It’s always fascinating to dive into the inner workings of Hollywood, but during the COVD-19 pandemic, things are a little more tense as the movie industry sits and waits.
One such Hollywood creator is visual effects guru and producer Richard J. Cook, who just wrapped up visual effects on season one of the Netflix smash series Locke & Key. He’s also gearing up for the release of Gold Dust, his latest venture as a producer.
Movie fans might have noticed his name in credits for films like Independence Day, Star Trek: First Contact and Men In Black.
Cook called from Hollywood to chat about Gold Dust, Locke & Key and everything Hollywood.
How are you making out during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Well, I am actually currently in between gigs because when we wrapped our last show, which was January 31st, I was put in a holding pattern for season two of this show as well as some other Netflix shows I was lined up for. So now because of the pandemic, everything’s on hold and I’m basically living off of savings and seeing what the market does, what the industry’s going to do here as things pan out, and then jump back in when the timing’s right. So basically in a holding pattern.
It sounds like a lot of us. So what’s the actual vibe in Hollywood like right now?
Oh, it’s very tense. Most people are scrambling to figure out how to do work from home jobs if they’re not already taken care of through some sort of bridge, whether that be employment that continues to pay them for consulting, or if it’s some type of long term contract arrangement where they get paid regardless of the productions that are going on. But outside of that, people are scrambling to figure out how to set up home offices, work remotely, and it’s a scary time.
Do you do a lot of work from home or do you have to go on set and travel?
Travel. I’m on set a lot. I’m on my last show for Netflix, Locke and Key season one. I was in the post-production office, so I had to report to an office for that specific show. But in the past I’ve traveled for, whether it be a TV or film project, that one in particular, the one I just wrapped, did not. I think I traveled twice once to Vancouver, once to Montreal just visiting visual effects houses. So that was not a job that required a lot of travel for me, which is good. I like to stay in my home base of Los Angeles.
Interestingly, you worked on the film Virus. Tell me about that film.
Many, many years ago. It’s coming back full circle and was a little bit more sci-fi. At the time, those types of films were something that were far off from our reality and we really weren’t all that concerned about something like that actually happening. So it felt very much in the fantasy world at the time. But circling back, I’ve noticed that Outbreak is a very popular film on Netflix right now, which is funny that people would be interested in watching doom and gloom while we’re experiencing a bit of that. But I guess that’s just human nature.
Hollywood has been fortelling stories for a long time.
It’s interesting because we as a human race, like to see pandemics, we like to see things played out on screen. We don’t like to experience them, but we like to watch them happen for some reason. The end of the world, we’ve got a lot of those movies, right? But when things manifest into reality, it gets a little scary.
Was there a movie or a TV show that you’ve worked on that felt very real?
Well, I mean most of the projects I’ve worked on have been heavily sci-fi films. There was a film I worked on, it was based on the book of Esther, the Old Testament book where Esther is a young orphan Jewish girl who saves her people from annihilation. That one felt real, I think more than any of the others because it was an actual historical piece. So it was a biblical, epic historical time period. That was a true story that we brought to life, so that felt real because of that. When you’re in visual effects, especially during the ‘90s most movies, or TV shows, or scifi, or end of the world, or something fantastical where images were not commonplace, you’d see things that were far removed from reality. Independence Day, aliens invading earth, so we did a lot of space shifts, and explosions, and war scenes with an alien race.
Is stuff like that easier than reality?
Well sometimes, I mean it depends on the type of effect it is. If you’re doing some type of a creature effect, it’s always going to be harder than if you’re doing just a hard, shiny spaceship or something that’s a little bit easier to marry into the plate. Because the realism is harder on an anatomical level where you’re dealing with a body and structure in terms of you have skin and bone, and dealing with eyes and various things like that, it’s always going to be a lot harder than doing something that is inanimate.
Like many in Hollywood, you’re multifaceted. Tell me some of the things that you do.
I actually started in visual effects back in the early ‘90s out of a vendor called Vision Art that was based in Santa Monica and that’s where I cut my piece. I got into the industry, really learned how it worked from a post-production standpoint, because we had to deal with film editors, and getting the picture locked, sound lock, picture lock, all that stuff was important for a visual effects house to get right. So I learned a lot, worked on a lot of big pictures, $100 million features. So I got to see the large scale production. And then in 2000 I went to work for a small independent feature film company called Generation Entertainment, and actually moved into more of the creative where I could produce, be a named producer on the project and have a lot more say in what was going on, where we were shooting, who we would hire, stuff like that.
So that’s where I learned movie making from the ground up. Learned a little bit of that in college, but that really pales in comparison to experience. So when you go through scripting a project all the way to final finishing and then delivering it to a theater, I saw the entire process and it was fascinating and I really enjoyed it. So I was able to be a producer on many independent features from 2000 up until even just a couple of years ago when we finished our small indie project called Gold Dust, which is actually releasing in a couple of weeks on digital. So still very much in that world. But last year dove back into visual effects when I had an opportunity to work for Netflix on a show called Locke and Key. I went back into the visual effects world briefly last year, it was multi fold. I wanted to sharpen my skills in the visual effects industry as well as it was a really nice, well paying gig for a year. So, hard to turn those types of things down.
The visual effects world must be changing all the time. I mean, technology changes, right?
Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s one of those industries where the change from when I got into it to now is so vastly different. Filmmaking as a whole isn’t that much different, but the technology’s a little different where, for instance, you’re shooting on digital cameras instead of film, but that doesn’t change the art of it. Whereas visual effects has changed so dramatically technologically that it does change the art of it. It changes whether we’re doing key frame animation, or motion capture, or ultimately, now we’re looking at literally capturing the movement of an actor and changing their face to be somebody else, creating digital characters. That is a vastly different piece of the visual effects world that never existed before.
Visual effects can be very different film to film. Is there something you’d have to do to prepare for each film that’s different?
It depends on the type of film it is. A lot of times if we’re doing a sci-fi, you’re going to use a lot more of the compositing tricks, set extensions, things like that where you read about Star Wars for instance, their original feature films were shot basically all on camera and then visual effects were applied later and minimally at that, it was a lot of different compositing of models and scale explosions. Whereas nowadays when we prepare for something, we really start more with what the effect is, what we’re trying to achieve, how to shoot it for that effect. And a lot of times we will change the sets based on what the cost is. For instance, on Locke and Key, this show that just came out on Netflix, there’s a mansion called Key House, and instead of building the entire exterior of the building, they built only the first two floors and the rest was a green screen or a blue screen.
It was actually green and they would paint just the top of it, so that we had some clean edges to drop our CG top of the house on it. And it was deemed to be cheaper that way. So they didn’t have to build the whole thing. So we just did it in the computer and that changes dramatically the setup for all those shots, every time the camera catches a glimpse of that green at the top of the set, we know we got to make that a visual effect and drop the house on top of that. The planning is very important, and the cinematographer and the director have to coordinate which way the camera’s pointing and how high it’s tilted up and all of that matters. So if they catch a little bit of that green, we either have to push in or we have to make that a visual effects shot and the cost goes up. So that’s just an example of how the steps can change and how the prep changes based on what we deem we can do in the computer later on. And it works, it amortizes nicely over multiple seasons.
Is there one defining effect that you would say is your ultimate effect that people would recognize in a film?
Oh gosh. I often go back to Independence Day because that’s a show that won an Oscar for best visual effects. And one of the reasons is because the visual effects house we were particularly working with at the time, or I was working for, had a lot of brand new technology and one of which was what we now call a flocking software, where you have multiple characters doing something on screen, CG characters, in this case those characters were planes, F18s, or alien fighters, and they were dog fighting in the air. And for the longest time, Roland Emmerich was pushing for as many planes and just an epic battle in the sky as he could get, and a lot of these visual effects houses just couldn’t handle it. Because back then it was a lot of key frame animation. It just took too much and time is money in visual effects.
So we had a technology, it was actually called Sparky, and it was a particle generator, and some of the smart guys at our facility were able to figure out ways to make those planes and alien attackers basically take on the movement of those particles and then they wrote scripts and figured out how to have certain planes fire at others, and certain planes blow up, and others evade or dodge fire power. It ended up becoming such an amazing effect that I think that’s what tipped the film in the favor of winning that Academy Award. So I would say those dog fight scenes in Independence Day are probably the most memorable and something I’m really proud of. I was at the time working with that company as a digital coordinator, but working my way into the visual effects producing role on that film. So it was a really neat time to rise the ranks and be on a big picture like that, and get rewarded the way we did with that Academy Award.
Funny enough, Independence Day and the Star Trek films are on my self-quarantine list to watch. So now I have something to look forward to when I watch Independence Day again. A lot of people would be jealous because you got to work on a Star Trek film. I mean sci-fi, Comic-Con people, they would just be like, “You are my hero.”
Yeah. It was a neat experience. There’s a lot of Trekkies out there, trekkers, however you say it, that it was great to be able to interact with the crew, and we got to work with Jonathan Frakes who’s very popular on the Generations Star Trek, Star Trek Generations series back in the ‘80s, ‘90s, but he directed that film, actually. He’s one of the stars but did a fantastic job, really sweet guy to work with, and that was cool to be immersed in that show. We only did a few shots on the show, but we were very involved and it was a lot of fun because we get to interact with a lot of the crew and we were able to take a lot of their models and things back then they were still building models like physical miniatures that we would then extend into the CG world, whether that would be a set extension, or create a ship flying up into the sky, or whatever the effect was.
So it was a fun experience and really enjoyed working on it. And I also worked on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for a while. And I personally was an animator on many episodes as a 2D animator taking the Odo character, who was a shape shifter, he would turn into this gold goo, and that gold goo would flow into a different shape, and then it would morph into some other creature, or a thing. We were able to take that, bring goo from our CG department and then morph it back into whether it was taking it from the actor to the goo or to the goo back to the actor. We got to do a lot of different cool effects. And that was back when that effect was a new thing. So that was fun to see and be a part of.
Now let’s talk about your new film Gold Dust. Firstly, tell me about the movie.
It’s a fun film. It’s great for kids and adults. I think it’s got that dual demographic that adults can enjoy, but kids will just get a really good solid laugh out of, because it is silly, but at the same time it’s got a strong moral message. And I think it’s a solid film. David Wall did an amazing job directing, well he wrote it, he directed it, starred in it, and he produced with me. So it was a just an honor to work with him again. I had worked with him on a project a few years before that and I’m also working with him on developing some new screenplays as well. But it was an honor to work with him. He scoured the desert for two years before production to find locations. And when he did, they were just fantastic.
So we’ve got amazing locations. We got really good talent, young, fresh, new talent, some veterans, some brand new. So it was a real interesting mix. But the way David leads a production and pulls out the best out of these actors is just amazing to watch. And then when you see it on the screen when it’s all done, it’s like, “Wow.” Because that’s a real tough, you read the script and you laugh, but it’s, “Wow, this is crazy. Where’s the story going?” And then he pulls it all together in the end, literally the last scene of the movie. And it’s just fun to just see all that craziness come and coalesce into a really solid moral message. It’s neat to see that. And so he’s very talented. I loved the film, I loved the script and that’s why I helped him make it, and really, really think he did a fantastic job with what he had to work with it. It’s a fairly low budget, but you wouldn’t know that necessarily watching the finished product. So very proud of that project.
Well I hear there’s a guy that does visual effects that’s involved with the film, right?
Well we got it. We actually had a few guys that I pulled from past projects and some that were new young guys that knocked out quite a few shots in just a very little time. I mean I was used to digital sky replacements taking weeks and these guys on their laptops will just take these shots and change them into, for day for night for instance, where we shot during the day, we darken it down and then we replace the sky to put stars in there. They would do these shots several times a day. They just kick them out and they look fantastic. The film has a real magical quality because of the way we shot it and the quality of the visual effects. It just really came together. The young talent out there today is amazing.
They grab their laptops and do this stuff and it’s just second nature to them. The older I get, the harder it is for me to navigate from one part of the screen to the other. And these guys are racing all over the place with their mouse and keyboards and it’s neat to see that. But yeah, we had a lot of great talent and the visual effects turned out fantastic. It’s what we would call invisible visual effects because there isn’t a whole lot of explosions, or there’s no sci-fi element to it. So you’re not really going to see any visual effects that you could point out. But the film overall has a lot of visual effects in it where we’re changing the skies out, or we’re painting something out, or creating just a certain mood based on how it looks as opposed to digitally inserting something. So it’s one of those films where you look at it and you’re like, “Yeah, it was pretty much shot all on camera,” except for the exception of one shot at the very beginning where you see this old shit off in the desert. We didn’t have the budget to build a giant ship like that. So it’s a CG implementation on that one and it’s pretty obvious, but everything else looks like it’s just shot in camera.
You talked a little bit about the humor in the movie. You could probably sit there and do science fiction all day without thinking about it. But humor, I bet it’s a little bit harder.
Humor is difficult because it translates differently for the audience. For instance, American humor doesn’t always work overseas or vice versa. I think comedy is, in a lot of ways, more challenging than drama or other, obviously action flares and things like that where the acting is second place to the effects or the action. Whereas comedy, you got to get it right and it’s all about delivery, and you can write something down on a script and you can laugh, but you get that to the screen and sometimes it just doesn’t translate, doesn’t work for a number of factors. So you have to have someone who’s very strong in their convictions about the comedy that they see it through all the way and are able to maintain that integrity of the joke. It’s very difficult to do that. David does it brilliantly. I like the dry humor he has, so I get it, I watch it and I laughed my head off. Other people may not, but I do think that if you understand the movie going into it and the type of humor it is, you’re going to really enjoy it. And it’s something that I think David did a brilliant job executing.
I saw on IMDb that it might’ve had a different name, but you stuck with it.
Well it was Pixie Dust at the very, very beginning. And that was something that we thought we’d run into some trouble with Disney on. We changed it to Gold Dust and ultimately had no trouble there. But yeah, every now and then you run into issues like that where you may have the right to do it, it doesn’t mean you should. You never want to fool the audience into thinking that this is something that’s not. So, pixie’s just too associated with Disney. So we wanted to steer clear of that. But that was the original screen play naming.
In your career, you’ve only been on camera in one production according to IMDb, Gone Are The Days. Do you like being on camera?
I enjoy it for the novelty. I am not an actor, wouldn’t want to be, but I enjoyed sitting on a horse in a Western just to do it because it was fun. It was a one day experience. My daughter owns horses so I was able to just practice on one of hers and then getting to set and jumping on a horse, I felt pretty comfortable. But yeah, it was a three seconds scene in the movie. Just because it was fun and the director’s like, “Yeah, you should get in there.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So it wasn’t any career change or move on my part, just having fun.
I totally get that. I was an extra in 2012 in Vancouver when they were filming it and you know, just to be onscreen for a couple seconds was fun enough. Right?
Right, right. And well in a film like that, it’s fascinating to watch everybody work. And Roland Emmerich is a great director. I really enjoy working with him. And there’s just a lot of cool stuff you can experience as an extra on a big movie set.
Of all the films you’ve worked on, is there one that you would have loved to have had that little three second piece in?
Well, I probably would have been interested in being in One Night with the King, which was that biblical epic I was telling you about earlier, which was shot in Rajasthan India. There was 1,500 extras, there was animals, we had camels and elephants, and I mean it was just a fascinating, the costumes were amazing. The locations were phenomenal. I unfortunately was not able to be a part of that production. I was really a producer, producing from the US though at that time, managing the money in the budgets, and then post-production as we got the dailies back. But I was actually pretty ill at the time so I couldn’t travel. So I do regret not being able to be more involved in the production on that or even being an extra in it. Because I heard it was just a phenomenal experience for everybody involved. So that was probably one I was like, “Oh shucks, wish I could have been involved on that one a little bit more,” but I was very involved overall on the entire project from budgeting all the way to final delivery and pretty proud of that one. It’s an epic movie so if you have time, check it out, it’s called One Night with the King.
I wanted to talk about Locke and Key before I let you go. What do you think makes that show work so well? Because it became a Netflix hit right away.
Oh well it was originally a Joe Hill graphic novel, and Joe Hill’s got quite a following. I mean Locke and Key is no unknown IT, people know about it. It’s got a lot of fan base built in. So we had that going into it. But I got to tell you when I first started and when I read the script, I thought it was phenomenal. So this was very well written. Carlton Cuse, the show runner, is incredible at pulling a team together to get the scripts to a place where they’re just, they hit all the right beats, they hit the right points, everything is understood clearly. The execution of the screenplay was phenomenal. The directing, the acting was really strong, and of course the cinematography, and I’m biased, but I think the visual effects are outstanding.
So it all came together. We had a perfect team of people both on production and post production to really make that what it was, because it could have taken a sour turn and not been nearly as good if one of those links in that chain broke. And I felt like we really had a solid standard for all departments on that show. And it just came together beautifully. So, and we did extend our schedule so that we could allow the visual effects houses to really shine and finish the project. Ran into some trouble, some of the visual effects group really difficult to pull off. And we were able to solve that by extending a little bit. So I was actually going to originally wrap on the show in November and I went all the way to the end of January, literally seven days before its release I was working on it.
It was fun to actually have the reviews come out because we had sent it to the press already. So we were reading reviews while we were still working on it, which is a unique experience. Usually you wrap a show and months later you hear how it does. I liked to hear positive reactions to it even before I was off it. The quality, I think ultimately is what’s going to cause that thing to just keep going and going. They’re already green lighting season two. Once everything calms down with what’s going on right now, they’re going to jump right in. I may or may not be a part of that, just depending on whether I’m on another project at time. But they actually need a visual effects producer. But a great show to work on with great people and really enjoyed working with Netflix.
Netflix has really changed things a lot. Are you in the Netflix world? Is that a different entity from Hollywood altogether? They must coexist together, but are they separate?
Well, it’s just like any other studio, as they get more and more into content creation, which they are heavily into, I mean, they’re running at a loss just to create content to compete with the other, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon, now Apple, lot of these mega companies are pouring billions into content each year. So Netflix has to keep up with that. The landscape’s changed, but the business hasn’t, it’s really just the same. It’s just different players. So before you’d have Fox, and Paramount, and Universal, and Sony, and all these major studios, which still exist and they’re still there, but now we’ve got new players like Netflix and Amazon. What would be considered streaming platforms are now actual studios in and of themselves. They hire studio executives, they manage like studios.
They allocate budgets, spend money on production, and then instead of dropping them in the theater, they just put them on their website and rock and roll. So from that perspective, the industry’s completely different because now they don’t have to spend millions on advertising theatrically, and creating the prints, and doing all that you had to do to get a movie into a theater, which is very expensive. Now they just have put a banner ad on the top of their website, make it available for streaming, and rock and roll. So they really changed the industry from that perspective.
I bet as an industry guy though, there’s nothing better than seeing your work on a big screen.
Actually, yes, it really does change it for us. It’s sad to think, and we do this now even in this day and age where we’re delivering for two audiences. And when I worked on Locke and Key, some people have big home theaters or projectors, and so we want it to look amazing in 4K for them, so we’re doing it to that quality. But it’s disheartening in a way to know a majority of the viewers are going to watch this on a tiny little screen, whether it be their phone, or their laptop, or their iPad because they’re going to miss so much the detail that we painstakingly put into the project. But that’s just life.
We do all this work to get color just right. And then it compresses down when it streams and you lose all that and it’s like, “Ah, this was a beautiful shot on, in the color bay when we were tweaking it for hours on end,” and now they’re looking at it and it just looks like any other shot. They’re like, “Oh, that’s painful.” But that’s the way of the world. That’s how consumers are consuming. We have to just be prepared for that and understand that. But we still do it to a very high standard 4K HDR that has all the resolution and color space of any film going to a theater.
With that theater in mind, my last question, What was your reaction the first time you saw your work on a screen?
Yeah, it’s going to be in those early days. Back in the early ‘90s, there was a few films I remember specifically I worked on a film called Cliffhanger, didn’t do a whole lot for it, but it was just a Sylvester Stallone film. And I remember seeing that for the first time on the big screen and thinking, “Wow, I get to be a part of that.” Or I was a part of that, and then saw my name in the credits and I think it was career altering for me since back then you didn’t have that many credits. Now you have Star Wars or Marvel movies and you’re sitting there for 10 minutes with 10 rows of names you have to squint to see. But back then, the names weren’t quite as many. So your name’s a little more real estate on the screen, but it was fun to see that one, it was one of the first ones I got to be a part of. So that was a neat experience.