Tim Wilcox
Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Model Achievement

third in a series
by Bondo Wyszpolski
This interview first appeared in the February 21th issue of Easy Reader.
printed here with permission

Computer designer 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.

"They had 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.

"We went 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."

According to 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 original prop… 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 cool-looking stuff."

Wilcox employed 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.

"At that 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."

This tangible, 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 it out."

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… It's different every show." The current project? X-Men 2.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Wilcox was also a fan of the 1960 Time Machine.
"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.

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