The struggles – and successes – of Spawn

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After pioneering the development of CG characters at ILM on The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, Mark Dippé took on the directing duties for Spawn, based on the comic by Todd McFarlane. He was joined on the production by vfx supervisor and ILM ‘partner-in-crime’ Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams. The New Line film was released on August 1st, 1997 and contained over 400 vfx shots – a huge amount at the time – that were completed by 22 companies, with ILM as the lead vendor.

Spawn was a much anticipated film, made at a time before the explosion in comic book movies. It was a tough shoot for the first time feature film director, and an ambitious production in terms of its visual effects. Dippé and Williams are speaking this week, with Scott Ross, at SIGGRAPH Asia about their work on Terminator 2. In the spirit of looking back and key visual effects projects, vfxblog spoke to them briefly about the challenges of bringing Spawn to the screen.

vfxblog: What were some of the first challenges you had, making Spawn?

Mark Dippé: Oh man, it was so hard, and you know I’m proud of it and it had a certain success. We would call it a double and a home run kinda thing, that’s the problem. But I’ll tell you there were some issues with it but the property itself was amazing. Todd McFarlane’s a genius and it’s a great property, but the first big thing is agreeing to make a PG-13 movie with that material. We fought as hard as we could against that. But the truth is it’s a big business. There’s not much you can do.

And sometimes I think I put myself into a hole. Also, it’s my first big major feature so I made a lot of mistakes being a young person learning, but it’s like that was a pretty big deal, and it really rubbed wrong for all of us, kind of.

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From left: Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams, Clint Goldman (producer) and Mark Dippe.

Steve Spaz Williams: The head of New Line at the time, I forget his name…

Mark Dippé: Bob Shaye.

Steve Spaz Williams: Bob Shaye, he said, ‘Mark, you better deliver me a PG-13 film. And we’re like, ‘Yeah, okay, no problem. We’ll get back to you on that. And they said, ‘So what if the MPAA says, ‘No it’s got to be a restricted film?’ The weird thing in a way is that Jurassic Park by contrast was the first PG-13 film. In other words, Spielberg somehow managed to get away with a PG-13 film. And there’s a lot of violence in that movie.

Mark Dippé: And Spawn really isn’t any more violent at all. We barely got the rating and the studio was very upset with that. And in Spawn there’s no real death either. I mean, it’s a funny thing, I would say today PG-13 is much more intense but we had such a hellacious time getting that cleared.

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Breakdown of one of ILM’s key scenes from the film, featuring a digital cape.

vfxblog: Let’s talk about making the film. It was a pretty compressed schedule, Spawn, wasn’t it?

Steve Spaz Williams: It was a 60 day shoot. What happened is Mark would shoot principal photography, and then I’d move in and shoot second unit and basically do clean-up on stuff he couldn’t get to and stuff that was on the slate for second unit. And we were working nights, for 30 days we were on nights.

One time, we’re down in LA and we’re really in the thick of it, and I happen to be on set. I was tired, Mark was tired. He’s like white as a table and he comes up to me, I’ll never forget it, he goes, ‘You know what, Spaz?’ I said, ‘What?’. He says, ‘Next film I shoot is gonna be a little old lady in a room with a table and one light bulb.’

vfxblog: Have you made that film yet?

Mark Dippé: Everybody faces that. You know, I really haven’t. You see, again I forget about it and then something else comes up to get excited about.

vfxblog: It must have been exciting even back then doing your first feature.

Mark Dippé: In a way we were like excited kids, I gotta say. And still I’m like that sometimes. And I can remember one of the first days on the set I’m so excited and we were going crazy and we’re, like, we just want to do more, but we just had to get through the pages of the script. I think in those first couple of days we already got behind a little bit because I just would say, ‘Oh let’s shoot this again,’ and, you know, you get so excited and you want to do your best.

One day Bob Shaye comes down, and he says, ‘Mark, it’s so nice to see you. Dailies look great. I hear you’re a little bit behind. He goes, this is so great, he goes, ‘You’re gonna be on schedule tomorrow, aren’t you?’ I go, ‘I’m gonna do my best.’ He goes, ‘You’re gonna be on schedule tomorrow Mark, aren’t you?’ I say, ‘I’m really trying hard.’

And he goes, ‘You’re gonna be on schedule tomorrow aren’t you, Mark?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ And I shake his hand, and he goes, ‘Great,’ and I’m thinking, it’s just like in those mafia movies. It’s like otherwise my legs get broken. It was really, I loved it, I just loved it, because he was smiling and he was so calm.

Lastly, for fun, check out Spirit of Spawn by Louis Katz, which gives an humorous look at that time inside ILM.