Jeffrey A. Okun reflects on the somewhat tumultuous VFX history of the classic sci-fi film.
This week saw the 25th anniversary of Roland Emmerich’s Stargate. The 1994 film brought together a mix of practical, miniature and digital effects, at a time when CGI in feature films was still in its infancy.
Overseeing the visual effects effort was Jeffrey A. Okun, who has a digital effects supervisor credit on the film. He was hired by VFX studio Kleiser-Walczak, and, as you’ll read below, had a challenging time navigating the production to produce what are still incredibly memorable effects sequences in the film.
Okun’s musings here come from a special retro VFX session he and I participated in earlier this year at SPARK FX in Vancouver. I’ve picked out some classic moments covering how key shots – like the watery Stargate effect and the mechanical morphs – were accomplished, how Okun seemed to keep getting fired, and how, later, a character based on him would find its way into Independence Day.
Roland Emmerich didn’t really like visual effects
Jeffrey A. Okun: This was Roland Emmerich’s second film in ‘Hollywood’ and he did not believe in visual effects. He hated them. He didn’t believe in computers. He believed in mechanical effects. The special effects coordinator on the show – his name was Kit West – who passed away a few years ago, he has a visual effects supervisor credit. And I got hired on the show by the company that they hired, which was Kleiser-Walczak. It’s a long crazy story of how this happened.
Now, Roland loved miniatures. He kept saying that there’s nothing you could do that could beat the miniatures. So what we would do is, we would shoot tests. I would rent a bluescreen from a company and the guy that owned the company – we’d shoot him kneeling and praying on this bluescreen and then we’d replicate him out. So then we’d show Roland what eventually became the bowing shot where all the people are bowing down to Ra and…he hated it. And we did some CG gliders and…he hated them.
‘I hate this. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Get out of here. You’re fired.’
But then, there was an effect that got cut out of the movie where they shoot Ra with bullets and the bullets are stopped in the air and do weird things. That was the thing that convinced Roland that there might be something we could do in CG that we couldn’t do with miniatures. And so once we got him to buy into that, then we re-showed him everything we had tested already. Then he got it and started to get excited by the possibilities.
Ultimately, what we did was our digital version of the gliders and mix them in with his miniature version of the gliders in dailies. And we said, which is your favorite shot? And he picked the digital version. Because it was the first time the gliders could move aerodynamically. So that was how we got him to consider more digital shots in the movie.
The water coming out of the Stargate is called the ‘ka-thud’ and the swirly thing coming off the back was named the ‘strudel’. After the Stargate formed it had a solid reflective surface, like mercury, that had ripples across it, that we called …the ‘ripple’. Now, Roland was a very gracious and generous guy, but he hated every single one of my Stargate ideas – every idea for what the Stargate looked like was rejected. He hated them all.
We ended up shooting some tests in a garage with a 3×3 round plexiglass tank. My DP was David Stump and what we were trying to do was find ways to create rays without having to have to light the whole room and fill it with smoke. So we filled the tank with ice tea mix and to dissolve the ice tea, we used a 2×4 stuck on an electric drill. When we turned it on it spun, the water and tea mix around at high speeds. And as it was settling, I went, ‘Wait a minute, we have something here!’ That’s how we came up with the strudel.
We had the tank and, I figured, we should play around with ideas. We also had a mannequin head, and we were trying to pull the head out of the water – Roland and I had both seen a movie where the director used tanks of mercury that would look like mirrors, turned the camera sideways, and they would lower actors into it so it looked like they were going through a mirror. I had spent a lot of time at the bottom of my swimming pool in scuba gear and I realized that you could get the same effect with the underside of water.
So, we did a proof of concept for Roland of what the Stargate might look like. It was beautifully lit in the tank. Camera’s on its side. We were mesmerized by it. And…Roland absolutely hated it! And he fired me. But I had crew and equipment for the day waiting in this garage, so I figured we might as well just fool around and have a good time. We found an air mortar and we started firing air through a pipe into the tank and filming it at high speed.
The pipe was an inch round, and the air pressure was 26 pounds per inch. So we set it up to shoot it and when we fired the air motor into the water, it lifted the entire volume of water out of the tank, retaining the shape, moved over, and landed on top of Dave Stump. Then we reduced the pressure down to 2.1 pounds per square inch to get the effect in the film. We put that shot together, and then I came to Roland and I said, ‘Roland, I know I’m fired, but you might as well see this.’ When Roland looked at it he said, ‘I never fired you, this is fantastic!’
So this became the Stargate effect. Shooting it on-set was a whole different story. We had to get the mirror image of the people going through it so we had to have two cameras set up at perfect complimentary angles to each other. And as soon as we set it up, the B-camera operator would re-adjust his camera – ruining the time consuming set up for perfect mirror angles. So we would have to do it over again, and he would move the camera again. Over and over until the DP, Walter Lindenlaub, put a stop to him doing that.
We had lasers built inside the Stargate that shot a grid of light out and so that the artists compositing the water in could see where the plane was. And then there’s all manner of craziness that broke out when Kurt Russell was told, ‘Whatever you do, don’t look at the lasers because you’ll be blinded for life.’ Kurt refused to walk through the beams. So, I had to stand in the laser light with a beam hitting directly into my eye for 5 seconds. Then he said OK, but he closed his eyes anyway…
Journey through the Stargate
That was the second and the last time I got fired by Roland. The journey through the Stargate was a carefully designed thing. In those days that sequence took 30 days to render, just the journey part.
For the end of the journey part – where the stars streak – I found a demo reel from Doc Bailey and at the end of the reel he had something in particular there that I had never seen before. So I called him up and said I need something like that, and can he do it for me. He says, ‘Why not just use that off the demo reel? I can send over a high resolution version for you’, and I said, ‘I can have that?’ And he says, ‘Yes, use that, it’s free.’ He was the greatest guy and extremely talented and smart.
But the journey itself, it took 30 days to render! So we showed Roland all the pieces as still frames, we said, ‘Here’s what it looks like, here’s what the stars are going to look like. Here’s a schematic of the rollercoaster journey that the audience will go through.’ And when he finally signed off on everything we hit the render button.
That’s how we came up with the strudel.
A month later, which was literally a few weeks before we had to deliver the film, we showed it to Roland. He said, ‘I hate this. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Get out of here. You’re fired.’
Kleiser-Walczak had set up offices in the same building as production. Roland and editing were on the fourth floor. We were on the third floor. So I went back down to Jeff Williams, who was the guy that did the sequence. Told him what Roland said and got into a shouting match on the roof of the Carolco building. It ended with us laughing at how stupid we were being, and we went back downstairs to work.
To solve the problem I think Roland was having, and to be able to deliver on time, we found a single thing to add the existing sequence. So what we did was show Roland and Dean Devlin (his writing and producing partner) all the discreet elements again – but in a different color space and with some of it sped up or slowed down. When he once again signed off on all the individual elements, instead of re-rendering the entire sequence, we just composited in the element and speed changes and showed it to Roland on the day before our last day. Roland watches the sequence with Dean and says, ‘Why didn’t you do something like this the first time? This is brilliant.’
These were incredibly painful. The guy in charge of this effect for Kleiser-Walczak bought some morphing software, which was brand new in the day, but it didn’t work. And we had many takes where they would start to morph and the ears would come off and jump across the screen.
These plates were all shot with a motion control rig because Roland wanted moving morphs. I’d done some morphs like that in a little film called Sleepwalkers. If you’ve ever shot with motion control, you load it at night, you test it all night long and get everything all set up and then you are the first shot of the morning, then broom it all out of the way so they can get on with their shooting day. But something always fails. Crews still groan to this day when you say ‘we’re doing motion control.’ So, we shot all our passes and then ultimately had to write our own software to do these morphs. It took us almost nine months to do the five morphs in the movie.
The amount of difficulty to pull these things off was crazy. And to this day they still don’t look right. We wanted them to look mechanical – that was Roland’s demand. He didn’t want a nice fluid soft motion. We invented the phrase ‘negative space’ – it was going right into the space you can’t see because it does not exist. It became a big thing because I’m really grounded in physics and it was really hard to get my head around this and then to explain it to Roland and the artists. Roland would sit with a cigarette and go, ‘Yeah, this is not going to work.’ But I was determined.
That was a miniature that we shot. Then I discovered the Domino. We were in big trouble time-wise because they recut the film. They decided they loved visual effects and they added 66 new shots in the last week. And I found this artist (Mitch Drain) at Cinema Research Corporation. And they had a Domino. It was like a Henry and you could do real-time compositing, effectively. Mitch did 66 shots in one week, all of them were really awesome. And I became a huge Domino fan. And of course that was the wrong horse to bet on.
The desert city
We built the city out in this desert, but they only built the two towers and then the rest were miniatures which we shot on bluescreen in the same desert so we had the same lighting. Then we shot cooking fires and extras on greenscreen, then comp’d all that into the shots. And it worked. And I was thrilled when we literally got a number of calls asking, ‘Where did you shoot that? Because we need our whole film to be shot there…’.
We had a day when Roland was sick. The insurance company wouldn’t let us go home. We got so bored, we made a 10 minute Steadicam version of the entire movie. We got James Spader, Kurt Russell and everybody involved. It was a one-take thing. You see James Spader being dragged across the desert by a small dog and at one point we move into the special effects tent and see that all the FX guys are drinking and smoking surrounded with ceiling-high crates labeled ‘High Explosives’. The camera exits the tent and spins around as it all blows up! At the end of the short was a bulldozer flattening Roland’s director’s chair.
Independence Day, Jeff Okun and Dr. Brakish Okun
I was walking out of the Carolco building with my boxes of stuff. We’d finished Stargate, I’m in the elevator with Joel Michaels, the producer, and he asks, ‘Do you want to do the Renny Harlin movie Cutthroat Island?’ And that was back in the time where you say, ‘Another job? Sure!’ So we’re off shooting in Thailand and I get a call from Dean Devlin. He told me about Independence Day and they wanted to send the script over with my wife, who was coming for a visit. So I shot all day and then worked on the VFX breakdowns all night.
My wife delivered the breakdown and the budget I had figured out along with what I called the Bible of how we would shoot it economically. After a few days I got a phone call from an executive at Fox saying they seriously doubted my budget and my techniques. So I flew back to LA to meet with the executives to explain and verify to them how we could do it economically.
They accepted the visual effects Bible that I shared with them and then greenlit the movie. Then we started negotiations. I did Stargate for half my salary because it was my first real digital project. And then they came to me and asked me to do Independence Day for even less. I said, ‘I got two kids and a mortgage, I can’t do it for less.’ And they replied, ‘Oh, it’s all about money with you,’ which I was gobsmacked by.
Anyway, I set it up, I hired the crew, I did the three shots with this new German kid, Volker Engel (Roland had worked with him in Germany) that show up in the trailer – the shadow falling over the White House and the fireball going through New York City, and the moon shot. We could not work out the money so I did not do the film and did not get the Oscar. But, when they shot the scenes for Dr. Brakish Okun, they called me up and they said, ‘We’re shooting you now. But we’re changing the first name so you can’t sue us.’ It was a great honor.
And I was friends with the actor, Brent Spiner, who played me, before the film through a mutual friend from Texas. Brent insists to this day that, ‘There’s no way this is based on you. It was my idea to have the long gray hair and the glasses.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ Brent won’t pay for dinner to this day, and he’s made a fortune off that role.
But, in spite of everything, I stayed friends with Roland and literally every weekend, he and Bill Fay (who was one of the producers) would call me up and we would look at the visual effects that had been completed at the time and reviewed them, as well as offer up ways to get them better. So, I did the film in the stupidest way possible; without pay and without credit. But being in the movie, that was awesome.