A warm hello to my regular followers and the ever growing numbers of special effects fans who are still discovering NZPetes Matte Shot. Today I'll be covering the 1988 George Lucas-Ron Howard picture WILLOW, one of the most spectacular visual effects showcases that emerged during the final phase of the traditional hand made special effects era - an era where stunning vistas were conjured up by being painted on glass; elaborate in camera multi-plane gags were created through careful planning, pragmatic solutions and a great deal of old fashioned camera knowhow; where dazzling set pieces were assembled element by element, negative by negative on the optical printer in such complex, time consuming and often exhaustive, unforgiving fashion that would most likely leave a modern day CG compositor quaking in his boots. The film was loaded with all manner of magical trick shots - some old and some new - and I'd regard it as among the finest work delivered by Industrial Light & Magic.
The 1980's was an exciting time for many effects fans as we eagerly awaited the next ILM project, or movie that just happened to have that effects house as an a contributor, often with little regard for the film itself. Industrial Light & Magic were at the top of their game throughout the decade with, for this fan at least, an enviable expertise in the fields of matte art, miniatures and cel animated effects in particular, which thrilled me then and still do so now.
|Co-Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett|
WILLOW was a large budget fantasy tale that producer George Lucas had been wanting to put into production for some years. The story of a band of merry little adventurers in a mythical land who are tasked with arranging the safe passage of a special infant in order to put a stop to the sneering wickedness of the thoroughly vile Queen Bavmorda, and told in a very Tolkien-esque fashion. Filming took place on diverse locations such as here in New Zealand, Wales and at Elstree Studios outside of London, as well as some pick up shots made during post production in California.
The mammoth trick shot roster on WILLOW where over 350 visual effects were required would necessitate no fewer than three overall Visual Effects Supervisors: Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and Michael McAlister, with ILM veteran Christopher Evans as Matte Painting Supervisor. Each were tasked with overseeing their own effects sequences which were divided up among the supervisors into specialised fields such as Tippett supervised the stop/go motion creature sequences, Muren taking on the ethereal fairy sequences and groundbreaking transformation shots, and McAlister having the substantial load of some 170 so called 'Brownie' shots - photographing and compositing eight inch tall elf like forest folk into life size settings and action sequences via blue screen travelling matte photography and complicated pin block techniques to allow maximum freedom in compositing.
WILLOW would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Special Visual Effects in 1988 along side the dynamite Bruce Willis actioner DIE HARD and the largely animated WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, with the bunny cartoon-noir snapping up the FX Oscar unfortunately as I feel WILLOW really deserved it (and don't even get me started on BLADERUNNER losing out to that bug-eyed E.T in the effects category a few years earlier... is there no justice in the world?) , but I guess ROGER RABBIT was a bigger hit and ain't that how it works? I mentioned this to Matte Supervisor Christopher Evans and he too felt somewhat disappointed at the outcome that year.
So, without further ado, let's take a pleasant journey to a land far, far away, of little people, even littler forest folk, rather fetching fairies and their drop dead gorgeous fairy queen, a wicked old hag with a pandora's box bursting with nastiness and a two headed dragon ........... oh, and some nice New Zealand scenery.
*In preparing this retrospective I am most grateful to former ILM Supervising Matte Artist Chris Evans for his reminiscences, technical explanations and photographic material pertaining to WILLOW's many wonderful matte shots.
|ILM Supervising Matte Artist Christopher Evans|
To create the thirty shots I worked closely with Director of Matte Photography Craig Barron, Optical Supervisor John Ellis, some four Matte Artists - Caroleen Green, Michael Pangrazio, Sean Joyce and Paul Swendsen - in addition to model makers, animators, effects editors and the production staff at Industrial Light and Magic. We began designing shots in September 1987 and delivered finals in April 1988.
|Ron Howard, George Lucas, Craig Barron & Chris Evans discuss matte concepts|
Various traditional and innovative photographic techniques were used including latent image and optical compositing. Wherever possible, camera movement was introduced. To create the boom shot of the canyon maze, the live action area was rear projected into a low-relief painting surrounded by a multiplane miniature set and photographed with a motion control camera system.
A new technique pioneered at the ILM Matte Department was the double-exposing of a matte painting over an exposure of a miniature set, so that the two images are blended together at the artist's discretion. Combining the details and textures of a miniature with the perspective and atmospheric lighting of a painting would bring a new dimension of realism to the matte shot - as in the scenes of the Queen's castle - and I believe set a new standard for the effects industry in this area.
By creating convincing illusions of a fantastic, yet believable world of make-believe, I know the matte paintings contributed greatly to the look and feel of WILLOW. Ultimately, the success of these shots was the result of the dedication and artistic and technical excellence shared by the team who had worked closely together producing matte painting effects on over twenty-one motion pictures. It was a privilege to lead this group in creating these matte shots for WILLOW.
|Chris Evans told me that this shot was one of matte cameraman Craig Barron's "brilliant concepts". A latent image sunrise, filmed undercranked to slightly speed up the movement of the clouds across the sky, with a large 4x8 foot sheet of Masonite carefully cut out to resemble mountainous contours set up between the camera position and the actual sunrise. This latent negative was then taken back to ILM where matte painter Paul Swendsen added subtle detail to the silhouette that was already masked on the film. Mist and birds were added in a second pass, with the six actors, having been photographed separately at Skywalker Ranch in silhouette at magic hour bi-packed to hold out the mist exposure. These were two very old tricks, latent image and bi-pack used together and were commonly used back in the heyday of cinema by vintage practitioners such as Clarence Slifer, Jack Cosgrove, John P. Fulton and Fred Sersen on scores of motion pictures.|
|One of the dozens of conceptual painted sketches made by Chris Evans, with this being the overall look for the scene with the Nelwyns leaving their village.|
|Christopher Evans at work on one of several paintings he personally completed for the film. The plate is original negative or latent plate shot in Marin County, California with the matte taking up approximately half of the screen.|
|The finished shot combined on original negative. George Lucas requested Chris to paint landscapes based on the area around Qui Lin in China with many unusual limestone rock formations.|
|Sean Joyce matte shot combined in front projection, with painted giant trees behind the actors and a miniature tree trunk in the foreground.|
|Conceptual painting by Evans for the Birney Falls scene.|
|Another matte concept piece by Evans for the sequence where the characters traverse a dangerous gorge via fallen log. Hmmm, I wonder if there was ever a 'deleted' spider pit sequence here?|
|Stages of the gorge matte shot with extensive painting, very limited live action (the actors only) and what appears to be some sort of miniature foreground foliage added as a separate element?|
|A closer look at the matte art.|
|The final scene.|
|Matte concept painting by Chris Evans with technical details for the camera operator.|
|Stages for reaching the final composite. I'm pretty sure that the distant landscape and volcanos are actual location plates shot here at Mt Tongariro in New Zealand.|
|A quick 'blink and you'd miss it' matte enhancement where the sky and sun flare have been painted in.|
|Matte painted canyon walls in a shot that occurs just prior to the big WILLOW money shot, as illustrated below...|
|A closer look shows Assistant Matte Cameraman Wade Childress adjusting the process projector.|
|In this photo, model maker Paul Huston works on detail. The actual process screen will ultimately be flawlessly blended through painstaking painting to conform with the live action plate in terms to tone, hue and contrast.|
|Paul Huston applies texture to the canyon walls while Christopher Evans carefully paints the blend around the process screen. Evans also painted the sky backing.|
|ILM's AutoMatte camera system with vast canyon miniature beyond.|
|As tricky as the shot was, at a late stage George Lucas asked the team to add a crow flying through the canyon. Kim Marks photographed a crow against a white sky which was then bi-packed into the shot as the AutoMatte move was photographed.|
|The riders exit frame right while we the audience are still trying to find that blend!|
|ILM matte artist Sean Joyce at work on the problematic shot.|
|At left is the modest live action mock up at ILM where artist Sean Joyce has his turn at directing some stand ins for what will be a brief establishing shot. At right is the masked off plate prior to compositing.|
|A rare test composite, not properly balanced nor cropped to cut in with the 2.35:1 Scope production footage. Note the top edge of the matte art and the as yet non backlit window slits. The shot will also have a slight tilt.|
|Detail from Caroleen's magnificent matte art.|
|The final shot.|
|Matte Painter Caroleen Green at work on the mighty Throne Room shot.|
|For this closer view we have a live action foreground plate, a miniature castle with painted extension and DX'd steam. A Michael Pangrazio matte as best Chris can recall.|
|Live action plate shot in Wales with a partially constructed castle facade matted to a combined miniature/painted element.|
|The somewhat imposing castle of the equally imposing Queen Bavmorda is seen here in a dramatic reveal by way of a tilt up on a large and detailed Caroleen Green matte painting.|
|Close look at some of Caroleen's detailed stonework.|
|Another of Chris' conceptual paintings for a proposed matte shot.|
|Close up detail from Swendsen's matte art.|
|Paul's original matte painting clearly shows just how small the live action element would be.|
|Paul Swendsen hard at work. Apparently Paul left the project early.|
|Master matte painter Michael Pangrazio with his preliminary block in of the Kir Asleen castle.|
|Detail of Kir Asleen matte art.|
|An early unused concept painting for the Nelwyn village shot that concludes the film.|
|A later concept painting by Chris Evans that will form the basis for the sprawling vista at the films' end.|
|At left is the live action plate for the closing shot, photographed by Craig Barron in an empty field behind ILM. Just a few extras, some animals and mock up dwellings. At right Christopher Evans paints the sprawling vista.|
|The matte art.|
|Close up detail of Evans' matte art. Two live action plates will be projected in as well as photo cutouts of dense forest added in the near foreground.|
OPTICALS, FAIRIES AND BROWNIES:
|Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Muren (centre) directs the action with George Lucas seen standing at the back.|
|WILLOW's Animation Supervisor, Wes Takahashi at work creating scale fairy wings out of clear plastic carefully etched and shaped.|
|The fairies in full flight with a gorgeous ethereal glow and wings-a-flapping, complete with motion blur.|
|Age old techniques utilising ripple glass manipulation to create a deliberate distortion were applied to the scenes of Cherlindrea interacting with Willow and companions.|
|More match move travelling matte work.|
CEL ANIMATED EFFECTS:
|Queen Bavmorda's arm begins to turn to stone in this brief shot, with some nicely effective cel animation and roto work by Gordon Baker to an almost gruesome effect.|
|Visual Effects Art Director Dave Carson designed the sequence and in particular the look of the mysterious red smoke that envelopes and causes grief to the evil Queen.|
|Some terrific - and no doubt terrifying to kiddies back in the day - skeletal animation flashes achieved by Tim Bergland.|
|Great stuff, though borrowed I suspect from the aforementioned Universal picture SON OF DRACULA.|
STOP & GO-MOTION ANIMATION:
|Some behind the scenes views of the work in progress.|
|It's really outside of the intent (and interest) of this blog, but I'll include a few frames of the CG as it is part of what began as a physical effects sequence.|
|A highly evocative conceptual painting for the big effects laden finale with the two headed Eborsisk and a legion of guardsmen in Queen Bavmorda's lair.|
|Three foot long scale models of the beast were built at ILM complete with breathing bladders and a fully articulated posable armature skeleton to enable both stop motion and go motion animation.|
|Animator, effects cameraman, matte artist and all round visual effects expert Harry Walton carries out traditional stop motion for a subtle close up shot whereas the go motion process tended to be used more for the major puppet moves.|