Monday, January 22, 2007

The Germinator of The Terminator: An interview with effects maven Van Ling 09.18.00

Van Ling is a summa cum laude graduate of the esteemed USC School of Cinema. There, he studied all aspects of film production but became most interested in post-production: editing, sound mixing and visual effects. A technophile obsessed with gadgetry, Ling naturally admired the work of filmmakers Terry Gilliam and James Cameron, whom he contacted for an entry level gig after graduation.

The story of how Ling came to work with James Cameron is legendary among Hollywood insiders, but, suffice it to say, Ling’s ballsy dedication paid off. In 1986, Cameron hired Ling as a research assistant on a then-conceptual project called The Abyss. Within a few short years, Ling was the Head of Production for Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. During his seven-year tenure, Ling was responsible for the integration of digital technology into the world of filmmaking, creating techniques and technologies that are still industry standard today. However, even as the latest technologies create new opportunities for filmmaking, the films Ling worked on -- specifically Terminator 2: Judgment Day -- continue to look fresh. Ling attributes this to his philosophy of “designing effects that help tell the story, not overwhelm it.”

In 1994, Ling cut the apron strings from his mentor and became the Creative Director for Banned from the Ranch Entertainment, a leader in the field of digital graphics. For the film Congo, Banned from the Ranch created a computer playback system that allowed digital graphics to be played on actual computer screens rather than monitors dressed as computer screens. Ling and his team have continued to perfect the technology in films like Twister and Dante’s Peak.

Ling has also produced a handful of premiere laserdiscs and DVDs, including the milestone The Abyss Special Edition and T2: The Ultimate Edition DVD. He is a proponent of the potential of the DVD format, calling it a “mini-filmschool.”

I chatted with Ling recently via the telephone about his association with James Cameron and what makes a DVD great.

James Cameron was one of the filmmakers you looked up to in film school. How does a guy not even a year out of college get to work with one of his heroes?
I had just graduated from film school the summer that Aliens came out. That was the summer of 1986. I went and saw it on opening night with some friends, and I was a big fan of the film and of James Cameron’s work from Terminator and so on. Throughout the period prior to the release of the movie and after I had graduated, I was actually calling around looking for work. One of the places I called was Pacific Western Productions -- which was Jim Cameron and Gail Anne Hurd’s company at the time. And I had left messages there and they had always said, “Oh, we don’t have anything right now, you know, but call back later.”

Well, one of my friends said, “You’re interested in effects and mechanical things and props and so on, I dare you to build a Powerloader.”

The walking forklift that Ripley battled the Queen with at the end of the movie?

Okay. So your friend challenged you…
Yeah, he said, “I have a Halloween party coming up in a couple of months, and I dare you to build a working model or something of the Powerloader.” You know, a little model or something. So, we kind of had a gentleman’s bet, but instead of building a little model, I built a seven-and-a half-foot-tall working Powerloader costume with motorized claws and a roll cage and everything.

On Halloween, when we were finishing up the Powerloader costume, my friends were all, “You gotta call them. You gotta call them and tell them about this.” So I called up Pacific Western Productions again and said, “I have something I want to show you,” And they said, “What?” And I said, “A Powerloader.” They said, “What…something you wear?” I said, “Yeah, well, it’s Halloween, isn’t it?” Dead silence on the phone. And then they said, “We’ll leave you a gate pass, come on down, we gotta see this.”

So you schlepped it over to their offices?
I ended up renting a pickup truck and loading up the Powerloader costume that I had built out of cardboard and styrofoam and wood and PVC pipe and so forth down to Twentieth Century Fox studios. Jim Cameron had already left for the day, but Gail Anne Hurd and her staff were there and they came out to look at this thing, spilling out of a pick up that I was strapped into.

What was their initial reaction?
Gail Anne Hurd basically said, “This is the best walking resume I’ve ever seen.” And we talked, then she said, “Hang on a second…” You know, “Lemme do something for you.” She goes back in, comes out, hands me Sigourney Weaver’s jumpsuit and custom Reeboks from the movie. The actual costume! She said, “You might as well make the costume complete. Just bring it back when you’re done with it.” So I ended up wearing it to my friend’s party and winning the bet.

Wow. Wow. And that led to you working with Cameron?
Two weeks later, I got a call on my parent’s answering machine -- which is where I was staying at the time -- from James Cameron, saying he wanted to see this thing. So, he ended up coming down and we talked and we kind of hit it off right away, and he called me a couple of weeks later and said, “Would you like to be my research assistant on a movie I’m starting up called The Abyss?” And that’s how I ended up meeting and working with James Cameron. And I worked with him after that for about eight years and when I left the company in 1994, I was head of his production department.

And now, fourteen years leader, you’ve produced the DVD editions of The Abyss and T2, probably the two best discs on the market. In your opinion, what makes for a DVD worthy of the format?
Yeah. It’s a combination of things. An okay DVD is one that has the movie. A good DVD is one that has a great presentation of the movie and a bunch of interesting ancillary material, additional material. A really great DVD, in my mind, is one that takes all of that ancillary material and organizes it in a way that casual viewers can really get something out of it, that the material doesn’t overwhelm the casual viewer with too much information at once. But at the same time, it provides a real depth of information for people who really want it. The hardcore fans, the film students, the people who really want to know more.

A lot of it is just thinking it through. A lot of it for me in creating any of these kinds of materials or programs is to make it accessible to people, but informative at the same time. That’s the way I go about it. I look at all the materials that I have to work with and then I start trying to sort them out in into what would be “if you want more information…” and what is really “hardcore.” Organization is the most important key.

Yeah. It seems to me the best DVDs are also easily navigable through an imaginative interface that’s also intuitive.
It’s always important thematically to present things in a way that captures the spirit and the mood of the film and kind of gets you ready for it, puts you in the environment. You know, gives you a sense of you know something more than just a promotional still with some text laid on top of it as a menu.

The interface for me -- the menu system, the navigation system on a DVD -- is a very important part. There’s an article on the Monty Python discs and their menu system, and somebody had said it perfectly. They said, “The movie is the jewel and the menu system is the setting in which that jewel sits.” And for that reason, it’s there to help present the movie in the best light, and present you with all the facets, all the other options of the film. In other words, it’s not just a road to get there -- to the content -- it’s actually the journey getting there. And that’s what I try to do with the DVDs I do. I kind of differ from a lot of other DVD producers in that I actually, physically create my own menus.

I think sometimes what will happen is you’ll create a menu environment and say, “This would be really cool to have the menus like this…” Then the logical extension of that is, “There’s this really cool portion of the menu, wouldn’t it be great if we put an Easter egg (hidden bonus) behind that?” In that way, you enrich the experience because you end up adding more things that work with the menu. The menus become more intuitive to the viewer. They’ll look at it and say, “Boy, that looks really cool, but I would love it if this little door over here if I clicked on it, that it would take me somewhere.” And then you have the ability to do that and pleasantly surprise your viewers.

Speaking of Easter eggs, can you give us any clues about Easter eggs on T2?
Oh, there’s plenty of that information out there on websites already.

Yeah. I suppose the hunt is the fun of Easter eggs. T2 is loaded, by the way. It took me a weekend to get through it all and I’m sure I didn’t find all the little hidden goodies.

You were saying that the studios will often assign menu houses. Do they also hand you the media you have to work with it and that’s that or do you actively seek out the elements?
I’ll seek out information because it’s kind of become a standard a lot of the times that you now have a trailer, you have chapter selection, and you have a little featurette and maybe some cast and crew bios. Those are the kinds of things that people are starting to take as a given. What’s really interesting is that those items were things that people with laserdiscs had eight-to-ten-years-ago, and it’s now become the standard on DVDs. That’s usually the material that was put together for the promotion of the film, so it’s already available, readily available. That’s the easy stuff.

What you want to do is go a little farther than that to do a good disc. And if you’re lucky, you can create new material that is only for the DVD. Exclusively created for the format, that can make it more you unique, so that people don’t feel like, “Oh, I saw the HBO First Look. Oh, I saw the behind-the-scenes EPK, why should I buy this?”

Because it’s not just the movie, the goodies add value…
It also gives them the impression that the people making the DVD care as much about the movie and its presentation as the people who made the movie itself. That’s important because oftentimes because DVD is seen as the home video ancillary market driven by the movie. It’s just kind of a packaging of the movie. It doesn’t have to be just that. There’s a graphic interface that can help convey the flavor of the movie. It can be an experience and an artform in and of itself.

Do you think we’ll start seeing more respect for that way of thinking now?
Nowadays, there are so many wonderful DVDs out there: Men in Black, Spinal Tap, Fight Club. All of these discs try to do more than just give you the movie plus a press kit. They try to provide omitted scenes you wouldn’t see anywhere else, director’s commentary, all of the things that a good film student would be interested in -- in addition to the kind of promotional things which kind of get included as a matter of course. So you end up getting more documentaries, more things that are custom about the making of the film, things that really show what’s unique about the film that isn’t just the kind of standard cable station or entertainment program promotional material.

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