Fan Film, Fan Films

Silver Surfer Fan Film—Substance or Flash?

There’s a five-minute short that’s been floating around the internet for ages, featuring the Marvel Comics fan favorite, . Watch the credits, and it appears to be a USC student film, made in 1994 by Steve Robiner, Erik Fleming and R.L. Once it was completed and screened around Hollywood, it looked like the team behind it was headed to big things—but they never quite hit the big time. Why?

Well, look at the plot—there isn’t much of one, unfortunately. Truthfully, it’s little more than a ‘proof of concept’ that a Surfer movie could be made using CGI, so if the short met with mixed interest, perhaps it proves for once that story trumps visual flash. Still, the look is pretty impressive—the Surfer is represented with then-cutting edge computer animation that’s moderately reminiscent of the evil Terminator in T2. Not bad for students, eh?

Well, that’s another catch. It turns out that it wasn’t a student production after all—the filmmakers attended USC while in pre-production, but had graduated by the time they got everything lined up. In order to get to use all the gear that had been donated to their short—that is, donated with the understanding that it was for a student venture—they had to hand their movie over to USC after they made it.

Still, it’s interesting to watch the flick, with its nods to T2 and Back to the Future. If you want to get the complete behind-the-scenes story, there’s an excellent interview with director Fleming at Comics2Film.

UPDATE 10/3/8: I wrote this post a few days before it ran, and of course, in that time, Comics2film suddenly ceased to be. I had a link to the interview, and if you clicked it, you got something called—and no interview. Since it appears to be a safe bet that the interview is never officially coming back online, here it is, preserved and rescued through the magic of Google’s caches (and of course, if anyone involved with C2F or Mania doesn’t want this back online, say the word and I’ll take it down).

Silver Surfer: FX Herald
By Rob Worley

Modern day CGI effects have advanced to the point where any imaginable creature can be brought to virtual, cinematic life. Towering dinosaurs, sand shaping mummies and annoying alien sidekicks are now staples of the big-budget special effects movies. It’s good news for comic book movie fans, who will soon see their favorite comic book creations like Spider-Man and The Hulk visualized in ways that were never before possible.

But ten years ago, the technology hadn’t arrived yet. With the exception of The Abyss and it’s water tentacle, CGI had mostly been used to create simple, inorganic forms, like the space ships in The Last Starfighter and the inner world of a computer system in Tron.

So what made a couple of recent film-school grads think they could bring The Silver Surfer to celluloid glory when the major players in the industry said it couldn’t be done? Comics2Film spoke with Erik Fleming, director of the now famous Silver Surfer short about how he and partner R. L. made this visionary film.

“We were both big Silver Surfer fans since we were kids,” Fleming told C2F, “so we were talking about how great a Silver Surfer movie would be. And we came up with all these ideas and the only way you could do it is you would have to computer animate it.”

R. L. had seen a short film called Sexy Robot which convinced him that a CGI Surfer was the only way to go. “He knew that [the University of Southern California] had this [Silicon Graphics] computer in the basement. Many were using it to do credits for the IMAX theater.”

Enter Steve Robiner, who became the visual effects supervisor on the movie. Robiner was familiar with USC’s SGI computer having done titles for the IMAX films. Robiner had worked in the computer animation lab and had created a CGI sweep around of the Hawaiian Islands for the IMAX film Hawaii.

After Silver Surfer made it’s internet debut on Atom Films some have assumed that the film is simply a student project. Not so. Fleming and R. L. were serious about expanding the short into a commercial feature.

“We went and talked with Marvel comics. This is probably back in ‘90-’91. They said it couldn’t be done,” Fleming recalled. “They said they’d looked into it. They’d actually talked to Lucas. They’d met with ILM and everyone said there’s no possible way to do the Silver Surfer.”

At this time The Abyss stood as the only example of using CGI to animate an organic form, and even that was a fairly simple, water tentacle. “The water creature creature looked realistic, like it was in the scene with the actors, but it didn’t walk and move in a human or animal way.”

Previous filmmakers that had attempted to bring the Surfer to life weren’t thinking in CGI terms yet. “They painted a guy with like black oil and tried to do like a reverse photographic process,” Fleming learned from an effects company. “There were all kinds of tricks that they tried and nothing ever worked. They all looked like crap. And obviously you’re not going to put a guy in a silver body stocking.”

Fleming and R. L. convinced Marvel to let them try it their way. They also had to secure permission from Constantine Films, who went on to produce 1994’s low-budget Fantastic Four movie. Constantine owned the film rights to Fantastic Four, and in the process acquired the rights to a number of ancillary characters, including the Silver Surfer. In spite of interest from different parties, including a pre-Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, Constantine was not developing the concept.

By the time Fleming and company met with Constantine they had already commissioned a clay model of the Surfer, digitized it into a computer wire-frame and rendered in silver. The laser prints of those images helped convince the two companies it could be done.

“They gave us permission to do it,” Fleming said. However it was with some discouragement. “Both companies said ‘You’re wasting your time. Don’t do this. It can’t be done.’ So we went ahead and did it anyway because we just love the Silver Surfer. It’s just all out of passion.”

So, the trio went into pre-production on their short film. The movie was originally planned as simply a special effects test, showing the Silver Surfer cruising in on his board, turning around and flying off. But as the filmmakers got more and more equipment donated, they decided to expand the scope of project, adding a narrative element so that the film would not only sell the special effects, but the the concept itself. They needed a script.

“Jeff Eastin wrote the five page script,” Fleming said. “In terms of the narrative elements, we were really trying to sell them on how this could be a high-concept, studio, superhero kids movie, like Richard Donner’s Superman.”

Just as the cameras were ready to roll, disaster struck. Although Fleming, R. L. and Robiner had been film students at USC, by the time they started working on The Silver Surfer they had already graduated. However, much of the equipment that had been donated for the shoot was done so with the understanding that this was a student film. “We got right up to the day we were going to shoot it, and we got caught,” Fleming told us. “The camera company called USC to verify we were film students, and nailed us. We went into the head of production at USC and we begged him to let us do this.”

The University was interested because of the ground breaking use of computer animation. They approved the project but, from that point forward, the film became USC property.

R. L. had envisioned using a system that would later become known as motion capture, where an actor is rigged up to a computer and his movements are recorded and then applied to a digital model, giving the model realistic movements. However, the technology wasn’t ready at that point, so they ended up hand animating the Surfer.

This proved to be extremely tedious. “Back then even the SGIs were slow,” Fleming said. “You’d lay down a movement and have to render it, which takes six hours, to see what it looked like. It would take four days just to move a finger.”

The initial results of the computer animation were not encouraging. “All the way up to the very end it looked like total crap. We were like ‘I can’t believe we wasted two years of our lives,’” Fleming said, laughing. “Somehow in the last week it just all came together. The animation smoothed out. The movement looked real. It was crazy.”

At the same time James Cameron was working on his groundbreaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Like Fleming and company, T2 featured a character who was, at times, computer generated and completely silver.

“Right before we started shooting the live-action parts, T2 just came out,” Fleming said. Everyone recognized the similarities between the two. That prompted them to put a nod in their film, to let people know that they weren’t ripping anyone off. “That’s why we put that whole T2 joke in there. Originally that action figure wasn’t supposed to be a Schwarzenegger doll. It was supposed to be a G.I. Joe,” Fleming said, referring to the action figure that the film’s child cast fights over.

They finished the movie in 1992 and USC started screening it in 1993. It was an instant hit with studio executives. This meant good exposure for Fleming, R. L. and Robiner.

“Overnight it’s like the talk of the town. We’re meeting with every studio president, every agency,” Fleming said. “I don’t think they were ever really gonna give us big movies, but they just wanted to know how the hell we did it.”

But much of the initial attention seemed to be for The Silver Surfer character and not for the filmmakers themselves. Shortly, the studio execs realized that the filmmakers didn’t own the rights to the character. “Overnight we just got totally dropped. Now it’s like Silver Surfer is the big deal and all the studios are fighting over Silver Surfer.”

Eventually Twentieth Century Fox struck a deal for the rights. “So we ended up doing, what some people warned us,” Fleming said. “We ended up making a million dollar commercial for free for Marvel and Constantine.”

However, the film did get them noticed and all parties have gone on to have careers in filmmaking.

Fleming has directed a number of smaller features. He directed Grace Jones and Adam Ant in Cyber Bandits in 1995 based on a script by comic and screen writer James Robinson. In 1999 he directed the as-yet-unreleased Tyrone starring Coolio and the upcoming Nickelodeon Films release My Brother The Pig. Fleming is currently in Hawaii filming a Coolio music video to support Tyrone.

Steve Robiner went on to work as a visual effects supervisor on many films including The Long Kiss Goodnight. He also reteamed with Fleming on Cyber Bandits and My Brother The Pig.

R. L. worked on several high-end computer animation projects for major studios.

Writer Jeff Eastin went on to develop Shasta McNasty for UPN and has another show in development for MTV. He collaborated with Fleming again on the 1999 Jamie Foxx movie Held Up. The pair also collaborated on a spy comedy which didn’t get made, but it did land in the hands of James Cameron. Cameron liked what he saw and tapped Eastin to write the screenplay for True Lies 2.

While Fleming doesn’t have any involvement with the current Silver Surfer development at Fox, he has been keeping an eye on things. “It was sort of frustrating for us because they never gave us a shot at it,” Fleming said. Instead, the studio has worked with a series of A-List writers who they feel aren’t as passionate about the character as they were.

“These scripts were like, he comes to earth, he loses his silver skin, and he’s walking around human the whole movie, and in the end he gets his skin back and flies away,” Fleming said of the scripts he’s read.

However, Fleming is more hopeful that writer Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, Sleepy Hollow) will do well with the character. His sources on the project told him months ago that Walker was working on a draft. “He might crack it because he’s a great writer. I think his deal was that he was going to set it all in space,” Fleming told us. “His deal is to completely can Earth and to make it like a Star Wars kind of movie where the whole thing is set all in outer space, in the future.”

“My dream is to make a film that breaks me out so I can have a crack at Silver Surfer. That it’ll still be sitting there. But it’s just too big of a movie to give to an unknown,” Fleming said.

The director now believes that the technology has evolved to where he could really make the movie the way he and R. L. had originally envisioned it. “Our dream was to take a Val Kilmer or a Liam Neeson or somebody like that and have him play Silver Surfer,” Fleming told us. “Literally capture everything that the actor does. He plays it off a set and you’ve got him wired up and literally, in post, you turn him into the Silver Surfer. But every facial movement, every expression is the actor. And the voice is the actor and it’s all that actor’s performance. So, you’re not replacing an actor with computer animation.”

Some had told Fleming that they should have done their test short with an original character, like a “Gold Man” that they owned, instead of a Silver Surfer that Marvel owned. Such a movie would have kept them riding the wave that their short film started.

“In retrospect we might have done that, but I honestly would say that it would not have come out as good if it wasn’t the Silver Surfer. We were so driven by our passion of wanting to bring that character to life.”

Like this story? Tell the world:
RSS for Posts