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Lost and Found
Sci-Fi Universe, June 1998
Cory Doctorow

Man, I'd love to get my grubby paws on some of that big Hollywood money. I am cursed, though, with an artiste's delicate temprament and besides, I don't have any ideas for screenplays. Nevertheless, it's gratifying as hell to have a fancy-pants screenwriter confide that he gave up on short-story writing because he lacked the talent, and took up screenplay writing instead.


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"Go see Titanic," my friends told me. "You'll love the special effects."

Well, I loved the movie, but I don't know about no "special effects." For my money, if you build a 80% scale model of the Titanic and then sink it, that's not an "effect." That's sinking a ship.

(Granted, it was pretty impressive.)

I mentioned this to Verner Gresty, the soft-spoken Brit who, as the Creative Project Supervisor for Jim Henson's Creature Shop, was in charge of building the robots in the upcoming New Line release, Lost in Space. He'd been telling me about the killer robot, a major "effect" in said film: "The first robot is unlike anything in Lost in Space before -- a huge, killer, planet-forming robot with large weapons and everything else. It's eight feet tall, weighs a ton and a half, and could roll on its tracks at 15 mph. It was a real robot, controlled by four operators: one on the tracks, one on the lower arms and one on the face. We had two more techs with headsets on kill-switches for safety, and it turned out that he was faster than their reaction times and we had to tone him down -- it was quite an eye-opener.

"He was massively strong, a real robot. He had quite a few stunt-shots where he crashes through walls and spins around with people on his back. Matt LeBlanc (Major Don West, Friends' Joey Tribbiani) was at one point mounted on his back and spun around: you wouldn't have known from the robot's movement that there was a guy hanging off his back."

So I says to Verner, "But isn't that a real robot, not a special effect?"

"Maybe not," he replied, "but it's pretty impressive."

Built from aluminum, surfaced with carbon fiber and fiberglass, with 60 channels of remote control, the robot is a miracle of modern animatronics. His gross movements are controlled by high-power, high-speed hydraulics, while his smaller movements are driven by electrical servoes. Drawing 4.5 kilowatts of power through his tracks, the robot is capable of rising from six to eight feet, and can rotate his upper body 360 degrees. His operators are harnessed to waldoes that limit their movements through potentiometer-based feedback mechanisms, in order to insure that the robot doesn't inadvertently obscure a camera-angle, or, more importantly, rearrange an actor's anatomy.

It was quite a departure for the Creature Shop, which has won recent acclaim for the pig in Babe, the Alien, and various cuddly animals in 101 Dalmations.

"The design period was four or five weeks," recalls Gresky, "in which we coordinated with the production designer Norman Garwood. We looked at all the design concepts and built three mock-ups to scale, in wood, so that the director's team could come by and look at them and decide how big they needed to be. We chose one of them, and then our Art Department went ahead and rendered two-dimensional concept drawings. We used those as references, scaled them up in the computer, and started designing. We knew what movements it had to have, how its arms and body had to work. We worked on the computer, designing the mechanicals and internals -- it was unusual for us in that we didn't build a single thing until we'd engineered it all in the computer.

"I suppose we could have done it without a computer, but it wouldn't have been quite as effective. Of course, there's no way we could have built both robots in the time-frame given without computer assistance."

Having turned out detailed blueprints and specs, the Creature Shop, which is housed in an unremarkable three-storey brick factory "'round the back of Camden," turned to its Engineering Department to custom machine all the critical components. From there, the mold-makers and silicone wizards took over, building the behemoths that will soon grace the screen.

Atypical as it is for the Creature Shop, it's still all in a day's work for a place where "once you step behind the front office and the secretary, you're confronted with this wide open space with tons and tons of wild animatronic creatures and people running everywhere -- exciting and marvellous." This is the sort of renaissance shop where "guys come to work for us as mechanics and engineers and end up on-set operating the things they've built." Rather than feel threatened by Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), the Creature Shop has embraced it wholeheartedly, producing many of the CGI shots for Lost in Space. They approach it from the classic Henson "performance-basis," investing it with the trademark craftsmanship that has made this relatively small boutique shop highly sought-after in North America and the Continent. In many instances, a creature will need to be both animatronic and computer-generated, but there is no distinction drawn between the media for the operators: "A lot of the time, we'll perform a model of the creature we're creating in real-time with a puppeteer, and the same puppeteer will perform the CGI," explains Gresky.

Attentive readers will note that there are two robots mentioned above, while the original sit-com only sported one. The story goes a little like this: in the not-too-distant future, Professor John Robinson (William Hurt, Jane Eyre's Rochester), his wife Maureen (Mimi Rogers, Austin Powers' Mrs. Kensington), their daughters Judy (Heather Graham, Scream 2's Casey) and Penny (Lacey Chabert, Party of Five's Claudia), and son Will (Jack Johnson, Love Affair's Matthew) are the first family in space, sent to place a transdimentional portal on a world in Alpha Centauri. Their pilot, Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc), steers their ship professionally, but is thwarted when the saboteur Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element's Zorc) reprograms their terraforming robot -- aha! -- to wreck the ship. After subduing the robot, the marooned family turns to dysfunctional, Rosanne-style sniping, and young Will Robinson rebuilds the robot into the familiar mechanical man we know from the original series.

It's certainly true that the killer robot is a wicked box-office draw; a big, sexy war-bot that will spawn an entire generation of toys and marketing tie-ins. Less obvious is the reason that the writer-producer, Akiva Goldsman (Batman and Robin, A Time to Kill) had for including it.

"We didn't feel it was viable to have something that looked like the old bubblehead robot take off in a high-tech environment. But we wanted him there, so we kill the robot and have Will rebuild it. When a little boy rebuilds the robot, it's OK for it to have the classic look.

"It was fun working with Dick Tufeld [voice of the robot on the TV show]. It was cool -- the voice of the Robot!"

What about insuring a 1.5 ton killer robot? "That's what movie insurers do! They make Lloyd's of London in the old days look provincial! They insure people, they insure heart conditions, they insure drug abuse problems, they insure everything! And you just say, 'Here's the robot, this is how much it weighs, what are you gonna charge me?'" says Goldsman with a chuckle.

Goldsman is an anomaly in filmmaking: a writer-producer. The New Yorker started out as a psychotherapist, working with autistic and schizophrenic children. His training is reflected in the care with which he chooses his words, peppering his speech with uhms, you knows and I means while he searches for the mot juste.

Goldsman's NYU graduate degree in creative writing was getting him nowhere -- "I had rejection notices from every magazine there is, even the really good hand-written ones from the New Yorker. But I could never sell a piece of fiction: I studied it, wrote it, but after a while, I felt that I was probably good enough to write screenplay, 'cause I think fiction is a higher art-form. Screenplay takes some skill and some talent, but not the amount that a great novel or moreso a great short-story requires.

"So I took what I knew about writing and I went to old Robert McKee, the great screenwriting teacher, and I took his three-day seminar and kind of wrote my way out of my life."

The life he wrote for himself is a very successful one. While working as a scriptwriter on four Joel Schumacher films (The Client, 1994; Batman Forever, 1995; A Time to Kill, 1996 and Batman and Robin, 1997), the therapist-cum-writer found himself increasingly included in the movie-making process. He "learned how movies are made, not just at the script level -- which is where most writers stop -- but at the production level. And I really like it! I don't think I'm a director, but I do like to have some participation in the execution of the page. It seems like a real great combination for me -- though we'll have to see whether the world agrees."

It all seems to come back to children with Goldsman. "Lost in Space appeals to the child's imagination in all of us early-sixties-born kids. Most of us saw the show in syndication and it touched a chord, and I'm hoping that it hits the same chord now that we've aged.

"It was my favorite show when I was a kid. If one gets a chance to revisit that which made you happy when you were short, then that's the gift of getting to be in the entertainment industry.

"When I was a kid, I read all the Heinlein stuff, starting with Red Planet when I was twelve, and then all of Niven -- I lived in Known Space forever -- and then everybody, from Silverberg to A.E. Van Vogt and all the way up to Gibson, everything from Clarke to Asimov. That's what I fed on when I was a kid! My father had all the Amazing Stories and Analogs from the fifties, they're still in my house. I'd read them all and I'd discover, say, a Frederic Brown story, and then I'd find a collection of his. I loved it, I traipsed all over that map. For Lost in Space, we're trying to be a little more sci-fi than silly, and hopefully the public will like that.

"I suppose my orientation is towards children, because my orientation is towards the nine-year-old that's posing inside the clothes I'm wearing. I think a certain kind of popular entertainment is for children -- whether they be chronological children or children walking around in grown-up jobs.

"Films have always to some extent been nostalgic. It's just that now we have a different media-base to draw from. Movies have hearkened back to novels that predate them, because that was the range of storytelling we had to draw from. Now, though, we have TV storytelling, which has just reached the ripe old age of being nostalgia-ready. You couldn't be nostalgic about TV shows twenty years ago, because they just hadn't been around long enough.

"This isn't a campy movie, though. I'm not a huge fan of camp. I think that what appealed to me about Lost in Space when I was a kid -- what I think appealed to the people who will come to see the movie -- was the actual idea of a family in space. Real family, real space, real people, real peril, you know? I always liked that. Certainly, this is not a hyperreal movie, but it is reality-based. We try to have the emotional truth of the scenes consistent with the emotional truth of people walking around on a daily basis. It's just that rather than facing drinking problems and sudden death as one faces in standard melodrama, one faces exploding planets and invasive aliens."

He's unapologetic about his subject-matter: "I don't draw any distinction between pop culture and high culture. It's all about historical perspective: so much of what we think of as high culture was pop culture at the time.

"I love what I love. I will race to a Stephen King book when it comes out and really dig it. I had all kinds of years when I went out and studied and read and now I get to make what I love for a living -- until they stop me! -- and what I love is mainstream entertainment."

Despite the exploding planets, robots-gone-bad, and marauding aliens, the real tension in the movie comes out of the family's interpersonal relations. Young Will seeks a father to replace the largely absent John Robinson, and comes dangerously close to supplanting him with the sinister Dr. Smith. Judy struggles with a latent Electra complex, while Penny tries to come to grips with her pre-teen angst.

"I've never understood functional families, so this would be the only possible way to write it," explains Goldsman. "I wanted to bring things in line with what we now know about emotional truth. Even simplistic stories today have to take into account the rough spots between people, and that's where I think real drama comes from. The family members are just extrapolations of the original characters, but a little more edgy. I hope."

On the surface, it would appear that the path to transforming a sit-com to a feature film is a pretty smooth road. But appearances deceive: for many of us, Lost in Space is a part of our childhoods, and we all claim a morsel of ownership over its place. The Internet rumor-mill has been working overtime on the picture, churning out stories of on-set acrimony, speculations on plot-twists and the politics of securing the original cast for the obligatory cameos. In addition to the abovementioned voice of the original robot, Dick Tufeld; June Lockhart (the original Maureen Robinson) appears as Will's put-upon schoolteacher; Marta Kristen (the original Judy Robinson) appears as a reporter covering the launch of the ship; Angela Cartwright appears as talk-show guest and Mark Goddard appears as the General responsible for the mission. Guy Williams, the original John Robinson, died in 1989 of a heart attack. Two notable cameos are missing: Jonathan Harris, the original Dr. Smith, won't be in the movie, neither will Billy Mumy, the original Will Robinson. According to Goldsman, Harris "felt it would be a lot of travel, hard on an older man. Also, part of who he was was Dr. Smith, and while he was very supportive of the movie, he didn't want to appear as anyone but Dr. Smith." As to Mumy, Goldsman insists that the rumor circulating that he turned down a cameo when the Studio offered him $7500 for the part isn't true, but that rather that "since Billy was doing Babylon 5 in LA and we were shooting in the UK, it just couldn't happen."

At $70-$80 million, this is the most expensive picture that New Line has ever undertaken, with nearly twice the number of effects shots seen in Jurassic Park. It's clear that they intend to milk their investment for a fat return: there's a cartoon series debuting, Halloween masks, an advertising campaign for Altoids starring the bubblehead robot, a major toy deal with Trendmasters, publishing deals with HarperPrism and Dark Horse comics and collectible card deals with Inkworks.

I asked Goldsman about the toy line, which is rumored to consist of action figures, playsets, vehicles and accessories drawn from the film and the original series. "Well," he mused, "I'm looking at what's called the 'Battle-Ravaged Robot.' It looks good! It says, 'Try me, movie sounds.' [Bleeping noises] OK, those sounds are not in the movie." Goldsman laughed. "But really, I am very conscious of the images that come from the movie, and careful of how we present them. Toys, though, for the most part just need to be correct in terms of spirit and design. You know, toys extrapolate from movies rather than just reflecting them. That's certainly true of the zillion Batman dolls, some of which have nothing to do with the movie and the comic-book. Toys are a place where people are free to imagine -- as long as that imagining is consistent with the film."

New Line expects to continue making money off the Lost in Space franchise for a long time. There's rumors of a new live-action TV show, and the Studio's press kits mention a series of film sequels, though Goldsman has his doubts: "I wish they wouldn't talk about sequels! Let's get this one under our belt, see if people like it and go forward from there. Look, I feel lucky enough to get to make just one. If people want more, the we wanna make more, but I think it's presumptuous to say, 'Yeah man, we'll make nine of 'em.' That's a corporate perspective -- it's one that I understand but not one that I want to jump on."

Shot on eight sound stages at Shepperton Studios in the UK, Lost in Space was a treat to work on. "It was like summer camp," remembers Goldsman wistfully. "We were in London for seven months." Don't ask him for war-stories from the production, though. As a producer, the exotic rollercoaster ride of making a movie is merely day-to-day work. "I was doing a Lost in Space convention a couple weeks ago and I asked everybody to tell their most horrific story, and Gary [Oldman] told the story about when the set caught on fire. I don't remember that stuff! I remember, 'We've got this many setups to do and we're this many days behind.' Then there are moments when you turn around and say, 'Oh my God! We're actually making this movie.

"What about when the set caught on fire? Uh, the set caught on fire. We were doing a huge setup, and there was a lot of exploding and a lot of fire, and the set caught on fire, but Gary [Oldman] and Matt [LeBlanc] didn't know. So while we were evacuating the set, Gary and Matt are still doing the scene, which I thought was admirable."

Talk about yer "Danger, Will Robinson!" Lost in Space opens April 3, 1998 in the USA and is tentatively scheduled for July 31, 1998 in the UK.

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