Press > Exclusive Interviews > Mark Stetson (Uncredited Model Builder: Escape From New York)




How did you end up being a Visual Effects Artist?

In 1977, I was continuing my studies in industrial design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I also had a little over a year of professional training as an industrial design model maker at General Electric Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I went to see Star Wars on opening night at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I was blown away from the opening shot. I realized that I was looking at miniatures, I knew that I could make those miniatures, and I had an epiphany that I could be pursuing that work instead of product design. A few months later, two of my classmates at Art Center, Christopher Ross and Tom Pahk, answered a job notice to work on miniatures for the upcoming Star Trek movie. A few months after that, I started pestering them and their boss, Jim Dow, to try to get on that crew. In April 1978, Jim hired me and my new career began. I ultimately worked for three different companies on Star Trek – The Motion Picture as I followed those models on their journey to the screen.

How did you get the assignment to be a Model Maker with John C. Wash (John Wash) (Graphic Displays) for the wire-frame computer graphics city models in Escape From New York?

I can't remember who recommended me to John. Perhaps it was Greg Jein or Pat McClung. I was working in set construction for a TV series when he called. I promptly quit that job and equipped a model shop in the garage of the house I was renting. John worked very collaboratively, and together we worked out the concept of the miniatures and how they were to be made. Then I bought the additional tools and built the fixtures we would need to accomplish the tasks.

How did you figure out how to accomplish these effects? What kind of obstacles did you encounter and who came up with using high-contrast lithographic line art glued to the models for instance?

John came up with that idea. He started his career as a talented effects animator, and had already accumulated extensive experience with photographic effects animation techniques. He also came up with the idea of re-photographing the footage on high-contrast stock to build contrast and try to take out as much shading of the shapes as possible, to better simulate computer displays. That technique was used for the larger scale model. For the small-scale model, John created line artwork of Manhattan and its streets, and had it blown up to 4 feet by 8 feet and dry mounted onto lauan plywood. I think a company called Bob Olsen Photo Blow-Up Lab performed the Photostat and dry-mounting work. Then I built some jigs to cut up 1Ž4" thick white Plexiglas into little shapes ranging in size from about 1Ž2"H x 1Ž2"W x 1Ž4"D to 3"H x 1Ž2"W x 1Ž4"D to represent each city block on the map, with a generalized height. We spray painted all those thousands of blocks opaque black, and then used a little Dremel router set up with some custom jigs to mill the edges off each of the blocks, revealing the white plastic color beneath. That gave us our city block outlines for the wide view map. It was very tedious but it worked well and it gave us a very consistent line thickness. We then hot-glued those shapes onto the dry-mounted line map.


How long did it take to build the model sets?

I don't remember exactly. Probably 5-6 weeks, working as a crew of three. Besides John and me, I hired an assistant, Kathy Iguchi, the wife of one of the original Dream Quest Images founders Fred Iguchi. My wife Leslie was a working commercial photographer at that time and she helped shoot the test model we built to verify the approach.

- In the photos of the test shoot, you will see John Wash, my wife Leslie with her 4x5 view camera, and me in the yellow t-shirt.
- In the photos of the model construction, you will see John Wash, Kathy Iguchi, and me.




Test Model Shoot





Model Construction

How involved were you and John during the filming of the models at Dream Quest and how were the models shot?

John Wash and I were both involved in shooting the models at Dream Quest. Dream Quest Images had just been formed by a group of smart and talented guys who had been working for Douglas Trumbull (where I met them, working on Star Trek – The Motion Picture.) There were seven partners in Dream Quest Images, if I remember correctly: Hoyt Yeatman, Scott Squires, Rocco Gioffre, Fred Iguchi, Bob Hollister and Tom Hollister. Hoyt, Scott and Rocco lived together in a rental tract house in a suburban neighborhood in Mar Vista, and they were using that house as their headquarters. They were building a motion control camera rig in their two-car garage, and writing software and painting matte paintings for demo projects in the house.

John and I visited DQ to check the feasibility of shooting the miniatures with the motion control setup in the garage, and then designed the tabletops accordingly. As you can see from the pictures, the motion control rig worked best and the miniatures were easier to light when the tabletops were turned on their sides. That required some extra gusseting and bulkheads in the models to screw them down. Final assembly of the larger-scaled models was accomplished in DQ's back yard outside the garage.

I think John Wash mentioned the snorkel lens that was used for photography. I can't remember if that was a lens that DQ kept or if it was a rental. The snorkel lens was certainly a tool that DQ put to great use over the ensuing years. The tiny-scale model of Manhattan for the wide approach shot was assembled with just hot glue attaching the little acrylic building blocks to the tabletop, so the sideways rigging under the hot studio lights in the confined space of the garage caused the little buildings to constantly fall off. The DQ stage crew took up the task of model maintenance once we had delivered the models and solved the basic rigging problems. Bob Hollister and Tom Hollister were both experienced stage-hands in the Trumbull organization, so they were quite adept at handling the miniatures. John Wash stayed close to the shoot throughout photography, as the VFX (Visual Effects) supervisor responsible for creating the display graphics. He then of course took the footage and reprocessed it and added text graphics to it, working from his studio in Hollywood. I went right into my next projects, working for Greg Jein with Robert Short and David Heilman, to build the first Firefox design prototype, after which I started a design study mockup for the Spinner for Blade Runner, the project that made my career. It was a busy little garage that summer in 1980.

- In the photos of the shoot at Dream Quest, there are very cool shots of Scott Squires reviewing a data printout and Rocco Gioffre drawing a dinosaur at the kitchen table. There is another cool shot of Hoyt Yeatman and Fred Iguchi in the garage, building the lighting tent around the motion control rig and the model, with Leslie Stetson looking on in the background.




Dream Quest Start Up Studio - Mar Vista Garage

The model sets were also used in early pre-production of Blade Runner. According to IMDb, a model of the city was repainted and reused for Blade Runner. Since you were the Chief Model Maker for the movie, how much of this is true and how come that you used the models for Blade Runner?

Yes, that's true. We used the large-scale models as study models for shot planning with the main cityscape building set. Then we painted them black to use them as silhouette shapes to fill out the backgrounds of some shots.



Blade Runner Model Shop

What happened to the models after Blade Runner?

At that point they had become basically just black wooden blocks. They didn't have much value other than as last minute space fillers. So, like many other miniatures, the effort and expense of storing them exceeded their immediate value and they were recycled or discarded.

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

There were several. First, it was my first freelance miniatures contract, which started me on my path of running model shops and my own business for the next 15 years or so. I enjoyed meeting John and his family. We have remained friends since those days. I enjoyed working with John. We clicked well, and we worked on many other projects together after that one. I also remember visiting the set with John while they were shooting at my alma mater Art Center College of Design, and seeing how locations so familiar to me could be used so effectively and look so different in the movie! I also visited Roger Corman's low-budget VFX facility in Venice, CA, known as "Hammond Lumber" because it was housed in a defunct lumberyard. There, John introduced me to the Skotak brothers
(Robert & Dennis) (Directors of Photography: Special Visual Effects/Matte Artwork) who were filming the night approach to Manhattan at the time – the exterior view that we were simulating with our computer displays. I saw some of the truly clever tricks the Skotaks were using for that scene, like simply painting the concrete stage floor with glossy black paint to simulate New York harbor off the tip of Manhattan. Then I was very happy to have helped connect John with the talented group of guys who had just formed Dream Quest and who ambitiously shot the miniatures we built with a home-built motion control system in their garage!

What do you think of the movie personally?

I am a big fan of Escape From New York! In addition to its cult classic status, I think it is a wonderful cultural glimpse of the time it was made, and a great satire. There is good chemistry amongst the cast, and Kurt Russell's performance is iconic.

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

I spent the first 14 years of my career as a model maker or supervising model crews, prop crews and creature crews. I had my own business, Stetson Visual Services, Inc., from 1989-1995, which specialized in miniature effects. Since 1995, I have worked as a VFX Supervisor, sometimes working directly for the movie studios and sometimes working for visual effects companies. For the last five years I have been working at Zoic Studios, a mid-sized VFX company that has studios in Los Angeles, Vancouver and New York City. I am the Creative Director of the Features VFX Division at Zoic Studios. Zoic is known as a powerhouse for episodic television work; the Features VFX Division is smaller than the Episodic VFX Division. I am currently supervising VFX for
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend.

I haven't had much free time lately. When I do, I enjoy spending time with my family and our pets. I enjoy reading, listening to music, watching movies, watching motorsports, and when I get outdoors and past the chores, I enjoy skiing, diving, and underwater photography.

Thank you for your time, Mark.


Photos:
Copyright 2015 Mark Stetson/Gene Kozicki