Joel Whist ‘82
2017 BAFTA and Oscar nominee – SPFX Coordinator
I’m into my 35th year of working in
the film business and it’s surreal to look back at my childhood and reflect on the dreams I had at 14. I was fascinated with
the craft of special effects in motion pictures.
More specifically, Mechanical Special Effects not Visual Effects or Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).
I was born and raised in Kamloops, BC and from an early age
was obsessed with comics, model making, science fiction, and the magic of going to the movies. For a long time, we only had one theatre in town. The Paramount Theatre was where I saw most of the movies that sparked my interest in Special Effects. The most influential of which was “Star Wars”. Once I discovered that people could make a living building the spaceship mod-
els, photographing them, and designing all of the pyrotechnic effects, I was hooked. My mom became the biggest supporter
of my dreams, feeding me with books and magazines detailing the art of Special Effects and the behind-the-scenes stories that fascinated me. Further influences came from the early “Godzilla” movies, the Hammer Films “Dracula” series, the original “Planet of the Apes” series, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and “Alien”, “2001
A Space Odyssey”, “Sinbad and the Voyage of the Seven Seas”, etc. I scrutinized each movie to try and figure out how they did all of the special effect “gags”. With no Internet, my only source for information was the library or a trip to Vancouver to seek out a bigger bookstore or comic shop.
In the fall of 1980, I arrived on the Brentwood campus to start
my Grade 11 year away from home. Needless to say, I was busy with school and sports so not much time was devoted to my love of movies. I did, however, meet a fantastic group of like-mind-
ed kids, who I have remained friends with to this day: some are working in the film business. Photography at Brentwood was a big influence as well as making some very silly “Monty Python- esque” Super 8 films with our whacky group that will hopefully never see the light of day again.
Graduation saw me enrol in mechanical engineering at UBC and work at several jobs that continued to build necessary skills. Working in the bush throughout BC and Canada as a freelance prospector introduced me to rock climbing and rigging tech- niques as well as the use of high explosives for mining purposes. At the same time, having moved to Vancouver from Kamloops with my family, I became aware of the film industry that was beginning to thrive in the Lower Mainland. Through connections, I was able to contact the main player in town who was doing the majority of FX work, John Thomas of Thomas Special Effects, and eventually convinced him to give me a chance. I started at his shop in North Vancouver sweeping the floor part-time and 10 years later ended up running set for his crew as “Set Supervisor”. John demanded excellence in the craft and worked harder than anyone I’ve ever worked with. He was devoted to the craft of Special Effects and was constantly trying to push the envelope as to what could be shot. Our specialty was rigging for stunts and cam- era, which lead to jobs around the world, such as Cliffhanger shot in northern Italy. John passed away in 1992, leaving a huge hole in the film community.
With John’s passing, I branched out to start my own career as an “SPFX Super- visor” in Vancouver. John’s mentoring stuck with me and translated to my crew, as I have constantly pushed to create bigger and better practical effects. Whether the gag is smoke, rain, snow, wind, mechanical movement, fire, pyro- technics, hydraulic systems, blood FX, breakaway set pieces, electronics, bullet hits; the goal is always to create some- thing that looks as real as possible but is still safe for the crew and cast. We strive to make every “gag” a WOW moment.
Every project usually has several gags that challenge me and my team to de- liver safely and efficiently. Underworld Evolution (2006) required a scene where a helicopter crashes through the ceiling of a castle, wedges itself vertically in a rope bridge and proceeds to continue running while two characters fight in front of the spinning props. This was shot in a sound stage where the load limits of the ceiling were very specific. We hung a full-scale helicopter fuselage (minus the engine, rotors, etc.) from the permanents of the studio and engin- eered a deceleration system to drop the chopper, on a cue, towards the rope bridge 40’ below. To simulate the CG spinning prop hitting the rope bridge, detonating cord and explosives were digitally timed to rip apart the bridge at the correct moment of the drop. The bridge section was built with lighter ma- terials (balsa wood) for safety. Once the chopper had wedged itself in the bridge, we attached a 20’ diameter Lexan sheet painted with lines to the main rotor shaft and spun it with a speed-controlled motor mounted within the turbine hous- ing. When spun at a certain speed and with added wind from wind machines, it looked like the actual prop was still run- ning, allowing the main actress to fight safely within inches of the effect.
Watchmen (2009), required the manipu- lation and movement of a full scale “Owl Ship” on location and on stage to simu- late the craft flying and hovering. The ship ended up weighing over 9000 lbs. once construction was finished, includ- ing all of the interior set dressing. For location shots, a wireless joystick control system was engineered to individually control three 7000 lb. gantry winches suspended from a 200-ton construction crane. The ship was suspended from the three winches, which gave it realistic pitch and yaw while moving it laterally and vertically with the crane. For interior shots we suspended the ship from a winch system mounted in the ceiling of the stage so we could simulate it rising off of its cradle to begin flying. These interior shots required a practical flamethrower effect from the nose of the ship and gas turbine effects from its jet ports, all of which were operated independently from a distance for each shot. For another interior set, the ship was mounted on a computer-controlled gimbal that could raise it up towards a tenement window for a specific scene and rotate it 360 degrees as a fireball erupts from the window.
Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (2016), required the use of several comput-er-controlled gimbals to provide accur- ate motion control that mimicked the gate of the giant while carrying Sophie on his shoulder or in his pocket or in a sack. A scaled foam torso of the giant was mounted on the gimbals and the actress playing Sophie was placed on its shoulder, etc. The actor playing the BFG had previously recorded a motion study with the VFX team who then translated the study digitally to the gimbal’s lan- guage so that it would move as the actor had 2 days earlier. The only changes we made were to “dumb” down some of the actor’s more aggressive moves, as they were too violent for the ac- tress. Another scene involved a scaled version of a wheelbarrow trolley system that Sophie rides from a hiding place to where the BFG is working. The set piece was roughly 80’ long and travelled from a height of 20’ to 5’. The ride was controlled by a custom built hydraulic cylinder rig manipulated by a comput- er-controlled system that regulated the speed and deceleration of the ride so the actress could ride and still perform.
The War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), posed a logistical problem as the main prison camp set was supposed to be at the foot of Californian Sierras in the middle of winter. Our set was built in a vacant lot in Richmond, in the fall and winter of 2016. Because we were shooting in the middle of a Vancouver winter, whatever was used to simulate snow had to withstand rain for several months. In the end, we trucked 750 tons of fine grade dolomite (white sand) up from Washington and California to be dressed as snow on the ground and set pieces. War is a classic example of how Practical FX and Visual FX can coexist in the same project and help each
other to reach the ultimate goal, that the audience loses track of what is real and what is computer generated and simply enjoys the story. A large portion of the battle sequences involved real explosions, pyrotechnics and fire in the foreground, with CG events added in the background. The final sequence where Caesar blows up several fuel tankers was shot on location using “black bucks” built to the exact dimensions of the actual steel tanker cars, but out of lighter and safer materials. These bucks were loaded with detonating cord, black pow- der, gas, diesel, debris, dust and lamp black. The explosion was digitally timed to simulate the tankers ripping apart from one end to the other. Visual Effects then continued the explosion into the heart of the compound and into the mountain. As well, my team provided numerous practical elements from which the Visual Effects team were able to build from and sweeten.
This year I was fortunate enough to be nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar for my work on War alongside the extremely talented Visual Effects team from Weta Digital, consisting of the legend- ary Joe Letteri, Dan Lem- mon and Daniel Barrett.
Sitting in the audience at these events was truly surreal as I was surrounded by people I had grown up idolizing for their work in Mechanical and Visual Effects, as well as being nominated for a film that comes from a franchise I worshipped as a kid, and finally to be competing against 4 other films that were also a huge part of my childhood dreams: Blade Runner 2049, Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 , and last but not least Star Wars: The Last Jedi! My mind was blown!
My career to this point is a testament to my incredible crew, the very talented people who I mentored under and most importantly, to my family and friends who have supported me unconditionally during my 35-year journey through the crazy business of filmmaking.