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Exclusive interview with VFX wizard Brian Johnson

INTERVIEWS - FILM

The visual effects legend behind The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Space:1999 and many other films and TV shows, chats to us...

Brian Johnson at work on the Nostromo for 'Alien' (1979)

Before his public Q&A session at Fanfest 2010, special effects legend Brian Johnson took questions from Parsley...

I timed my arrival at Fanfest 2010 (in the London Movieum on London's South Bank) to make sure that I could be there for the question and answer session for special effects legend Brian Johnson. On arrival I wandered into a long room only to find him sitting alongside Bond girls ready for a chat. Of course, I couldn't miss the chance to meet one of my personal heroes and creator of the legendary Eagle Transporter spacecraft from Space:1999.

2001: A Space Odyssey has stood the test of time. How does it feel to be looking back on that as an achievement, to realise how it still affects people today?

Well, the thing is, because we used really high resolution film, 65 millimetre negative, the quality was there. We did stuff on original negative. You didn't go through a lot of processing. Because we used that very large format, and we did multiple exposures on an original piece of negative, we didn't go through a lot of optical enhancements or anything like that. The quality was there and we were using spherical lenses.

There are lots of stories going round about how Gerry Anderson was asked to work on 2001...

No, he was not.

What about the people working on the effects for Gerry Anderson?

Well I was working on the effects and I was the one that got asked.

I guess that's how the stories got changed.

Gerry...how can I put it delicately?...Gerry didn't want to pay me any money to direct Thunderbirds and I had a call from Stanley Kubrick's office to say was I available, and I only had to give 2 weeks notice. I gave Gerry a month's notice. That was with the approval of Derek Meddings, who was running all the effects because he knew that I wasn't going to be doing Thunderbirds puppet stuff for long. So I went off and did 2001. But I was only one of a number of people. Doug Trumbull was there. Con Pederson. Loads of people.

How did the operations compare, the Kubrick and the Anderson operations?

Well there's no comparison. The Anderson thing was done in a tin shack and 2001 used up most of MGM studios [chuckles].

The space station from 2001 A Space Odyssey

The line that comes out was that the expertise gained on 2001 propagated into the rest of film production, that people learned how to do effects better and more cheaply...

Well, certainly in terms of the detailing and stuff like that, which Derek and I started on Thunderbirds, using lots of plastic kits, which hadn't been used before then really. I took that onto 2001, but then so did Doug Trumbull. Doug and I sort of joined forces and did the deeper detailing with extra plastic kits, and that started that whole thing off. Plastic kits for fine detail. So it was a process, but it wasn't a Gerry Anderson process that started it off because there were other things that we'd been doing before Thunderbirds.

Do you think that the knowledge that you gained on 2001 helped you to make Space:1999 a superior show?

Oh God yeah. Absolutely. That was my homage to 2001. And when we were designing/doing the cladding on the moon bus, I did a little sketch of a moon bus with an open framework on it, just for my own satisfaction, and then I just threw it away. Then when I got to Space:1999 I remembered that, and then I got a draughtsman...Mike...can't think of his other name...this was a draughtsman who was working on Bond..and he drew up a sort of rough thing, and then I took that and cut it to pieces and built it up so it was like a logical thing till I got the right lengths and made the command module with the lifeboat and stuff like that. None of that was on 2001. They were just things that I added.

And comparing film production now and the sixties...do you watch films?

Yeah!

Do you think 'I wish we'd been able to do that?'

No, not particularly. And there are lots of things I don't approve of. I don't approve of these incredible camera moves at such high speed; you know it's not possible. They spoil it.

Yeah, it immediately doesn't look realistic.

The Aviator was the film that really disappointed me, because the camera went right through the blokes head! How stupid is that? and that's Martin Scorsese! Can't understand that.

But in terms of being able to create full panoramas of things that would have taken an eternity to create little by little...what films do you like? What have you seen that you thought was particularly good?

Well Spiderman...I like loads of things.

What about Avatar? What did you think of that?

I thought the modelling, the actual stuff was pretty good. I didn't like the story. I thought the story was rubbish.


"George [Lucas] had every single craft, every key frame, already painted by Ralph McQuarrie and all we did at the art department was to make iit look like Ralph McQuarrie's paintings"


Did you see the exhibition in  Oxford where they showed a guy from NASA had done designs for the future, and allegedly they were used [in '2001']. Does that ring any bells?

We had a historian from NASA called Frederick I. Ordway the third, and he came with a whole load of NASA concepts; but most of the stuff was done, was designed by Harry Lange, and also the conceptual artist...I've forgotten his name. We had a conceptual artist on the show. He did a lot of concepts with Stanley. But it was only when I started working with George Lucas that I realised how powerful the conceptual artist's influence could be, because George had every single craft, every key frame, already painted by Ralph McQuarrie and all we did at the art department was to make iit look like Ralph McQuarrie's paintings. They were fantastic. So we all knew before we'd even made the movie what it was going to look like, which was, seeing as we were using a lot of blue screens, quite helpful.

Johnson with the Eagle Transporter of Space:1999They've reviewed a lot of the technology and they talk about the size of the engine relative to the rest of the spacecraft. I love the Eagle Transporter - the logic of the engine size compared to the overall body size - if you were designing it again would you change it?

Not particularly no.

It's almost like an aircraft, kind of fits with an aircraft idea.

Yeah, basically like an insect.

Yeah, and I think it's much more suitable to the stories than the realities of space travel would probably put quite a lot in the way of creating good stories.

My God, yeah.

Have you seen the cutaway schematics of the Eagle that this Italian guy produced?

Yes!

What did you think of those?

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. He sent those to me for my approval before he actually published them. Roberto Baltassari. Brilliant stuff. I've got loads of them. All framed.

You're happy that someone interpreted...?

Oh yeah. He's a good man.

Brian Johnson with the model of the moon from Space:1999

So what are you working on at the moment?

I'm about to start work on a thing called 'Night Witches' for Gary Kurtz, and it's a World War II lady pilot, Russian lady pilots war saga, where they stuff the Germans in Stalingrad, and it's a true story.

So when should that become visible?

Well, he's on his way back, he's been held up. He's in America negotiating with Warner Brothers, so until he comes back I won't really know. We'll start fairly soon afterwards.

Best of luck with that, and thanks so much for your designs. One last question, well no actually two: For a lot of us of my generation it's a real disappointment that we're not living the life that you sketched out. How do you feel about it?

I don't really like science fiction.

Really!! Amazing.

It's not that I don't like it, I do sort of like it, but I'm not so taken by it that I think we should be doing what we did in the movies. Part of the fun of making the movies was knowing that probably this would never happen.

And talking of things that never happened - the moon landings have been claimed to be faked...

Oh rubbish. You only have to look at one shot, and that's where the foot is hitting the dust and the dust comes off. There's no way on God's Earth that could be done on Earth under any circumstances.

Fantastic. So Brian Johnson can say that quite clearly?

Absolutely.

Our thanks to Brian Johnson for the chat!

 


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Comments 

 
#1 Chris Trice 2010-06-09 08:27
Nice interview guys. Incidentally, the Mike that Brian couldn't remember the name of was the late Michael Lamont, son of the famous Bond art director Peter Lamont and the photo of the Moon in the Bray model stores actually shows Nick Allder and Cyril Foster.
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