Bill Taylor, ASC Commended with the John A. Bonner Medal
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Bill Taylor, ASC : Bill Taylor, ASC Commended with the John A. Bonner Medal
Visual effects supervisor and director of photography Bill Taylor has been awarded the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was presented at the 2013 Scientific and Technical Awards. Taylor is the co-founder of Illusion Arts, where he worked on the visual effects for more than 200 films; his VFX supervisor credits include Lawless, Milk and Bruce Almighty.
He has co-authored, with Petro Vlahos, chapters on blue-screen and green-screen compositing in both the ASC's American Cinematographer Manual and The VES Handbook of Visual Effects. He was honored with a Technical Achievement Award in 1981 for the concept and specifications for a Two-Format, Rotating Head, Aerial Image Optical Printer. Taylor first joined the Academy in 1972, where he served on the Academy's Board of Governors representing the Visual Effects Branch for five terms and was a founding co-chair, with Ray Feeney, of the Science and Technology Council.
Bill Taylor, A.S.C. spoke to Creative COW about his career in visual effects.
Around the same time, I read an article about a Hertz car commercial where O.J. Simpson flew from the airport thanks to bluescreen photography and it mentioned the name of Linwood Dunn. I was fascinated by this whole idea of taking a photographic piece of film and combining it with film shot elsewhere. I called up Lin Dunn; he answered the phone and, amazingly, he was willing to talk to me. Of course I became an instant Lin Dunn fan although I had no idea what a pioneer he was.
Because I had dropped out of college after a few semesters, I suddenly had to think about making a living. In one of my conversation with Lin Dunn, I asked how to get a job in the industry. He said the secret is to go see as many people as you can and take any job you're offered -- once you're in, you'll find your level. It was fantastic advice. I looked in the yellow pages under optical FX companies and went down the list. In 1963, there were maybe 20 in Los Angeles, from large ones like Pacific Title to quite small. I made appointments and went from place to place, and told everyone I was very interested in photography.
Ray Mercer Company hired me. They were a 50-year-old company with roots in the silent film era. Ray Mercer was a really old man but he was still around. They had a little studio, an insert stage and title stand and three optical printers, all of which had been home-made because it was all anybody ever had. They'd started before the commercial Acme-Dunn optical printer was available, which was a WWII offshoot, so you had to build your own. They worked on all kinds of films including all the interstitial promos for ABC. I tried to learn everything I could about blue screen work.
I started up as a line-up person, preparing film to be re-photographed on the optical printer, and I drove the VW around town making pickups and deliveries and did whatever was asked of me. Eventually Mercer's thought I had potential to be a cameraman and they moved me onto the optical printer. It was a union house, so they got me into the union, first as a film technician and then into the camera local when I started on camera work. That was a fabulous school. I shot thousands of commercials and promos. When there was a product shoot, sometimes I would do it; I remember shooting a bottle of Toni home permanent. I was there for 10 or 11 years, eventually becoming their No. 2 cameraman and making pretty good money.
Every time I saw a movie with Al's work in it, I would call him up and talk to him. I told him how pristine his work looked, that it didn't look like a dupe. He told me that was because they weren't dupes, they were Original Negative shots and that the ON is the only way to go. He had been smart enough to hang on to this early method of doing matte paintings. He'd done original negatives at Disney and when he took over Universal, he set up the department so ON shots were easy to do and he virtually eliminated all the risky bits. He invited me out to the department, and I met him, this short, dapper, impeccable Englishman.
His paintings were a revelation to me. They weren't highly detailed; rather, they were kind of impressionistic. That was the secret of his technique, which he had in common with Peter Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw had learned this technique from Percy Day, who had begun as a scenic artist in England, and Al had been a scenic artist. They learned if they didn't use a big brush, they'd never finish. They learned this big brush technique and an impressionistic style that looked much more realistic to the camera. Al understood what the camera sees, and he developed all kinds of tricks to animate the paintings. He could make the painted clouds move in the sky. He created a very convincing tornado for The Learning Tree. He did a jet landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier for a Jack Webb TV film. I was glad to get to know him.
Eventually, after 10 or 11 years at Mercer, I got an opportunity. I had met a USC graduate, Trace Johnston, who was going to make a horror film in Brazil called The Supernaturals and he asked if I'd like to be the VFX guy on the film. I asked Lin Dunn for advice, and he asked, Are you married? Do you have kids? No? Take it! So I did. I left Mercer on very good terms and went to Brazil. The movie foundered, unfortunately, and after a month in Rio, we all came home. I learned a couple of things there. One of them was don't leave your equipment behind no matter what they tell you; I left my light meters behind and never saw them again.
Another mentor was Petro Vlahos, who I'd met while I was still at Mercer. I heard him speak at a night class in visual effects at the USC Cinema Department, and he talked about the color-difference blue-screen system he'd invented. I'd read about it in the SMPTE Journal and tried to do it at Mercer but it wasn't until I heard Petro talk that I realized what I had been doing wrong. We struck up a friendship -- he was incredibly generous with his time. Petro got me into the Academy -- I had no idea how rare it was -- and for 10 minutes I think I was the youngest member. He also got me into the Science and Technology Awards Committee where I've been, with some breaks, since 1972.
When Ross Hoffman, Al Whitlock's cameraman retired, Whitlock called me and asked if I'd like to come there. Al needed someone who understood bluescreen because he knew the next level was to do bluescreen shots. We figured out a way to do traveling matte shots, while keeping the matte painting backgrounds as first generation, which improved the quality of the shots immensely. That was very useful in The Hindenberg, which won the Oscar that year and was the first and last film I've worked on that won the Visual Effects Oscar.
The other huge turning point in my life was when Syd Dutton came on board to help on the painting side. Syd was an aspiring screenwriter working in the mailroom, but his background was in art. That seemed to have as much to do with filmmaking as my background in philosophy. But Al saw Syd's art and thought he had potential as a matte painter. We hit it off immediately and eventually became business partners when Al retired. Universal didn't want the department any more, so it was easy for Syd and me to buy the equipment and set up as Illusion Arts, in the early 1980s. We moved to Van Nuys to be close to Apogee, which had complementary skills. We stayed in Van Nuys for 26 years, and closed the business in 2009. But Syd and I continue to work together; we worked on Lawless last year, my most recent job as visual effects supervisor.
During its 26 years in business, Illusion Arts worked on more than 200 movies. I did on-set supervision for a lot of movies I'm very proud of. We worked on five of the Star Trek features and all the Next Generation through Enterprise TV series. We worked on two Scorsese films -- Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence; Cape Fear had the first VFX shots that Scorsese had ever done. We worked on six Gus Van Sant films, ranging from the obscure ones like Gerry and Elephant to the more mainstream films like Finding Forrester and the wonderfully strange remake of Psycho. We worked with John Landis on Coming to America, a huge film for us. Casanova is the film I'm most proud of; our contribution was one of the reasons it was possible to make that movie in Venice, because there's so much you can't photograph because it's under construction.
Heath Ledger in 2005's Casanova by Touchstone Pictures.
Illusion Arts, first of all, was an artist-driven company. All the decisions were made on the basis of what would make the shot the best. Most other VFX companies were run by camera people. Cameramen are great -- I am one -- but sometimes the technology can get in the way. At Illusion Arts, we did original negative shots way into the digital era. We were doing digital composites and ON shots side by side, because it was the best way. The secret is, when you get a new tool, don't forget the old tool. And also, because of Syd and the Al Whitlock connection, we attracted amazing artists. Robert Stromberg is not only one of the best matte artists ever, he's won two Oscars for production design for Avatar and Alice, and now he's directing.
I never turn down the opportunity to talk to someone on the phone. I want to pay that forward if at all possible. Rob was a great find. Mike Wassel was another amazing artist, a digital artist who wanted to learn how to do traditional painting. Kelvin McIlwain is a superb artist who Syd found him in the Batman art department. Ken Nakada was a medical illustrator. We attracted this group of absolutely wonderful artists, and that's another thing that made us an attractive proposition to our clients. We continued as a union shop, which made us attractive to people who had had union jobs previously.
At the end, we were the second oldest VFX company after ILM. Eventually the economics caught up with us. The studios were looking for that low price and medium sized companies like ours just got squeezed out. But we had a fabulous run, great relationships with studios and did some great work.
Since the end of Illusion Arts, I did Lawless and my first call was to Syd to work on matte paintings for that movie. I did a short film First in Flight, made for the Air & Space Museum, about the Wright Brothers, which was a lot of fun. And I've been very active in the Academy. I was the governor for 15 years and chair of the VFX branch for a good part of that time. I'm still on the SciTech Awards committee and have been on several committees throughout the years.
Shia LaBeouf as Jack in LAWLESS. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP/ The Weinstein Company.
What concerns me now is the bad state of the VFX business. Company after company has gone out of business. They take jobs for an unrealistic amount of money, and the studio contracts pay out slowly. These little mom & pop shops have to take any work they're offered. They're very sharp people and do great work, and the studios get tremendous value for the money, but the downside is the existence of these very small companies is perilous. It is very hard for them to find continuity, so one after another goes out of business. We have regressed in the small company end of the VFX business to the pre-industrial model. Watchmakers in the 19th century were a conglomeration of tiny mom & pop businesses, each one focused on a piece of the watch, and the pieces were all put together into a finished watch. That's what's happened to the visual effects business. Sometimes you see 12 companies on a given film. The result is that the companies have no real negotiating position with the studios, some of which have the attitude that it's like buying peas. It's become commoditized.
The visual effects industry is one of the largest endeavors in the movie business in terms of numbers, but there's no trade association, no union for the artists, and as a result, it can be very tough. I'm a cameraman, so I have that benefit. My partner Syd is in the Art Director's Guild. All the special effects people are in Local 44. Parts of the VFX trade are covered by union contracts, but we need the whole craft. There was huge resistance from the unions at first, but now the IA is on board. We just need the will to do it. Right now, because employment is low, it's hard to get people to do anything they perceive as risky, but the greatest risk is in doing nothing.
Not that having those two kinds of organizations would be a cure-all but it would be a great step forward. And it's not too late. Although the international companies are coming along -- I've seen wonderful work coming out of Korea for example -- still the U.S. is one of the main sources of technological innovation and of course we have big VFX companies. But as long as there's no trade association and as long as there's no union, it's hard for companies and artists to get a fair shake.
ACADEMY AWARDS® is the registered trademark and service mark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ©A.M.P.A.S. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED.
Title image: TOM HARDY stars in LAWLESS. Photo by Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP. © 2012 The Weinstein Company