McAlister has worked in the movie visual effects business
for almost 30 years, cutting his teeth working on The
Empire Strikes Back (1980) as effects unit assistant camera.
Over the years his work has been seen in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
(1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones
and the Temple of Doom (1984), The Goonies (1985),
Willow (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), Waterworld
(1995), The Truman Show (1998) and Road to Perdition
(2002). Darren Rea caught up with McAlister as his latest
project, Eragon, was due for release on DVD...
Rea: How did you originally get involved in this industry?
little helper, James Field, gets the chance to ride
McAlister: I got involved in the movie business quite by accident.
I never imagined how movies were made. I was never curious
about it - I'd never even taken still photographs before.
I was at film school I was in engineering school, and I got
really bored with engineering and I didn't know what else
to do. One day I happened to met someone who was in the film
department at the school and started talking to them and I
thought: "That sounds kinda interesting. Maybe I'll try
cinema." And so that's literally how I got involved in
the movie business.
changed my major to film and worked on a project that this
guy was doing at film school. I realised that I loved cinematography
and from there I discovered special effects. I was in film
school when Star Wars came out and all of a sudden
visual effects was seen as interesting. So I started in that
was a twist of fate. The way I met the person from the film
school was that I walked home a different way one day to explore
a part of the campus I'd never been on before. A lot of times
when I'm talking to a group of kids and they ask me how I
got into the movie business I tell them that I turned right
instead of left. And that's literally true.
Is this industry suited to a certain type of character?
I think it is.
What sort of people make the best visual effects people?
One of the things that is really important is that you have
to be self-motivated, because the work is really really hard.
It requires a lot of hours and if you don't have the reward
within yourself for a job well done, you're probably not going
At the end of a long project there is always lots of praise
and lots of accolades, especially when the job's well done,
but along the way it gets really tough and you just need to
be okay within yourself, knowing you did your best even if
the praises are coming in.
being really strong inside yourself, in terms of being motivated,
is important. But also it's really great to have an idea about
artistic things - be able to draw, even if it's within a computer,
but to have an idea of aesthetics - to be able to look at
the world and see what makes the world look real to us. Most
of what we do in visual effects is just create illusions all
the time. In order to get away with it you need to know what
reality looks like. For instance people that want to be in
visual effects could do photography or study human anatomy.
is a great quality to have. Many times I'm talking to kids
and they ask me how you get into the film business. I tell
them that I think the most important think is to always do
your best at whatever job you are doing.
is most important to a guy like me is that I know I am hiring
somebody who will always do their best job. And if it just
turns out that they are not very good at that job, then maybe
they're really good at this job. But if you won't do your
best, because you don't like the job you are doing, that's
what I am going to remember - because you'll only do your
best because you like what you are doing.
don't always like what we are doing. In order to make world
class visual effects you have to do your best whether you
like what you are doing or not.
been working in this industry for years movies for years and
must have tackled almost everything. Was there anything new
that you did while working on Eragon?
Eragon was the first time I had been responsible for
making a whole character from beginning to end. I've worked
on many movies and I've done little bits of creatures, or
characters, for little moments in films but this was the first
time I'd ever been involved in making a complete lead character.
was a whole different mindset - a whole different approach
to the work, because personality and character became a really
big part of what I had to concentrate on, rather than more
on the technical and the scientific end of things.
It was much more about human qualities and trying to figure
out how to use all the CG tools we know how to use to actually
create a real credible creature that is essentially human
in it's appearance and emotions.
Where did you get your inspiration from when you were creating
I studied a lot of things. I studied a lot of animals. I studied
a lot of big predator birds, just to get an idea of how Saphira
would move when she flies. And for when she's on the ground,
I studied big animals - elephants, rhinos, big cats, lions
and such. But I also studied human performances.
I watched actors, specifically female actors, and I watched
to see how it is they do what they do with their faces, because
human performances are often very very subtle. We as humans
can recognise emotions in human faces when there are very
subtle changes in their expressions. Until this movie I never
really paid much attention to what those cues are in terms
of your eyes, your mouth and your cheeks.
I also studied some of the work that went into King Kong
, because King Kong as a character, and Gollum [Lord
of the Rings] as a character, are I think two of the greatest
animated characters ever in movie history. So I watched those
movies, especially Kong, because there are some moments
where I was convinced that he was a human wearing gorilla
realised that we were making a really unusual character because
there's never been a dragon in a movie ever that is like Saphira
- who is lethal and very powerful as well as very emotional
and very feeling. She has attitude and things to learn.
I realised that no matter how much I looked at other movies
no particular performance would - whether it was a human performance
or Kong or Gollum - none of those were going to be exactly
what we needed to do.
I was able to learn about animation and learn about how to
create emotional performances in animated characters by looking
at those. But Saphira really became her own character, her
me the most difficult aspect was creating the inner life of
the character. So that when you looked at her, especially
if it was an emotional moment, and you look at her face then
she looks as though she's about to cry. Or that she's really
hurt, or that she's a little bit angry, without it being cartoonish.
It's easy to do those things when you are making a cartoon
because you just make really big expressions and they growl
or something. But that wasn't our character. Our character
needed to be more restrained - she needed to hide her feelings
a little bit.
was a difficult and fun process of figuring out how big to
go with the expressions, and what expressions - what would
the things be that would communicate that she's hurt?
other thing that was challenging for her was the balance between
her animalistic qualities and her human qualities. We didn't
want her to be so soft that she was just a human that couldn't
turn around and bite your head off in the next moment. We
always needed to wonder about her. If the anger comes out
is she going to start burning or eating people?
What's the one visual effect that stands out most in your
career - the one time when you really nailed it on the head
and still makes you proud.
There are three films that I think I am most proud of. One
of them is The Hudsucker Proxy [1994 - McAlister was
the movie's visual effects producer], and the reason I am
very proud of that film is because there's not a frame in
the entire film that I would change. It was difficult to make
in those times because we didn't have all the computer tools
we have now. But I thought it was as perfect as anything I've
ever made in terms of what the director wanted.
also quite proud of the work in The Truman Show [1998
- McAlister was the movie's visual effects supervisor]. Neither
one of those are particularly effects driven movies. And I'm
also really proud of the work on this movie, Eragon.
I think that Saphira is a tremendously good character and
she looks great.
there are other big effects movies I've made include the mine
car sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
[1984- McAlister was the movie's chief visual effects cameraman]
has always been a favourite of mine and the crashing aeroplane
in Die Hard 2 [1990 McAlister was the movie's visual
effects supervisor working at ILM].
that's worth thinking about a little bit, because I haven't
thought about that in a really long time.
As a visual effects supervisor do you get much input into
the creation of the film?
Sometimes we do. By the time special effects people get involved
in the movie the script is pretty much what they are going
to make. Every once in a while our expertise can be used in
a way that creates possibilities that the writers or the director
weren't aware of - happens all the time these days.
times visual effects people will come up with ideas for movies
and they'll get the chance to actually make the movie. There's
another effects supervisor, I've just heard about a couple
of days ago, that came up with an idea and he's going to direct
a movie for Disney.
Stefen Fangmeier [Eragon's director] was a visual effects
supervisor before making this movie, so it happens from time
to time. It mostly depends on us and whether we want to do
that. It's a lot of work to direct a movie - you have to be
Who's been the best director you've worked with and why?
The man that had the most influence on me is Peter Weir. I
did The Truman Show with Peter.
of the things I noticed about Peter, that impressed me so
much, is that firstly he's extremely well prepared when it
comes to the set. He has a really good idea of what he really
wants to do with his scene and as he's directing the scene
if it isn't working for him he'll throw the whole thing out
and start over with another idea.
really impressed me because one of the things I had done in
my approach to work up until that point is I would fight against
the fact that something wasn't working and I would try to
make it work anyway.
did a lot of second unit work for Peter on The Truman Show
and there was one moment where I was directing this scene
and he came by to see how it was going and I was just struggling
to make it work.
said: "Can I try something?"
I said: "Sure, please help."
he throw his vision of it out, my vision... he threw the whole
thing away and he started from what was actually taking place
on the set.
I learned from him was to pay attention to what was actually
happening more that what I thought I wanted to happen. Sometimes,
in a perfect world, you envisage it so well that it actually
goes the way you thought it would. There's some things in
the Truman Show that nobody could ever have thought
of in advance, but they just happen right in front of him
and he was aware enough to pay attention to when that was
was probably one of the biggest lessons I've every learned
from a director.
We often hear about the nightmare that actors have when acting
on a blue screen - that they are acting to nothing. What's
it like from your perspective? Is there anything you can do
to help the actors?
That's a great question and my job, as a visual effects supervisor,
means that I always assume some of the responsibility - given
permission from the director and the producers - to help the
actors visualise what it is they are doing in the scene.
set everyone is really busy just trying to get the scene made
and the poor actors are sometimes out there acting to a tennis
ball. The more that I can share with either the director,
who then talks to the actor, or directly to the actor - the
more that the actor can be made aware of what is going on
emotionally between these two characters - the better the
whole scenes going to be, the better the CG character will
look and the better the actor will look because they will
actually look like they are acting together rather than two
separate performances that are put together.
of the ways we can help visualise is through drawings and
illustrations of what will eventually be in the frame. We
can go much further than that without spending too much money
doing something that's called an anamatic. This is a very
quick cartoon version of the whole scene and in this movie,
for instance, we would do a quick version of Saphira going
through whatever motions and emotions she was going through.
Mind you, we weren't really able to do that very often before
[Speleer] had to do his work, because we would photograph
Ed and then put the animation of the dragon into the scene
with Ed. But even before we photographed Ed sometimes we would
animate cartoon versions of a whole sequence so that everybody
would know what ultimately was happening. Ed
was pretty phenomenal at imagining what was going to end up
Was it easier working with a director whose background was
in special effects?
Yes, because we could speak in short hand because we both
know what we are talking about.
it's really challenging working with a director who hasn't
done visual effects before, because sometimes it's really
hard for them to imagine the possibilities because they don't
know what the technology is and they don't know what can be
with a director whose already done special effects for ever
and ever, they already know, so it's a question of what do
we want to make? It isn't about how will we do it, or what
needs to be done on set, because he already knows.
If you were given the choice what would you love to work on
that you haven't tackled yet?
What I dream of creating are human characters more than creatures.
Some guys who do my job just love monsters, and some guys
like doing cartoon characters, but I tend to like humans most.
That's why in my resume you'll notice that most of the movies
that I've done haven't tended to be the sort of movies that
are heavy on the creatures, whereas other people mostly work
on creature movies. It's just how I grew up.
With computer technology constantly being improved what do
you envisage for the future of visual effects?
Well, these days, absolutely anything that we can imagine
is possible to do. And that is such a blessing, such a privilege
to be working in this part of the business now.
I've been doing this for almost 30 years. When I first started
there was no such thing as computers, no such thing as motion
control, or computer animation. We just didn't use computers
and there were all sorts of things that you couldn't do. You
couldn't do visual effects that had water in them or fire
or smoke, and so growing up in the business there were so
many things you just couldn't do. Writers would write certain
things and you'd have to tell them to go and rewrite it because
we couldn't do what was required. Now we don't ever have to
do that, so they can dream anything up and, as long as they
have money to pay for it, we can make it.
terms of staying current with what's possible, it's impossible
for a guy like me to know all the things that are possible
to do any more, because there are thousands of people all
over the world that are inventing new software and new ways
of doing things and usually what happens is some writers,
or directors, cook up these crazy ideas that they would like
to see in the movie and then they hire a group of people to
figure out how to do it.
when the new tools get created - it's all driven by some imagination
that somebody has of something they want to have in a movie.
Then us people get together and figure out how to do it and
then there's a new tool. But unless you were the person on
the movie doing that particular job you're not involved in
creating the tools, and you have to learn about it afterwards.
Who would you say is at the forefront of pushing the technology
at the moment?
WETA. WETA has done the most spectacular work in recent years.
What they did with their characters of Gollum and Kong is
truly remarkable. Like I mentioned earlier, they are the closest
that I've seen, in a movie, of a character that's real. You're
not looking at creatures, you are looking at people with full
I think one of the ways that they achieve that is that they
had an actor perform Gollum, the same actor that performed
Kong, who took ownership and responsibility for that character
as any actor would do for any other character in a movie.
And that was the first time that anybody had done that and
it made a huge difference. The actor, Andy Serkis, was involved
at the beginning of the movie, he was there performing that
character on the set - obviously he was replaced with the
CG animation - and he was around afterwards talking to the
animators and helping them understand the emotional undertones
and overtones of being this character.
really important, because when you create an animated character,
like the dragon or other characters you see in a movie, it's
not just one person that's created that. It's lots of animators
and they all put their own personalities into it and they
look at themselves in the mirror while they're animating to
see what it is that their faces are doing.
And so as good as the characters have been up until Gollum
and Kong, they were still kind of an accumulation of different
artist's talents - not one person's vision. So it was a real
break through when WETA did that.
most fun thing for me about creating Saphira was that while
there were lots of people involved in the creation of that
character, there was only me that was ultimately responsible
for choosing what she would do in every moment of every scene.
the longest time we searched for what her character would
be, because we borrowed from certain animals, she had to be
lethal and she had to be dangerous and she had to be loving
and kind and she had to have attitude - she gets mad sometimes
and scared other times. Trying to figure out how to create
all that was a really big job and mostly what I did on the
movie, as it turns out, was pay attention to her. After a
while I started talking to her as if she really exists instead
of talking about her.
she started telling me what she wanted to do in scenes.
So we'd try certain things and it was as if she were looking
over my shoulder saying: "I don't do that. I would never
blink my eyes like that." So I would tell the animators
that she doesn't blink her eyes like that. Or she doesn't
turn her head a certain way and after a while it became really
easy for me because she became so real in my imagination that
I didn't have to think about what she would do any more. She
would just tell me. It was very difficult to communicate sometimes,
but it became very easy to recognise her.
learned about animation from one of the best animators in
the world, Phil Tippett. When I first started my career I
was working with him and Dennis
Muren and I would watch the way that Phil Tippett
would create characters. He would act it out with his body
and he would feel what it was like to be the characters and
then that goes through kind of a translation into the physical
shape of the body that is being animated.
body doesn't look anything like a dragon, but if I would get
on the ground and I would move the way that I imagined the
dragon would be moving, what that does is it teaches me what
it feels like to be her in that moment.
one point when we were shooting I was sharing an office with
a whole bunch of people and there was this open space in the
middle and I just got down on the floor and started crawling
around and feeling what it was like to be Saphira in this
moment. And, when I'd finished, I looked up and everyone was
looking at me like I'd lost my mind because they'd never seen
anybody do that before.
The point of it is they told me I looked silly, and I probably
did, because there's this human trying to be a dragon and
I don't have all the right parts, but it taught me what it
felt like. So then I could imagine other things, like what
it feels like for her to be in this moment so what do I need
to do with her body in order for the audience to get that
shot that I specifically did that for is the shot where she
is saying goodbye to Brom after they've buried him on the
top of the mountain. She bows down to say goodbye to him.
That was a moment in the movie that was created sort of inside
me first by feeling what it would feel like for her to say
goodbye. And then it was like: "Okay, so that's what
it feels like. How do we show it?" I actually borrowed
from the religion of Islam for that moment. I remember seeing
the way that Islamic people pray - they go all the way down
to the ground and put their foreheads on the ground and then
they get up again and do it again. There's something really
reverent about that. And so I put that into that shot.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of
advice what would it be?
[Laughs] Not to take myself so seriously [laughs]. There was
a time when it felt like life or death to me. I was very young
when I started in this business and younger people tend to
take everything as if it's a life and death scenario. It's
just taken me 25-30 years to learn that it isn't life or death
- that you do your best work and if it isn't working out it
probably isn't because I'm not good enough, it's probably
just because it's really, really hard.
ever told me that I had to sort of figure it out. It took
about 20 years of beating myself up to figure out that it
wasn't me. It's just that it's really hard at times.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now what I'm doing is taking a tour of the world looking
at all kinds of smaller visual effects facilities in Europe
and India that might want to play in big movies, and then
after that there's a number of projects that I'm looking at
- I haven't quite decided what to do yet. I know that I would
love to do another CG character - a whole character movie
star again, because that was so much fun. But, other than
that, I can't tell you [laughs].
Thank you for your time.
thanks to Rachel Baglin and James Field at Substance
is available to buy and rent on DVD from Twentieth
Century Fox Home Entertainment
from 16 April 2007.
to buy the single DVD edition for £12.89 (RRP: £22.99)
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