Super 8: The VFX

Much of the film was held tightly under wraps in an effort to keep the film’s climactic scenes a fun secret for the audience.  A massive, oddly shaped cave was carved on a soundstage, creature effects were set into motion and the train-crash sequence and post-train-crash sets were forged.




To capture the staggering chain-reaction of the train crash itself, SFX Supervisor Steve Riley designed a sledge-type battering ram weighing about 2,000 pounds that was shaped like the front piece of train. “We used a green sled pulled through the building by a crane with a 15,000 lb weight to create the visual effect,” he explains.  “As it smashes through, we had a sequence of explosions going off to create the kind of debris that a crashing train would actually throw off.  We used about thirty ounces of black powder and about four hundred feet of hundred-grain primer cord, which is a high explosive.  It is very fast acting, so it gives off a very loud report and when it goes off.  It’s very intense.”




For the post-crash site, which leaves the six student filmmakers in shock, Whist commandeered full-sized, full-dimension boxcars strewn at imagination-defying angles. “Everything was very heavy to maneuver, so we used cranes to place them, then heavy machinery to tear them up to look like they had been through this incredible collision,” he says.




VFX-Enhanced Set Design played a major role in allowing these scenes to feel real enough to stop your heart.   “The way visual effects can now extend physical design opened up a lot of avenues in this movie,” notes Martin Whist. “It gave J.J. and the crew opportunities for shots that might otherwise be not be as visceral and exciting.”




However, it was the special effects needed to create what happens after the train crash that really pushed the team and everyone involved in the film agreed should be kept hush-hush until audiences have a chance to be startled by them.




These effects were brought to life by the digital wizards at ILM, while the film’s climactic revelations fell to creature designer Neville Page, who previously worked with J.J. Abrams on “Cloverfield,” but had never done anything quite like what he created for “Super 8.”




All that Abrams will say of the special effects at this juncture is:  “A lot of work went into making sure that it all feels unique and real.  We never saw the creature as a visual effect, but as a character.  ILM played an incredible role in this.  Every time I work with them I think, ‘they’re outdoing themselves again,’ and that was certainly the case on ‘Super 8.’”




Adds Burk:  “ILM was the perfect partner for this film.  They really took the lead and made it far more spectacular than we ever thought.”




Steven Spielberg also brought on board several film legends, including Dennis Muren, the six-time Oscar-winning visual effects artist, whose films include “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom,” “War of the Worlds” and several episodes of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” epic; and Academy Award winning sound designers Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom, who have been frequent collaborators throughout Spielberg’s career.




Collaborating with so many people whose work both Abrams and Burk grew up loving proved to be a full circle experience for them. “When I was a kid, making movies was a salvation for me,” Abrams confesses.  Summing it up, Burk added, “To make a movie about kids making a Super 8 movie, and to make that movie with Steven Spielberg, who was at the epicenter of everything we loved when we were kids, is something beyond our wildest dreams.”