Interview with Chuck Comisky, Special Effects Supervisor on "Space Academy"

Conducted via e-mail by E. James Small, "" on Tue, 03 Aug 1999.

EJS: What FX did you do before Space Academy?

COMISKY: Nothing, it was my first efx job.  However I wrangled extras for filmation on ISIS and ARK II and also guest starred with Jim Backus and John Fiedler on an episode of ARK II (the Cryogenic Man ep.).  Also did stand in, photo doubling, and light stunt work in features (GONE IN 60 SECS, TRACKDOWN, EXECUTIVE ACTION, OBSESSION, THE WILD PARTY, and others) prior to SA.

EJS: How did you arrive at getting the job supervizing the FX for Space Academy?

COMISKY: Steve Nicolaides hired me as an assistant to Rob Maine who was the effects DP for the show. Because of my prior work with Filmation, they wanted me to organize and production manage the miniatures.  This was several months before live action shooting.  We began experiments and tests.  Rob (previous animation - FLESH GORDON) was doing everything stop motion and using front projection for the star fields.  There was no budget, wooden tracks, and we moved the lights with the model carriages a couple of inches at a time.  This was all to change shortly; it was too much work and much too slow.  Also, the front projected starfields were 'mushy'.  Black 'duvateem' was hung on the back walls, white Christmas lights were hung and painted black and scraped clear to vary the light output giving us a 'practical' starfield, and the tracks and mounts were motorized.

EJS: Were you involved only with the miniatures unit or did you also supervise some of the live action effects?

COMISKY: On SPACE ACADEMY we had our hands full without live action. Final stats on the show: 256 shots in 17 weeks for a total cost of $90,000 all in.

EJS: How many were in your crew?

COMISKY: I believe the model shop grew to six. Photography was Rob and myself assisted by 2 others.  Paul and a couple of the model shop guys formed another shooting unit that we supervised.  We had a retired engineer (Stan Shanahan) who was invaluable at cobbling electrical and mechanical things together.  An Englishman who shot high speed effects on was hired who taught me lighting and creating camera logs so that every shot was not a 'first time'.

EJS: What kind of cameras were used? 35 0r 16 MM?

COMISKY: The live action was shot on 16 MM.  For the effects, the old Mitchell pin registered 35MM cameras were used - purchased mainly from gov't auction or surplus.  The Airforce used them in gun mounts; many were unused, new in the box.  They came packaged with a variable speed motor, 2 magazines, and a set of 4 prime Cooke lenses. They also had a 3 lens turret mount.  Some were the highspeed types.  The whole package generally sold for about $1700 to $2500.  These are the same cameras that Doug Fries would later modify to become the Fries reflexed RS cameras still in use by most effects companies today.  Unfortunately the last of these were sold out of surplus some years back.  I purchased Mitchell high speeds for Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, even having them integrated into our proto-type motion control track (an ELICON system) - but this was to be a couple of years down the road.

EJS: It looks as though someone just made a model of the ARK-II and added to it so it'd look like a spaceship. Is this essentially how the Seeker was designed?

COMISKY: The first Seeker model was designed and built out of house by Lorne Peterson (if memory is correct).  So I don't know the inspiration for it. I suspect that Lou Scheimer (head of Filmation) or Art Nadel (series producer and sometimes director) influenced the design for both models.

EJS: How big was the Academy model itself? What was it made of, how much did it weigh? What did it cost?

COMISKY: The basic body of the Academy was probably foam and bondo; the detail was from model kits including plastic champaign cups for radar/communication dishes.  It weighed about 40 or 50 pounds, was bottom mounted, and was about 6 feet across at its widest, very finely detailed.

EJS: When seeker moves out of landing bay, there's a scene where it passes in front of the bay model completely. Was the model slid on wires using the "Lydecker method" or similar?

COMISKY: All models were bottom/side/top mounted. Some elements were photographs of the model mounted on glass and moved on a track. Paul Huston (now at ILM) and several other model makers were hired.  Lorne Peterson built the original Academy model. Paul and his crew were generally responsible for designing and building all other models.

EJS: What do you remember as the most challenging aspect of your work on SA?

COMISKY: Cranking out 256 shots in 17 weeks.

EJS: What specific effect was most difficult to achieve? In other words, was there anything that the script called for that you really scratched your collective heads and wondered just how you were going to do it?

COMISKY: Basically we just plodded through, didn't worry too much. And as we went along we developed economies in shooting and lighting. The Seeker and the docking bay took the most care, although I remember a Seeker-landing on an asteroid as being a real jigsaw puzzle to devise. We wanted to rotate everything, have movement everywhere. It took some coordination; no motion control for this show - only "3, 2, 1, on" with a person on each axis of movement flipping their respective motors on at the same time, all carefully coordinated and rehearsed.

EJS: Explosions that were effected on the show looked "flamey" rather than the "sparky" look so common in FX shows. Was this artistically intentional or just economical in some way?

COMISKY: We took several hours one night and photographed mostly gasoline pyrotechnics in the parking lot that Paul and his guys had fashioned for us on the spot. It was what we could easily do.

EJS: Who did the stop motion animation work on the monsters?

COMISKY: Jim Aupperle (NIGHTMARE BEFORE XMAS, JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH) and Steve Czerkas came to us as a team.  Lou Scheimer hired them as a seperate unit for the creature
animation. Jim is still in the biz, Steve has become (and was) quite an expert on paleontology in the 'real' world.  His theories and discoveries have changed many concepts concerning dinosaurs.

EJS: Since the travelling Seekers passed in front of the stars, simple double exposure wouldn't have worked as the stars would show through the ship. If the expensive bluescreen wasn't used, what kept the support rods holding the model ship from blocking out the stars (although there are cases where you can see this happening!)?

COMISKY: On all model shots, the camera is stationary (usually locked off on a 'Western' dolly). The models are rod-mounted on a carriage, usually bottom mounted, but not always. The starfield (see earlier comment) is 'practical'. The models and lights (outriggered to the carriage and on roller stands) move.     A large glass pane is positioned in front of the camera. The path of the model is tracked (tilting the camera to loose straight line moves). Black photographic tape is affixed to the glass so that everything below the lowest part of the model (usually the rod mount) is blacked out as it moves across frame. We then shoot this 'first pass' only exposing the model and background  that is above this 'tape matte' on the glass.     The film is then reversed to the start mark.  The tape on the glass is reversed; taken off and re-affixed to the upper area of glass blocking off any 'double-exposure' from the 'first pass'. We then photograph the lower portion of the shot (generally the starfield) for this second pass. All of our shots built upon this principle. The complexity grew to as many as 18 to 20 passes on a single piece of negative, each pass carefully choreographed and tape-masked in this fashion. On some shots we initiated camera moves.

EJS: How were the various planets done? Painted balls?


EJS: How big were they?

COMISKY: Varied in size.  The largest was about 36 or 40 inches in diameter.

EJS: Were any matte paintings used?

COMISKY: Not that I recall, but we did do some rear projection of elements; generally elements that we either photographed or were 'pasted up'.

EJS: How big was the docking bay and door set?

COMISKY: The docking bay set was approximately 4 by 6 by 4 (feet).

EJS: How was it made to open?

COMISKY: The doors were motorized (minarek motors controlled with potentiometers).  Again, using the old "3, 2, 1, go" method of motion control.  For a couple of shots we gimbled the Bay so as to give it movement on the approach.

EJS: Did you work on Jason Of Star Command too?

COMISKY: Absolutely, but the whole situation changed for that show. When Filmation came back in the summer of '78 with JASON OF STAR COMMAND, they went union which change a lot of the methods and brought in new personnel. The show became a full 1/2 hour.

EJS:  FANTASTIC! Thanks a bunch Chuck! Great details! I really appreciate the time you took to do this interview!

Chuck Comisky next worked on Jason of Star Command, and then went on to do a number of pictures for the next twenty years including work on 'BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS', 'SPACECAMP', 'TERMINATOR 2- 3D', ‘BLADE’, 'THE CROW', 'THE ADDAMS FAMILY and many other feature films and specials. It is my sincere wish that Chuck continues to enjoy and profit from his career and I thank him for his time and patience in answering my questions for this interview. 

Great work Chuck!