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Interviews > R.J. Kizer (Project Supervisor: Special Visual Effects: Escape From New York)
How did you end up working for
Roger Corman early on in your career?
I was first hired by Roger Corman,
at the recommendation of Mary Ann Fisher (Producer/Liaison: Special Visual
Effects) (whom I had met at a party hosted by
one of my NYU classmates in Venice, CA), in May of 1979 to do a recut on a
monster fish movie that was filmed in the Philippines by Charles B. Griffith,
and produced by Cirio Santiago. Corman was the overall producer. He and Griffith
were having some kind of argument over the final cut of the film. So I was hired
to work directly with Corman and do Corman's cut of the film (which was the cut
released to the theaters). I wound up getting hired as second film editor for
Battle Beyond the Stars and during the troubled post-production of that film
I got to know many of the visual effects people. When Escape from New York
happened, Jim Cameron (Director of Photography: Special Visual Effects/Matte
Artwork) was the person who had the original contact with Joe Alves,
the production designer. Jim then set about convincing Roger and Mary Ann that
effects crew from Battle Beyond the Stars should do the job because there
wasn't any work on the immediate horizon coming from Corman. But we did know
that there was a film called Planet of Horrors (filmed under the title
Quest, test screened as Planet of Horrors, initially released as
Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror, retitled, Planet of Horrors, and
finally released as Galaxy of Terror) that might be happening sometime in
1981. EFNY was perfect for keeping the "old gang" together and employed
How did you get the assignment to be the Project
Supervisor of Special Visual Effects on Escape From New York?
Though Jim Cameron was the person
who was the original contact between EFNY and New World, Jim was not a
very good "company man." Both Roger and Mary Ann wanted someone else, someone
they felt who would mind the budget and the schedule. Chuck Comiskey was the
original supervisor of the effects department for Battle Beyond the Stars,
but once that project was over, he lit out for greener pastures. All the other
key personnel had objections with one another. So I was put forward as a
compromise candidate. And that was acceptable to the all the parties. That's how
I got the position.
How did you prepare for this
project and what exactly did you do as the Project Supervisor of Special Visual Effects?
What did I do as a "Project
Supervisor"? First of all, that title was my creation. In terms of work: I
helped negotiate the contract between New World and Slam Dunk which really means
that I had input as to the specifics of the contract: namely how many shots,
over how much time. The means and methods of doing the shots was largely up to
the key effects personnel in the New World shop. There was a lot of back and
forth, but once a methodology for a shot was determined, we then worked out
which unit was to do what aspect of the shot. Basically my job was to make sure
work was getting done, and to liaison with John Carpenter and the film editor.
What sold Carpenter on using New
World was Jim's proposal to use 70mm front screen projection background plates
with anamorphic 35mm cinematography. Having done that, we now had to build a
very large front screen made from the Scotchlite material, construct a 70mm
process projector, and line up a movie lab to process the 65mm negative and make
fine grain 70mm positives. The screen we finally managed to build and hide
enough of the seams to get by. The projector was Austin McKinney's (Director
of Photography: Special Visual Effects) project, and
he found a 70mm movement and a chassis and, with C-clamps and 2x4 pieces of
wood, managed to jerry-rig a perfectly operational projector. The lab was Metrocolor on the MGM lot. Luckily, one of MGM's screening rooms could run 70mm,
so that became our screening room for checking out our 70mm prints.
All the work down at the New
World Effects facility used the cover title "Prisoner of Venice."
The work occurred between late July and early December of 1980.
The Screen Actors Guild went on strike starting July 21 and ending October 23 of
1980 (94 days, their second longest strike so far). This strike shut down the
entire motion picture and television industry in Los Angeles. Film laboratories
were operating only 2 days out of the week. Because New World had landed the
Escape from New York project, it was one of the only effects houses actually
working during the time of the strike. This generated a lot of resentment among
the visual effects community.
New World's work on Escape from New York was for 21 weeks. It started on
July 28 and ended Dec 19, 1980. There were 22 shots contracted.
From August 7 thru Aug 11, Jim Cameron, Randy Frakes (Camera
Assistant: Special Visual Effects), and myself went to New
York City to take reference photographs. We went with both a 35mm SLR
(Single-Lens Reflex camera), and a
rented 5"x4" negative Speed Graphic camera (the kind that newspaper
photographers used in the early twentieth century). We might have also had a
2"x2" negative camera, but I can no longer remember. We barely got hotel space
for Jim and Randy because the Democratic National Convention was happening
between August 11 and 14. I crashed at a friend's apartment in Manhattan. I do
remember that we were on a very tight budget; we had very little spending cash.
I also remember that we missed our original outgoing flight because Randy was
late getting to the airport. We found another flight on another airline, but it
might hauling our gear and luggage several terminals away.
In New York, our task was to take photographs for the Central Park shot,
reference photos of the World Trade Center, reference photos looking out from
the rooftop of the WTC (World Trade Center), and reference photos of the Brooklyn Bridge. The
large-format camera was obtain fine grain images suitable for significant
On top of the World Trade Center we were confronted by Port Authority
representatives who demanded to see our shooting permits. They claimed that the
view from the observation deck was copyrighted by the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey (the owners of the World Trade Center). This controversy was
triggered because we had the Speed Graphic camera on a very solid, professional
tripod. Clearly, we were not tourists taking holiday snapshots. While I kept the
guard occupied with a cock and bull story of our being art students at Cooper
Union and that the large camera was taking a slide for us to project on the
large wall of the auditorium as a guide for our proposed mural showing New York
City after it had been abandoned by humanity sometime in the dim, dim future…
Jim was quickly and quietly taking as many photographs as he could. Eventually
the guard got too suspicious of my story and ordered us off the observation
deck. Luckily we had taken a good amount of large-format photos. Prior to the
guard's arrival, I had taken some general reference photos with my 35mm SLR
One thing we noticed as soon as we walked onto the observation deck of the WTC
was that the whole premise of landing a glider on the rooftop was physically
impossible. The North Tower had the huge TV and radio antenna on top of it. The
South Tower (where the observation deck was) had a rooftop covered with air
ducts and pipes and motors for air conditioning and elevators plus there was the
observation deck itself that went all around the South Tower. Well, it's only a
Austin McKinney (Director of
Photography: Special Visual Effects)
(1-2, 6, 8), Randy Frakes (Camera
Assistant: Special Visual Effects)
(1-4, 6-7), Jim Cameron (Director of Photography: Special Visual
Effects/Matte Artwork) (1, 3, 6-7), Stephen Barncard (Uncredited
Motion Control Designer)
How was the experience working with Robert and Dennis Skotak
of Photography: Special Visual Effects/Matte
and James Cameron etc?
Working with Bob
and Denny Skotak
was always pleasant and interesting. Jim was challenging, but I felt he was the
most creative of the bunch, and had the best eye in terms of shot design. By the
way, the facility was the old Hammond lumber yard on Main Street in Venice, CA;
south of Rose Ave, and north of Abbot Kinney Blvd; there's no trace of it left
What's your favorite memory or
memories of working on the movie?
One of my favorite memories was
when I went to a screening room in the Van Nuys area where Carpenter screened
his dailies. I was there to show some completed shots and some tests to
Carpenter and company. One of the shots was a POV (Point of View) shot moving over New York
harbor heading towards Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. The first
time the assembled looked at it, they loved it. "How did you do the water?" they
all wanted to know. I wouldn't tell them. But they kept after me. Dean Cundey,
the DP (Director of Photography), kept suggesting all these different methods: front projection of water,
matted water from a held take. I kept saying I didn't want to tell them. Finally
Carpenter demanded to know. So I told him, "We painted the water area glossy
black and when the paint was tacky, we rolled a roller brush over it all to
stipple the finish. As the camera moved over the area, the stippled surface
would reflect the back and side lights differently, creating the illusion of
moving water." This was a Skotak idea, that they brilliantly executed. Carpenter
then insisted on running the shot again. Now he was unhappy. He could see how
the trick was done. But, he honored his original response, and did not say that
we had to do the shot again. He "bought" the shot, and we moved on. But that
experience fixed my mind to never tell the director how something was really and
truly accomplished. Always make up something more involved and more complicated.
What do you think of the movie personally?
I was unhappy with the finished movie. First, I was flabbergasted that
they dropped the whole opening scene of the robbery. Yes it was too long, but it
could have easily been trimmed, and maybe incorporated into the opening titles.
Overall I found the pace of the film to be way too slow. It doesn't bother me so
much now. But I do remember at the time, that I was disappointed with the slow
What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy
doing in your spare time?
Nowadays I'm working as a sound editor, mostly as an ADR (Additional
Dialogue Recording) editor. I was
admitted to the sound branch of the Motion Picture Academy in 2008.
Thank you for your time, R.J.
Visual Effects Schedule (Early Draft)
Visual Effects Award Information Sheet
Visual Effects Award Work Sheet
Report on the Special Visual
Effects in Escape From New York
Documents & Reference Photos: Copyright 2016 R.J. Kizer