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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

JOHN RICHARDSON: ON BOND, POTTER, REALITY AND MAGIC

By DEBRA KAUFMAN

John Richardson – the man who supervised special effects for all the Harry Potter films and nine James Bond movies – was born to be a special effects supervisor. His father, Cliff Richardson, was one of special effects’ pioneers, starting in the business in 1921 and working with Alfred Hitchcock and Ealing Studios in their early days.

“My father was absolutely my first mentor,” says Richardson. “I grew up with special effects, going to film sets whenever I could as a small boy.”

During school holidays, Richardson went on location with his father, first when he was 13, for Exodus with Otto Preminger and then for Lawrence of Arabia with David Lean. On Exodus, he was soon assisting with special effects, helping out in accounting and appearing as a kibbutz guard “extra.” But SFX was what stuck.

“All those explosions and fires and exciting things got it in my blood,” he says. Not that Richardson Sr. approved: “Dad felt that I was going to come into the industry over his dead body,” says Richardson. “He didn’t feel the film industry was stable enough. But I won in the end.”

A large explosion for the film Aces: Iron Eagle III, directed by John Glen. Filmed in Arizona, Richardson was responsible for the live-action effects, directing the model unit and effects and also some of the second unit.

A large explosion for the film Aces: Iron Eagle III, directed by John Glen. Filmed in Arizona, Richardson was responsible for the live-action effects, directing the model unit and effects and also some of the second unit.

Carl Foreman’s The Victors in 1962 was Richardson’s first film after leaving school; he next went to Malaysia with his father to make The 7th Dawn. “These were all big-budget movies,” says Richardson. “My father was doing the effects and his assistant was me, a 16-year-old boy.” Richardson continued to assist his father on movies that included Battle of Britain, and had his first solo outing as a SFX supervisor on Duffy. “My dad got a nice letter from [director] Bob Parrish, which pleased him enormously,” he says. Father and son continued to work together until 1970 and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, directed by Billy Wilder.

Richardson credits his father for much of his education as a special effects artist. “I learned a lot of things from my dad, none more important than how to blow up things safely,” says Richardson. “Anything to do with explosives, you really have got to know what you’re doing because peoples’ lives are at risk.”

Richardson Sr. also schooled his son in model work. “There’s a real learning curve to models,” he says. “You need to know about camera speeds and all the tricks to make it look real. My father had done a lot of that back in his time, and I learned a certain amount from him.” Richardson also notes that he had a natural leaning towards mechanical engineering. “Although I was never fully trained in it, it came pretty naturally to me, and that was a large part of the special effects job,” he says.

John Richardson fronts the effects crew gathered on one of the last of the Harry Potter series.

John Richardson fronts the effects crew gathered on one of the last of the Harry Potter series.

His work on Ken Russell’s The Devils and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, both in 1971, were a turning point for his career. “They were both very hard directors to work with, but interesting and I learned a lot,” says Richardson. “And it got me an awful lot of publicity.” Over the next five years, the movies rolled in: The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinneman); The Little Prince (Stanley Donen); The Great Gatsby (Jack Clayton); Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick); Rollerball (Norman Jewison); Lucky Lady (Donen); The Omen (Richard Donner); and A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough) are just some of his credits from that era.

With 1967’s Casino Royale he began the first of nine James Bond movies, for some of which he was named visual effects supervisor, since all the effects were done in camera.

“Back in the 1980s, we did live action with models, foreground miniatures, front projection, back projection,” he says. “And I used to be responsible for the model unit, which I directed myself and sometimes also did some of the 2nd unit helicopter work. I had, I would say, a very good knowledge of the whole effects world.”

“With storyboards, you still had flexibility around them, a little more freedom to be creative. With previs, which is basically a cartoon, it somehow translates as that down to the movie. So, you’ll see a plane flying straight towards the camera, and it flies straight towards the lens. You lose the reality.”

—John Richardson

Richardson discussing a Potter shot with, left to right: David Yates, Tim Burke, John Richardson, Ricky Farns.

Richardson discussing a Potter shot with, left to right: David Yates, Tim Burke, John Richardson, Ricky Farns.

Richardson testing a modified 2nd World War flamethrower on A Bridge Too Far. George Gibbs, assistant, is behind Richardson.

Richardson testing a modified 2nd World War flamethrower on A Bridge Too Far. George Gibbs, assistant, is behind Richardson.

 He took that comprehensive role on Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights and License to Kill. (In the 2000s he also was SFX and model FX supervisor on James Bond films Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day.)

He also took on that more comprehensive role on several other blockbusters, including John Glen’s Aces: Iron Eagle III, Ron Howard’s Far and Away, Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger and Glen Gordon Carron’s Love Affair. “Back in the 1960s through 1980s, effects budgets were much smaller,” recalls Richardson. “Consequently crews were a lot smaller, and one had to be a lot more inventive. Things started to change after the first Star Wars, but it was very gradual and didn’t change a lot until the 1990s.”

The change was gradual, in part, because digital effects were constrained by the limited abilities of hardware and software – and the cost of burgeoning technology. “Initially, because it was an expensive process, we would always get asked by directors and producers if I could do it for real, because it would be cheaper,” he says. “That’s something that’s slipped in the last 15 years.”

James Bond’s boat jammed on a rock at the top of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. The boat got stuck while filming on Moonraker and somehow it fell to Richardson, the FX Supervisor, to try and find a way to shift it. Richardson says the worst part was listening to the stitches on his harness breaking while he was dangling over the boat. Fortunately, John Morris, part of the FX team, was on the helicopter winch and he managed get Richardson up into the helicopter before anything broke completely. Richardson says they did get rid of the boat in the end so that they could continue filming.

James Bond’s boat jammed on a rock at the top of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. The boat got stuck while filming on Moonraker and somehow it fell to Richardson, the FX Supervisor, to try and find a way to shift it. Richardson says the worst part was listening to the stitches on his harness breaking while he was dangling over the boat. Fortunately, John Morris, part of the FX team, was on the helicopter winch and he managed get Richardson up into the helicopter before anything broke completely. Richardson says they did get rid of the boat in the end so that they could continue filming.

Some directors still have a preference for doing as much as possible in-camera. Richardson notes that both Alfonso Cuarón and Christopher Columbus wanted to do as much in-camera as possible on their Harry Potter films. He adds that SFX supervisor Chris Corbould works with Christopher Nolan, who also creates as many in-camera effects as possible.

Richardson declares he isn’t decrying CGI work – “it’s a wonderful tool” – but still believes that in-camera effects have advantages. “Actors have got something they can react to,” he says. “A director has something in front of him he can see, and has an opportunity to move around it with the camera and choose other angles.” He believes that the transition from storyboards, which he always worked from in the past, to digital previsualization plays a role in changing the feeling of the movie.

Richardson driving a Jaguar car with a Polearm mounted in the middle. The Bede Jet could bank from side to side controlled by an air-pressurized hydraulic rig. Richardson was able to drive through the hangar at about 75 mph for the opening sequence of Octopussy. The plane flying into and exiting the hangar was filmed with FG miniatures in front of the real hangar. Richardson says that with Bond films he and his team tried to do as much as possible in camera.

Richardson driving a Jaguar car with a Polearm mounted in the middle. The Bede Jet could bank from side to side controlled by an air-pressurized hydraulic rig. Richardson was able to drive through the hangar at about 75 mph for the opening sequence of Octopussy. The plane flying into and exiting the hangar was filmed with FG miniatures in front of the real hangar. Richardson says that with Bond films he and his team tried to do as much as possible in camera.

Richardson standing on a camera platform for filming plates and live action for A View to a Kill. He says if you look very closely you can probably see

Richardson standing on a camera platform for filming plates and live action for A View to a Kill. He says if you look very closely you can probably see

“With storyboards, you still had flexibility around them, a little more freedom to be creative,” he says. “With previs, which is basically a cartoon, it somehow translates as that down to the movie. So, you’ll see a plane flying straight towards the camera, and it flies straight towards the lens. You lose the reality.”

“CGI does some brilliant work, but it needs to be looked at very carefully,” he says. “My maxim is, whatever the effects you’re doing, first, can you do it for real? If you can’t do it for real, how much of it can you do for real? And then, what you can’t do, CGI can help you.”

He’s well aware of the fact that he’s going against the current. “Sadly the art of SFX is being lost,” he says. “There are a few guys out there who do great work, but they can only do as much as they are asked to do or allowed to do.”

Among his favorite films he’s worked on, Richardson is proud of all the James Bond titles and also picks 1986’s Aliens with director James Cameron. “We didn’t have CGI back then,” he says. “It was all done with in-camera models and live-action effects. We used every trick we had on that film – and huge credit to Jim Cameron. He is a hard taskmaster but one of the best directors I’ve worked with, and Aliens still stands out.” (Richardson won a special effects Oscar in 1986-87 for Aliens.)

Another director he enjoyed working with was Richard Donner whom he dubs “probably my favorite director of all times.”

Richardson with father Cliff in his “Laboratory” at home (mum is showing a little interest there, too). The time is 1951.

Richardson with father Cliff in his “Laboratory” at home (mum is showing a little interest there, too). The time is 1951.

“Reality and magic are two words that keep coming up for me. Special effects puts reality into movies and keeps the mystery of the magic, so the audiences are still trying to work out how you did it. As soon as they know, the magic is gone.”

—John Richardson

“He was fun to work with,” says Richardson. “As a director, he gets more out of the crew than with anyone else I’ve worked with.”

Although, Richardson finds it difficult to pick a “favorite” among his long list of credits, because his work covers such a vast swath of genres and techniques, one standout is Lucky Lady, which was shot entirely at sea. “Working at sea is not the easiest at the best of times, but when you’re blowing up boats day after day, it becomes challenging,” he says. Raise the Titanic, although not a big box-office hit, required underwater work with models, and Deep Blue Sea, with Renny Harlin, was another film that involved underwater work, with a director who loved in-camera effects.

The Harry Potter films are an example of the evolution of digital effects, says Richardson, who notes that SFX played a bigger role in the first films, The Philosopher’s Stone (2001), The Chamber of Secrets (2002) and The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), than the later ones. “I’m really proud of all eight Potter films,” he says. “It’s such a classically well-made piece of filmmaking and great kudos to be a part of that.”

The future of special effects is unknown. Although the industry is busier than ever with bigger pictures and bigger budgets, Richardson says SFX is a dying art unless more directors choose to do in-camera work. But he says, special effects still offers two crucial qualities in an era in which the “how they did it” of digital effects has become more widespread.

“Reality and magic are two words that keep coming up for me,” he says. “Special effects puts reality into movies and keeps the mystery of the magic, so the audiences are still trying to work out how you did it. As soon as they know, the magic is gone.”

For a scene in Octopussy, a hangar was blown up on the backlot at Pinewood Studios.

For a scene in Octopussy, a hangar was blown up on the backlot at Pinewood Studios.


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