Working on our film-by-film breakdown of the 10 movies in the Halloween series meant a lot of online research, which is a technical journalism-industry term meaning “noodling around on the Internet, reading neat things and calling it work.” (Apparently this practice has spread to various other professional fields lately.) Much of that trawl went into our piece, but here’s one that was both too random and off-topic to include, and too interesting not to bring up: Art Of The Title’s terrific interview with special-effects artist and title designer John Wash, discussing his work on John Carpenter’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, Escape From New York, and The Thing. (Also Dark Star and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm, while he’s at it.) The primary takeaway is something anyone who read about films in the pre-CGI era already knew, but that never stops being surprising: Creating practical effects can be a ridiculously complicated, work-intensive, meticulous process of problem-solving and experimentation.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Wash interview is that, as he says, he originally “specialized in creating animation that looked like it was computer generated”—meaning for instance that for Escape From New York, he created what looked like a simple CGI rendering of the city, as seen through a low-tech computer display, by actually building that city in miniature, painting the whole thing black, cutting approximately a billion lines through it so white would show through the black, and scanning it. Another effect was created by building a bigger city model, covering it with high-contrast tape lines to represent structures, and “flying” a camera through the whole thing.
There’s much more in the interview, including how he actually built the Halloween III titles in Fortran on an early computer, but had to run them through a video monitor to get the right amount of fuzz and static, and his headachey trip through the Fortran manual, trying to get The Thing’s blood cells to animate for a CGI display in The Thing. His career at the point he’s describing was right on the edge between entirely physical effects and the birth of CGI, and the transition alone—from building tiny cities to building conglomerates of moving pixels—is fascinating. Feel free to sing the “24 days to Halloween, Silver Shamrock!” song from Halloween III while reading it. You know he’d want you to.