Robert Zemeckis' 'Flight' Special Effects Supervisor Michael Lantieri Reflects on the 'Back to the Future' Sequels

Even though more and more time passes from the last time a Back to the Future film has been on the silver screen, interest in the film series has continued to grow amongst long time fans and new viewers.  From the announced release of the Mattel replica hoverboards, to Bob Gale spearheading the restoration of the hero screen used DeLorean, Back to the Future news continues to be generated.   However, all this would not be here if it were not for the likes of special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri and his crew who brought all these things to "life" more than twenty years ago.
 
Lantieri is no stranger to making the visual stories of directors bigger than life on the big screen.  His career has spanned for over 30 years, with credits such as: Last Starfighter, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, Superman Returns, Alice in Wonderland, Minority Report, to name a few.  When one looks at Lantieri's resume, one sees a recurring theme, he has teamed with director Robert Zemeckis on over five films since 1988.  A collaboration that began with a recommendation from Back to the Future co producer Neil Canon.
 
With the success of the first Back to the Future, and Zemeckis' continued success with ground breaking visual and special efffects in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future Part 2 was looking to push the envelope for the movie  goer even more.  At the end of the first movie it was already decided that there were going to be flying cars.  That was just the beginning, there were going to be: flying hoverboards, electronic waiters, automatic garbage devices, flying dog walkers, automatic sizing and drying jackets, self lacing Nike shoes and on and on and on.  Zemeckis with his successes on Who Framed Roger Rabbit turned to Lantieri to lead the special effects on both Back to the Future Part 2 and Part 3. Lantieri took time out of his work on Zemeckis' upcoming film Flight to discuss with BTTF.com how he made cars fly, hoverboards hover and a few other tricks...

 

How did you first get involved with working with Robert Zemeckis?

I did a movie called The Witches of Eastwick which Neil Canton produced. Neil had produced the first Back to the Future with the guys and when we finished that movie (The Witches of Eastwick),  Neil said, “hey were getting ready to do some  movies I want you meet this director.” He introduced me to Bob (Zemeckis)  and Bob (Gale) and based on that I was hired and that is how I was brought into the Back to the Future  family. I have Neil to thank for that.

That led to the filming of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

That led to Bob (Zemeckis) and I having a pretty long time working together.  A lot of movies, Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future Parts 2 & 3, Death Becomes Her and tons of stuff together with him.  That’s how it all began right there.

Each party brings something to the table.  So many people came together to make the BTTF movies what they are.  On the whole each brought so much.  Like Neil brought along the idea of Christopher Lloyd to the first movie since they worked together. If any of those pieces didn’t fall into place I don’t think we would be talking today.

I don’t think we would either.  It is funny because once in awhile you are lucky enough to be on a movie where everybody really does work well together and play a big part and its well thought out and well produced and that is a great example of both movies that were like that. It a real hard thing to have happen just because of all the logistics and all the people that have to work together.  That was a good group.  

Ed Verreaux an art director for BTTF 2 & 3 said in an upcoming interview the amount of props needed for second film was so large, they had to divide the work out into teams including for props. How did you manage the scope of the special effects work flow for the two BTTF  films at the same time?

Well when I first got involved it was one film called Paradox.  It was really a big film and the script itself was big.  We moved along and they were in negotiating  with the studio. When we found out that we could make two movies, we were already up and running a bit.

I hired a group and broke them up to two categories, one was a prop shop/ action prop shop that did  all the stuff that  like the hoverboards   the jackets, the  Nike shoes, all the things we had to custom build for the set work.  Then we had a team that would do the real effects: rain, fire, wind, flying work and all that stuff,   The operations on the set.   I think we were together for 17 months.   I can’t even imagine doing that now.  All of us just kept going and going. I basically moved around and oversaw the whole thing spending a lot of time getting information from Bob and Bob and Neil.    We’d have our meetings and then we would go on getting it tried, tested, and it sort of evolved.

All  of  this  effects work done before CGI was really being used in any sort of regular fashion.  CGI would making hoverboarding a lot easier today wouldn’t it?

It would be much easier today, we had to fly around on piano wire old school and had to hide it.  A lot of help from director of photography Dean Cundey and  production designer Rick Carter.   Designs of the sets with lines and things like that to blend wire. Basically everything was done live action.  Right there on the set.  Somewhere around the middle of  Part 2, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston did some tests on removing a few rigs. He had done some very simple background replacement  much like  Photoshop. That was basically the start for doing bigger and greater things.

What was the most challenging aspect of making the hoverboards “work on screen”?  I remember reading that it was important to make sure it looked like the board itself was doing the hovering.

The most interesting thing about the hoverboarding is when you look at it I made a real choice not to do it the same way every time.   Anytime you started to looking at it to see how we did, I still hear rumors about it and people telling me, “oh did you have wires?”  “oh did you have magnets in the boards?” all kinds of things. And the answer to all is  YES!

We did have harnesses that actually run wires through the harness to the board so the board actually lifted the weight of Michael and Charlie Croughwell Michael’s double.    Another great example is Michael just jumps and the board snaps to the bottom of his feet, well we  did have magnets in the board and in his feet and we flew him just  over the board and the board snaps up and away he goes. It’s a complete reverse of what you would think, we weren’t flying the board.  In other shots we would fly the board

 

A simple one was out over the water, the board was just on a piece of mirror that was sitting out there with Michael standing there hovering over the water, it was just reflecting the water.  So I tired to change it on purpose every single time.  Certainly in the movie when you watch cut to cut, it’s not the same method.

Ed Verreaux said he did concept art and that they storyboarded a “slam ball” sequence, a future game where players would run up and around the walls, did you do any initial special effects work or treatments for this effect?

I do remember having meetings on  slamball with the first script Paradox.  Rick Carter and I in particular had many…many ..many meetings and we go round and round and it was such a big idea.  And we would just look at each other and ask, “do you really think they are going to try to do this?”  

We had Bob (Zemeckis)  building a big giant globe  and turning it on casters and putting a shaft through it t in so people could run around. It really was a huge idea to try to pull off and we still joke every now and then when we are up against something that’s tough and we say, “well it isn’t any slamball!” (chuckling)   We never got a chance to do it, but I think that might have been good fortune, that might have been the back breaker right there.

Gene Winfield said you came to him to build the fiberglass flying DeLorean?

Yeah we went to Gene.   We were looking around for shops,  we had so many futuristic  vehicles to build.  We needed a fiberglass DeLorean body that was light weight that we could move around quick and was easier to fly.  We went to Gene and had him do it. His reputation speaks for itself and he was capable to do it, he was great to work with we had fun looking at his old stuff.  So that was great to be able to have him jump in and help.

He remembers making the whole car out of fiberglass even the seats.

We tried to make it as light as possible we knew we were going to fly it  and needed something very light but needed good quality and detail and it looked good on camera.

In the old official fan club magazine you made some small mention of an accident with the fiberglass DeLorean.  Can you tell us a little about that?

We had a piano wire break in the alley, the car was floating and Michael walked up and to it  and just put his hand on it and you could hear this  musical  wire "bing", and of course the other three wires were balanced so perfectly, the other three broke and this car slammed down and cracked right there in the alley. It happens, it is never a perfect science.

For the first movie Filmtrix built three DeLorean time machines.  Kevin Pike said when they started on the sequels, production came and got remaining parts to be used on future cars.  Did you find building new time machines challenging due to the limited surplus parts available? Did your crew have to scratch build many parts to create the 4 more time machines?

Kevin gave us everything he had. He was nice.  He had everything in storage and all categorized and  he was a huge help going through it with some of my guys.  We picked up everything  from the original movie he had and went out shopping on a huge shopping spree.  Fortunately a lot of the surplus shops still had very similar if not the same things still available.  Now a days, as you know having done your own car stuff, it is almost impossible to find all that stuff now.  You have to have it custom made or copy it, but we found a lot of it.  We were really lucky,  a lot of the cable, clamps, and the 7 segment digits all that stuff they were still around.  The biggest trick was not let anyone know what you were doing because if they found out you were doing DeLoreans in another movie they would jack the price up ten times.

It was happening even back then?

Oh yeah, sure if they smelled you were of that movie or part of that they would see you coming.  After we went shopping we tried to duplicate as much of the original stuff as we could .Sometimes we would have to make little pieces here and there but we were as careful as we could be to make all those cars identical.

Did you have to refurbish the original hero car from the first movie?   I recall it was left outdoor on display at Universal Studios.

There were cats sleeping in that thing!  Absolutely everything had to be gone through again, had to be redone and cleaned up.

How did the VW chassis dune buggy DeLoreans hold up while filming at Monument Valley?

They were ok.   If anything they were under powered for what we needed. I remember our director wanted me to get more from them and I couldn’t.  All and all they were good, the suspension was good in terms of the clearance with the ground.  I think in his (director’s) world he would have liked them a little faster.   If I could change anything I would have used Porsche engines.

Now was that Zemeckis or Max Klevens the second unit director?

Well they each, both units used them.   Max shot a lot of that stuff.  

For Part 3, some of the most understated (because they worked so well) effects were all the things going on in Doc's 1885 barn/western lab.  How did you handle the effects of the large refrigerator and the breakfast machine?

The barn stuff was built by the FX prop shop crew led by Tom Pahk. I don't remember who led up the car and train model, but I know that Brian Tipton helped with it.

 

How involved was it to convert the DeLoreans to run on the train tracks? 

We had to custom make wheels that would change basically the wheel base. We had custom aluminum train dished  wheels made to fit the car  and we played around with different surfaces, roughing up the surfaces on the lathe and adding things to get  better traction,  to get it to ride on the rails and the groves.  It ran pretty well.  

The whole train sequence in Part 3 is full of special effects, the train is racing and coming apart as Doc Brown pushed the envelope with his special fuel logs.  Then the DeLorean pops a wheel and sparks are coming off the wheels. In the middle of all of this, the car is crashing through barriers and there is a floating hoverboard in the mist to boot.  Can you give some insight into this fascinating sequence?

One of the things that was a huge huge concern of mine was the DeLorean in front of the train popping a wheelie.   I was really afraid of not so much the car but a person in it with the train  shoving it.   Should something go wrong that train it will go right over top of the car. It was a really dangerous stunt to do.  I talked Zemeckis into shooting that scene backwards.  Backing it up so if something would happen the train would pull away from the car. 

It was all in reverse, even to the point we had the hoverboard on little safety wires that would jiggle it and Michael picked it up pulled it into the car instead of throwing  it out.  We had lots of discussions as   Bob did not want to do it that way and I kept digging in and kept thinking I can not push him (Fox) in that car with that train should something go wrong.  If something went wrong it could get ugly, there are so many factors I couldn’t control. It was a tricky one but it really worked well

 

The rest of the scene the train on the tracks, the train blowing up, we just did all live action. We were strapped onto that train and Max shot a lot of that.  We were on that train for days, it was fun we had a great time.

The destruction of the DeLorean was a key scene, how did you go about creating the destruction of the time machine?

We took one of the DeLoreans and knowing we were going to hit it with the train.  When a train hits a car and I did a lot of research it is not really exciting.  It kind of hits it,  crumples it up and shoves it to the side.  In our movie the DeLorean  being a time machine had to be unusable. There had to be no way anyone could  put it together or the story doesn’t work.  Bob Gale kept hammering on me, “its got to  be unusable you can’t believe it can be used again.”


I took one of the Deloreans and chopped up the frame, put in sections of wood in the frame every few feet  and took all the fenders off drilled holes and laced those with det.  Chord. Loops of det. chord so I could detonate that cord. Just envision on impact detonating all the chords and the train hits a pile  of suspended of parts right on impact so that it just throws parts everywhere.  

So in that scene you see much more destruction to a car than would really happen. Then we had Charlie Croughwell  the stunt double in that car with me standing there right on edge waiting for him to get out and run right towards me and timing the approach for impact.

Bob Gale said you turned a Mr. Fusion into a lamp and the time circuits from the wreckage into a mantle display, did you know Planet Hollywood had the car’s body hanging from a ceiling?  

I did not know the wreckage was put up there.  I made sure I got a Mr. Fusion used in all 3 movies and carefully realigned it ran a wire through it and made a lamp out of it. I think Bob Gale still has it.  Another interesting about nine years ago I was going up and down the coast looking for a vacation home. I meet this Realtor and looking at this property   facing the water near Port Hueneme and I go in from the front and I am up in this unit and I’m looking over it and she says look down to your left, see right at your left see those railroad tracks right there, that is where they shot Back to the Future and the train hit the DeLorean. I didn’t recognize it because I came in from the front.  I looked at her told her I would take it!  I bought it and its mine.  I called my wife and told her, “we’re buying a town home.”  I told Bob Gale this and he gets the movie and the town home is in the movie, you can see it there!  That movie is the movie I met my wife on how about that? She worked for Bob and Bob and then worked for Bob Gale only.

How did you like working with Bob Gale, all the other cast/crew members I have talked to said he had incredible passion about the story, characters, and the film itself.

Working with Bob Gale is really a pleasure. He not only has a passion for his work and certainly those stories he understood backwards and forwards like nobody. He was invaluable as a producer. Having a producer on the set who understands the material like that helps me do my job. He helped every single day and was on the set every day.  He was out there solving problems and that was really… really a treat.

One of the largest vehicles in the entire film trilogy is the Doc Brown time traveling train.  Was this built by your own crew?

That was.  We had crew designated to build Doc Brown’s train. That was all built on a steel frame. We found a small tug car that runs on rails that we fit inside so we could have it run down the rails.  We built around that, we built a frame and then designed all the gizmos and gadgets that were on top of that.  My shop foreman and supervisor Tom Pahk  was in charge of that.  As he was most of the gags on set stuff and it was quite an undertaking. I don’t have to tell you how big that was.  

 

We had it all put together and set up and sent it up to Sonara to where we were shooting the western town and all that. We had to keep it covered.  It was the big secret of the movie. Everywhere it went we had to keep it tarp covered, security on it all the time. We get it up to Sonara and I get a message they are looking for me.  

So I call into the office and they say they have changed their mind were’ going to shoot it down in Port Hueneme where I did the license  plate. We had to take the train apart and ship it down!    It is a big thing to ship, I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were messing with me. But they liked the location better.  They thought it would be much better for the movie, and that was the place they wanted to do it.

The scene was always scripted to come back to the wreckage.  Do you think mindset was film it at Sonara and recreate the 1985 wreckage set there for more control and keep it hidden from public view?

Well I think that was idea yes, more control and it was just recreating that whole environment. 

How long did it take to build the train?

They worked on it for 2 months, non stop. A  crew of about 8 people.

Did you work with Simon Wells and Marty Kline who did most of the art department’s design work on the train?

Oh yeah, we used Simon and Marty’s drawings all the time. Whenever we would bring them into the shop, get them out of their offices, and say hey have a look at this and ask them, “how do you think we should build this?”  They were great and a lot of fun to work with. They were in and out of the shop every day.

 

 

How did you get the time traveling train move on the tracks and did it actually lift up and having folding wheels?

No, Ken Ralston handled that, we had the wheels on the outside so they could start to fold up. They had the look of the movement  that it would just start but we didn’t do any attempt to lift off.  

You have a long history of working with Robert Zemeckis, many have said that Zemeckis is constantly pushing the envelope to tell new stories with strong visuals and techniques.   Ken Ralston in several interviews always mentions Zemeckis comes up with something and they have to wonder how are they going to do this?  How is working with Zemeckis in this regard?

He’s worse!!!!   He hasn’t changed a bit. (laughing)

How do you approach working on a Zemeckis film?

The only  way to approach working on a Zemeckis movie is to have an open mind and be ready to try to do something that you know is going to be almost impossible.  He really does know how to get the best out of every single department. I know he has for me.  I know he has to be the most technically and prepared director I have worked for. He has an imagination that he can back up with technical understanding and ability, unlike anybody I know.  He really brings it.

Between BTTF  2 & 3 and Jurassic Park, many of the crew members on both films were the same.  From your point of view how would you define the differences between Spielberg as the director versus Zemeckis with the same crew?

Each film that you work on any body on those crews will say the same thing. Our biggest challenge is to try to understand the director’s vision. Sometimes they do it in pictures some through explanation, any number of ways.  Our challenge is to get that vision up on  the screen.

Bob’s vision of what a car would do would never be Steven’s vision of a what a car would do or any other great director’s vision what a car would do. You start out with the car, and then you basically have a director and have them tell me what they have that car do. You let the director direct you. Especially movies like that (BTTF, Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park) those are performance based effects.  You need to be directed like any other artist or actor, musician… anything.    We take the role of showing up and being directed.  And they don’t do it the same everyone has a different process. 

Out of all your experiences on BTTF, what would you say is your most memorable and treasured that you would want fans to know about?

That’s a good question, that one is a tough one. You get into those movies, you’re almost numb to what’s going on.. By the time we do something, I am already thinking about what’s happening next, what’s prepared and ready to go.  For me the biggest thing on movies is when I see it with an audience for the first time and I get to see their reaction. It is very painful for me to watch because I am looking for mistakes or something that could be better but, to see the audience reacting and what their take on it is… I am always surprised. That is when I gain my enjoyment of it.  Because when I am making the movie I am so focused it I  have to be removed from it to be able to feel it and understand it.

That’s true, you are so focused on so many items, the props have to all work, the stunt crew has to be all prepared, tests have to be done, the wind machines have to be at the set the next day, working with two film units.  The list is never ending.  I guess that is a difference between you in effects and talking to someone like ILM designer John Bell.  He designs concepts a, put them down on paper so an idea is visual to work off of.  So once the sets are built, the props are made, he can go out there and see them all  in the flesh.  Since the concept is finished, he can enjoy the actual “built item” his job at that point is already done before the end of filming.

Exactly, mine is emotion, when I read the script they say a flying car.  I immediately get a vision of what a flying car looks like and I have to get the director’s vision.   Then we do it and we’re looking at it. We’re thinking where will the camera go? What camera angle, and when I see the movie, and if that vision matches up to hopefully the director’s but also my original vision as well, that is when I get my enjoyment.


published: Wednesday October 24th 2012

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