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BONUS EPISODE: Snow leopards, giant ants and Oscar-winning special effects artists

 April 18, 2024 at 11:10 AM PDT

CINEMA JUNKIEBONUS PODCAST: Snow leopards, giant ants, and Oscar-winning special effects artists

THEM! FILM CLIPWe may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true, and there's to be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beast will reign over the earth.


BETH ACCOMANDOWelcome back to listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie. I'm Beth Acomando. April brings two of my favorite film festivals, and this year, they both ended up on the same weekend. There's the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase here in San Diego. First up, I want to talk to Ben Burt and Craig Baron about their presentation at the TCM Film Festival. Craig and Ben both come from an effects background, but I asked them to elaborate on how they come from different ends of the spectrum. Ben working in sound design and Craig in visual effects.


CRAIG BARRONYeah, well, I think the idea is that we complement ourselves as the team. It started back when we were researching some of the academy awards that were given to visual effects movies. Ben pointed out that the Visual Effects Award was also the Audio Effects Award, meaning that the film would receive an award for the sound effects and for the visual effects. That led us to discuss why and get involved in making presentations. Then we just kept doing that. I think that basically in creating illusions, there's the visual component and the audio component. So we work together and we talk shop and discuss how something was created. We like to look back at traditional filmmaking techniques, some of which we've moved on to digital, but we love the originals because that's what inspired us to want to get involved in making films.


BEN BURTT Both of us are film lovers and film historians, and this gave us a chance. I think at some point, it Part of the motive for doing it was a conversation like, Hey, Craig, what would you like to see if we could get a nice print at the academy or someone to get a nice print for us or TCM? And we'd pick a title, adventures of Robin hood or something. And that was an opportunity to host a screening for a favorite film. So there was that aspect of it as well. As Craig has said, the final illusion in any movie is picture and sound together. And so we would bring together, come down those roads and it's going to intersect to take a look at the final results in any movie. But we've since expanded our interest as well. Sometimes we'll talk about stunt work, like when we did Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or We did a whole program on aviation once, and we really talked about aviation history and how the 100 years from the Wright brothers onward, film and aviation developed together and had a huge cultural impact. So We have not limited ourselves to just special effects.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd this year, you have chosen THEM!. So what led to this decision?


BEN BURTT We love giant ants.


THEM! FILM CLIPNature, mad, rampant, wrought its most awesome creation. For born in that swirling inferno of radioactive dust were things so horrible, so terrifying, so hideous. There is no word to describe them.


BEN BURTT One of the premises our show is that we try to unearth rare or unseen information about the making and the behind the scenes activity of a film. So we have been very interested in the science fiction films that we saw as kids, the science fiction films of the 1950s, that classic era. We've done War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide. That was just on our list for a number of years, but we didn't bring it forward until we knew we could find some new and interesting stories about how it was made to reveal to our audience. We finally found some material, and that triggered this for this year's festival.


CRAIG BARRONWe have an agreement that unless we can find something that we feel we can bring to it that's more unique and different, we really don't want to do the title. But somehow, once we focus on something, we do tend to come up with material and we often say, Well, I don't think we're going to be able to find anything interesting about that title. But somehow we always look back afterwards and go, Hey, that was a pretty good show. We tend to love the process of discovery. We call it an architectural dig.


BEN BURTT Archeological dig, yeah.


CRAIG BARRONArcheological dig, yeah. Sorry about that. We have called our series Secrets from the Hollywood Archives because we love to go and see if there's material that perhaps hasn't been shown before or in some way, revealing the creative process. Because most of the people that made these movies really didn't have a chance to talk about them. So we'd love to reveal their creative process. As a team, both Ben and I admire these films. As Ben said, they inspired us to want to be filmmakers.


BEN BURTT The films in the classic era of Hollywood, there's very little documentation about behind-the-scenes crafts, behind-the-scene crafts. What has survived is stories of the stars and maybe the major directors But finding information on how the visual effects were achieved or, to be very rare, any sound work on the film is extremely hard to find, and it only shows up in the rarest instances.


CRAIG BARRONOur first program was a film called The Rains came, which received the visual effects Oscar in 1939. When you look back at 1939, you go, Well, gee, the Wizard of Oz and The Gone with the Wind. I mean, 1939 was considered the high point of studio system production. The film that we chose is the obscure one that nobody knows about. Why did this film win an Oscar over the other much more popular and well-known movies? We'd love to find that more interesting approach to the material that we present.


BETH ACCOMANDOI don't want you to give away anything from this year's presentation, so I don't want you to have to reveal any spoilers. But talk a little bit about that research and what access are you getting to studio archives or where else are you finding information?


CRAIG BARRONSo there's no real one way. Some things come from the studio archives. Sometimes there are stock shots, sometimes there's private collections. Obviously, we have a very close working relationship with the Academy of Motion, Picture, Arts, and Sciences in their archives. But it's really a matter of, since Ben and I both talk shop, we have a way to understand how we can use the material and adapt it with an explanation that the audience can understand. There are a lot of things that are in the archives that maybe somebody doesn't know what they are that we can find and add value to by discovering it.


BEN BURTT We've had a good relationship with the archives at Paramount and the film library at Warner Brothers. We have people there that know what we're looking for and know what interests us. And so on occasion, when they discover something or we go to them with a question, they're able to assist in going into the vaults, finding some cans of material, whatever that we can look at.


CRAIG BARRONAnd they hardly ever hang up anymore.


BEN BURTT Yeah, they don't have. We go to like, USC Special Collections has a lot on the Warner Brothers. We go to the George Eastman house, collection in Rochester, and we make inquiries there. We will talk to fans and collectors who might have set something aside, an article or an artifact about a science fiction film or something we're pursuing. And so we do the usual shopping among all these sources.


CRAIG BARRONAnd these are broad collections, which are what's so great about them. It's there to find and it's protected Quite often, not really knowing if it'll have some further purpose in the future, we try to find the value of those items and bring them to light for the public for their enjoyment and appreciation in the craft of making movies and the people that came before us.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd just to give people an idea of the length that you guys go to, talk a little bit about what you did for When Worlds Collide and really changing that whole audio experience we were having in the theater.


CRAIG BARRONBen got a little out of control on that one.


BEN BURTT Yeah, we did talk about maybe creating a giant ant to come on stage with us.


CRAIG BARRONWell, there was the flame thrower idea.


BEN BURTT We actually found a flame or a prop, but we just couldn't figure out how to use live fire on stage and make sure it was safe and affordable. We are a minor showman. We try to do something beyond just a lecture of material. We want to find interesting photographs. We want to have guests on occasion. We'll have a guest. We had Robbie the Robot years ago when we did Forbidden Planet. That was a very rare event. We have Richard Bellas, who is a young child actor who was in them. We have a video interview with him. He's not attending. We try to search and find anything we can to find first-hand stories if they exist, but the behind-the-scenes craftsmanship in these films.


BETH ACCOMANDOYou didn't mention you did Ben Surround sound, right? Isn't that what you called the When Worlds Collide?


BEN BURTT Last year, we were thinking of what gimmick might be attached to our show to make it, once again, deliver a-Not gimmick, value-added. Okay, value-added experience, like William Castle would do. But it came about because the film seemed to offer some events in it for sound. The ship is boarding. Rumble of a rocket, this rumble of an earthquake, and the destruction of the Earth. And George Powell had said in interviews back at the time that they wanted to get as much low-end theaters could play at that time with a different technology. And so we felt that we could further his dream and still not be disrupting his intention of producing that film and add a huge rumble. There was a sense around years ago in the '70s, which was a universal, had a system to add a huge low-frequency rumble during the earthquake movies, and we wanted something like that. So fortunately, it worked out that we were able to… Boston Light and Sound, who set up the festival, went over the top and gave us just what we wanted to generate a bend-surround track.


CRAIG BARRONYeah, and in the rehearsals, we had to tone way down. If you wanted to keep all your teeth after the screening.


BETH ACCOMANDOBut the building is still standing.


CRAIG BARRONIt is, but we did blow the doors open at one point because of the positive pressure at that It did push the doors open. And Ben had to turn that... He turned it past 11:00 at that one point, and he's got to put a blocker on that because you just can't help it.


BEN BURTT Well, it's a soundman. We're dangerous when you give us that knob.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd for people who may not have ever attended a TCM Film Festival, can you give a sense to them of why this festival feels so special and why you guys devote all this time to creating these amazing programs?


BEN BURTT It's the group experience that people don't get as much nowadays. That is the group experience of watching a motion picture with a crowd of people all paying attention in a darkened room. That was the intention behind the exhibition of the classic films that the festival presents. And those of us that saw films in theaters when that was your only choice and television was not qualitative enough and so on, remember those experiences. The gathering of fans together to appreciate a film or discover a new film is really, I think, the energy that's the payoff for people attending the festival. And for us, it's the same thing. We want to be there to share what we know with an audience and then present the film for the audience to enjoy.


CRAIG BARRONI mean, for me, it's absolutely my favorite film festival. And people from all over the world come to Hollywood for the festival. There are local people, of course, but people from all over who are coming and enjoying it, who are really film fans and love classic movies. And it's exposing classic movies to another generation of young people who are coming to these festivals and seeing these films on the big screen. It's wonderful to watch TCM because you get to see things that maybe you've never seen before or something will be on. You go, I've never seen that before. That's interesting. But to actually go into a theater and see it with people that want to see the film and are excited to be there is just a fantastic experience, and we're so happy to be a part of that. Sometimes people come up to us afterwards and say, I just really appreciate knowing a little bit more about how the classic films were made in a slightly different approach that we like to take. We like to talk shop because I work in visual effects, Ben does sound, and we can interpret what the tools and techniques that the classic filmmakers were using, which for the most part is starting to be receding into the past, and that information is starting to get lost. So we want to revisit it whenever we can.


BETH ACCOMANDOThat was Craig Baron and Ben Burtt. They'll be presenting them at the TCM Film Festival on Friday. Now I talk to Brian Hu, Artistic Director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Their spring showcase starts today. And first off, I wanted him to talk about the number of films that are really designed for cinephiles.


BRIAN HU Right. I'm going to say there were even more that didn't make it into the festival that I really wanted. It was starting to turn into this was going to be a meta-festival of movies about movies. But you're right. I mean, as people who live and breathe movies, as much as we love movies, we love talking about movies. We love remembering movies, thinking about the history of films. So yeah, we have a film called Celuloid Underground, which is this really exciting documentary out of the UK. And it's an Iranian director who is based in the UK. And he remembers growing up and wanting to learn more about the world, wanting to learn more about cinema, but it's hard to find films from around the world in Iran, especially after the revolution. And so he somehow stumbled upon this guy who has a huge trove of 16-millimetre prints and 35-millimetre prints that he just hid underground, literally under the streets of Tehran. Because after the revolution, you're not allowed to have these private stashes of films. But because of this person's of intrepid cinophilia, an entire generation of just curious cinophiles were able to see the films of the world.


BRIAN HU And so this film collector died recently, and this director who's now in exile in the UK, wanted to make this film in tribute to this mysterious man and this influential pot of celluloid gold.


BETH ACCOMANDOThat sounds amazing. It sounds very similar to the one the Latino Film Festival did of Pictures of Ghost, where it's just celebrating film in all its variations, whether you're making it, watching it, going to a cinema church, whatever.


BRIAN HU Yeah. And especially in this case, the church was the place where you find contraband. It's an illegal church, which adds an extra layer of intrigue to this documentary.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd there's also films where it is simply a narrative film within a film structure.


FILM CLIPOkay, stand by. Action.


BRIAN HU Yeah, we have a film called falling in love like in movies. It's a film from Indonesia, and it was one of the most acclaimed films from Indonesia last year, and partly because it's so smart, in a Christopher Nolan way. It's like a film within the film where a guy is a screenwriter. He's tired of having to just make these terrible adaptations of soap operas. He's like, No, it's time for me to write my own original script. But the thing is, he wants to make a romance, and he's going through a bit of a romantic He's having a romantic story of his own, and he's starting to write his real life into the script. And so there's these two layers, at least two layers, maybe even more layers in the film of what is reality, what is the film he's making in the film he's pitching to this big producer. And it's just really fun to see how one's ideals of romance and one's ideals of filmmaking collide.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd I love the way that you will focus on different countries. And this year, you have a focus on Tibet, which I think is a country that a lot of people may not have seen a lot of films from.


BRIAN HU We may have seen films shot in Tibet by Hollywood, for instance, like Mon Scorsese has made films in Tibet and so on. China actually makes films in Tibet. But in a way, that's like the Thibetans are cute, exotic people. Actually, Hollywood's version is not that different from that either. What we haven't seen are films made by Thibetans. And this is a relatively a new phenomenon because it requires a generation of Thibetans to start going to a film school, starting to become more and more like, cine illiterate. And really the first director to try this out is this feature filmmaker named Pema Tzedin, whose films, they did not resemble anything like what Hollywood was making or what the Chinese film industry was making. In some ways, they were perfectly fine. They're not really politically dangerous movies. They're just like Tibettans in their ordinary lives. But there's something about them that because they're from a very different point of view, they don't have that exotifying gaze that the Chinese people in China have or Westerners have of Tibet, that they disrupt our expectations of what a Tibettan narrative can be. And he is pretty sly about how do you get politics in these films without it being about politics.


BRIAN HU And as a result, he became world famous is, especially on the international film festival circuit. His films have played the Venice Film Festival. They've won awards. And unfortunately, he died last year. He was only in his 50s. He was so young and beloved all around the world. We've shown several of his films at the San Diego Asian Film Festival before, but we haven't shown all of them. And we haven't shown his newest film, so his newest and final film called Snow Leopard, which is this incredible allegory about what happens to animals in Tibet. And so this is our chance to pay tribute to some of the films we haven't shown and to his latest one.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd even that one has a bit of a self-aware film within a film quality to it as well.


BRIAN HU Yeah, totally. I mean, it's about there's a news crew. So basically, the story is the Snow Leopard has infiltrated a stable and has killed some farm animals. The question is, what do we do with the snow leopard now? And so there's like cultural clashes. And then a news crew shows up. And so it's also about how does one tell the story? It's this question of how does one tell the story is very much on the forefront. So again, another meta, a film about the ethics of filmmaking.


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd I noticed there's also something new that's not exactly a film event, the poetry?


BRIAN HU Yeah, we're very lucky to have linked up with Jason Magabo Perez, who happens to be the San Diego Poet Laureate right now. And he's been coming to the San Diego Asian Film Festival for a long time, and we thought, Hey, this would be a good way for us to collaborate. So it's going to be free-flowing poetry jam. He and several other poets from the area or from throughout California are going to do their thing at a film festival. And so, yeah, it's going to be at the venue. Just a lot of creative energy. We like our films poetic, but sometimes we just like poetry. And so why not have host an event like this?


BETH ACCOMANDOAnd there's one other local connection for the festival this year, which is a film called Smoking Tigers.


BRIAN HU Smoking Tigers is directed by So Young, Sherry Yo, who is a UC San Diego alum. She did her undergrad here. She studied communication and visual arts. And we've known about her through her short films. And I believe that she once was a volunteer for our film festival. This is way a long time ago before I was even involved. So no conflict of interest or anything. But we've been following her career doing short films. And then last year, she was at the Chai Becker Film Festival, world premiering this movie, Smoking Tiger. And it won best screenplay. It won best acting performance. It's a very Southern California, Korean-American story about this one family, they're not that well to do. And they realize that if we want our daughter to get ahead in the world, she needs to do well on her SATs. So it's about this SAT camp that she's forced to go on. But instead of learning about math and verbal, she's learning the ways of the world, specifically how the much richer Korean-American kids live and where her place is within that. We're very excited to have Shelle coming to our festival for a Q&A.


BRIAN HU The actress who's in the film who won the award at Tribeca, she'll be here as well.


BETH ACCOMANDOWell, once again, you've lined up an amazing array of films for the festival. So thank you very much for both programming it and talking about it.


BRIAN HU Thank you.


BETH ACCOMANDOWell, that wraps up another edition of KPBS, Listener Supported Cinema Junkie. If you enjoy the podcast, then please share it with a friend because your recommendation is the best way to build an addicted audience. You can also help by leaving a review. Till our next film fix, I'm Beth Acomando. Your resident cinema junkie.


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Oscar-winning special effects artists Ben Burtt and Craig Barron will be presenting "THEM!" at this year's TCM Film Festival. (1954)
Warner Brothers
Oscar-winning special effects artists Ben Burtt and Craig Barron will be presenting "THEM!" at this year's TCM Film Festival. (1954)
A cinephile's dilemma of having two film festivals happening at the same time: TCM Film Festival and San Diego Asian Film Festival's Spring Showcase.

Yikes! What do you do when two of your favorite film festivals happen at the same time?

I love both the TCM Classic Film Festival (taking place today through Sunday in Hollywood) and San Diego Asian Film Festival's Spring Showcase (tonight through April 25 at UltraStar Mission Valley).

TCM Film Festival

My father passed on a love of classic cinema to me and no one does a better film festival celebrating classic film than TCM Film Festival (TCMFF). Not only does it strike gorgeous new print, bring out nitrate from the archives, and screen just the best possible version of beloved films but it also packages screenings with historians, academics, film scholars, and the people who made and appeared in these movies.

The event is just a delight for cinephiles. Plus you get to see films with people who share your passions.

The highlight of any TCMFF is always the program put on by Oscar-winning special effects artists Ben Burtt (sound designer for multiple "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films) and Craig Barron (visual effects artist on "The Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "E.T."). This year they present the 1950s sci-fi classic "Them!" Last year they literally blew open the doors of the cinema with their "Bensurround" audio presentation of "When Worlds Collide."

This year Burtt found the prop flame thrower from the movie out but may not be allowed to demonstrate its use at the screening. Burrt and Barron preview their program with me. Plus there are a plethora of other movie choices all weekend including a pair of midnight movies that never sell out so you can most likely just show up at the door and get in to get a taste of the TCMFF experience.

"The Queen of My Dreams" is the opening night film of the 13th Annual Spring Showcase. (2023)
Cineplex Pictures
"The Queen of My Dreams" is the opening night film of the 13th Annual Spring Showcase. (2023)

Spring Showcase

Brian Hu, artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, previews Spring Showcase with me. I noticed a number of films in which cinema itself plays a role. Hu said there were even more than he wanted to program but restrained himself to keep the festival from becoming too meta.

But "Celluloid Underground," "Falling in Love Like in the Movies," and "Snow Leopard" would be my top picks for those of us who are just in love with movies. Of course, my other top pick, as it is every year is Mystery Kung Fu Theater (this year it is tonight at 9:15 p.m.).

Hu is a programmer that I trust implicitly and would simply go to see every film... if I only had the time.

So movie lovers have an embarrassment of riches to choose from this weekend.

NOTE: I am currently doing a KPBS Digital Fellowship to create a video podcast called "Stripper Energy: Fighting Back from the Fringes," about the history of Les Girls Theater and its decades-long battle against police harassment and abuse. So I am doing less on my Cinema Junkie podcast and arts beat. I'll be back in June.