An interview with veteran special effects supervisor Scott Squires

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The clouds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind mark Squiress first contribution to Hollywood movies.
  • The clouds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind mark Squires's first contribution to Hollywood movies.
A few weeks ago I was flattered to find that a blog post of mine about computer-generated imagery had elicited a comment from Scott Squires, a longtime visual effects supervisor whose credits include Willow, The Mask, and Starship Troopers. Squires politely took me to task for suggesting that the failure of so many recent Hollywood productions can be blamed on overabundant computer graphics. "Why people continue to blame CG as the reason for poor films . . . is beyond me," he wrote. The look of a movie, he added, "comes down to the director[s] and how they choose to use the tools. [Directors] constantly zooming in every shot would be no different. You wouldn't blame the lens for the problem." I appreciated Squires for sharing his expert opinion, and after checking out his blog I got in touch with him in hopes that he'd have more to say. We ended up speaking for an hour on a range of topics related to special effects: the merits of analogue versus digital imagery, the relationship between effects artists and other members of a film production team, and Squires's own storied career.

Ben Sachs: First things first—what made you want to be a special effects artist?

Scott Squires: When I grew up, I was interested in a lot of things. One of them was insects. I wanted to photograph them, and from there I thought I might as well get a movie camera. And from there I thought I'd get one with animation capabilities. I enjoyed animated movies and, of course, the movies Ray Harryhausen worked on—Jason and the Argonauts, 7th Voyage of Sinbad. . .

As I got more interested in this stuff I started thinking about the possibility of [doing it as] a career. After I graduated from high school in 1975, I came out to California and started knocking on doors. After a couple months, I knocked on the door of Douglas Trumbull [the legendary special effects artist who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner]. He said he might be getting involved with a project called Watch the Skies. If he did, he said he'd hire me as his assistant.

Fortunately they got the project, which would come to be known as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The script had the flying saucers creating these clouds [in their wake]. Trumbull said to me, "When we pour cream in our coffee, we kind of get that cloud effect. Obviously we can't photograph that, so we want you to figure out how we create it. Here's $20 in petty cash." That was my first task. After brainstorming with Doug and some other people—and using my knowledge of photography, chemistry, physics, and some other things—by the end of the week I developed the cloud tank that was used in the movie.

How did it work?

We built a custom seven-by-seven-foot glass tank that was four feet tall. We filled it halfway with salt water, then carefully filled the rest of the tank with fresh water. We tried to avoid mixing them, so that when we injected a water-based paint into the fresh water, it would expand but not go down into the salt water. The freshwater cloud would just rest on the salt water, but you wouldn't be able to see that. To the naked eye, it was all clear water.

How long did you serve as an assistant to Douglas Trumbull, and what do you feel you learned from him?

After Close Encounters, which was a great learning experience, I went on to [the 1979 TV movie] Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which Doug wasn't involved in. Then I went on to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which he was involved in. All in all, we worked together for about five years.

Doug's main thing was coming up with a methodology to make everything look correct, rather than being technically correct. Today, with computer graphics, you can easily say [to the effects artists], "Simulate this car flipping over." And it may look technically correct, but it isn't cinematic. Those artists might say, "That's what it would really look like," and I'll go, "Yes, but we're looking for something that works good in the film," which can be a different thing.

At the end of the day, it's about working within the aesthetic of the film. In some cases, we make things very elaborate. In others, I've done shots where we shone light through holes I punched in a soda can. You should be open to doing whatever you can—and, ideally, what's simplest.

On what movie did you shine lights through a soda can?

That was on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. We were supposed to do an elaborate shot, but it got to be 10 PM and the shot wasn't working. So I said, "OK, then here's what we're going to do."

Have you continued to do things like that after the advent of CGI?

When I worked on The Mask, there was a shot where we planned to do [Jim Carrey's] pants as computer graphics, because he was supposed to be pulling bazookas and big pictures and all these other things out of his pants. When we set up for the shot, the director framed it so we saw [Carrey] from above the knees. We didn't see the whole pants, and Carrey was wearing a zoot suit, which has these big pockets. So I said, "Let's turn these into shorts." We cut holes in the pockets—the costumer was not happy about that, because there was only one extra pair—and had two production assistants passing up the props through the holes. It was all done in-camera.

Jim Carrey in The Mask
  • Jim Carrey in The Mask

Can you describe your first experience with digital effects?

I was one of the key people in switching [the industry] from the old effects to the new effects. I was involved in designing one of the first film scanners, which enabled us to create digital effects at Industrial Light and Magic, where I worked for 20 years. It was around 1988 or '89 when I developed the technology—I was awarded the technical Academy Award for that around '94 or so. Anyhow, when I first got to ILM, they were working on Young Sherlock Holmes with a unit that was just about to spin off and become Pixar. After that they would have to create their own internal computer-graphics unit. I was involved in getting that going.

I could see the possibility of digital image processing right away, the flexibility and the control it gave you. At the time we didn't think that three-dimensional computer graphics would ramp up as quickly as they did. People were still modeling pieces of plastic or metal [to create three-dimensional figures], and it didn't all necessarily look real. With films like Jurassic Park, [visual effects artists] could create more skeletal-, muscle-, and skin-based computer graphics.

Some of the old techniques are still being used. But these days, a lot of people in the business have never dealt with miniatures and things like that. When they look at a problem, the only tools they know [to use] are on the digital side. Someone like myself will look at the problem and ask, "Well, what's the best way to do this?"

It's not only the digital effects people who don't have experience with the old techniques—it's also the directors and producers. With digital being so accessible, directors like to keep changing things until a week before the movie's in theaters. It's not like working with miniatures, where you have to make a commitment. You design miniatures, then you build them, and you photograph them—just just like live action. . . . If the animator needs to change anything [in a CG shot], he just goes in and corrects a few frames here and there. With traditional stop-motion, he'd have to the start the shot all over from scratch if there was a single bad frame. So, there are places where the digital effect makes more sense. The thing is to be open to both and think of them as tools.

In your article, you talked about computer graphics taking you out of a picture. Really, you shouldn't be noticing the effects at all. If you are noticing them, there are a few reasons why. One is that the production was rushed and [the visual effects teams] didn't have time to do them right, which is happening more and more, as studios are reducing the amount of preproduction and postproduction time [on their movies]. The bigger problem, I think, is how directors design and use the effects. If they're shoving visual effects shots at you for the whole movie, trying to one-up the movie that came out last month, then their movie is probably a lost cause.

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