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David Stipes GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Friday, 01 January 2010

David Stipes is a two time Emmy Award winner with over 30 years of experience in the film industry in various aspects of visual effects and animation. David created visual effects on Battlestar Galactica, Galactica 1980 and Buck Rogers at Universal Hartland. He also worked as a Visual Effects Supervisor on four Star Trek series: The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. Marcel Damen talked to him extensively about his career and what he's currently up to.

First of all I'd like to take the time to thank you for doing this interview.

It's my pleasure.

You started out at a very young age creating your own visual effect for movies. What brought this about? What movie made such an impression on you to get you involved in this field?

That's pretty straightforward, King Kong and The Son of Kong. I was in the fourth grade and they were showing it on television. I was so impressed. I didn't know what was going on exactly, but I knew something was. I talked about it to my mom and asked: "How did they do this? How did they get King Kong and the son of Kong to do all this stuff?" and, God bless her, she says: "Oh well, it's a trained chimpanzee." Well, of course they don't look or move like chimpanzees and I'm thinking, "That's not right." (laughing) Even though I was very young, I still knew something was going on and it wasn't what my mom said it was.

So it sort of fascinated me. About the time I got into junior high school, which would make me twelve years old, I discovered Famous Monsters of Filmland, Forrest Ackerman's magazine. All of a sudden I was like: "Wow! There are people who actually do this stuff as their job." As I'm looking through these magazines, Forry was talking about specific people like Willis O'Brien, about King Kong, about The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Ray Harryhausen and then I thought: "This is terrific!"

I just started collecting everything I could. At that point in time I was just waiting for the magazines to come out, because there was nothing, no internet, absolutely nothing available. Through junior high school I was just absorbing these magazines and trying to figure out how these effects were done. I actually got the chance to call Forry Ackerman for a couple of minutes and he was very encouraging, very sweet guy, very nice to this kid who called him out of the blue. The fact that I could actually find his phone number while he didn't have it listed was actually pretty amazing. (laughing)

After junior high school I moved to Orange County, California -- outside of Los Angeles. I continued to gather the magazines which were increasing: Fantastic Monsters, Castle of Frankenstein and some other ones. Forry came out with Spacemen Magazine, Screen Thrills Illustrated -- which was a short-lived magazine that he had -- and there were other ones out that were knockoffs of Famous Monsters of Filmland. So, I'm gathering a whole collection of these magazines and I'm starting to see there are a lot of people who are doing this work.

Then in Famous Monsters there's a little blurb in his news column that said: "King Kong fan David Allen would love to meet or talk to anybody else who's a King Kong fan." David never actually said that, but Forry posted that for him. I go: "Hey, this is cool." I think I must have either written to Forry or I had an address, but it got forwarded to David and it turned out that David lived just 20-30 miles away, in Orange County as well.

So I got a chance to call him and he invited me over. I was still so young, I couldn't drive on my own, and I was just getting a driver's training permit. So my mom drove me out to David Allen's house and he was working on film tests he was doing with the "Taurus Monster" later used in Equinox. They hadn't started Equinox yet, but he had built that monster. So here's a chance to meet someone who's only a few years older than me, who's already doing what I really wanted to do. I was going: "Wow! This is great!"

David became my mentor for a long time -- talking to me on the phone, looking at my drawings and allowing me to come over. I actually got to the point that I could drive myself over there and he would let me help out on shots. So I got the chance to see molds and learn about armatures. David encouraged me to build my first monster. I did an armature and a model and all that. Some of that early work you can see on my website -- crude, crude stuff, but I learned a lot by doing it. David was so encouraging and gracious about his time and his knowledge.

I think in many ways my relationship with David Allen really set a good foundation and example for me because I, in turn, have been generous with information with my students and people who have come to me over the years. Maybe even to my own detriment at times, but overall I think it has been a good experience to share this because of my good fortune to have somebody like David in my life. He in turn introduced me to Jim Danforth and Dennis Muren. When Dennis started doing his film, Equinox, he got Jim Danforth and David Allen involved. David Allen then asked me to get involved with Equinox. I was still in high school at the time and got the chance to build the corpse -- Charlie, the Corpse -- and the temple and the animation break-apart house that David Allen destroyed in a stop-motion scene.

Charlie, the Corpse for Equinox by David Stipes

Charlie, the Corpse for Equinox by David Stipes

I mean, how great was that? As I visited Dennis Muren, I saw he's doing things with front projection, several years before 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, I'm seeing all of this amazing work that people are doing, even with 16 mm film (a lot of Equinox was shot on 16 mm.) It was really a wonderful experience for me and I was very, very blessed. I knew pretty early, from the time I got into junior high school, that I wanted to do special effects, like Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien. Those were my two idols. In school I had to write an article about my heroes and I wrote about those two guys.

When did you know this was more than just a hobby and you wanted to make your career out of this?

Well, it never really was just a hobby to me. It was sort of an obsession. (both laughing) This may sound kind of lame, but other people were going to parties, were hanging out and were doing different things during the weekend. I went to the school dances, the ball games and things like that, but whenever I could I was out there doing stop-motion animation, building models or practicing matte painting. I built my own 16 mm aerial image projector and printer. I was always messing with this stuff.

As I would see people like Jim Danforth, Dennis Muren and David Allen doing their work, I would go back and see if I could replicate their examples or do something similar to them. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't and most of the time it was pretty crude, but I kept learning. I was building, building and building on a knowledge base that I've used all my life.

Were you supported by your parents in this choice?

The only time they really supported me was when I was obnoxiously persistent that I wanted a camera. So, one Christmas time while I was in high school -- probably a sophomore in high school -- they did buy me an 8 mm camera and that was pretty much the end of it. I did some 8 mm split screens. They were pretty amazed. There's even a picture of one of my early matte paintings set up on my website. I did split screens around the house and had the stop-motion monster come in to tear the roof off and reach in and grab somebody. It was our house. It was all done in 8 mm. I'd actually found this funky 8 mm camera that could backwind and do double exposures and shoot single frame. I was in heaven there for a while. My parents were pretty amazed I could do this, although they thought it was stupid and silly as a career.

David Stipes' first matte painting glass shot set-up

David Stipes' first matte painting glass shot set-up

Even after I began working professionally, because I wasn't working consistently, my mom literally said: "When are you going to stop fooling around with this silly film making and get a real job?" They were not really very supportive. Even toward the end of their lives, after I had my own facility, they'd drive by on the freeway, going to visit people and they would be within a couple of miles, but they'd never come by and see my studio. They never came by and saw it.

That's too bad.

Yeah, it was sort of... I never really understand that, but that was the way it was. I was at the time very busy learning and talking to whoever I had to. I just was driven for some reason. It was like something I was really supposed to do.

What did they have in mind for you then?

My dad was in construction work and he tried to get me jobs. He worked at the shipyards then did tile and linoleum installation. That was his reality; that was what he did. He was always kind of embarrassed that I could never measure up to him in those areas. I went to work at a shipyard and I knew I was in trouble when I couldn't lift the toolbox. (both laughing) I was like: "Oh my God. What am I doing here?" (laughing) That only lasted a couple of days. My dad was totally humiliated. I felt sorry for him. That wasn't my task. My task was to do visual effects.

You studied Art and Film both in College and University. Who were your mentors and examples at that period? Who did you look up to?

I never got the chance to study Film. I wanted to go to USC or UCLA, but that was so frighteningly expensive. There was no tuition I could get a hold of and my parents couldn't afford it. So I just went to junior college and a state college and I got an Art major. Most of the people at the college wanted me to major in painting or they wanted me to do Commercial Art or something like that. Of course I basically wasn't interested in that. I wanted to do film. Every chance I could, I would take one of these independent studies where you make your own class and I would turn it into film making something or the other. To tell you the truth, I got a lot of resistance from the college people because I didn't want to follow their standard curriculum. I took the classes and I did the best I could, but if it wasn't about film, stop-motion animation, cartoon animation, drawing and work like that, I really wasn't excited about it. Wherever I could I'd take filming classes and history in film.

There were a few good things. There was a very nice guy over at Fullerton State College, who was sympathetic to my situation. He'd let me take some of his film history classes, so that was good. Overall I didn't get much support from the college and the college environment for this work. Most the people were sort of interested that I could do these things, but they just didn't know what to do with me. (laughing) That was kind of strange.

You started at this at a very young age and already worked with some leading people in the industry at that time, like Dennis Muren. So, why did you ever bother to go through College and University in the first place? Why didn't you simply continue in the industry itself?

Well, I was still pretty young. It was kind of what you did at that time. You have to keep in mind that I graduated from high school in 1966. Everybody went to College and I didn't know enough in 1966 to get hired to do anything. So going another four years and then a little bit took me to January 1971. I'd already worked a little bit at Cascade Pictures. I started there in the summers when I'd go there and hang out. I think it was 1969 when I had my first little, paying gig which I talk about on my blog.

I was so fortunate I got a chance to hang out at Cascade. David Allen knew Jim Danforth and Jim Danforth worked at Cascade. When they needed more stop-motion animators, Jim Danforth spoke to Phil Kellison and Joe Raynor, who were the effects supervisors there -- and they hired David Allen. So I entered, because of David Allen and of course got to see Jim Danforth. Then I got a chance to meet Phil Kellison and get to know him. In many ways I consider Phil as kind of my adult mentor. Phil never knowingly took on the role of a mentor in that sense, like: "Hey buddy, let me take you under my wing" or anything. But because I was there at Cascade for a long time, working and watching Phil, watching Jim and watching Dave, I kind of got a chance to learn so much and that I'm just so fortunate about -- fortunate and grateful for it.

David Stipes building a miniature forest at Cascade

David Stipes building a miniature forest at Cascade

I got some really great advice from Phil Kellison -- such as the value of learning multiple skills and not being fixated on just one job. I took that advice to heart. I wound up doing a lot of different things in my career and what's interesting, now that after I'm sort of semi-retired and teaching, I get to draw upon all of these wild varied experiences to share with students. I'm jumping ahead a tiny bit, but at this point my background is so varied, I get to teach in the Visual Effects major, the Digital Film major and the Animation major. I'm equally qualified to be in all three of them.

That's amazing.

That's because I've had this wildly, diverse, eclectic interest in all these different subjects.

What were the most important skills you learned when you just started out?

You know, this might sound funny, but it was really going to school and my first few jobs -- working with Cascade and the people -- I really was learning a lot of skills, technical skills, but probably what I learned and needed to learn was about working with people, about not taking things personally, how to stand up for myself and not be run over... There were a lot of self growth issues that certainly came to light that I needed to work on in my life and in my personality. Because, I've got to tell you, there were a lot of experiences that happened that I considered to be not very pleasant. Things happened and people set me up for disappointments, but over the years it has helped me to be a more mellow person and it has helped me to realize what that felt like. These experiences helped when I wound up becoming a boss, having my own company and was an employer.

Or now that I'm an instructor, I'm much more sensitive to how I interact with people and more conscious of what I do, because of the -- shall we say -- unconscious way I was treated. People were just pretty oblivious to what they were saying and doing and I was like: "Wow!" And in truth, at times I was pretty much unconscious too. I said and did things that I thought were really funny, but instead I hurt people's feelings and relationships. So yeah, I had to learn a lot of lessons like that.

This may be very different from what you hear from other people. I would imagine, for a lot of people, their career is about learning and applying the technical skills and that certainly has been a blessing for me. But I've got to tell you -- that the years I've been in the film industry, for me, were more about learning to be a better human being.

So could they teach you anything in College and at University that you used later?

Sure, some of the technical skills like drawing, painting, color theory and photography -- I took at lot of photography classes and that was really a blessing. I still encourage students now to take those classes. I've got to tell these CGI guys. They haven't looked through a camera in their lives, you know? (both laughing) They're out there, trying to replicate what a movie looks like, but they've never even looked through a camera. So yeah, photography classes, even though the instructor loathed what I was doing, I nevertheless learned a lot from looking at the lenses and figuring them out -- trying to figure out why wide angle lenses do this, telephoto lenses do that, F/stops, focal lengths, focus and all of that. It truly helped me and has continued to help me all through all of the years I was working.

The photography and the drawing, the art really helped me a great deal. Some of the fine art painters and stuff who wanted me to be really abstract and stuff -- I didn't want to do it. I had more of a heart of an illustrator than I had of an abstract painter. I was more interested in Frank Frazetta than Marc Chagall. (laughing)

How did you get involved in Battlestar Galactica?

Dennis Muren had come to work at Cascade. At that point I'd known him for quite a while because I'd worked on his Equinox film. So he's working at Cascade and we're all working on projects. He had heard that they needed an assistant to work on shots for this little funky film called Star Wars. So he went and did an interview with John Dykstra and he hired him to work with Richard Edlund on the night shift. They in turn hired Ken Ralston. And then I went out there to see what they were working on and visited Dennis at night. So I'm walk into this amazing studio with motion control and basically robot controlled cameras and all of these stepper motor driven things, models and spaceships... I was just blown away!

That opened my eyes, because when I first got started things were still pretty much -- primitive. It was pre-digital, pre-computer and we didn't even have video tape, there wasn't even VHS tapes at that point in time when I was first getting started. For an animated camera move, you laid out some white tape, you'd go down and make (for example) 1/4 inch marks, you put a needle down as your indicator and you moved your dolly a 1/4 inch at a time to animate it. That's how you did it, over, over and over.

So when motion control started coming along and I was exposed to that, it was kind of like meeting David Allen and being exposed to stop-motion, optical printing, front and rear print projection and all of that stuff -- it was kind of another step in awareness. I got to see what Dennis, Ken and all of those guys out there on Star Wars and I'm going like: "Wow. This is pretty amazing." Of course at that point the equipment was frightfully expensive and I really didn't know how to go about doing motion control work.

That was around 1975 and over the next couple of years I really kept pushing, trying to learn more and more about motion control and all of that technology. Fortunately American Cinematographer magazine was coming out with articles about it at that time. So in the mid seventies there finally was a little bit of a break in writing about visual effects. They were starting to publish some of this information. Toward the end of that -- I think it was Starlog that had an article "See what $2 million can buy" and it was like a preview of images from the (then) new Battlestar Galactica show.

That's right.

I was looking for my copy but couldn't find it. But anyway... I heard they were hiring to do more work on Battlestar Galactica. I actually went to an interview with John Dykstra. Of course I was very formal, very stuffy. It was pretty funny, because John Dykstra was kicking back, smoking. He's a hippie and he had these shorts and sandals on. He had this big dog in the studio and he kind of showed me around. By this time, instead of ILM it's now Apogee.

He wasn't very impressed, I guess, for whatever reason, I don't know. He didn't hire me, he hired other people. So I kind of kept going along and then Dykstra pulled out of Battlestar Galactica and I think it was to go and work on something else. He was no longer doing it and they shipped it over to Universal Hartland.

Cascade Pictures closed down in about 1975 and a follow up company called CPC Associates had taken its place. It was a lot of the same people including David Allen and myself. Phil Kellison had gone on to another company. So now it was David Allen and me and various people that David would hire in. One person he hired was a painter named Jena Holman -- a matte painter -- and she wound up working on some of the commercials.

Battlestar Galactica's / Buck Rogers' matte painter Jena Holman at Universal Hartland

Battlestar Galactica's / Buck Rogers' matte painter Jena Holman at Universal Hartland

David later left and started on The Primevals, so I basically wound up inheriting the position of effects supervisor for CPC in 1978. Jena wound up getting into the matte painter's union and started working over at Universal Hartland. She recommended I'd come over because they needed a matte camera person to work with her. So I went over and interviewed with Peter Anderson. Peter loved what I was doing and liked me. So here was a chance for me to learn motion control, finally. So I left CPC and went over to work at Universal Hartland towards the end of 1978.

They were working on Buck Rogers, the feature film and they were also working on Battlestar Galactica. My primary duty was to make sure that we went out and correctly shot plates, background plates -- everything for Jena to do the matte paintings. I was fortunate again, because of my interest in matte painting and talking with people, I knew how to do original negative matte painting compositing. So we actually did these matte painting composites and turned shots around pretty fast, which is what they desperately needed. The Hartland crew was doing 50-75 shots/week. They were just struggling to get shots done. They had over 100 people and it was all done analog.

I was at Hartland and it was one of those very interesting experiences, because I got a chance to do some motion control, but truly didn't wind up doing a lot of it. Because I had this weird eclectic background I mentioned a few minutes ago, I was doing all of the weird shots that nobody else knew how to do. If all of the motion control setups were tied up, I would wind up doing the shots stop-motion animation style or something. They were just amazed how I could do that without having motion control because they were locked into that technology. Most of these were guys, even then, were younger than me. They knew the motion control technology, but didn't know any of the other more eclectic obscure stuff and approaches to things. So I got the chance to work on a lot of really weird projects. (laughing) Like doing the little shots of things that nobody could figure out on how to deal with.

Had you by that time already seen the series on television?

Yeah, I saw the pilot for Battlestar Galactica that Dykstra had done. I thought it looked glorious and I thought: "Wow! Great stuff." So I was really stoked and excited in being on the show. I was a little bit intimidated and concerned, because I didn't know how to do motion control. But what was important, and actually the point I wanted to go to here, was that this was one of those liberating moments or pivotal experiences that a person has; where I finally got to realize what I knew. At that point I had already been working for almost 10 years -- even though I had the years of professional work plus I'd done all that effects experimenting in high school, I was thinking: "Well, I don't know if I can measure up to these guys."

As it turned out, I knew a heck of a lot more than most of these guys. This is not a place of ego, but it was actually one of those moments where I realized: "Damn, I actually know more than I thought I knew." It made me more confident to really jump in to get more projects and I'd like to feel that I made a contribution and helped getting some shots done that otherwise never would get done without my approach to some things. It was pretty neat.

Can you remember the first thing you started working on?

I think what I first started doing was helping Jena on matte shots for Buck Rogers, the New Chicago shot and a few things like that. One of the first things I remembered seeing over there was the "Fire in Space" episode. I helped work on the Ship of Lights from "War of the Gods" -- that was one of the early things I got a chance to work on.

Battlestar Galactica's / Buck Rogers' matte painter Jena Holman at Universal Hartland

Buck Rogers matte painting by Jena Holman at Universal Hartland

Battlestar Galactica's visual effects artist David Stipes at Universal Hartland

Jena Holman and David Stipes doing matte shots for Buck Rogers at Universal Hartland

Very cool.

That was with Wendy Dupont and some of the other guys. So once again: I had a model maker background and even though I wasn't legally in the model making union, I was in there helping building models. I had a chance to do all kinds of funky stuff that drove the union people crazy, because they really want to put you into little niches, you know. So yeah, I got a chance to work on that and that was one of the earlier things. As far as what I worked on the very first day or what I started on, I have to admit that falls into a little bit of haze, but I definitely spent a lot of time with Jena Holman on these matte shots. I went out on location, co-designing these things, shooting plates, shooting test -- lots and lots of testing. We were trying to get things to work, but it was very cool.

What were you favorite areas to work in?

I loved the whole matte painting process. I've been experimenting with it from the time I was in high school. Eventually I ended up doing matte painting for feature films and I teach it now. At that point, because it was very, very much union bound, I wasn't really allowed to do anything other than some little tests and stuff like that. Main thing, my responsibility was to go out and shoot the live action plates and make sure that everything was done technically correct so that Jena could work on them. So that was really a neat thing to be able to do that. When I wasn't working on matte photography, I'd be working on the motion control stage and sometimes they'd let me help out in the model shop or something. Mostly on weird things, like the Ship of Lights, which was kind of cool. It was neat stuff.

How many people worked on the Ship of Lights? Can you remember that?

I know that Wendy Dupont worked on it, also Ken Larson and several other people. Let's see. I'm looking at the Starlog #27, there's a picture of her on the cover. That was pretty cool. I was like: "Hey, there's that ship I worked on!" (both laughing) That was one thing that was kind of neat. People were so excited about this and I got a chance to work on it. I don't remember all the guys, to tell you the truth. I definitely remember Wendy being the main driving force on it. I just got a chance to help out on that. If you look in the Starlog #27, page 34, there's one of the episodes where Starbuck and Apollo sneak on one of the Cylon Basestars. There's a big miniature in there where they had the different Cylon ships parked in there. I got a chance to work on that -- to build parts of that thing. The people there were really cool and I had a chance to work on several projects like that.

Was this the only model you worked on or did you also work on other models?

I just got a chance to help out on that and I got a chance to work on that light ship. Most of the time my job was to be a camera person and that was what I did. Again, it was a union shop and they could only indulge a little bit of cheating like that.

David Stipes checking the light values for Buck Rogers' Star Fighter

David Stipes checking the light values for Buck Rogers' Star Fighter

You didn't work on any of the Buck Rogers models?

No. The only thing I did do on Buck Rogers was in the Second Season, when they had the Hawk ship... I did that sequence with the Hawk ship where the claws come out. They unfold out of the bottom of the ship. I did the stop-motion on that, because they couldn't figure out how to do it. The didn't have the money or the time to build a big mechanical, so I just made the little thing out of styrene pieces -- I pinned it together and used some stick-wax and I just animated these little claws coming out of the bottom of the ship. So that was one of those little things. Again, it was one of those weird little things nobody could do that was there, except me. I just went in and did that little thing.

Can you remember some other weird little things you had to do for Battlestar Galactica?

Yeah, I did this gas planet. It was one of the things where Peter Anderson said: "We really need this planet shot and we only got about three hours to do it in, and it is supposed to be a gas planet!" So, the shot was one of these short notice jobs. We had no time to experiment and we just did it. So, we set this thing up with the motion control camera and tracks and created a camera fly-over move. I quickly painted the planet white, which gave us a matte then I painted some black over it. Then I painted different colors of red, yellow, blue and purple over the black and spun the planet at different speeds. So it was just a series of double exposures on different rotational speeds. Basically it became a multi exposure shot; when they go flying over the gas planet you see the bands swirling around like Jupiter at different speeds.

Gas planet for Battlestar Galactica. Multi pass painted sphere. Planet painted by Janet Kusnick.

Gas planet for Battlestar Galactica. Multi pass painted sphere. Planets painted by Janet Kusnick.

Gas planet for Battlestar Galactica. Multi pass painted sphere. Planets painted by Janet Kusnick.

The other shot that I really was delighted with -- unfortunately I can't remember what episode it is, maybe you know it. It's the one where they are trapped out in their viper. Their ship has been damaged and they have to do this extra vehicular spacewalk. They're trying to fix the side of it. They do this big pull back and you see these guys just stranded in space.

That's from the Galactica 1980 episode "Spaceball" where Troy and Dillon are drifting in space almost the entire episode and then do an EVA to repair their ship before they run out of oxygen.

Right. That was one I really loved because no one knew know how to do that shot; they needed to pull it off and they needed to have the real actors. So we went over to the stage and they had some stunt guys hanging on wires in front of the full size viper. We just shot the full size viper and these guys hanging there as a plate. Then I came back and had registration film prints made. I owned a single rear screen, single frame projector so I could do rear screen projection like Ray Harryhausen did.

We basically took photographs of the viper and several pieces of glass and I cut out, lined out the area where the actors were in front of the real viper, the big one. With the rear screen projector, we projected the footage of them doing their action. Then we did a big motion control pull back off from the viper and then we added stars. You start in close-up with these guys floating in space and then you do this big pull back. Everyone was just amazed that I pulled that off without optical printing and there were no matte lines. It was all pretty much done in the camera. Everyone was just blown away. That was one of those really cool shots and I was like: "Yeah! I got that one." That was really a fun shot to do.

The most difficult thing in that shot were probably the wires and how to hide them, since they must have been quite heavy to lift these guys.

They did have close ups and things, where they're in their suits and stuff. I never talked to the director to hear his perspective on it. I didn't get a chance to really deal with him at all. I was just on the effects side of it with Peter Anderson, Wayne Smith and David Garber. So I didn't get a chance to talk to the director at all, but the wires were an issue. They didn't want these guys falling and it was really tough, because these are big guys and they're heavy, you know, with the suits and everything.

A combination of rear projection, photo matte, motion control composite for Galactica 1980

A combination of rear projection, photo matte, motion control composite for Galactica 1980

Did you also visit the sets or did you meet any of the actors?

I got a chance to meet Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict. I never got the chance to go on the sets a lot. I got a chance to go on the Buck Rogers sets when they were shooting some of their crazy episodes, but for the most part we were pretty insulated. It wasn't like Star Trek where I was on the set all the time because I was the effects supervisor for the episode. On Buck and Galactica I was one of the crew and David Garber and Wayne Smith were the effects supervisors and in charge of the thing. Then there was Peter Anderson who was kind of the producer or the on-set supervisor. Wayne and David ran the whole Hartland facility and Peter was in charge of how all the effects worked. I was down under him. I was kind of low on the food chain is what I'm kind of meaning to say. So I didn't get a chance to hang out with these on-set guys very much.

How much freedom were you given on realizing the effects?

It was great. Peter Anderson was a really great guy to work with. Once he kind of realized what I could do, he really gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. He was very, very supportive of me and of all the guys. He just gave people as much freedom as they needed to get the jobs done. Let's face it: we had to turn a lot of work really quickly and if you're being micromanaged and everything is looked at over and over and over, you'd never get anything done. Basically they had a lot of really good people who knew what they were doing and there were very few snafus in the process, believe it or not. At the time I was pretty insulated from most of the staff. I knew what I needed to do, we all had meetings and we all talked about what had to happen. You just go and do it. We had ridiculously long hours, but it was delightful and really wonderful to work at.

Peter was also -- you may or may not hear this from anybody else -- a bit of a jokester. He knew it was stressful, so he would at times bring food in, but if Peter ever walked out with his rain slickers on, you knew you were in trouble. He actually had a set of rain pants and overcoats, stuff like that, for rain and wet stuff, because ... he loved to "pie" people -- hit them with pies or food fights, stuff like that. Basically it blew off a lot of tension, plus we all got a certain level of camaraderie that came of all that silliness. It wasn't done at certain times. It didn't hurt the production or anything like that. We finished a shot or got some accomplishment done and he'd bring in some food. Usually Peter also winded up throwing something. It was always an interesting time. (laughing) The famous Peter Anderson, Hartland food fights. That was the only time where those guys were silly and had some fun at it. Otherwise they were an amazing professional group of people that really worked their tushes off.

Especially at the end of the show when there was a lot of pressure for time was their also some original stuff, made by the ILM crew, reused to make new things?

Well, at that time I guess it would have been Apogee. Actually I'm not sure at what point John Dykstra turned it over to Apogee. It might have technically still been ILM.

Didn't he turn it into Apogee when or just after he left?

I think you might be correct there.

Of course there were all the models and some of the crew came over. I think Colin Cantwell and Gill Cantwell were part of that group; Davy Jones, Pete Gerard, some of the model guys, I think, might have been involved over there. A couple of people in the roto department might have worked at ILM too. It was interesting, when I came on; Hartland had already been cooking for a few months or whatever. They already had got to a certain level -- they took the bugs out of it. David Garber talks a little bit about transition time in an article in Starlog.

By the time I got there it was all running and flowing pretty well. They were still building equipment -- I know that -- because Richard Bennett and Gill Cantwell were building these incredible pieces of equipment which were patterned after something Richard Edlund had put together for John Dykstra at ILM. In fact I've seen some articles where Richard Edlund was not pleased that some of his equipment was copied over like that at Hartland. (both laughing) I don't know what the whole ins and outs were, but it was basic mechanical construction. You've got to have a dolly that has to go up and down and you've have to get it on a track and it to be able to pan and tilt. You can build a big Dykstraflex boom arm at considerable costs or you can use an existing dolly and get it up and running, so you can start making movies. Taking the expedient route allowed them to get some stuff done pretty quickly; but they were still building stuff when I got there.

Later on I got a chance to be a partner with Richard Bennett. After Universal Hartland went away, Richard and I started working together on a lot of projects. It was really pretty cool. I think Richard built the motorcycles for Galactica 1980. Later on he went and did the same motorcycle thing for V too. That's what I remember.

I heard the flying motorcycles were actually build for an episode of Battlestar Galactica which wasn't filmed and they later reused those for Galactica 1980 because they were already made.

Oh, were they? Was that what happened? I know that they were built. Galactica 1980 had sort of the same problems that V did. You're spending a lot of money on getting the show set up, but you can't keep on spending the money and you go: "Those spaceships can't keep flying around. Let's go and have them ride motorcycles." (laughing) When you're cutting costs it always gets kind of crazy.

David Stipes with a multi plane matte painting set up by Dan Curry for Buck Rogers

David Stipes with a multi plane matte painting set up by Dan Curry for Buck Rogers

Alan Levi, who took over from Richard Colla on the pilot, said that in those days there was a set budget for the season. Most of the money was always spend on the first 5 episodes to get the audience to watch it, but all the money spent only led to cheaper shots in the later episodes.

Sure, that's totally right. We definitely saw that happening. The shot count started going down. You start recycling stuff. There was one episode -- Gosh, it was in Buck Rogers I think -- where they had to go from one place to another in the show. In one shot its Princess Ardala's shuttle and in another shot in the same sequence it's the Battlestar Galactica shuttle. (both laughing) I was just going like: "Oh my God, guys!" and they said: "Don't worry, nobody will notice." Well, everybody noticed! It looked horrible. (laughing) Then they have this ship going into this cave -- I don't know if it was the Hawk ship or not. I can't remember now -- but some ship is going into the cave and you see its engines blazing as it goes in. Then there's a shot of it coming out and they just printing it backwards, so now it's flying backwards, with its engines blazing backwards. (both laughing). They were so desperate for money that they would do crazy stuff like that, right towards the end. I was just rolling my eyes, "Oh my God!"

One of the things I learned is, again, about not taking things personally. It's not my show. I need to be responsible for the shots I do and do the best that I can for those show. If the producers or the directors or somebody else wants to drop the ball and that's out of my realm of control, well, that's out of my realm of control -- it's not my movie. There's some stuff in there and I was going: "Oh my goodness." (laughing) but I can say that also about Star Trek. There are a couple of things of which the producers said: "You will not fix this." And I'm going like: "I can do it really fast!" and he goes: "Nope, you won't fix it. Nobody will see it." Of course you see it every time it shows. (both laughing)

How surprised were you that they restarted Battlestar Galactica only a year after it had been cancelled?

Oh yeah, I think we all were surprised. We were all glad to work on it. That was actually a neat kind of thing, because it allowed us to bring in a new matte painter, Dan Curry, and I got the chance to talk to Dan a little bit and I put in a good word for him based on my opinion. I said: "This guy is going to do really well." I don't know how much you know about Dan Curry, but he did go on and do a lot of work and wound up doing Star Trek and did credits on all kinds of movies. He has had a long career and it all started with Galactica 1980.

Very cool.

Yes, it was really wonderful. I got a chance to also work with Glenn Campbell, Bob Bailey, Tim McHugh, a lot of these guys that are still doing pretty cool stuff.

Were the lower budgets for Galactica 1980 also affecting your work and that of your co-workers in the visual effects department?

Well, I don't remember being adversely affected by that, except that we had very little time. In Galactica 1980, that flying saucer shot that I've sent you the clips of, Dan Curry and I had one week to paint and composite it... That's all we had. We had to go to the studio, shoot the plate, come back, paint the damn thing and put it together. Literally it was done in like seven days. It was insane. I was doing stuff on the down shooter. I did this little matte shot that was like 2 ½ inches wide of a building, way in the distance. (laughing) I think it's in the show. It's some refinery or factory and it's off in the distance. It's just some little front and back light thing and I just did it. Some of the stuff was just crazy -- little tiny things that we had to do. It just comes with the territory. You don't have a lot money. You do what you can. You just suck it up and do it.

plate for Galactica 1980's 'Space Croppers'

matte for Galactica 1980's 'Space Croppers'

Dan Curry painting the matte for Galactica 1980's 'Space Croppers'

matte painting for Galactica 1980's 'Space Croppers'

complete matte for Galactica 1980's 'Space Croppers'

Step by step setup of the matte painting by Dan Curry in Galactica 1980's "Space Croppers"

I just had a great time, because I always had something to push my mind against. Maybe that's one advantage I had over some of the folks that don't remember doing this stuff that well. One: I was very young when I was doing it, but also everything was a big challenge to work on and I was always pushing my mind against these things. Trying to figure out how to do them and what was the best way and coming up with solutions that we could do within the time frame. So, I don't really remember talking about money per se. I know the budgets were small and the budgets were tight. There were some things that we just couldn't do, because we didn't have enough time to do them and we didn't have enough resources to make them happen.

But sometimes there was something really spectacular that we got to do. That attack on Earth, the Cylons coming on straight on Hollywood Boulevard was one of those little things. I got a chance to do that. That was pretty cool.

I've also read that some of the towers on fire in those shots are from other movies?

Oh, that might have been.

Stock footage.

Yes, stock shots. We used stock shots all the time. Why not? We tried to do an awful lot with very limited money.

My favorite thing about the Cylon Hollywood attack that you may or may not hear from anybody else is that they had a bunch of extras... I guess they told the extras to show up in street clothes and there was one lady who, I think, had a really big yellow hat on. She was running across the street as the Cylons are supposedly strafing the street and everybody is yelling, running back and forth. They'd run them across the street and then the assistant director would turn them around and run them back. So you see this lady run back and forth. (both laughing) That was really funny. I guess they didn't bother to tell the extras where the spark squibs were on the street because, any way, you'll see these people running and just as they're running, they're leaping, taking a big long step in their run because these squibs were going off right under them. We're all just going like: "Oh my goodness." (both laughing), because we're filming this and are watching these people getting shocked and are thinking they should have known where the squibs were.

I don't think anyone was being irresponsible or anything, but I don't think we all quite realized what was going to happen. The extras are all running back and forth and they can't see Cylon ships shooting or anything. They're all just screaming and all of a sudden these long strips of spark hits go off and are running down the street, right under this crowd. It was pretty funny. We were all just rolling our eyes at that one. Nobody got hurt or anything like that. It was just one of those scenes where people were really shocked and surprised.

I also saw a picture of you from the episode "The Return of Starbuck". Was that to make the multiple suns?

Yeah, probably. I was on two different episodes there, on that location. One was later in the afternoon, where I'm dressed up in a down jacket and there's the other one. There were two things. One: we had to put a spaceship out in the distance. That was one of the things we had to do and the other was to put in the multiple suns. I think it was a couple of shots. It was either a Viper or a Cylon Raider that was parked out there in the distance when they were stranded on the planet, I think.

David Stipes shooting plates for Galactica 1980's 'The Return of Starbuck'

David Stipes shooting plates for Galactica 1980's "The Return of Starbuck"

Did you also do the electricity sparks on the episode where Xaviar and the guys are trying to reload their Vipers on the power lines at the naval base?

I don't remember that. But since you mention electricity -- whether you want to throw a rock at me or not -- I do remember doing a lot of the electrical stuff on that Buck Roger's space vampire episode... in one weekend. We had to get this done and I came in on a Saturday and just did these electrical bolts, one after another. I just spread them in all over the frame. Electricity for the Vipers? I don't remember working on that at all. They may have come from Harry Moreau or somebody else working on that.

You then started your own company, David Stipes Productions, Inc. and for the next 12 years until 1992 you worked for television and motion pictures. Can you describe some of the projects you worked on?

Oh my goodness. Well, there were a lot of different things. I actually have to pull up my own credit list here. (both laughing) After Buck Rogers went down... I got no notice basically. I was on vacation, but when I asked what time I needed to be back they said: "You don't need to." and I said: "What?!?" (laughing) I was pretty shocked. I wound up working on Caveman a little bit out of David Stipes Production -- just helping Jim Danforth and David Allen out on that.

After that was over David Garber came to me and he had a project called In Defense of the US, a CBS White Paper Report. He asked me to do some matte shots. I had a house and turned my garage into a little studio. So I did these shots and I realized: "Man, I can't do all these shots at home." So I wound up renting some space. Richard Bennett had gone off and had started his own little company, Cinema Engineering. At the place where he was at, the guy had a little bit more space, so I rented a little bit of space there. I wound up doing The Jupiter Menace and working on another thing called UFO Chronicles, so it was just some little bits and pieces of work.

I wound up finishing In Defense of the US there and rolled into The Jupiter Menace, I did V and V: The Final Battle, Darkroom, Tales of the Gold Monkey, The Thorn Birds, The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake... As far as the feature films, I was working on Creepshow, The Ice Pirates, Real Genius, Night of the Creeps, Nightmare on Elm Street V: the Dream Child, Circuitry Man and a bit of Lawnmower Man. I also worked on The Flash TV series in 1990 and Intruders in 1992. By that time I was ready to close up shop and go to work on Star Trek.

David Stipes painting a matte for V: The Final Battle

rear projection matte setup for V: The Final Battle

matte setup for V: The Final Battle

Rear projection matte setup for V: The Final Battle

Dan Curry, the guy I helped get on Galactica 1980, had been working on Star Trek. He had actually brought over some shots for me to work on -- from Star Trek: The Next Generation, even from the first season in 1988. I got a chance to work on a couple of different shots. They were opening up the second sequel which was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and he wanted to know if I wanted to help out. I thought that here's a chance to finally work on Star Trek.

What happened was in 1968-1969, I actually went and applied to work on Star Trek: The Original Series. I talked to Ed Milkis, who was one of the producers on the show. Ed Milkis was very nice to me and everything -- very kind. What it basically turned into was a pat on the head and he said I had to grow up and then come back again to see them. (laughing) He never really said that but that's what he meant. I never got a chance to work on The Original Series, but as I joke to my students: it took me 25 years to get good enough to work on Star Trek! (both laughing). Luck had a little bit to do with it, because Dan was thinking about me. Once I got on board there it was a lot of hard work.

Having my own company was a challenge. There was a book out some years ago, called The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle goes that people will rise to their level of incompetency and then they won't go any further; meaning that as you do a competent job, people love you and will give you a new job and promote you and promote you and promote you. Eventually you'll come to a place where you don't do so well and you stay there because you don't get promoted anymore. So you have risen to your level of incompetence, to a level in your job where you don't do so well. Well, I was a really good visual effects supervisor, I'm a visual effects designer, and I do a lot of stuff really well. What I don't do well is book keeping, accounting, payroll, managing 25 people; overall being grumpy and carrying on and trying to run a business -- being a business man when I want to be a visual effects artist. So I spent a number of years dealing with the payroll and payroll services, employees and people messing up shots, I had a guy who embezzled money from me and then not deliver the shots. I've had people steal props, models and camera equipment.

It was not good. I was more and more unhappy with the situation. So when Dan Curry offered me the chance to do Star Trek, I said: "You know what? This is the way out." I literally made a lot of people mad, because I had people who really tried to ride my coattail; wanting to bring work in and keep working on projects. They were really mad, because I had sold them out, in their opinion. You know, ultimately, it was better for everybody. So I closed the studio down and went to work on Star Trek. I think it was around the July fifth or so, right after the 4th of July vacation in, I think, 19922, I went to work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dan Curry brought me on and it was a glorious experience.

David Stipes and the Star Trek: The Next Generation team in 1994 (Photo by Tim Stel, Image G)

David Stipes and the Star Trek: The Next Generation visual effects team in 1994
(Photo by Tim Stel, Image G)

I got a chance to really share with the crew and with fans. I think I brought a lot to Star Trek and made the show a little bit better from my being there. I'm not saying that as an egotist, I'm saying that because my intention was to do a really good job. I really tried to do something that was outstanding, because it was something that I wanted to do 25 years earlier when I wasn't good enough. Now that I was good enough, I wanted to make sure it was excellent.

What equipment did they have at the time there?

Everything was done with motion control at the Image G facility. They had state of the art equipment: Kuper Control motion control systems, really nice cameras and a good facility. Trek was doing digital compositing at a couple of compositing companies. It was great, great, great resources! Since I'd been doing effects, I'd got my own motion control system and I knew how to do some of that work, so... I wasn't programming per se, but I got a chance to do the lighting and designing of the shots. I was in a wonderful position. I got a chance to push my mind against all kinds of challenges. I got to design the storyboards, to budget the effects, to supervise on set, to supervise motion control and I got to supervise compositing. Sometimes I wound up doing some funky modeling things, just kind of behind the scenes. It was just wonderful.

You worked on all the different Star Trek series for many years. You worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. Which was your favorite series and why?

Well, that's an interesting and kind of a tough question. I really like The Next Generation for the camaraderie, because when I came on to it, it was for Seasons 6 and 7, the last two. Even though I was the new guy for a while, there was a really nice camaraderie and I got to enjoy some of that. The thing I liked was that the writers really tried to come up with ideas that pushed people. The whole thing about Jean Luc Picard was that he was an educated, enlightened man who was socially conscious; where Captain Kirk was more the two-fisted, action guy. Nothing wrong with that, but that was kind of more his consciousness. Picard was more this enlightened, socially conscious person, so I really enjoyed the scripts and I felt privileged to be able to work on some of those shows.

At the end of The Next Generation, they wanted to start up Voyager. I got a chance to go onto Voyager and help Dan Curry set that whole thing up. It was a brand new show. I got to see some of the birthing process of this new show which was quite interesting. There were some challenging points where things didn't work so well and they'd change things. We got into 6-8 weeks shooting with motion control and then the producers decided they really didn't like the design of the space ships, so we had to go back and redo them and re-shoot everything. I was on Voyager for two years. It was broadcast on the UPN network channel that was going on at the time and they had very little money, compared to The Next Generation. We wound up not being able to do as much as we wanted to, but overall I think the show looked really good.

David Stipes with the Maquis Fighter on Star Trek: Voyager

David Stipes with the Maquis Fighter on Star Trek: Voyager

After two years of Voyager I went on to go on Deep Space Nine which was amazing, because it already had been going for four years. There was a tremendous amount of camaraderie and trust between everyone. Ira Behr was one of the producers on it and when he wanted something he always said: "I don't care what it costs." He wasn't irresponsible or anything but when he wanted it, he would find the money to make it happen. We were just doing these amazing shows with space battles and just an incredible amount of spaceships flying around. With the intense Dominion War arc that they went through a couple of seasons on, I was constantly being pushed to come up with new ways to look at things and having new effects to pull off; like having Odo transform his clothes from his uniform into a tuxedo. While my head was just exploding trying to figure out how to do these effects, it was really terrific having the chance to work on them.

I'd say that they are probably two favorite shows: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I thought both were just really great. Great, great, great!

What was the coolest effect you have done on either series? Just from the top of your head.

As I just mentioned Odo's clothes transforming was one of the ones that was extremely difficult to do. I thought it worked out pretty well. We had to do it right there on camera. So his clothes have to change and he doesn't have a bow tie in the beginning, but at the end he reaches up and tugs on it. We had to wrap our heads around how to do that shot. It was really, really challenging. That was probably one of the more interesting shots that I did.

This was pre-CGI. Today it could be done easily in CGI.

This wasn't totally CGI, but it was done in digital compositing. Everything was digital as far as compositing.

The other shot I really liked a lot were a couple of the space battle shots. I took a lot of heat for this thing in one way. There was a scene, I think it was in Deep Space Nine episode "Sacrifice of Angels" where there's two Miranda class spaceships. Now the Miranda Class space ships look like the Reliant, from The Wrath of Khan. I've got to tell you truthfully, I never really was that obsessed of having Miranda Class or this or that Class, Constellation Class or whatever -- I just didn't really care. I basically said I want these two Reliant style ships, so we did these ships: the Sitak and the Majestic. They both come through and we blow them up. They go rolling over, capsizing and everything like that. It was one of those really cool fun shots that I really loved. I liked that a lot. I made the mistake of calling them the "Reliant Class" on a Trek forum for which I was badly flamed by the Trek fans!

I also thought the shot where we blow up the Defiant was great too. I had to come up with some visual solutions that showed this thing blowing up; for example, the ships roll over like they are capsizing. I thought those were kind of fun shots to do. It was cool.

David Stipes with the visual effects team on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Photo by Gary Hutzel)

David Stipes with the visual effects team on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
(Photo by Gary Hutzel)

How about on Enterprise?

I only got a chance to work on a couple of episodes. I didn't so much do it as it was supervised... I thought the ship crashing into the ground, when it landed on the planet and also the caves -- when it falls into the caves -- was neat; Eden FX did that. I thought that was pretty cool; that shot worked out pretty well.

I have mixed feelings about Enterprise for various reasons. I thought it was really strange. The two episodes I got to work on, basically I had to do the same thing. We fall into a dirt cave and then we fall into an ice cavern. It was just weird -- the circumstances where, of all the possible shots to do, I got to do the same basic shots in both episodes. It was just kind of a strange experience. (laughing) I got a chance to work on the two episodes there, so I don't have a long track history with Enterprise.

Was their ever an effect that couldn't be done or looked totally unbelievable when you saw it later, on screen?

Yeah, there were a couple of quirkier shots for various reasons. The problem is that when I mention this, I'm going to hurt somebody's feelings, so I better not do that. (both laughing) There was one that is in The Next Generation I can talk about. It has nothing to do with anybody personally, it has to do with the technology and why I started pushing for CGI.

The second episode I worked on... It was the Dyson Sphere one, where they're trapped inside the gigantic globe which has the size of an entire solar system (Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Relics"). They're flying along in the Enterprise and they see this giant, great ball out there and they're like: "What the heck is that?" They then realize it's a Dyson Sphere and supposedly it was a hypothetical construct where you'd basically build a structure big enough to house a sun and a couple of planets. Basically what happens is that you get to absorb 100% of a sun's energy to do whatever you want with it. Us, on Earth, we only get a tiny percentage of the sun's energy since it's going out 360 degrees in every direction and we only get a tiny percentage of it. That was the whole idea; that this was this construct that was big enough to house a planet and a star.

What I wanted to do was to start so far away, that it looked like a great ball and then the Enterprise would fly in and you would find that this thing was millions of miles across. You would fly down and literally see all of this architecture and geometry and everything over it. Well, that's kind of an infinite zoom kind of shot. Anyway, we couldn't realize it. There was no way I could realize it with motion control, because I had 60-70, maybe 80 feet of track at Image G and there's only so much you can do. You can only use so wide a lens and go so far away and you can make the model only so small. We never could do the shot.

Then I quickly realized that there were shots they wanted to do here in these scripts that I couldn't do with motion control. So I started looking around at what was available. There were several programs that were out at that time. They were really expensive, like $12,000/module and you needed like 4 different modules to even be able to do anything. So it was like $48,000 to buy the basic software program. It was just insane; because the computer needed were around $100,000.

One of the first uses of LightWave 3D on Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Sub Rosa'

One of the first uses of LightWave 3D on Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sub Rosa"

But I had worked with a guy, Ron Thornton, who was working on some of the early work on Babylon 5. I knew he was working with a company called NewTek and their LightWave 3D software. So I called them and they got all excited about the fact that I was working on Star Trek. They helped me get in touch with some of the people who were doing the LightWave 3D work and I go back in touch with Ron Thornton and also at the guys at Amblin Imaging, John Gross and others. They were working on SeaQuest DSV. Basically what happened was that I got a chance to work with LightWave 3D and started to incorporate some CGI into the Star Trek world.

There was a lot of resistance, because nobody wanted to hurt -- nor did I -- the motion control world -- all the guys who were doing that. On the other hand they kept adding these scripts where they wanted more and more ships and effects in them. That really culminated in Deep Space Nine, four years later because in Deep Space Nine they wanted to have 150 spaceships. Well, that's fine, but if you're really lucky you get 3 space ships done per day in a relatively simple move when you shoot the beauty pass, the matte pass and all the light passes, the ending passes and everything. But these were complex shots and it's like thousands of dollars per ship times hundreds of space ships.

Normally you have seven weeks to do a show. We figures we needed over 100 days of motion control plus transfer and compositing! Our space battle was budgeting out at 1.3-1.4 million dollars and that was just to do the space battle. Of course the producers were having coronaries and said: "No way we can ever do this! Our whole episode is only 1.2 million dollars." I think that's what they said at that point, that their episodes were costing 1.2 million dollars to make. Whether that is accurate or not, I don't know, but that's what I remember.

Anyway, I was kind of raising my hand and saying: "If you want to do this, there's only one way. We really need to do this with CGI." I knew we'd already been messing with some CGI ships. We'd already built a CGI version of Voyager when I was on that. So we basically had to back up, rethink the approach and switch over to doing these battles digitally at Digital Muse/Eden FX with John Gross and Foundation Imaging with Ron Thornton. We wound up doing dozens of digital shots for all of these space battles. It was kind of almost the battle of the week. (laughing) We spent tons of money on these shows, however it was nothing compared to the cost if we'd done this with motion control.

David Stipes on set in the captain's chair

David Stipes on set in the captain's chair

Was that a difficult change for you? Changing from motion control to CGI? Did you feel you had to start all over again?

No. Actually the only challenge I had, was wrapping my head around how the computer interpreted physical objects, such as with diffusion channels and specularity channels and that kind of thing. Once I got a handle on the vocabulary and how the computer software approached building an object, then it became a lot easier for me. I actually wound up using LightWave3D and -- even when I was on Voyager -- I started doing animatics, little wire frames of the space ships to show to Peter Lauritson, the post production supervisor. These were animatics that I was building on the computer of the shot that I was then going to do on motion control. He thought that was pretty cool and that worked out pretty well.

Eventually we moved into having to abandon motion control for these really huge shots, because we just didn't have the time to do 100 days of motion control for one episode. There weren't enough weeks, you know. We basically had 35 days to do a show, not 100 days, so it was just crazy to do those shots on motion control.

Though CGI makes a lot possible there's still a very large group of sci fi fans who would rather see the old school way of doing it, using spaceship models and people in suits for creatures. They think CGI is often crossing the boundaries of what's believable or not and it all looks way too "clean" and it therefore doesn't fit in with the rest of the acting. You can clearly see where the acting stops and the CGI begins. What's your opinion on that?

Oh, I have to fully agree. Many times the models do work better. The thing about this is that -- this is one of the things I talk with my students about -- when CGI is done quickly or it's done without attention to detail or without the experience or the skill, it's going to look like CGI. It takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail, an observation of reality, like working with photography, working with lenses, working with real world lighting, looking how real objects look like in life. It takes all of that in order to pull it off successfully. If you just do the bare minimum, it looks like a cartoon, at worst and at best you go: "I don't like the CGI." (laughing) If you look what Mojo is doing with his tests on his viper ("Viper redux: turning shinola into shit") and the Battlestar Galactica tests ("Coolest CGI shot of all time (with video)") where he's replicating the original shots but now done in CGI -- they're virtually flawless. But that's the attention of detail you have got to go for.

Mojo's CGI Viper shot of a model Viper shot (top is the original model, bottom is his CGI)

Mojo's CGI Viper shot of a model Viper shot (top is the original model, bottom is his CGI)

Unfortunately with computers, you're talking about an incredible number of texture maps, really paying a close attention to how lighting works, and working with all aspects of lighting: color temperature, etc. It's just a ton of work. It takes a lot of work to make CGI look real. It can look real, but the question is if there sometimes doesn't come a point where it's easier to do a model than it is to do CGI. In some cases, with big companies like ILM -- I talked to Dennis Muren about this - sometimes they make the choice to do the models because the CGI department is backed up.

I've got to tell you that I had a situation on Enterprise. Enterprise the effects approach had finally gone to the full reverse to what I had started with. When I was on The Next Generation and I wanted to do CGI, they'd all go: "No way. We don't want to, in any way, move away from using physical models. That's what we do. We have a physical model, so we're not going to pay any money to have a CGI model." So, move forward all these years to Enterprise, I have a sequence where the Enterprise shuttle has to fall into the ice caverns. Well, that's actually a perfect application of a high speed model. So I go: "I'd like a budget to go out and build a model of this thing and do it in high speed." And they go like: "No way. We have a digital. Why should we have to pay money to make a physical model?" So it was a complete reversal of the arguments. I wound up having to do a shot that I was not as happy with, with digital because I couldn't get the physical model. I would have preferred for them to make a physical model, that was in the shape of the shuttle and painted it green and have it fall in ice and stuff and then put the digital on top of it or actually build the physical model and shoot it as a high speed altogether. I think it would have been the better solution but they didn't want to spend the time and the money to do it.

The point of this whole thing is that, if you're going to be a really successful visual effects supervisor and designer, you should never be obsessed and fixated with only one technique. CGI works wonderful for certain kind of things, but when you say the only solution is CGI and abandon everything else, you really cut yourself off from a lot of good solutions that may be better for your shot. I really encourage my students, even though I'm teaching at a school that has a digital emphasis, to get out there and build a model and to blend it in and try things like that. They need to know how to do that. They need to know how to shoot and how to light real world objects.

Is that important for you, teaching the next generation and passing on your skills?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm so fortunate that when Deep Space Nine ended, I was able to come over to Arizona. My son was over here, so I got a chance to be more with my son -- and I got a chance to go and work at The Art Institute in Phoenix. Of all of the wonderful places in the world to land, I landed at a place that respects traditional ways and they respect what I've done in my career. They really liked having traditional people moving into the digital and doing the blend with the students. So, like I said, over at The Art Institute, I get to work in the Digital Effects major, the Animation major and the Digital Film major. I get the chance to share a lot with these students and it's really important to me, because I've been a mentor to a number of people through the years that have gone on and, quite honestly, most of them have done better than I ever did.

But I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful to be a positive influence. So mentoring and teaching has always been a part of what I do, because that's what got me started. If it wasn't for the kindness of David Allen, Jim Danforth, Dennis Muren and Phil Kellison, I would have been stranded. I would have been lost. I never would have figured all of this stuff out.

David Stipes at a lighting demo at The Art Institute of Phoenix (Notë: the model used is a Viper from Battlestar Galactica)

David Stipes at a lighting demo at The Art Institute of Phoenix
(Notë: the model used is a Viper from Battlestar Galactica)

Is it difficult for you to keep up with the latest techniques, because things are changing so fast in the industry?

(laughing) It's changing like a whirlwind! Unbelievable! Yeah, it is difficult, but I don't think it's just because of me. I've talked to a lot of people and even the students are having a tough time keeping up with how fast the software evolves and changes. It's truly incredible.

At The Art Institute, I actually have my old camera and projector on display for people to see and they're always marveling at this quirky equipment, because it looks like it's built in the 19th century -- this whole boiler plate technology. What's interesting is that I've got some cards that go with it on the wall and it explains what has replaced it. All of this heavy duty, expensive equipment is now replaced by a $2,000 piece of software, like After Effects. For another couple of grand you can replace all the models you ever needed with 3ds MAX or Maya or LightWave 3D. So for less than $5,000 or so, you can basically have a studio in your computer and do most of the stuff at home. To be able to handle it in a speedy manner, of course you need more rendering power, but if you're just going to do a shot and you have the time, you can do it on a PC -- you can do the whole thing.

You can do the matte painting, you can do the compositing, you can do multi-plane shots, the motion control photography or what looks like motion control photography, and you can build the models. You can do the whole thing. That's an amazing transformation.

I could see it was coming. Even in the 1980s, I started looking at the computers. We'd moved out of video and the analog and just started to sniff at the digital with the motion graphics. I looked at Art Star and some of the early software, but the stuff was freaking expensive and I would have to hire a full time technician. Well, I couldn't afford it - I had a little tiny company and I didn't have partners and I didn't have bankers and backers and all that stuff. Basically it was me and whatever money I could cycle out of the company to go into research.

So, it was kind of the same transition as when I was wondering how to get out of my old stop motion mode into motion control in the 1970s. By the time I got into the late 1980s, I'm starting to wonder how I could get out of this motion control and into the digital and in computers. I could see that it was coming but could not guess how fast it would arrive. Even in 1992, when I put everything into storage, I thought I could always pull out this equipment when I had to. I was astounded to find how quickly all of my motion control equipment, my optical printer, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment -- was reduced to being boat anchors. I couldn't give it away!

Honest to goodness, I actually wound up throwing some equipment away, because literally nobody wanted it. We (the visual effects industry) just leaped from this photochemical, mechanical approach to making movies, to digital and non-mechanical -- it was now all electrical and electronics. I was totally blown away how fast it changed. When I finally got rid of everything -- honest to God -- I was just horrified. Tens of thousands of dollars I was just putting into dumpsters. I practically cried, you know. That's just the way it is.

Progression of pull back with matte painting added to live action for Mexica Curse by David Stipes.

Painting created with Photoshop with final composite in After Effects.

Progression of pull back with matte painting added to live action for Mexica Curse by David Stipes.
Painting created with Photoshop with final composite in After Effects.

But the thing is that my students now, just on a regular basis, are doing shots we would have received Academy Awards for 25 years ago. That's just their average work. It's amazing for me to see what's being done today -- what students come up with and what they can do; absolutely remarkable, things that are just common and average and are accepted today as typical fare.

Like the new Battlestar Galactica, since I know it was one of the things you wanted my opinion on. They're knocking out shots, gloriously beautiful shots too, because they're putting in this attention to detail that I was talking about, that we would have loved to be able to do in 1978-1979. We would have loved to be able to get these kinds of dynamic shots, but we were just lucky if we get the damn ships moving and composited it over some stars. We didn't push it. "It moves! Oh, that looks great!" (laughing) If we were lucky, we had a Viper or a Cylon flying over a Battlestar with rotoscoped shadows and things like that. These guys were killer artists to be able to do these shots. That was Emmy Award winning, Academy Award winning kind of stuff at that time.

Now they just go: "Okay, give me just a couple of hours and I'll have this done." With optical printing most blue screen shots would take a week. You're doing the separations, you're doing the tests, you're doing the composites, you put it together and you'd wait for a day and do it again if there is a problem and you've got to wait for another day. By the time you're done you have between five and seven days of messing with one shot. Here there are students that are doing blue or green screen shots that are glorious in a matter of 20 minutes or an hour with the software and technology that is available and they're amazing shots.

I had one of my students, a couple of nights ago, took just a standard green screen shot and she turns it into this incredible multi-plane matte painting scene of a camera move past these people -- it's a film noir kind of thing. You see New York City in the background and the light and she puts a wall in, but it was all virtual set -- it was all done in green screen. She just knocked it out and I was like: "Wow!" Anyway, it's a challenge to keep up with it, but it's a really stimulating and exciting time.

The only thing on the new Battlestar Galactica series I have mixed feelings on, in the use of CGI, are the Cylons who I found unbelievable -- the way they interact with the actors in the same shot. I thought that was pushing it too far.

I'm not sure about what shots you are referring to. I want to be clear that I'm not aiming any criticism at the Battlestar Galactica crew here at all with my comments.

There are circumstances, even with my students, where CGI artists will do shots because they can. Some CGI producers/creators will do the very shot or move that would be impossible to do with film and a physical camera and therefore it actually stands out. Sometimes the interactions of CGI characters can look unconvincing, because sometimes the situations are so extreme, they become really difficult to believe. Not so much the characters, but the space ship shots, where you're flying through things and around things and you know it would be crazy to do this with a camera so it sort of screams out "fake" from the get go, whether it's CGI or not.

Well, it is science fiction, so a lot is possible.

Oh yeah, absolutely and I definitely love sci-fi. I've been really impressed by what Gary Hutzel and his crew are doing on the new Battlestar Galactica. I really didn't know what to expect, but Ron Moore and those guys have certainly done a really different and gritty and grim kind of reality, which I thought was really intriguing to watch. It's kind of funny, when you watch the original series; it almost has a childlike naiveté, an innocence compared to the new one. (laughing) I still definitely enjoy seeing the original series. I've enjoyed kind of getting reconnected with it, with the energy of it, with your email and the preparation for this interview. I really appreciate your interest and you taking the time to seek me out and ask the questions. I hope some of this will be of some interest to your readers and it will be of help to you.

Of course! What are you currently working on besides teaching?

I've worked on a couple of small projects over the last couple of years. What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole, and couple of things like that. Primarily I'm teaching full time. I'm working on a couple of books with other authors. I'm in the middle of a kind of sci-fi fantasy novel. Then I'm going to be helping another instructor who wants to do a book on digital matte paintings. So that should be fun.

Primarily I'm teaching and trying to stay ahead of all of this crazy software. (laughing) At my school, in addition to teaching in the majors, I also help the students who get ready to graduate with their portfolio work, so I wind up also dealing with all of those issues of the printing brochures, the design and all of that. Plus the whole web design and trying to stay ahead of what is going on the web. I never would have imagined doing anything like that in the film industry and it isn't directly film related, but it is related to teaching and being a professional in anything -- you've got to have a web presence these days. So, now I also have to deal with web software.

Well, the internet is amazing. There's an enormous wealth of information to be found on it and it helps to get people all over the world connected with each other. So I'm glad you have a web presence and a very good one too, I might add, because it's a fantastic way to share your knowledge and for people like me, on the other side of the globe, to get in touch with you.

Yeah, how glorious is that? I think it's wonderful! That's partly why I started messing with my own website, because I wanted to put at least some articles out there about the things I did. I recently posted a blog about Phil Kellison and a little trick he showed me. I've been posting about some different techniques I now want to share with people because I know Phil is gone, David Allen is gone and so whatever they knew is no longer available. It's only what they would have written down and unfortunately Phil never wrote anything down, as far as I know, David only wrote a couple of articles and that was it. So, I'm trying to document some of the things they told me and share it wherever I can. I don't know if anybody will care, but for those who do, I have some of it posted.

Well, that's basically also what we're doing on our website for the Battlestar Galactica series. We try to get in touch with the people who worked on this series and try to write down the never told stories, like your story, before it's all gone.

You're right and I'm glad you do. I'd be happy to forward on any contacts I still might have.

We're already very grateful for all the time took to talk to us and look up all the images you've sent.

It was my pleasure and I look forward in seeing this article.

If you'd like to read more about David Stipes and his work, please visit his website DavidStipes.COM (click the banner or link below). On the website you'll find his biography, blog, articles written by him, and many, many more great stories and photos.

David Stipes' website

David Stipes - Visual Effects Artist, Educator, Writer

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