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“You’re looking at the beginning of the end of filmmaking” – Animator Steve Williams discusses his career in Jurassic Punk

12 min read

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

Ahead of Jurassic Punk's release, a documentary about pioneering animator Steve ‘Spaz' Williams, FILMHOUNDS sat down with Steve to discuss working on projects including , The Abyss, and Terminator 2, before being shunned from the industry he helped shape. Steve spoke to us about being there at what he terms the “beginning of the end of filmmaking,” problems with the industry when you don't fit the mould, and “fentanyl filmmaking”, as well as some of the more personal aspects behind the fascinating documentary.

Did you expect the documentary to become so personal, and did it happen quite organically?

I just thought, if Scotty (director Scott Leberecht) wants to film it, I have nothing to hide. I was going through a terrible divorce at the time and I went down a terrible rabbit hole. I said, “Scotty, if you want to film me, it's fine but it's not going to be pretty.” I figured someone's going to do a documentary, might as well do what I've always sort of gleaned off of, which is to tell the truth. So here's the truth, it's not just a puff piece, here's the good, the ascension, and the crash. So I had no issue with it at all. It's very difficult for me to watch because that was that time, when I see it it just reminds me of that awful three or four years that I went through. But I'm happy about it only because it differs from the majority of documentaries in that it just told the truth. I got nothing to hide, and let Scotty just go with it because it's not going to be like your typical documentary which is a promotional piece, I didn't need that, I've had plenty of that.

How did Scott approach you about making Jurassic Punk?

It's a very interesting story. I played rugby and hockey so my back was all destroyed, I had an operation on my back in 2011, and my wife at the time, Ellen, helped me during the recovery because I had a MRSA infection in my spine from the first operation and I came that close to dying. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, the most deadly form of staph. They had to open me up again a week later and less than 1% of people survive that, so Ellen had sent that picture up to Scott, and Scott realised, “This is way too close, man. I gotta start.” So, he put together a 20-minute retrospective of me and my work. I think he intended to sort of do an expose on the entire VFX industry at that time. But he realised, and I don't want to put words in his mouth but I've heard him say this before, that he had to concentrate on one person. I was kind of the key guy, I built the Abyss, and I personally built the T-1000. I personally built the Rex. There was a lot of ancillary supervision around me, but I was the guy that did the work. They did not dictate how to do it. They had no clue at that time.

So the documentary was born out of you almost dying and then follows you through a really tough time after that. How have things been since then?

I got out of California after 33 years, right? I just couldn't take it. I never really hit it off with the people there. Of course, I had my contemporaries like Mark A.Z. Dippé and all those guys, they were very close friends of mine. I'd spent 25 years building that ranch, and that was my place and unfortunately, I had to sell it after Ellen and I blew up, and I was losing everything. So I had to get out. I literally put my hands over my eyes and dropped my finger on the map and found Southern Missouri, don't ask me why. I found this beautiful home, which is what they call a Queen Anne style. My grandfather was an architect. It is actually designed by a guy named Sullivan, who's from Toronto, oddly enough, and the house was built in 1900. I know it's nothing like the cornerstones over there. I just said, “I'm gonna start over.” And that's what I did, I just started over. I'm in the gym every other day, and I'm back to blacksmithing and welding. I've done a few talks, I enjoy those, at public schools and stuff, and I'm back to my drawing.

So I just kinda left that whole VFX thing behind, 'cause I kinda knew it was gonna implode inevitably. I warned about that back in '93. When we had done Jurassic, they said, “Oh, isn't this great?”, and I said you're looking at the beginning of the end of filmmaking. I said that in other articles as well, and I cite guys like Ridley Scott that used implication, and even Spielberg did in the early days. The unfortunate reality is that computer graphics forced a deviation from traditional storytelling methodology, in my view. That's why there's a very thin veil between what a video game is and what a movie is these days. So, I kind of left that whole thing behind. I've just gone back to the simplicity of drawing and I have my kitty cats, and I'm here on my own. I love it. So that's what happened. If I ever saw that ranch that I had in California again it'd be very difficult for me because I spent 25 years personally building the place, pouring the concrete, building the structure… I can do all that stuff, there are so many memories tied into it. I've kind of gone back to building with my hands. I'm kind of retired now and I get offered money for my drawings, my stupid cartoons, on occasion but that's about it.

a photograph of Steve Williams sitting on top of a classic muscle car.
Wild One

That's interesting that your grandfather was an architect, it must be a similar skill set to in some ways.

I think it's an observation-based thing. He was a very good drawer, and whether you're an architect or an animator or whatever, you're still observing and replicating nature. I was just taken by animation because of this idea of literally slowing time down to zero. You're flipping paper and you have a still drawing, even though you know in conjunction with one another it will give motion and time to it you're looking at an individual drawing, you're looking at a freeze of time, which I don't even believe in anyways. I think it's a human conundrum. Typically, men like to control nature. Even though we're in nature, in her class, in her kindergarten. We come up with the Schwarzschild ratio or the black hole theory but what nature hears is “goo goo ga ga pee pee poopoo.” That's the bloody joke, right? You're not going to figure it out, you put your 25 cents in the slot and you ride every ride you can and try not to hurt anyone. That was always the policy.

Do you think that there are any signs of us kind of going back to maybe some more old-school techniques or paring back with CGI moving forward?

The human condition always operates in cycles. Everybody went to CDs, but people are turning back to LPs because of the kinetic contact, as opposed to laser interpolation or digital to analogue interpolation. So, I think you're going to have waves of this, where people are just so inundated by fentanyl filmmaking, essentially, where they become addicted. You have to draw blood with a creature right away. I think, hopefully, it will return to storytelling, because it is so out of control right now. The expense of actually doing hand-drawn animation [is massive], and I know a lot of the films in terms are trying to not add motion blur to give that sort of stuttery effect. I can't identify the films but it's so strange. Again, they talk about AI and all that, but AI already happened, it's called us.  And what we try and do is replicate ourselves synthetically, typically men, we are in our Lamarckian theory or Darwinian theory, we're not happy with nature's production schedule in terms of metaphysical modifications, so we exact our will in a conducive medium which all comes from the planet. So we know that in time the squirrel that jumps from tree to tree grows a membrane between its front and back leg, but we want to fly now, man, we don't want to wait for that.

If you look at the cave paintings, when Neanderthal were doing cave paintings, that was not art at that time, that was a snapshot of reality, so these people were wizards. Then the Italian frescoes come along, and combined with religion, all of a sudden that is a snapshot of reality, and the cave paintings become art or expressionism. Now we're at this thing where the human eye sees 10 million colours, we calculate 17.6 million colours with 24-bit deep machines. Now we built this matrix of pixels, and can address these things to the point where what you're looking at, you will believe as being reality. I'd give these talks and I'd say “how many people have met the President of the United States?” No one, right? But they believe it because they buy that [image]. And even though they criticize religious faith, for example, they have the faith that that image on an iPhone or a TV is real and that is that where the weapon comes in. I warned about this 40 years ago.

In terms of the industry, do you think there's any more creative freedom or recognition given to animators and collaborators in filmmaking, or do you think the “main man” gets the credit?

I ran into that a lot. The guy who ended up getting the Oscar for all that stuff, he's never touched a keyboard and he was hailed as a visionary, but that is a tale as old as time and it's not just indicative of the film industry, it's a broader spectrum where someone is doing the work and somebody else gets credit for it. That's just human greed. The weird thing that's happening with the film industry right now is because of this whole hysteria about AI and artist rights and all that. I co-authored a paper for Harvard Law Journal on the resurrection of deceased actors, and I said, “it's just the human eyes, images on a screen are nothing but a bathtub full of colour ball bearings.”

With the film industry there's such a fine line because now we're at the scientific edge again. Martin Scorsese, in 1980, decided to release a film called Raging Bull. Now the standard film at that time was 5700 stock Kodak, Technicolor. But he decided to release it in black and white, he took a step back because it was an art piece. Your brain, your imagination, has a job by supplying information, so you fill in the blanks. Now everything is being fed to you.

When you moved into directing commercials and The Wild, do you think that you were able to find a process that you felt was more collaborative?

Absolutely. With The Wild, we were never going to win that fight, Disney controls everything. I remember I'd said “Look, guys, there's sixteen animated films here. We better have something.” Honestly, they won and I lost. But the one thing that I'll say, because I still hear from all these people, is that they learned about filmmaking techniques. That was the one thing I always tried to do was educate them about lenses. Everybody has not forgotten that, and they've all turned into great layout artists and animators. The greatest thing about that production was that everybody learned and that was the most important thing to me, because I realised I was not gonna compete against against Pixar and companies like that.

Director Scott Leberecht operating a camera
Wild One Films

Do you feel very proud of how The Wild worked as a production and a final project, in regards to the learning that you were talking about?

Oh absolutely, I was proud of that because the thing that's everlasting and one of the greatest things in my silly career has been the relationships that I've made. To me that's why awards were silly, like one Oscar one guy gets he takes it home and puts it on his mantelpiece. I consider that theft, as I mentioned in the doc, you're representing 30 or 40 people at that point. To me, the award was the process and the people that you met. I was nominated for The Mask, right. I said publicly if I won, I'm going to cut the head off it and I'm going to put the body with a picture of the people who worked on it. Jim Morris, who was the president at the time, freaked out, so he decided he was going to go and cast all the original Oscars and have them at ILM. There's a copyright issue, you can't do that. So what did they do? They put a picture of him there. It was so trite. It just makes you realise that if you're in this to win an Oscar, so you can go back to your hometown and not get beaten up by the town bully anymore and you're on the front page of the newspaper, you're in the wrong business, man.

Do you feel like your ‘pencil necks' comment was the real turning point when ILM decided to fire you, or do you think it was because you were pushing against this model?

I wasn't disrespectful, but I hated the notion of theft and I hated the notion of the beaten-up artist. If you wanna pick on someone, pick on me. I'm an ex-semi-pro hockey player and I'm not a mean man. The pencil neck thing was because there was an Illuminati of supremacists at that company, the visual effects supervisors, and they didn't know this new technology. After The Abyss, I never even saw Dennis Muren until the last week of production, and he had no clue, and he got an Oscar! I thought, “What is going on at this company?” I'm a naive Canadian bumpkin, you know? Then The Terminator happens, and Mark [Dippe'] and I figure out the entire methodology. I build the whole thing and he [Dennis] gets another Oscar. I thought, okay, this time I'm gonna be smart about it. I was told to my face, don't even bother trying to build the T-Rex or anything in data, there's gonna be no computer graphics in the show is what they told me. I decided I'm gonna ambush them. Then they got another Oscar, and I thought, this is just, this is anarchy. These little thin guys that have never worked with their hands, the only reason I was able to build in data is 'cause I build with my hands. I just didn't like the abuse that happened. I didn't consider it fair, and it didn't have to be that way. It could have been so easy had they embraced new ideas, so I became a threat. Once I had installed the entire production methodology and then everybody became used to it and up on it, I was not needed anymore. So it was Dennis Muren who solicited Jim Morris to have me fired from ILM. Real nice guys.

The comment I made was like an off-the-cuff one saying, “You've got these pencil-neck guys that are completely threatened,” and that was just a throwaway comment. But, that got me. I was on probation all the time, I had been suspended three times anyways for my shenanigans, but they needed me. I was not a jerk to them, but I was just having fun. I joined ILM as an animator and I left as an animator. I didn't start in position and make my way through the racks, I was always happy with where I was and doing the work. I remember Jim Moore said to me, “Why don't you want to come to the visual effects supervisors dinner or lunch?” I said, “Well, what do you guys talk about?” He goes “We talked about the future of effects”. Not one innovation came from those high swanky poncy meetings, they all came from the trenches. So that was the battle I had because I didn't want to join their club, I didn't want to drive around in a poncey car and with poncey clothes on, I smell like motor oil. I was in the pit in the basement. I saw where that battle was going for quite a long time, they didn't need me anymore and [I felt like] how dare you.

So that's where the comment came from, but the thing is honestly had it not been that comment it would have been something else. They were just looking for a reason, and they got it, bingo. It was innocuous, but then it didn't matter, it could have been any comment. I had heard actually when I left ILM there was kind of a standing joke where if something was wrong and a shot in dailies there's a blame Spaz, blame Spaz, you know? And believe me, I didn't take it as a victim.

Jurassic Punk is available now on digital platforms.