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The Tech of 'Back to the Future' -- Behind the Camera (Q&A)

Yes, there are hoverboards now. No, there aren't flying Deloreans. You know what's more interesting? Flaming tire tracks.

As if the Star Wars trailer hadn’t made this week geeky enough, today is October 21, 2015, the day Marty McFly time-travels to in the second installment of the “Back to the Future” movies, which came out in 1989.

It’s fun to watch these movies now and marvel at yesteryear’s future, but instead of scrutinizing the tech that didn’t happen, we thought it’d be more interesting to look at the movie tech in 1989 compared with 2015.

We spoke to Jeffrey Okun, who has chaired the Visual Effects Society in Los Angeles, Calif., for the past six years. He worked on “Stargate,” “Sphere” and Wes Craven’s “Shocker,” among many other films, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood trivia. Re/code quizzed him about a few key effects in “Back to the Future Part II.”

Re/code: This flying car. I know it was impressive at the time, but now it looks terrible.

Jeffrey Okun: I know the guy who did that car! What they did was, they drove a car down the street, then put gasoline on the street and lit it on fire, and filmed that. They combined the two shots to make it look like the car’s wheels were flaming. Any time the car was in the air, well, that was on a crane.

So how would it be done today?

Today, we’d make it as complicated as possible by using a CG [digitally-made] car and CG flames. And as long as we had it all in the computer, we’d up the ante, just because we can, and do a distortion port-hole and a crackle of electricity, because that ties into the clock/electricity theme that goes throughout the movies. And because it’s CG, we’d also have to have some fancy trick flying. We’d really make a spectacle of it.

So the difference in tech between then and now is that we have CG?

The difference is in the computing power. In one of the [Back to the Future] movies, they used a little bit of CG for the car, but it was so painful: Back then, you had to build the car in CG. Now, you can go onto a site and buy the car pre-built for $125. Even if you modify it, it’s so much faster to get there. And in our business, time is money.

How about this Jaws hologram? It’s so cheesy!

It’s supposed to be cheesy! What’s the intent of that effect? The hologram itself was the futuristic thing. The quality of the hologram was the joke. If we had to redo that today, we’d make the quality better, because we can. But it’d still be a cheesy-looking shark. That’s the point.

How did they do this effect?

It was probably animated. I’d animate it now, because sharks exist, and people who can animate them are abundant.

Would it look like Sharknado?

No. No, it would not. We would make a better cheesy shark.

Everybody wants the hoverboard.

Yeah. The way they did this, most of the time, it’s being held out on a pole. If I were doing this effect, I’d make the skateboard with extra height on it, and then I’d paint out the wheels.

What if you could get a real hoverboard?

Well, if you can get the real technology, you want to do that. If you can do it for real, you should. You see what’s out there, try it out, see if you can make it work.

Because then, the people coming to the movie know they’re seeing this new technology and that’s part of the appeal?

Right. But if you can’t make it look great, the way they did it in 1989 isn’t too different from how you’d do it now. It’s just a question of which way you want to go. You know, the visual-effects artist is in service to the story. The director says what he wants and we argue about the best approach.

 Marty McFly in “2015”; Michael J. Fox in 2015
Marty McFly in “2015”; Michael J. Fox in 2015
Mark Sagliocco / Getty

It’s pretty funny, how they age the actors in the movie. Is that considered a visual effect?

It shouldn’t be, but it is, more and more. In the years since this came out, a lot of things have happened: Makeup artists pay more attention to how people age. They have better materials to work with, with improvements in latex. The way we light people has a tremendous effect. And when “Benjamin Button” came along, that was a a game-changer, because they developed technology to combine CGI [with makeup.] It was amazing: A photorealistic face, but with the actor’s actions. They all won Academy Awards.

How about when the actors double up in a scene and appear with each other? In this one, Michael J. Fox is in the scene three times.

You know what? That’s still hard to do. We do have new technology now — smaller cameras and such — but what they did was pretty darn good, because the trick here is to be clever. It really looks good.

So what’s the biggest tech innovation of the past thirty years? How different is 1985 from 2015 from a movie-tech perspective?

We got democratized, because the price dropped: [By the mid-rsquo;80s], instead of a $100,000 computer, you could have a $6,000 computer. Instead of proprietary software, you had RenderMan. Through the development of newer tools driven by the artistry, you have amazing artists working at home with software they have tricked out for their own purposes. That was the leap.

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