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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH AN EFFECTS MILESTONE

By IAN FAILES

1977 was a seminal year in visual effects. Yes, it was the year Star Wars was released, setting a path forward both for blockbuster effects films and for the studio behind the work, Industrial Light & Magic. But it was another film, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that also made waves in the effects industry by pushing forward technological boundaries in miniatures, motion control and compositing still felt 40 years later.

Close Encounters’ sci-fi story about human contact with an alien species was always going to necessitate the use of visual effects. Having contributed to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain and Silent Running (which he also directed), Douglas Trumbull, VES, came on board the film to supervise the ‘special photographic effects.’

In this polaroid of the Close Encounters cloud tank in action, the desired wispy edges and density of the cloud-like patterns are apparent.

In this polaroid of the Close Encounters cloud tank in action, the desired wispy edges and density of the cloud-like patterns are apparent.

Individual cloud elements were acquired in the cloud tank.

Individual cloud elements were acquired in the cloud tank.

Fiber optic lights helped achieve light patterns within the cloud elements.

Fiber optic lights helped achieve light patterns within the cloud elements.

Scott Squires, VES, oversees the Mothership miniature (in background) and the electronics required to operate the motion-control unit.

Scott Squires, VES, oversees the Mothership miniature (in background) and the electronics required to operate the motion-control unit.

He partnered with Richard Yuricich to start Entertainment Effects Group (EEG) in Marina del Rey, California a facility which would handle – and simultaneously advance the techniques for – motion-control miniature photography, optical compositing, cloud tanks and the creation of matte elements.

Trumbull and his team capitalized on the needs of the production and his fledging facility to experiment with several visual effects techniques. This included the first use of a real-time on-location system for digitally recording camera motion. The idea here was that the movement of lights used on set for representing the flight of spaceships in the scenes, and the matching camera movement, could be recorded and then precisely repeated in the miniature photography.

Lighting pass filmed for the Mothership.

Lighting pass filmed for the Mothership.

Models created for wide shots in the film were extreme miniatures.

Models created for wide shots in the film were extreme miniatures.

Models created for wide shots in the film were extreme miniatures.

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind made waves in the effects industry by pushing forward technological boundaries in miniatures, motion control and compositing still felt 40 years later.

Scott Squires, VES. Photos courtesy of Scott Squires.

Scott Squires, VES. Photos courtesy of Scott Squires.

EEG was the first company to composite motion-control shots in 65mm, for Close Encounters. Indeed, the effects work was captured with 65mm Super Panavision cameras, the larger format negative enabling greater quality of the final image and matching to the 35mm photography after multiple generations and composites.

In addition, EEG would make headways into how a blacked-out ‘smoke room’ could be used to film miniatures with motion control and help add consistent layers of atmospheric mood to scenes of this kind (in this case, the large Mothership made from fiberglass and filled with seemingly miles of fiber optic lighting, built under the supervision of Greg Jein).

Another breakthrough was the facility’s ‘soft matte’ approach that retained the much-needed glows and lens flares of spaceship lights during compositing. It was intended to mimic the live-action effect of lens flares, particularly on anamorphic lenses.

To depict the clouds where the alien spaceships would be hiding, EEG devised a cloud tank effect by combining salt water and fresh water layered between a plastic sheet that, when combined with injected paint, produced the desired consistency. Scott Squires, VES led the development of the cloud tank work (see sidebar).

“The first day on the job, someone said, ‘Okay, so in the movie we have to create these clouds, and we’re looking at different ways of doing it. There are different chemical smokes but most of those are toxic. But when we pour cream in our coffee, that’s kind of like the clouds we want to create but, you know, it can’t be in coffee. We have to see the clouds themselves and we have to be able to photograph it.’”

—Scott Squires, VES, Visual Effects Supervisor/Co-founder, Dream Quest Images

Close Encounters would also take advantage of matte paintings to widen the scope of certain scenes. Matte artist Matthew Yuricich was responsible for several of these paintings that enabled live-action plates to be projected into environments and locations that had been produced on glass.

At the 50th Academy Awards® in 1978, Star Wars would take the Best Visual Effects Oscar. Its only competitor in the final nominations, however, was Close Encounters. But the Spielberg film has remained a constant go-to for other filmmakers in how to craft atmospheric effects and use visual effects to help tell a compelling story.

Notably, the film is often referenced for its ingenious blend of the then latest in effects techniques, coupled with a ‘rubber band and wire-tape’ style of effects that was predominant before the rise of CGI and digital compositing.

That’s pretty impressive for a 40-year-old movie.


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CRAFTING THOSE CURIOUS CLOUDS

At one point, the working title for Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Watch the Skies. It was perhaps an apt reference and insight into how important to the film the clouds were that hide the spaceships. The visual effects used to bring those clouds to life proved to be equally innovative.

The job of making clouds – ultimately realized with a cloud tank solution – fell to Scott Squires, VES, who was fresh out of high school and working as an assistant to Douglas Trumbull, VES, on the film. He was almost immediately called into action.

“The first day on the job,” recalls Squires, “someone said, ‘Okay, so in the movie we have to create these clouds, and we’re looking at different ways of doing it. There are different chemical smokes but most of those are toxic. But when we pour cream in our coffee, that’s kind of like the clouds we want to create but, you know, it can’t be in coffee. We have to see the clouds themselves and we have to be able to photograph it.’”

Squires was given $20 in petty cash and asked to experiment with liquids in a 20 gallon aquarium. “I walked a few blocks to the local grocery store, picked up some milk and whipped cream and paints and all types of other things just trying to start exploring this,” says Squires, who would later co-found the visual effects studio Dream Quest Images and be a visual effects supervisor at ILM on several key projects such as The Mask, Dragonheart and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

After exploring the effects of alcohol and milk, and then salt water to increase the density, he was able to get the liquid to respond in a cloudy way. “By the end of the week I’d had a solution where I poured salt water in the bottom of the aquarium, and then carefully on the top I put in fresh water and avoiding mixing the two waters. Then by injecting white tempered paint into the fresh water it would bellow out like a real cumulus cloud and also rest right on that inversion layer between the salt water and fresh water, which would make it appear more like a cloud because you get different air pressures and so forth.”

Buoyed by that success, Squires ordered a 2,000 gallon glass tank. Two wine vats made of redwood held 1,000 gallons each of fresh and salt water. “Then we had fiber optics coming down on an eight-inch tube through which the paint would come out of,” explains. “That was filmed and it was great because with an anamorphic lens it tended to make ovals out of any point sources, which means it looked like a glowing UFO coming through the clouds.”

A crucial part of the cloud tank solution involved an ‘atomic arm,’ essentially a remote-controlled hand like those used in nuclear laboratories, which enabled the liquid rigged with a compressor to be injected into the water solution with some consistency. Additional syringes were utilized to create small clouds in the background while the main simulated cloud formations were in the foreground. Squires and the team at EEG also established a complex set-up of pumps and plastic sheeting to control the mixing of the water and enable turnaround between takes.

The final cloud shots were achieved by combining 65mm plates of the actual cloud tank footage, which was then rotoscoped and optically composited into the relevant scenes – notable ones include clouds massing around Devils Tower and near the house of the character Jillian Guiler.

The cloud tank shots were so effective that they have been emulated almost ever since in other films. ILM actually purchased the large tank itself and followed the technique for scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as adapting it for ghost shots in Poltergeist. The encroaching alien spaceships in Independence Day were famously preceded by billowing clouds achieved with a cloud tank solution, too.

“These days,” notes Squires, “it would certainly be done digitally and you’d have full control over it. But back then there were not a lot of ways to make good-looking clouds. The liquids really give you the right opacity and at the same time a certain amount of translucency like you get with real clouds. And you can make some fairly elaborate motions just by squirting the liquids in different ways, by moving a wand around, and trying different things. Which is the great thing about all types of practical effects.”

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