Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski
third in a series
by Bondo Wyszpolski
first appeared in the February 21th issue of Easy Reader.
printed here with permission
Tim Wilcox earned his stripes as a digital illustrator on such films
as Jurassic Park III, A.I., Mission to Mars, Deep Impact and Contact.
After consulting with director Simon Wells and production designer
Oliver Scholl, he created the initial conceptual model of the time
machine in the movie of the same name, which opens in two weeks.
some basic ideas," Wilcox says of his esteemed colleagues, "then
it was put on me to bring them to life and figure out how to make
the pieces fit." This took place in the middle of 2000.
through about nine different versions
What we wanted to do was
to give a tip of the hat to the original machine: We're redesigning
a major icon of motion picture history."
He's referring to the George Pal version of H.G. Wells' novella, The
Time Machine, released by MGM in 1960. That film, with Rod Taylor
as 'George,' the time traveler, featured a Victorian-style time machine
with a large spinning disc. As Simon Wells has noted, "We all
have a great affection for that first movie, so from my earliest meetings
with Oliver Scholl it was a given that we had to have spinning discs."
The updated device,
therefore, has numerous inner and outer petals that fold and unfold
and spin. Recalling that the original time traveler is a professor
of physical optics, the creators then took their inspiration from
compound prisms and refracted light which led, in the words of the
director, to "the idea of using fresnel lenses - the kind used
in lighthouses - to form refractive petals."
Wilcox, "In another tip of the hat to the old machine we brought
in a barbershop chair, which is the same chair that they used on the
And then the key that runs the thing is very similar
to the original key
We're just giving a little wink to George
Pal's machine because we all grew up with it and thought if was very
a software program called LightWave 3D. This enabled him to create
an illusionary 3D model of the time machine in his computer, which
in turn generated rudimentary blueprints. But a virtual model, however,
can only go so far.
point Dana Juricic and Andrew Jones came in and built a G.I. Joe-scale
model of it and worked out the mechanical intricacies of how [the
petals] were going to unfold and fold."
scaled-down model allowed Wilcox and the others to consider further
modifications, ranging from surface textures to how well an actor
might fit inside the larger version. While Wilcox incorporated the
changes to his LightWave model set designer Darrell Wight produced
the finished blueprints. The two men worked side by side, ensuring
that all their measurements matched - in particular because they were
dealing with numerous working parts and compound curves.
The guy stuck
with the task of making it operational, at least while the cameras
were rolling, is special effects supervisor Matt Sweeney.
"They built the thing," Wilcox explains. "They got
the wrenches out, cut the parts and actually assembled and dealt with
the engineering side of it. Basically, we dictate, 'Here's what it
looks like; here's what we want it to do,' and they have to figure
Sweeney came through with flying colors. "He's got a great group
and they pulled it off," says Wilcox. "We just shook our
heads and went, 'Wow, you guys did it.'"
Commenting on his task of building the film's key prop, Sweeney has
said, "It was very involved because there are a tremendous amount
of working parts in it. There are probably a dozen separate controls
for different electric motors. The engine alone has three different
motors to make it work. There are electric activators to make the
petals go in and out, as well as the main motor that counter-rotates
the two discs, top and bottom."
Computer technology kept everyone on the same wavelength, or on the
same page as Wilcox is fond of saying. He points out that he could
e-mail his specs to Sweeney, who in turn put them into his giant milling
machines that cut the aluminum pieces to match the blueprints from
the digital model. "We were looking at it on the screen, he was
milling it out, and we knew it would all fit together."
The result of their Herculean labors makes quite an impression, being
ten-and-a-half feet in diameter when unfolded, and weighing in at
about six thousand pounds. With all the spinning petals - nine inner
and nine outer - it seems like a dangerous as well as formidable device.
The large petals, says Wilcox, weigh about forty pounds apiece, the
inner ones about twenty-five. Built of Plexiglas and anodized aluminum,
they can rotate at a good clip.
"So it could probably do some damage if you happened to put your
hand in there," Wilcox says with a grin. "And it wouldn't
be a clean cut. I joked with Guy Pearce [Alexander Hartdegen, the
time traveler] that we were all going to be standing behind a wall
with hardhats on when we first fired it up with him sitting in it
- and he kind of looked at me funny."
Not to spoil it, but a few of the shots with the machine in action
are not quite as dangerous as they may seem. Some of the petals were
removed and replaced with spinning digital substitutes during post-production.
After spending about three months modifying the design on his computer,
Wilcox was understandably bowled over by the finished, full-size vehicle.
"The biggest thrill was actually sitting in the thing,"
he says with a laugh. "You become twelve again, you know?"
Like most boys, Wilcox was attracted to science-fiction during his
formative years. "I think my father indoctrinated me to Star
Trek when I was four
I might have been even two, seeing this
green guy with ears on a TV color set one night. It's a strange memory
to have as an early memory but, yeah, I've always been a fan of sci-fi.
"I wanted to be an astronaut. It never happened, so working on
some of these movies has been a lot of fun because you're able to
go to those places and work and play in those worlds that you might
not ever have had the opportunity to in your life."
He realizes that he's been blessed in his choice of careers.
"I'm very lucky and very grateful," Wilcox says; "I
get paid to learn." By way of example, he mentions the incentive
to research lighthouses as well as the Victorian era in preparation
for The Time Machine. Working on Mission to Mars, he was able to immerse
himself in information about the red planet. Contact provided an opportunity
to speak with people at NASA.
"With Jurassic Park," he continues, "you're in dinosaurland;
and with A.I. you're off in the future with robots
every show." The current project? X-Men 2.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Wilcox was also a fan of the 1960
"It's funny," he says, "because a few years back I
was at my mom's house and it was on TV; and I remember commenting
at the time that if they ever do a sequel I'd love to work on it."
True, it's not a sequel, he notes, but on the other hand one might
say that his 'prayer' has been granted.
He laughs: "I guess you gotta be careful what you wish for."
Next : Director Simon Wells.