It takes a truly great documentary to interest me, and Spaz is definitely one of the better ones I have seen recently. For any voracious lover of cinema—especially Terminator 2: Judgement Day or Jurassic Park—this one is for you! Ever wonder how on earth we made the transition from the practical effects of the 80s to the over-CGI saturation in basically every big movie of the 90s? Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams was a major pioneer of computer graphics, an unsung and grossly under-appreciated professional whose behavior often got him into hot water and accidentally burned bridges. Spaz is a reminder that behind the scenes workers are rarely ever paid their due credit, let alone receive award recognition.
Once described as “one of the hottest computer animators in Hollywood,” Steve is an eclectic figure that nearly everyone interviewed has a strong opinion about, one way or another. Not one’s typical nerdy stereotype, Steve was a macho motorcycle-driving man who just happened to be exceptionally skilled in mathematics. He started off in freelance work, and with his profound knowledge about three-dimensional computer graphics, Steve was already in the minority in 1988. He was brought on as “chief animator” for James Cameron’s movie The Abyss, working for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and from there the rest is history!
Steve continued his climb towards excellence by refining his one extraordinary water-movement scene in The Abyss into a full-fledged human-building concept for the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. For me, this was the fascinating stuff. T2 is one of the best movies ever made, and getting a window into the revolutionary special effects is practically jaw-dropping. With no motion capture yet in existence, Steve turned toward drawing a full-on grid on the actual actor, Robert Patrick. I am not entirely sure as to whether the sequences shown here, including Patrick in grid mode as well as the character models, have ever seen the light of day before. Patrick’s remarks that “I had no idea what the fuck they were doing,” are both endearing and adorable. He was just along for the ride! The insane increase in effects sequences that Cameron wanted for this sequel in comparison to the single one in The Abyss required a major learning curve for all involved, and watching them stumble their way into a happy success story brought a smile to my face.
Sadly, the inner-workings of filmmaking are often riddled with unfair politics, and this is where the story takes us next. Steve and a friend who also worked on the movie were both almost fired completely from production after raiding George Lucas’ sanctum during a dinner at Skywalker Ranch. Their continued work on T2 was only thanks to several concessions, including being banished entirely from the Skywalker Ranch. To throw salt into Steve’s wounds, the huge accolades for T2 did not extend to a public thank you in the awards speech for the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. This was a repeat of the same thankless speech that The Abyss received, and yet it stings all the more considering Steve’s even heavier involvement this time around.
For any kid of the 90s, the film’s best section will undoubtedly be its focus on Jurassic Park. Once envisioned completely as a stop-motion animated effort, it was only through Steve’s tireless efforts to craft a working demo of a T-rex skeleton that convinced the filmmakers CGI enhancement was even a possibility. It is a shame then that they instead brought on puppeteer Phil Tippett as the animation supervisor. Each time there is a misstep in granting Steve the proper recognition, it feels like a big slap in the face. Jurassic Park revolutionized the way audiences saw visual effects—from Steve’s demo, the entire world of the film landscape was warped; whether this was for better or worse, it remains difficult to say.
I really enjoyed watching Spaz, especially in learning about a man whose career I did not even realize was so pivotal for the direction films took in the 90s. The documentary covers way more than just The Abyss, T2, and Jurassic Park, and is far-reaching into Steve’s personal life, butting heads with ILM, exploits, wives, excessive drinking, and ultimate career trajectory. He already has a body of work that will continue to “educate and inspire others,” but I would love to see a late-in-the-game career revival for Steve Williams. If anyone deserves at least a little bit of kudos, that man is none other than ‘Spaz.’
Spaz screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.