It’s not easy for an aging movie star – especially if you’re a stop-motion animated skeleton monster.
Filmmaker Michael Shanks, a Melbourne-based director operating out of production company LateNight Films, has tackled the question. If you’re an avid Krypton Radio fan, you might have seen his work in the series The Wizards of Aus. He’s created a short film that shines some flickering light on the quixotic life of Phil, a former star of classic epic fantasy films, as he struggles to find work and recover his former glory. What Shanks has done is truly inspired.
It’s called Rebooted, and in it, Phil’s life as a has-been actor comes into sharp focus as he goes on auditions, and hangs with other outdated and out-of-work special effects; a clumsy, stiffly jointed animatronic Velociraptor, a Black Lagoon rubber suit creature, a 2D piece of animation on cell paper and even a liquid metal T-1000 CG man. It’s a love letter to all the old FX pioneers and the techniques they used to bring fantasy to life on the silver screen, and it actually makes use of nearly all of these techniques.
Shanks had been watching a made-for-TV special about the special effects of The Empire Strikes Back, and at the end Mark Hamill (who is earnestly hosting the program) turns to R2-D2 and talks about him as though he’s a living co-star of his. That gave Shanks the idea – what if the special effects creatures really were actors?
The premise of project was to celebrate the amazing on-screen magic of creature creation of all sorts, and Shanks wanted to do it as authentically as he could. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the techniques from the history of FX still work, and they’re a lot cheaper than one might think. Some of it was just dumb luck – the script called for an animatronic velocitraptor, and they found somebody about two hours out of Melbourne that had a whole collection of dinosaurs.
Phil himself was built and stop-motion animated by Samuel Lewis, and photographed by Gerald Thompson, stop-motion cinematographer. Each shot on set was set up twice, with Shankes performing as ‘Phil’, then with a clean background plate. This allowed the creation of an edit of the film using Shanks as a reference performance for each take, which Lewis then used as reference to animate the stop-motion model.
One of the great challenges of the film was Shank’s inability to use camera moves to guide the narrative. Doing things like dolly shots, pans and zooms are part of his usual working palette as a director, and with stop-motion animation these are largely impractical if you don’t have a motion control camera at your disposal for every shot.
CGI is an important tool for film making these days, but before we had it, we had these manual techniques, going all the way back to George Melies’ cinematic fantasies at the turn of the last century. Rebooted is a love letter to the ingenuity of the men and women who created visual effects for the classic films, and also paints a picture of how hard life in Hollywood can be for those who walk this path.
It’s a glorious tribute, and as a veteran practical FX man myself, I cherish my memories as part of the community about which this film was made.