Monday, January 28, 2013

Ask JKM a Question #63: What about behind-the-scenes visionaries?

A regular reader, Trent, asks:

“How much credit do you believe that behind-the-scenes visionaries like H.R. Giger, Stan Winston, Tom Savini, and Rob Bottin deserve in their contributions to sci-fi and horror's greatest films?”
Trent, the short answer is: tremendous credit.

I have enormous respect and admiration for all the above-mentioned artists, who very much changed cinema history with their remarkable creations and visions   I would also add names like Rob Baker, John Chambers, Dick Smith, KNB, Ralph McQuarrie, Peter Ellenshaw, Brian Johnson, Derek Meddings and others to the tally.  It’s a long list. 

In terms of specifics on a few of the talents you named, Giger’s trademark bio-mechanical vision inspired a generation of silver-screen creatures and aliens, and Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1981) remains a benchmark in terms of practical effects.  

Winston’s amazing creations -- from Pumpkinhead to Jurassic Park and beyond -- are unimpeachable in my opinion, and Dick Smith’s make-up on The Exorcist still terrifies. Similarly, Savini’s gruesome, realistic make-up effects in films such as Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead still convince and horrify me in a way that most CGI effects tend not to.

During my career, I have had the good fortune to interview some talents that would legitimately be termed “behind the scenes visionaries” and what has always impressed me about them -- from art directors and production designers to make-up artists -- is how they view each shot, each creature, each effect, each individual moment on screen as a welcome puzzle to solve.  

How each talent solves a particular puzzle speaks to individual genius and personal artistic approach, I think. I don’t want to sound like an old guy about this, but I have spoken with visual effects geniuses who lament the rise of the digital age in part because they no longer have the opportunity to solve seemingly impossible problems to make a shot come off; because the computer, essentially, makes the impossible a whole lot easier.  There was a genius quality to practical special effects in the 1920s – 1990s; like magic tricks pulled off to perfection.  That razzle-dazzle sometimes seems absent today.

Finally, I must give some serious kudos to accomplished film editors here, ones who can take a creature such as Pumpkinhead or even a seemingly-impossible physical effect like those we see in Dawn of the Dead, and present such creations in the best, most convincing light.  And let’s cite the composers too, who augment the horror of a monster’s approach, or go silent and scare us with a crescendo just as the beast makes its first appearance.

Lest we forget, film is a collaborative art form. 

Many artists contribute original ideas that augment, improve, and focus a director’s vision in ways that, sometimes, the director could not have originally envisioned.   The director must gather, harness, and synthesize the work of various departments and individuals to produce a coherent, artistic whole, but he or she can’t accomplish that task without scores of artists contributing originality, ingenuity and yes, genius.

Don’t forget to ask me a question at  


  1. Thanks John. I am going to have to IMDB the additional names that you listed as the names do not readily come to mind, save for Mr. Dick Smith. And you are not the only one who finds that digital efx diminishes modern horror/sci-fi. One of the problems seems to be the amount of time that a film has once the budget is inked from pre to post. For instance, Rob Bottin had a year to put together the efx for 'The Thing'. A year! Just for efx! A studio would laugh you right out of the industry if a filmmaker were to make a similar demand in 2013. Juxtapose that with the 3 months it took to complete the 2011 prequel 'The Thing'. Rob Bottins' 'blair-monster' took 3 months by itself! No surprise that the single most effective efx in the 2011 version was the lone physical piece in the whole film. It's a trade-craft that is tragically disappearing.

  2. Trevor6:20 PM

    I hope one day CGI will become so advanced that it can truly trick the brain into thinking the object was really on set that day. But what if that never happens? What if the human brain is so complex in that respect, that no matter what, a computer generated image will never completely pass the smell test. Shame

    1. I like your train of thought Trevor, you went all metaphysical on me....but i dig that!


Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Awakening" (1979)

The beloved heroic character of Buck Rogers first appeared in the pop culture fifty years before the 1979 television series debuted on N...