Jurassic Punk: Inside the Tempestuous Career of FX Revolutionary Steve Williams in Spaz
New documentary spotlights the maverick who added CGI to cinema magic
In the unreal realm of movie special effects, there are artists who redefined what is possible. Lon Chaney Sr. with his makeup kit filled with monsters. Willis O'Brien, whose stop-motion made Kong a King. The wizard of gore, Tom Savini. Steve Williams' name should be on that list, but Spaz, as friends and enemies call him, never found a bridge he couldn't burn.
VFX artist Scott Leberecht knows Williams' chaotic genius from up close, having been his friend and colleague for a quarter-century. In 1995, he was interning at the art department of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic, "making Xerox copies, running around with my flip phone to gather reference for the artists." That's when he first met Williams. "He was directing an Energizer Bunny commercial. ... He saw my storyboards and went, ‘Who is this guy? I wanna meet him.' We met and he went, ‘You're coming with me.'"
Freeze frame. The idea that Williams was doing commercials should seem like insanity. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, if you talked about groundbreaking digital effects, you talked about Williams. Who made water smile in The Abyss? Williams. Turned Robert Patrick into molten metal in Terminator 2: Judgment Day? Williams. Without him, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park would have been go-motion, not CGI. Sometimes those breakthroughs were literally him by himself, but this was not simply some academic pursuit. At that time, Leberecht said, the image of the computer animator was "reserved, intellectual, nerdy. That's not what he is, which is this outrageously masculine, hockey-playing, tobacco-spitting, beer-swilling maniac."
Add another descriptor. Self-destructive. In Spaz, Leberecht's intimate documentary about his friend and colleague that debuts at South by Southwest, the darker sides of Williams' personality are ever-present. His caustic rage. His alcoholism. His messianic streak balanced against his martyr complex. "I doubt that he got into the idea of ‘I want to change the world, I want to make movies better.' I think that all he wanted was that he knew he could do it and he wanted to prove it."
Not that Leberecht planned to make a movie about Williams. What he started was a documentary about the digital revolution ILM sparked with Jurassic Park, which he called "this perfect crucible for these people to come together at this one perfect time with this one perfect project. ... If you plucked one of those personalities out, would it happen?"
Increasingly, he saw Williams as "this willful antagonist." In that crucible, he found the one person without whom none of this would have happened. "It was almost like you needed that subversive mind, that punk mind, that rebel mind, to say, ‘I want to do it that way, so fuck you.'"
But Leberecht wasn't just chronicling a man supplanting the old guard. Spaz is also a close look at Williams wrecking his life "for the last 10 years, 12, 20," Leberecht said. "He's so smart, so you're like, ‘I know you're smarter than this. I know you can see that there's a way to play the political game and navigate this system, so that you aren't destroyed by it.'"
Documentary Feature Competition
Monday, March 14, Alamo South Lamar, 3:45pm
Tuesday, March 15, Violet Crown, 12:15, 12:45pm
Thursday, March 17, Alamo South Lamar, 5:15pm
Online: March 15-17