Doug Smith

New Question:

Could you give me a brief run down of your background/bio?

I started in the film industry at the end of 1975 and I had no real previous experience in film besides still photography and I needed a job real bad. I was part way through college and my brother had been working for Douglas Trumbull for quite a while and I had met a few people that also worked with Doug. I ended up, through my brother’s

suggestion, going to place in Van Nuys and getting a job at this place that was called ILM through some of the same people I had met when I was in high school. I was probably one of the first 30 people there and because I had no skills I ended up being like a

Doug Smith

“gopher” kind of person. I vividly remember sweeping up sawdust and stuff like that.
If I did have skills, what they needed at the time was somebody in the model shop but I
didn’t qualify for that.

Richard Edlund

I told the guy that was showing me around, Bob Sheperd, that I wouldn’t mind working on the stage. The stage wasn’t operating at the time because there was no equipment that had been finished, they weren’t in production yet. I got hired and because I had no experience I was a person that was like an extra pair of hands. As the equipment got finished I was able to help Richard Edlund, who had no other help at the

time, shoot tests and doing things like that. Eventually I ended up being his camera assistant and so for a while it was myself and Richard.
Jamie Short was also on the stage for a while. He used to be partners with Doug Trumbull. They had a company when they did Silent Running called Trumbull-Short Productions. Eventually it was myself and Richard and then a guy named Dennis Muren got hired and then Ken Ralston got hired (I think that was the order), I was the only non-

professional and most ignorant of the bunch by far.
That’s how I got my first job in the industry. So I worked on Star Wars and then Battlestar Gallactica and towards the end of the Gallactica, Apogee Productions got formed. John Dykstra included me in during the formation of the company. We only spent $200 a piece to incorporate the company (although shortly thereafter all the other partners had to put there houses up as security for a loan but I didn’t own a house at that time) and so from 1978 to
1992, I was a partner at Apogee. Apogee finished up their work on Battlestar Gallactica and worked on the first Star Trek movie and a number of movies good and bad, we did a lot of commercial work, it was a hand to mouth existence for most years. I was head of the camera department and either camera operator or director of photography for visual effects. Eventually I started doing visual effects supervision.
As Apogee was starting to disappear, I went and worked for Doug Trumbull on the Luxor Hotel film projects, that lasted about 9 months for me. When I came back to Los Angeles, I worked for a little bit for PDI on a Michael Jackson project when his scandal happened. Then I worked at Digital Domain on True Lies as a Visual Effects DP, the other visual effects DP was Matt Beck. I was working with John Bruno who is a special effects supervisor and after the

production we did a series of commercials there. Through one of people I met on the True Lies production, I up was hired on to shoot some tests on Independence Day. I ended up as co-visual effects supervisor on Independence Day.
After that, I went to work for Dream Quest for a year on Flubber, and then I came to Rhythm and Hues. At Rhythm and Hues I worked on a few smaller jobs like Out of Towners, Liberty Heights, One Night at McCool’s, odds and ends for Planet of the Apes, the larger projects have been Viva Rock Vegas and Dr. Dolittle 2. The little projects each took several months and the
bigger projects took more than a year of my time, so I’ve been here for three years now going onto my fourth. Incredible to me because it feels like I just got here.

New Question: Could you describe the technical and creative challenges associated with creating the groundbreaking work you did on the movie Star Wars?

I one of the soldiers on Star Wars not one of the generals. I am quite happy that I got to share in the experience. Only in retrospect can I tell you that the formation of the group at ILM happened at a time when integrated circuit chips actually became cheap enough where you could use them in something
that you built or designed yourself and a person did not have to be in the military or a large company to make use of them. At the same time Star Wars started in pre production and George Lucas got in touch with John Dykstra had been
working as a visual effects camera man and he understood what might be possible with the next step in visual effects.
Between John Dykstra, Al Miller and Richard Edlund, they had some great concepts for equipment that would be used in motion control.
John had worked with Al Miller and a guy named Jerry Jeffers. Both of these guys were electronic geniuses and could apply the latest technology to applications in the real world. So Al Miller and Jerry Jeffers built a couple of motion control systems. One which was used on Star Wars and one which was used on Close Encounters. These two films had overlapping productions schedules. They didn’t exactly start at the same time, but they were overlapping.
This was, in a way, the beginning of the modern visual effects revolution. It was just a hard-wired memory device that would record moves in a similar way that you would record and combine audio tracks. Using a potentiometer one would move the track motor and the motion control would save that move, then one would record another “channel” the pan motor for instance and the motion control would save that while playing back the track move. The whole shot

was built up this way and every movement was motorized, many times even the lights were on tracks and dimmers. It doesn’t seem that sophisticated by today’s standards but it was all new to everyone in the industry.

Richard Edlund at Work

So it was a combination of the right people and technology just hitting at the right time. That chip actually has a name and a number like today’s “486” or “Pentium II”. I was at a talk by Frederico Fagin, one of the original designers at Intel and he talked about “Moore’s Law”, the rate of increase in speed and capacity of IC chips along with the lowering of cost. One of those doubling points was hit around 1974
with the introduction a new chip. It was wonderful that technology became available just as Star Wars needed to
get made.
What else was going on then? Richard
Edland and John also brought the
concept of using Vista Vision to shooting visual effects. It was a little used format from the 1950’s but it was 35MM so the labs could develop it and there was a lot of used or unused equipment in surplus storage in Hollywood area. So ILM got a lot of camera equipment for this large format film relatively cheap. In fact, everything was done relatively inexpensively, especially when you consider what costs are now. The crew was quite small too. Reviews at the time said the credit list is huge but it doesn’t compare with size of the crews and the size of the credits now.

New Question: What was it like working with the big name people like Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, and Richard


I spent a large amount time with John Dykstra since he was my boss and my partner at Apogee. I also spent over 2 years as Richard Edlund’s assistant. Then I worked with Doug Trumbull for awhile, so let me start by talking about him. I met Doug Trumbull when I was in high school because my brother was working with him. But I met him very briefly and I didn’t work with him until 1992 when, as Apogee was shutting down, I went to work back in Massachusetts in the Berkshires.
I did two things with him. The first thing I did was in ’89. I’d taken a year off from Apogee in ’89 to do “personal growth” stuff and one of the oddball things I did was I spent I think 3 weeks in the Berkshires working on preliminary bid that Doug Trumbull was doing on the Back to the Future ride. So I spent a lot of “one on one time” with Doug Trumbull talking through the entire project a few times on how everything was going to be done and I had a great time doing that and then I went back for a much longer period for 8 or 9 months to work on the Luxor Hotel projects.
When I entered the Luxor project Trumbull was much busier with the overall project we didn’t talk much during that process. But I think he’s one of the geniuses of the film industry. He starts with real heavy conceptual art trying to get something that looks fantastic and proceeds from there to figure out how to do it. He has always aimed at the avante- garde experiential films and he’s tried to use whatever the current technology is to take a film experience as far as possible. The film that he directed, Brain Storm, has a basic concept of a virtual reality

experience and that is something that Doug has been trying to do for decades. So it’s pretty close to home for him.

John Dykstra

On the Luxor project the thing that was very impressive about that is in the early ‘90’s he was trying to take the whole process through the CGI process from beginning to end and do
it in a rural area in Massachusetts. There was a very large motion control gantry rig designed
to use the moves worked out in pre-vis on the
SGIs. He had the miniatures designed in a
CAD system and had them actually cut on a digitally controlled milling machine or on a laser cutting system. We shot them on stage and located everything so it had an absolute zero. One of the concepts was all the way through he would be able to digitally know
where the miniature was and where it wasn’t so you could do things like affect the atmosphere around the building if you wanted. And the building was a miniature building but you
could have it interact with some sort of digital environment



It turns out that there’s so much hand work that goes into something like the work on the Luxor project that a pure digital approach can’t work on its own. Everything has to be remeasured and re-located. He tried to work out a great pipeline, from conceptual design through post production in order to tie everything together.
John Dykstra is a born leader. The crews just love working with him and he makes the experience working on set a lot of fun because he has a great sense of humor. He is always searching for something that hasn’t been seen before. He is one of those guys who treats the gas pedal on his car like an on/off switch, it is either completely on or completely off. For that reason I recommend only getting in a car with him if the car has a small diesel engine.
Richard Edlund is another type of visual effects genius. He is a mechanical genius and many of the advances that were made with motion control equipment originated from his ideas. He also has a real good understanding of optics and
was taking optical printers to the level whenever he could. I think the combination of Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren was especially effective because Dennis wasn’t so interested in the hardware but he is brilliant at visual storytelling, perhaps more so than any other person working in visual effects. Richard would dream up the tools and Dennis would use them. By the way, Richard drives very similar to Dykstra.

New Question: When you worked at Apogee what was your favorite project you worked on there?

While you’re working on almost any project for large amount of the time, it doesn’t seem a lot like much fun during large parts of the project. In retrospect, there are some projects that you look back on and they are more pleasant than others. And one of them would be Fire Fox, a Clint Eastwood movie and I was pretty miserable during the beginning and some of the production. I actually didn’t know how I was going to fit in to the overall production and it was a lot of personal issues. One of the best things is that I got to travel a lot to some places I’d never been before and never would have gone any other way. I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Greenland above the Arctic Circle, which was pretty amazing. We worked out on some icebergs and on the frozen ocean, the experience of being there was really great. I participated in a lot of Learjet photography in various locations, which was another great experience. Another project that was fun was working on
was Caddyshack. We did all of the exterior gopher shots primarily at a golf course in Woodland Hills. All the tunnel stuff and a whole bunch of gag
shots with golf balls and things like that were done at Apogee. It was just a
goofy subject matter and the main producer, Doug Kinney was a good guy. I guess maybe it was working outdoors on the golf course and just be having sort of a ridiculous subject matter made everything go pretty light and easy. You probably expected me to bring up some technological breakthrough that happened but at the end of the day it is the people you
work with and everyday experiences that make a difference.

Next Question: What was the single, most difficult job you worked on?

It had to be Independence Day. Independence Day had a lot of trouble getting going in the beginning. Dean Devlin and
Roland Emmerich had written a script that was very ambitious and at the same time it was designed have relatively low cost visual effects. Whatever the cost was, it had to be much lower to get into the price range that they said they were going to produce the movie at. Eventually

none of the producers, none of the visual effects producers, could figure out a way of getting the costs down to where it was supposed to be.

Roland Emmerich

The movie, one way or another, was started and there really wasn’t enough money to do the visual effects. It made it very stressful and there was some turnover in the beginning of the production staff. A few visual effects producers left and all the coordinator people left at the same time and there was no overlap of information. Myself and Volker Engle, were really the only people, the two people out of hundreds of people on the production that even had a concept of what all the shots were and what was necessary, there was no ongoing continuity. It was just very stressful and I think everybody was, live action too, was under a strain to come in
at a budget that wasn’t likely to happen. And halfway through production I was pretty unhappy with the way the images looked on the visual effects side and actually I’d seen a good deal of the live action dailies and I wasn’t encouraged by the way they looked either. I was literally thinking, “How am I going to explain to my friends what happened on this movie, why it turned out to be so embarrassing. It’s going to look bad, it’s going to be bad!” And then that was probably the low
point and things started to improve from there.
Roland Emmerich had a bad experience on Stargate they said, trying to get CG imagery going. So they did not want to use CG very much until their confidence was regained. And so the movie had two courses to take simultaneously and one was a lot of miniature photography and one was less miniature photography and more CG elements. Once the Fox facility that was installed at POP proved that they could come up with a good F18 Fighter which looked realistic we did not have to shoot as much miniature stuff as originally planned. We still had a very large miniature shooting crew. Because the FOX crew was successful with an F18 some of the miniature elements that were shot weren’t used. In
some cases, due to the schedule, it was easier for the facilities to create their own CG F18s than to transfer the huge amount of film element data that was shot.

After all those trials and tribulations the movie really walks a very fine line between disaster and success. And for all the pain it was, it was nice to get an award because sometimes you work movies that are very hard and you know nobody even goes to see them and nobody even remembers the title on your resume. It was nice to get something good out of it and there were plenty of good experiences but definitely it was just the most stressful and difficult project. “They” say that your stress goes up with the lack control you feel and ID4 just felt out of control through a good portion of it. That was my miserable experience.

New Question: Do you have any anecdotes about those days when you were working in traditional effects?

Well, everybody in regular production were fairly ignorant of visual effects work. There were no documentaries or shows like Movie Magic. Whenever you talked about visual effects, people were generally nervous about using them and had no idea how they were accomplished and it seemed a little bit like magic. So, a lot of that magic feel has gone away now and even audiences are very savvy to matte lines and “CG look” so it’s gotten more and more difficult to surprise the audience.

Volker Engle

Back when I was at Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas decided to spend a week on the stage with Richard Edlund and myself because he wanted to understand how special effects were done, what the process was, why does it take so long to shoot these things. He just wanted to educate himself. For a good part of every day for an entire week he just sat with us while we got through this stuff and he would review what we were shooting. One of the small innovations that Richard came up with was using this military film stock that we could just develop right in-house with a little machine called a prostar. We would could shoot black and white tests and get them back within fifteen or twenty minutes. We would run them in a movieola many times we would bi-pack or tri-pack the pieces of film in the movieola and sort of look at a pre-comp that way.
It’s not unlike the time it would take to cache a lot of images on a slow SGI machine. So it’s all sort of similar, and that little trick about being able to view iterations of a shot in about twenty minutes meant the quality of what we shot could go up much higher. It also ate up a large section of the day. I think that the more capable the machine is that you have, the more time is spent getting a higher quality image, it doesn’t save that much time, people just do more iterations. This continues today. So, if somebody gets a faster machine, they’re just asked to do more versions within the allotted time. This huge cost savings or time savings that people keep expecting from better technology aren’t really that apparent yet.
Of course, nobody really knew that it was going to be a big movie or get much notoriety including the producer of the film, Gary Kurtz. I remember standing next to David Barry, one of the animators. The animators did a lot of laser animation and lots of roto. David was asking Gary Kurtz whether he should buy 20th Century Fox stock because he thought the movie was going to be big. Gary Kurtz’s response was, even if it’s going to be successful it won’t effect
20th Century Fox very much, he advised David to buy MCA stock. Fox stock actually doubled many times.
It takes a while to iron out all the bugs in any facility or at the beginning of any project. Almost every visual effects production goes through a period of difficulty and Star Wars was another example of start up problems. The heads of the production start to question whether they have gone to the right place for their visual effects work. I’ve seen this repeated many times on different scales. This happened in a big way at ILM on Star Wars, it was something I think that hurt John Dykstra’s and George Lucas’s relationship. Their relationship never recovered from this start up period where things were very rough for quite a while.

New Question: What was the biggest surprise you had when you began working in the field of digital production?

Well, one of the reasons I wanted to come to Rhythm & Hues was because I had been to a lot of facilities that had brand new digital departments and I wanted to work at a place that had an ongoing structure and had it together. CGI was Rhythm and Hues’ business from the beginning.
Every place I had been up to R&H, everybody was relatively new. Especially in the early and mid ‘90’s, you’re dealing with a lot of people that did not even have a concept of 24 frames a second and they did not have a concept of basic moviemaking steps. So you had to try to figure out where their knowledge level was just so you could talk to them and it made things go very slowly.
The attention paid to lighting issues was just rudimentary, and so you’d look at images and there would be these giant, glaring issues with the images but the person working on them had no idea that there was even a problem. So that presented it self again and again as I worked at various places. Each place was trying to work out a pipeline with brand new people that are all learning. Of course, not everybody’s brand new, obviously, there’s just a small core of people that are the real knowledgeable ones and the weight rests upon them for doing 90% of the work. I felt incredibly appreciative of those individuals they were being asked to carry a lot of the job

responsibility while teaching as many as possible at the same time.
The Luxor project had that start up issue, (PDI did not have that issue but I wasn’t there very long) Independence Day had that issue, Digital Domain and True Lies had that issue. Dreamquest also had that issue. They had just been bought by Disney and were just really growing their digital department and like other places had hired lots of low experience people. Again, there are key people at each of these places that are brilliant and really know what they’re doing, and then there’s just so much of the crew that were brand new. I also learned that at each place I worked I was amazed at how brilliant and hard working those core people were, in that way, all the places I worked were similar. There are really good people in each of the best companies. It makes me a little sad when there are remarks about one company from people in another company because I know how hard working and smart everyone involved is. The only reason I will put down a company is if they treat their own employees poorly.
I thought, well, Rhythm & Hues would give me experience at a place that has the CG experience and has the CG pipeline all figured out. I got to Rhythm & Hues and one of my biggest surprises is that pipelines and the way you work digitally are always being restructured. Everybody is always trying to find a better to
work on a project. Nothing is static so everyone struggles with this to some degree on every project. My lesson: It will always be a struggle at every experience level.
The combination with VIFX I think has been tremendously beneficial for R&H. VIFX, of all the other FX companies I had been to, had the closest feel to Apogee. It sort of had this a little bit of a garage feel. There’s a lot of hardware being built and sort of a looseness to it. That is not always a good thing. But they had stayed in business long enough where they had made a transition to the digital world. And so they had a much broader range of actual visual effects production work in their reels than Rhythm & Hues so this combination of the two companies has really been tremendously beneficial to both companies.

New Question: Since you came to Rhythm & Hues you’ve been involved with many computer generated projects and you have a vast background with traditional effects, can you describe the differences between the two mediums which you’ve been touching on here and there. And what are your favorite and least favorite things about each medium?

The biggest difference I notice is that, even though we’re all working on films the way the films are worked at in a digital facility is very much an individualized task. Although the supervising group pretty much stays as a group that has to constantly communicate. The individual artist ends up working primarily by themselves all day. In more traditional effects or production (except animation) you have to constantly work with a group of people. If you’re working anything with miniatures or stage or live action production it’s a team and group effort and it’s constant group problem solving so there’s a real group dynamic that has to take place and the politics of interpersonal relationships are something you have to attend to every minute. And so the work that happens at a digital facility seems much more paced and quiet and it is dealing with an individual one-on-one far more than happens in live action visual effects production.
And, what’s my least and most favorite thing? The best thing I like about digital effects is the fact that you can get a shot perfect. If you’re trying to fake something in a live production set, you’re at the mercy of God if you are going to get something that’s even close. And before digital technology came along, there was really no way you could get a perfect shot. You can get it now and it’s really, it’s almost unbelievable for me to see a shot close to perfect. Experiencing it the old way, there’s just no way you’re going to get rid of that matte line, there’s no way you’re going to make the lighting really match. To see something taken all the way to beyond where a sophisticated audience can tell the difference is a real pleasure. There are days working in a CG facility when I really like the fact that it is a quiet and controlled atmosphere and you do get to just to discuss things with people one on one.
I think because there is more one-on-one communication in CG the aspect I like least is when I run into people with giant egos. Arrogant people anywhere make work much more difficult. I think this issue is declining because the job market is less heated than it was a few years ago.
The least favorite thing about working on physical production is you usually don’t have enough time and you’re
dealing with a lot of people simultaneously. The compromises you have to make are immediate. You spend a lot of the day trying to figure out how to preserve quality while you’re giving things up because you have to meet the schedule.
The physical environment when you’re doing things practically or working with production turns into an endurance contest because it is almost normal to have a 12 hour day (not including lunch) and if goes to 14 or 16 or longer hours nobody really complains about it. If it is a feature production you have to withstand that for 3 to 4 months straight of getting up at 5:30 in the morning and getting home at 8:00 at night or whatever it is. Then, on top of that the schedule will flip flop to working nights and then back to days. It is exhausting and the rest of your life comes to a halt. I almost pinch myself when I’m working at a CG facility because the hours are so nice, at least at R&H where they have gone out of their way to keep the hours under control.

New Question: What’s your favorite computer generated project that you worked on here at Rhythm & Hues?

Well, I guess it would be Dr. Dolittle because my involvement was much larger. I was also second unit director and that the director of the project for the most part treated the facility with respect. Many times one of the problems with working at a visual effects facility is that the production views the visual effects facility as a separate entity and it can eventually turn into an us-against-them kind of mentality where the production thinks the visual effects facility is just trying to get a larger profit from the work, as if there’s some sort of conflict of interest going.
And that’s also one of my least favorite aspects about working at a visual effects facility in general is sometimes being treated like you’re a crook by the production. That didn’t really happen on Dr. Dolittle and it was a great experience seeing how the team at Rhythm & Hues worked on a talking animal movie. We had the

benefit of having sub-contractors work on the show at the same time. So it was an education for me to see how far advanced Rhythm & Hues was at doing the same work that the sub-contractors were doing and how much of a learning curve that the sub- contractors had to go through. It made me appreciate the knowledge base at Rhythm & Hues.

New Question: Describe the biggest production disaster you’ve been involved with in your career.

Feature film production, the ease of it and how successfully it gets done is all based upon communication and how open people are to communication. If there are ever problems it almost always deals with communication and lack of communication or some misunderstanding deal with communication. So, the higher you are within the project the more attention you have to pay to clear communication and the more you have to deal with the people who are doing the communication.
Of course, it gets a little bit more politically and personality driven trying to keep the communication going smoothly. Most of the big problems usually arise from finding out about things late and not understanding that somebody or some part of the production went a different direction than you thought they should. They had the best intentions and you
had the best intentions but you didn’t realize what they were doing until it was too late.
The biggest production disaster I had was when I was working on a commercial and I had responsibility for multiple tasks and one of them was being a camera operator/camera assistant. There was a camera problem is all I can say and it ruined the end of the day’s shooting and it was not apparent until the film was developed later.
You know, this is one of the problems that will be done away with when everything goes digital. But it was not apparent until the next day’s dailies and after this entire set had been struck. So this camera problem which could be… which one could say… I was responsible for, probably cost over $100,000, and put the company in financial jeopardy at the time. Everybody survived it, but, needless to say, it made an quite an impression on me. I did not have formal training being a camera assistant or operator or DP. I just kind of learned by doing and most of my learn- by-doing involves a lot of mistakes. And I’ve made some whoppers so I’ve always been pretty easy when working with other assistants or people who are learning. If they’ve made a mistake, I probably made a worse one. Maybe it’s to my detriment but I don’t get too excited about mistakes.

New Question: What would you consider your dream project?

The projects that attract me are projects that deal with life that I can identify with, kind of everyday life that has sort of an edge of magic to them. There are some movies that I like because of that and surprisingly enough one of them’s a non-effects movie like “To Kill A Mockingbird”. It presents, gives such a feeling of sort of magic in the air in a weird way that it has this feeling of taking you to a different world, and it’s all in your head.
I really like the first Babe movie. It’s a really really goodhearted movie and it also takes you to a world that you really didn’t expect to go to. It is taking life and putting a slight twist on it. If you have a film project that is a little bit, gets too abstract you can no longer identify with it. The kind of movies I like are the ones I feel like I could go there and it makes me feel a little bit more excited about being alive and seeing the potential for where my life could go. So, I would like a project that would involve something like that would connect with a lot of people. I can’t say I’ve really worked with anything that has gone as far as I would like it to go in that area.

New Question: Where do you see the future of computer graphics going?

For my job and what I’m doing, I see them just being incorporated more and more into just everyday film making. The live action crews are much more accepting of digital imagery being inserted into the film and the entire film crew from top to bottom understands this part of filmmaking now. You get included in the filmmaking process a little bit more.
So I see that continuing that people will just think of computer graphics, as far as filmmaking goes, as just like the sound department or the physical effects people adding rain to the shot, or something like that, where it will just be a natural part of what happens and as far as landmark imagery, who knows where that’s going to go. It’s, people like Jim Cameron that have a wacky script that we get to work on that come up with a problem or an image that needs to be made that will really push computer graphics forward.

Speaking of that creature in the Abyss, the water pod, whatever it was, when I saw the film I was just riveted looking at it. Here was something new that appeared to exist in physical space and it was just a lot of fun to see something like that. I would expect those experiences to happen in the future but I couldn’t have predicted, I never would have predicted this water pod thing. Or different applications? I just don’t know what they’re going to be, but they will be project specific.
In the earlier days of CG just about all you could do was vector graphics. The audiences were used to seeing them as “high tech”. One of the things we did to get around the fact that we didn’t have high end computers was to fake it. One project we had, we actually sculpted out of wire a model of the shape we needed and then painted it with ultraviolet paint. Ultraviolet paint is easy to light shadowless and it emits light and so we were able, in various physical passes, to have this vector graphics image of this object slowly evolve into a 3 dimensional model by using this cheat ultraviolet method and shooting various model passes of the finished product.
We used this on a number of projects that required vector type graphics.