For 25 years, most of John Carpenter’s films have had his name in the title — “John Carpenter’s Halloween,” “John Carpenter’s Christine,” “John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.” He’s earned that by directing, producing, writing and even scoring many of his movies.
Less well-known is his command of effects, especially since his early films had no money for fancy visuals, relying instead on clever cutting and camera angles. Even the alien monster in Carpenter’s 1973 sci-fi comedy “Dark Star” was just a “beachball with claws.”
Dig into Carpenter’s filmography, and you find talented effects collaborators. Long before special effects wizard Rob Bottin struck Academy gold with “Total Recall,” he’d helped Carpenter realize “The Thing” and “The Fog.” Those movies were also among Carpenter projects shot by DP Dean Cundey, who later became known for the effects photography in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Jurassic Park.” The key effects artist on “Escape From New York” was none other than Jim Cameron.
Carpenter’s frequent producer and co-writer Debra Hill (“Halloween,” “The Fog,” “Escape From New York”) emphasizes that “it wasn’t like today, where you have teams of effects people. There weren’t even effects supervisors on John’s early films.”
On 1980’s million-dollar project “The Fog,” Hill recalls “we shot the fog plates with a pin-registration camera borrowed from MGM’s optical department. We shot on a little garage-like stage that we simply covered with black velvet.”
When Carpenter landed a whopping $6 million budget for 1981’s “Escape From New York,” his agent introduced him to production designer Joe Alves, who gained effects expertise on “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Alves remembers “John wanted to take ‘Escape’ up a notch from his previous movies. I found him to be a very smart USC graduate and very pragmatic. He also had a terrific young cinematographer named Dean Cundey.”
Alves created sketches for the film’s visual effects sequences and helped Carpenter invent Manhattan locales in St. Louis and Los Angeles. “We did only one shot in New York — a Hitchcock trick that was a continuous pan from the foot of the Statue of Liberty to a set at the Sepulveda Dam. We had so little money that I reproduced a section of New York by building one set at Indian Dunes. John couldn’t move the camera even slightly off that set or you’d see cactus.” But getting the most bang for his buck was something Carpenter excelled at, notes Alves.
“I’d tell him I could give him four walls that look cheap or two that look good — but he’d have no reverse angles. You’ve got to have your movie planned in your head to shoot that way, but John could do that.”
Mechanical effects expert Roy Arbogast, who worked on six Carpenter films, including “Christine,” “Escape” and “The Thing,” credits the director’s thorough preparation. “We could be budget-conscious because our problems were solved two or three months before we ever shot any film. John could make a $6 million film look like $20 million.”
Carpenter also benefited from judicious timing. To create the visual effects for “Escape From New York,” he used an effects facility that Roger Corman had assembled for “Battle Beyond The Stars.” With that facility came Cameron and miniature effects pros Robert and Dennis Skotak.
Julia Gibson, who operated the motion control camera on “Escape,” recalls that “the Skotaks built this fabulous New York skyline, literally out of Kleenex boxes.”
With later projects like “Starman” and “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” Carpenter had the budgets to hire Industrial Light & Magic. Bruce Nicholson, who supervised four Carpenter projects there, asserts: “There’s always been a John Carpenter following at ILM. He’s very sophisticated. In his screenplays he would write descriptions of the effects he wanted. And if his ideas ended up being too expensive, he’d re-write them and come up with something less expensive but equally challenging, which was really impressive.”
Arbogast agrees that Carpenter’s writing ability has been instrumental in his success with effects films. “He would always say ‘If you see we’re getting into a corner or there’s something looming that’s bigger than us, just tell me and I’ll sharpen my pencil!'”