BRIAN JOHNSON - THIS TIME IT’S MORE
In the second half of my exclusive interview with Brian Johnson, who worked on the special effects of both Alien and Aliens, we find out how he became involved, at the last minute, with Cameron’s sequel, and how his work came within a whisker of winning him another Oscar.
We were just discussing how, on Alien, you were involved throughout the production in virtually every department - in other words, you were very flexible.
“Yeah, well, I was always trained in lateral thinking. My mentor was a chap called Leslie Bowie, who won an Oscar for his work on Superman ; well, before that, he used to do all the Hammer pictures, so he was always doing pictures with no money. He always taught me that, instead of charging straight at a problem, step back and look at it and see if there’s a way round it that’s easier, less labour-intensive and therefore cheaper.
“There’s a sequence in Dragonslayer [which Brian worked on in 1981], where the character Hodge is walking through the forest with a huge pack on his back, whilst the apprentice character has an egg magically hovering above his hand. Well, there were huge discussions about how that was going to be done, and the director had written notes suggesting ‘blue-screen this and blue-screen that’ [basically meaning - add the effect on later]. But we did it live, in the forest.
“What I did was put an air-bottle inside the apprentice’s pack and ran a pipe down his arm to a jet between his third and fourth fingers. I punched a little hole in the egg, blew all the contents out so it was really light, and we just balanced it on a column of air.
“As for the pack, when that lifts off Hodge’s back, we used wires. We had out-of-balance electric motors attached to the wires, which made the wires vibrate, and we tuned them by radio control until they were vibrating so fast that they seemed to disappear.”
Wire removal, live on set! I know that Cameron was quite keen to do the effects in Aliens live on set too.
“Yeah, we used an awful lot of rear-projection, particularly inside the Atmosphere Processor when its burning up, and outside when the drop-ship crashes. Okay, so you can tell that the background is a rear-projection, but the shots are cut so quickly, you can get away with it. Plus the fact, Jim was using long lenses with short depth-of-field, so the background was very often out-of-focus anyway, and it looked right that way. Add to that the amount of smoke and rain that filled the air and it all worked out really well.
“Jim knew how it would look when finished. That was the magic of working with him, he was on top of all that, he knew it would work and he knew how it would look.”
Sounds quite similar to Scott.
“Absolutely, and both Cameron and Scott worked themselves to a frazzle. You have to give them a hundred percent because they’re giving a hundred and eighty percent.
“And the incredible thing about Cameron is, because he’s been a production designer and a special-effects supervisor, you can’t pull the wool over his eyes. If you give him what he wants then he’s over the moon, if you don’t give him what he wants, the shit hits the fan and he goes out there and does it himself. He knows how to do practically everything associated with a film.
“What you have to remember is: If you say to Cameron, ‘Look, I really don’t think I can do this this way, but I can do it that way!’ He’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, he won’t say ‘You’ve got to do it this way!!’ But, after you’ve said what you can do, if you don’t then do it ... look out.”
He has a reputation of being a real tyrant.
“No, he’s a very charming man, actually. When he’s under pressure, he can be tough, but most of the time, I really liked him. You’ve heard the stories about the crew wearing t-shirts saying ‘You can’t scare me, I’ve worked with Cameron’, well, the truth is, he’s an incredibly generous man.
“I was up for an Oscar for the work I did on Aliens, but I had my nomination squashed by Twentieth Century Fox. I’d shot most of the model-shots during live-action shooting, and over-saw all the post-production stuff, and because of that Cameron asked for my name to be put on the nomination list. But, at that time, the Academy were only accepting four names per nomination and, because I’d started work last, my name came fifth.
“Jim Cameron stood up, at the Academy nominations committee meeting, and argued on my behalf, for three-quarters of an hour, that my name should be on as I’d done more work than some of those who’s names came before mine. He said it was a complete injustice. But Fox had the say, and because of regulations, they would have had to pay a penalty of about a hundred and eighty thousand dollars to remove an undeserving name and replace it with mine, so that was it.
“Well, I understand that’s how it works; but Jim and Gale didn’t accept it. They had a special Academy Nomination prize made for me by Tiffany’s, which they presented to me as a consolation prize. I thought that was really sweet of them.”
So, let’s backtrack - how come you started last on Aliens?
“Gale Anne Hurd contacted me very early on and asked if I wanted to effectively reprising my role on the first film. I said I would, I went over to see her, I met Jim, we talked, we got on, but eventually they decided to go with a company called LA Effects, who had these wonderful motion-control cameras, and were associated with the Skotak model-making brothers who Jim had worked with before. Fair enough. I said: ‘Maybe next time then’, and thought no more about it.
“Some time later, I was at a visual effects union meeting and heard some things which rather disturbed me. They were talking about this company LA Effects wanting to bring over these motion control camera systems. Well, when I found out just what they were bringing over, I realised that we already had it all here. But, I didn’t want it to sound like sour grapes, so I said nothing.
“Just to explain - a motion control system is a camera controlled by a computer through a series of motors or stepper-drivers. It is capable of moving past a model in exactly the same way, at exactly the same speed, time and time and time again. Also you can pull focus while the camera is moving, and get that spot on every time too. Also, when you shoot a model, the model is actually moving too, so you get a little motion blur on it, which stops it looking so much like a plastic kit. Its an elaborate but very effective way of shooting models.
“Anyway, the Aliens production got under way, LA Effects came over with their two Navy Range Mitchell High-Speed cameras which, it turned out, weren’t fitted for motion control at all. Very soon, the only thing keeping the movie going was the work of Bob and Denny Skotak, but it was obvious that the motion-control side just wasn’t going to happen.
“Eventually, Jim cried ‘enough is enough’ and I got a call asking me to come to the studio - like immediately - and they explained the whole situation to me. They knew that it is difficult to take over somebody else’s work, but asked if I could. I liked Jim and Gale, we got on well, so I said ‘Yeah, what the hell’.
“We eventually shot all of the motion-control shots at my studio in Bourne End, which was then called Arkadon, about twelve miles from Pinewood. Jim left me alone for all that, we would take the rushes in, in the morning, and show him, and he’d either say: ‘Great, that’s in the movie’ or: ‘Can we do this instead?’ He didn’t even come out to see me shooting, he trusted me, which I took as a great compliment.
“I was soon involved in the whole Power-Loader/Queen-Alien fight, which was mostly shot in miniature, with Jim himself animating the Queen puppet. There she was, suspended on black strings, with him dancing her around, and doing it really well, I might add.
“We had some of the actors - not least Sigourney - hanging around for weeks after shooting finished, providing close-ups and fill-in shots. I have a couple of photographs on my landing, upstairs, that she signed with the comment: ‘When are we ever gonna get away from the Queen?’
“Then, finally, we just had the shots of the Sulaco and some of the drop-ship shots to finish off; again, shot at my studio at Bourne End. Bob and Denny Skotak actually ended up working at my studio full-time, because they liked working together as a two-man unit, and were accustomed to doing everything themselves. Pinewood wasn’t a good environment for them, because there had to be stand-by this and stand-by that. At my place, they could work all night if they wanted to, which usually they did!”
So the drop-ship was done with this motion-control system.
“Not necessarily. Some of the drop-ship stuff was on good-old fashioned wires. That shot where the ship lands, the APC roars out of its belly, and it takes off again, it was a simple wire shot - Thunderbirds style. We had these very fine misting sprays to create the rain, and that helped cover up the wires.
“Simple techniques like that can work if they’re on and off screen quickly, and Jim knew pretty well how long each shot was going to be. We had made some ‘animatics’ before-hand, a sort-of thumb-nail version of the film, shot with a video camera, using stick models and moving them around to get the pace and timing of each sequence ... that shot’s five seconds, that one’s three, this one’s just one and a half!
So what happens to all these models when they’re finished with.
“Oh, all sorts of things. A lot get destroyed. For Aliens, they found that, when they needed to use the Narcissus life-boat again, not only could they not find the original model, even the blue-prints had been lost, so they had to build their Narcissus from photographs of the original.
“I know that with Return of the Jedi (1983), for example, a lot of the x-wings from the attack on the Death Star were given to staff-members as trophies. I’ve got one. In those shots were they had masses and masses of ships, they used the commercial plastic kits, made them up, gave them the ILM treatment, then they were stuck up on motion control rigs, used and given out.
“I’ve got a slug tooth too!”
A slug tooth?
“Yeah, you know in Empire, in the asteroid belt, there’s this big slug-thing hiding inside the asteroid and they have that shot of the jaws closing just as the Millennium Falcon flies out - well, I’ve got one of those teeth!”
You’re still a fan, aren’t you!
“Well, why not. It’s fun. Of course, I’ve got all the crew jackets too! My worst thing is that I don’t take photographs when I’m working. I suppose I should do really; some people do take a lot of photographs, and get themselves a lot of publicity because of it. Don Shay of ‘Cinefex’ always used to phone me and ask if I had any photos of, say, behind the scenes on Aliens, and I’d have to tell him ‘No’. ‘Oh, Jesus, Brian.’ ‘Well, actually, Don, I was quite busy, y’know.’