(Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991 – Tristar Pictures)
“Visual effects have destroyed movie making,” says Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams, self-declared maverick of computer animation, creator of 3D cyborgs, creatures and computer engineered weapons. His comment comes without hesitation, even though he considers himself fundamental in CGI’s overuse in Hollywood. 25 years ago, he was part of a team of animators at Industrial Light and Magic in California (ILM), who were challenged by director James Cameron to bring the fluid liquid metal terminator to our screens. This new terminator was slicker and faster than its predecessor, defined by Cameron himself as the Porsche to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Panzer Tank.
Next, he was asked to provide motion blur on the planned stop motion dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but he saw an opportunity and took it. He began a covert operation in the dark basement labs of ILM to create the whole T-Rex for Jurassic Park; confident it would look better than the planned use of stop motion dinosaurs provided by Phil Tippet and his team. Williams’ scheme was hatched, to have the test playing on the screen as producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall wandered the halls. “I pulled a bit of a gotcha moment, I ambushed them and they freaked out. There was no denying that it looked pretty darn good.” The industry responded to this breakthrough by backing the use of CGI. Williams was handed a world full of options, or so you would think. Instead, the team at ILM were given Casper the Friendly Ghost to work on. “I fucking hated Casper when he was 2D let alone 3D, CGI was this beautiful adolescent young girl and was turned into a prostitute in one film.”
(Jurassic Park, 1993 – Universal Pictures)
Refusing to work on Casper, Williams was given the film Mask with Jim Carrey; a kind of tribute film to the great Tex Avery, creator of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, only using computer graphics of the time. In 1996, Williams left ILM with fellow animators Mark Dippe and Clint Goldman to set up a production company called HoytyBoy. Their biggest work was on The Wild for Walt Disney Pictures, which Williams himself directed. Originally pitched to him as ‘something like Shrek’ the film changed in tone drastically over the course of production. “Every time they screened the film, the audience would become younger, I was not the right guy for that. I don’t do cute.”
It’s a shame that his work on the development of CGI rubbed people the wrong way, specifically with the stop motion team who were raring to go on Jurassic Park. “I created a lot of bad blood, they didn’t really see it coming – they saw themselves as the special effects elite and we saw ourselves as visionaries” he says ruefully. The challenge from the stop motion team is one that Williams took by the throat.
Visually, his work in the 90s stands up well. He says this is because ‘there was more of a synergy back then,” and this is true. The creation of the metal antagonist in Terminator 2 uses animated sequences sparingly. Williams’ role was to blend the animated shots, creating juxtaposition between the CGI and Robert Patrick’s real life performance with practical effects. Williams quickly recalls doing a talk on T2, Jurassic Park and Pacific Rim a couple years back, commenting, “Nobody wanted to listen about Pacific Rim, it’s just a video game in search of a filmsy script”.
Yet these films make money. Pacific Rim generated 411 million dollars globally and a sequel is being made. Whether good or bad, CGI is still breaking ground now. Only last year it was used to resurrect the late Paul Walker in Fast and Furious 7, with plans to recreate Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin for a new scene in the Star Wars spin off Rogue One. It won’t be long before our screens are littered with dead actors. This idea isn’t new though; with Williams saying that him and the team discussed this very idea close to 30 years ago, saying, “Film used to be like taking a chisel to granite but now it’s continuation and just a matter of time.” Williams thought this too was inevitable although the rest of the team disagreed, thinking he was ‘crazy’. He was right; these two films indicate Williams’ level of insight, even at such an early stage of CGI development. The possibilities are endless, but is this a good thing? The form certainly has its comical uses, with the placement of a six-pack on Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider springing to mind. It even introduces the ability to return to a film and make changes, much to many fans dismay. In 1995 George Lucas tasked Williams to add Jabba the Hutt into a scene that was originally cut for the re-release of Star Wars: A New Hope, as he was impressed with the technological advance in Jurassic Park. Many fans said this degraded the film, yet the changes made are those that Lucas wanted at the time but the technology was not up to scratch. When asked if this was a good thing CGI has permitted, Williams simply states “No, not necessarily.” Funnily enough, Williams was an extra on the film in his teenage years and can be spotted just before the famed cantina scene in Mos Eisley.
With some films pushing for a return to practical effects, maybe Williams will grow to love the form again. J.J Abrams’ recent Star Wars film marked the return of the use of as many practical effects as they could muster, and was greatly received by fans that longed for the feel of the original trilogy and not the green screen reliant prequels. Of course, CGI was still used though sporadic. Could cinema do without CGI? Williams thinks not, “It’s kind of like asking someone to get rid of their iPhone.”
Words by Harry Faint
This has been taken from Rushes Magazine – other features and interviews can be found at rushesmagazine.com