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Creating Outer Space Realistically 30-50 Years Ago

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I'm very curious as to how the astonishingly realistic scenes of illuminated planets with details and even atmospheric glow, as well as all the stars in the background, were achieved in films like 2001, Alien, and the first Star Wars films. How was this done before CGI? Certainly they didn't use matte paintings composted into the frame because matte paintings generally look flat and certainly don't give off their own light.


Thanks so much!

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Optical effects, in-camera compositing, semi-silvered mirrors, forced perspective, matte paintings with holes in them through which lights were shone.


Perhaps some of the best of this sort of work was done in Aliens. Descending in the elevator and the dropship crash are all back-projected, but with the curse taken off it with lots of physical effects (steam, smoke, sparks, dripping water), interactive lighting, and camera shake. The shot of the "atmosphere processor" venting gas is a beam-splitter trick, with the column of white gas off to the right hand side of the set, against black, reflected in, with the interactive lighting effect manually cued on the forced-perspective miniature. And it's perfect.


But also, don't underestimate the ability of a good matte painter to suggest light with paint, or of a good photographer to expose a matte painting to produce realistically blown highlights, and so on. Airbrush techniques can (and this remains true in photoshop) suggest flare and glow very believably. As is so often the case, the answer to "you can't do that" and "how did they do that" is, respectively, yes you can and skill.



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If you go onto Douglas Trumball's website ( http://douglastrumbull.com/ ) there's some very interesting little videos on how he did some FX shots. Good place to start watching and letting your imagination run wild.


Also try to track down (on youtube or netflix or what have you) the old show "Movie Magic." I remember watching that when I was much younger and going "awesome," quite often

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Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects [Hardcover]

Thomas G. Smith







Industrial Light & Magic: Into the Digital Realm [Hardcover]

Mark Cotta Vaz






Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Innovation [Hardcover]

Pamela Glintenkamp



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To everyone who's commented so far: thank you! Especially to Adrian for the link to Trumball's site which I'm really enjoying!


And it seems I'm in luck, as that old series Movie Magic seems to be posted in its entirety on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7C78A60C1CB73512&feature=plcp


Fielding's 'The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography' is a very good source.


Unfortunetly, the prices for used copies on Amazon indicate the demand for this classic.



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Piers Bizony's book on 2001 is very good and has a ton of great info on the making of the film, including VFX. The CINEFEX retrospective is not as good as it should have been and omitted a number of existing interviews nobody has seen in print and has errors in it (even got the YEAR that the Dawn of Man sequence was shot wrong!), but it also has stuff not found elsewhere. Agel's book on 2001 has a lot of stills illustrating how Trumbull made Jupiter and other aspects. Doug Trumbull's site has some great images as well (and should be looked at just because it is so gorgeous IMO.)


Trumbull is still very big on using miniatures, preferring them to most CG solutions. I did an interview with him recently that just went up at ICG's website.

Edited by KH Martin
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  • 3 weeks later...

The opening of 1977 Star Wars is a 15 inch model lifeboat pod dropped toward camera from atop a forklift. Stars are mica bits, cross lit. Darth's Empire Ship spinning away is a cut out Polaroid taped to a 16'x6' curved back-lit plexiglass sheet, painted black and scrached with "stars". Camera was rolled as it dollyed back.

The Landspeeder has a long plastic mirror at 45degrees under it, reflecting the desert. The jungle lookout nest is a rubber trash can, the boys got to go to Guatemala for that one.

The PG-R rating is 20 frames of a severed plastic arm laying on a plastic palet. R2D2 uses an offtheshelf airplane RC unit & servos, rebuilt in my home garage for the public "openings".

The real trick was to precisely mimic WWII stock footage AND shoot against black backgrounds with effective shutter open times of 90%.

In 2001, Kubrik never crosses the limb of a planet with another object....Breaking the rule, when the rabble(SIC) blockade runner is tractored into Darth's docking bay, we lost the optical mat for a few frames in the original 70 and 35 prints:(

We spent months designing an auto-focus with paper tape programing on a PDP09. Never could use it, the PNP transistors were not fast enough.

CGI? Connect-the-dots Evens& Southerland vector machine couldn't even block transparency (hidden lines). We Fooled Ya.

Edited by douglas barnett
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Actually, i'm a bit of a Luddite, having a computer in my home only every other year.

But, noting the question of matte paintings, Kodak's new 100asa 5247 was so sensitive to green that Joe Johnston had to stay up nights for weeks re-painting Harrison Ellenshaw's 3'x5' glass-work, way over into the pinks to get a useful element to composite many of the painted matts. Tatooine and the top of the sand crawler were very reddish anyway.

ILM traded Disney a "engineering walk-through", in exchange they fixedreplaced our live worm brigade under the same Landspeeder driving in town.

By 1979 Disney had THEIR motion control track system, "ACES?".

Built into a concrete trench, massive and grey like a Navy shell loader, they had used the godawful Nazi "Askania" eight perf film movement; sprocket pulldown plus registration pins.... with a 13 frame registration error cycle. HaHa.

George put their fix, and a completely new audio & ADR soundtrack into that summers 35mm release.

Anyway, for a larger dose than i have, see

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