Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thank you, Mr. Spielberg

Photo 1: It's Oscar night. Since I am not the partying type, I thought I might celebrate by paying tribute to one of my personal favorite film makers and wish Steven Spielberg good luck this evening! Not that he needs it! Steven has been nominated 15 times and has won 3 Oscars. Add that to the Saturn Awards, the Critic's choice, the BAFTAs, the Emmys, The DGAs, the mantle in Spielberg's office looks like a model of Manhattan made out of trophies! All well deserved, as the man is a master of his craft. But I still have fingers crossed for his latest film, Lincoln. My opinion may be biased, as it was the last Spielberg film I worked on since I headed out to fight my own civil war in the world of independent film.

 Photo 2: Of all the Spielberg projects I got to work on, Lincoln was probably the simplest for me. No futuristic spaceships to engineer, oversized dinosaurs to scale, entire cities to build. My job was to take all the existing civil war reference the research department collected, and turn it into small scale physical models for Steven to plan shots with. The first round of models were VERY simple, put together with purchased plastic soldiers and crude cardboard houses. We assembled the earliest versions, like this layout of Henry House Hill, where the battles of Bull Run were fought, on a block of foam in my backyard. I would carve the foam to match the contours that Steven and Production Designer Rick Carter were looking for, and Steven could place the figures around to see how the "landscape" would work.

Photo 3: As the scale and layout started to make more sense, I would elevate the detail of the model to make it more understandable to other crew members that were joining the production. By adding more soldiers, horses, wagons, trees, and a more accurate model of the house, people handling locations, extras, animal, stunts, and special effects could get a stronger sense of what Steven was looking for. 

Photo 4: Here's Henry House completed. This model was used for a presentation Steven made to distributors for the film, showing how he planned to make an epic recreation of the Civil War at a moderate budget.  Every extra, cannon, and fence post would be accounted for in pre-production, so the camera would capture every dollar that was spent and put on the screen. 

The meeting was held in the boardroom at Amblin Entertainment, Steven's production facility in the heart of Universal Studios. The entire space was filled with reference photos, maps, location photos, illustrations, and charts that showed how the movie would be made. Pictured from left to right, Production Designer Rick Carter (nominated tonight for best design), illustrator James Clyne, and Assistant Art Director Stephan Dechant prep for the presentation.


Photo 5: A slightly more complicated aspect of my job during pre-production involved recreating the original battle fields on the topography of the current filming locations. Many of the actual sites are historic landmarks, or have been severely altered, or are surrounded by modern structures that made filming too difficult. Production had to find other spans of land that had similar properties to the actual sites, and we added specific landmarks to make them more accurate. I used satellite photos and geographical maps to construct miniature landscapes that perfectly matched the locations production would rent for filming, then built all of the structures and miniature armies for Steven to move around for planning. Some of these models got pretty fancy. The one pictured on the left actually folded up like a briefcase so Steven could take it to set and use it as a table top model in the field!

Photo 6: As I mentioned, Lincoln was the last Spielberg release I worked on, and over the course of the 13 projects before it, I earned the unofficial title of "souvenir maker."  Steven enjoyed my models so much, designers and producers started making sure that I made at least one piece that would be designated to the director's collection. These models always had purpose in the design process, but as the creation of them developed into a staple, the subject of the models usually became an element of the script that Steven was most excited about. For Lincoln, Rick Carter chose to set me loose on a diorama of the Battle of the Wilderness.

Photo 7: Grant and Lee sent their armies to fight in the dense woods, which was littered with the skeletons of fallen soldiers from a previous battle. Steven was very excited about the prospects of filming something so haunting, as he felt it summed up the darker tones he wanted the film to have. 

Photo 8: I always talk about my model work in a general sense, but I guess I should take this opportunity to clarify the various categorizes I have worked in.  Concept model making is were I take film makers' ideas, either verbally or from concept illustrations, and bring them to physical dimension ( I used to say 3-dimensions, but these days everybody assumes that means CG!) as a model or maquette. Set design models are built from blueprints, usually unpainted, simple foamcore, often called "White Models". Screen Miniatures are fully detailed scale models used within the film to simulate larger structures or objects. A model such as this Battle of the Wilderness would be considered a presentation model, or as Producer Colin Wilson once called them, "ridiculously expensive toy trophies!".

Photo 9: Often times, film models are disposed of once the production is done with them. Especially the White models, which usually are pinned together and barely survive pre-production! But for my "presentation models", which are intentionally destined for a longer life, designing and building them is different than any other form of film model making. I need to make them last, and more importantly, the ones for Spielberg need to really put on a show! The Wilderness model diorama was constructed in a shell I envisioned as the butt of a Civil War cannon, the back interior wall painted like a Virginia spring sky. Many of the trees were sculpted and cast in clear resin, and flicker bulbs with spinning gobos were installed in the base to make the woods look like they were burning! There were even a few miniature smoke machines (from HO scale trains) to fill the domed forest with smoke and fog!

Photo 10: The Amblin boardroom used to be the staff arcade, filled with old school stand up video cabinets, and classic pinball machines. After Dreamworks formed, it was recruited for much more formal business, but Steven still kept his hand in keeping the decor fun, filling the room with original works from his earlier movies, as well as an amazing collection of original art from MADD magazine, all parodying his films. Working with Spielberg was a dream come true for me, and every day there was something to remind me of that. On this day, it was seeing a model I build sitting in the same room as the ACTUAL ILM shooting miniature of E.T.'s spacecraft.

Photo 11: Lincoln was the last film, but I have so many great stories from the others. I could probably, and should probably, write a separate post for each one, but I will skim through some highlights as an overview without keeping you away from the red carpet for too long tonight! 

I grew up idolizing Spielberg, with his movies dominating my top ten list. To this day, nothing comes close to bumping Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind from my all time favorites. So you can imagine how I must have felt during my first encounter with him. The question is, WHICH first encounter? We actually crossed paths a few times before I was officially part of his crew, so each "first time" had a new level of excitement. It was actually Steven who tipped of Katzenberg at Disney to buy "Spaced Invaders", the second film I ever worked on in Hollywood, and I was told that most of the things he liked about the film were contributions I had made. I was 18, and on cloud 9 hearing that he actually liked my work. A year later, I was called in to do work on animatronic snakes for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I got to put on Harrison Ford's actual leather jacket, and if I died right then, life would have been complete. Shortly after that, I was subcontracted to make some dinosaur models, and got to be a fly on the wall during all the buzz (Is that a pun?) about the computer taking over our industry during Jurassic park. 

Looking back, what I would consider to be the "real" first time I worked with Steven has to be on Jurassic Park: The Lost World . I had just come off Batman Forever, where Steven's storyboard artist, Dave Lowery, had seen my work. He recommended me to Rick Carter, who called me in. I owe Rick a lot, because after he reviewed my portfolio, he said, "I don't see what I'm looking for in your book, but I have this gut feeling you can do it". It's pretty rare that people in the industry, working on such high profile projects, roll the dice on new crew members, but Rick's gamble turned into over a decade of steady employment for me, and multiple collaborations with Rick including Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, and 5 other Spielberg projects.

The picture above was taken during a storyboard session where Steven used my Lab town model to plan his shots. The fact that I look like the only one standing still really expresses how I felt whenever I would take a moment to think about what I was doing. JP:LW was early on, but the surreal feeling of realizing you are standing next to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time as he uses your work to act out his genius never goes away. He would be in deep though, then explain a shot or sequence out loud, ending with a look to me and "What do you think about that?" The first few times he asked, I don't even remember being able to form full sentences in reply.

Photo 12: The main reason I kept getting called onto Spielberg projects was the fact that Steven liked how quickly I could "sketch" in physical dimensions. Ordinarily, the design process would start with drawings, work into blue prints, then be made into white models. This could take days, often weeks, and sometimes months. Steven thinks very spacially, his camera work has lots of movement. Even the greatest illustrators (and he has ALL the greatest ones) are still only capturing a single frame of the film at a time. He likes to use models so he can see all the angles, and move around them to find the greatest way to convey the emotion of each shot. But he wanted models to look at BEFORE designs were done, so I was given the task of taking a small amount of information and jumping right to the final steps. This model of the town on Site B was the first model I built for Lost World, based on some short discussions and some napkin sketches Rick and Dave did over lunch. I worked non stop for 48 hours, and when Steven saw it, he ran into the office exclaiming, "Toys? For me!?!"

Photo 13: Realizing that the concept of sketch models would work, Rick and I formulated a process that I still use to this day. I build the models using plastics and other materials that are sturdy enough to be permanent, but flexible enough to make adjustments in case the idea changes. I do a basic pass to get the proportions and shapes in place, then continue to build on the same model as each phase is approved. So, for instance, a simple Pacific Island house would start out as a basic box with windows, then elevate to something like what you see here as different textures and details add to its "personality".

Photo 14: The layers keep adding on, finally reaching a painted stage, and then progressing to a "scenic" stage. In the case of Site B, the town had been abandoned to a tropical storm some time ago, so the buildings where tattered and overgrown. My model was used to convey the extent that Rick wanted to express the Man vs. Nature theme. On some projects, the course of sketch model to final product can take a singe day, while on others, it can be years! The building I constructed in the first 48 hours of employment on Lost World were tinkered with for about 6 months, changing shape and size to accommodate the sequences in the film as they changed.

Photo 15: That model grew, too! Even though it never changed from the original 1/4"=1', the finished town expanded past the initial 4'x8' table and ended up needing its own bungalow to house the 15 feet of jungle I had to build around it! The guys at the mill built custom tables that had trap doors so I could stand up in the middle of the model to work on it!

Photo 16: The best example of "sketch modeling" for Lost World is probably the lab. Rick gave me a magazine clipping of a dinosaur ribcage, and a photo of some curved tin roof from a Frank Lloyd Wright building or something. He liked the way the two items echoed each other, and wanted the lab to pull from both. The idea was that it was the highest tech money could by, but once the island claimed it back, it just became another fossil. I took the concept and just started building, using the photos and clippings as inspiration. The "sketch" was integrated into the town model, and finished to look like what you see in the final film. Once approved, the set designers actually drafted plans based on the model, which is completely reverse of the norm!

It was amazing to see the lab built full size on the Universal backlot. I felt like I had shrunk to 1//4 scale walking through the front doors. Every detail I had put in the miniature was matched full size. The set is still there, hidden behind the plane crash for War of the Worlds. Sadly, as life imitates art, the backlot is reclaiming the lab as its own, and it has deteriorated so badly that I can't imagine they will let it stand much longer.

Photo 17: The biggest hurdle for me as an art department modeler was trying to reset the bar. If I built a model in two days, the next one was expected over night. If I made a model with working lights, people would want the new version to have running water. And I'm not joking! I made several Lost World set design models with actual working water falls! Every detail mattered, like keeping in touch with the guys at Stan Winston Studios to make sure that the paint jobs I did on the miniature dinosaurs matched the schemes they were designing for the full size dinos.

Photo 19: All of that detail, and most of those models were never seen by anyone outside of the office. They played an important role in the development of the films, but it was often hard to explain that my work was ON the film, but not always IN the film. I had the best of both worlds, though, when Steven liked my design model of Jurassic Park: San Diego so much that he decided to feature it in the movie! Why a hunting party would bring a delicate architectural model half way around the world to do a video presentation is beyond me, but I didn't really care. Watching the giant animatronic triceratops destroy it on set was one of the greatest moments of my life!

Photo 20: Lost World opened so many doors for me, and was the beginning of a whole new world. I learned so much, was exposed to so many things I only ever dreamed of seeing. I grew as an artist and a filmmaker, and the education never stopped. I also made some of my most treasured friends during that time. Above all, Lost World was fun! We laughed every day, and got to be as creative as our imaginations let us. I miss those times, especially the free reign we had over the Universal lot. I'll never forget our lunches on the roof of the Psycho house!

Photo 21: Steven is famous for helming multiple projects at once, perhaps the most legendary story being about him directing Jurassic Park via satellite while on location for Schindler's List. Most people can barely keep up with one small movie, never mind directing two of the most influential movies of all time at the same time! I got to witness his dual process (Or is it Duel process?) on several occasions, the first being pre-production on Amistad while Lost World was in mid-principal photography. I hadn't even started packing up my tool kit when I was asked to create the on-camera miniature ships for the historical drama. 

Why I chose to pole dance on the Amistad, I don't know. I think I just set US history back a few thousand years...

Photo 22: I've mentioned in previous posts that it was Batman Forever that inspired me to start my merchandising company. By the time I was employed at Amblin/Dreamworks, Legends in 3 Dimensions was in full swing. I usually had works in progress, factory samples, or just my favorite pieces on my desk while I was working on Steven's films. One day while he was in to review some models, he noticed a bust of Greedo sitting there. He asked if I had done it, and I explained that it was part of my tribute to all my favorite sci-fi movies. He said, "Where's E.T.? George gets one and I don't?" I said, "Lucas gave me the license. Universal won't!" He picked up the phone on my desk and called someone, and the next day I was in a meeting about making this E.T. bust for the 20th anniversary collection.

Photo 23: Steven was very helpful with the project. I explained that it was my goal with L3D to create the most accurate versions of the subjects I was sculpting as possible, and to involve the creators, designers, and directors as much as I could. Any access he could get me to reference used for the film would make the E.T. bust that much better. So...he gave me E.T.! The actual, real E.T. It was delivered to my house in a big crate, and I got to keep him for weeks. E.T. was in my house. It still gives me goosebumps to think about it, even 15 years later.

Photo 24: Not every project I work on makes it to the big screen. Or small screen. Or any screen, sometimes. There was a handful of Spielberg projects I worked on after Amistad that shut down before they were filmed. This is usually because I am brought in during a "development" stage, where the projects are close to being ready, but all the details are not quite worked out. Sometimes movies shut down because they can't get the right stars, or locations aren't available, or budgets become to high after the art department designs a bunch of crazy expensive stuff. Sometimes directors just don't feel confident in the material, even if they thought the initial idea was solid. And sometimes a better idea is too good to pass up. 

At one point, Steven was slated to direct Memoirs of a Geisha. I was brought in to create set design models, such as this work in progress of the Tipsy House. 

Photo 25: Dennis Gassner was Production Designer, and he was fond of my sculpting abilities. He asked me to create custom scale figures for all the models, including a set of 1/4" geishas performing a tea ceremony. The larger geisha on the left is 1/2" scale, and I built a wooden and rice paper dollhouse scale version of the Okiya that ended up being a gift to Steven's daughters after the film shut down. This time, the movie wasn't made because Steven felt that the story was too dire to be his first release for the new millennium.

Photo 26: No one was sure what Steven was going to do next, so I assumed Memoirs shutting down meant I was temporarily out of a job. But I had no sooner finished crating up the Geisha models when I was called down to the Fox lot. The new project didn't have a script yet, but I was handed a photocopy of a short story by Philp K. Dick called "Minority Report". The film reunited me with my long time friend Ron Mendell, who got me started in set design model making, and together we did concept models for the hovercopters, future cars, the precog chambers, and the insanely complicated Precrime Precinct. 

The 1/2" scale model of Alex McDowell's Precrime building was almost 4 feet tall and 10 feet across. the three stories of spiral ramps where intersected by hundreds of plexiglass planes, which formed offices cantilevering off the ramps. If you ever dripped glue on the windshield of a model car, you can imagine how nerve wrecking this model was to build!

Photo 27: I had just finished up pre-production on Minority Report when I got a call from Rick Carter asking me to meet him at Amblin the following day. He couldn't tell me why, but it was very important. It turns out that late Stanley Kubrick had left his final opus to Spielberg. Stanley had been developing A.I. Artificial Intelligence for twenty years, and wanted Steven to finish it. Steven idolized Stanley, as we all do, and was excited to start the project. But he owed Sony Memoirs, and Fox had Minority Report well underway. He knew the art department was key to keeping Stanley's vision, so he decided to have a to secret unit start working on the project before anyone even knew he was going to do it. The "untitled project" team consisted of myself, Rick Carter, illustrator Warren Manser, and my friend from New York, Glenn Urieta. Glenn came on to assist me with model building, and it was his first feature film. he had no idea that he would be one of only 5 people in the world to know what Spielberg was going to do next!

We spent the first few weeks in a private bungalow pouring through thousands of pages of notes, drawings, film clips, and research that Stanley had collected over the years. Chris Baker is a British concept artist that worked with Kubrick to develop a style for the world of AI, and we used his sketches and story boards as both a jumping point and an anchor as we progressed with the designs. An instant favorite of Chris's early work was the Rouge City Toll Bridge, which featured suspended road that spanned into tunnels running through women's heads!

Photo 28: It wasn't long before I was building a model of the Gigeresque bridge. However, this was one of those cases where I didn't GET long to build it. For some reason, I had to turn the finished model around, from raw sculpt to finished presentation model with working lights and moving cars, in less that 3 days! SO if you are wondering why we are dumping silicone onto the sculpture instead of doing a proper case mold, that's why!
Photo 29: The finished model. Even the little toll booths lit up! I actually fell asleep behind the wheel delivering this model to Warner Brothers. I ran a red light and got pulled over. A.I. was a dream project, but it was rough. I estimate I did 3 all-nighters a week for 18 months!


Photo 30: I didn't build any of the actual models used in the film for AI, just the design versions. But as I finished each one, they were crated up and sent north to ILM, where friends such as Grant Imahara measured and scanned them to create the final frames of film.


Photo 31: If you are wondering why I had to drive the model to the studio in the first place, its kind of a long story. But the short version would be because I built it at my house. I built all of the models from AI at my house! During the first weeks, Steven didn't want anyone to know what we were working on, so after we got through the research stage and I was ready to start building, he and Rick decided that it would be more discreet if I worked out of my own studio. After months of building and meeting at the BarnYard, it just became easier to leave everything over there rather than uproot the shop to Warner Brothers. Besides, with the amount of hours I was working, the closer I was to my bed the better. During one presentation after a round of all nighters, I fell asleep underneath one of the models as Steven showed it to Dennis Muren and Stan Winston. They were smoking cigars, and I woke up thinking the office was on fire!

Photo 32: AI was a very conceptual film, and some of the designs changed radically, and sometimes multiple times. I would say I built a few hundred models for that show, with at least a few dozen larger format presentation models such as this 8' long version of the Flesh Fair. Just like on Lost World, Rick and I worked from sketch models up to finished presentations. This photo is at the "grey" stage, more final than a sketch, but still taking notes and adjusting.

Photo 33: Here's a similar angle of the final model. You can see some of the alterations and additions. You can also note the insane amount of miniature lighting that went into this presentation model. The marquee even has mini neon, which actually exists now, but in 1999 we had create it ourselves. Milk was also delivered to your door in glass bottles!

Photo 34: That last statement wasn't true. I think milkmen became extinct in the early 80s. But digital cameras didn't exist yet! All of the images you are looking at in this post were shot on film. I couldn't find prints of these cool photos taken by Audie England, but I did manage to scrape up the proof sheets.  If you click to enlarge, you can see details such as the miniature Jumbotron screens, which were functioning LCD screens that hooked up to a lipstick camera so Steven could see the model on the model screen!

Photo 35: AI probably had more original city designs than any other movie ever. And each one had its own unique style. The most memorable one for sure was Rouge City, or Sex City. Every building was inspired by either breasts or phyllis. Stanley's original concepts were way crazy, like Clockwork Orange on EXTRA acid. But being that Spielberg represents a more family oriented audience, the breast count needed to be pared back. But Steven wasn't ready to let it go completely. We built multiple versions of this city in design model form, and Steven would pick out buildings he thought we could get away with. I remember him unveiling one model to Producer Kathleen Kennedy, who gasped, "Oh, Steven!" Spielberg shrugged and said, "Hey, it's Stanley's vision! The final version did not disappoint, thanks to the help of amazing concept illustrations like the above version done by the great Warren Manser.

Photo 36: Because Rouge City was such a debated subject, we decided to split the difference between white models and sketch models, knowing there would be massive changes. Using Warren's illustrations, I pasted up foam core buildings to look like presentation models, but they could quickly be cut down, modified, or replaced. 

Photo 37: Once the building designs were deemed acceptable for the targeted audience rating, I moved them to the "presentation" model level. Using the color illustration foam core version as the sketch base for proportions and measurements, I created each individual building using clay, plaster, and plastics. These refined versions were also shipped to ILM, where bigger physical models and digital versions were made for filming. 

Sidebar: You may notice a photo in the background of me on the set of Black Scorpion, directing the late, great Soupy Sales. If you know who that is, you are either a HUGE television buff, or were born before 1942!

Photo 38: This post started out about Lincoln, but now I can't stop thinking about AI. It probably was the longest amount of time I ever spent working on a single film, including those of my own! And so many different designs. Every environment in the film was fictional. The family's apartment, the medical facility, the hot air balloon tribe, the future ice excavation, the sunken island of Manhattan... so many, and there needed to be design models for everything! 

Another favorite was underwater Coney Island. The models were very elaborate, but highly stylistic and surreal. I painted them in all blue tones to simulate light at a depth, and accented them with pops of colors using coral and seaweed. I did several versions of the Blue Fairy, and the one that was chosen for the final was sculpted around a spare resin casting of my Lady Pendragon figure!

Photo 39: As with all things in Hollywood, not everything is destine to make it to the silver screen. One of the earliest AI projects was a city called Shanty Town, where Gigolo Joe takes David to hide from the scavengers looking for unregistered mechs to sell at Flesh Fair in early drafts of the script. The scenes were ultimately cut, and the massive city build was stripped down to a few cargo containers. 

Photo 40: The sketch model made it all the way to presentation form before the script was altered though. It would have been a huge set, but this polaroid of the finished model shows hints of Rick Carter's genius: building the set up against a freeway on-ramp and framing the opposite end with an oil pipeline would allow the camera to film in a contained area, but give the appearance that the set was bigger than it was. You may also note Rick's desire to use a real airliner fuselage in the construction. He was bummed when the set got cut, but he got his chance to haul in a jumbo jet years later for the crash sequence in War of the Worlds.

Photo 41: I needed a break after AI, so I started working on my own projects. Selling a few scripts led me to taking on the role of Executive Producer for ABC's Power Rangers, and I found myself with a few months of free time as that production was gearing up. John Myhre had taken over Production Designer duties on Memoirs of a Geisha, which was now up and running, even though Spielberg would now only produce. John knew I was on the project the first time, so he asked me to come back and pick up were I had left off. The schedule was much tighter this time, so most of the models were made of foam core, but I incorporated the color printout technique used on Rouge City to make everything look more finished. This is the final model of the Okiya House.

Photo 42: The first time around, Steven was making preparations to film the exteriors in Kyoto, Japan, where most of the story takes place. This time, however, circumstances made it impossible to shoot over there, so we had to actually recreate the village of Kyoto in Valencia, California! It was a massive, magnificent set, and John and Art Director Tomas Voth deserve the Oscar they got for it. I never got to see filming take place, as I had to leave right after pre-production to direct Power Rangers: SPD in New Zealand.

I made this 1/4 scale Kyoto model with my friend and assistant Scot Erb. He took over for me after I left, and started heading up model departments such as Dream Girls and Tropic Thunder. He's watching the academy awards right now hoping to celebrate a win with his Life of Pi art department.

Power Rangers led me on the path of producing and directing, so even though I can't resist building a prop or set here and there, I haven't gone back to full time studio art department jobs. Memoirs was the last time I built models for Steven. Wait, what? I know what you are thinking. But I said Lincoln was the last of Spielberg's films I worked on, but it wasn't at the time I worked on it. I guess I left that part out.

That big presentation meeting I was talking about? The distributors who attended all agreed that there wouldn't be enough interest in a presidential bio-pic, even one directed by Steven Spielberg. So we shut down. In 1994! I was there as it went through changes, saw different actors discuss the lead role, including Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford. Steven switched projects, but he never gave up on Lincoln. Almost a decade later, he got it in those theaters, and there was plenty of interest. Oscar levels of interest. That's why I believe Spielberg deserves the Oscar for Best Director tonight. He did much more than bring a vision to the screen. he championed a dream and made it a reality. As our forefathers would want us all to do.

You have been an inspiration to me all of my life. It has been the greatest honor to work with you, and I am thankful that there is no end in sight to the entertainment you bring to this world.

Thank you, Mr. Spielberg