Old School Effects: The Cloud Tank


Following my recent rants about computer generated effects (here and here), I thought it would be fun to look into one of the old school visual effect techniques that computers have now rendered obsolete.

Today's subject is... The Cloud Tank.



A cloud tank is basically a big water tank.

It's primarily used to create a wide variety of atmospheric effects, mainly clouds, hence the name. Back in the old days this was a great way of creating organic shapes, which would otherwise have to be done with hand-drawn animation or perhaps smoke.

A cloud tank shot starts with a big glass tank. The tank used on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was 7 by 7 feet large, with a depth of 4 feet. First the tank is filled salt water. A thin layer of plastic is gently placed on top of this. Then the rest of the tank is filled with fresh water. Once the plastic is removed, and the water has been left to set for a while, you end up with something that looks like a single body of water, but because of the difference in density between salt water and fresh water there's actually two distinct layers in the tank now.

Next, paint would be gently injected into the tank, near the point where the two layers meet. Depending on the light conditions, camera speed, and a few other elements, it will look like billowing clouds when the paint disperses in the water

From what I gather, there are slight variations in the way the technique is used from project to project, but what I've described here is the basic starting point. These cloud elements would then be combined with live-action footage, or model photography, to produce a really cool, very organic looking shot.

The problem with using this technique, however, is that you're never really sure what you're going to get, and it's impossible to control precisely what happens. Basically you just have to keep shooting, and hope to catch something cool on film.

According to Douglas Trumbull on The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind Scott Squires was responsible for thinking up the specific setup used on that film. The same tank and a similar setup was also used on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and other subsequent projects at ILM. However, Ken Ralston speculates in Cinefantastique that a similar technique was used all the way back in The Ten Commandments (1956).


Let's look at some classic examples of the cloud tank effect. We'll begin with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Throughout the film the arrival of alien ships is often signified by the appearance of massive cloud formations. When the aliens kidnap young Barry from his mother it starts like this:

Later in the film, when the aliens arrive at Devil's Tower, a clear night sky is suddenly covered with clouds that seem to come from nowhere. Very spooky.

Additional animation and lighting effects could be added in post-production, or live during the production of the cloud elements.

The cloud tank was dusted off again for use on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which also called for some angry cloud images. First there's the sequence, where Indy and his men dig through to the Well of Souls.

Hand-drawn lightning effects were added in post-production to enhance the dramatic shots.

Cloud tank elements also played a part during the last moments of the climactic sequence, where The Ark is opened and all hell breaks loose. In one shot the clouds part to make room for a giant pillar of fire.

The cloud element for this iconic image was actually created by Gary Platek, by jumping on the hose that was used to drain the water tank! This sent a burst of water back through the system, and up through the drain in the bottom of the tank, which in turn parted the "clouds" as the shock-wave moved up through the water layers.

A far less aggressive, but no less effective use of the cloud tank came with Poltergeist (1982). Here the technique is initially used simply to create the dark clouds forming on the horizon.

Later, though, when a tornado descends upon the quiet neighbourhood, the cloud tank was once again employed as an "angry weather"-tool.

A slightly more fantastic use for the tank came with the second Star Trek film. The climax of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) called for a submarine-like showdown between two spaceships in something called a "nebula".

On this film a white latex rubber solution was injected into the tank. Lights with colored gels illuminated the tank, which produced the otherworldly results that ended up on the screen.

To give a different look to Flash Gordon (1980), and the many different worlds the film explores, a similar use of the cloud tank was employed to produce some very psychedelic images.

For most cloud tank shots the camera would be placed outside the tank, looking up at the bottom of the paint layer, but in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) the camera shot from inside the tank, to create the titular dimension.

Several passes were combined, and heavily manipulated in post-production to create the complex shots.

A more recent film, Independence Day (1996), found use for the cloud tank again. This was during the dramatic arrival of the alien ships. Here the cloud elements were also heavily manipulated, this time with the help of computers, to achieve the final look.

The film was billed as a big budget tent pole film, but it actually used a fair amount of old school effects, such as in-camera shots, even though computers were an established tool.


The use of the cloud tank in visual effects seems to have ended somewhere in the late 90s, with the advances of computer generated effects, and due to the fact that it was such an unwieldy technique. In theory, you could basically set up a cloud tank shot in your own garage, but the reality is a bit different. For example, according to Gary Platek, they used 9 tons of salt during the 6 months it took to produce the cloud tank shots for Raiders!

At the end of the day it's what ends up on the screen that counts, and not how it was achieved, but I can't help but be impressed by some of these old techniques, such as the cloud tank. The amount of effort and ingenuity it took to produce these shots is mind-boggling.

So next time you see a movie from the 80s, with some cool, or strange clouds, spare a thought for the guys who spent months in a darkened room with a tank of water, a mountain of salt and some paint.

They made the heavens move, you know.



Articles used for reference include:

Raider of the Lost Ark: The Wrath of God . . . and Other Illusions, by Don Shay
- Cinefex No. 6, October 1981

Poltergeist: Stilling the Restless Animus, by Paul Mandell
- Cinefex No. 10, October 1982

Poltergeist II: To Hell and Back, by Nora Lee and Janine Pourroy
- Cinefex No. 26, May 1986

Independence Day: Fireworks, by Tim Prokop
- Cinefex No. 67, September 1996

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, by Kay Anderson
- Cinefantastique, Vol. 12 No. 5 & 6

Special Features from the following DVDs were used for reference:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition
- Released by Sony

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Director's Edition
- Released by Paramount


Scott Squires' site


The Best of The Worst CGI Moments


Recently I wrote a blog about how much I hate modern computer effects. Just to prove I'm not a complete idiot (this has been mentioned as a possibility, I must admit), I figured I would add a quick little Top 10 to the debate, to illustrate my points.

So without further ado, here are my picks for the best of the worst that CGI has brought us in major Hollywood films from the last decade or so.


1: The Mummy Returns (2001)

The Rock as The Scorpion King

You've never heard true laughter until you've heard an audience react to this scene. It comes at the end of an already problematic over the top film, but the sight of The Rock as a CGI abomination is far worse than anything director Stephen Summers had previously thrown at the viewers. Rumor has it that ILM ran out of time when they did the finale. Either that or it was "bring your kid to work"-day when the scene was created.

2: The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Neo fights a thousand Smithsessers

They tried to top the fantastic Bullet Time effect from The Matrix (1999). All they did was ruin everything they had built in that film. Never before has a franchise taken such a dive in the hearts and minds of geeks everywhere.

CGI Keanu Reeves looks fake - that's pretty obvious - so why on earth would you do slow-motion shots with him, so we can really see how bad he looks?!

3: King Kong (2005)

The dino stampede

The scene is over the top in every way. It runs for 12736 minutes. And the interaction between the mediocre CGI dinosaurs and the mediocre actors is beyond unconvincing. The Academy should take back the Oscar they gave Peter Jackson for Return on the King (2003).

4: Star Wars - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Jar Jar

Jar Jar was a bad idea to begin with, but even if you get past that (though, I don't see how you could) he's still one of the worst CGI characters ever. The design is offensive, and he talks like a drunk baby. Jar Jar single-handedly brought the Star Wars franchise to its knees. Yup, a cartoon rabbit was all it took.

5: Star Wars Spe. Edi. (1977 / 1997)

Han Solo steps on Jabba's tail

When Lucas decided to beef up the old Star Wars films, and re-release them in the theaters, he included a previously cut scene, where Han Solo meets Jabba, the gangster. In 1977 the character was played by a normal actor, but now Jabba needed to match the slug creature from Return of the Jedi (1983), so a CGI abomination was added on top of the original footage. That did not work. The effect was SO BAD that they redid the whole thing for the 2007 DVD release, where it also looked horrible.

6: Mission to Mars (2000)

The Aliens

Probably the most offensive ending of a sci-fi film ever. It's show and tell with E.T.! Next we'll do finger-paint! Wait, they already did that... When they created this scene. Look at it! Just look at it! This is a movie? An actual movie?

7: Spider-Man Trilogy (2002-2007)

Every shot of Spidey

It didn't look good in the first film. It didn't look good in the second, and - wait for it - it didn't look good in the third film either. When Spider-Man is swinging through the city and the camera spins around him all sense of reality is lost. A human couldn't stand this strain, no camera could either, which is part of the reason why the shot doesn't hold up. Also, Spider-Man looks like a rubber doll.

8: Star Wars - Attack of the Clones (2002)

Riding CGI creatures

With some 2000+ effect shots for this film, I guess it's only fair that a few got past the quality control of ILM. However, the "Anakin riding the giant tick", and "The heroes riding the creature in the arena" shots look so unconvincing, you'll be asking yourself why they didn't just cut them.

"Real person jumps on to fake moving object"-shots are some of the hardest shots do to. And yet, they keep showing up in films. Go figure.

9: Lord of the Rings - Return of the King

Orlando kills the big elephant

Once again physics goes out the window as Legolas (Orlando Bloom) jumps on to the big elephant monster, manages NOT to fall of, kills the creature with a few arrows, and slides down the trunk. This sequence could not look any more fake, not even if it had been animated with Legos. Geddit? Legos... Legolas... see what I did?

10: Transformers - Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Every damn robot shot

Look! There's some blurred metal fighting!

With the dense images and the quick cutting, the only time you can see anything in Transformers 2 is when the robots fight in slow motion. The rest of the time it's almost impossible to figure out what's going on. You just have to take a deep breath, and wait for the dust to settle, if you want to know who won.

Special Achievement Award: Robert Zemeckis

For every mo-cap film he has ever made, or will make in the future

I'm not sure what's worst... The weird waxy Tom Hanks from The Polar Express (2004), a buff Ray Winstone in Beowulf (2007), or a rubber-faced Jim Carrey in A Cristmas Story (2009). Robert Zemeckis loves doing these animated films, because now he has control of everything. He can make it perfect! Or not, as it were. These films look so damn creepy! Even those officially endorsed fake nude shots of Angeline Jolie are just plain disturbing.

Look, making movies is hard to do, Robert! If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. You're taking up space actual filmmakers could use.

Dishonorable Mentions

Hulk (2003) goes without saying. The troll in the first Harry Potter film was awful, and the midget in the second one should be shot on camera. The avalanche in xXx (2002) looks pretty unconvincing, as does everything in Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), and almost everything in Van Helsing (2004). All the snakes of Snakes on a Plane (2006), the slug-blob-thingy in the climax of Dreamcatcher (2003), the Smurfs of Avatar (2009) - Sorry, I just didn't buy them for a second - the CGI robot of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and the vortex climax of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006).

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, my picks for the worst CGI of big budget Hollywood. Feel free to add you own suggestions in the comments.



Why CGI Sucks and Old School Effects Rock


A good beginning for a good blog is often a good rant, don't ya think? So as I was preparing to write a blog about old school visual effects, I figured I should start by explaining why modern digital effects irritate me so much.


Digital Effects = Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) = Visual effects produced with computers, often without a single real physical contribution.

Old School Effects = Photo-chemical effects = Models, matte paintings, in-camera tricks. Different components of a shot are combined optically or chemically on actual film.


I'm sick of computer generated effects. I'm sick of the way every big film coming out of Hollywood these days rely so much on CGI. Take away the effects and large chunks of the film literally ceases to exist. At cinemas everywhere big event films are constantly trying to one-up each other, and several thousand effect shots are not uncommon in a new movie.

Now, my problem is not with any kind of computer effects, what I'm talking about are scenes where the camera flies around, defying all sense of physics, or scenes where gazillions of tiny CGI extras race into battle on a CGI battlefield. I'm talking about films that spend $100 million creating CGI characters that only look marginally real, when good old makeup effects could have handled the same job far more effectively. It's lazy. It's stupid. And I'm freakin' bored with it.

Don't get me wrong: Computer effects are a great tool, when they're used right. Same goes for any other tool, but if you've ever tried to paint with a hammer you will know that using the wrong tool can prove to be downright disastrous.

The problem with CGI is that anything can be done. ANYTHING. However, doing ANYTHING just because one can, is not necessarily a good idea. Think about this: An actor can also do ANYTHING, but we don't really want them to jump around and do the chicken dance in every scene do we? We want them to act appropriately. CGI effects should do the same.

It wasn't always like this, he said, getting all misty-eyed.

Back in the old days if you wanted to put something in a film, you had to make it and shoot it. And if you didn't want something in the shot, you had to get rid of it before the cameras rolled. Back then every single effect shot was a monumental struggle, so the filmmakers would try to figure out the absolute minimum number of shots they would need to tell the story (the keyword here being STORY). That produced some very elegant, tight, well-constructed scenes, with some beautiful, effective shots.

The discipline that naturally grew out of this approach is exactly what a good movie needs, but with the advance of CGI filmmakers are getting lazy. There's a plane in the shot? We'll get rid of it in post. Actor didn't hit his mark? We'll move him in post. Actor A was best in take 1, actor B was best in take 5! We'll cut the shots up and merge them in post. These are not actually fixes you'll notice when you watch a film, but they influence the way filmmakes think, and they enforce that attitude of "we can always get it right... later."

Heavy use of CGI is also problematic, because the filmmakers lose sight of reality. It's easy to make a CGI car race down the highway narrowly missing every other car, but when you have to shoot it, when an actual stuntman has to perform the daring feat, you'll run into some natural limitations. The first instinct of a modern filmmaker will be to get rid of those limitations, but that's exactly the wrong thing to do.

It's a bit of a cliché to describe CGI artists as pasty white geeks who never get out, and just sit in front of a computer screen all day long. In reality that's not the case, but there is a certain kind of truth in that statement, deep down. When you have to build something physically and capture it on film, you get a completely different appreciation for the things you deal with. You learn how the camera works. You learn how light bounces off an object using your own two eyes. You learn to embrace the limitations and use them, not fight to eliminate them.

Another advantage of dealing with real objects in the real world is that accidents can happen. Good accidents, I mean. Visual Effect maestro Richard Edlund said it best in an interview with American Cinematographer:

Analogue thinking [...] allows for serendipity. [...] The thing about computer animation is that everything that happens has to be intellectually inserted, so it's very difficult for serendipitous performance to occur, because you have to intellectualize that serendipitous blip.

That's why I prefer old school effects. To me they are far more organic than CGI effects. "It doesn't look real", is the argument I often hear against those wonderful corny old effects. That's probably true, but the same could also be said for most modern effects. When robots are fighting through the streets, when the whole world sinks into the ocean, all done with pixel perfect precision, I don't believe for a second that what I'm watching is real. Same thing when I'm watching King Kong trash the Empire State building, or when The Death Star blows up, but with Kong and The Death Star I at least get a sense of the artistry and the effort involved in the process.

Here's the thing: Mona Lisa is a work of art, not because the painting is a carbon copy of reality, but rather because it's magical. There's the allure of Mona Lisa's unreadable expression. The composition of the image. The brushstrokes of an artist at the height of his craft. This is what makes the painting unique. If a guy in a basement had painted Mona Lisa with a "hot-girl-in-front-of-landscape"-simulator I guarantee her smile would be a lot less alluring. Or maybe it wouldn't be there at all.

There's no doubt: Computers are here to stay. Despite my resentful attitude they ARE a great tool. CGI has given us some incredible images over the years. My heart still skips a beat when the T-Rex breaks out of its pen to wreck havoc in Jurassic Park, and I barely believe my eyes when I see the manchild Benjamin Button stumble towards the camera, as real and alive as my own reflection. These are two excellent examples of the perfect use for CGI.

CGI has brought great advances to the field of visual effects, without a doubt, but at the same time I feel like the entire industry has also lost its soul in the process. I miss the ingenuity and the sense of adventure from the "old" days. We need a cool monster! Why don't we build one and shoot it in a water tank, so it's looks all floaty and scary? We can't afford to build the top three floors of a building! Why don't we build those floors as a model, and hang it in front of the camera so it looks huge? That's what I miss, and that's why I'm in love with old school visual effects. They may not have pixel perfect precision, but they have a lot of heart.

Sometimes that's enough.

End of rant.


Stay tuned for more posts about visual effects in the future.


The VFX Show
Great bi-weekly podcast about visual effects, from a bunch of digital effect artists, who have a great love for old school effects.

Cinefex Magazine
Quarterly magazine about visual effects. Get the old issues for some great articles about old school effects.

ACS Podcast
You can find the entire interview with Richard Edlund here.


No blog is good blog


So I was planning to write a post about old school visual effects. Suddenly I was writing TWO posts, and when the beast turned into THREE posts I had to give up, and admit to myself that I wasn't going to be able to keep my schedule.

So, to sum up: New blog coming later this week, if all goes well.

And just to underline the fact that I haven't exactly been a slacker today, here's a link to the new review I just posted on my Shu Qi website.

Check out the review here: New York, I Love You review



My Favorite Hot Animated Babes

"I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"


A question popped into my mind as I was watching "Pocahontas" recently and had some impure thoughts... Which animated babes are my favorites? Since we're in the middle of Easter, it's the perfect time for a rather shallow post on this subject.


Pocahontas from Pocahontas (1995)

I recently saw Disney's "Pocahontas" for the first time ever. I had always avoided it, because I thought it looked boring, but after "Avatar" this movie seemed like a good idea. Same story. A third of the running time.

With Pocahontas the Disney animators have really outdone themselves. She's beautiful, classy, and she moves with the grace of a cat. If only that brutish, cornfed white guy would get out of the movie, we could enjoy her just running around being one with nature and shit.

Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

On the opposite side of the tracks we find that bombshell of über naughtiness: Jessica Rabbit. Besides giving us the opening quote, she brings "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" into a completely different league. And the husky Kathleen Turner voice, man, don't even get me started on that.

Because of this movie many young boys can pinpoint the exact moment they became men: It was when Jessica Rabbit took the stage in The Ink and Paint Club, wearing a dress so thin it was barely there, and sang her little heart out to the tune of "Why Don't You Do Right?"

Aki from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

This one is ever so slightly obscure, mostly because no-one saw the film, and it's sort of drifted into oblivion, but I still like it.

Aki represents the first true mainstream attempt at a fully realized, photo-real digital character in a major feature film. In that respect, she's a monumental failure. They get her about 95 percent right, but it's that last 5 percent that kills the illusion. There's something about the face that doesn't quite ring true. On top of that she's stuck in a plot that doesn't make any sense, but that's hardly her fault. In spite of all this, I wanted her to be real. I liked her, and I felt for her, much more than I did for those Pandemic blue fairies.

Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (1995)

We may not be able to understand a word of what she says - and not just because she speaks Japanese - but Major Motoko Kusanagi wears a uniform, and that's good. She frequently takes it off, which is even better. She's also a robot, which some would consider a bit of a drawback, but think about this: She will always be perky, she will never grow old. I mean, how good will those Jessica Rabbit curves look, when she hits fifty, right?

The Major has mystique, she's armed, and in case you need some quiet time, she's got an off-switch. I'd say that's a perfect package.

Eve from Wall*E (2008)

Eve is hot. And it's not just because she looks like a Mac. Well, actually... it's probably mostly because she looks like a Mac! No, hang on a second, she's got other qualities as well. She flies, she shoots, and she's curiously devoted. She's got the patience of a saint, easy access to upgrades, and even if you're fired off into space, she'll follow and retrieve you!

Seriously, what's not to like?

Final Thoughts

My thoughts at the moment are not fit for printing. Have a great Easter.