Spaz

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Spaz
"In contrast to the visions his work gave us, now used in the background of many a documentary, the latter part of this one is very traditionally constructed, mingling direct-to-camera interview with still photographs from his chaotic years." | Photo: courtesy of Prodigy Public Relations

Scott Leberecht’s documentary opens with a note of clarification. It acknowledges that the title is often used as a slur, but that’s not the intention here. Although it was originally applied to Steve Williams in jest because of how much he differed from the type of person usually targeted with the slur (and from most people’s idea of a programmer), but it has long since just become a name – and, in some circles, quite a famous one.

“When you think differently, you’re seen as a heretic,” says Spaz, who hints that he may consider himself to be neurodivergent, even if it’s not something that he can quite pin down. Back in the Nineties he was one of the most important creative talents in the world. Now he’s unemployed and poor, bereft of everything he gained. But it was never straightforward. As an early TV interview clip here reveals, he was always aware of the dark side of what he was doing. By transforming the possibilities of digital imagery to bring us incredible fantasy worlds, he would open up new frontiers in art, bring joy to billions, and issue in a new era of impersonation, identity theft and fake news.

The thing about technological advances like this is that, for the most part, they’re eventually going to happen anyway – it’s just a question of who gets there first. Of course, knowing that doesn’t necessarily make the burden easier to carry. At the time when it was happening, there were plentiful distractions. Images taken at the birth of Industrial Light and Magic reveal a team who look shockingly young, who now freely admit that they had no idea how to handle tasks on accepting them but figured it out one scene at a time. in between they drank heavily, took drugs, and “did really wild things like watching old black and white films in reverse.” They were nerds who suddenly had access to some of the most powerful computer equipment in the world and had multi-million dollar films dependent on what they could throw together using tools which few other people anywhere understood.

The big breakthrough, of course, came with the dinosaurs. Phil Tippett thought that he could do it and it is tempting, in retrospect, to speculate on what his version might have been like, but whilst everybody else was still just batting ideas around, Spaz built a T-rex in his spare time. The techniques he invented, based on the position of bones and where muscles would need to be, formed the foundation of today’s virtual beings. Investors were awed by what he showed them on a computer screen, and just a few months later, audiences would be awed as they watched the most realistic dinosaurs ever created stride across the screen in Jurassic Park.

Other breakthroughs followed. The water effects in The Abyss were not only impressive to look at but much more complicated, at the time, then they would be today, as Spaz and his team had to work out how to make the tubes they were modelling with look like waves. This would form the basis of the liquid metal effects used in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Robert Patrick, who has stayed in touch with Spaz, recalls how mystified he was by the process; we see footage of him beside a greenscreen with grids and spots painted on his body, then cut to familiar scenes.

How did Spaz progress from where he was then to where he is now? Part of it was about personality, he maintains. He and his friends didn’t fit into Hollywood circles; a story about his decision to go exploring on a famous director’s property illustrates how wrong things could go as a result. Friends stood by him. His value as a commercial asset kept him safe for a while. Notably, few people in the industry seem to have cared about what happened to him as a person, or shown the kind of understanding one might expect amongst creative individuals.

Then there’s the familiar story of the damage done to young people by sudden money and opportunity, constant parties and a non-stop flow of alcohol. These became an increasing source of solace as Spaz lost his own illusions and realised how his work was being used to create increasingly poor films which used effects as a substitute for character and story - the very things he personally valued as a viewer. Leberecht's film takes us on a condensed tour of Spaz’s personal life, his whirlwind romance, a marriage to somebody who plainly still cares for him but can’t be around him because she no longer drinks and he does. It’s a tragic ending which parallels the emergence of the dark side of Spaz’s innovations. In contrast to the visions his work gave us, now used in the background of many a documentary, the latter part of this one is very traditionally constructed, mingling direct-to-camera interview with still photographs from those chaotic years.

Albert Einstein famously said that he should have become a watchmaker. Spaz now passes his time working as a blacksmith, engaging his creative faculties in a simpler and less dangerous way. Leberecht’s camera observes him in his workshop and his cluttered home, feeling the weight of the years and of the days, where once were dinosaurs.

Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2022
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Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams is a pioneer in computer animation. His digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park transformed Hollywood in 1993, but an appetite for anarchy and reckless disregard for authority may have cost him the recognition he deserved.

Director: Scott Leberecht

Starring: Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams, Robert Patrick

Year: 2022

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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SXSW 2022

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