Thursday, August 21, 2014

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY INTERVIEW SERIES: BRIAN JOHNSON




 Next up in our 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Interview Series...
Academy Award Winning Special Effects Supervisor Brian Johnson (Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, The Never Ending Story) talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), working with Stanley Kubrick and why Kubrick refused to fly.

Brian Johnson at work on ALIEN (1979)
TV STORE ONLINE:  Tell me about how you came to work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)?

BRIAN JOHNSON:
  I was first approached to work on 2001 by Stanley's office via Les Bowie.  At the time I was working on the show Thunderbirds (1965-66), and apparently Stanley was watching the show.  He had a list of people from the show that he wanted to meet with out at MGM Borehamwood and so I went out to see him.

TV STORE ONLINE:    He did make an offer to everyone on the list didn't he about a job on 2001?

BRIAN JOHNSON: 
I believe he did, but as far as I know after that first contact with the studio, I was the only one that pursued the opportunity.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What was your first impression of Stanley when you met him?

BRIAN JOHNSON:
  I knew I had to be out at his office at MGM at a certain time, and when I got there his secretary told me, "Stanley is out on such-and-such stage today..."  So I went walking around and ended up on the big stage at MGM.  There was a painter in the corner, fiddling around doing a few bits.  I went up to him and said, "I was told that Stanley Kubrick would be on this stage."  The man turned around and he said, "Yes, that's me."   That was how I met him.  He smiled at me and we started to talk.  He was wearing that old blue jacket that he liked so much. And an old pair of blue trousers.  He had like four or five of those same jackets in his collection and they made him look like he was a painter.   

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you get on well with Stanley?

BRIAN JOHNSON:   Only as well as the next fellow who worked with him I'd imagine. I do remember one time...We were working on the blacked-out sound stage shooting one of the models and we were chatting and somehow the conversation turned to flying.  I was quite keen on lite aircraft flying and Stanley said, "You know, I've given up flying and you should too..."  Shortly after this,  issues of the big glossy American magazine Flying would appear on my desk at the studio ever month from Stanley and he would put notes throughout the issue for me to review.  He would comment on various things about flying lite aircraft.   Months passed and while we were waiting for some film to develop or something or other, he said, "How is the flying going?"  I said, "I'm flying Gliders and some power engines now..."  Then he responded with, "You know, I learned how to fly."   I said, "Did you?"  I had no idea about this when he mentioned it to me.   He then went on to tell me about how when he had learned to fly and how when he had went up on his first or second solo flight about how he had frozen at the controls.   He said that he got scared but that he had managed to land the aircraft and that after that he decided that he would never fly again even with a professional pilot at the controls.

He also would talk to me about the film he wanted to make after 2001.  He said, "I've got a couple things that I'm working on.  One I can't talk about now, but the other is a film about Napoleon."   I said, "Brilliant."  He said, "I just have one problem...I'm gonna play Napoleon!" (Laughing)   I thought that he was joking with me because he would do that sometimes,  but then again,  how many times over the years since 2001 has that been speculated on? (Laughing)   I said to him,"I don't know if I like the idea of that!"  He said, "Well, no one does..." (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:   And the first shot you worked on in 2001 was the "floating pen" sequence?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  Yes, it was.    There had been many attempts at that shot before the glass plate was introduced but I wasn't there for that.    I walked onto the set and I was handed the pens and a bunch of 3M double sided tape, and that was something completely new for the time.   We set it up and shot it.

TV STORE ONLINE:   I know that there has been so much said and written about the Centrifuge set for 2001.....

BRIAN JOHNSON:  Right, yeah, there has been hasn't there?  I spent a great deal of time on that set because I had to set up all of the computer readout screens.   Those were all set up on 16mm Bell & Howell projectors that were attached at various points on the outside of the Centrifuge set.    It was [Special Photographic Effects Supervisor] Wally Veevers idea to use various different types of lenses on each projector.  This didn't work because when the Centrifuge went around, the readouts on the computer on the set would eventually be upside down at a certain point in the Centrifuge rotation, so it occurred to me that we would actually need to install a steel plate underneath the projector and add an additional projector that would run at the same time but upside down, so when it rotated, the screen image, the readout, would be right side up no matter at what point it was at in the rotation of the Centrifuge.  Wally was insistent that all of the projects had to be in a upright position but when he tried out his rig he was having some key-stoning problems.

Stanley had this thing about having two different people work on the same project at the same time, so as I was getting the lenses around for the Bell & Howell for Wally's project, I was experimenting with my own rig with the stock projector lenses.  When Stanley walked onto the set, Wally fired up his rig and it was all over the place, and when I figured up my rig, not only did it work but the readouts on the screens on the set were much brighter.   Stanley said, "Right, file yours Wally..." Then he walked off the stage.  After that, Wally wouldn't talk to me again, and I moved on to spend the rest of the shoot working with Doug Trumbull.

Brian Johnson on Space 1999 (1975-77)
TV STORE ONLINE:   All of those readouts were animated sequences that we see on the computers on the Centrifuge?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  That's right.   They were all shot by Douglas Trumbull.   Each projector had about five minutes of animation on them. 

TV STORE ONLINE:     You also had a big hand in the shooting of the model spaceships in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as well, right?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  I did.  I worked with Stanley on that.  I was given the job of getting all of the models ready to do the still photography with Stanley.   We had an Electrician, myself and Stanley on a completely blacked-out sound stage.   Stanley would work for hours lighting the models and then he would shoot the 4"x 5" plates, and those plates would then be used to make enlargements for the animation.   We used Polaroid Land 300 stock.  It was the same stock that spy planes used, and it was very fine grain black and white.  It was very high process stock, it was fantastic stuff.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Could you break down the entire process of how that worked for me?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  Sure.  So we would go to the storyboards and take the shot that we were doing on any particular day and then I would set it up on the blacked-out sound stage.  The electrician would come in and set up the lights were Stanley wanted them.   Stanley would set the key light were he wanted it, then we would blanket the exposure.   We had problems with processing the film because we at times would work with a f/stop of 128 for about 10 minutes -- which was basically an aperture the size of a pinhole -- this was because we had to get a certain depth of field, but also everything had to always be in focus as well.  So we'd shoot something, send it off and it would often times be rejected because it wasn't perfect.

From there, I had to clean the negatives that Stanley had shot.  Then Stanley would go over those to determine which part of the image he wanted to appear on the screen.  Once he had decided, he would have someone cut out the model from the composite made from the negative with a surgical scalpel and then that would be placed onto the glass plates.     Once the glass plates were made, they would re-photograph those with a film camera.  They cameras would track along with the image or move in on it as was necessary.   We didn't very often shoot the models with a film camera, but we shot more with a still camera really.   It was animation. It was important to do it this way because then we could then go back and re-re-photograph those with background projections in place.  An example of that would be how one sees space in the background via the windows of the space station. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  Was the rotation of the space station itself as it appears in the movie today done that same way?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  That was actually done in real time.  That was a big model and it was lit up with lots of bulbs and we did really really slow camera moves on it.  You couldn't virtually even see it turning while we were shooting it, it was that slow moving. 

TV STORE ONLINE:    I've heard from other crew members and read about the numerous instances were a star would accidentally bleed into one of the models in the animation process and how Stanley would request an insurance claim be submitted for the mistake...

BRIAN JOHNSON:  Well, he had lots of those...(Laughing)   There was one filed nearly every day.  The thing is, all of the images were "held" takes so they could go from one process of the animation to another...For example, we should shoot a track-in on a spacecraft.  It would next go to the "blobber" department, as it was called, and they would project each frame of what we had shot and then they would create the matte background that was needed for the shot so the stars could be put into the shot.  Then it would go next to the department that made the stars themselves, and then eventually all of it would end up together on a strip of film as one single shot.  There were often times when one frame or two would be out of sync in the process and a star would bleed into the spaceship and then the entire thing would have to be done all over again. 

For most of the shots that I did with Stanley, there would be like four or five held takes, and one of those would be processed.  All of these would be filled into a library, and by the end of the shooting of 2001 we had a library that was beyond belief.  It was filled with held takes, undeveloped film and God knows what else.  It was also very important for everything that went into the final shot be done first process, because once you start getting into film optics, then you start messing around with positives and negatives and there is a reduction of image quality, and we wouldn't have been able to complete the work in the time that we did.  Effectively, the entire process was sort of like shooting with a motion control film camera, except at that time we didn't have the computers to control the cameras. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  You also assisted in the physical building of the some of the models used in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, didn't you?

BRIAN JOHNSON:
  Well, Doug Trumbull and I did a lot of the "dirtying" down of them.   We also added plastic enhancements to some of the models to give them more visible details for the camera.   Myself and [Production Manager] Robert Watts went to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany which was the largest convention for toy models in the world.  When I was on Thunderbirds,  I had been using a lot of plastic kits on the models for that show that I had gotten from two great companies based in Germany.    Robert could speak German so I had him ask one of the companies if we could go to their factory and just hold buckets under their machines to get as many of a single piece that we wanted. I thought this was a better idea instead of buying 1000 of their kits and only using one piece out of each of them.  The Germans have always been good about that sort of thing, so they allowed us to come to their factory and we went through all of the bits that they made, picked the ones that we liked and were able to get all of the pieces that we needed.  We had thousands and thousands of bits packed and ready to go at customs at the airport when we arrived the next day. 

Some of the models that were created for 2001 were kind of plain, so what Doug Trumbull and I did was to take all of those little plastic bits and embed them.  We did that on the Moonbase model and on several of the space satellites.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How big was that Moonbase model?

BRIAN JOHNSON:   The whole thing including the landscape was just 4 feet by  4 feet. I built one portion of it.  We photographed it, and because we photographed it with a wide lens with a big exposure, we got the depth we needed right from the start.   We made the moon craters by pouring plaster and then taking a 6 inch brush and flicking it with water as it set.  That was how all of the craters were made.   We had sculptresses Liz Moore and Joyce Seddon helping us.   When I was working on Space 1999 (1975-77) I did the exact same thing there to make some of the landscapes for that show.  Why not?  It worked well.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about the sequence with the Moonbus flying across the surface of the moon?  Was that done with animation?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  There was some shots that were done that way of the Moonbus, but the majority of that was done with the actual model and the camera moving back and forth on a track shooting it.  When we were watching the Moonbus footage in the dailies, Stanley wasn't happen with it because he thought that it was too shaky, but I realized that it wasn't the actual footage that was shaky but that there was something wrong with the projector that was showing the dailies.   With Stanley, you couldn't just come out and say that. With Stanley, you had to be diplomatic about how you approached him about things like that.     I told him, and he just couldn't get his mind around it, so we ended up shooting it all over again.     We ended up shooting it about five times actually.

2001 Effects; Douglas Trumbull works with the Moonbus
When we started to create the moon landscapes for 2001 we were working off of NASA photographs that they had sent us, and once we had shot it, we'd have to go back and re-shoot it  too, because each time we would complete the shot, NASA would send us another set of photographs that showed the moon landscape in greater detail.  That went on and on.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about the shooting of that amazing sequence where the TMA Pod comes down inside the Moonbase and lands?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  Right, that was done with a counter-weighted beam that held the pod model up in the air that was designed by Wally Veevers.  It had a spigot that came out of the back of it.    I noticed how there was nothing on the spigot that would lock the model into place because when the pivoted arm went down there was nothing to stop the model from sliding off the spigot and crashing.  I fitted it up with a device that locked it on.    It was a system that was designed to automatically raise and lower the pod onto the landing pad, and it took a team of us to have it land down with the air coming out of it as well.

2001 Space Station gone but not forgotten
TV STORE ONLINE:  There's been a photograph going around the internet for many years of the 2001 space station model laying out in a field on the back lot of MGM Borehamwood....

BRIAN JOHNSON:  That's right. MGM didn't scrap the model, Stanley did.   After the movie finishing shooting, all of the models were put into storage containers and were put into a storage facility next door to Elstree Studios that MGM had rented out.    After a number of years, and when MGM folded, the storage company notified Stanley that the cost for the storage had to be paid for to keep it going but he decided not to pay it.  So without telling anyone, the storage company just dumped everything that was in the storage lot into a field.   It laid there for years and years and someone eventually photographed it and the picture started to first appear in fan magazines before it eventually made its way onto the internet.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I know you also worked with Douglas Trumbull on the Stargate Slit-Scan sequence as well...Was there any rhyme or reasoning behind the organization of the imagery that was created for that sequence for the film?  How did you guys which shapes or patterns were to come first when you were making it?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  It was very dependent on Doug getting it all sorted out.  I think that there were certain aspects of it that were discussed with Stanley and that was then organized and planned out.  We had to shoot the planet for the film.  Doug had created a planet machine that worked quite well for the film.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've read something in the past where as Jupiter appears in the film today, Stanley had really wanted to use Saturn in the film but the special effects crew fought him on it?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  That's true.  Stanley was asking the impossible or nearly impossible, and when he asked Doug Trumbull and Wally Veevers, they told him that.   Stanley wouldn't get mad or stomp his feet.  He would stop and listen to what everyone had to say and he, in the end, decided against it.   We had already spent such a long time, like nine months, planning to shoot Jupiter and by the time that he had asked about Saturn it was just too late to switch or try to do that.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you have any memories of trying to shoot the portion of the Stargate sequence that was to be called "The City Of Light"?   It was to be this sort of lighted alien city full of skyscrapers?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  I have a vague memory of that actually, but if I recall, we only ever did some test footage for that.  It wasn't something that was going to be in the film, I don't think.   I also recall helping Dan Richter dress up in a body suit because Stanley had wanted to try to film an alien, and Dan was dressed up and I had to put all of these little balls onto his suit.  I know that we did some tests of that, but in the end that didn't work either.   I worked on the "Star-Child" as well.  Liz Moore sculpted it out of fiberglass, and I built the eyes for it that moved around.   We finished that, and we put it on a rig and took a couple passes at it with the camera, and then we went back at it again but with more defused lighting.     There was gauze put on the lights and the camera because when we shot it, the image was just too sharp.  
 
TV STORE ONLINE:  How did the eyes move in the Star-Child?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  They were just full-sized sculpted eyes that had these little model aircraft motors on the back of them.   

Liz Moore assists with Ape Costume
TV STORE ONLINE:  How long did it take for Liz Moore to sculpt the Star-Child?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  It didn't take her too long if I recall. I think it just took her a couple weeks to do it after there had been a few different variations on the design.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've spoken to many that have worked with Stanley over the last few years about 2001 and his other films...Do you think that he was a good collaborator?

BRIAN JOHNSON:  Well, I think that he was smart enough to surround himself with great people and in turn we all worked together to create some wonderful films with him.   I don't think that Stanley deserved to get the Academy Award for Special Effects on 2001 though.  I think that that should have went to Douglas Trumbull.   There were many people that worked on 2001 that didn't credit for their work.   [Special Photographic Effects Supervisor] Tom Howard has a credit on the film and he did absolutely nothing on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  He only got a credit because he was MGM's resident special effects guy in Great Britain.    Back in those days you were lucky to get a credit though...(Laughing).   But that all changed when George Lucas came to us to work on the STAR WARS TRILOGY (1977-1983) with him.  After that was over, everyone, even the guy that went around the sound stage and emptied the trashcan got a screen credit...(Laughing)