The never-ending magic of the analogue special effects.


Interview with Colin Arthur

What is the difference in the creating process between using traditional tools and digital special effects?

I think that the public is now aware with much more knowledge of what the difference between Computer Generated Images (CGI) and real images is. Some famous directors say that they prefer the old way. The creative process is very different in the experience of making the film with the analogue special effects and the experience of making a film like the “Avatar” or anything else which is rooms and rooms full of people on computers all working for the central server. But the cinema didn’t completely finish with the theater and CGI will not finish with the cinema. They are different media. You still need somebody to write a script for a theatrical play, you need somebody for filming and now you need somebody for CGI project. Some aspects of the creativity are still there. But the difference between doing a piece of sculpture from a bronze casting or for animatronics are quite significant. You have to think about the final product and the materials that you are going to use. To being exceptional starts at the very beginning of the sculpture. 

Are the CGI special effects not as realistic as the old ones?

I think that it takes time to get CGI absolutely perfect in hands of some production companies. I looked at “Avatar” and CGI version of the effects in the “Clash of the Titans”. It’s not real, it’s not true enough. It’s like students in the class. Some of them are just there and they never really make it up. I come from the real school and I see things lacking in the CGI effects and then I look at things that we have done in films like “The Dark Crystal” and “The NeverEnding Story”. That are the same problems with people doing the CGI and people doing real animatronics to get the quality. I think we did it right on “The NeverEnding Story” because it’s still the film that everybody goes to see. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is another one. I’ve been lucky to made a ten or fifteen classics in my lifetime.

“Fantasia has no boundaries” – that is the famous quote from “The NeverEnding Story”. Did you have to face any other technical or financial limitations?

I was very lucky in “The NeverEnding Story” to have a carte blanche. The production did not have the experience in doing that kind of films full of special effects and they were completely naive. I was also naive having the possibility of doing whatever I wanted. It was wonderful for me because there was no fight. The director Wolfgang Petersen joined the film few months after the principle design concept was made by us. He also did some tremendous work putting modifications in the script. The creative ambiance is really helpful for taking away all the obstacles that are naturally to the creating something. But back to your question, Falcor doesn’t have wings because I didn’t know how to make them. There was a technical limit at the time, something that would be done with CGI now. But creatively or material-wise there were no limits. 

Did you change some of your ideas during the production process?

I put a limit on myself working on the wolf in “The NeverEnding Story”. I was scared of making the wolf talk. I ask the producers – do we see it close up? “Oh, no, we don’t” – they said, wolf is always in the cave in the dark. And I made something that didn’t talk. The wolf is a realistic image and it was suddenly away from the fantasy – look at the Stone Bitter’s face or Falcor’s face. So the wolf was kind of knocking on reality. And then the first day we shoot I am in panic because you could see the wolf. It was in the cave but then comes rushing out. Then suddenly the limits are moved and I am obliged to do something else. Where you start in the film and where you end up is a product of how far you will reveal to the public how the character looks like. We had to rebuild the wolf and animatronics-wise it was created after everything else and was pretty good. Some 20 years ago I did also a commercial for Renault Kangoo with a rhino. We won the best commercial in the world. Renault is using the same footage up to today, they just replaced the car with a new model using CGI. They said they only need the head of the animal. But I told them – if you have the head you can only shoot by the side because as soon as you want to make another shot you have to show the shoulders. If you have got the shoulders, you are going to see the legs. Although I only budgeted for the head I decided to do the whole creature. We filled the whole rhino in 23 days which is a record which I would never attempt to do again. When I was young I could work over a hundred hours a week on “The NeverEnding Story”.

How the development of the technology influenced your work as a make-up artists?

CGI makes the prosthetics artists and make-up artists very lazy. You can hear “Oh, we will do that in postproduction”. But it is very useful. Couple of times I have made a mistake that now can be corrected very quickly with the CGI. Once I was doing aging and I had to brush colour into the hair of the character. When you gray somebody’s hair it is best to go to some kind of yellow. Otherwise the camera tends to capture things with the white and grey combination and makes it blue. I didn’t put enough yellow colour and when it was photographed it came out blue. The producers always called me “Mr. Blue” after that. 

What gives you more satisfaction, working as creatures designer or make-up artist?

The nice thing about doing creatures like Falkor is that when you working on it, it keeps still, doesn’t answer back and it is always there in the right position. When you working with the actors it is sometimes difficult. Once I was doing aging on Sean Connery. I have been working on him for over an hour doing a very complicated make up. Suddenly he just looks at the mirror and says “Colin, that is enough”. He got up and walked on the set! But luckily I knew him for quite a long time, I have worked with him before two or three times on James Bond films and I knew that I had to keep the whole make-up kind of as a completely statement. It is a little bit like in the films of people painting a portrait and the portrait grows as a whole. If you do make-up on an actor it all has to come to the same standard and then go better and better, hopes the time that you would have to do your job. 

What are your plans for the future?

I am planning to do another film similar in technology to “The NeverEnding Story”. I have made one or two since that time but the dream is to make another one. So again with the analog special effects but using the tools that are available. If I will have for example a weight problems with the movement of the creature, which you do have if you create something flying, than I will use the available technology. The headaches we used to have because of that in the past! I am not saying “no” to CJI, it is another tool and you use every tool in the book you can get. 

What is your secret of putting life into the artificial sculptures?

The character you create must be as real as possible, you must be convinced about the script. One has to be very careful while working on the characters to be true to the genre and what is wanted. If it is the mask you are making you have the particular actor, you have some influence from the director and from the art department. You start with all this influences coming to you. Than close the door. Don’t let others to impede on you too much in the sense to satisfy everybody. It is your own art. 

©Mikołaj Góralik