A Fascinating But Tragic Profile Of The Rebel Who Pioneered Modern Day CGI VFX [SXSW]

Spaz’s career at ILM began with “The Abyss,” which made him fast friends with Mark Dippé, who also worked tirelessly on “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park.” Initially, both were immediately put off by each other’s look and demeanor. Spaz donned a crew cut, tight white t-shirt, and jeans cuffed up above engineer boots like John Milner in “American Graffiti,” while Dippé looked like a bespectacled, long-haired hippie. These two certainly didn’t look like they’d work well together in the secluded ILM basement known as “The Pit.” But as soon as Spaz heard Dippé playing Alice Cooper’s album “Love It to Death,” the first album either of them ever bought, they hit it off. What followed was a career of innovation and rubbing people the wrong way, including a special effects legend who isn’t exactly painted in the best light here.

As a documentary, “Spaz” accomplishes two things. First, it chronicles Spaz’s place in the rise of modern CGI VFX across the three aforementioned blockbusters, complete with warts-and-all insights from those who were actually there behind the scenes. There’s incredible footage of Robert Patrick (who is also interviewed for the doc) in his skivvies with graph markers drawn all over his body as he executes his intimidating T-1000 walk for computer reference. We get to see the early animation tests for the CGI T-Rex that would blow audiences away in “Jurassic Park,” an innovation that only came about because Spaz defied orders from the higher-ups and opted to showcase how computer animation could be used to depict lifelike dinosaurs — sneakily catching the eye of producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall as well as director Steven Spielberg. And that’s where an unfortunate rivalry and bitterness comes along that would ultimately be the undoing of Spaz.

In Hollywood, Dennis Muren is a VFX legend who made a name for himself on the original “Star Wars” trilogy with George Lucas and is known for being a master of stop-motion animation and creature effects in some of the biggest blockbusters of all time . But “Spaz” reveals a different side to Muren, one that doesn’t seem to have a problem with taking credit for innovations that he either had nothing to do with or greatly resisted before they were acclaimed by the rest of the industry. Many of ILM’s most prominent creators at the time acknowledge that the game-changing effects work done on “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2”, and “Jurassic Park” could not have been accomplished without Williams, and yet he’s never been recognized with an award of his own, and he wasn’t even thanked when Muren and some of the other ILM cohorts accepted Academy Awards for his work.

Now, this might speak to a larger issue in the industry, where many of the crucial people working behind-the-scenes on the most respected films go unacknowledged, but the documentary “Spaz” certainly portrays Muren (and some of the other higher- ups at ILM) as dismissive and ungrateful of Williams’ contributions. That might be because a lot of ILM’s old guard was worried about computer-generated imagery making their hands-on effects work obsolete in Hollywood (and they weren’t necessarily wrong, as many VFX experts note the rise in subpar CGI VFX work that followed ), but it may have also been because of Spaz’s unconventional, rebellious, and cavalier attitude, as well as his unwillingness to play Hollywood’s glad-handing political games. And that’s what the other side of “Spaz” focuses on.

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