Luxury is imagination. An interview with John Lambert – owner GravityLabs Productions and Post

John Lambert started his film career at the age of 16 making short films and composing  electronic music scores in high school. John juggled his film making, music, motorcycle racing and College until the call of Hollywood was too great and moved to Hollywood in
1978. Starting a company called Young Fast and Scientific with several other film makers, his experience with YFS allowed him to explore all the aspects of motion picture and television production. John concurrently worked on many high profile productions including the IN SEARCH OF series with Leonard Nemoy, and feature films, JAWS 3D, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND 2ND Edition.

We had the opportunity to speak with John about his projects past and present.

You have an inspirational story and an amazing career path. How did you get interested in the visual effects and cinema industry?

My inspiration in the film and television world started when I was very young before gradeschool . My next door neighbor in Los Angeles was a lead camera man for a television variety show called the Danny Kay Show in the early sixties. He had an old broadcast video camera in his garage with one of those old rolling camera dollies, his son and I would go into their garage during the day and play with the camera pretending we were doing television shows. I would push the camera around and just fantasize how wonderful it would be to do this for real. I was hooked on film making at that point. I started doing short films and commercials in grade 8 and started professionally doing commercials and skateboard and surfing short films in highs school and haven’t looked back since.

How does the world of Visual Effects Cinematographer looked when you started your career? How did you and your generation adapt to this dynamic universe? How do you see/rate the early work of your career?

When I was starting my career in the motion picture business, it was the mid seventies. Star Wars had just come out, the film just amazed me so I said to myself I want to do that. I was in high school still and by a wonder of fate, a visual effects veteran came to our high school doing a road show on the inner workings of visual effects. His name was Lynnwood Dunn , the creator of some of the main technology in the visual effects world at the time and had many Academy Awards to his name. He showed us in the large school auditorium all the elements and processes needed to make a shot look real on the big screen. Again I was hooked , when the show was done I raced back stage to meet him and shake his hand , I got up the nerve to ask him how I could get into his field. His reply to me “Just do it son, and if you can design and build the equipment you need to do this work it will also help get you in the business”.

At that time in the visual effects industry there were no computers doing imagery it was all analog, optical,chemical and mechanical and the equipment needed to do the work was all prototype engineering one of a kind cameras, lens, optical, printers and camera rigs that allowed the camera to create realities out of ideas.We had to be one part mechanical engineer, one part optical engineer and one part electronics expert and one large dose of pure creativity with a complete knowledge of the motion picture process from the bottom up. When I started in Hollywood the first studio to hire me was Film Effects of Hollywood, Lynwood Dunn’s studio, the fellow I met in high school. I had followed his suggestion and built an optical printer that is used in the process of combining all the shots that make up the final composited shot used in the film. When he saw that I followed his suggestion, he brought me on in a mentorship position. This is how all people in the film industry started back then. You would go through this mentorship process for several years learning the ins and out and the very special techniques used in visual effects and basic cinematography. In Hollywood this training allowed you to enter into the Cinematography Guild with the professional knowledge needed to complete a production. In order to be a Director of Photography class 1, you had to have a complete comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of cinematography, lighting and visual effects to get hired on major motion pictures. Millions of dollars rode on your ability to capture images at the highest standards of the time. I joined the guild when I was 23.

I was an early adopter of computers purchasing my first Imasa 8080 computer. I used it to run my first computer robotic controlled optical printer. Back then you had to store the computer data on tapes and set the computer with switches. I knew back then computers would be the way of the future of motion pictures. It took several more years before the motion picture industry embraced computer imagery. I was in the bleeding edge of the technology then and have been working in the digital era ever sense.

Which of your projects are most dear to you?

One of the projects I was involved with that I still hold dear to my heart is Star Trek the motion picture with Robert Wise the Director and Doug Trumbull the Visual Effects Director from EEG, Entertainment Effects Group. It was very early in my career, I was doing miniature building with some of the same people who did Star Wars.

I moved up in the company EEG run by Doug Trumbull, who by the way was the visual effects director for 2001 A Space Odyssey, getting more involved with the camera and when he sold his company to Richard Edlund in the mid 80s. The company name was changed to Boss Films. Richard Edlund kept me on as his camera person. My first project there was Ghostbusters where we did several hundred visual effects shots for the film.

After that we did 2010 The Year We Make Contact. Both films were nominated for Academy Awards for the visual effects. That same year we lost out to Steven Spielberg’s Lucas Film, Indiana Jones Temple Of Doom. We did many more films there such as Poltergeist 2, Big Trouble in Little China and Fright Night along with many very high end commercials including Chanel perfume and Mercedes Benz. This was the renaissance time of visual effects where we were combining robotic computer motion control to run cameras on very precision tracks and armatures in blue screen stages allowing our cameras to do many repeatable passes of shots building up layers of images to be combined on very precision optical printers making the final shot. At Boss Films the company was an incubator to many top film artists who are now the back bone of the visual effects industry today. To date I have worked on so many projects that are dear to me the preceding are just few favorites.

Can you describe your daily routine? What is your favourite part of the creative process?

I like to start my day out by reading world news and reading about new developments in the digital imaging world. Also being in the science and physics visualization world, I keep up on the latest trends and breakthroughs in science.
My favorite part of the creative process is the first spark of an idea and knowing that it will become a reality. I feel very gifted that I am in involved in an art and craft that allows big dreams and ideas to become real and see it on the big screen.

What is the range of visual effects & services that you create? Where can we find out more about your work?

At this time I am operating a production studio called Gravity Labs in Vancouver, British Columbia and San Diego, California producing science and history documentaries, commercials, and music videos. The studio is a full service production group doing all the work in-house from planning, shooting , to post production, editing and visual effects, music and sound . We work in all formats from HD television to large format work such as IMAX and stereoscopic 3D.

What was your most rewarding experience throughout living your career?

There have been so many rewarding experiences on my journey, but one that stands out is when I was asked to film and document the process of Prince Sultan Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud astronaut training at NASA, all the way through to launch as Payload Specialist in 1985 on STS-51G Discovery. I was able to meet U.S.President Ronald Regan in the Oval Office during a meeting with all the astronauts on the mission. This was in a time where we were able to film in the Oval Office and I was asked to wear a very nice suite and tie to the event. It was very humid that day so when I got to the Oval Office the other news crews who regularly are allowed to cover such events were all wearing shorts and tee shirts and baseball hats, President Reagan made a joke to the news teams saying, look at this young lad over there you should all dress like him, they all laughed and one of the camera men put his baseball hat on me. That was a whirlwind experience.

Among the movies you’ve worked on, what was your favourite location/visual effect. What would be the dream location if you were free to choose one?

One of my favourite film locations has to be Egypt doing a documentary on the Great Pyramids.
Also visiting some of the great science physics research labs while doing educational documentaries on quantum physics, such as Lawrence Livermore Labs at Stanford University and TRIUMF Particle Physics Lab in University of British Columbia to name a few. My dream location would be to film in outer space.

Can you recommend a few of your personal favorites movies (that aren’t necessarily blockbusters)?

Some of my favourite films are The Wizard of OZ, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and the classic Citizen Kane.

How much creative freedom do you usually get?

Regarding creative freedom, in the motion picture and television world it is a big collaborative process. When I am involved with a project I look for the common ground between the concept and the sensibility of the concept and the director’s vision and look deep into my mind and start to resonate that vision. When I feel that feeling one gets when all is warm and good, then I am free to create with the team. That’s what creative freedom is in the industry.

What do you think about the transition of the industry in general to the 3D world?

Being part of early 3D stereoscopic work from the analog process in the 80s, to the digital era, to date, has been very interesting and complex. The main agenda of the movie and television world is to tell a story and evoke emotions. Any and all processes are used 2D, 3D, 4D… It is all about telling a story and educating an audience and hopefully a few goose bumps on the way.

3D stereoscopic cinematography has many advantages to conveying the story in a real and hyper real way. It has its place in certain subjects that require you to become part of the location and feel the space. Action films, exotic location films and thrill ride films are good subjects for 3D stereoscopic. Films that are very dialog based, small locations with very little depth are not so well suited to the 3D process.

3D will be here for a long time. The next revolution will be completely immersive virtual reality systems that not only put you in the scene but move you in your seat and change the way your brain processes the imagery through different high frame rates and imbedded subconscience meta data.This is already on its way now.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I find my inspiration in nature and science and helping young people find their way in this complex world.

Which filmmakers/films do you turn to for style inspiration?

Some of the filmmakers I look to for inspiration are Stanley Kubrik, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott. They found a center to their story telling process that I feel is as close to the way our subconscience works.

Any exciting new projects that you’re working on?

At this time I am involved with The Perfume Foundation and Brussels Film Workx setting up media centers to inform the world about sustainable and ethical practices in the world of perfume and fashion and overall the world of New Luxury, a concept that will be understood very soon around the world. The project will encompass doing a documentary based mini series on the history of perfume going back to ancient Egypt all the way through to the modern day and also producing a large format film in IMAX for special venues theaters around the world on the same subject . This is a major undertaking that will make its mark on the world very soon.

What is the essence of what you do, and what advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers?

The essence of what I do is I look at the world with my eyes wide open and take it all in, then I dream of the possibilities and choose the path that resonates with my hearts feelings and go for it. As a filmmaker I work as a producer, director, cinematographer and editor and incorporate my visual effects into the projects I do. I work in all the digital mediums now and practice my craft daily and study –study- study. It’s all about passion, artistry and professionalism and an empathic relationship with the world.

My advice to young film makers and budding cinematographers is to study classic realist and impressionistic paintings and look very closely at the way the artist uses light and shadow and composition to convey the emotion, also study classic films and modern films and really study the way that these filmmakers tell their stories , storytelling is as old as language itself and the basic principles of story layout is the same just rearranged in a way that gives it an unique and interesting point of view the audience can relate to, this applies to all forms of story from the abstract to the very down to earth drama. It has to have a rhythm and pace and content that compels .

What is luxury for you in one word?