Magazine article American Cinematographer

Creative Realism for the Day After

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Creative Realism for the Day After

Article excerpt

When The Day After aired over ABC-TV last November it was praised and damned in no uncertain terms. It was, from one point of view, a courageous and largely successful attempt to show the public the real meaning of nuclear war. Others saw it as a morbid and dangerous display which could prove traumatic to sensitive viewers. At any rate, the three hour film was the most daring, most talked about and most widely seen television production of the year.

Robert Blalack, head of Praxis Film Works, a special effects studio in North Hollywood, welcomed the opportunity to contribute many of the visual effects that would give the show much of its impact. "It was our chance to say something about nuclear war, to help people conceptualize it," Blalack said later. "I think we did some good. I hope so."

Winner of an Academy Award for his co-supervision of the special effects of Star Wars, Blalack has taken on some formidable jobs since the formation of Praxis, including Wolfen, Cat People, Altered States, and Jaws 3-D. He realized that The Day After would require a great deal of experimentation on the part of the effects crew because many of the scenes had never before been attempted. Fortunately, there was more preparation time and a larger budget - $6,000,000 - than is usual in television production.

In the film, two Midwestern cities, Kansas City and neighboring Lawrence, Kansas, are destroyed by nuclear missiles. Much of the live action work was staged on location in that area. It was Praxis' job to show the contrails of American missiles, fired from silos in Kansas, as seen by the populace from such familiar sites as a sports stadium, a hospital, from city streets, etc.; an aerial nuclear explosion above a city; a number of ground explosions as seen from various recognizable sites; and several scenes showing the after-effects of the attack - wholesale destruction of life and property.

To create these scenes, a production unit was set up at Praxis. Organized along the lines of a first unit production staff, its key personnel included Chris Deardorff as director of photographic effects, Nancy Rushlow as effects producer, Dan Pinkham, cameraman, Larry Stevens, head of design and fabrication, Chris Regan, supervisor of optical photography, and Mark Madel as computer designer. Other artists and technicians were brought in to contribute their skills where needed.

Although some directors shy away from pre-production conceptual art because they fear it will "cramp their style," Blalack feels it is essential to good special effects work. Nikita Knatz, a specialist in conceptual art, was engaged to make numerous 8 ½ by 11-inch sketches in color and black-and-white depicting all the action to be completed at Praxis. Six weeks were required to develop these detailed storyboards. Many were never produced due to script changes.

Once the illustrated concepts were approved, the heretofore nebulous ideas of how they were to be achieved had to take form as solid decisions. A week was spent in studying various possible means of producing the effects.

"It was a much different thing than when we made Star Wars," Blalack said. "That was fantasy; now we were dealing with simulating reality. A nuclear blast has a known sequence."

One alternative was that of optically adapting existing footage of nuclear explosions, which is available in limited amounts from government sources. Most of this stock film exists only in third and fourth generation dupes. It became evident that these images, which would degrade further when subjected to further duping, were unsuitable.

The stock shots did prove valuable as research material, however. To everyone's surprise it became evident that most nuclear explosions do not form the familiar mushroom configuration which was burned into the consciousness of humanity when the original photos and movies of atom bomb tests were released almost 40 years ago. The cloud of which the cap of the mushroom is composed only occasionally is formed, and even then it often disperses rapidly in the atmosphere. …

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