Tag: Visual Effects

Digital Domain.. and the great VFX craftsmen..

Howdy All,

Came across a few old photographs of my time at Digital Domain, circa 1996.. In the visual effects world, that’s like dog years, every one of ours is like 160 odd years to us. So 1996 puts these pictures around 150BC in film VFX terms! Which makes these guys… well, its makes them advanced in years!

What they have in mileage does not diminish the spirit, creativity and sense of humor.. (despite Mark’s grave expression in the photo). They also have a credit list under their belts that most fan boys can only dream of!

They were practitioners of a ‘craft’, a way that has sadly been replaced by computer science and the idea that more rendering power will solve the problem. It’s a way of looking at visual problems in a simple practical way and cheating the effect, not simulating the effect. Huge difference here and one that can have huge cost implications. I’m not saying throw away the computers, but how about we start looking at these problems from the perspective of ‘craft’.

As the saying goes, give a man a hammer and every problem looks like a nail. No wonder vfx costs so much today.

The image that ends up on the screen is nothing more than a bunch of 2D shapes, some light, some dark and of varying colours, they are not the ACTUAL thing being depicted. So no matter how much software you throw at a film project, it all boils down to basic composition on a flat 2D surface and of course, story! For this reason I cant wait to see ‘Moon’.

These guys came out of the effects industry where limitation spawned creative visual solutions and in the process, iconic cinema visuals. In this CG age, I feel that the forest is in danger of being lost for the CG trees.. if it hasn’t already.


First old timer.. Ira Gilford. From Detroit if I remember correctly. One of, if not the first guy to design the original HOT WHEELS toy cars! He illustrated a ton of cars for the Fifth Element among other things. I cant quite remember what he was telling Ron here and I don’t really want to speculate either!! You’re a bad bad man Ira!! 😉


“Here.. I’ll draw you a picture of it..” Perhaps Ron’s expression says it all!! Ron Gress, matte painter, mural painter, fine artist in every sense of the word. Worked on Star Trek the Motion Picture and a million things since then. Great guy, great party host and collector of haute couture Hawaiian shirts! If you’re in the US and Reno in particular, go check out his mural at the Reno Hilton (I assume it’s still there.. otherwise see it on his blog)


Ron in his excitement phoning Mark.. “Hey Mark, guess what Ira just told me!”


“.. Stay put.. I’ll grab my duck whistle and be right there!”. Yes folks, Mark ‘senior model builder on Blade Runner’ Stetson! You could die a happy man with that credit alone.. That he made time for everyone, has probably forgotten more than most are still trying to learn, is a hell of a nice guy and complete gentleman, goes without saying and barely describes the man. That goes for all them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Fifth Element remains the pinnacle and highlight of my professional film career… and it’s because of these guys. Thanks fellas!

Tom 'Slappy' Johnson

(In ‘Deliverance’ voice)… I got me sum pic-tures of youuuu, I’m a gonna puttem on the innernet….

This my friends, is my friend Tom. Tom was one of the first guys I met at Digital Domain and the first man to ever hand me a loaded 9mm pistol… “Just in case..”, he said! He was kind enough to put me up while I found my own place in LA. Thanks man, you wacko!!

He can paint, sculpt, draw, he modeled all the buses flying around in the 5th Element, out of a sphere! He made some wicked ugly teeth too.. He has a penchant for wearing thick woolly socks in LA’s summer and talking like a ‘Good Fella’.

If you see him, say hi… and run!

These pics were taken when he was visiting Sydney town… sometime in the past…

Tom 'GoodFella' Johnson

More Optical Composites.. Cira 1985 – 1992

Variations on the theme of last post.. I couldn’t quite get perfect comps using this optical process, could have been my dodgy carpeted bedroom – makes for a bad studio – or that I was using an on-camera flash head – hand held – to expose the lith film in the laundry, may have all had something to do with the misalignment of the two elements. Still, I managed.. 

But as I said in the last post, Photoshop came out and I had to learn a whole new world.

Building the model kits was half the fun of course! 

Compositing.. The old fashioned way! 1985-1992

Ah.. the good ol’ days of imaging yore and a little Star Wars miniature photography. Are you tired of computers and long for a return to simpler times? I’m tired of computers but there is NO way I would go back into a darkroom just to comp two images together and wait a week for the result!
Here are some of my early attempts at image compositing – created WITHOUT a computer, using optical compositing tools, ie. cameras and film.
I used a 4″x 5″ view camera, litho film (as a mask), paper punch, a pin registration system (to keep the film aligned), a dark room and lots of patience!
Not sure if I still have it but I wrote up a manual on how to composite multi-element images together using a 35mm slide copier, lith film way back in my 9th and 10th year in secondary school.
The Process..
1. Beauty shot.
2. Is the same model, same position only backlit and all modeling light turned off.. (could have done better here and saved myself time in the darkroom later..)
Get those two shots processed at the lab and wait for their return…
From here I would painstakingly align both the beauty shot and silhouette shot together and tape them together.. Then I would punch them with a paper punch. If this was out, the whole thing would be out!
3. Is a Lith Film contact print of #2. Lith film is a super high contrast, super fine grain orthographic film. ie Pure black against clear film base. Which gives you a MASK!
4. Is #3 taped up with black tape and/or matte black paint to create a garbage matte.
5. Is a Lith contact of #4. Every time you make a lith contact you get a negative.
6. Is a lith contact of #5
** What I haven’t shown here is the BG image, which I cant seem to find unfortunately.
Okay, so I have a Beauty shot of the model, a BG image and two lith masks. All of these are pin registered and in alignment (hopefully) together.
7. Is the #1(Beauty shot) pinned onto the board and along with the lith mask #6 over the top of it.
I then shoot this with my 4″ x 5″ large format camera. I re-cock the shutter and leave the film in the back. Only the portion of the frame that has the model in it is exposed, the remainder of the frame is still UN-exposed.
8. Is the same as #7 except that the BG image has lith mask #5 placed over it. Then another exposure made onto the same piece of film as in step #7.
9. Final composite after it has been returned from the lab…
No sooner had I started to come to grips with this process, I found Photoshop!