‘Escape From L.A.’ Filmmaker Reveals Why the Kurt Russell Surfing Scene Looks So Cheesy

Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter reunited 15 years after their classic Escape from New York. Despite the high anticipation for the return of Snake Plissken (Russell), Escape from L.A. was a disappointment in the summer of 1996. Still, it’s part of Russell and Carpenter’s body of work, so Shout! Factory saw fit to commemorate it with a special edition Blu-ray.

Escape From L.A. Hang Gliding
Kurt Russell | Paramount/Getty Images

The new Blu-ray includes an interview with CG Supervisor David Jones. Jones was very frank about the movie’s visual effects shortcomings, particularly a scene in which Plissken surfs a tsunami down Wilshire Blvd. Here’s what Jones said about the scene.The Escape from L.A. Blu-ray is now available with additional interviews with Stacy Keach, Bruce Campbell, George Corroface, Peter Jason and Jim McPherson.

David Jones takes personal responsibility for the ‘Escape From L.A.’ surfing scene

1996 was still sort of the dawn of CGI visual effects. Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park showed what technology could do. Escape from L.A. perhaps overshot with a series of visual effects that looked like cartoons. 

“There were things we Buena Vista Visual Effects where we overreached madly,” Jones admits. “The surfing down [Wilshire Blvd.], I personally take responsibility for a lot of that because it was my idea and we executed it and it was a bad idea.”

The inspiration for Kurt Russell on a surfboard

Jones said he pitched Carpenter the idea of having Snake Plissken surf. He thought it would be as simple as having Russell stand in place on a surf board and putting him into the background. 

I’d seen reference to a standing wave surf park in Texas. You see them on cruise ships now where you blast water up a wave shaped thing and you can surf by basically standing in the middle of the curve and the water’s rushing under you so it’s supporting the board. The first of these had just opened in Texas and got on the nightly news. I said, ‘Oh,, it’s no problem, chaps. We’ll just go down to Texas, put green screens up behind the standing wave and shoot it there and then we can comp it in. It’ll be marvelous.’ That’s what we did.

David Jones, Escape from L.A. Blu-ray

Even pro surfers couldn’t sell ‘Escape from L.A.’

Not only was the technology new at the time, but so were stationary wave pools. Jones underestimated how easy it would be to make it look like anybody, let alone Russell, was surfing.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken
Kurt Russell | Paramount/Getty Images

“The thing that I could’ve taken into account is back then it was very, very difficult to stand up and surf on those things,” Jones said. “Professional surfers couldn’t do it. Only the guys that worked at the Texas place could do it. They looked janky. It did look janky.”

‘Escape From L.A.’ required more than a green screen

Many of the fantastic realms you see in movies now only exist in a computer. The actors just stand in front of a screen screen. Even Wakanda in Black Panther utilizes a lot of green screen backgrounds. Well, that gets complicated when there’s water involved. 

“We had some very strong, for the time, compositors who were very good at matching together different water elements that we shot,” Jones said. “When you look at that sequence of shots, anything that has the water rushing under the boards is this Texas surf park. Anything splashing on the sides were elements that were shot separately. The fact that any of those matched together is kind of a miracle.”

If they did it today it would look better

Jones is clear that it wasn’t a shortcoming of the technology that made Escape From L.A. look fake. It was his own inexperience. Since then Jones has worked on films like Bad Boys II, Live Free or Die Hard and the Dragons and Trollhunters animated series which look great.

Escape From L.A.
L-R: Kurt Russell, Pam Grier and Steve Buscemi | Paramount/Getty Images

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“The other thing would be lighting integration and shadows, adding things to the digital camera to disguise how the effects maybe weren’t successful,” Joes said. “It’s not that we didn’t have the technology. Had I had today’s 25 years of experience and gone back and done this in my second year in the visual effects business as I was at the time, I think we could have significantly improved it.” 

Other bad visual effects weren’t his fault

Jones and Buena Vista Visual Effects shared the load on Escape from L.A. These sequences weren’t his fault. 

“There was a lot of gunfire at the end of the thrid act in the fight when they come down in the hanggliders into the Happy Seaside Kingdom,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of muzzle flashes and explosions. This was done by a different company. That’s certainly, by modern standards, is a little iffy.”