“At that time, the tools didn’t exist in the computer, so we had to work out real-world solutions.” So says visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig on the making of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. On the occasion of that blockbuster film’s 25th anniversary, Fxguide has assembled an exhaustive, nearly 8000-word oral history detailing the creation of the film’s Oscar-winning effects. Brevig’s sentiments are echoed by all of his fellow interviewees, who stress the importance of ingenuity and problem-solving in those largely pre-digital days.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” Total Recall presented any number of challenges to its oft-stressed-out effects team, from creating a plausible Martian landscape to making it seem as though full-body x-rays of both humans and dogs are walking normally across a giant screen. Since CGI was then in its pixelated, embarrassingly fakey-looking infancy, the behind-the-scenes whizzes on Total Recall relied heavily on the three Ms: miniatures, motion control, and matte paintings. “It would be easy today,” says Tim McGovern of the aforementioned x-ray skeleton sequence.
Mention should be made of the fact that this article is not for casual admirers of the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic. Not shying away from jargon, Fxguide’s richly-detailed history of Total Recall is written for tech-minded superfans, who will likely appreciate such bewildering statements as this quote from Brevig concerning the matte paintings of Mars:
“These ‘smokey mattes’ gave us completely authentic fall-off, natural graduation from near to far of what the atmosphere in the room was doing. Essentially it’s a z-depth pass done photographically. We could then take the elements of the background, which were usually matte paintings and use that as essentially as a dynamic hold-out. And that way the look would be photographic although it was a composite, but there was no sense that there was a matte line or a hard edge because it was an organically designed matte pass.”
Try working that into a casual conversation sometime. Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the piece is that not one single mention is made of the alien lady with the three boobs, whose scene was so iconic that it was even referenced in the now-nearly-forgotten 2012 remake with Colin Farrell.