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Meteor (1979)


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 12:40 AM

Having just finished reading British director's Ronald Neame's autobiography "Straight From The Horse's Mouth", I decided to rent an infamous sci-fi/disaster movie from my teenager years that I had missed (rather than rent one of his more important movies -- I'll do that later...)

In the book, he said this:

"What changed the film from being something I could have been proud of to a horror were these special effects. The head of that lamentable department has insisted on taking his own camera on location. The producers accepted his request, despite the advice of our cameraman, Paul Lohmann, who wanted him to take a guaranteed steady Panavision camera. He assured us his own was equally steady -- but it wasn't. Consequently the footage he filmed could not be "married" precisely to our shots. No amount of lab work could put it right."

I guess this is a counter-example to the notion that you can't trust a rental house camera...

Anyway, one of the optical printer composites he was talking about was for an exploding mountaintop, hit by a meteor -- you can't tell from a single frame but the composite is REALLY unsteady:

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Here is an in-camera effect (thus not as grainy) of a NASA spaceship passing in front of the "sun" -- except that you can clearly see the open-faced lamp behind the model:

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And here is an example of a bluescreen composite:

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Just thought it was interesting to see these for anyone who had overly romantic notions of the pre-digital optical printer efx compositing days. It also shows the reason why it was a good idea to shoot efx elements on a larger negative to counteract grain build-up when duping.

I suppose it's even possible that the efx cameraman using his own camera didn't even shoot with anamorphic lenses (the live-action was Panavision anamorphic), which may account for why the snow scene is so soft, if 2.35 was extracted from Academy.
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#2 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 05:01 AM

Funny - I just bought just about every major old Cinefex issue on Ebay, so I'm in heaven! It's so much fun to read about how they did the great effects for Outland, 2010, Hunt For Red October, Gremlins, Altered States, Blade Runner, The Right Stuff, E.T., Total Recall, Tremors, Brainstorm and such. I particularly enjoy in-camera miniature work.
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#3 fstop

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 05:11 AM

Not really fair to come down on these effects as though they are representative of pre digital composite work or the overall quality of VFX in the film itself.

METEOR had a nightmare production, continuously ongoing with many different effects supervisors and firms contributing work at various stages. Gene Warren was involved at one point but was either fired or jumped ship, pretty sure Van Der Veer did a load of work that was scrapped. Miniatures specialist William Cruse came on nearly at the end of production, and he had a ton of work to do that had been messed up through politics long before he arrived. I really admire the inventive dealing of the effects from Cruse's position, such as the space missiles stuff which is largely accomplished as you mentioned using in-camera effects, static models and moving cameras doing double exposures, using Brian Johnson's work on SPACE 1999 as a blueprint. Given how little time he had it's amazing anything got done, and as with that optical comp example you gave, pre-digital compositing is only truely inherently full out awful in instances of cheating the deadline. You'd be hard pressed with something like this given the same time and money with today's technology.

Don't forget also that Neame insisted on using his own piece of lava rock for the meteor of the film's title. He lumped his crew with insisting that one. From the beginning he wasn't exactly helping the VFX war.

There's a REALLY impressive black box dump tank miniature of Honk Kong (matted precisely over a still of the real city) for the epic tidal wave shot, and it really holds up today IMO. Reminds me of similar black box shots in digital effects stuff like the opening of X Files The Movie. Along with that there are many other great shots too, like the left over devastation of the New York, which is really simply but effectively handled (still photo work on an animation stand intercut with an exploding miniature of the WTC licked with coloured filters from the optical printer). The final shot of the exploding meteor is a very clever abstraction of high speed ignited gas photography.

Really admirably simple solutions.

Visually I was more disappointed that METEOR was shot by the same DP as NASHVILLE, highly regarded for it's Chemtone aided ambient naturalism, yet here's cliched hard frontal Panavision hack interior lighting you'd associate with Philip Lathrop or Joe Biroc of the time. I guess directors have a lot to answer for.

Can you post some other stills from the movie, such as effects I mentioned or examples of Lohmann's 70s disaster cliche interior work?
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#4 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 09:50 AM

Visually I was more disappointed that METEOR was shot by the same DP as NASHVILLE, highly regarded for it's Chemtone aided ambient naturalism, yet here's cliched hard frontal Panavision hack interior lighting you'd associate with Philip Lathrop or Joe Biroc of the time. I guess directors have a lot to answer for.


Neame had an interview in the same AC issue (december 1979) which covered the production of Spielberg's 1941. He hardly blamed anyone at that time and he even praised Lohmann to the point of claiming he would be his first choice for every future film of his (they never worked together again, at least in a feature). I haven't seen METEOR in ages, but as a disaster film enthusiast back in my youth I never felt it was never a very enjoyable film. My problem wasn't the shoddy effects and cheap look for a major film (I believe there's even some red-tinted stock footage of collapsing buildings after the big meteor hits NYC), it was the script, which tried to hard to be serious with boring and ridiculous results. Robert Wise's THE HINDENBURG also tried to be serious and it was boring too, but it never went to that degree of campiness. And from a technical point of view, you still can't beat Whitlock's matte-paintings and Robert Surtees lush, old fashioned photography.

David, if you're interested in Neame's bio & filmography you should give a chance to his audiocommentary for the new POSEIDON ADVENTURE dvd. The man is 95 years old, but it's a highly enjoyable and informative chat.
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#5 John Holland

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:06 AM

Neame had an interview in the same AC issue (december 1979) which covered the production of Spielberg's 1941. He hardly blamed anyone at that time and he even praised Lohmann to the point of claiming he would be his first choice for every future film of his (they never worked together again, at least in a feature). I haven't seen METEOR in ages, but as a disaster film enthusiast back in my youth I never felt it was never a very enjoyable film. My problem wasn't the shoddy effects and cheap look for a major film (I believe there's even some red-tinted stock footage of collapsing buildings after the big meteor hits NYC), it was the script, which tried to hard to be serious with boring and ridiculous results. Robert Wise's THE HINDENBURG also tried to be serious and it was boring too, but it never went to that degree of campiness. And from a technical point of view, you still can't beat Whitlock's matte-paintings and Robert Surtees lush, old fashioned photography.

David, if you're interested in Neame's bio & filmography you should give a chance to his audiocommentary for the new POSEIDON ADVENTURE dvd. The man is 95 years old, but it's a highly enjoyable and informative chat.


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#6 Stephen Williams

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:06 AM

Paul Lohmann, who wanted him to take a guaranteed steady Panavision camera. He assured us his own was equally steady -- but it wasn't. Consequently the footage he filmed could not be "married" precisely to our shots. No amount of lab work could put it right."

I guess this is a counter-example to the notion that you can't trust a rental house camera...



David,

It is so easy to do a multi pass steady test. I would not shoot any effects work on a camera I had not tested myself.

Do you know what the camera was?
Some cameras use the 'wrong' perf to register to. An Oxberry camera on a downshooter is upside down. The Mag is on the bottom and the film runs backwards relative to a Mitchell. This can be an issue, unless you work upside down and run the film backwards with the Oxberry. Oxberry printer gates were available with the pins in different configerations because of this.


Stephen
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#7 John Holland

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:11 AM

Neame had an interview in the same AC issue (december 1979) which covered the production of Spielberg's 1941. He hardly blamed anyone at that time and he even praised Lohmann to the point of claiming he would be his first choice for every future film of his (they never worked together again, at least in a feature). I haven't seen METEOR in ages, but as a disaster film enthusiast back in my youth I never felt it was never a very enjoyable film. My problem wasn't the shoddy effects and cheap look for a major film (I believe there's even some red-tinted stock footage of collapsing buildings after the big meteor hits NYC), it was the script, which tried to hard to be serious with boring and ridiculous results. Robert Wise's THE HINDENBURG also tried to be serious and it was boring too, but it never went to that degree of campiness. And from a technical point of view, you still can't beat Whitlock's matte-paintings and Robert Surtees lush, old fashioned photography.

David, if you're interested in Neame's bio & filmography you should give a chance to his audiocommentary for the new POSEIDON ADVENTURE dvd. The man is 95 years old, but it's a highly enjoyable and informative chat.

This film was shown here a couple of weeks ago on tv, i had seen it before , the effects were just about what i would expect in 1979 ,from a bunch of old school visual effects people , but there is no excuse for the really bad ,cinematography , the pits . john holland .
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#8 Bob Hayes

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:24 AM

I actually worked as an assistant on the tidal wave shot in ?Meteor?. It was one of the worst shots of the film. I spent the day swimming around with an underwater camera in Malibu trying to keep the Chinese junk models, made in the Philippines for tourists, from hitting me.

If I remember correctly the ?producers? of ?Meteor? thought of the title, hired an all star cast, and printed a poster with out having a script. It generated some press in the trades because of this bizarre style of packaging. It was obviously dead on arrival.
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#9 Tim Partridge

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:35 AM

Bob,

where did this photography take place and who were the sequence supervisor and DP?

I was told this was a Gene Warren shot possibly done at his old Excelsior effects shop (which specialised primarily in stop motion). Were you there before William Cruse was involved? Do you know who else was working on it uncredited?

PS I really like the tidal wave shot! :)
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#10 Bob Hayes

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:44 AM

We shot the wave in Malibu. I haven?t seen the film in a long time but I believe it is one cut in the film and is stand alone not composited. It felt like one of those goofy last minute shots big films sometimes shoot when they?ve run out of money.
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#11 Tim Partridge

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 10:54 AM

Interesting, because in an old Starlog magazine there is an article about METEOR's VFX with someone like Gene Warren who states the scene was a locked off dump tank miniature covered in black, with a still of Hong Kong matted over the top. This is exactly what it looks like in the film ,because you can see a tiny amount of unintentional transparency/matte fringing. Regardless it's still a really effective but simple VFX solution.

You don't remember who the firm or VFX DP you were assisting for were? I appreciate this all happened before I was even born! ;)

BTW- I just wanted to add that METEOR may well be the first big budget Hollywood movie to have a FEMALE VFX supervisor (Van Der Veer associate Margo Anderson). So even schlock has historical significance!
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#12 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 11:56 AM

I suppose it's even possible that the efx cameraman using his own camera didn't even shoot with anamorphic lenses (the live-action was Panavision anamorphic), which may account for why the snow scene is so soft, if 2.35 was extracted from Academy.


---Chances are if the cameraman was using a worn out camera in need of a major tune up, he was using very old lenses and an old anamorphic attachment.
The meteor was filmed non anamorphic, but used as if it were squeezed.
I think much of the space ship footage was shot with a snorkel lens.

Someone I knew that worked on it complained that the efx supervisor was spending money that wasn't showing up on screen. Which one it was, I don't recall.
Most of the miniatures were too small to have any detail.
The miniature of Manhattan was a very small cast metal model. My friend said he would have liked to have to make into a coffee table.

We did get a good laugh out of the cross country skiers.

---LV
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 12:00 PM

The effects for "Meteor" run the gamut in quality; whether to blame the budget or the efx people's ingenuity & skill is hard to say -- it's always a mix of elements.

Actually, I though the lava rock was one of the better choices -- it looks "real" (because it was) but it must have made moving it around on stage, turning it, a pain.

If the bluescreen composites were this bad, I can understand doing most of the shots in-camera, but you can see the problems with that approach too -- the models were often shot against a big slide or photo enlargement of the Earth and there is insufficient depth of field to hold everything in focus, plus the light source is not correct for sunlight -- it's slightly softened, like they were using a multi-bank light or a 5K too close to the model to get sharp shadows. And sometimes the photo backdrop is underexposed. The space effects in "Space 1999" were generally better.

The dump tank of water matted over Hong Kong isn't bad for its time, but it's not quite as good as a similar effect in the beginning of "Clash of the Titans" -- the water is scaled badly with big droplets.

There is a lot of bad duping throughout, like to add snow over the storm sequences.

Yes, overall it's probably an average example of 1970's effects work on a moderate budget.

In terms of the live-action work, it's uninspired -- you'd think that an ex-DP like Ronald Neame, who had worked with David Lean, would try and put a little more mood into the piece. "Poseidon Adventure" is much more atmospheric, but of course, the setting of the story accounts for that. There are a LOT of zooms in the movie, and the anamorphic zoom they used seemed sharp enough, but between that and the flat lighting, it hardly feels like an effective use of Panavision -- despite the 2.35 aspect ratio, it feels like a TV movie.

The only thing that helps give the movie some production value was some of the shooting around the globe, like the panicking crowds in Hong Kong (those shots were so well done I figured some other crew must have shot them!) and the ski lodge in Switzerland, etc.
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#14 Tim Partridge

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 01:11 PM

If the bluescreen composites were this bad, I can understand doing most of the shots in-camera, but you can see the problems with that approach too -- the models were often shot against a big slide or photo enlargement of the Earth and there is insufficient depth of field to hold everything in focus, plus the light source is not correct for sunlight -- it's slightly softened, like they were using a multi-bank light or a 5K too close to the model to get sharp shadows. And sometimes the photo backdrop is underexposed. The space effects in "Space 1999" were generally better.


I don't disagree with you in terms of what we got onscreen, but it's still unfair to slam the approach as William Cruse's team got the short end with effects design that had already been laid out by someone else. Cruse's team had to more or less improvise to a punishing shedule with a tiny amount of money. It's not like in SPACE 1999 where they created a game plan from scratch. I am sure that had the same crew credited for the movie had been there from the beginning with a normal shedule and a decent budget the effects, it would have really been something far better than what was.

There's an interview with Dennis Michelson somewhere online that confirms the rockets were shot with a snorkel on an animation stand.
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#15 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 01:31 PM

Tim, I'm not sure why you are so defensive about something made in 1979 that you didn't even work on! The movie is a good historical example of average-quality feature film effects of the era. I'm sure that budget & time contributed a lot to the problems, but there are also some fundamental effects problems here in terms of depth of field, scale, registration, color matching, etc.

Here is an example of a "Space 1999" style in-camera double-exposure probably (since it doesn't look duped), a decent effect:

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Here are two follow-up shots where the model was shot against a photo, either done with an enlargement or some sort of front-projection technique, I don't know, but you see the depth of field problems due to the miniature not being large enough and not being shot at a deep-enough stop, plus the model is not detailed enough -- plus there is a color-mismatch to the previous double-exposed shot (probably the projected background was too magenta, forcing them to time the model greener):

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Here are some shots from the Hong Kong sequence. I didn't see any miniature harbor work. The second one shows the classic scaling problem with water; either the buildings were miniatures or black shapes in the dump tank matching real buildings in the plate. The traffic is real live-action.

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I'm not one of those people who expect old movies to have modern standards, but I know enough about the era to know what was possible for effects people of that period, and a lot of the work in "Meteor" is mediocre even for that time -- again, I realize that it was probably due to budget, but it does hurt the movie, which is the ultimate problem with them. Even the director admits this, so I don't think I'm out of line here.

There are much better movies of the period to cherish for their effects, Tim -- you don't have to love all of them!

Looking at the Russian missile launcher model, I recognize some kit parts -- makes me think that the entire miniature might have been only three or four feet long...
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#16 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 02:55 PM

Posted Image

Looking at the Russian missile launcher model, I recognize some kit parts -- makes me think that the entire miniature might have been only three or four feet long...


---How'bout less than two feet?

http://www.heritagea...ot_No=25&src=pr

http://www.heritagea...ot_No=26&src=pr

---LV
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#17 Tim Partridge

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 06:41 PM

Thanks David for the images.

Like I said I don't disagree with your observations on the many faults with the VFX, including snorkel DOF, compositing, stock shots, scaling, etc they are all painfully obvious and undeniable. However, I still think for what was a giant last minute compromise they got a fair amount of overly ambitious shots achieved creatively for the time and money they had so late in the day, without motion control. I am not saying these VFX sit alongside ALIEN, THE BLACK HOLE or MOONRAKER from the same year, far from it, but for a low budget chintzy, low end Hollywood blockbuster attempt by AIP, this whole production should have looked ALOT worse considering it's political situation. If you want variable compositing and mismatched element work, you've got the whole of the multi million dollar THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK to watch as well as much of SUPERMAN II. Relatively speaking METEOR had some really, genuinely inventive solutions to shots that frankly should have been unfilmable given the time, money and facilities available. For this the shortcomings can be somewhat partially forgiven. The same can be said about other low rent VFX movies of the time such as GALAXINA and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, even the motion control intensive (but heavily time/money compromised) TV shows like BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA.

William Cruse went on to win Emmy's for VFX in the 80s, so there's no debate as whether his supervision was competent or not. He certainly knew more about making this kind of movie than Ronald Neame ever did.
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#18 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 08:22 PM

It's just sometimes I don't get you...

You criticize Ridley Scott's most famous commercials, you say that "Blade Runner" is overrated, you aren't impressed by Conrad Hall's work... but you get upset that I criticized the effects in "Meteor"? ;)

I guess you're a champion of the underdog! Or an iconoclast.

I admit there is a certain charm to lower-budgeted pre-digital effects, often hit or miss... but they do take a lot of knowledge of optics and mechanics, plus visual misdirection, to create. They seem on a human scale, i.e. what I could have done with my friends in the garage building spaceship models in the late 1970's, if only I had more money.

I have every Cinefex since Issue #1, because originally I wanted to go into visual effects after completing college. I remember all those issues of Starlog, Cinefantastique, and various amateur Super-8 magazines of the day. I should dig up the old photo of me in high school dressed as a Sandman from "Logan's Run"... err, maybe not. They might kick me out of the ASC for lacking dignity.
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#19 Tim Partridge

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 08:38 PM

Didn't I make a big anti-Landon Parks argument post last year about why Hall was important? I've also previously expressed my love of his work on Marathon Man. I'll refrain from assuming you meant Kaminski. ;)

It'll be interesting to see how Astronaut Farmer's ambitious but lower budgeted VFX turn out- the stuff you've told us of reactive lighting and such sounds particularly promising and somewhat old school (and not lit flat like METEOR) - in the meantime I gotta rent me a copy of Shadow Warriors and Infested- what were the VFX deals on that? For a once aspiring VFX artist, you've sure kept quiet about these two interesting genre items. They must have dreams come true, especially SW so early on in your DP career. :)
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#20 John Allardice

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Posted 20 June 2006 - 09:09 PM

... I am not saying these VFX sit alongside ALIEN, THE BLACK HOLE or MOONRAKER from the same year, far from it, but for a low budget chintzy, low end Hollywood blockbuster attempt by AIP, this whole production should have looked ALOT worse ....


Meteors budget was $16m, one and a half times that of ALIEN.
Alien was also shot with no motion control and simple double exposures.

J

Edited by John Allardice, 20 June 2006 - 09:09 PM.

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