‘Predator’: VFX supe Joel Hynek recalls the days of optical compositing, thermal cameras and *that* red suit
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- October 17, 2022
John McTiernan’s Predator is perhaps most fondly remembered for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line, ‘Get to the chopper!’ But it also featured some incredibly memorable optical effects, crafted by R/Greenberg Associates and overseen by visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek.
These included a distinctive camouflage effect wielded by the alien Predator creature (appearing also in a monster suit designed and built by Stan Winston Studio), a heat vision-inspired Predator POV look, and several other optical effects.
Despite the challenging nature of the shots, and the challenging jungle shoot, the work culminated in an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (the nominees were Joel Hynek, Robert M. Greenberg, Richard Greenberg and Stan Winston).
In this interview, originally published at vfxblog, Hynek details the optical compositing tests that led to the eventual camouflage effect, the ill-fated red-suit-in-the-jungle approach to obtaining plates, and the almost ill-fated attempt at using a thermal camera for the Predator POV shots.
Can we set the scene – what were you doing at the time you began working on Predator?
Joel Hynek: I was head of the optical department at R/Greenberg Associates. We had a good relationship with producer Joel Silver having done Xanadu with him, doing live action streaks on an optical printer for that film. He thought that we would be a good fit to try and do the camouflage effect for Predator. At the time we looked at it as, ‘Okay, this is something where it has to be invisible but yet also visible.’
We just tried all kinds of things, and we had done a commercial for Southern Bell where where we had a person in a red suit and they were holding a green orb against the blue screen. I guess that’s where the light bulb went off of, ‘Okay, we’ll put a guy in a red suit and we’ll run around in the jungle because the jungle’s green and the sky’s blue,’ and so we tried it. We tried everything we could think of by pulling mattes off of that red suit. Sort of like blue screen in reverse, where your subject is the screen and the foreground is actually the background.
Was that something that worked for the camouflage effect?
Joel Hynek: Well, we tried freeze framing it, diffusing it, but it just kept looking like this cutout form running around. One day one of our optical printer operators, Eugene Mamut, through our CG department, came up with something. He was trying to do a slitscan effect on the optical printer, and so he was requesting mattes to be made by the CG department and they were basically just lines, lots of lines.
In effect, each piece of frame of film would be one scan line and so he managed one day to warp just a plain old background so that right in the middle it looked like a lens. It just got a little bigger in the middle. It’s something of course that’s so simple to do today but it was done optically, and we were like, ‘Ah, okay, but how can we do that with a human being?’
Now, I had worked out a method for making outlines around any kind of shape, simply by making what we call a black core matte and clear core matte, use the negative positive high-con matte, that if you offset it four times in the northwest, southwest, east-west and so forth directions, you come up with an outline. It’s great for doing outlines on titles but you can also do that to people, and that’s basically how we’d done the live action streaks for Xanadu.
We were just trying to figure out how to do that, and it was the day before Joel Silver was supposed to come and see what we’d been up to because we had done a test with a person in that red suit running around in Griffith Park.
Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head when I realised that I could make a series of inline mattes instead of outlined, doing it the opposite direction, and make inline mattes – larger and larger and larger ones, and then use the one before it to print out the larger one so that you ended up with this set of concentric inline mattes. Then I remember just laying it on a piece of paper as we did our layout sheets for the optical camera operators.
I laid it all out, gave it to the operators, and said, ‘Here. Do this.’ I came back in the morning and there it was. That effect. We showed it to Joel Silver and he’s looking at it, and he’s not quite sure. Richard Greenberg was there with me and Joel says, ‘Hey Richard, what do you think of this?’ And Richard says, ‘It’s good. Good, Joel. Good.’ So Joel gets on the phone and immediately calls producer Larry Gordon in LA and says, ‘Okay, we got a movie, we’re going to do it,’ and that was it. That’s how that started.
You obviously managed to find a solution, but I’m curious at the time, which is the mid-80s, whether you contemplated a computer graphics solution in any way?
Joel Hynek: CG was so much in its infancy that we really didn’t think about the possibility of doing anything with CG. I know the script had been bouncing around from studio to studio until Joel Silver got his hands on it. No one could really describe, I guess, what they wanted to see except that it had to be kind of scary and a visible representation of invisibility.