When we talk about monumental changes in cinematic history, we often cite the vision of various filmmakers who have propelled the art form forward. This conversation tends to include directors who claim credit for their own takes on a script, as well as visual effects artists that seem to defy the laws of what’s possible. In the new documentary, “Spaz,” we enter the world of computer-generated effects, and the destruction of a man who changed history by applying his own creativity to such works as “The Abyss”, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Jurassic Park.”
Steve “Spaz” Williams is not your typical computer nerd. You won’t find a pocket protector or thick glasses on this man. He is a cartoon loving, motorcycle riding, rough around the edges guy with a self-described “punk sensibility.” He is a rebel with one cause: to disrupt an industry hell-bent on keeping things at the status quo.
Spaz grew up in a time when parents didn’t know what to do with rebellious children that happened to have a genius streak to them. He wasn’t enamored with tree houses or forts like other kids his age. He was far more interested in breaking apart his toys just to see how something worked. He dreamed of a day when he could contribute to the world of synthetic animation, and studied hard in school to achieve his goals of one day working at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic).
The standard bearer for many years in technological cinematic advances, ILM is responsible for the visual effects artistry that went into building concepts for “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Up until the point of the late-1980s, ILM’s computer generated designs were stuck in stop-motion/go-motion techniques. These served their purpose and were seen at the time as highly advanced in the world of filmmaking.
Spaz Williams said, “Hold my beer.”
Spaz was eventually contracted by ILM to help build out one scene in James Cameron’s “The Abyss.” If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene without me needing to describe it to you. The water manipulation in this film was the brainchild of Spaz and his partner Mark A.Z. Dippe, who worked tirelessly to translate what the director envisioned. Often in these scenarios, a visual effects team is tasked with one job based one what the director storyboards out with the team…but Spaz and Mark are the kind of rebels who go against the grain to create alternative coding that they hope makes it into the final product. In a world when computers were merely used for word processing, these geniuses were there to tap its full potential in graphics. Cameron went nuts for their work and kept it in the finished film.
This one scene from “The Abyss” catapulted ILM into the next generation of visual effects filmmaking, with Spaz and Mark along for the ride. Because of their hard work, Cameron went back to the drawing board for the sequel to his original “Terminator” film, and made the decision to up the ante on what visual effects could do. Animation questions convention, and “Everybody thinks that chaos is random…there’s no such thing as random,” Spaz says in the documentary, which perfectly explains where they were at this point in the early 1990s.
Old school approaches were being questioned and digital effects using computers were seen as transformative. The team at ILM worked hard to go from one scene in “The Abyss” to applying their new skills to over half of the scenes in “Terminator 2.” With that process came the politics at ILM, where Dennis Muren was put in charge of the visual effects team. Muren was an old guard who was responsible for the effects of many box office successes from the 1980s and 1990s. But he clashed with Spaz’s young guns routine, often berating him for inappropriate behavior. While Muren didn’t understand the technology of what Spaz was doing, Spaz also couldn’t play the chess game of politics within the team. He just knew how to create art. His career at ILM was summarized as a combination of brilliance, naivety, madness, youth, and full of nonsense. But to Spaz, that is exactly where creativity is born.
To say that Spaz’s achievements are monumental is an understatement. The T1000 that we all know from “Terminator 2” had never been done before, and he made movie history with his designs and engineering techniques. From there, Steven Spielberg worked with ILM to create the dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park.” Spaz was told to work on one minor aspect of the dinosaur designs, while other teams worked on old school stop motion methods that had worked in the past. While teams worked on building a scaled model of a dinosaur, Spaz secretly took to his computer, worked at night and on weekends to perfect his version of what he thought the dinosaur should look like and how it should move. This caught the attention of Kathleen Kennedy, Producer on “Jurassic Park,” who brought in Spielberg to approve of these newer methods. The entire filmmaking process changed because of his work in computer generated imagery, and “Jurassic Park” became one of the highest grossing films of all time.
To Spaz, that wasn’t enough. Because he couldn’t play the game and climb the corporate ladder, so to speak, Muren and others received credit (as well as NUMEROUS Academy Awards) for Spaz’s work. This sent Spaz into a downward spiral, where he publicly berated Muren and ILM for taking credit for his groundbreaking work. As he puts it, “I’m not a diplomat…to a fault.” He became Dr. Frankenstein, afraid of his own creation and angry that others were making money off of his brilliance. He soon left ILM, left films altogether, and found work in commercials. That also ended, and he found himself scraping by with no work on the horizon. “Either you’re the flavor of the month or you’re not.”
Work eventually dried up, his marriages crumbled, and Spaz found himself at the bottom end of the bottle. This documentary suddenly takes us into a different direction, as director Scott Leberecht shines a light on Spaz’s alcoholism and realization that his own self-destructiveness is at the heart of why he can’t find work or happiness. Often, the most brilliant ones among us are those that can’t seem to grow up.
To witness an amazing talent throw it all away because of pride and Peter Pan-syndrome is incredibly wasteful. I found myself in awe of Spaz’s intelligence while simultaneously angry with how far he has fallen. I can only imagine the amazing work he could have given the world if he just put aside his pride a bit and played the game to rise to the role of supervising projects rather than being a cog in the wheel of destruction. Spaz often says he needs a mission, that “boredom is destructive. I’m just waiting for another mission.” At this point in his life, sobriety may just be that mission.
Ticket rating: 🎟🎟🎟🎟