Press > Escape From L.A. > Exclusive Interviews > Les Bernstien (Visual Effects Director Of Photography)

How did you end up being a visual effects director of photography, visual effects artist and motion control operator etcetera?

Started in New York as an cartoon animator, quickly training on camera and eventually moving to California. I continued to work in commercials and graphics but started working in films and television as a designer and motion control operator moving up through the ranks to DP (Director of Photography) for visual effects on films and television. Basically I stumbled into it. Always wanted to be a cartoon animator like in the old Warner Bros and Disney short films. If you ask me I got out of it just in time. Cartoon animation now sucks.

How did you get the assignment to be the Visual Effects Director of Photography for Escape From L.A.?

I was working at Disney in the effects and matte camera department with Harrison Ellenshaw (BVVE Executive Producer), Peter Montgomery, Mike (Michael) Lessa (Visual Effects Supervisor) etcetera. I had already supervised a few commercials and shot matte camera on some films like Honey I Blew Up The Kid, Dave and some others when Mike Lessa asked me to shoot effects on a Disney cartoon called Trail Mix-Up. We struck up a great working relationship and one of his next projects was supervising the effects on Escape From L.A. He asked if I wanted to shoot the effects. I said, "Sounds fun." The rest was history.

Which scenes did you work on and did you and Gary B. Kibbe (Director of Photography) collaborate in any way?

I basically was the FX (Visual Effects) director of photography on all the shots through Disney (Buena Vista Visual Effects). I handled all the miniature photography like the collapsing freeway and exploding Union Station in the opening, various element shots throughout and the notable surfing down Wilshire sequence. I didn't handle the 1st unit green screen with Kurt (Russell) (Snake Plissken/Producer/Co-Writer) and Peter (Fonda) (Pipeline) (though I consulted) but did all the full body GS (Green Screen) shots. We shot everything VistaVision and it was one of the first digital comp projects BVVE (Buena Vista Visual Effects) handled.

How were the miniatures shot?

We shot the big miniatures at the Acton Movie Ranch (Polsa Rosa Ranch). It is in the middle of nowhere so loud noises wouldn't bug anyone. Incidentally near there at the airport I shot the exploding miniatures for Fight Club. Also, for both projects (Escape and Fight Club) the miniatures were 1/4 scale and built and rigged by John Stirber (Miniature Effects Supervisor).

Stirber had to use a gradall to level the area and pour a concrete slab for the Union Station miniature as there were gas explosions, fireballs etcetera. There was a water tank there. I believe it's now gone. I shot some other stuff for Contact there later when I was at Sony. The Union Station miniature had to match lighting at the real station exactly so I supervised the plate shooting in Downtown L.A. then told John the direction to build the miniature so the sun angle would match. The freeway and station miniatures were the only ones we shot out there. Also, for the freeway miniature there were hydrolic movers that "shook" the plaster construction apart. I had I think five or seven cameras on it. Most in crash housings. Film speeds ranged from 72 FPS (Frames Per Second) to 96 FPS. Proper scale speed was 48 FPS (square root of the inverse of scale x 24) but tests told us 72 and 96 looked better.

1: John Stirber is the one with the beard in the middle adjusting the car.

For flying miniatures (helicopter, hang-glider) they were shot on the Disney insert stage we had in the FX (Visual Effects) department. There was a motion control system that had a two or three axis model mover. The flying miniatures were mounted on this and the camera was programmed to fly toward and over to make it look like they were flying toward the camera or vice versa. I lit the miniatures for night I believe and filmed a "beauty" pass against black. Sometimes this would be two or three passes for lighting exposures as we always had to maintain a very deep depth of field to make them look to scale. So one pass could be say an F16 at 1 second per frame exposure for one type of lighting (moonlight) while another would be F16 at 1/2 or 1/4 second per frame for fill or backlight etcetera. All while the moves are repeated exactly so the passes line up in opticals. Then we would set up cards painted with fluorescent orange paint behind the model and all the lighting on the model is extinguished. UV (Ultraviolet) (blacklight) lamps fluorescent lamps are placed around the cards so they illuminate evenly (very easy with UV flos).

For model rods or supports we would cut pieces of foam core painted in the same paint and place them to camera so when illuminated by another UV flo they would glow orange to match the background matte. The model is then a perfect silhouette and the optical department can pull B+W (Black Plus White) contrast mattes from that piece of film matching the move from all the other passes. This would hold out the ship against the city or landscape or whatever the background was. The advantage over other matte pass lighting techniques is that the UV light would only excite the orange phosphors in the paint. You could place the UV flos close to the model to get a good position for lighting the orange cards and not worry about spill on the model. It was only blacklight and the model would appear black. It was very fast and efficient. Silhouette mattes have been used since the original 1933 King Kong. We just updated it with psychedelic paint and black lights. The orange paint phosphor backlit matte technique was developed by the late Gary Hutzel when I was shooting miniatures at Image G for Star Trek: TNG (The Next Generation) in the 80s. It was a hybrid of stuff from Apogee's UV matting except over there we would spray a clear lacquer with an embedded UV phosphor over the model and hit it with UV lamps to make the model glow. It was uneven due to contours in model ships and would cause the matte to "bloom" or get larger than the beauty pass element. This would cause matte lines and less than perfect mattes.

Also, shot a bunch of 1/4 scale water backgrounds and elements at Lake Castaic. We shot a number of angles of the sub at Lake Castaic. I used a Chapman Titan crane to get several high camera angles quickly. Also, I remember using a mini Ritter fan to "chop" the water as I think we were shooting 1/4  scale and water is very hard to look convincing at that scale (look at old Hollywood miniature shoots of ships at sea or older Godzilla movies). When you try to get "white caps" on the water or create a lot of movement in water it helps sell the scale.

What kind of challenges did this movie provide and did you encounter any problems during the filming of the miniatures etcetera?

Shooting the Union Station miniature was challenging. I had to plan the exact location of the miniature, facing the same direction, time of day etcetera as the actual train station plate photography. John Stirber and his crew had to pour a concrete pad out at the Acton ranch (Polsa Rosa Ranch) because of the scale of the gas explosion we were filming and I had given him the compass heading and coordinates of its placement ahead of time. There was an error in communication and they poured the pad facing the wrong way. They had to rip it up and do it again. Harrison and I decided natural sunlight was the best way to match the location obviously because of the shadows. "Parallel rays" was our mantra meaning that sunlight creates shadows of the same scale in miniatures as in full scale structures. But on the day of shooting clouds started to move in and I had my gaffer Mark Cane rig an 18K to match sun angle. We got it damn close but you could see diverging shadows because the lamp was a lot closer than the sun! Harrison and I were a little disappointed but decided it would have to do. We couldn't reschedule the shoot. At the last minute the sun came out and we got our parallel rays! Technically the scale frame rate was 48 FPS but I did tests at 72 and 96 FPS and I think the highest frame rate won. The formula for calculating scale frame rate works as a starting point for gravity effects but more modern explosions use higher velocity pyro charges and higher frame rates tend to be more believable.

How was the Surfing Down Wilshire sequence shot?

These were done at a standing wave "surf park" in New Braunfels, Texas called a "Wave-Loc." One of the surfing stand-ins (for Peter I believe) was none other than Tony Hawk (Uncredited Surf Stunt Double: Peter Fonda)! This was because the standing wave surf boards had no fins so it was more like skateboarding in water. I had to fly a 20"x30" green screen behind the wave machine. It was crazy.

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

When we were filming the surf sequences in Texas and Tony Hawk was one of the surfers! I remember he had the flu and a 102 degree fever while we were shooting! There was a hot tub next to the wave-loc and he spent all the time in the hot tub.

What do you think of the movie personally?

I think it's not as good as the first one in New York but hey, it was fun to work with all those guys and be part of a (John) Carpenter
(Director/Co-Writer/Co-Composer) movie. Haven't seen it in awhile though. I should watch it again. I'm assuming it's got quite a cult following.

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

Teaching workshops, writing movies (fairly non-FX oriented) and trying to push ahead with a couple documentary films. One I am planning is on my generation of effects veterans focusing on photographic effects, non digital effects.

Thank you for your time, Les.

Photos: Joey "Deluxe" Enyart & Les Bernstien