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The special effects for the computer display in “Escape From New York” (twitter.com/foone)
550 points by thibautg on Nov 24, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments

The effect was actually done using retroreflective tape; the building were indeed a physical model, with the edges covered in 3M Scotchlite tape. From first-hand experience (on other movies) the camera is placed behind a half-silvered mirror placed with a 45 degree tilt, with a projector underneath (in this case shining green light). The net result is the camera and projector are on the same optical axis, so no shadows are visible and because the tape (retro)reflects so strongly that's the only thing that shows up.

We used exactly the same technique on 'Superman', but projecting footage in sync with the camera and the most massive screen of Scotchlite behind the actors (it's must've been something like 200 feet wide and 50 high, so big we had to dig a curved trench several feet deep in the floor of Pinewood's A stage to fit it all in (my boss at the time won an Oscar for the flying FX).

That’s fascinating. I’m a researcher working closely with today’s Scotchlite technical team at 3M. They recently developed an ambient black looking material that retroreflects: https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170502005233/en/3M-...

Let me know if you want a sample :)

That looks like interesting stuff; I was working recently with older 'black' retroreflective materials and the performance wasn't great so we ditched it. I'm in the UK, is it on the market yet or do I need to go through the in-country 3M office?

It is on the market, as C790 Carbon Black. I imagine it is difficult to get small samples as an individual, as 3M typically sells to businesses.

May I ask what you were working with said material for?

Contactless sensing, using retroreflection of a light beam to sense and measure rotation speed. We wanted black so it wouldn't be as visible as the usual silvery-grey, given it was stuck to the sidewall of black tyres.

I keep coming across uses, most recently for tracking research animals in near-darkness (looking down on a floor of scotchlite). The black could be a better choice for that so thanks for the heads-up about it; email me on sfx 'at' tessierlabs.com if you want to know more.

Superman was the last movie my grandfather worked on before he retired. He was with British Lion so probably at Shepperton Studios/Sound City unit, not Pinewood. If you do read this, please send me an email, would be great to see if you ever crossed paths.

Couldn't find your email, but unlikely as I was with the Zoptics unit at Pinewood and we didn't do sound (our gear made a lot of noise!). Spent a lot of my youth around the Chertsey/Staines area though so it's possible. Email sfx at tessierlabs.com if you like, on the offchance.

Note: The "email" field in your profile is private (for password reset and similar stuff). If you want to make it public you must copy it to the "about" field.

Thanks for thw tip!

I'd be interested to know what folks in your field think of the newly developed substance [1]'Vantablack'. Thin carbon tubes that apparently absorb 99.965% of visible light. Are there any cool applications for this stuff in practical effects?

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vantablack

I've been out of SFX for decades so can't speak for current practice; anything really black (classically velvet/black flock) is (was?) useful for hiding all sorts of things from the camera. So I'm just guessing here, but because cameras (more specifically the sensors) are much more limited than the human eye in terms of the range of brightness they can handle it's probably more useful in scientific/direct view applications.

The shadows on the buildings in the article/thread both don't correlate with camera position and change independently.

No need to take my word for it. See "Editing and Special/Visual Effects" by Charlie Keil, Kristen Whissel p. 222:

"One of the more ingenious examples is Escape From New York, which features a wire-frame flight approach display constructed by adding reflective tape to all the building edges of a miniature city model"

It was also covered in Cinefex (must've been sometime in the early 80's if you want to search the back catalogue).

On the other hand, I've just watched a behind the scenes video [1] about Mission Impossible: Fallout, and was absolutely shocked by how much of it was shot in real life.

Basically, most of it. When I saw the movie, I would've bet my left kidney that 90% of the effects were green screen, I definitely would never have guessed that the skydivig scene, helicopter chase, and the canyon fight are for real. I could barely believe such canyon existed! Absolutely stunning.

[1] https://youtube.com/watch?v=lCv59-y123g&t=0s

Here's some great unedited footage from Mad Max: Fury Road, too:


Absolutely surreal. No wonder these scenes were so immersive. Props to all the stunt performers!

Thrilling. I prefer this to the final footage, and I have no problem with CG effects in general.

Agreed, that's incredible. As I watch that it strikes me that one of the underrated uses of CGI is to make practical effects possible that wouldn't have been before. An actor can safely fall out of a helicopter or jump between rooftops, knowing that rigging can easily be painted out.

I believe Tom Cruise learned how to fly a helicopter just for that role. Dude's batshit but he has incredible respect for his craft.

The whole time during that massive car chase, I was just trying to focus on when it was clearly CGI and when it was clearly a real goddamn car chase. The transitions were so seamless that I only caught maybe 3-4 examples of CGI.

Thanks, I enjoyed that a lot more than I enjoyed the actual movie. (although I enjoyed that too) A bit like Burden of Dreams vs Fitzcarraldo[0]. In both pairs, the fictional story seems trivial in a lot of ways compared with the real story. Maybe that's often or usually the case? Well, I don't think it's likely I would've enjoyed Terry Gilliam's Quixote or Jodorowsky's Dune more than I did the amazing documentaries about them. (Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowky's Dune)

[0] Fitzcarraldo (1982) is a Werner Herzog movie about a guy who wants to build an opera house in the jungle, which plan involves hauling a ship over a hill between 2 rivers. Burden of Dreams is Les Blank's documentary about the making of the movie.

MI Fallout was one of the most remarkable movies I've ever seen just for this fact. Might be my favorite film this year.

Makes you wonder why they took the risks at all when special effects are so good that nobody needs to do such things anymore. Maybe they actually made a mistake by getting the scenes so perfect.

>...so good that nobody needs to do such things anymore.

There is a lot of CGI that just looks fake. I would even say most, at least to me. I go back to Star Wars (ep 4). The physical models still look good. The original Blade Runner still looks good. I've also noticed that CGI movies look okay in the theater, but once they hit the high compression formats like Blu-ray or streaming, the CGI really becomes noticeable. The practical stuff still looks good in these formats. Go back and watch Hunt For Red October, and know that during the submarine underwater scenes are just physical models in rooms of smoke to simulate underwater. I really notice when they do 100% CGI characters like Spiderman and Hulk.

I have two maybe contradictory things to say about this. On the one hand, thinking all cgi looks fake is confirmation bias. There is so much cgi you don’t notice (cars for example, look incredibly real). But when you do, it’s because it’s bad.

On the other hand, I agree that 100% cgi characters look bad. I recently watched the latest Avengers and was amazed that with all the budget and years of experience they have, the Hulk looks terrible.

It’s a useful tool, but when it becomes the only tool it gets old. There’s a lot of charm to practical effects. Yeah I can tell that Yoda is just a puppet, but it works.

>On the one hand, thinking all cgi looks fake is confirmation bias. There is so much cgi you don’t notice (cars for example, look incredibly real). But when you do, it’s because it’s bad.

Also known as the Toupée fallacy:


I'm not sure its /just/ confirmation bias. CGI scenes are qualitatively different. With CGI there's no limit to what you can put on screen. You want a space battle with 12000 ships, each firing lasers and missles? No problem. Models are different, each one costs.

Compare Star Treks. ST:TNG had the Enterprise and maybe one other model at best. Battles were rare, because that would mean destroying your model, battles were an end of series finale thing. Compare that with a modern Star Trek. Where theres a massive battle every episode.

Reminds me of the hallway fight scene from Inception. The fact that they build an entire rotating set instead of relying on CG is what (I think) makes the scene so much more convincing.


A somehwat inverse effect. Rather than green-screen all the effects in First Man, lots of scenes were shot in front of an enormous LED display.

Solves a lot of problems with simulating realistic in-cockpit reflections.

Also a good way to make the entire crew queasy. The final Moon approach and landing shots are incredible.


There's also good old fashioned miniatures for the Saturn V.

Part of this is also particular to Tom Cruise and other obsessive action stars like Jackie Chan who commit to doing as many of their own stunts as possible. That's got to significantly affect that planning for these scenes (and save money).

I believe that it’s almost always wayyyyyyyy more expensive to CGI the thing. Sort of amazing to think about, but I think smashing up a bunch of cars, flying a bunch of helicopters, etc, is simply much cheaper than faking it with a convincing level of fidelity.

I doubt it's true in this case. Tom Cruise has done 100+ skydiving jumps, spent 6 months learning to fly a helicopter, and for the canyon battle they had to transport a crew of 150 people to the mountain and back every day using the helicopters.

No CGI is that expensive. I think they did it because of the craftsmanship, love for the art, perfectionism, stuff like that.

For the reward. Cruise produced the movie in bigger part. The more money they spent, the bigger write off they got. At least I was explain it that way by a friend who happens to direct in Hollywood for about 12 years now.

That makes very little sense: https://youtu.be/XEL65gywwHQ

Discussions of older effects work always make note of the high manual labor effort. But increasingly I'm not convinced that we really have things that much different in the CGI era. Certain things can be done in a commodity fashion(e.g. instancing thousands of AIs to make an army) but a good visual effect is designed and crafted, not manufactured. You don't get great animation just by scaling up the processing power.

So you still end up with labor effort, but proportionately more goes to the intellectual parts of modelling it on the computer, instead of hiring a crew to sweat over an array of painted glass, miniatures, and puppets. When CGI visuals got really popular for the first time in the 90's and 00's, they often suffered from the belief that the computer would make post-production so fast that the up-front design could be avoided in favor of a brute force "just redo it in post until it looks good" approach. And this is an appealing pitch on the surface, since it means more aspects of the work can stay undecided until the very end. Indecision is one of the things that drives a lot of software complexity.

But that kind of futurism isn't touted nearly as much as it used to be. It adds unnecessary risk for expensive mistakes, underwhelming visuals and awkward editing. Post work is still a huge part of doing blockbuster cinema, but it's been supplemented with extensive testing and a resurgent trend of in-camera effects. Meanwhile, the studios that provide CGI services are treated as commodity labor, just like yesteryear's model painters.

Yeah, people definitely underestimate the amount of labour needed for CGI.

You still need a lot of artists for CGI. Someone needs to sculpt and paint all those 3D models, and rig them, animate them, etc.

The difference is that they use ZBrush to sculpt digital models instead of actual brushes, but the work still needs to be done.

You also need engineers. ILM employs a lot of people who work on physical simulations to get the effects they need.

You can do things digitally that aren't possible with real world models, but I don't think it's cheaper or less labour intensive.

I'd say that a whole generation of effects people took the Star Wars prequels to heart as to how too much CGI sucks.

It was not too much CG, but rather the wrong approach to it. If you stick an actor into a green screen you need to do your damnest as a director to make clear to them what the invisible part of the setting is. As far as I know Lucas failed to handle that correctly.

Newer productions with actually capable directors got this right. There was a reason why Lord of the Rings employed previs animations before filming to figure out what the sequence will be. Weta Dgitial gave James Cameron a tracked virtual camera inside the motion capture rig with a real time preview of the Navi so that he could direct the camera while his actors where playing out the movie in a nonexistent jungle in a really drab gray studio with no props. There are tons of examples how the industry has learned to take CG as a tool and tame its abstract nature to make it useable.

The discussion of the title effect for The Thing (painted glass, burning garbage bag, fishtank full of smoke) reminded me that the well-known Windows 10 default wallpaper[1] is, surprisingly, a practical effect. It's a pane of glass etched with the Windows logo suspended in front of a black background, with a bright light shining in from the side and a fog machine going.

[1] https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/windo...

The model shots as CGI reminds me of RoboCop's "thermal vision". Renting an actual heat sensing camera was too expensive, so they just filmed people in black spandex covered in fluorescent paints under a black light.

It's clever, but I don't think it really holds up: https://youtu.be/Md14H_qD8iQ

I always thought that shot looked weird, but I never questioned the wireframes in Escape From New York.

It's so close to holding up though. If they had blurred it a smidge so you don't see the folds in the spandex it'd be perfectly fine. Thermal cameras aren't known for their high resolution anyway.

In the movie 2001, the computers feature flat screen displays because they were actually displaying rear projection film. This accidentally gave it a more futuristic look than later sci-fi’s such as Alien and Blade Runner which featured bulbous CRT computer screens.

Also, like in OP’s tweets, there were no actual computers involved in the production of 2001. All of the displayed 3D wireframe models were films of physical wireframe models.

I suspect the dated-even-for-the-time computers in Alien and Bladerunner were a deliberate choice. For example the painfully slow screen updates in Alien must have been a deliberate choice, monitors of the time were fully capable of near-instantly displaying a screen of text.

It seems likely to me that they wanted to give an impression of a low-budget operation using antiquated tech. The Nostromo is a bulk cargo carrier crewed by little more than space truckers, it wouldn't have the swanky latest tech of the time, but how do you portray that? You can't try to portray people using 2050s tech in a film set in 2100, say, and expect people to get that it's supposed to be crappy old gear.

The effects in 2001 are breathtaking. Have you ever watched all the windows in the spaceships and stations? They aren't just white matte fakeouts, but actual filmsets with extras moving around overlaid with the model work. Building these sets, filming the inserts from the right angles and compositing that onto the final film in a purely optical process took an enormous amount of labor. I wonder why noone ever talks about that.

There’s a scene in a cockpit that was filmed with rear-projected computer screens and black windshields. That film was stored and later re-exposed filming a miniature moon landscape filmed through the windshield of a miniature black cockpit viewing a miniature moon base with black windows. That film was stored again then re-exposed to film people walking around through the windows of a full-sized black moon base.

The worst part of it: this is chemical film. Copying degrades image quality. So you want to do every step on a the same strip of film. But make one single mistake and you'll have to redo everything from scratch. Digital compositing is a godsend compared to that process.

I watched 2001 in 4K UHD Bluray the other day, and the special effects hold up very nicely.

My favorite story of practical effects on a John Carpenter film is about the portal at the end of Prince of Darkness, where a character reaches through a mirror to hell. The effect was achieved using a large pool of mercury, which the crew had "liberated" from the hydraulic system of a rented piece of heavy machinery. They filmed for one night, got the shots they needed then replaced the mercury before anyone noticed.

This was a terrible idea for many, many reasons. But they got the film made.

I have no idea where you would get mercury from a hydraulic system on anything. This story kind of sounds like urban legend, or the crew had no idea what they were taking apart.

Having worked in SFX, I guess it was probably from a Chapman (a sort of crane balanced seesaw big enough to hang cameramen and cameras from) - at one time (presumably no longer) I believe they used a big reservoir of mercury to achieve fine balance, to the extent you could move swing them around manually.

Amusing side note: They had a locking lever when obviously had to be engaged when the cameraman wasn't on the end. If someone freed the lever with the crane out of balance, the results could be quite catastrophic (source: I could've been killed on one occasion).

Aha, and here's an article about them:-


I heard the story second-hand on a podcast and obviously confused some of the details, but I think you are right about the piece of equipment they had access to.

From my brief google search, it seems unlikely:


Perhaps taken from some other application of mercury...

Maybe they snuck it out of the giant thermometer in Baker, CA.

If you find this kind of stuff interesting you may like this blog series on creative development for Moon (2009): http://www.gavinrothery.com/they-never-went-to-the-moon

Lots of interesting insight into production tricks used for a modern low-budget sci-fi film. Including graphic/motion design, sets and visual effects.

Nice! This takes me back to my days as a kid when I would pour over issues of Cinefex, which I'm very happy to see is still around.

If you enjoyed this, you'll probably also get a kick out of how they made the legendary HBO intro from 1983: https://youtu.be/wqzihgR_-SI

Yes, I just looked it up too because I used to read it when I worked in the SFX business. Pretty sure there's an issue that covers Escape from New York, but couldn't find it in a quick search.


I kept thinking, "ok, and this is where they spent $50k on CGI... nope, huh, also practical."

I'm a big fan of slit-scan:


As used in Doctor Who:


I love slit-scan effects, it's such a simple but powerful concept.

They're actually really easy to do now in post, After Effects has an effect called time displacement that allows you to displace time on a per pixel level. So to recreate a standard slit scan you'd just supply it with a gradient from black to white, but you can also create even more bizarre effects by mapping the pixels differently.

A few months ago I did all the effects for some music videos, and I created multiple effects based on slit-screen. Things like, having the video smoothly break apart into slices where the time moves at different speeds and then smoothly splice itself back together.

Another cool effect I figured out: using a blurred copy of the video as the time displacement mapping. This makes everything that's colored similarly move together in time, but out of sync with everything else.

I did that effect for a video that was just one long shot, and then I rotoscoped out the performers so they move in regular time and match the music: https://youtu.be/-0zO7Fnqnvs

I really love old school effects work, they're a constant source of inspiration.

Very cool!

I did have a go at copying the Doctor Who tunnel effect:


Nice, your version of the time tunnel looks awesome!

That video was fantastic!

Thanks. Never knew that was how it was achieved. Simple when you know how. :)

That vimeo link was infuriating to watch though with a fade/slide/inset effect every second or two. Like a bad powerpoint he wants to use every different effect in the software!

..and for the titles in Superman (the old movies with Christopher Reeve). I used to work on computerised rostrum cameras and optical rigs, and watching the rigs actually doing slitscan was always fun.

I don't really understand how the technique described in the vimeo video makes the visual effect. It would have been nice to see what the camera is actually capturing and how it gets stitched together to form the final effect.

So the simplest way to think about it is:

Take a picture. Put a light behind it and place a black mask on top of it so you can only see a vertical slit. Point a camera at it off-center. Open the shutter and pull the camera backwards, then close the shutter. You will get a long horizontal smear with the slit stretched out into a long foreshortened rectangle (it will be skinnier towards the center of the picture and fatten out towards the edge).

Now do the same thing, but as you pull the camera, move the picture past the slit horizontally. Now, instead of one 1d line being stretched out into a foreshortened rectangle, you are stretching a flat rectangle into a foreshortened one. To make a zoom effect, you do this several times (one for each frame) but with the background starting at different positions, so it appears to scroll towards the camera.

With a different shaped slit (a square or a circle for instance) you can make a tunnel sort of effect, like the Doctor Who sequence above. You can see the slit scan happening best at the top and bottom of the circular tunnel: notice that the texture is less detailed there and a bit smooshed. That happens because the circle is being dragged horizontally and at the top, the right semicircle and left semicircle are being dragged over the same parts of the background soon after each other. If you had a part of the slit that was totally horizontal, that part would come out without any 2d texture effect at all and would just look like a smeared out 1d line. So the circle is most detailed at the left and right side.

The whole tunnel has a sort of horizontally tilted feel, and that comes from the left-to-right (or vice versa?) dragging of the background.

Both the title and the story of the title of "The Thing" are absolutely brilliant

I'm getting excited for my annual holiday viewing of "THE THING."

If you have an opportunity to see the special edition or some other copy with the documentary "Terror Takes Shape" about the background of the movie and special effects it is absolutely worth the hour.

Also if you are available June 25, 2022, there is a fan meetup at the location of the filming in Stewart, British Columbia.


The attempted CPR scene is still one of the most surprising things I’ve seen in a movie.

It's the sheer ingenuity of effects like this that impress me to this day. You couldn't just come up with a concept and poot it out in CGI from the bureau render farm. It took a real understanding of the medium and the camera, and when manual animation was needed, a lot of blood and sweat.

This guy @foone that did this tweet storm generally has an excellent Twitter account that everyone reading HN would love. He buys lots of old weird hardware and has interesting threads on them. He’s well worth a follow.

Imagine how much easier this great content would be to read as a blog post.

Feel free to write it as one!

But personally I can only do it this way, as I've got rather bad ADHD. So when I'm writing, it's a choice between "a rambly twitter thread" or "an unfinished never-posted blog post".

Are you converting "an unfinished never-posted blog post" into "a rambly twitter thread"?

I often find Twitter to be an awful platform for viewing images and video because they make it so hard to zoom in or to save it.

In a similar vein: all the graphics from the BBC TV version of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

How did this change into some awful Twitter thing?

I swear it was a solid blog post the first time I clicked on it - totally readable, unlike this...

I first saw this story as https://threader.app/thread/1066284025600339968 , which didn't work for some here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18524844

Twitter is a completely shit medium for in depth article like this.

Personally I much prefer Twitter threads like this to big, long, overly descriptive blog posts. The improvisational nature of the writing, plus the interleaved commentary from other interesting people, make it much more conversational and easy to digest.

The windows 10 background was also CGI free.

A lot of people seem to love these twitter thread unroller sites, but it's not clear to me what problem they solve (on modern Twitter) and I almost always find the original Twitter thread to be more readable/flexible. For example, in this one, I found it a bit confusing whether a particular paragraph went with the clip above or below it. Anyway, to each their own! Original thread here… @Foone is the best: https://twitter.com/Foone/status/1066284025600339968

On my machine, the linked 'threader' has every video as a busted icon, which defeats the entire topic. Twitter handles them correctly. Thank you.

One thing I found interesting that the author didn't seem to notice is that the text of the Star Wars opening crawl in the behind-the-scenes photo[1] is radically different from the version that saw release.

The crawl that we've all seen is only 4 sentences long: two in the first paragraph, then two 'paragraphs' of one multi-clause sentence each.

The crawl pictured in the tweet[1] is a much wordier mess, and may well be the original crawl Lucas showed to friends and executives before Brian de Palma edited the text down for him. It also features something similar to Dan Perri's semi-rejected logotype at the top (cut off unless you click in or view the image directly), the angled 'Star Wars' block logo most prominently seen on the original posters[2] for the film.

[1]: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Dsw_RjNUcAAgCgE.jpg

[2]: https://www.google.com/search?q=star+wars+77+poster&tbm=isch

I shudder to think how bad ANH would have been if Lucas had his way. We had a 1st taste in ROTJ and full-Lucas vision in the prequels.

Hey totof, creator of Threader here. Could you email me (vincent[at]threader.app) the configuration of your device, I would like to reproduce the issue. Thanks

same here

Just another 2 cents: I prefer the threader version as the main twitter site for me frequently fails to load, bothers me to sign in with full page interstitials, download the app bars, and has many touch areas I can hit to accidentally load random other pages. If anyone replies in the middle of the thread too I have trouble following it.

Thank you for posting the original thread, it's a much better experience, especially on mobile

TBH I did not know which link to submit. On another submission, someone posted a link to a Twitter thread which was replaced by a link to a "threader" app by the moderators. Here it's the opposite.

I personally also have a preference for the link to the original Twitter post. So thanks to the mods for the correction!

But all the credit goes to the person who posted the awesome thread on Twitter (@Foone). I only copied the link on HN.

What a shame having more than one link is impossible. /snark

Ok, since commenters seem to be agreeing that this is better, we've changed to it from https://threader.app/thread/1066284025600339968.

Hi Grady, our users use the threader format because most of them use our iOS Twitter client and they found the article format easier to read. Indeed some people still prefer the Twitter format. In this particular case (with the clip position) we will improve the layout.

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