Interview: Brian Johnson – Hollywood SFX Legend

Having been able to interview a Hollywood legend and Oscar winner must have been the highlight of my blogging career. It was my honour to speak to special effects maestro Brian Johnson. While it was never Brian’s intention to work in the film industry, he worked on some of the most significant science fiction films as Alien, Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 2001: A Space Odyssey and also TV series Thunderbirds, just to name a few projects. I got the chance to speak to Brian after the screening of my favourite film from my childhood: The NeverEnding Story at Genesis Cinema. It was 30 years after its release and for me the first time to actually see it on a big screen.
This article is a combination of Brian’s answers to the questions from the Q&A and the one-on-one interview I had with him afterwards. The published article in this post is an edited version. If you want to read more film gossip & trivia and Brian’s thoughts on CGI, then please click here to download the entire article.

Brian Johnson and Dutch Girl in London posing by the Alien film poster in Genesis.

It was never Brian’s dream to work in the film industry. His wish was to become a pilot, but unfortunately his mathematics weren’t good enough. Or, as he told me: ‘I was a bear with a fairly small brain. I’ve only got one O level, didn’t get any A levels and never went to university.’ So, instead of becoming a pilot, he ended up working at Cement and Concrete Research at Langley, near Pinewood Studios, in the fifties. His job was to build 5-inch concrete blocks and testing them for motorways. One night Brian went into his local pub and a chap in there that he knew, named Les Bowie, said: ‘Boy, you look fed up.’ Brian told him that he would go mad if he would have to make any more concrete blocks. Bowie was one of the best special effects experts of his time and when he asked Brian if he was interested in a job in the film studio, Brian uttered the legendary words: ‘Oh, YEEEAH!’ Although the job meant sweeping the floors at Anglo Scottish Pictures (ASP), Brian happily took up on the opportunity and this would later prove to be the very first step into his successful special effects career.

First special effects jobs

Besides sweeping the floors at ASP, Brian was taught how to load up film into camera magazines, but also got directly involved in filmmaking. ASP made 16mm and 35mm documentaries and 35mm TV commercials. At a certain point, when Brian was about 17 years old, they needed a goofer for one of their productions. Brian: ‘Jim Davis, the managing director of ASP, said to me one day: “We’re going to send you on location. There’s a documentary that needs to be done in Wales for the cooperative wholesale society for cheesemaking.” So I went along with a few other people and we shot the documentary. And that was the first time that I got involved in filmmaking as such. When I came back to ASP, Les Bowie was doing matte paintings for Dunkirk and I had to go out with an effects camera and shoot a glass shot at this disused beach for Dunkirk.’

Brian Johnson and Wayne Imms, the moderator of the Q&A at Genesis Cinema.

Dutch Girl: Was that the start of your special effects career?
Brian: Yes, thanks to Les Bowie, who was my mentor. He got me in the business in the first place. He was an amazing man and a very talented artist. And a good very practical special effects man. When I was 18 I went into the airforce for two years, for the national service. When I came out Les said he was doing a picture called The Day the Earth Caught Fire which was the story of an atomic bomb changing the track of the earth, going ‘round the sun so it was getting hotter and hotter. And that involved a lot of effects stuff and I helped Les on that. That’s when I really got into the effects work.

Ironically, Brian wasn’t much a fan of science fiction as he preferred working on more ‘human things’, but he ended up working on lots of science fiction films, many of them are quite pivotal for the history of cinema. Here are some interesting trivia and funny anecdotes you have probably never heard before about some of the famous films Brian has worked on.

The NeverEnding Story

The film production took place in Bavaria at the German studios Bavaria Atelier near Munich for two years (1982-1984). After the screening Brian told me the curious story of a secret bar in the Neulampe Halle studio in Munich. ‘The bar up on the second floor was where all the old Nazis would get together. In Munich they used to have Hitler’s old beer cellar where they used to sit and drink and they still do. After a certain time when everybody of the production company was drunk they would sing old Nazi songs.’

Audience: Were you involved in making some of those creatures and making them fly and work?
Brian: My team, because you’re only as good as the team you have with you, my team built the dragon and all the other things. Then we animated them mechanically, and we radio-controlled the giant turtle. Everything was radio-controlled in that. Also the wolf was radio-controlled and it had animatronics in it as well.
For the luck dragon, which Wolfgang Petersen had made look like a Golden Retriever I think [audience laughing] I got a whole series of German puppeteers from a Bavarian company. And they actually made the whole thing move and speak and everything else, all done with wires and cables inside the head of the luck dragon. So, it was a completely different from how we would do it now.

Luck dragon
Luck dragon or Golden Retriever?

Audience: I would like to know how you got those sky effects in TNES?
Brian: We had a big water tank and we put dyes and things in the water tank. Then we filmed it at high speed with lots of light going around. It’s a really old technique that was also used on The Wizard of Oz and many other old films.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Brian Johnson about his work for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: ‘I went along to do wirework which entailed suspending a pen on a set inside a Pan-American spacecraft. The guy [William Sylvester] is asleep and the stewardess comes along and takes the pen which is floating around. Actually, what we did in the end was, we used a huge circular piece of glass which was about 7ft in diameter and we had the camera looking through the glass at the set with the guy in the seat and the pen was actually stuck to the glass with, which was then extremely new, double-sided tape and that was stuck onto the glass. And if you watch the stewardess, you see she comes up and she has to grab hold of the pen and pull it off. And we sort of messed around with that so it was barely on there. It actually fell off three times and then she got it. And that’s how we did that shot. I didn’t do very much wirework while I was on, but my job was to look after all the models like the Discovery and everything else.’

2001: A Space Oddysey
The floating pen scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Audience: What was your first impression of Alien when you read the script?
Brian: I was working on Space 1999, I just signed to do the second series with Gerry Anderson, and two Yanks came into Bray Studios and asked if they could look at my setup with my cameras and effects work. They came via someone from 20th Century Fox who I knew so I said ‘Yeah come in and have a look’ and we showed them what we did. We were using one piece of film and doing multiple exposures on that one piece of film to avoid having to matte anything or add things later. We weren’t doing motion control because that was too slow. Motion control is one of those things that when you are lucky, you get one shot in three days and we needed six shots a day. So, these guys came ‘round and said ‘Oh that’s interesting. Would you be interested in working on a science fiction movie?’ I said: ‘I literary just signed to do the rest of the series with Gerry which is going to take another year and a half’. So, one of the guys said: ‘Well, that’s alright. We’re going to do six of these feature films and we can get you in to the second one.’ And that was Gary Kurtz and the other guy was George Lucas. I didn’t know who they were. Nobody at the time knew who they were. So, that’s what happened at the start of Alien because George and Gary had asked me to do The Empire Strikes Back. Alien was also a Fox production, and so I was asked to do that one as well. I couldn’t do the two pictures at the same time, but there was a possible gap so we would do Alien first and then The Empire Strikes Back.

The famous chestburster scene in Alien.
About winning an Oscar

While Brian Johnson was working on The Empire Strikes Back he heard that Alien had been nominated for an Oscar in the category ‘Visual Effects’. During the Q&A Brian shared with us how he experienced this grand awards ceremony: ‘When they start reading out the nominations you think “Oh holy cow, are we going to get it or not?” And then you hear you’ve won, and it’s a real buzz when you get it. You get up off your seat, and think “Oh god, I will have to make a speech now and will say something stupid.” Right after the speech you are whisked away from the back and you have to do all these interviews: radio interviews, followed by television interviews and then various other journalists. It’s just a massive ego trip and all the time you’re holding this very heavy statue.’

The Visual Effects Oscar winners in 1979 for Alien. From left to right: presenter Harold Russell, H.R. Giger, presenter Farrah Fawcett, Carlo Rambaldi and Brian Johnson.
Filming in George Lucas’ swimming pool

You don’t always have to travel to faraway exotic locations to shoot science films, you can even stay at home and use your swimming pool. In the case of The Empire Strikes Back, the filming took place in George Lucas’s swimming pool: ‘There’s this scene when the characters are in the swamps and the R2D2 gets swallowed and then all you see is his little periscope coming up. All the post-production effects for it, we did in George’s swimming pool while it was being built. We had a blackish plastic screen in there to make it look dark. George came along and he’d go: “Right, let’s roll the camera. Here we go. Action!” And we’d do all our fiddling around with the various bits and pieces. And he’d go “Yeah, okay. Cut. That’s it. Next one.” He didn’t want to do more than one or two takes. He knew that he could put his scissors wherever and get the bit of the shot that he wanted.’

Brian working on set.

Brian: ‘I was asked to do Aliens. I went to meet James Cameron and I was told they liked me to do the picture. Later I heard James Cameron wanted to bring in L.A. Effects to do the special effects in the film. They started to do the picture, but when they were halfway I got a phone call saying they had fired L.A. Effects because they were useless. If you look at the film credits you will see ‘certain effects by L.A. Effects Group’. You had never seen such a thing before that film or after.
I got called in to do some of the model effects and some of the post-production at the end of the main unit shooting. After that it went to the States.
Later the nominations came up for that year and my name wasn’t on the nominations for special effects. I received a phone call saying they were sorry, but L.A. Effects had a clause in their contract with 20th Century Fox saying they had the right for one of their people to be nominated for special effects. So they nominated the wife of the man who owned the studio and had nothing to do with special effects. And she got the Academy Award. They changed the law in the Academy for the following year saying that only people who were involved in special effects could be nominated for special effects.’

Brian in the Paragon bar at Genesis Cinema

Dutch Girl: Have you ever made your own film?
Brian: No, I should’ve done and I regret it now. It’s one of those things. I was just too busy doing so many other things. I had a young family and never had the money to put aside, because you need a lot of money to make a movie or you need the time. And I had a mortgage and I had to keep feeding that. And if I was out of work, I didn’t have time to make a movie, I was cleaning cars which paid just enough to pay the mortgage.
I have been offered directing opportunities a few times, but they all failed due to lack of money or other practical problems.

Dutch Girl: Are you still involved in filmmaking? During the Q&A you said you went to the Star Wars set the other day, do people then ask for your advice?
Brian: People do consult me and ask my advice for things. I also go to signings.

Dutch Girl: Do you still watch films?
Brian: As a member of the Academy I get sent DVDs every year of all the films that are up for consideration that year. So we have stacks and stacks of them at home when they arrive, but then we have to destroy them because they are DVDs or Blu-Rays which are master copies so you have to sign an agreement to say that at the end you will burn them or destroy them. So we see everything.

Dutch Girl: And can you watch them without thinking about special effects all the time?
Brian: If I haven’t worked on the movie, I just relax and watch the movie for what it is.

My copy of The NeverEnding Story DVD signed by Brian: To Zarina “Feel the Force”
Unique photos and film screenings

See some incredible behind the scenes photographs from the Alien set (1979) on Dangerous Minds.

35th anniversary screening of Alien followed by a Q&A with its BAFTA-nominated editor Terry Rawlings and associate producer Ivor Powell. On Sunday 24 August 15.00 at Genesis Cinema. Ticket info here.

The first sci-film Brian worked on, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, has a special screening in the British Museum gardens on Thursday 28 August 19.00 as part of the BFI Sci-Fi season. Ticket info here.

*Please note that unlike my other posts some photos in this article are taken from the internet.

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