James Cameron's Thoughts About VFX Will Change How You Look at Movies

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Few people have been as influential in the realm of digital effects as James Cameron. Seemingly with every film he releases, Cameron pioneers something new in the field. And while he may get the credit, he’s not the one doing the work. He’s not a true master of visual effects.


Masters of FX is a title both for a brand new book by Ian Failes as well as the 16 people the books meticulously covers. They are as follows:

  • Dennis Muren (Star Wars: Episodes IV–VI; Terminator 2: Judgment Day;
    Jurassic Park; A.I. Artificial Intelligence; War of the Worlds)
  • Bill Westenhofer (Babe: Pig in the City; Cats & Dogs; The Lion, the
    Witch and the Wardrobe; The Golden Compass; Life of Pi)
  • Joe Letteri (The Lord of the Rings trilogy; King Kong; Avatar; Planet
    of the Apes; The Hobbit trilogy)
  • John Knoll (Mission: Impossible; The Phantom Menace; Pirates of the
    Caribbean; Pacific Rim)
  • Phil Tippett (Star Wars films; RoboCop; Starship Troopers, Twilight Saga)
  • Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third
    Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner)
  • Rob Legato (Apollo 13; Titanic; The Aviator; Hugo)
  • Paul Franklin (Pitch Black; Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
    trilogy; Inception; Interstellar)
  • Richard Edlund (Star Wars: Episodes IV–VI; Raiders of the Lost Ark;
    Ghostbusters; Multiplicity);
  • Edson Williams (X-Men: The Last Stand; The Curious Case of Benjamin
    Button; The Social Network; Captain America films)
  • Karen Goulekas (Godzilla; The Day After Tomorrow; 10,000 BC; Green Lantern)
  • Chris Corbould (Golden Eye; Die Another Day; Christopher Nolan’s The
    Dark Knight trilogy; Inception)
  • Ian Hunter (The X-Files; The Dark Knight; The Dark Knight Rises;
    Inception; Interstellar)
  • John Rosengrant (Terminator films; Jurassic Park; Iron Man films; Real Steel)
  • Scott Farrar (Back to the Future, Minority Report, Transformers, World War Z)
  • John Bruno (Ghostbusters, The Abyss, True Lies, X-Men: First Class)

The book is now out and contains a foreword by both Cameron as well as Lorenzo di Bonaventura, producer of the Transformers films. We asked Failes if we could run some of Cameron’s foreword for you all, and he happily obliged.

In it, the director of Terminator, Titanic and Avatar waxes poetic about all kinds of special effects and how they’ve evolved. He explains how the people in the book solved problems that didn’t have solutions and how his background in effects gives him a connection to this world. Here’s an excerpt of Cameron’s foreword:

This book celebrates 16 masters of visual effects. I know most of them personally, and seven of them I’ve worked with over the years. A few I consider close friends. Though they know me as a director, I actually started out in their game, doing visual effects on low-budget movies, so they also know me as someone who talks their language. This makes me both sympathetic and responsive to their needs but also demanding, because I know what’s possible. Often the job requires knowing not just what’s possible, but what CAN be possible, because we are constantly inventing to bring the impossible to life on the screen.

The masters in this book are collectively responsible for some of the most stunning images ever projected on the world’s screens. They have transported audiences to realms of fantasy and brought fantastic creatures and characters to life that are so iconic they are indelible parts of our shared global cultural dreamscape. And yet, though most of them are still actively producing astounding imagery, the tools and techniques they use now are not at all the ones they started out with. These masters have also pioneered the very techniques that make movies the dazzling experience they are today.

Just as the age of sail gave way to steamships, and the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile, technology advances relentlessly. In our world what was once novel and bleeding-edge becomes the norm within a few years. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the visual-effects world.


I think back to when I was a young VFX practitioner in the early 1980s and compare it to where we are today. At that time we built physical miniatures and photographed them with cameras, which drove strips of light-sensitive film through mechanical movements as precisely machined as Swiss watches. Often we would take those images and combine them together using arcane optical printers that nevertheless often yielded jaw-dropping results. Think Douglas Trumbull’s images for Bladerunner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Richard Edlund’s work on Star Wars, if you want to visualize that technique’s golden age.

We used to paint matte paintings on glass, and combine them in the camera with live action or they would be combined later in the optical printer. Sometimes we would use forced-perspective techniques like foreground miniatures to extend sets. High-speed photography gave the models their correct movement so they would “scale.” Blowing up models was my favorite part of the whole process, which is a measure of how much we were all really just kids in grown-up bodies getting paid to stay kids. Since wire removal—and all the other myriad of paint-out techniques—was still over the horizon, we had to keep the wires hidden, using the thinnest gauges of piano wire or monofilament possible to fly a spaceship or to lash an alien Queen’s tail. There was front-screen and rear-screen “process” projection, both now obsolete, replaced by digital greenscreen compositing. Those massive projectors are now museum pieces, or for all I know being used to create artificial reefs. Not one of these techniques is still widely practiced. Cameras are digital now, with no moving parts except the lens elements and the fans that keep them cool. Film is arguably gone except for its use by a handful of filmmakers, none of them among the new generation. And certainly film is 100 percent gone for compositing. The optical printer itself has gone the way of the steam engine.


Though a small minority still clings to physical miniatures, the tide has overwhelmingly swept away the model shops with their buzzing Dremel-tools and the smell of resins, in favor of photo-realistic digital models. Physical miniatures have become a quaint artisanal niche, though still fondly remembered by those of us who started in that era, but nevertheless resoundingly obsolete. To bring a creature to life back then you had three choices: prosthetic makeup (or a rubber suit) on an actor, stop-motion animation, or an animatronic puppet moved by hydraulics or puppeteers. Stop motion is now gone, except for the occasional film that makes a virtue of the stylized look, and animatronics are in a slow sunset, now mostly phased out by computer animation.

Makeup is still very much with us, but its domain has been deeply eroded by the creation of photo-realistic, fully-expressive characters, such as Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings films, or the simians in the new Planet of the Apes movies, and the Na’vi characters done for my own Avatar—all three examples done by Joe Letteri’s amazing team at Weta Digital in New Zealand. Now, instead of actors having to express emotion through uncomfortable and constricting layers of foam rubber, they can express freely while a Performance Capture system literally captures every nuance of their performance and stores it in the computer so that animators may apply that performance to the humanoid character the actor is playing. It’s a whole new world.


To read the rest of Cameron’s foreword, as well as write-ups on everyone mentioned above, check out Masters of FX by Ian Failes.

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Contact the author at germain@io9.com.




I suspect that the book will be interesting in whatever passages deal with practical effects, and progressively less interesting as it gets more and more into the world of computers. I used to be an avid reader of books & magazines on visual effects, but I even finally stopped reading Cinefex as the CGI years wore on. This has nothing to do with any unwinnable arguments about the relative merits of practical effects vs. CGI — it is just that it is far more entertaining to read about the construction of miniatures and other practical effects than it is to read about which software package that the effects companies are using. Which is a shame, because there are plenty of talented people working in the field of digital effects and they deserve as much geek adoration as any old-school effects technicians. But the sad reality is that while I can look at pictures of miniatures until my eyes bug out, or read the same stories about Ray Harryhausen over and over again without losing interest, I cannot see how anyone but a programmer can maintain interest in the minutiae of computer programs.

Or, maybe I am just getting old.