Press > Escape From L.A. > Exclusive Interviews > Brian Keeney (Visual Effects Coordinator)

How did you end up being a visual effects coordinator?

First off, I attended USC film school which is a prominent film school in California many famous directors, producers and such went to and had a successful experience there. USC is the University of Southern California. I was involved in student filmmaking and doing special effects. This was before computer graphics were more prominent. Doing hands on special effects, models, make-up and such with several of my fellow students. We had a small little studio, special effects company and from that experience we learned a lot of tricks and techniques. The language of visual effects. That experience brought me working over at Lightstorm Entertainment which was James Cameron's production company doing model restoration and PA (Production Assistant) work. Help them with editorial and stuff like that. I did that off and on through college and after college and that got me an opportunity over at Disney and through that I got a position at Buena Vista Visual Effects which was a small boutique, visual effects division at Disney. I was there on the lot and I was hired as a PA for Mortal Kombat and worked on that film for about 10 months through a year and an opportunity popped up to be a visual effects coordinator there. So I worked off and on on small little films for about four or five months helping out around office. As coordinator you're working with a producer helping with day to day managing for the show.

How did Buena Vista Visual Effects get the assignment to do the visual effects for Escape From L.A.?

If I remember at the time they bidded out to a few other midsized visual effects companies. John Carpenter (Director/Co-Writer/Co-Composer) is not inclined toward to work with large visual effects facilities like ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) or Boss or any of those kind of companies mainly because they're much more expensive and John usually likes to keep his budgets sort of down and somewhat in control so that he keeps control over the overall film. The bigger the budget, the more the studio gets involved in the actual production and John's been used to coming from an independent background having full control and not getting meddling from the studio. It was bid out to other boutique places at the time whose names I can't remember. He just liked some of the ideas we presented and partially just budget. We hit a budget number that fit within the dollars that they had so we got the award.

How did you prepare for this project and how did you, Michael Lessa (Visual Effects Supervisor), Kimberly K. Nelson (Visual Effects Supervisor), Denise Davis (Visual Effects Producer) & Harrison Ellenshaw (BVVE Executive Producer) collaborate?

After nine months being with Buena Vista Visual Effects we were awarded Escape From L.A. The company was small. It was only about 40 or 50 people so I worked out a network with Denise Davis. I was partnering up with her to pretty much help her get the show up and running and plan out the shoots, plan the miniatures and get everything lined up. You go into what we call a pre-production mode and you start to breakdown the sequences. We're doing storyboards that were provided by the main production, the art department and we just started breaking down the shots. Some need matte paintings. Some need pyrotechnics, miniatures and after you do that process for several weeks you start to get a picture of how many miniatures you'll need. How many matte paintings and such. Then the other key thing is. Visual effects supervisor Mike Lessa. He and myself were going out based on what information we were getting from production which were where the location were to be. We would go to those locations and we would take photos and just sort of, "Can some of these be used for matte paintings?" Back in the day lot of matte painters would take photos and just doctor, Photoshop those photos up as a quick way to get a simple matte painting. I was going out taking reference photos of highways, Downtown. Then I went out to Palm Springs to get reference photos for the destroyed town look that we were going for and out of that reference photos and stuff like that we were able to utilize that and decide what's gonna be a matte painting. In the mid ground is it going to a miniature from that locations study and then started to contact vendors for what they can provide. I brought in a couple of matte painters. They were freelance and they were advising us based on what we were looking for in a shot and, "I can do the matte painting." We were also doing a lot of 3D (Three Dimensional) projections where you built simple CG (Computer-Generated Imagery) geometry like a square and then you can project photos of buildings on it. It's sort of what we call two and a half D matte painting. It gives you a little bit of a feel of dimension to it compared to a more traditional matte painting where it's somewhat flat. Through those location process we got all that and then we started looking for vendors, matte painters and then we ran into John Stirber who's our main special effects miniature supervisor and he was advising us especially for the collapse of the freeway. We went out to that area, the freeway and specked as much as we could. Took photos and seeing how the columns were stead up and such and work with him and decide how the thing was gonna fall apart. Through that information we would go back and forth to John Carpenter and advise, "Here's how we think we can do sort of do this. What the scale would be." and he gave notes and comment on how it would be great to see a car fall that way or this and we would do our best to plan that.

Reference Photos

Model Construction

The surf sequence was the most involved sequence probably for us. We worked with the location scout and he was able to find a sort of open ravine area up north of L.A. I think just south of Simi Valley. It wasn't an old quarry but it was an old area that had scrapped a lot of the land away so on the right side of the frame was an actual rock and dirt sort of cliff that we could utilize as right side of the frame. The left side was all open and went out into a field so we were able to shoot an angle. They shot all the principles there in the dirt in the mud and stuff like that. On the right you see some rock and dirt and when you go to a wide shot there would be a matte painting and other like 3D, CG enhancements to make it look like this canyon coming down Wilshire Boulevard. We did night shoots up there for about three or four days and got the shots of Peter (Fonda) (Pipeline) and Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken/Producer/Co-Writer) and stuff. There's mostly dialogue back and forth and they jump on the boards briefly and stuff like that and then that whole thing shifts to the shoot that we did in Texas. That was mine main focus for like almost a month. I had prepped out the entire shoot out in New Braunsfels where they had the Schlitterbahn Waterpark which I had found by just searching around and talking to people. We were looking for a perpetual pretty much wave that we could somewhat control because we looked up how we could actually shoot it out in the ocean and we canned that ideas within a day. Then we came up with this by seeing something that was on a cruise ship and we found out that they had one over at Texas so we pretty much organized a crew to go out there to do a shoot and figure out how we could angle the shots and the scale. It wasn't exactly blended in perfectly but at least it gave us a controlled environment with two professional surfers slash skateboarders to get on there so we organized hotels and cameras. We were there for about five, six days. I think it was like two days of prep and we shot for like two nights and we were also able to land great talent with Tony (Hawk) (Uncredited Surf Stunt Double: Peter Fonda). He was tall enough. We had to find people that were capable of doing the actual wave surfing but also had a certain height, a certain match because Peter Fonda was a good size taller than Kurt Russell so Tony could usefully be Peter. Then we found another friend of Tony's colleague (Chris Miller: Uncredited Surf Stunt Double: Kurt Russell) that could hopefully mimic the scale of Kurt Russell and then yeah, we went out to you know Texas and shot that. It was a relatively easy shoot. It was at night and it was in the cold so it wasn't the most pleasant experience but we were able to get the shots that worked and we shot a lot of extra footage. Then it really came up to Mike Lessa working with John Carpenter and just figuring out which shot and plate to use and how we could sort of bundle it. It was sort of putting a puzzle together because we had these water shots from the park. Then we were putting in matte paintings and they were cutting between Kurt and Peter against a green screen and we were spraying water around. It took a while for them to sort of edit something together that sort of at least made sense. Yeah, it was one of the most involved shoots because we went out of L.A. and went and did a location shoot in a waterpark for that. It was a very good experience. The quality as it turned out wasn't necessarily the best but it was a great experience.

Tony Hawk (Uncredited Surf Stunt Double: Peter Fonda) (1-2)/Back Row: Chris Miller (Uncredited Surf Stunt Double: Kurt Russell) (2), Unknown (2)/Front Row: Denise Davis (Visual Effects Producer) (2), Michael Lessa (Visual Effects Supervisor) (2), Unknown (2), Brian Keeney (Visual Effects Coordinator)

The hang glider one was relatively straight forward. That was a few matte paintings. The difficult part about that was the hang gliders and we did miniature hang gliders with small little puppets on it and it sort of worked. In the end obviously the film's not known for its visual effects. Some things worked ok and other things just didn't look that great. Similar to Escape From New York it's about the character of Snake Plissken and all the crazy characters.

Harrison Ellenshaw wasn't really involved that much. He was managing the company at the time but he was definitely operating at the executive level. Kimberly Nelson was absolutely the effects producer on the production side. She was great. At that time she had been working in the industry for many years. I think she trusted our approach to a lot of the shots and what we were planning. She also understood the perimeters that we were working with, with the budget and the schedule and stuff like that. Yeah, she was great. She would come over occasionally to Buena Vista and look at stuff with Mike and then she was there when we were doing stuff with John and stuff like that. She was very supportive and collaborative in the whole process.

How did you get Tony Hawk involved and did you encounter any problems getting access to Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort?

I wasn't that much involved in that but I heard no rumblings. We just said, "Hey, is Tony up for doing this?" I'm not sure if he was a fan of the movie. One day they just told us, "Oh great. We can work with that." and the thing is. We did this in 95. There weren't that many people that could actually do this. We didn't want any surfer. These boards were not real surfboards. These were specially made boards to look like the boards, the large boards, the prop boards that Kurt Russell and Peter Fonda were on and the key thing is. A lot of people that do this at the theme park or on a cruise ship they literally fall off usually in two or three seconds. We needed someone to be able to stay on this thing for 15, 20 seconds and there were a very few people that could do that so when we were able to get Tony that was a huge win and he knew other people that were able do it so. I heard no issues with getting the talents for which we were lucky for.

No, there was no problems. The park was closed at the time so that was the key thing and this was Texas somewhere in the late fall or winter which in Texas. It gets pretty cold out there so with the park closed we just went to the park and said, "Here's what we're proposing. We just want to utilize the ride for three or four days." We weren't building any set around it. We just put black behind it. I think we had some blue screen too. There was no set construction. Nothing that would interfere with their park or the ride or anything like that so yeah, they were very amenable. We just contacted them and talked and negotiated a price and worked out some contracts. They had some staff of course on set operating the ride for us and they did a great job.

What challenges and problems did this project provide and which effects were the hardest to accomplish? John Carpenter (Director/Co-Writer/Co-Composer) was disappointed with the prop sub and you had to opt for CG
(Computer-Generated Imagery) for instance. Furthermore, the underwater San Fernando Valley sequence and the Bonaventure Hotel collapse were also chosen to be in CG instead of miniatures.

Probably the more difficult thing was the earthquake sequence. That was probably the biggest challenge. We decided to build a few large scale freeway miniatures and that absorbed a lot of time and planning and also just how to shoot it properly and figuring out the scales for everything to work at. And working with John Stirber we had to find a location to actually shoot this at because we can't shoot it at a parking lot. We wanted to have pretty much a clear sky around it at most of the angles so we didn't necessarily have to add in additional work on it. We were able to locate one area in north L.A. It's called Acton, California which has been used for movies in the past. There are several other movie ranches up there and with the research we were doing we said, "Hey, this could potentially work." so we did a scout up there myself, John Stirber and a bunch of other people. Mike of course. And it's one of the few areas somewhat near L.A. where you can stand on top of this large sort of hill, cliff area you can almost do a 360 degree without getting any other mountain in the shot. We were almost getting a 360 degree view of the sky. With that we said, "That'll be our main place." It was also just a large good plateau of dirt so there were no issues that we had to work with utilities or plumbing or sewage or anything like that. So with that John went to work designing miniatures and figuring out the scale. That was a several months build up there everyday just getting the miniatures all ready and then there were just the shoot days. I think getting that all prepped and shot was a challenge. The other one probably would have been the destruction of the Bonaventure because that was done in CG. CG was just coming into play in the early 90s especially for the mid-level companies. The large companies like ILM and such they already had of like six, seven years of experience with CG but the smaller companies that don't have much cash flow were not getting into doing sophisticated simulations which is what they was. They can do creatures, cars and explosions but doing effects simulation that usually was the larger companies that had the capability of doing that well. So we had to do a lot of research and we worked with the software that we had but planning that out and getting it to look somewhat ok was a big challenge. That was a challenge for our company at the time. Other companies may have been able to do it differently or better but for us at the time having to do that kind of shots was definitely one of our bigger challenges.

The sub that they got. I wasn't on there for those meetings and such but we definitely got worried. He didn't like how the sub either worked so yeah, then they came to us and said, "Hey, can you do a CG sub?" We already had built one for one of the other shots so when they saw the sub that they had built for it when it comes out of the water yeah, I think he just didn't like the motion of it. I think between the bouncy of the model and how it came out of the water it just did not look I guess exciting or engaging enough so that engaged us to do a shoot and build a CG model. With a CG model we could also do various speeds and show that to him and stuff like that. When you're watching a model out of real water and on a cable there's only so much you can do and those effects did their best. It's a very challenging type of shoot setting the miniatures to water and getting it all to work. With CG you had more opportunity to do variation on it and show it to them. So we went and did a shoot at Castaic Lake which is north of L.A. near the magic mountain which is a large theme park out here and yeah, we did a night shoot there and utilized their boar ramp at the lake as our sort of area of getting in. We built a track. That was the one they initially used to try before they decided to use the full scale miniature. We used that track and went in and put a mini like dolly type track down there and put a large object on it so we could pull it up with a lot of force and get the water gushing out of it a little bit. Then we would add a CG model to it and then have some additional splash alimenting compositing to give it a more dynamic feel of coming out of the water.                 

We looked at that. It was purely costing. To do miniatures like that and hang them down wires in probably either in a smoke room or something light some of what we did in The Abyss and such the expense of that would probably be too much so it turned into, "Alright, let's do." For the backgrounds we did pretty much matte paintings. I went out and did lot of photo reference for that and shot a bunch of stuff and they would collage it together into what the background would look like and that would be turned over to the matte painter. Then we did simulated sort of CG water, layer to give the feel like you're underwater. Bubbles and such here and there. Yeah, it fell more into just based on budget we could do most of that in house rather than setting up a large crew on a stage for several weeks with miniatures and off wires and that stuff is very complicated and tedious work where this gives us an opportunity to stay within our budget number.  

Why were scenes such as An Army Of Terrifying Figures Climbing Atop A Mountain Of Debris And Raising Their Weapons Into The Night Sky In The Ruins Of L.A., The Sub Passing By King Kong At Universal Studios, Plissken On Horseback Chasing Cuervo Jones At Sunset Boulevard, A Group Of Vagrants Clustering Around The Edge Of The Twin Towers Of Century City And A Brush-Fire Sweeping Through The Hills, A Bracero Family Having Dinner In A Skyscraper During The Hang Glider Flight & A Beautiful Woman Dancing On A Narrow Girder During The Glider Flight omitted or cancelled?

A lot of that stuff was just in the early storyboards and I guess in earlier scripts. I didn't read all the scripts but that's a normal flow of production. As they get the boards and seeing them they are starting to see how some of the sequences especially the action type sequences are gonna flow. They start saying, "How many times can the sub pass some theme park ride or how many times can we do like the horse sequence?" and stuff like that. If it's expending the movie out too much and they've had three action sequences and they're all somewhat similar they often go in and just sort of, "Alright, let's cut that one out or that one really doesn't help the story. It's purely just an action sequence." That's a normal process when you see ideas in storyboard form they never make it to production. I definitely remember the King Kong storyboards. I remember the horse sequence was much more involved. It's just a normal process of winding down shots and production time to stay on the effects budget and also in the main shooting budget.

Some visual effects in the movie have been criticized for being a little subpar. Is there anything in retrospect you would like to have done differently and did the short post-production schedule affect the effects in any way?        

I've heard that criticism and it's a totally fair criticism. There's stuff and shots in there that are subpar. Some of the reasons for that as I previously mentioned are definitely budget. This production and the studio were not interested in necessarily going over budget on visual effects or adding more money to it towards the end for visual effects. When you have that budget limitation unfortunately choices have to be made on techniques. Also, choices have to be made on iterations which is a thing a lot people necessarily don't know. A lot of visual effects especially the higher end visual effects that are higher in budgets each shot gets multiple iterations to improve it. It gets reviewed by the director multiple, multiple times and it gets reviewed by the visual effects supervisor multiple, multiple times and each time they provide notes of shots hopefully being improved, more dynamic, more vivid, more real. On other movies where the budget is tight similar to Escape From L.A. the number of iterations the artists can do and supervisors can review is limited so that's where some of the subpar work comes into. As for what sequences to do different? Based on the budget I think we did pretty good. Some of the matte paintings I think. Because matte paintings usually aren't that expensive of a task I think we could do a little bit better there because we did so many of them but the schedule definitely was tight near the end. We were on a release date that had to happen so that definitely influenced us at the end. We didn't have much time at the end and then the budget was important to hit and we get a result of that on the screen.

How was the experience working with the cast and crew and what went on behind the scenes?

I didn't interact with them too much. I was at the night shoots here and there and obviously in some of the production meetings and stuff like that. To answer your question. My experience was great. I think John Carpenter is a very relaxed laid-back guy. On set he has a family crew he very often works with. He's very amiably to ideas. From my distant view from when I was there he worked very well with Mike Lessa and they were definitely very collaborative on the effects. During the coarse of the production we had really no big issues or blowouts with John or the production. I would be there for the approval so I went over with Mike and we would sit with John and the editor and stuff like that and he was great. Some shots he would actually say, "Hey, that looks great. Let's go with it and move on to your next shots so that we can keep on going." and in some shots he let us know what didn't work and what we could do. He'd sit there and talk for a bit and exchange ideas and we would go back to the shop and start working on that and show it to John again two days later so the process of working with him was relatively smooth.             

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

Probably a few. One of them is just the overall working with the crew at Buena Vista Visual Effects. It was a small team compared to other projects. Some people were in their twenties. Other in their thirties. It was a relatively young group of people and then some senior people. Yeah, we had a good time on it. We had a good crew that was very laid-back and very excited about working on a John Carpenter film and also a sequel to a cult favorite that we all grew up on. We had days of working with the crew in the shop doing dailies and staying up late there and bringing food because we had to hit a deadline the next day. Everyone had a really good demeanor and positive attitude and just wanted to have a fun time working on a movie. That's the kind of thing I seek out and I would recommend to other people that if you can get on a film regardless of the budget and such. If you can get on a film with a lot of great people and have a good time doing it I find it to be the most valuable experience or memory because a lot of the work we do sometimes it goes out to the world and it doesn't really get seen. Some movies goes out there and just bomb and no one gets to see the last year, year and a half of your work and then if you had a whole bad experience doing it then it just leaves a really bad memory. So that's what I sort of seek out and probably some of the funnier times we had was shooting all the miniatures of course because we were going up the mountains. The night shoots was kind of grueling but you're going up there and blowing stuff up. That's always fun and again we had a great crew up there too. Even though it was cold nights up there everyone was excited. We were blowing these huge miniatures and getting some really cool shots and stuff like that so that was fun to do. Those are two of my more memorable ones and I'm sure there are others.

What do you think of the movie personally?

If you're into John Carpenter or a major fan of Escape From New York you can probably watch it and have a little bit of fun especially because it's Kurt Russell playing Snake Plissken. It definitely doesn't have the coolness of Escape From New York. It's missing something that movie had or at least it's missing a combination of things that Escape From New York had which is kind of disappointing. I haven't seen it in years. There are certain sequences that I find fun to watch and there are other ones that wow that really doesn't work at all but I'm not embarrassed I worked on the movie. I'm proud that I worked on it. We had a great time doing it and it's part of the legacy of Escape From New York for good or bad. If you go with the whole subplot of the US (United States) pretty much claiming marshal law and taking everything over and the president being you know Cliff Robertson and his attitude. That was about 25 years ahead of its time.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Right now I've been doing sort of consulting work for companies over in Europe on post-production and such. I went back to Sony Imageworks and worked on Spider-Verse and a few other projects. Finished that up last year and been doing consulting stuff. That has been my main focus. In my free time I see a lot of film. Study film. Film viewing that is. A lot of time is with family and friends of course. Other things are NFL (National Football League) football and sports and such. That's a big part of it. Also, I do go back which is one of my film viewing and look at a lot of the older visual effects films to sort of see how they've been aging over the years. The other thing is. I've been starting getting more into streaming TV. I've had Netflix for years but getting more into the streaming shows and seeing the quality of the work coming out of the visual effects community for the streaming broadcasts and TV shows. Obviously a lot of the streaming services are doing these more the Game of Thrones kind of stuff like HBO (Home Box Office, Inc). The quality work there is just astounding for what they're doing. I started watching Stranger Things 3 a few days ago because we're under quarantine here. It's amazing. The quality of work being done on those you know lower budgets is quite impressive.

Thank you for your time, Brian.

Visual Effects Storyboards (PDF) (15.6 MB) (77 Pages)

Visual Effects Shot By Shot Breakdown Schedule (PDF) (2.49 MB) (14 Pages)

Visual Effects Plate Photography Schedule (PDF) (593 KB) (4 Pages)

Revised Visual Effects Plate Photography Schedule (PDF) (531 KB) (3 Pages)

Visual Effects Location Maps (PDF) (560 KB) (2 Pages)

Visual Effects Memorandum (PDF) (3.06 MB) (12 Pages)

Documents, Reference & Model Construction Photos: Copyright 2020 Brian Keeney