Q&A WITH VAN LING

Van Ling started in Hollywood as an associate of director James Cameron, having worked as his creative and technical assistant on The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day among other projects. He later moved from Lightstorm to Banned From the Ranch Entertainment and has since worked as a graphics and special effects supervisor on a host of film projects, including Twister, Dante's Peak and Inspector Gadget. Van has also produced a number of laserdisc and DVD special editions over the course of his career, and his most recent work includes several high-profile projects, such as Fox's The Abyss and Independence Day special editions and the latest T2: Skynet Edition Bluray. He also had cameos in T2 and Titanic and created DVD menus for many popular movies, including the Star Wars DVDs. JamesCameronOnline.com is absolutely thrilled about Mr. Ling being kind enough to answer our questions!

 

THE ABYSS


JAMESCAMERONONLINE: You are credited as James Cameron's creative/technical/research assistant on The Abyss and FX liaison. What exactly was your job on The Abyss?

VAN LING:
I basically served as his right-hand man on the creative and VFX side of things (I think he once called me his "extra RAM").  This meant anything from doing the scientific research on the various technologies and procedures in the story, organizing and managing all of the storyboards and artwork and designs for the film, to working with every department and all of the VFX companies to make sure they were doing things right and consistently with one another.  This was one of the very first times that VFX was parsed out to multiple facilities in this manner, which is now the normal procedure  for big effects films.  As a result, I was involved literally in every step of the film, from development through marketing.  The only thing I did NOT do for Jim was the normal "assistant" things, like keep his schedule or pick up his dry cleaning he had a regular assistant for that.  He and Gale Anne Hurd specifically wanted to distinguish what I was doing for the film from what the normal job description for an assistant was, which is why I have these weird credits on the film.

During production and postproduction, I worked at several of the VFX companies as Jim's representative, not only coordinating things and being a general reference for all things related to the visuals and story, but actually rolling up my sleeves and building models and stuff.  I then worked on everything from the Academy Award campaign to the video transfers.  Then I produced the Special Edition version of the film three years later, for limited theatrical release and laserdisc, then the DVD in 2000.  So I've had the opportunity to do it all for this film and be kind of its guardian, for literally decades, and it's been a blast and a privilege.

JCO: Have you visited the PowerPlant set often (if at all). If so, how was it?

VL:
I was out on location in Gaffney, South Carolina for seven months, and it was an amazing experience but since it was really my first big production job, I had no idea at the time that it was not a normal shoot.  I thought it was par for the course to get my open-water scuba-diving certification in a 55-foot-deep tank at an unfinished nuclear plant!  But I spent many a long day down in the observation room with the three-inch-thick plexiglas window, and many a long night at B-tank, working with the underwater miniatures crew.  In addition, I had my Mac II in my little corner of the production office and did storyboard revisions and reference for all of the departments from there.  Every day was a new technical and logistic challenge, from leaking tanks and floating beads to storms and wax crane models that floated instead of sinking But it was only afterwards, in post, that it really sank in what we were able to achieve out there in Gaffney.  It's all covered pretty well in Ed Marsh's doc "Under Pressure" and in the supplements I created for the laserdisc/DVD.

JCO: Are there any plans for The Abyss Blu Ray release?

VL:
There's a backlog of Cameron films that need to be done for Blu-ray, and The Abyss is certainly one of them, but everything is on hold until sometime after Avatar gets done and released.  Hopefully I'll get a chance to work on them again someday.

JCO: Are there any abandoned idea or characteristics for the NTIs?

VL:
Pretty much everything visual we tried for the NTIs ended up on the DVD design galleries, so if you haven't checked out the amazing NTI design work for that film by Steve Burg, Phill Norwood and Jean "Moebius" Giraud, you should do so.  As for their backstory, you should check out the Abyss novelization by Orson Scott Card; he really fleshed out the NTIs in terms of their civilization and culture, all things we really couldn't get into for the film itself.  Scott had some cool ideas about the NTIs being able to sense things on a molecular level, where they could taste colors and had a different conception of what life and consciousness meant.  He put it all on the book, and I wish it were still in print.


What I want to know is, why hasn't anyone really done some great Sideshow-style collectible sculptures of the NTIs and their ships?  They were really works of art, especially the manta ship.



TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY


JCO: The one burning question among the Terminator Community. Do you know how much control James Cameron had over the two Terminator novelizations? Did he work closely with Randall Frakes and supplied him with answers and additional ideas or did he give Randall a free hand?

VL:
As fans may know from my T1 DVD documentary, Randy Frakes is an old writing pal of Jim's and they go way back, so I reckon that Jim had plenty of input into the novelizations, which were all based on his original screenplays.  Bear in mind, though, that the novelization for the first film was written using some of the unfilmed or deleted scenes in the first film's script, way before the second film was fleshed out so there may be inconsistencies here and there.  But for the most part, these novelizations can be considered part of the authentic mythology, if not full canon.  Note that Bill Wisher, the cowriter on the T2 screenplay, was also the cowriter of the first novelization with Randy Frakes, and had contributed both his writing skills and his acting to T1 as well. 

Note that there is another, unofficial novelization of the first film that was written by British horror novelist Shaun Hutson for the UK market back when the first film came out.  Although it was based on the Cameron/Hurd screenplay and was licensed by the UK rightsholder for the film, it was kind of a knockoff and was in no way sanctioned by the filmmakers or done with any input from Jim.

JCO: When does the movie take place? The police computer points out at 1995, but some sources say it was 1994. Which was it? And is it true that T2 takes place during the winter months?

VL:
The film is supposed to take place in 1995, since John was conceived in mid-May of 1984 and thus would have been born around February of 1985, and if he's supposed to be ten years old in T2, that would make it 1995.  We really never tried to lock down the exact dates, but since I was the one who programmed that police computer on the set, I can at least vouch for that part of it!

JCO: The T2 Extreme DVD text commentary cites flesh cocoon as one of the possibilities of how the T-1000 was able to get back through time without any live elements. The idea was floating around for many years before. Where did it originate from?

VL:
That idea was one we had bandied about during preproduction, but it was something that we thought would be too confusing to show visually it would have been like when Brett finds the shed alien skin in Alien.  I still think it's the most logical explanation, given we see a flesh "mold" in the teaser trailer already.  The other possibilities are that 1) the T-1000 could mimic the field generated by a living organism or 2) Reese really does NOT know tech stuff and was mistaken in the interrogation scene in the first film.  Note that the whole point there was to set it up so that there was a reason why no one brought weapons from the future through time.  Note that several comics and other media later played off the idea of surgically embedding weapons into human carriers and ripping them out of them once they arrived.

JCO: Another hot question: why was T-800's hairdo different than the ones from the first movie?

VL:
Well, Arnold had a different hairdo seven years later!  His face was also thinner in 1992  If you want an explanation, here's two: 1) Skynet may put different random haircuts on infiltrators to decrease the chance of zeroing them at a glance; 2) John Connor in the future may have had the T-800 prepped to look like the one he remembered from his childhood, because that's what was supposed to happen.  Also, Terminator started with one relatively normal hairdo in T1, then had it singed to a spiky punk hairdo after leaping through the car fire in the alley; this was all a conscious effort to make him look more and more Frankenstein-monster-like and demonic as the film goes on.  For the second film, he's the protector, so he has a more heroic look, even as he gets beat up.


JCO: Will you be involved in the planned Terminator 2 in 3D?

VL:
That would be up to Jim and Lightstorm I'd be game to do it, and I certainly have the experience, since I've done 3D stereoscopic VFX work as well.

JCO: The T2 Malibu comic books thanked you and Lightstorm for your help and involvement. How much were you involved in the comic book and did James Cameron approved and liked its story?

VL:
I was Lightstorm's consultant on the 1995 Malibu Comics series, so I was in charge of reviewing all of the dialogue, storylines and artwork to make sure nothing was totally contradictory to what we'd established in T2.  They seem to run out of money and rushed the end of the series a bit, and I don't really know if Jim ever read the finished product.  I don't think that series can be considered canon, but between the writers and myself, I thought we had some good ideas in there.



TITANIC


JCO: Who came up with the idea of you playing the Chinese Man?

VL:
Three years after I had left Lightstorm to become Creative Director and VFX Supervisor at Banned from the Ranch Entertainment with my partner Casey Cannon (she also worked with me on the T2 Special Edition laserdisc and everything since then), I was working on a less-than-stellar movie called Spawn in 1996 when I got a page from Jim in Mexico asking me to come down and act in the movie as a Chinese passenger so I guess either Jim thought I'd be right for the role (I had done cameos in a number of films and was a member of SAG by that time), or I was the only Chinese person he could think of at short notice!  But it was an honor and privilege to do it.
 


JCO: How long did it take to shoot your scenes?

VL:
I spent two weeks in Mexico in October of 1996 to shoot the scene where a Chinese passenger had survived the sinking by getting on a floating wooden door and got rescued from the water by Fifth Officer Lowe this was not in the script but was based on historical testimonies of the sinking.  The scene of course got cut out of the film, but is in the Deleted Scenes portion of the Titanic Collector's Edition DVD.  After that, Jim said that they needed to bring me back so they could establish my character on the ship prior to the sinking, so I went back to Mexico for another two weeks of filming in February of 1997, when we shot the scenes of Leo coming into Third Class for the first time and the scenes where the Third Class passengers are breaking through the gates.  It was a lot of fun.  Then a few months later, our company (Banned from the Ranch Entertainment) ended up doing fifty visual effects shots for the film, so I had a Visual Effects Supervisor credit as well as an acting credit.

JCO: Did you expect Titanic to be such a huge hit?

VL:
I thought the script was the best one that he had written up to that time, and the sets and footage were amazing, but I was initially pretty cynical about the film's prospects not because of the film itself (which I felt was really good), but because I didn't know if audiences would respond to a romantic "$200 million chick flick" from a hard-edged action director trying something against type, or if they would just be fixated (as so much of the press at the time was) on the behind-the-scenes costs and stories.  Remember, Waterworld had recently gotten nothing but bad press over their budget and rumors of a production out of control, so I was afraid that people both inside and outside of Hollywood were not going to judge the film on its own merits.  I was happily surprised to find that people embraced the film in a big way.  It started with the first big sneak preview screening in July of 1997 and the internet was a big part of that growing, positive groundswell.  Immediately after the screening, several reviews appeared on the web that said "hey, forget all of that cynical Hollywood schadenfreude, this is a great movie" and the word of mouth started to turn around.  That was sweet.

We want to sincerely thank Van Ling for this Q&A!

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