Jim Henson, Oliver Reed and the Demise of the VFX Business

Many great adventures start with a journey of some sort. Not much happens when one stays in his rutted path and hopes the phone to ring. The visual effects business has been quiet for me these past two years and frankly I must consider that after thirty-two years in the saddle this horse is no longer prepared to carry me. This is something that many are currently facing worldwide. I’m not alone in this nor are you. One must also consider if the battle to remain within is ultimately worth the struggle required as wages spiral downward and competition becomes more extreme in its willingness to make any sacrifice to compete.

Throughout our lives we get signals that remind us that we need to accept and embrace the change that is thrust uninvited into our lives. When I was young I listened only to my brain but as I grew older (and older…) I started also listening to my stomach and my heart. All are organs of thought. These days if all three of these organs don’t vote in unison, I readjust my perspective and take another run at my decision.

A friend of mine once told me a story that he felt had great significance to him as it heralded the beginning of the end of his marriage.

During the dark early morning of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, he was living with his wife in one of the canyons in Malibu. All the lights were off in Southern California (since probably the last earthquake) and the sky revealed itself in detail, free of all light pollution. Although the marriage was not going perfectly, he felt there was still a chance the ember could be reignited. After his eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to recognize different stars and constellations. Enthusiastic for the view and sensing the potential for romance, he reached for his wife’s hand and tenderly said to her, “Look Honey, the Milky Way…!”. As hands touched in the darkness, hope rose in his breast for a bit of true empathy, or sympathy at least. His wife tilted her head back to the limitless view and stood for a few long, moments quietly studying the stars.  She then lowered her head, dropped his hand, looked him straight in the eye and said “You’re full of shit…!” and walked back into the house. That honeymoon was over.

From the time I was eight years old and throughout my teens, I was a latchkey child. In those days the CBS affiliate, WRGB broadcast out of Schenectady, New York broadcast to the tri-city area. Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

It was the late 1950’s and television was black and white or nothing. Eager for whatever entertainment was fed to me by broadcast, I was exposed to the great dance films of the thirties and forties. To this day I remain transfixed by the soft whirlwinds that lofted Fred Astaire above his troubled times in romantic lock step with Ginger Rogers, the muscular spins of Gene Kelly as he watched his derriere to make sure it followed him through all his moves and the stiff-legged floor stabbing of Jimmy Cagney revealing himself to the world at large in Yankee Doodle Dandy as a great hoofer not just an inspired homicidal maniac.

The romance of those films is what drew me to the film business and it was there that I found a community of those who would see the world as an exciting place where hope springs not only eternal but inevitable.

A friend of mine called the other day to lament about the changes that have overtaken our business at large. We first met in South Africa in 1986 during the days of Apartheid. Both had been sent to southern Africa to ply our trades for Cannon Films. He is a pyro-technician who has one of the best “how I got into the business stories” I’ve ever heard.

John had come to Hollywood in the early eighties to get into the business as we all did (“any way he could) but had met nothing but discouragement. After a month or more of knocking on doors and making the calls, he decided that it was time to admit defeat and go back to his hometown in upstate New York. The film business didn’t want him and it had that made that abundantly clear to him.

In the lonely evening the night before his departure in failure, he found himself sitting at a small, dark empty bar across from one of the studios having a last drink when another patron and he struck up a conversation. After swapping stories for several hours, the compassionate stranger reached for a cocktail napkin and wrote these few words on it in ballpoint pen: “Please let John work on my movie” then signed it: “Jim Henson”.

John reported for work the next day with cocktail napkin in hand, ready to enter the world of big dreams and big bucks. The napkin was John’s “Golden Ticket” to a wider world. His first job was in support of The Muppets Take Manhattan, but it was an off-set position. He never laid eyes on Jim Henson again.

During Apartheid, the South African government had frozen the assets of its citizens so that they could not uproot their wealth and take it with them out of the boycotted country. All assets were turned back at the border. A number of Israeli producers seized upon this opportunity by offering to produce films within the boundaries of South Africa.  After completion, the films were sold globally thus moving at least a portion of assets out of the country that allowed the investors to pursue their lives in a broader world. .

To this effort Jack Palance and Oliver Reed were brought in to be the big name stars on a pair of films that were shooting in tandem in Johannesburg and Namibia. For years I had heard the expression “drunk as a lord” but really never gave it any more truck that distinguished it from any other kind of boisterous drunk. Oliver Reed dissuaded me of that opinion.

On an early Wednesday morning as I walked across the tarmac of an industrial area that was serving as “the lot”, out from a trailer emerged a flailing man. Quoting Shakespeare as he sawed his arms in the air, he tilted his head back projecting his imposing voice into a transfixed bald sky. Not only was he drunk, he was proud and loud drunk…as a lord.

It was the only location that I have been where each drive to and from the office required that all four occupants get out of the car and be frisked by jumpy blond headed farm-boy-soldiers adorned with pimples and sophisticated assault rifles. Seeking contraband, mirrors affixed to the ends of poles were run under length of the car, the trunk opened & searched and even the hood popped for inspection. No one made any jokes during these searches. It was all very serious.

Cars among the black majority at that time were extremely scarce and there was a certain prestige within that community if a man had wheels, even temporarily. One of the drivers, Johannes, a spare, wiry man of sixty-five years, was given the use of an old, tinny four-door Toyota as a requisite to him performing his job. The car, lost to rust, was at least fifteen years old and showed clear evidence of an unloved life in a hard environment.

After lunch one afternoon, Johannes came back to the office covered with self-applied bandages consisting of ragged, torn pieces of cotton wool plastered by white tape to multiple, persistently oozing wounds on his body. These wounds spot soaked his white shirt and on his neck was a particularly nasty deep and wide knife wound. He had been attacked by would-be car thieves and stabbed at least a dozen times. He seemed unfazed.

Unaccustomed to such goings on, I was horrified and implored that he go to the hospital immediately. He indicated that he had no such intention for the following reason: The production permitted that he take the car, the rusty one, that he had defended with his life, home with him to his township over the upcoming weekend. It was to be a red-letter day for him that he had no intention of screwing up by going to a hospital, certainly not over a couple of stab wounds. There is a truism in Africa that simply says “Africa walks”. Johannes had no intention of walking that particular weekend.

One late morning just across from the Alexandria Township where the office was located, the door into the studio where I was storyboarding suddenly burst open and expanded into a wall-filling towheaded, young man suited in military khakis and carrying a metal rattlesnake of a gun. My jaw dropped open (ready for action...). Locking my eyes, he urgently spat one short, important sentence at me of which I understood not one word. Sensing there might be a right or wrong answer to this question and that a lot might be riding on it, I chose my words very carefully when responding. Spreading my hands palms up towards him to disclose empty hands, I soothingly said: “I’m sorry - I don’t speak Afrikaans…” He stiffened, cocked his head to one side, leaned to me and replied: ”But I wasn’t speaking Afrikaans..!”  Uh oh…

After Ishmael introduces himself, the opening paragraph of Moby Dick continues with this passage: “Whenever it is dark, drizzling November in my soul. Whenever I take the notion to step into the street and knock the hat off of a stranger, I find myself going down to sea”. These words foreshadow a trip to Hell and his clear intention of committing suicide by whale or sea, hell or high water.

Many great adventures start with a journey of some sort. Not much happens when one stays in his rutted path and hopes the phone to ring. The visual effects business has been quiet for me these past two years and frankly I must consider that after thirty-two years in the saddle this horse is no longer prepared to carry me. This is something that many are currently facing worldwide. I’m not alone in this nor are you. One must also consider if the battle to remain within is ultimately worth the struggle required as wages spiral downward and competition becomes more extreme in its willingness to make any sacrifice to compete.

Being the visual effects supervisor on set has always had its challenges. Often we are called at the same time as the rest of the crew but as a matter of expediency we are continually put aside until the child actors are shot out, the stars are shot out and the raccoon is shot out (really…). We are frequently called upon as the sun rises to set up our part that may only comprise a single shot in a movie that has hundreds of cuts.

It’s not unusual to be faced with a disgruntled crew that is physically and psychologically expended and who can see no real reason why the camera needs to be locked and indeed chained and sandbagged down for one shot. It’s a lot of work for a single shot. The crew has no idea of what horrors a supervisor may face if he is flexible in this decision. After the live action crew has left and is onto its next project or indeed, the one after, the supervisor sits alone in the dark with his compositor who looks at him incredulously and silently implies the supervisor is an idiot for returning to the studio with such a piece of crap that will need days more work to fix than if it were shot correctly the first time.

We have always been perceived in some way to be the red-headed, fat new kid in school, barely tolerated by most, but in recent years due to the low cost of entry to our field the perception of us and our work has evolved to an equal footing with vermin. Producers seek to stamp out struggling companies seeing them as warrens of swarming nerds that need exterminating. All the while knowing that even after they stamp out one teeming facility another two will rise in its place and that these too will need to be used up and ultimately eliminated. This is an amazing turn of events for the most technically and artistically sophisticated group plying their trade in the field today.

Anyway since not much was happening in Los Angeles, I decided to board a plane and take a quick trip to Paris and Italy. Given the news of the day, getting on an Airbus was like boarding the Pequod and I kept my ears attuned to any sound of a failing Rolls Royce engine that might throw its disintegrating engine blade through the cabin at any moment. I was prepared to duck if necessary. Amazingly enough the flight was uneventful and touched down smoothly in Paris after an eleven hour fight. I’ll keep you posted.

randomness