The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Brian Johnson interview

Fantastic Films, 1979

British special effects supervisor Brian Johnson needs no introduction to fans of space films and dynamic miniature work. His work first caught the public eye during his association with Gerry Anderson when he masterminded the realistic puppetry for STINGRAY and Thunderbirds, television shows filmed in "SuperMarionation." It served as a prelude to his effects work on Space: 1999 which garnered him near-cult status in his craft. During the course of the Anderson series, he designed models, directed practical effects, created original artwork, and helmed an elite effects crew of twelve.

Brian cut his teeth early on TV commercials in England and went on to become an assistant cameraman on feature films. During the course of his career, he contributed his talents to a wide spectrum of fantastic notables. On 2001, he worked with Doug Trumbull on the slit-scan visuals, built the planets, and was partly responsible for the Star Child seen in the finale. He did opticals for sunrises and sunsets on When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Taste The Blood Of Dracula, and The Medusa Touch are but a few others. Together with his long time friend Nick Allder, Brian directed the effects for Alien. Allder took over completely when George Lucas and Gary Kurtz afforded the opportunity to do supervisory work on The Empire Strikes Back. His budding career as an aviator was to his advantage when he was asked to do come complicated helicopter photography for the film, footage which the sprite effects team at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) utilized in a most remarkable way. Together with Gary Kurtz and company, Brian weathered the sub-zero temperatures in Norway for the sequences depicting the ice planet Hoth. Location work was no picnic. The mechanical effects he rigged for Empire are sheer delights.

FF: What were your responsibilities as a special effects supervisor on The Empire Strikes Back?

JOHNSON: My responsibilities started in March of 1978 as a supervisor of physical effects, and to coordinate the work that was being done by Richard Edlund at Industrial Light and Magic. We've had a crew of 80 at ILM and about 20 in England, and I've been supervising in both areas. All the practical effects were done in England and Norway. We began in February 1979 and finished in September.

FF: How did you get your position on the film?

JOHNSON: A long time ago, Gary Kurtz and George Lucas turned up at Bray Studios where I was doing the Space: 1999 series. They seemed to like what I was doing with the miniatures. A few days later, they asked me if I'd be interested in a picture they were planning called Star Wars. I told Gary that I liked the idea, but it conflicted with Space: 1999, and I had preferred to stay in England. So that was that. About two months after Star Wars came out, I got a call from Gary who asked me if I'd like to work on the planned sequel, which at the time was being called Star Wars: Chapter II. The call came at the time I was working on The Revenge of the Pink Panther.

FF: Do you recall the date?

JOHNSON: It was around July or August of 1977. When I asked Gary when he'd like me to start, he suggested that I come to California the following March. I proceeded to negotiate with the producers of Pink Panther, calling for a stop date in March. Incidentally, the film was to have been completed by January but it went over. So I left in March 1978. The effects for Pink Panther were virtually wrapped up. I arrived at ILM on March 13. That involved the setting up of a lot of things and gently getting the feel of how the picture was going. At the same time, Fox headquarters in England wanted me to do Alien. I could see the conflict immediately. Gary said it would be okay providing that I would be available to start production on Empire.

FF: How did you organize that dilemma?

JOHNSON: I had Nick Allder, who had worked with me quite a bit in the past, to take over on the effects for Alien. We split the crew between the two of us. It was around November of 1978 that I set up all the Alien stuff. I was involved in some of the live action in addition to the model work.

FF: Was it hairy to have that crossover happen?

JOHNSON: Yes, it was. It was a thing I anticipated was going to happen and wasn't very happy about. At the time, Fox was trying to appease Gary by stressing the fact that they were both Fox productions and tried to convince him that it would work out. I had my reservation but said okay. Obviously it was going to cost more money to hire more people for Empire and to take people off Alien. As it turned out, it worked out reasonably well. But it was a great strain for me and Nicky Allder. There were times when Nick and I wanted the same people. Alien was on production on the main unit. Empire wasn't, not until March.

FF: At what point did you leave Alien?

JOHNSON: It was November. I was involved in the live action. We were also shooting the models of the Nostromo and some of the planet's.

FF: Was it off to San Francisco at that point?

JOHNSON: Not quite. I went to EMI in England to set up all the location and production work on the main unit, which began in Norway in February.

FF: Was Norway the only site of location photography?

JOHNSON: It was mainly Norway, but I probably did the only other location work in the movie, which involved footage I filmed from a Leer jet. I did the cloud plates with an Astrovision setup. Basically it was a Leer with a camera that shoots through the bottom of it. There's a snorkel that allows this to be done. You can fly around and make pans and tilts by using a joystick inside while watching a TV monitor. It was quite a deal.

FF: How did the miniature work on your end differ from the work that was done on Star Wars?

JOHNSON: We had a number of specific problems which didn't happen on the first Star Wars. For one thing, the models had to be far more manoeuvrable. Also, the models were in situations which I can't describe at the moment. You'll have to see the movie.

FF: Could you describe some of the model ships used in Empire?

JOHNSON: The models were built on a variety of scales. Darth Vader has a new ship. The largest model was eight feet long, one of the more eccentric pieces of spacecraft that appears in the film. The Falcons and TIE's are in there. But there are additions.

FF: Did you have anything to do with the stop-motion setups, or was that strictly Jon Berg's and Phil Tippett's domain?

JOHNSON: Oh, sure. As an effects supervisor, you have to get an overview of the entire project. Phil and Jon had to get their heads together on a specific thing. I have to keep my mind on everything that's going on.

FF: There's always that mystique of stop-motion animators working alone in a dark room.

JOHNSON: If somebody said that I was going to be doing stop-motion animation, I'd probably commit suicide! It's a very taxing medium to be in. Phil and Jon obviously gave it a great deal of thought before they got into it.

FF: Did you design the walking machine?

JOHNSON: No. Basically, it was a concept developed by Ralph McQuarrie, George Lucas and Joe Johnston. The Snow Walkers were built in the model department and the armatures were engineered by Tom St. Amand. He's marvelous at it. Doug Beswick and Ken Ralston are also fine animators. Ken was animating as well as photographing the blue screen special effects.

FF: I would imagine that there were models that you would have liked to have worked on but couldn't.

JOHNSON: I think that always happens in an effects movie, and EMPIRE was no exception. But basically we were working for George and for a script. There were storyboards for every shot. Nevertheless, one always has input. Somebody would say, "Wouldn't this be a great idea," this or that. There are a lot of contributions that we make as a team which really identifies the production. We are a team of about 80 people - in my opinion, the best team of modelmakers and effects technicians in the world. But I would listen to the guy who's sweeping the floor, because even he might come up with an acceptable idea. The more planning you do in the beginning, the more money you save in the end. It's a question of sifting it out and getting it locked down to a concept that everyone understands.

FF: How would you delineate the differences between the model work you've done on Empire and, say, the work you did on Space: 1999?

JOHNSON: There aren't vast differences. Basically, what you're doing is exposing photographic emulsion to light and recording images, be they miniature or full scale. Some of the camera equipment, however, is different from the ones used on the first production.

FF: Are the motion control cameras similar to the Dkystraflex unit?

JOHNSON: It's basically the same rig but it's been electronically honed up a bit. Various other lenses and configurations have been used which weren't used before.

FF: On the first Star Wars, your associate Richard Edlund was adamant on using blue screen as a matting process. Was this maintained for Empire, or were other processes used?

JOHNSON: We've done blue screen and some front light/back light double pass matte effects on this one. We've done some of each, but not in the way you would think, and not in a way I could easily explain. The photography of the dimensional animation models required the blue screen method, and one or two areas utilized front light/back light. The motion control setup once again used blue screen as a matte process. We've devised variations of the process for Empire which should work out rather well.

FF: Were there blue spill light problems on the models?

JOHNSON: We had to correct some of that through rotoscoping, but not much as had to be done on Star Wars. A lot of that has to do with the kind of paint you use on the models, the way you spray them, and how much area around the model is needed to be blue screen. Garbage mattes happen after the event- they're employed to get rid of all the surrounding rubbish in the shot, be it light stands or rigs.

FF: What would you say was the most interesting aspect of your work on Empire?

JOHNSON: Well, there were certain areas of the first show that required some rethinking. One of them was the actual design of the R2D2's. I changed how the things operated and built eight new ones. We used Kenny Baker again for some of the R2 shots. All the problems that Kenny had on Star Wars we tried to eliminate on this one.

FF: What were some of those problems?

JOHNSON: The original R2 consisted of an aluminium framework which didn't give him enough room to maneuver himself comfortably. Secondly, the interior was rather sharp. It was easy to cut yourself on it. So I decided to change the whole design of R2. He still looks the same on the outside, but everything else is completely different.

FF: We take it that applied to the radio-controlled R2s too?

JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. I think from approaching 200 pounds, our R2 weighed 52 pounds.

FF: How were you able to decrease that weight?

JOHNSON: To start off, if you're building radio-controlled equipment, the last thing you want to do is put it in a metal framework. We molded it in epoxy. and made it in a double sandwich of epoxy and polyurethane foam in a core. It was very much like a honeycomb structure - very strong but very light. I have one here that weighs 32 pounds complete.

FF: How about C3PO?

JOHNSON: I didn't have anything to say about that one. They did change certain parts to make him more flexible so that Tony Daniels would have more freedom of movement.

FF: Were there any amusing incidents on the show?

JOHNSON: There was one bit where we needed R2 to go from a two-legged to a three-legged position. We took the radio-controlled robot and modified it to go from two to three legs, so we could actually drive it along the set. Then the third leg would kick out by radio control. He sort of leans back and the leg emerges! Everybody said, "Well, we had a lot of trouble with it last time and it never worked." But it worked.

I showed it to Gary Kurtz. Gary's very straightforward; he's quite English in many respects. When he cracks a joke, you look to see if he's laughing, and he's deadpan. He came into our workshop in England I showed him the whole movement. But he was still very sceptical. "I'll bet it doesn't go back from three legs to two," he said. But that worked, too. You had to be there to see the surprised look on his face.

FF: Now that the work has tailed off and you're leaving for London, what's your feeling on the film as a whole?

JOHNSON: There's no doubt in my mind that Empire will be every bit as good as Star Wars, and probably even better. It's always hard to follow up a stunning movie. You never know what happens until it comes out. But we've gotten some very positive reaction from the trailer, and it's thrilling to witness all the visual things that are happening. The story's very strong. It's the result of a team of people pulling it together very well. I was glad to have been part of that team. There was very little animosity and a great deal of professional regard for each other.

FF: What direction would you like to follow? Are you content with the space hardware ubiquity?

JOHNSON: I'd really like to make my own movie. I've been working in films for about 18 years now. I suppose most people who work in the industry on a long-term service basis entertain that idea. But I can see areas where that may well happen for me within the next four years. That'll be a whole different ballgame for me. Probably with no special effects at all. When special effects people thing of making a movie, it usually turns out to be a special effects movie. Half the time it's to sell the movie without having to worry about the other considerations that make a film work properly.

FF: Any specific ideas?

JOHNSON: Yes. It would probably be geared to romanticism. I'm a great romantic at heart. The film would have great style and - what's the word?

FF: Panache?

JOHNSON: Yes, panache.

FF: We hope that happens for you.

JOHNSON: So do I. Then I could go back and make a really great special effects movie!