Press > Exclusive Interviews > John C. Wash (Graphic Displays/Uncredited Model Builder: Escape From New York)

How did you end up being a Graphic Display Animator and a Visual Effects Artist?

At the University of Southern California, where I majored in Cinema, I originally was interested in character animation. My artistic interests and talents, however, were stronger in the area of graphic design and typography. I gravitated towards graphic animation as a result. During my final year at USC, I worked on several graphic display shots for Dark Star, a film being made by John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, in the senior production workshop. After graduating, I did further work on Dark Star, which was being expanded into a feature film by John and Dan. I worked on my first model shot, which was the Phoenix Asteroids, filmed with a bunch of Styrofoam spheres to which I had added craters. I dropped them in front of a high-speed camera mounted on its side to get the elements for the scene.

How did you get the assignment to do the graphic displays for Escape From New York?

John Carpenter and I stayed in touch after our time at USC. He called me in during prep work for the production, and explained the sequence where Snake Plissken lands a glider on one of the World Trade Center towers. Budget constraints allowed only two or three photo-real visual effects shots for the scene, which were done by Bob and Dennis S
(Directors of Photography: Special Visual Effects/Matte Artwork). To flesh out the scene, Carpenter wanted a high-tech series of displays representing wire frame images to play on monitors in the glider, and in full-screen during the scene. Based on the work I had done on Dark Star, I think John trusted that I could accomplish those shots. This work was completed in time to be used as video playback elements during 2nd unit photography.

Once Carpenter had finished principal photography and was working in the edit room, he called on me to animate some additional shots that were needed to dramatize and enhance the film. Among them was an animated prologue scene, a graphic of the crash of Air Force One in Manhattan, and a countdown clock showing the rapidly dwindling time limit for Snake to finish his mission.

How did you prepare for this project?

First I needed to decide whether the models should be negative or positive in nature. I initially thought that white buildings with black edges would be easier to light evenly, and that shadows would be less of a problem. It would be trivial to flip the polarity of the images during the optical printing stage. To test this hypothesis, Mark and I built a small section of the model. His wife Leslie, a professional photographer, shot stills of that test model. To my surprise, the white buildings with black lines photographed with undesirable shadows, so I committed to constructing black buildings with white edges.

For cartographic and architectural research on the glider sequence, I discovered and rented a large book, which was essentially a real estate map of Manhattan. It contained detailed maps of the city grid, block by block, and listed the number of floors of every building in the city. I used rough calculations to determine the average height of each block, as we were going to limit the resolution of the full Manhattan model to one city block. Mark and I made a ground level template using chart tape, and had it photographically enlarged and mounted on Masonite.

The other shots I animated for the film were my own designs.

Why didn't you use a computer for the effects?

At that time computer graphics were still in their nascent stage. Most of the computers used to do very simple animations were large, expensive machines reserved for research work at large corporations and universities. In the instance of Plissken
's glider sequence, I knew that a computer model of the island of Manhattan, with hundreds, if not thousands of structures would be beyond the capacity of any computer that existed then. For other shots that were two-dimensional in nature, using traditional animation tools was simply a matter of time and cost savings.

Interestingly enough, there was one shot at the end of the glider sequence that I used a computer to animate. I believe it was the final shot I did for the film. During editing, Carpenter needed a visual that sold the idea of the glider skidding across the roof of the tower, and nearly going over the edge. None of the models we had already built were suitable for this shot. However, I learned that Bo Gehring, another member of the Hollywood community of visual effects and graphic animation specialists, had a computer system available that could do simple line animations and output them as sequences of plotter drawings. I animated the forward view of the rooftop on his system, and shot the resulting artwork under an animation camera. That shot finished the sequence.

How did you manage to make all the graphic displays in the movie look computer generated?

I acquired a good deal of experience in the mimicry of computer graphics on Dark Star, and other projects. I subscribed to a magazine called Computer Graphics World, and pored over the images printed in that journal. To get that unique machine-generated look, I learned to think visually, like a computer, but without abandoning my artistic sensibilities.

For shots other than the glider sequence, I used high-contrast black and white transparencies, what were then called litho negatives, and colored gels. These were photographed on top of a light box that was part of the animation camera. I learned lots of techniques to create the imagery I wanted, like using white plexiglass for diffusion, and combining multiple passes through the camera to achieve complex effects. Another trick common to graphic animators was called a slot gag, where one piece of artwork remained static under the camera, while a second piece was panned on top or underneath. I used that method to generate the waveform traces for the President
's vital signs monitor.

When you heard that John Carpenter wanted multiple views of a wireframe POV
(Point of View) as the glider flew into Manhattan how did you figure out how to accomplish these effects?

I decided to build high-contrast models built to look like wire frame renderings. I worked with Mark Stetson
, who had set up a model shop in his garage, to build those models. Three models were constructed: a wide overview of Manhattan, and two larger scale models, one of Park Avenue leading to what was then the Pan Am Building, and the area around the World Trade Towers. Mark and I decided to represent the wide view model of Manhattan topography with a single rectangular prism for each block. This would give us a nice level of detail without being overly complex to construct.

The models were shot on a motion control system by Hoyt Yeatman
(pictures 5-6 below) and Scott Squires at Dream Quest, at that time another garage operation. Five angles were shot for each portion of the sequence. Forward, Rear, three-quarter Right and Left, and Down. These played on five small monitors mounted in Snake's cockpit. In addition, Carpenter played some of the animation full screen. Dream Quest came up with a nifty snorkel lens that allowed the camera to get very close to the models, and even fly in between them, as in the shot that flew down Park Avenue and did a steep climb to barely miss an impact with the Pan Am building. The miniatures were an asset when it came to shooting multiple angles. The movement of the motion control system stayed the same, and what was required for each pass was a bit of lighting adjustment, and a repositioning of the lens at the end of the snorkel.

I worked with an optical house - I believe it was called Modern Film - in Hollywood, where the footage was colorized, and graphic overlays were superimposed.

Were there any kinds of obstacles during the making or shooting of the three city model sets?

The shoot had a lot of tricky requirements. The lighting had to be absolutely flat and shadowless. The high-contrast film stock we used was incredibly slow, and long exposures were required to properly photograph the model. We couldn
't use a lot of lights, since the models were built with hot glue. Too much heat and the buildings would be dropping off the base! If I recall correctly, we were shooting with an exposure of between 1 and 2 minutes per frame at an aperture of f/22, for a large depth of field. At one angle, in which the camera was shooting straight down on the top of the Trade Center tower, the roof of the tower was reflecting light back at the camera, even though the design covering the roof was a matte black hi-con photograph, like the surfaces of the rest of the large models. I solved the problem by switching out the roof graphic with a piece of specialty paper covered with black flocking. It was like having a piece of black velvet atop the tower. It photographed flawlessly.

How long did it take to animate the prologue sequence, for example?

Although I was working on multiple shots simultaneously, I would say that the prologue sequence took about two weeks. I was working on my own at that point.

Is there anything you would've done differently in retrospect to any of your animations in the movie, which are timeless and iconic by the way?

In terms of style, I think, in retrospect, that I would have pulled back a bit on the explicit modernism in the designs of the fonts, and saturation of the colors. But of course one might argue that in terms of the overall style of the movie, which embraces action and visuals that are in the realm of a graphic novel, the animated shots are an appropriate fit.

One other thing that I wished I could have weighed in on was the orientation of the monitors in the glider cockpit set. I had a specific idea of how the five screens would be oriented, and somehow the production designer had a different idea. Here
's a mockup of what I thought would work best.

I didn't see the actual set until the scene was being shot. At that point it was too late to make changes.

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

Seeing the glider sequence cut together for the first time. It was a gratifying feeling to see how well the animation played in the scene, given all the hard work our team had put into it.

Another interesting tidbit occurred after I read the script for the first time, during pre-production. I suggested to Carpenter that the President wear a signet ring, bearing the presidential seal, on the finger that is severed and given to the authorities as proof of his captivity. It was fun to see that gag make it into the movie.

What do you think of the movie personally?

I still enjoy it immensely. I really appreciate Carpenter
's sense of style, the character of Snake Plissken, and the concept of Manhattan being turned into a penal colony.

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

I'm on the verge of complete retirement right now, although I have been doing short stints of VFX (Visual Effects) supervision from time to time. My most recent assignment was on-set VFX supervision for the pilot episode of the forthcoming WB (Warner Bros) series, Containment. Other than that, I enjoy trail running with my dog, bicycle rides with my local cycling club, and shooting time lapse videos with my GoPro.

Thank you for your time, John.

Art of the Title: VFX veteran John Wash details his early computer animation work on Halloween III and beyond