teeth as a visual effects artist on films including The Dark Knight and Prince of Persia, Dulull later worked as both visual effects supervisor and producer on other projects. Cinefex caught up with Dulull just a few days after the release of The Beyond on streaming platforms worldwide.

The Beyond quad posterCINEFEX: It’s a big leap from visual effects artist to director — or is it? How did you make the transition?

HASRAF DULULL: In between my visual effects jobs I created short films. One of them, Project Kronos, went viral on the Internet in 2013, which landed me a manager in Hollywood and my first feature film development deal with Benderspink, as well as development assignments with Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox. After that, I completed two other short films, IRIS and SYNC, both tapping into my love for grounded science fiction and serving as proof of concepts for feature films. Then came my debut feature, The Beyond.

Watch a 30-minute video on the making of The Beyond:

CINEFEX: How relevant was your visual effects experience as you moved up the ladder?

HASRAF DULULL: You could say working in visual effects was my film school! My career as a visual effects artist was a massive help in knowing how to achieve things digitally, but I only realized I wanted to go into directing when I became a visual effects supervisor, working closely with directors, editors, producers and cinematographers to figure out how to achieve things within budget and on schedule, yet still retain the vision of the story. I felt that I’d picked up enough knowledge and experience working on set and with studios to do that.

CINEFEX: And all of that culminated in The Beyond.

HASRAF DULULL: Yes, that visual effects education allowed me to make this film on an almost impossibly tight budget, and achieve what on the page might have appeared to be crazy-ambitious.

In "The Beyond," written, directed and produced by Hasraf Dulull, human exploration of space opens a gateway to the mysteries of the universe.

In “The Beyond,” written, directed and produced by Hasraf Dulull, human exploration of space opens a gateway to the mysteries of the universe.

CINEFEX: Directing is one thing. How comfortable were you wearing your producer’s hat?

HASRAF DULULL: As producer on a commercial feature film I had to learn how to deal with things like clearances, errors and omission insurance, chain of title, script report, and a whole bunch of paperwork that’s required before a distributor will pick up your film. Thankfully, my co-producer Paula Crickard helped with this. The other thing I learned was the whole sales angle of getting a reputable distributor on board to sell the film in worldwide territories. Other filmmakers advised me that getting the right distributor is a big part in how your film will be released. The Beyond was never designed to be a theatrical film, and doesn’t have big-name actors, therefore I wanted someone with a big reach in the VOD world.

CINEFEX: It sounds like quite a journey.

HASRAF DULULL: It’s been one hell of a journey!

An enigmatic Dark Orb hangs in the sky over Earth.

An enigmatic Dark Orb hangs in the sky over Earth.

CINEFEX: Where did the idea for The Beyond first germinate?

HASRAF DULULL: It really started when I was working on the feature film development of Project Kronos in my spare time. That was great, as I learned so much from working with the executives and producers, but as with a lot of film development it took several years. I didn’t have the patience for that. Also, I was getting a lot of ‘first-time director’ stigma in Hollywood — studios were not keen on taking risks with someone who had only done short films.

CINEFEX: So you broke out on your own?

HASRAF DULULL: Yes. I took back the rights to The Beyond and planned that as my debut feature film. I redeveloped it to make it feel more like Project Kronos — a cerebral science fiction film that blends the realism of documentary with the fantastical ‘big ideas’ of science fiction films today. I’d describe it as a passion project with a commercial angle.

CINEFEX: Did things move faster once you were working independently?

HASRAF DULULL: Well, I spent a year developing the script, then raised the finance personally and gathered my team — the same people who had supported me on my short films including my cinematographer, Adam Batchelor, music composers, Zelig, and my visual effects support team. I had a good relationship with Blackmagic from using their cameras in my short film SYNC, so they came on as a technology sponsor, and I edited and post-finished the film in DaVinci Resolve 14. Adobe provided me with some access credits to their Adobe Stock library — The Beyond used stock footage for many of its supporting scenes, which we later augmented with visual effects. During the later stages, one of the co-producers, Lee Murphy, brought in a private investor who saw the rushes and was impressed with the fact I had the balls to finance my first film. He put in finishing funds to help get the audio mixed and finished.

For some shots, visual effects augmented NASA stock footage with CG and digital matte painting elements.

For some shots, visual effects augmented NASA stock footage with CG and digital matte painting elements.

CINEFEX: You mentioned using stock footage. How extensive was the live-action shoot, and where did you stage scenes?

HASRAF DULULL: A large portion of the film was shot like a traditional documentary with a guerilla feel — I wanted to shoot as much as possible in real locations. We were very lucky to get locations such as the UK’s National Space Centre in Leicester, rooftops at Malaysia’s Asia Pacific University, and Iceland for the alien planet. We shot interview scenes at the Escape Studios visual effects training facility in West London, and found an exterior location near York for the military scenes.

The Human 2.0 program spawns robotically-enhanced astronauts perfectly adapted to deep space travel.

The Human 2.0 program spawns robotically-enhanced astronauts perfectly adapted to deep space travel. Visual effects embedded live-action of actress Noeleen Cominsky into a digital exosuit.

CINEFEX: What about the Human 2.0 laboratory? Surely you had to build a set for that?

HASRAF DULULL: That was a combination of a real location — a school design and tech classroom — augmented with great production design. Our production designers, Silvija Meilunaite and Oliver Spiers, really took an outside-the-box approach, sourcing materials and building the set in a single day ready to shoot the next day! We did extensive previs for those scenes by visiting the location in advance and taking tons of photos — that helped us figure out how to transform the room.

Production designers, Silvija Meilunaite and Oliver Spiers converted a school classroom into the Human 2.0 laboratory.

Production designers Silvija Meilunaite and Oliver Spiers converted a school classroom into the Human 2.0 laboratory, into which the CG Human 2.0 character was composited.

CINEFEX: Same thing with the Mission Control room?

HASRAF DULULL: Pretty much. That was another big school classroom that we converted. We rented several large screens hooked up to Hewlett Packard laptops, and loaded up pre-rendered animated screen content on those and all the classroom computer screens. Our art department worked their magic by adding props on the desk and making it look busy. We referenced NASA a lot.

For mission control scenes, filmmaker Hasraf Dulull created pre-rendered screen graphics and used them to fill screens in a converted schoolroom set.

For mission control scenes, Hasraf Dulull created pre-rendered screen graphics and used them to fill screens in a converted schoolroom set.

CINEFEX: Did you shoot on stages, or use greenscreens, at any point?

HASRAF DULULL: No, we didn’t use any greenscreens or bluescreens. The only stage we used was for the ‘white room’ astronaut scene, which we shot over at Asylum FX in London. We had an actor wearing an astronaut suit and used brightly exposed lighting to give a surreal feeling, which we augmented further in visual effects.

Hasraf Dulull discusses a scene with actor Wes Nike on a white stage at Asylum FX.

Hasraf Dulull discusses a scene with actor Wes Nike on a white stage at Asylum FX.

CINEFEX: So how long did the shoot last?

HASRAF DULULL: In total, it was somewhere around 20 days. The shoot was staggered throughout 2016 because we needed to fit it around actors and location availability. We shot additional scenes in the summer of 2017 during the final stages of postproduction.

CINEFEX: With a film like this, postproduction means a whole heap of visual effects. You did most of that work yourself?

HASRAF DULULL: Yes a lot of the work I did do myself, but with support on the Human 2.0 CG scenes from Filmmore in Amsterdam and Squint VFX in London. I also had a small team of trusted freelancers that I worked with to provide additional support where needed.

Human 2.0 digital asset by Charles

Human 2.0 digital asset by CG supervisor Charles Willcocks.

CINEFEX: The Human 2.0 characters are kind of the poster children for The Beyond. How did you go about creating them?

HASRAF DULULL: They’re the next generation of astronauts, so it was important they looked cool yet not too fantastical. I originally wanted to do them as practical suits, but after some tests this proved to be too costly and limited us in so many ways. So, the digital approach was the only way to achieve it. I mapped out the workflow beforehand and then shared my plans with CG supervisor Charles Willcocks and on set visual effects supervisor John Sellings. I think that gave them the confidence that their director wasn’t a madman!

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CINEFEX: You created the suits in CG, but kept the actors’ faces. What was your methodology during the shoot?

HASRAF DULULL: The actors wore custom tight-fitting grey suits with tracking markers. We didn’t record any dialogue — that was all done later in ADR. For each setup, we used two witness cameras to capture angles not visible with the main camera, and we shot a chrome ball for HDRs using a digital SLR camera at bracketed exposures, plus a grey ball for lighting reference. We recorded other data like camera distance, height, lens, field of view, on paper and then photographed that with an iPhone as well as a Ricoh Theta 360 camera to store digitally.

CINEFEX: Who handled the data capture?

HASRAF DULULL: Dan Newlands — he was my on-set tracking supervisor. John Sellings then organized the data in a labelled folder structure linked with the scene number on the slate.

Actress Noeleen Comisky on set with prosthetics, harness and body tracking suit (photograph courtesy of Nina Baillie).

Actress Noeleen Comisky on set with prosthetics, harness and body tracking suit
(photograph courtesy of Nina Baillie).

Tracking supervisor Dan Newlands takes lighting reference on the Human 2.0 laboratory set.

Tracking supervisor Dan Newlands takes lighting reference on the Human 2.0 laboratory set.

CINEFEX: So, you captured the performances, plus peripheral data. What came next?

HASRAF DULULL: I would edit the sequence, lock the edit and export each shot as frames with a neutral tech grade applied. In Maya, the matchmove artist would track each plate using the camera data, and place the Human 2.0 asset in the correct world-space position against the footage. Then the animator would roto-animate the rigged asset over the actor’s performance, resulting in a file tagged with ‘ANIM.’ While all that was taking place, a CG artist would light the scene with V-Ray shaders using the HDR and lighting reference. As each animated shot was signed off, the lighting setup would be brought into the animation to create a new file tagged ‘LIGHTING.’

CINEFEX: So at that point it was ready for rendering?

HASRAF DULULL: Right. Once lighting was signed off, we’d render out passes for compositing — beauty, matte and so on. The CG artist would often do a precomp at that point, before sending it all to compositing.

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CINEFEX: We’ve seen lots of weird dimensional anomalies in feature films recently. How did you approach making the wormholes in The Beyond?

HASRAF DULULL: Oh, the wormhole sequence was one of my favorites to work on! I didn’t want to have complex CG simulations as it would take too long and we didn’t have access to big render farms. So I took a compositing approach using cool abstract CG elements generated by Aleksandr Uusmees in Houdini. I then applied various distortion techniques in After Effects — such as lens distortion and warping — plus glows, displacements and keyframe animation to give additional movement. We rendered those comps out at 6K so I could distort them further in Resolve during the online editorial effects stage.

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CINEFEX: Did you take a similar approach to those undulating spheres that hang in the sky?

HASRAF DULULL: The Dark Orbs took a while to design. I provided Alek with tons of images and textural references, then he used Houdini to create procedural textures driven by simulations — he sent those out to a cloud-based render farm. I used those CG passes in tons of shots, compositing the orbs into live-action skies.

Mysterious Dark Orbs descend upon planet Earth.

Mysterious Dark Orbs descend upon planet Earth.

CINEFEX: You mentioned that various people supported you with the visual effects. Apart from those you’ve already mentioned, are there any other names you’d like to shout out?

HASRAF DULULL: Of course! Rhys Griffin handled the Human 2.0 rigging in Maya and generated CG passes for a Human 2.0 skeletal scene using Blender. There was also Andrea Tedeschi, a long time collaborator, who did the CG and comps for the spacecraft carrier and rendered out the CG astronaut passes. Hussin Khan looked after the Malaysian team who provided rotoscope support and basic comps. JM Blay designed and created key motion graphics sequences, and Territory Studio created the awesome end titles and credits sequence. Although I designed all the visual effects, this film would not have been possible without the support of everyone who worked on their assigned sequences and shots, and generated tons of CG assets for me to use in comp.

The Beyond - Human 2.0

CINEFEX: The Hollywood Reporter has quoted you as saying you want to “do for sci-fi what Blumhouse did for horror.” Is The Beyond your first step towards achieving that goal?

HASRAF DULULL: Absolutely. We want to make films smartly when it comes to budget and production execution, but most importantly we want to have a commercial route to market on those films. Blumhouse does this so well for the horror genre, and the production company I’ve just co-founded, HaZFilm, has that same ethos with sci-fi. The Beyond is the first film to demonstrate this.

CINEFEX: So what’s next?

HASRAF DULULL: I recently delivered my second feature, Origin Unknown, which is being sold by Kew Media Group. It stars Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame, and will get a release date for later in 2018. And HaZFilm has a slate of other projects for film and television at various stages of development and production.

The Beyond is now available worldwide from Gravitas Ventures on iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, Google Play, Amazon Video and other digital streaming platforms. For links visit the HaZFilm website.

Watch the trailer for The Beyond:

Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.

Now Showing – Cinefex 156

Cinefex 156 now available

If it’s variety you crave, look no further than our brand new issue, Cinefex 156. Not only do we explore the superheroic action of Thor: Ragnarok and Wonder Woman, but we also delve into the practical effects and digital delights of The Shape of Water and It. Last but not least, we remember the true-life firefighting superheroes of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in Only the Brave.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to round off the year with her personal take on the contents of our 2017 winter edition:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

Thirty years ago, I had an infant daughter whose father was working the graveyard shift at a local radio station when I settled in to read Stephen King’s horror novel, It. Alone in our townhouse late at night, my baby sleeping upstairs in her crib, I dove into the story of Pennywise the clown, a mauler and abductor of children, and one very bad hombré. Increasingly uneasy, I got up to turn on all the lights in the house, and checked that my baby was still safely in her crib. I read some more. I started at the smallest sound. I checked my baby again. I read more.

As the night wore on, I became so terrified that I sat on the floor outside my daughter’s bedroom, house lights still blazing, and nodded off with my head against the wall. The next night, I put down It in favor of a less intense read – like The Exorcist.

It was with some wariness, therefore, that I approached the new feature film adaptation of It, directed by Andy Muschietti, with makeup effects by Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated and visual effects by Rodeo FX. As it turned out, I very much enjoyed covering the film for our issue 156 – and throughout the writing process, I checked on my now 30-year-old daughter only once or twice to reassure myself that she was still with us and not floating in some horrible sewer cistern.

Superheroes also get their due in #156, with Joe Fordham’s coverage of Wonder Woman and Graham Edwards’ story on Thor: Ragnarok, this issue’s cover boy. Graham also explores the wonderful Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and among the highlights of his article are the many insightful comments from suit performer Doug Jones.

In terms of effects shot count, Only the Brave – about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who suffered the loss of 19 firefighters in a wildfire near Prescott, Arizona, in 2013 – was a modest project, but what it lacked in quantity was more than made up for in quality, as Industrial Light & Magic’s fire simulations proved indistinguishable from special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus’ controlled burns on set and on location.

Wishing everyone the happiest of holiday seasons!

Cinefex 156 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will be hammering through your mailbox very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Cinefex Quiz 2017

Have you been reading your Cinefex this year? If so, you’ll have no trouble with our fun end-of year quiz. There’s one question for each film we’ve covered during 2017 – that’s a grand total of 27 movies, no less! How many will you get right? Find out right now with the Cinefex Quiz 2017!

90th Oscars Visual Effects Race Begins

In the run-up to the 90th Oscars, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has just announced the 20 films competing in the Visual Effects category. Later this month, the list will be halved ready for the famous ‘bake-off,’ in which voters view 10-minute reels presenting shots from the qualifying films. Congratulations to the visual teams on all the films that made the list!

Feel like reading up on the movies in question? Well, we’re proud to say that Cinefex covered – or is in the process of covering – 18 out of the 20 films on the list.

Cinefex covers films competing in the 90th Oscars Visual Effects category

In our April 2017 issue, Cinefex 152, we published articles by Graham Edwards on Kong: Skull Island and Logan. Check out Cinefex 153 for Graham’s story on Alien: Covenant, Joe Fordham’s articles on Ghost in the Shell and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Jody Duncan’s coverage of Life. In June, we covered Okja in a Q&A on our blog.

Jody wrote our Spider-Man: Homecoming article for Cinefex 154, which also contains Joe’s story on War for the Planet of the Apes, and Graham’s articles on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. This issue also wins our special prize for Longest Movie Titles of the Year!

In October we published Cinefex 155, with Joe’s articles on Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk. Our latest issue, Cinefex 156, contains Graham’s coverage of Thor: Ragnarok and The Shape of Water, plus Joe’s story on Wonder Woman. If you’re wondering what happened to Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, we’re hard at work preparing those articles for our February 2018 issue.

The only two films we missed out on this year were Beauty and the Beast and Justice League. Sorry, folks, we can’t catch ’em all!

Cinefex Monster Movie Poll

Cinefex Movie Monster Poll

Welcome to the Cinefex Monster Movie Poll – our pick of 150 films from around the world, featuring creatures and creations from the darker corners of filmmakers’ imaginations that have enchanted, horrified or amazed us. To celebrate the season, we’d like to invite you to vote for your favorites.

The sheer volume of monster movies was overwhelming, so we streamlined our selections with a few self-imposed rules. No TV, no sequels, no super-villains, and no remakes. That’s why you’ll find only one Star Wars (we’re not asking you to choose between Greedo, Jabba, or Grievous), one Kong, and a single occurrence of Bram Stoker’s blood-sucking Count (up to you if that’s Lugosi, Lee, Langella, Hamilton, Oldman, or Nielsen). Yet Nosferatu, we felt, was a significant enough departure to warrant his inclusion.

Sink your teeth into our list by choosing up to 13 films – unlucky for some! – then hit the ‘Vote’ button at the bottom of the page. Voting closes midday October 31. We’ll publish the results soon after that.

Now Showing – Cinefex 155

Cinefex 155

Few films have been more eagerly anticipated by sci-fi film fans than Blade Runner 2049. By Cinefex readers too – we know that this is the movie you really wanted us to cover this year. That’s why we’re delighted not only to be launching our brand new fall edition to coincide with the film’s theatrical release, but also to be featuring it on the front cover.

Inside Cinefex 155, you’ll find Joe Fordham’s spectacular article on the making of Blade Runner 2049. But that’s not all. We’ve also delved into our archives to create a special Blade Runner portfolio, in which we look back at some of the stunning images that graced our classic article on the original Blade Runner back in 1982, in Cinefex 9.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to reflect on these and all the other goodies to be found in our 2017 fall edition:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

Cinefex was in its infancy when we covered the first Blade Runner in 1982. That issue #9 became one of our best selling issues, and it quickly sold out. (If you are fortunate enough to own a #9, keep it away from babies, drooling dogs and fire-prone electrical appliances!)

So, now, here we are, 146 issues later, covering the long awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049. ‘Coming full circle’ is a phrase that keeps popping into our minds, unbidden. Joe Fordham did his usual excellent detective work in uncovering the behind-the-scenes story of this film, and Ryan Gosling graces our #155 cover.

Joe also offers the visual effects story behind Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. (As much as I love covering Nolan projects – I’ve hogged most of them over the years – this Yankee felt it was only fitting to assign this one to one of our two British writers.) What is always fascinating about a Nolan project is his commitment to in-camera solutions, be they miniature aircraft or ‘fences’ of soldiers planted on the beach to fill out crowds. For all the readers who ask us, ‘Why don’t you cover more practical effects?’, this is the story for you.

Filling out the issue is Graham Edwards’ story on The Dark Tower, mine on Kingsman: The Golden Circle – and, a special treat, a retrospective portfolio on the original Blade Runner.

Have a spooky Halloween, Fellow Replicants!

Cinefex 155 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will be spinning into your airspace very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

R is for Robot

R is for RobotIn the VFX ABC, the letter “R” stands for “Robot”.

How do you put a robot up on the silver screen? It’s a question that’s taxed filmmakers throughout the years – today more than ever, with science fiction being as hot a Hollywood property as it’s ever been.

Here at Cinefex, we’ve written an awful lot about droid manufacture over the years. But let’s for a moment imagine that there’s such a thing as a definitive handbook called The Manual of How to Make a Movie Robot. Now wouldn’t that be a useful thing?

Imagine further – if such a handbook existed, what might you find if you started leafing through its pages?

Suiting Up

The first chapter of our imaginary manual would probably be called Stick Your Actor in a Shiny Suit. It’s an approach that worked well for Fritz Lang when he made his 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. Brigitte Helm played the Maschinenmensch automaton wearing a costume designed by sculptor and artist Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who abandoned early plans to manufacture the suit from copper in favor of a pliable ‘plastic wood’ that hardened on exposure to air.

Fifty years later, George Lucas followed in Lang’s footsteps when he introduced the world to the bumbling protocol droid C-3PO in Star Wars. This time the actor in the suit was Anthony Daniels, and the artist who refined the robot’s features – under the supervision of production designer John Barry – was sculptor Liz Moore, who also modeled the Star Child seen at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Performer Cheryl Sparks, born without legs from the knees down, peers out of the open faceplate of her tiny robot costume beside Bruce Dern, in Douglas Trumbull's sci-fi film "Silent Running."

Performer Cheryl Sparks, born without legs from the knees down, peers out of the open faceplate of her tiny robot costume beside Bruce Dern, in Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi film “Silent Running.”

Robot suits come in all shapes and sizes. Accompanying C-3PO on his adventures is the diminutive astromech droid R2-D2, who was frequently portrayed by actor Kenny Baker while squeezed into a tight-fitting mechanical can.

Just as squashed were Larry Whisenhunt, Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks and Steve Brown, all of whom had underdeveloped or missing legs, and who shared the roles of the three robots Huey, Dewey and Louie in Douglas Trumbull’s futuristic eco-fable Silent Running. Locked inside vacuum-formed shells, the agile quartet went through their robot routine whilst walking on their hands.

Rods and Cables

When James Cameron made The Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he used every trick in the manual – and invented a few new ones to boot. At the purely practical level, he found countless ways of energizing his cyborg characters live on set, right in front of the camera lens.

For waist-up shots of the T-800 endoskeleton in "The Terminator," Shane Mahan operated a backpack-mounted puppet created by Stan Winston Studios.

For waist-up shots of the T-800 endoskeleton in “The Terminator,” Shane Mahan operated a backpack-mounted puppet created by Stan Winston Studios.

Artists at Stan Winston Studios applied metallic makeup effects to Arnold Schwarzenegger to support his role as the unstoppable T-800 assassin. The same team created animatronic replicas of the actor that revealed a chrome endoskeleton beneath the robot’s human flesh, and deployed a dazzling range of puppets and mobile rigs to bring the metal machine to life.

Here’s Stan Winston talking in Cinefex 21 about the design of the original T-800 endoskeleton:

“I wanted to retain Arnold’s form in building the robot. Not only is the robot the same height as Arnold, but all of its proportions are scaled down from and matched to fit his. The robot is anatomically correct, and could literally fit inside Arnold’s body. Even the robot’s skull was scaled down from a clay duplicate of Arnold’s head; and its teeth are duplicates of Arnold’s.”

Stop and Go

Our theoretical handbook wouldn’t be complete without a chapter on stop-motion animation – another technique used by James Cameron to bring his relentless robot to life in The Terminator.  For wide shots of the T-800, animators moved a miniature cyborg constructed by Doug Beswick one frame at a time.

Stop-motion also features in RoboCop (1987), for which animators Phil Tippett and Randy Dutra shared duties activating the malevolent ED 209 enforcement droid. In one shot, the film’s hero is seen grappling at close quarters with the mechanical sentry – for this, a nine-inch stop-motion puppet RoboCop stood in for actor Peter Weller.

Phil Tippett animates the ED 209 enforcement droid for a shot in Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film "RoboCop."

Phil Tippett animates the ED 209 enforcement droid for a shot in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film “RoboCop.”

Less is More

Sometimes, creating a great movie robot isn’t about what you see. It’s about what you don’t see. Steven Spielberg explored this notion in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. For a startling shot of a broken-down FemMecha Nanny robot – whose face is intact but backed only by a mechanical underskull – Stan Winston Studios fashioned a puppet head with an articulated silicone face. For closeups, Industrial Light & Magic tracked the face of actor Clara Bellar onto a digital replica of the Winston animatronic.

To create Ava, the sophisticated android in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Double Negative composited CG robot components into live-action of Alicia Vikander’s on-set performance, artfully subtracting elements of her human form to create a delicately remodeled robot silhouette.

Here’s Ex Machina visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst discussing the ‘less is more’ approach in Cinefex 145:

“We worked hard to make sure that we designed something which could work practically, which looked like it had the right weight distribution, and which still had ‘form follows function’ beauty. We continually removed pieces that seemed superfluous. The great industrial designer, Dieter Rams, has a motto: ‘Less, but better.’ We constantly kept that in mind. In fact, when the design was 3D-printed for the laboratory set, it did all fit together beautifully. That was a proud moment!”

Almost Human

To explore human performance in more depth, our handbook is going to need a whole section on motion capture. Neill Blomkamp used this technique to great effect in Chappie, capturing the on-set performance of Sharlto Copley and translating it onto the film’s titular robot character. Artists at Image Engine developed a highly realistic CG robot based on designs by Weta Workshop, and seamlessly replaced the human actor with his mechanical avatar.

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Interviewed in Cinefex 141, Neill Blomkamp had this to say about the creation of his robot star:

“We modeled every twist of the wrist, and every movement of the ankle, all so that Chappie would be able to mimic a human’s motion. We kept refining the three-dimensional model, and then sending that back to the designers so they could tweak the design. Then it would go back to 3D. By going back and forth like that, we got to a place where every detail of the robot moved correctly.”


Despite Yoda’s assertion that size matters not, there are some filmmakers who might disagree. They’ll be the ones poring over our imaginary handbook’s chapter on super-sized robots.

Few robots come bigger than the mechanical stars of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Industrial Light & Magic constructed fantastically elaborate digital rigs, modeling each metamorphosing robot character first in standing form, then working backward with animated movements that took it to a crouch, before devising folding actions that would slide limbs and other body parts into place on the vehicle that was its Earthly disguise.

Talking to us in Cinefex 111 about the very first Transformers film, visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar remarked on the levels of detail required truly enormous robots to the screen:

“You’d think that hard-body surfaces, as compared to furry animals, would be easier in CG, but there is a basic rule in movies: if it isn’t complex, it doesn’t look complex. To make them look like real, complex characters and to give them the appropriate razzle-dazzle, every robot had to have thousands of articulated pieces and complex connections, plus layers of paint to look like car paint finishes. The swirl of the brush marks on the metal had to be there; the grease had to be there; the torch marks had to be there. Each of these robot characters needed layer upon layer of bump, texture, dirt, scratches and color.”

Strange Shapes

There are undoubtedly many other chapters to explore in The Manual of How to Make a Movie Robot, but we’ve got time for just one more. Having focused on robots based more or less on the human form, let’s briefly consider those that don’t look like people at all. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar features a pair of blocky droids called TARS and CASE, represented on set by pneumatically assisted bunraku-style puppets manufactured by special effects supervisor Scott Fisher. For a handful of shots showing the robots unfolding themselves into distinctly inhuman forms, Double Negative took over with animated CG versions.

In "Interstellar," the robots TARS and CASE were created on set as bunraku-style puppets, with animators at Double Negative taking over for shots that could not be achieved by practical means.

In “Interstellar,” the robots TARS and CASE were created on set as bunraku-style puppets, with animators at Double Negative taking over for shots that could not be achieved by practical means.

In Cinefex 140, animation supervisor David Lowry explained how practical experiments helped his team to devise the tricky CG robot rig required for Interstellar:

“I drilled holes into [wooden] blocks and used barbeque skewers as the joints. By playing with that, it became apparent how many different kinds of shapes you could create from just four basic blocks that have three joints each. Although it was simple, it became incredibly complicated very quickly.”

So, if there really were such a book as The Manual of How to Make a Movie Robot, which other cinematic cyborgs do you think it should include?

The Terminator photograph copyright © 1985 by Orion Pictures Corporation. RoboCop photograph copyright © 2087 by Orion Pictures Corporation. Ex Machina photographs copyright © 2015 by DNA Films and Universal Pictures. Chappie photographs copyright © 2015 by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures Inc., LSC Film Corporation and MRC II  Distribution Company LP. Interstellar photograph copyright © 2014 by Paramount Pictures.

Now Showing – Cinefex 154

Cinefex 154 - From the Editor's Desk

Who’s your favourite king of the swingers? Is it Caesar or Spider-Man? To help you decide, the new edition of Cinefex comes with two spectacular cover options. Subscribers will get Weta Digital’s brooding portrait of the unforgettable ape hero of War for the Planet of the Apes, while newsstand editions feature a dynamic action shot from Spider-Man: Homecoming, courtesy of Digital Domain. Order online and you get to make the choice yourself!

Whichever cover you select, the contents of Cinefex 154 bring you our renowned in-depth coverage of five of this summer’s hottest movies: Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to reflect on our August 2017 edition:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

We revisit a lot of old friends in this issue of Cinefex – characters and franchises we’ve covered many times before. But as I read through issue 154, I was struck by how significantly those characters and franchises have evolved through the years. Spider-Man: Homecoming is nothing less than a total reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, and the film boasts an entirely new look, tone and feeling.

We’ve followed the Planet of the Apes saga since Tim Burton’s 2001 remake; and yet, Joe Fordham’s coverage of War for the Planet of the Apes illustrates the leaps and bounds achieved in the creation of ape performances during those 16 years.

We weren’t around to cover the original Universal Mummy pictures, of course, but we were there for the 1999 Brendan Fraser version and its sequels. There, too, the advancements in technology and artistry have ensured that the most recent The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, has a fresh behind-the-scenes story to tell.

And Graham Edwards’ coverage of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales celebrates the visual effects heights that have been reached since the franchise began in 2003.

This issue features an off-the-beaten path newcomer, as well – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, from the visionary Luc Besson.

 Happy end of summer, everyone. I hope your Spider-Man lunchboxes are filled with your favorite sandwiches, chips and Moon Pies as you head back into the school year!

Cinefex 154 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will be swinging into your mailbox very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Production Sessions


The SIGGRAPH 2017 Production Sessions program provides a platform for creative professionals to explain their processes and techniques in the fields of computer animation, visual effects, games, virtual reality, themed entertainment, and the software applications used by the artists who create them. Each presentation ends with a Q&A session that allows attendees to quiz the experts.

New in 2017 is the Production Gallery, featuring motion picture and games artifacts from major studios. Check out the pitch boards from Moana, concept art and maquettes from Cars 3 and costumes from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The gallery will also showcase a 25th Anniversary exhibition from Sony Pictures Imageworks,’ with items from films including Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Men in Black, Ghostbusters and Stuart Little.

Watch the SIGGRAPH 2017 Conference Overview trailer:

Emily Hsu, SIGGRAPH 2017 Production Sessions Chair, commented:

“Since the Production Sessions program began, it has grown and evolved to become an attendee favorite with universal appeal. I am proud to be part of that tradition and to continue expanding the scope of Production Sessions content as well as initiating the all-new Production Gallery. While we have an amazing lineup that retains strong animation and VFX, we are also featuring a VR panel with Google Spotlight Stories and Oculus Story Studio and presenting a look at Blizzard’s trans-media approach in creating Overwatch. Plus, for the first time, we are bringing a live-action TV series to the SIGGRAPH stage.”

Highlights from the 11 SIGGRAPH 2017 Production Sessions include:

Spider-Man HomecomingThe Making of Marvel Studio’s “Spider-Man Homecoming”

Victoria Alonso, executive vice president of physical production at Marvel Studios, swings into action to explore the visual effects of Peter Parker’s newest adventure. Edwin Rivera, additional visual effects supervisor at Marvel Studios, presents alongside Method Studios second unit supervisor and visual effects supervisor Matt Dessaro, Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Lou Pecora and Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Theo Bialek.

Rogue One: A Star Wars StoryILM Presents: Behind the Magic, The Visual Effects of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

The visual effects team from Industrial Light & Magic discusses the effects work of the latest Star Wars epic centered on the theft of the Death Star plans by a small team of rebel infiltrators. John Knoll, ILM’s chief creative officer and senior visual effects supervisor, joins forces with lighting technical director supervisor Vick Schutz, CG supervisor Stephen Ellis, digital supervisor Russell Paul and layout supervisor John Levin.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2The Making of Marvel Studio’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Victoria Alonso returns with a team of intergalactic effects experts to discuss the dazzling visuals of the second chapter in Peter Quill’s cosmic odyssey. Visual effects producer Damien Carr and visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend explore a universe of wisecracking aliens and sentient worlds together with Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Guy Williams, Framestore visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner and Method Studios visual effects supervisor Nordin Rahhali.

Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets“Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets”

Sophie Leclerc, visual effect producer of Luc Besson’s epic new space adventure, explores the technologies deployed to create the fabulous universe adapted from the comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Joining her are Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Martin Hill, ILM CG supervisor Jose Burgos, ILM visual effects art director Christian Alzmann, Rodeo FX associate visual effects supervisor Peter Nofz and Rodeo FX concept artist Olivier Martin.

The annual SIGGRAPH conference is a five-day interdisciplinary educational experience in the latest computer graphics and interactive techniques, including a three-day commercial exhibition that attracts hundreds of companies from around the world. The conference also hosts the international SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, showcasing works from the world’s most innovative and accomplished digital film and video creators. Juried and curated content includes outstanding achievements in time-based art, scientific visualization, visual effects, real-time graphics, and narrative shorts. SIGGRAPH 2017 will take place from 30 July–3 August 2017 in Los Angeles. Visit the SIGGRAPH 2017 website or follow SIGGRAPH on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram for more detailed information.