1982 was a revolutionary year for special effects in Hollywood. It was the year of “Tron.”
Yes, CGI had been used previously, but not like this. It was a total landscape where the actors interacted with…nothing real.
This may have been novel at first, but the backlash was a massive reduction of matte paintings, puppets and miniatures. If CGI could be done faster and cheaper why be old school when there was a new kid on the block?
We can now see E.T.’s feet move, but do you think Henry Thomas would have been so believable on a green screen soundstage? Giving hugs is therapeutic…even if it’s just to a puppet.
Enter Jeff LeRoy, monster moviemaker and master of minatures. Not since ID4, where the White House was blown up, has destroying stuff looked so cool. Having made movies for the past 11 years that are released domestically by companies like Lions Gate, he’s also cracked the international market with fare such as “Creepies.” This mutant spider film did so well in the Asian territories that a sequel was green-lit financed by a budget quadruple the size.
I recently helped him out (and played a very non-huggable E.T.) on the set of his new movie, “Alien Holocaust.” It was such a blast, literally, that I wanted to sit with Jeff and learn how he does that old school magic.
At first, before you actually blew anything up, I was a little nervous on set, but it was so much fun and didn’t seem dangerous at all. Tell me more about the whole process. ^ Well, I’ve been making movies ever since 1994, but it was with my film, “Creepies” that I really started putting in Japanese style explosions and miniatures. Even with no money you stand a better chance of having a unique product which leads to better production values.
But doesn’t blowing up miniatures cost a lot of money? Especially when you shoot it all on 16mm? ^ Not really. Basically it takes me about three days and a couple hundred bucks to put it all together. I spend a day shopping for materials, then go home, throw on a Godzilla type movie and just work. For instance, the house you saw. It was made of foam board, balsa wood and some doll house materials like windows, roofs, and fences. For the chimney I bought some plastic brick coating and just super glued it to a piece of wood.
For the film I have to process it and telecine it, but I shoot film because I want to get the speed. Slowing down video still doesn’t look very good. Especially when you have explosions. We shoot at 120 fps so that one second of real time is five seconds of screen time. That’s important when you want to see some cool fireballs.
What about the blending in of film and video? I’ve watched your stuff and it seems to work pretty well, but I can tell the difference. ^ My betacam stuff cut together with video pretty well. Definitely a lot better now with the 24p video, but basically what I do is put in noise right before and after any film shots. Especially if the footage is grainy.
So, what do you actually use to blow the miniatures up? ^ I use a lot of wire to stay far away, but it’s mostly gun powder as a primer, phosphorus and a plastic bag filled with gasoline and oil. They produce really good fireballs.
What about the thing I lit in the space ship? What was that? ^ Gunpowder and phosphorus in a plastic bag with a short fuse.
You made that yourself? ^ Yeah, that way I don’t have wires running off the ship that are able to be seen in the shot. You just light the short fuse and run like hell.
Although everything seemed very safe there must have been some accidents in your career. ^ Only one. Back when I first started doing this I was working on a picture called “Hell’s Highway.” There was this scene where we blew up a gas station and there was a huge fireball. Back then I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt out in the desert setting off gas bombs.
Now, I have the full protection gear, but anyway, that day I didn’t have much wire and the wind picked up. When the fireball went off it burned the back of my legs, arms and singed all the hair off my head. Because I didn’t have any medical insurance I ended up in USC, the poor man’s hospital, for about five days. The whole thing put me out for a couple of months with deep 2nd degree burns on about 15% of my body.
That’s just crazy. What the hell made you want to do this kind of thing in the first place? ^ Well, when I was a kid I loved stuff like “The Poseidon Adventure” and a British TV show called “UFO.” They both had lots of miniature destruction and I thought I could do something like this. It’s just all toys photographed a certain way.
My first movie was a Super-8 thing called, “The Thing from Outer Space” in which a space ship crashes into a dam that floods the town of Butler, PA (where I lived). The flood creates an earthquake that levels all the houses. Then the survivors have to flee into the woods where they are eaten by a brain damaged alien who was a stop motion monster. It was very ambitious…pouring water over miniature houses! Top notch effects.
Where is the film now? ^ Oh, it’s in a shoebox somewhere.
So, what about your new film? This seems poised to have lots of really awesome explosions and miniature work from what I’ve seen so far. Even more so than “Creepies.” ^ Yeah, definitely. I started it around the time “War of the Worlds” was out. I wanted to do that, but I had no budget. So, I figured we’d do a “They Live” type thing where a girl has an industrial accident and suddenly can see these evil aliens trying to take over. She goes on the warpath and has to kill them all. It stars Randal Malone from “Singled Out” and is produced by Michael Schwibs. It’s going to have everything, UFO attacks, digital effects, miniature effects, cool aliens, shoot outs, horror scenes and a porno actress (Julia Bond) getting naked in the very beginning.
That sounds like my kind of movie. Especially the naked girl stuff. But you mentioned digital effects? What do you think of the old school effects versus the newer CGI stuff? ^ Well, in “Creepies” I was going to do stop motion, but it didn’t look so good. Some CGI stuff is okay. Half the spiders in “Creepies” were puppets, but if you wanted them to crawl around you either have to build a really elaborate mechanical thing or use CGI. I did the bare minimum CGI and the rest were puppets. It’s sad, but for distributors CGI is a selling point. They don’t even know what CGI means, but they know they need it in their film.
For “Alien Holocaust” I found a die cast car, took it apart and put some lights in it. Then I dragged it along the set with some fishing light and set off all the charges around it. It was great!
When you are going to blow something up or wreck a car you have to build a big scale model. Otherwise it just looks bad. And besides if you use CGI where is the joy of blowing crap up?
Jeff LeRoy’s movie, “Alien Holocaust” is currently in production. Sure, these E.T.’s aren’t huggable, but you can expect lots of b-movie murder and mayhem on the big screen.