In October 2002, I interviewed David Sander, the creator of Man Conquers Space, a mockumentary chronicling the first fifty years of an alternative-history space program that takes as its’ inspiration a series of articles published in Collier’s magazine in the 1950s and featuring the art of Chesley Bonestell, among others.
Cinescape ran a short piece by me drawn from the interview, but I wanted to provide the complete interview as well. You can read the article in issue #68 of Cinescape, which features either a Daredevil or a Frodo cover (they issued it with both versions).
This introduction will be published prior to each section of the interview, which will be presented over a period of five days.
Mike Whybark [MW]: Can you tell me a little bit about you and your background, David?
David Sander [DS]: I’m a 33 year old Melbourne-born Sydneysider, and have lived in Australia all my life. I consider myself first and foremost to be an artist, and have worked with various techniques and materials over the years, these days using a computer as a fairly elaborate paintbrush.
Flunked exams in high school redirected my original career aspirations from aeronautical and astronautical engineering to the world of film and TV (though I’ve never lost my enthusiasm and interest for the fields of air and space).
MW: What’s the history of your f/x house, Surfaces Rendered?
DS: After graduating from university (Bachelor of Arts, English major, Wollongong University), I worked for a company selling computers for all of three months before saving enough money to kick-start my own business. In February 1993 I opened the doors of Surfaces Rendered, a small one-man business, providing the Sydney CBD with desktop publishing services. With property prices skyrocketing shortly after the awarding of the 2000 Olympics to Sydney, I ended up having to move from the CBD to a suburban location. Declining custom in my new location forced me to investigate alternatives, and with increasingly affordable desktop video effects software available, I invested in some basic equipment that would let me work in that area.
After a chance encounter between a friend of mine and the representative of a TV production company, I found myself providing services in the TV effects field as an independent contractor. Things pretty much snowballed from there. These days I provide effects work for a company in the north-west of Sydney that produces TV commercials, corporate videos and cinema ads.
MW: What other projects has SR got under its’ belt?
DS: There are a number of other projects under consideration, including a rather daunting number of scripts and treatments being developed, but MCS dominates all available time at this moment. MCS is the first Surfaces Rendered-led project … hopefully the first of many.
MW: Any involvement in or awareness of the f/x for (or of the f/x community that contributed to) The Lord of the Rings?
DS: I had an email from a friend suggesting I visit Weta’s website (I hadn’t looked too closely at anything to do with LOTR up to then) while they were still deep in production. The prerequisites Weta described fell outside my area of experience and expertise (basically I use different software than that which they considered necessary), and while I know New Zealand to be a wonderful country, I had no real desire to move there (another prerequisite), so I didn’t bother to investigate any further.
I confess it did annoy me somewhat when later as I was reading the film’s credits in the cinema a number of names and companies outside New Zealand (including here in Sydney) came up as production contributors – there was certainly no indication on the Weta website when I saw it that they considered going outside Weta to get anything done. How things might have gone had I applied is something I’ll probably never know – though being a freelancer not wanting to move to New Zealand would likely have earned me a refusal anyway. I’m certainly not bothered by it – MCS has dominated my time as it is.
MW: What was your impression of the f/x in The Lord of the Rings?
DS: The film is beautiful. There are a couple of FX glitches, a couple of winces, but for the most part it is just beautiful. It rapidly became clear to me this was a project made with both a lot of money, and a *lot* of love, and I was deeply impressed with what was achieved. I anticipate LOTR The Two Towers to be absolutely stunning (the sneak peeks already available certainly suggest this to be the case), and goodness only knows what they have up their sleeves for LOTR III…
MW: Can you tell me how you got into developing space f/x?
DS: Having had a long-standing interest in space, FX work relating to space just seems to be a natural progression of my art. The tools I work with are reasonably complex, but I am definitely no computer programmer, so I rely on off-the-shelf everything to service my needs. This forces me to be very clever with the way I achieve what I want to achieve, as I don’t have the ability to create the necessary tools as the big effects houses do to solve particular problems. I certainly couldn’t produce a film like Shrek or Monsters Inc, but there are elements in those films and films like them that I feel would provide me with no difficulty if I were asked to take such work on.
Man Conquers Space has had its own challenges, and when I have encountered a limitation with either the software or hardware that I use, I have simply worked the problem and devised alternative ways to realize the results. This might mean – for example – going out and shooting live action where I might have otherwise attempted a CGI solution, but in the end the issue is not so much one of how one does the job as how to make it look the best on screen.
MW: Can you tell me about your space suit replicas? Are these for hobby or professional use?
DS: Well, they started out as a hobby. I always thought spacesuits were just too damn cool – especially the A7LB (used in the later Apollo J-missions – Apollos 15, 16 and 17), and I just plain wanted one. In my more fanciful moments I envisaged a book-lined study in my dream home punctuated by alcoves bearing spacesuits instead of the more traditional medieval armour as decoration. To me, they are far more wonderful, inspiring and forward looking than brutish ancient weapons of war … and better made, too. Then “Man Conquers Space” came along, and it didn’t take me long to realize that what I had in hand would make great props in the film, provided certain alterations were made.
Consequently, the Mercury spacesuit became the launch and re-entry suit for astronauts riding the ferry rocket; and my Apollo EMU – stripped of its outer covering ITMG to reveal the blue PGA underneath – became the Mars spacesuit. The Apollo PLSS backpack was stripped down and altered to be the odd spindly thing worn on both the Moon and Mars, and consequently my original spacesuit ‘collection’ is no more. The Mercury is now on display in the US; the Apollo (now Mars) EMU is sitting close by to where I am sitting in desperate need of attention after weeks of abuse on film sets and various exotic and less-than-benign locations; and the Moon suit – made by me expressly for MCS – is currently mounted on a mannequin in the corner of my home office.
MW: Are the replicas, such as the Apollo suit replica, intended to be fully functional?
DS: The original intention for my Apollo EMU was to make it as accurate as possible, to make it as functional as possible – to make it as indistinguishable from the real thing as I possibly could. A friend of mine in the UK even lent me a genuine ITMG for a while, and with it I learnt a huge amount about how such things as the stitching was done, the layering was organized – even how the thing sounded and smelled. The fine folk at Hamilton Sunstrand sent me some astonishing technical drawings of the PLSS backpack, and through various people I have met on the internet, I accumulated a rather sizeable quantity of reference material.
I felt confident that with all this in hand and access to certain materials and tools, I could actually make a working replica of the Apollo A7LB (working as in someone could wear it and not expire). I couldn’t guarantee the thing would function as a genuine spacesuit (to achieve that would require more than I could afford or access in this country), but it would nevertheless be something to use (for educational purposes perhaps – or even for film or TV if the need ever arose), something to cherish, something else that I had made that was space related, and about as tangible a thing as I was ever going to have from the Apollo era.
With MCS, the whole suit project was sidelined, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if once done with MCS I resumed building an Apollo EMU – albeit a new one (I couldn’t bring myself to tear apart the MCS Mars suit now – even in its tattered state it is also very cool).