Saturday, 23 March 2013

interview: John Cox

When I watched the cracking Korean monster movie The Host in 2006 I noticed some western names in the credits and a bit of research led me to top Aussie FX bloke John Cox whose team had created the practical parts of the largely CGI creature, used for close-up interaction with the real actors. John very kindly agreed to a phone interview in January 2007, some of which later appeared on the Fangoria website.

Have you seen The Host yet?
"No, not seen a single frame."

How did an Aussie FX guy end up working on a Korean film?
"I’m pretty sure it was Kevin Rafferty who got in touch with us. If it wasn’t Kevin, it was the producer from over there, from The Orphanage [The US effects house who did the CGI creature - MJS]. They needed a costing on this giant mutant fish thing and they basically told me the story that they, at the last minute, had been given the job. They said to the Koreans, ‘Okay, so who’s doing the practical one?’ And the Koreans said, ‘What do you mean? What practical one? We don’t need a practical one.’ And they said, ‘Well, there’s all these shots where they pull stuff out of the mouth. What did you think you were going to do?’

“They just thought it could all be done with CG. So thank God the CG guys know where their limitations are, and they said, ‘No, you’re going to have to have a practical one.’ This was at the last minute, just shortly before they actually started shooting. They had no budget for it. So it was all last minute. After talking with Kevin, I approached it knowing that he was ultimately going to do the majority of the film and that our one was just going to be used for the pulling of the little girl out of the mouth of the monster and possibly one or two other shots so the idea was that it had to be really simple to operate. No big, complex hydraulic rigs or anything. It all had to be operated by hand.

“So that’s what we did - we set about building the big head so that there was one person sitting on a chair that operated the throat. Then there were two guys who then operated moving the actual head around because it was mounted on a central pivot point so the guys were then behind the guy on the chair, probably two meters or so back from the end of the head. They moved the whole thing around and then we had someone else operating the tongue and someone remotely doing the eyes."

It’s pretty much dead by the time that the children are pulled out, isn’t it?
"We had to do an eyeball that gets an arrow fired into it. They do pull an eyeball out. So we made that; I don’t know whether that ended up in the film. I think there’s a couple of shots of it dead as well. But we only made a piece about three metres long of the head, with all the front jaws being able to open. It was like a giant flower the way it opened. Mechanically it was a real nightmare to make it work because Jang Heui-cheol’s design, it had a grounding, a basis more in plant physiology than animal. So we then had to have a really good, hard think about bone structure and what could possibly move and why it should move. Admittedly there was a point where we gave up because we were doing things that ultimately a creature with a skeleton couldn’t possibly achieve."

Were there safety considerations, given that two child actors were going to have to be pulled out, covered in slime?
"That was achieved by having a big concrete former tube which was very heavy duty and could take their weight. That was open pretty much at both ends so the kids were loaded in the back. It was lined with garbage bag plastic so it was nice and slippery and the slimed up as well. They could move in and out of it fairly easily although when the front of the head was on, it did get very close in there."

Did you have CG models from The Orphanage to work from?
"We had a macquette that had been done over at Weta. Heui-cheol is the South Korean guy who designed the creature. He went down to Weta and Richard Taylor who’s a good friend of mine basically said, ‘Look, stay here. Our guys will give you any pointers you want on finessing the sculpture and we’ll make the mold for you.’ That’s essentially all Weta did for them. Then they pulled a couple of copies of that macquette out and we got one of them. At that point it hadn’t been scanned, or rather it had been scanned mouth closed, but not mouth open. We needed it mouth open so we could see what was going on in there. The Orphanage did some preliminary work on it and sent us the file. We then cut that on a five-axis milling machine.

“Then Lewis Kim, who was on the production side, he came down with Heui-cheol and there was a major look of disappointment on their faces. They said, ‘Yes, it’s very nice - but that’s not the thing that we designed.’ At that point we had only seen photos of the macquette, we hadn’t actually got the macquette, and when we went over it with them, we came to the conclusion that the guys at The Orphanage had, in their preliminary design, just missed a couple of reference points. And so it ended up being too short or too fat in the face. There were some issues with it. Because it wasn’t right, we said no problem, we’ll go back, and we basically made all the changes in about four days. That was doing some major reconstruction on it.

“Basically it was all there, just a couple of the proportions on the front of the face had been changed which we hadn’t been made aware of. So our one, when we showed the Koreans all the CG stuff and the CG model, they said, ‘Yes, it’s exactly the same as that but that’s not our design!’ ‘Oh, okay...’ So we went back and The Orphanage at that point hadn’t locked the model down or anything either so they then took lots of photos of our piece and used that as all their texture maps and colour reference and all that sort of stuff, once the piece was actually finished. It all came together fairly well.

“We managed to run the big latex skin in one hit, which was a fairly big pour, so we got the skin out in one piece which was great. The hard part was trying to assemble all of the internal mouth pieces. Some of them we’d had to sculpt very rigid in order that they’d lock back inside the head. Once the jaws open, we essentially had to lock off the sculpture and remove those jaws so they could all be cast separately so we didn’t really know what it was going to do until it all went back together again. We blended all the mouth pieces off and saw that it was all actually going to work!

“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on that as far as mold-making and sculpting went. Essentially we started from the outside and then had to take partial molds off the sculpture to make sure; basically like doing a prosthetic on someone’s face except the piece wasn’t just a little nose piece, it was something that was a metre long, that had to have this blend edge all the way along it. So that was the outside. We’d then do the inside of the jaws. Then once they were done, we had to do partial molds of those to then go to the next layer which was the internal mouth, the actual hard palate.

“Then once that was done, we had to take partial molds off that to then go for the throat piece, to make sure that every piece fitted inside it. Because there was no way we could sculpt it all as one piece. You just wouldn’t be able to get in there so we had to do it one layer at a time. It was very time-consuming and messed about with our heads quite a bit but it all worked out fine. We were very happy with the end result."

How long did you have to do this?
"Ten weeks, I think. It wasn’t any longer. Could actually have been shorter."

Did you go out to Korea?
"No, I didn’t. I sent a crew of four other guys over there and they looked after it with some of the Koreans helping out, working the back part of the creature."

Did the Korean producers understand how to use a physical prop creature?
"Yes, the director was very savvy. He was right up on it. He was very aware of monster movies and where animatronics have to help you out. On his particular film, it was only for a very few shots - but there was no other way to do it. Once the piece got over there, they realised just how big the monster in the film was and they cottoned on very quickly how best to shoot it, how best to show the animatronic. Because the animatronic, at the end of the day, it can’t run and jump and do all of those wonderful things that CGI can do, so you have to shoot it in very specific circumstances and they were very good with that."

There’s a few scenes with the creature’s tongue. Did you build that?
"We did the tongue. I don’t know whether that’s our tongue or not but it quite probably is. It was an exceptionally mobile tongue. Sonny Tilders, who at the moment is helming the big Walking with Dinosaurs show, the full-size dinosaurs they’ve built for the stadium show down here. They’re launching it here. They’ve been on it for a year. They’re actual full-size, animatronic puppets. Sonny’s been looking after that. But a few months before that he designed the tongue for our creature. It could really move and wrap around things and was very spectacular."

What was the feeling about the film, given that Korea doesn’t have a good pedigree of monster films? It’s been a tremendous success. Could you sense it was something special?
"It’s been an amazing success! We couldn’t at all, we didn’t see a script, we saw partial storyboards so, not knowing any of the dialogue or anything, we really had no idea what it was we were working on: just that they needed this fish monster and it was part of this particular film. The director having a fairly good reputation, we were expecting it to be at least halfway decent. The same thing goes though with a lot of films. Sometimes we read scripts and think, ‘Yeah, it’s a really good script,’ but by the end of it, it’s just... not. It becomes very mediocre and it’s really hard to put your finger on where things didn’t gel.

“Because going into these shows, most of the time, all the key ingredients are there. But I guess it’s like a good chef. Depending on the meddling as well, whether or not the director’s vision is allowed to get to the screen unimpeded or whether everyone wants to put their two cents’ worth in it. It’s always very difficult.

“We lost out big time on Peter Pan with that happening. We built this gigantic crocodile that was capable of doing just about everything. It was built for one key sequence only and that was to introduce the crocodile as a key character into the movie. The crocodile was finished, the set was built, finished, lit, dressed - and the producer turned to the director and said, ‘No, I’m not letting you go in there.’ And that was the end of the sequence. Nothing survives except on my website there’s test footage of the crocodile that we shot down in our workshop to show the director all of his storyboard shots would be there. That was just before it was due to go on set, and we only found out two weeks before when it was all finished and ready to roll."

It must be disappointing when you put that much work into something.
"It’s disappointing, but we still get paid. That’s the important bit. The other really important thing was that we achieved what we’d been asked to make and it was really exciting to see the thing actually work. That it didn’t get in a film: well look, at the end of the day a lot of stuff that we do that gets shot doesn’t make it into a film either. So I take all of that with a grain of salt. But it just shows how directors’ visions can get messed with and consequently affect the whole project. But in The Host’s case, there was Japanese money in it as well so there was the opportunity for there to be interference from producers from other countries but it doesn’t seem to have happened. From what I understand, the film is exactly the film that he hoped to make."

Has it had any benefits for you?
"No, no-one knows about it yet. I think it’s released in Australia sometime this year - could be in three or four months’ time - and we worked on it the year before last. So no-one over here knows about it. From what I understand, the Americans are already looking at remaking it because it was such a success. It will be very interesting to see who gets to do the creature and whether or not it’s the same-looking creature. Seeing as how these days, all the CG files and everything exists for it.

“I don’t know what happens when you buy the rights to remake a film, whether you can actually buy the CG assets as well. Because it would save you a lot of time! Seeing as how that’s the monster from The Host and that’s one of the things that made it good. If you remade any of those monster movies, I guess you’d still have to have the same monster. So it will be interesting to see what happens with that one this year."

Has there been any talk of The Host 2?
"No, I haven’t heard anything at all. I think director Bong’s moved onto something else."

What else have you worked on recently?
"I just finished a Bollywood film. Our guys just got back on 23rd December; they were over there for three and a half weeks, doing some work on that. It’s a Bollywood film - three hours, six songs - that has science fiction elements in it. It’s called Love Story 2050 at this stage. I think it’ll probably be an August/September release because they’re still shooting bits of it now and they’ve got to do all the visual effects stuff on it."

What sort of stuff did you do on that.
"I can’t say - they won’t let me talk about that one. I can talk about Rogue, the big croc. We did a 7.2 meter crocodile for that one."

Were you able to reuse some of the techniques that you’d developed for the Peter Pan croc?
"Sort of, but not really. The Peter Pan croc, we did the head, the tail and a segment of the back of a crocodile that would have been twelve metres long, so fifty odd feet. This one at 7.2 metres was smaller but still larger than the largest crocodile that’s around at the moment. The funny thing is though, we had the head of the big Peter Pan croc sitting around in the workshop. It was hanging around for two years before we cut it up because it had just deteriorated so much. But when we built the 7.2 metre croc, we all stood back and went, ‘Ah, it’s a bit small...’ We were just used to seeing this head that was three metres long. Then you gradually get used to the fact that this croc is really, really big at seven metres long, and most of them that you see around are about four and half or so, so it’s a very big crocodile.

“We did the big croc, we did a third-scale version of it and a third-scale version of the actress Radha Mitchell for one of the attack sequences, the death roll sequence. So our croc, the full-size one, was used mainly for attack shots and a particular sequence with Michael Vartan where he’s trapped and the crocodile’s trying to get him, and they needed this crocodile to interact with him. They needed him to actually lunge and hit it. From what I hear it’s looking pretty good. That’s supposed to be released, I believe, in the US at the very end of February."

Did you build a complete croc or part for one shot and part for another?
"No, we built the whole thing so he was all operated hydraulically. We had one performer to actually operate all of the croc and someone else on radio to operate his eye-blink and eye-move and sniff. All the rest was operated by a single performer."

For the action sequences, the attacks, does it need to be carefully choreographed so it doesn’t knock any of the mechanism?
"No, we just make it really resilient. On something like this there was always going to be a wear and tear aspect; when you see the sequence you’ll understand what I’m talking about. And we did rub a few scales off and grind the foam latex back to the fibreglass understructure but that was underneath the croc and you didn’t really see it, at the end of the day."

Is there a difference between making something realistic like that and making a fantasy creature like the monster in The Host?
"Yes, it is different in that I find it a lot less stressful, because nobody’s throwing their two-cents’ worth in. All you do is get out DVDs or photographs and say, ‘This is what the animal looks like, this is what it does.’ And if it does that in real life, no-one can argue.

“Whereas when we were working on Pitch Black, no-one could decide on how big the teeth had to be. Originally the thing didn’t have teeth in its head. It had like a parrot’s beak, a very hard, sharpish tongue-type structure inside its mouth. A number of producers all had thoughts about that and a distributor was brought on board who then wanted changes as well. Originally the thing only had a single tail and he came on and said, ‘Oh, it looks like a dinosaur tail.’ This was after we’d finished it, of course. We’d finished building it all. We’d actually pulled the first tail out of the mold and were looking at it when I got the phone call to say, ‘What would it take if the tail had a split in it so it was a double tail?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to redo the whole thing.’

“And of course at that stage everyone had been penny-pinching: ‘Gotta keep the cost down, gotta keep the cost down.’ ‘Er, the distributor has said he wants the tail split.‘ I said, ‘Well, that’s going to cost -’ ‘Ah look, that doesn’t worry. Just go ahead and do it.’ The goal line changes completely when those sort of things happen. But Pitch Black: no-one could decide whether it had teeth, how big those teeth were to be, what they were to look like. And we actually got the final decision on those teeth the day shooting finished. So the animatronic ones, any time they open their mouth they’re CG teeth. In the majority of shots he’s got his mouth closed - and that’s the reason why."

Can I just go back to a couple of your early films, starting with The Return of Captain Invincible.
"Ah, what a great movie. Old Christopher Lee gets to sing that ‘Name Your Poison’ song which is such a terrific little number. I was sort of assistant prop person on that one and looked after making the model town in the tank at the end that separates and blows up. There were a lot of cutaways. There was a deli where we had to make all replica fish and things out of latex. There were some replica weapons and things but the main piece that I worked on was that model at the end."

Was the film a success when it was released?
"No, it disappeared without a trace. Another one I worked on that did the same thing was Sky Pirates. Sky Pirates was an attempt to rip off the Indiana Jones series and could have been interesting but at the end of the day, due to budget restrictions, like very extreme budget limitations, they couldn’t come up with an ending for the film that would fit within their budget. They sort of played it by ear so in the film you don’t see anything. It’s one of those movies where you don’t see it because they couldn’t afford to shoot it! You lead up to the big climactic event and then everyone walks out of the cave and it’s all over. It was one that suffered from very bad script problems."

I must ask you about Lorca and the Outlaws.
"2084 is what it was originally called, then renamed Lorca and the Outlaws. A Roger Christian film. I worked with a guy, Lewis Morley Jr - his dad is Lewis Morley the famous British photographer - and Lewis and I looked after a lot of the props stuff. Lewis built all of the hardcore, mechanical devices and things and I looked after the exterior robot body shells, a lot of the sculpting, molding and casting. What was the little robot called? I’ve never seen the film."

You’re lucky. He’s called Grid.
"I remember building all the drone robots and police things and blowing them up and all that sort of stuff. That little robot, that’s Deep Roy, he was inside it. They wanted a dead bodyweight version of it to hang upside down from the back of a truck so the little robot’s head is just swinging inches from the ground or whatever. We made it but we didn’t have a really good structure inside the piece. It was also made out of a fairly unstable urethane polymer. A bit shoddy back in those days; this was in 1984, we made it. And he started to stretch! They were doing a take and his head’s whacking into the ground!

“We were trying to figure out what’s happening and we realised that he’d now grown about four or five inches! The length had stretched and his head was hitting the ground so we had to do something to tie him back up again. That and the corridors. I remember there was a lot of talk from Roger about how he dressed Star Wars, just going to the tip and buying stuff and doing this, that and the other. We did the same thing on this - and it looked like it!"

There’s an extraordinary scene where Deep Roy fights another midget robot and they throw each other through the walls, and you think: how structurally sound is this spaceship?
"That’s right, there was supposed to be a spaceship, wasn’t there? I remember they built those corridors and it was basically just a square. You’d keep walking around. It was almost like the camera would follow the actors and then behind the camera you’d got us changing things on the wall so they could keep walking around in a circle! A very cheap film. I remember seeing it advertised one night on late TV here, probably ten years ago or something but I just didn’t get round to watching it.”

What have you got coming up?
"Absolutely nothing, not a single thing. We don’t keep the projects coming any more. We used to, but now they just appear out of the blue - and we say yes or no.”

John very kindly supplied me with these two previously unseen behind-the-scene shots from Lorca and the Outlaws/2084 (above). That’s John himself with the machine gun. He also sent me these behind-the-scenes shots from The Return of Captain Invincible (below).

interview originally posted 5th February 2007

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