• John Goodson has centered his career and his life on model making and painting, practical and digital.

    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    21 July 2009, by Barbara Robertson

    On the wall behind John Goodson’s desk at Industrial Light & Magic is the saucer section of the 'Enterprise' model used in 'Star Trek VI'. When you hear Goodson’s story, you realize that it just couldn’t be otherwise.

    This is what comes to his mind when asked how he came to be a visual effects model maker: One day, when he was five years old, he was watching a boy playing with a model airplane. The boy picked up a rock and smashed the model into a million pieces. Goodson was stunned. He picked up all the parts, took them home, and rebuilt the model. Five years old. “I used cardboard things out of a Mars bar to make the wings,” he remembers. “It was my first model.”

    One of his latest is the 2009 'U.S.S. Enterprise' which glides through 'Star Trek,' and for which Goodson was a viewpainter (texture painter) at ILM. It was his fifth 'Star Trek.' For the previous four, he was in ILM’s practical model shop; and for 'Star Trek: Generations' (1994) and 'Star Trek: First Contact' (1996), he supervised the model making.

    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.

    In fact, in high school he and his friend Tony Hudson built the Walkers from 'Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back,' put them in sets that they made, and filmed stop motion scenes. “We told each other that if either of us made it to ILM, we’d call the other one,” Goodson says.

    Following high school, after reading all the three 'Art of' books for 'Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI,' and pouring over the bios of the model makers, Goodson picked his major: industrial design. He was living in North Carolina at the time, so he chose the North Carolina State School of Design. There, he used the model shop to experiment with materials and shapes used by the special effects model makers.

    “I remember reading an interview with Greg Jein who said he had built the ship in ‘Dark Star’ out of urethane foam,” Goodson says. “I drove from one end of the state of North Carolina to the other looking for urethane foam and all I got were blank looks. It was frustrating. There wasn’t much information back in 1984/85.”

    So, during the most recent 'Star Trek', he was a touchstone for the CG modelers who gathered at his desk to check the design as the ship evolved. “I’ve worked on almost all the miniatures for the Enterprise that exist and I’ve studied them all,” he says. “I love these ships.”

    Although the 2009 model sports a streamlined design, Goodson added some details from the Enterprise in the original TV series – a series of shapes on the underside. “It’s subtle, but it will matter to someone out there,” he says.

    It also fit with viewpaint supervisor Ron Woodall’s idea of mimicking the paint from the original Enterprise. “It has a type of paint on it called interference paint,” Goodson says. “It actually has little prisms in it so that when you see it from one angle it reads red and from another it reads green. You can get it at Kragen’s [auto parts store] now, but it was revolutionary for the time. So we used two different specular color maps with exactly the same patterns but colors in opposition to get that effect.”

    In fact, from the time he put that first model together until today, Goodson has been obsessed with model making. He builds and paints digital models during the day at ILM, and at home, builds practical models. He’s filled his garage with projects. Enough, he says, to last him a couple hundred years. Airplanes hang from the cathedral ceiling in his house, ones he’s built and some he’s collected. “I had one wall starting to fill with World War II movie props,” he says. “But, I’ve kind of had to retract so my girlfriend has some space. I’m always building models. I love reproducing things.”

    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.

    But then Tony Hudson called. It had been five years since they had built the stop motion 'Star Wars' set, Tony had landed in ILM’s creature shop, and he was fulfilling his part of their high school pledge. Goodson flew across the country to visit him. “He let me sleep on his couch for six weeks and hang out while they were working on 'Star Trek IV,'" he says. “Greg Jein was there working on ‘Batteries Not Included'.”

    Goodson, of course, told Jein he wanted to work in the model shop and Jein, of course, told him to finish school first. So Goodson went back, but for his independent study project, he mimicked the work of ILM modelers building the 'Enterprise' for the 'Star Trek Next Generation' pilot. “I was talking to Tony about once a week, finding out how they were building it,” Goodson says. “I was trying to do the same thing on the East Coast, not building the same ship, but using the same techniques and processes.”

    In 1988, after Goodson finished college, he flew to San Francisco and met with Larry Tan at ILM. Tan said maybe he’d have a job, and that slight encouragement was enough. Goodson and his wife moved to California a month later. “My wife knew what I wanted to do from the first night she met me,” he says. Six days after they arrived, the model shop called and asked if he could come in for a week. He’s been at ILM since, except for a short stint at ImageMovers Digital. His wife, though, gave up.

    “We were incredibly busy,” Goodson says. “My first feature was ‘Ghostbusters,’ and we had minimum 10 hour days at the time. The clock had a sticker on it with an arrow that pointed to 7:00. The top half of the arrow said, ‘go to work,’ and the bottom said, ‘go home.’”

    Goodson remembers seeing his first digital composite in 1991, for 'Back to the Future, Part II,' but he stayed with the practical model shop until six years ago, working on more than 30 films as a modeler, painter and concept artist.

    Six years ago, though, he was working in the art department at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch building concept models for 'Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith'. “We’d take the sketches George approved and build, basically, a three-dimensional blueprint. I remember building a two-foot or so study model for the Republic Cruiser, which is the big star-destroyer ship at the beginning of 'Episode III', and then the next thing I knew I was painting a digital model of the Republic Cruiser in the computer.”

    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    Republic Cruiser from 'Star Wars: Episode III' © Industrial Light and Magic.
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    'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' © Industrial Light and Magic.

    By 2003, it had become increasingly difficult to make a living working in the practical model shop; digital visual effects were taking over. So, when a spot opened up in the digital paint department at ILM, Goodson decided to make the switch. “I used to do a lot of painting in the model shop, and I loved it,” he says. “The learning curve to digital painting was pretty vertical for about five months. Now, it’s like driving the car.”

    After painting hard surface models for 'Star Wars' and 'The Island,' he painted his first creature for 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,' the pirate Ogilvey, who has a chunk of coral for his head. “His belly rips open and all these things pour out – shrimp, crabs, fish,” Goodson says. “I bought a crab, put it on a cookie sheet, and photographed it on our skyway between the buildings, then transferred those shots onto the digital crab. I love being able to apply practical solutions to the digital stuff.”

    Most recently, he photographed asphalt surfaces to create bump maps and displacements to paint the deck of a CG aircraft carrier for 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen'. And now, he’s building digital models as well as painting them. His first formal modeling job was building the MotoTerminators for 'Terminator: Salvation'. “I always feel like I’m cheating when I build digital models,” he says, “because I get volume for free. It’s a weird process. Modeling is usually subtractive – you take a block of wood and carve stuff out of it. Here, it’s sort of a free additive process. You can take a cube and extrude anything out of it. I totally take advantage of it.”

    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    © Industrial Light and Magic.
    War of the Worlds. © Industrial Light and Magic.

    Although he believes that working in the model shop before creating and painting digital models has helped him in many ways, he does not necessarily believe it has given him an advantage over people who don’t have the same experience. “I always tell kids they should learn how to sculpt, paint, draw, and then get a computer,” he says. “But there are people growing up whose education is based solely on the computer. They’re going to do things in a different way and they’ll have capabilities I’ll never have. I have advantages they’ll never have, but they have advantages, too.”

    When he teaches a class on building spaceships, he talked about the importance of understanding the language of mechanical objects. “We gave everyone a disposable camera and asked them to photograph things that conveyed mechanical language,” he says. “It’s not just about gluing parts onto something.”

    And he encourages young artists to flex their powers of observation. “When a garbage truck drives by, most people see a garbage truck,” he says. “I look at it and see all the hydraulic hoses, the cylinders, the weathering, the exposed metal, the rust. I’m constantly walking around with a camera taking pictures of things like rusty manhole covers. I’m really, really happy with what I’m doing.”

    But then, lack of enthusiasm about the world of model making and painting has never been a problem for Goodson. “I don’t think a day goes by,” he says, “that I don’t kinda look around and go, damn, I’m actually .... I’m here.”

    Related links:
    Industrial Light & Magic
    Terminator: Salvation
    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
    Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
    Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
    Star Trek Next Generation

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