Tuesday, June 30, 2015

2010: A PC Odyssey

Special-effects master Robert Hollander and others use the PC and AT to create futuristic graphics for 2010 and other films.

by Barbara Krasnoff

A starship zooms past a distant sun. A 12-foot salamander marches ponderously across a desert in space. A three-dimensional head revolves on a 360-degree axis. In the vast realms of the science fiction film, a great deal, if not most, of the filmmaker's emphasis is on special effects, or SFX - the camera tricks that help the audience suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy world onscreen.

Most of these effects are produced with highly sophisticated, and highly expensive, mainframe computer systems. However, two innovative experts in special effects have now developed PC-based systems that create sophisticated graphics and motion-control effects for the silver screen.

Futuristic Graphics

In 2010, the sequel to the classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, graphics experts produced background effects using a very down-to-earth IBM PC system.

In 2010, U.S. and Soviet astronauts are sent to investigate the fate of the ship lost in 2001. A multitude of on-board monitors flicker with animated computer graphics that depict segmented spaceships, mysterious black slabs, and human heads being examined (presumably) by the ship's scanners. These computer graphics are the creations of Video Image, a small, Los Angeles-based special-effects company. And, according to one of the general partners, Richard E. Hollander, 35 percent of them were created with a PC.

"Lots of people ask, 'Why did you choose a PC?' " muses Hollander in his Marina del Rey studio. " 'Why didn't you use a VAX?' The obvious reason was money, and the fact was we didn't have to have high-resolution graphics for this production. With the volume of production and the type of contract we were getting into, I felt we needed two machines in case one broke. The PC fit the bill."

Hollander, who has a degree in electrical engineering and computer programming from Berkley, had worked on such movies as The China Syndrome and Star Trek - The Motion Picture. When the bidding for the video effects for MGM's new film came up, he formed Video Image to try for the job. The new company included John C. Walsh, whose background is in art, along with Gregory L McMurry and Rhonda C. Gunner, both video editing and electronics specialists.

Europa on a video monitor on board the Leonov.

"We probably got the contract because we were able to provide all the art direction and the technical support as a single company," Hollander says. "The way it worked was that the director, Peter Hyams, first talked to Gregory, who gave the information to John and myself. We created the imagery back at the office, and Greg and Rhonda went on the set to play back the imagery we had created. That kind of vertical integration in a project, especially on like 2010, makes it go really smoothly for the director." He smiles, "It makes it nice for us, too."

Video Image uses two identical PC-based systems consisting of an IBM PC (one with a 10-megabyte and one with a 15-megabyte Davong hard disk), a floating-point math processor, a Cubicomp CS-5 Solid Modeling System, a backup PC unit with a 15-megabyte hard disk, a GPCO 20-inch by 20-inch digitizing tablet, and a 19-inch monitor.

Originally, Hollander used a Cromemco System 2 CP/M computer system for the less-sophisticated graphics production on 2010. But he found that the CP/M computer had distinct limitations.

"I felt that the PCs gave me a lot more power than I would have had with the cromemco. And the Cubicomp gave me a base of 3-D image creation. The day I got it, I started digitizing some models into the system. That's a lot of work."

"When I bought the Cubicomp, I was not looking for only a piece of hardware. I was looking for a piece of hardware combined with a piece of software. Software costs much more than hardware, especially in the area of 3-D graphics, and if you don't have decent software, you can't do anything when you get a new piece of hardware. It's an old rule for mainframes, and it holds just as well for PCs."

Video Image's PC systems use three basic pieces of software. The first two are Cubicomp's CS-5 Solid Modeling System and Time Arts's Easel. But these two alone didn't fill the studio's needs.

"We needed to move objects around in space, and to do quite a few other things, and we had to write some support programs to interface to those two packages. We call our support software HAL," Hollander says, grinning (HAL is the name of the computer featured in both 2001 and 2010). Hollander wrote HAL using Lattice C. Along with the improved facilities came a few frustrations, Hollander explained. "At that time, HAL didn't support the full address space of the processor, which was a severe nuisance, but using an overlay linker called pLink helped us get around part of that problem. Then Lattice C came out with full point conversion, and we suffered again because the floating-point processor software that we had did not do everything we needed."

"You can't do computer graphics without a floating-point processor," Hollander said. He then paused for a moment before correcting himself. "I should say, you can do anything you want - it just takes a long time."

Hollander's software, a modular overlay, which is structured to line up applications programs as they become necessary, forms the basis of many of the company's animation tools.

"We use a 3-D animation system to give coordinates for axes of movement. Our paint program, which has color map manipulation animation capabilities, is very important too. We also use a typesetting program. And we have programs that smooth out curves, an object interpolator that changes the shapes of objects as well as squeezing, rotating, and distorting them ... It never ends. The program grows every time we do a project because there's just so many different things you can do with computer animation."

Artistic Freedom

The Video Image crew had a lot of artistic freedom over what they could create for 2010's video monitor sequences.

"There was feedback between John Walsh and director Peter Hyams all the time," says Hollander. "We would make a Polaroid off the screen and attach it to the sheet showing the animation sequence. Then John would take that in to Peter, and talk, and Peter would say yes or no."

"Sometimes Peter wouldn't see an image until the day it appeared on the set. That's when Rhonda and Greg would save the day - if something wasn't exactly what Peter wanted, and if it could be manipulated with an effects generator or by editing, they would step in and take care of it."

Once the video animation had been completed, it went through an elaborate sequence of filming and refilming to suit the footage to the motion picture camera.

As Hollander explains, "Everything always went from the video tube to film, back to video tape, back to the monitor, and than finally got shot with camera. Greg made his own box that takes the sync information from the camera and jams the video equipment so that it plays back at the appropriate frequency and the appropriate phase. This rids the films of any of the artifacts (irregularities) that are typically found if you don't synchronize frequencies."

Now that 2010 is a reality, the Video Image crew is using its PCs for other projects, including a 20th Century Fox film called Bio Hazard. Hollander is thinking hard about using the PC AT, but even that will not satisfy his need for fast, sophisticated graphics.

"The AT is a whole new ball game," he says. "And I imagine in another 2 years there will be something to quadruple the capability of the AT."

He smiled. "That'll be nice."

(Originally published in PC Magazine, February 19, 1985. Copyright © 1985 PC Magazine.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lights, Camera, Action - The Making of 2010

The Odyssey continues in Peter Hyams' sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

The monumental task of bringing 2010 to the screen began in May 1983, when writer/director Peter Hyams started work on the screenplay.

PETER HYAMS: "This is a story by Arthur C. Clarke, which is – I am feeling – a healthy cushion to sit on, you know? Ultimately that's what we do, we tell someone's story, and this is a story conceived by an extraordinary mind."

During the script writing process Hyams and Clarke exchanged ideas via computer link-up between Hyams' office in Los Angeles and Clarke's home in Sri Lanka.

ARTHUR C. CLARKE: "I was, of course, very interested to see what the screenplay would be like, as compared to the novel. When indeed he had done one or two things which I told him at the time I would have probably incorporated into the novel. Maybe the best way of collaboration is for the two people to be on the opposite sides of the world, not to see each other until it's all over!"

PETER HYAMS: "The charter is, I think, when anybody makes a film – especially from a book you hold in high regard – is to fulfill the intent of the man who wrote the book."

Syd Mead, who originated the title 'Visual Futurist' to describe his work on Blade Runner, Tron, and Star Trek: The Movie, brought his unique design talents to 2010.

SYD MEAD: "The hardware, the interior of the Leonov, the general technical look, very much the complex in space; minimal cost for the maximum utilitarian value. And the fact that in space you don't need any ... it doesn't have to look nice, particularly, but it does have to work, absolutely. If it doesn't, it's a disaster. If I could describe in one word, the look of the hardware that I designed for 2010 it would be the word functional."

Production designer Albert Brenner worked with Mead to combine form and function at the visuals of the film.

ALBERT BRENNER: "So you're gonna see a lot of pipes and you're gonna see a lot of dripping oil, and you're gonna see a lot of hydraulic fluids and you're gonna see all the things that make if go. If we are going to be honest to our audience, and truthful to what happens, for the most part we want to convince you that what you're seeing is actually happening or can actually happen. It's literally much like the Columbia. It's designed by engineers, not by designers, interior designers. Wherever you can find a space to put a bunk and a person in, that's where you'll put them. So, what we're doing is basing everything we do on known research today. What we're doing today and what the research tell us is probable tomorrow."

The credits of visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund includes the Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and Ghostbusters.

RICHARD EDLUND: "2010 is not gonna necessarily look like 2001. In fact, it won't look like 2001. Certain things that were in 2001, like the Discovery, will re-appear. It's been spinning in orbit over Io since the end of 2001. And Jupiter is going to look like you've never seen it before because we're gonna have it moving, and we're gonna have a very ... it's a very expensive, complex way of getting there. But at the same time we have to take licenses to make it an interesting film, so therefore there will be poetic license taken. But it won't be ... there won't be absurd license taken."

Model shop supervisor Mark Statson.

MARK STATSON: "We have two projects that we are working on simultaneously: the construction of the Discovery model from the first film, and the construction of the Leonov model, which is new to this film, 2010. Records of the Discovery were all destroyed, along the Discovery miniature from 2001. Mr. Kubrick was concerned about the Discovery appearing in later science fiction films, so he had the models destroyed, and all the plans and drawings were destroyed. But our main source of information is a print of 2001 itself. Peter Hyams is most interested in the Leonov model, because most of the action in the film occurs within the hull of the Leonov. It will be represented in the film primarily by our miniature, so he is intensely interested in the development of the surface of it, the texture and the overall look of the ship."

The Starchild in 2010.

After spending nine months on pre-production, Peter Hyams and a seasoned crew began principal photography on 2010 in February, 1984.

Hyams cast the film with a distinguished group of actors, including Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, and Bob Balaban. With a 71 day shooting schedule 2010 emerged as one of the largest scale productions of the year.

PETER HYAMS: "The films that excite me the most are the films that are a show of the vastness of film, the actual, sheer majesty and beauty and size of it, and I love those films that take you some place that you never get a chance to see in your daily life."

"And this particular film is the marriage of what is feasible, what is actually possible, and what is also wonderful. I mean, it's about something that not only could happen, but we would love to actually happen, because it's so hopeful."

KEIR DULLEA: "Being asked to be in 2010 was like completing a circle. And yet is was just different enough from the original to make it interesting. The quality of the character in 2010 is slightly different, because the plane of existence is different. The character I play is no longer embodied, he is in a very strange state, so his concerns are quite different. The other most unique experience for me on this film was walking on to the reconstructed bridge and the reconstructed pod bay from the original Discovery. It was like walking back in time, it was like a space warp."

Mike Westmore is a member of Hollywood's famous Westmore family of make-up artists.

MIKE WESTMORE: "After leaving Universal I worked with Stallone in Rocky 1, 2, 3, First Blood, and did a lot of the effects in Blade Runner. The research ... of course, first we talked about having to duplicate thing that have been done in 2001, so I took a cast of my mothers face, who is 82, and my next door neighbor is 91, I went over with my camera and photographed rolls of film on him. Like it's a combination, my mothers neck, my next door neighbors eyes, and things like that."

JOHN LITHGOW: "There's this guy, Bob Harmon, this English flying wizard, who has worked out this amazing system: takes three men to fly one. One to move you this way, one to move you this way, and one to move you this way. Then you move yourself every other way just by shifting your weight. You're spun around, and twisted and turned. Just loved it, traveling about twenty miles an hour across the soundstage."

BOB HARMON: "Basically, what we're trying to achieve here is a weightless situation, obviously. So, it's different in respect, before, we've done speed flying, and now we're on to controlled zero gravity flying. And we have got to make everything look effortless. Since we have to like the wires, doing on wires, doing on a pole arm, also on a rig for walking up the wall. Just generally best as we can really. Peter is quite a demanding guy to work with."

"The person who controls the wires is this end, the operator. The artist on the wires is just a puppet, really. He can only act on the wires, but his total movements, raising, lowering, and traveling, is down to us. He is up there to act."

JOHN LITHGOW: "Yes, they kept telling me, 'John, just calm down up there! Astronauts in space don't clown around!' [laughs]"

BOB BALABAN: "In this movie I play a character called doctor Chandra, who basically invented HAL about 12 years ago, and has been worrying about what's been going on ever since. And finally gets a chance in this movie to go to Jupiter, where HAL is right now, and find out what's going on. I don't want to tell the whole thing, but HAL did have a problem, and it wasn't exactly his fault. He didn't become a terrible person, he had some problems."

BOB BALABAN: "If you're an actor, you occasionally grow up and find yourself flying on wires and pretending it's Jupiter down there! Doing all this stuff that we're doing in this movie. So it should be great fun, to escape into something like this. I mean, I always wanted to fly! I wish I could have called myself when I was 6 or 7, I wish I could have said 'hey, it's really interesting, because you get to be a grown-up, you might actually get to do some of these things!' [laughs]"

PETER HYAMS: "Every shot requires the kind of technology and the kind of attention and the kind of manpower that the burning of Atlanta required, and that's just to have two people sit down and have a normal conversation.

JOHN LITHGOW: "Acting in the film was really being a small part of an enormous technological wonder. I mean, just look at all these sets and all this machinery around us! I've never been a part of anything like this in movie making. It sorta dwarfs the day-by-day challenge of acting in it, you know? [laughs] Of course, when you come down to it, you have to be there, you have to provide a character. The characters and the story is what it's all about. But you do feel slightly dwarfed by the magnitude of the project."

HELEN MIRREN: "Just the very quality of the sets, I think - for me, the minute I walk on to these sets, like the one we have here - I think it helps us more than we we know as actors. I think we're given, you know, a lot of our performances simply from being in the set."

Among the many challenges facing the 2010 crew, was creating the illusion of weightlessness. In this scene Hyams and Scheider attempt to show ordinary objects afloat in zero gravity.

ROY SCHEIDER: "If you remember from 2001, he was the coordinator of the program that went up to investigate the monolith. He's an engineer and a scientist, he's not exactly an adventuresome character. He's a, you can say he was a civilian suddenly thrown into being out in space, and having to do what astronauts do."

BOB BALABAN: "The fact that this movie has as a, you know, it's underlying theme the fact that we got to get along together, is – I think – an immediate concern to all of us."

JOHN LITHGOW: "Well, the plot of the film, involving a Russian-American voyage; Peter has gone and geared up these marvellous Russian actors. This guy who plays Max, the person who becomes and instant friend of Curnow's, we've become instant friends! Elya and I, we sit around, he teaches me how to say 'cow', and 'horse', and 'cat' in Russian."

ELYA BASKIN: "I take advantage of the situation, I never teach him dirty words."

JOHN LITHGOW: "You see, the two of us represent detente in this movie."

The cosmonauts and astronauts on board the Leonov.

Bringing 2010 to the screen involved a massive team effort both in front of and behind the cameras. Ninety percent of the film was shot at MGM's two largest soundstages in Hollywood, with a week of location shooting in New Mexico and Washington D.C. The scope of the production involved and the attention to detail in all areas, from the largest set to the smallest miniature, and while the finished film will boast new highs in technical achievement, the promise of 2010 lies in Arthur C. Clarke's exciting story.

ROY SCHEIDER: "Most of the material in 2010 is highly conceivable, in other words if I were the audience watching it, I'd say 'yes, in the year 2010 that sort of thing could happen'."

PETER HYAMS: "It's about something that not only could happen, it's about something that we would love to actually happen, because it's so hopeful. And I don't think that there's anything more primal, at least in me, than the fascination with making contact."

KEIR DULLEA: "To me, the monolith is some kind of expression of that unbelievably advanced intelligence, that's expressed in both films."

ROY SCHEIDER: "The monolith is never really defined, and because it's not defined it allows you to imagine it to be anything you want it to be."

ARTHUR C. CLARKE: "People ask me what the monoliths means, I have a simple answer. I say, 'you must see the film, read the book, and repeat the dose as often as necessary!' [smiles]"

(This is a transcript of the short HBO featurette The Odyssey Continues)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dana Elcar – Moisevitch of 2010, dead at 77

The brusque character actor—who was loved by all he worked with—passed away on Monday, June 6, 2006, due to complications from pneumonia at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, California. He was 77.

Dana Elcar—born 1927 in Michigan as Ibsen Dana Elcar, of Danish descent—was an American television and movie character actor.

At 13, he unsuccessfully ran away from home, which he liked to say led to his becoming an actor.

When he and a friend tried to hop a train to Detroit, Elcar couldn't run fast enough and missed it. Stuck in a town far from home, he called his father and asked him to wire money so he could get back home. He had to spend the night in an all-night theater that was showing Citizen Kane.

"That kind of sparked him to be an actor," said his son Dane Elcar. "He watched it four or five times in one night."

Dana Elcar as Dimitri Moisevitch.

Elcar's first film after many years' stage work was 1959s Burning Bright, but his break on the big screen came in the 1964 classic Fail-Safe with Henry Fonda. A gruff character actor, Dana Elcar was usually assigned roles calling for blunt imperiousness. Elcar's other film credits include The Sting from 1973, W.C.Fields and Me from 1976, and of course 2010 which premiered in 1984.

Although he appeared in about 40 films, his most memorable role was on the 1980s and 1990s television series MacGyver as Peter Thornton, an administrator working for the Phoenix Foundation. Elcar had appeared in the pilot episode of MacGyver as Andy Colson (a completely different character), but was later cast as Peter Thornton, making his first regular appearance in the 11th episode of the first season.

In 1991, Elcar began to develop glaucoma. This condition was written into the show, beginning with the sixth season episode seventeen "Blind Faith" and continuing through the remainder of that season and the entire seventh season, with Elcar's character developing the disease. The sixth season finale, "Hind-Sight", was a clip show using Pete Thornton's upcoming eye surgery as a framing device. After MacGyver, Elcar made a guest appearance in "Virus", a 1993 episode of Law & Order, in which he played a man who blamed his diabetes-caused blindness on his former physician, and whose son murdered other patients as revenge.

Elcar also played a blind character on episodes of The Magic School Bus and ER. Once blind, Elcar took on the challenge of playing Vladimir in Waiting for Godot complete with white cane. "The fact that you are losing your eyesight," Elcar said, "does not mean you have forgotten how to act."

While Dana Elcar was legally blind, and had to have his script read to him, it did not affect his acting. "You could barely tell he couldn't see," his son Dane Elcar said. "I heard someone in the front row say, 'I thought he was blind.' "

The play at the Santa Paula Theatre Center was to be his theatrical swan song. He retired from the stage in 1992, incidentally the same year MacGyver went off the air.

His final appearance was in 2002 as a guest on the television series ER.

Dana Elcar passed away June 6, 2005. He was 77.