Interview: Special Effects Consultant Michael Fink

Many artisans worked to create Back to the Future's famed DeLorean time machine. Under the direction of Oscar nominated production designer Larry Paull, designers such as Andrew Probert and Rob Cobb had been developing concepts for the DeLorean time machine. One item that was never determined by Probert or Cobb was the flux capacitor. Probert thought the flux capacitor should be on the overhead console, while Cobb had an idea of a flux capacitor on the roof. It was art department liaison Michael Fink who would solve the great mystery of the flux capacitor.

Larry Paull, along with production manager Dick Jones and producer Neil Canton all reached out to Michael Fink to be an art department liaison for the construction of the DeLorean time machine. They all knew they needed someone to transfer the concepts to an actual built and functioning film prop. Fink who had started working in special effects on the film China Syndrome, had also worked with Paull on Blade Runner, and Canton on Buckaroo Banzai.

Fink worked on Back to the Future for a few weeks designing the flux capacitor and laying out the exterior and interior of the DeLorean. He brought in Michael Scheffe to finish out the construction of the time machine when he had to leave the film production. Fink continued to have a successful career after Back to the Future as a visual effects supervisor on such films as Batman Returns, and won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and a BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects for the film The Golden Compass.

BacktotheFuture.com is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Michael Fink with insights about the DeLorean time machine:

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Thank you for taking time to speak to us about your involvement with Back to the Future.  You were hired to solve design and construction issues, primarily for construction of the DeLorean time machine.  I know you had left the production before the DeLorean was finished, but have you done a Back to the Future interview before? 

No, I never have. My part with the movie was so small.  Honestly, I came in and did a little work and then I left, but what is interesting in a funny way is that I now teach at The University of Southern California.  Out of my entire career, the thing the students seem to get the biggest kick out of is my involvement with the Flux Capacitor. They seem to greatly enjoy knowing that I designed the Flux Capacitor - and had a small hand in naming it.

While your involvement with the production might not have been long, I think fans will be interested in hearing some of your stories with the development of some of the most iconic props in film history. How did you actually get involved with the production of Back to the Future?

I had worked previously with Larry Paull, the Production Designer, on Blade Runner and had worked with Unit Production Manager Dennis Jones on Buckaroo Banzai and a couple other projects.  I had also worked with Back to the Future's Co-Producer Neil Canton on Buckaroo Banzai.  They each called me separately asking me If I were available for a few weeks.  I said, “That will be great."

I had a commitment to go off on another show as a visual effects supervisor, but wasn't going to start for a few months.  So I could give them a couple months and they said "It's only going to be maybe a month.  It's not going to be a big deal.  We just need some help with the car.”  So I said "ok."  I came on to the project and was given Ron Cobb's wonderful designs for the exterior of the DeLorean.  I don’t remember seeing any designs for the interior. I was told, “We want you to just take care of the DeLorean and make sure it is moving along and getting built right."

Had you worked with BTTF's special effects supervisor Kevin Pike before?

I didn’t know Kevin Pike, but I knew of him because of his work on Jaws, and we quickly developed a good working relationship.   And of course I knew of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.  I was aware Robert and Bob Gale had been trying to get the script of Back to the Future made before Robert had directed Romancing the Stone.  I never met Robert or Bob before I joined the production, but I had actually known about the script for a few years, and never imagined working on the film.

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So your hired role on Back to the Future was basically seeing conceptual art turned into practical prop construction.  Have you done this type of prop construction before? 

At that point on my career, I would get called in these little jobs and a few of them actually were projects where Ron Cobb had done concept work.  Ron would create these wonderful designs, but he was in great demand as a designer, and his value to a production was in the designs.  There were others, like me, who could figure out how to build them. I would occasionally get calls asking if I could help, and like most of us at that point, I was happy to be involved.  When I became a visual effects supervisor on War Games, I still kept my hand in with the look of the hardware, and continued to have input on these things on quite a few shows, especially since the props' designs often factored into a film’s visual effects.

When you started on working on the DeLorean time machine, where did you begin? 

The interior of the car was completely blank.  Nothing from Ron Cobb or anybody else, that I remember.  Larry Paull said "It is all yours — do what you want."   I had worked on the interior of the Spinner, the Voight-Kampf Machine, and the Little Esper, for Blade Runner, so Larry was confident I could handle it.  So, I started to work on the vehicle, and of course, the flux capacitor was a big issue.

Ron Cobb and Andrew Probert did a few concept drawings of an interior, you don't recall using them? 

Ron did some and Andy did some?  I don't remember seeing any Cobb sketches of the interior.  I am pretty confident I didn't see any for the flux capacitor either.  What I do remember were meetings in the art department not long after I started, in which we decided on the placement of the Flux Capacitor in the interior of the car.  I just don’t remember referencing any designs by Ron or Andy.  I would have loved to have seen them.

Ron Cobb's idea for the flux capacitor was to have it mounted on the outside of the car on the roof. Andrew Probert's idea was that it would be on the interior center overhead, so during the mall scenes the camera could point up to it.  Ron Cobb in an interview said the flux capacitor was something that never got figured out while he was on the project. 

Part of the problem with the flux capacitor was — and maybe you heard this in in other interviews you have done, but in the script it wasn't called the flux capacitor.  I can't remember the wording, maybe "thermal something something capacitor?"

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The fourth draft shooting script Doc actually said " This is what makes time travel possible: the T.F.C. — Temporal Field Capacitor."

Yep. That was the name.  I was in the art department one day in a conversation with Robert Zemeckis, Larry Paull, and Todd Hallowell — who was an art director at that time, and we were talking about the Flux Capacitor — where would it go, how big, and what would be best for the story.  Robert said "I just need a better name for this prop.  An actor's got to be able to say it, an actor can't say these words and sell it.  It needs a better name."

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I had worked on China Syndrome  which is about a nuclear reactor melting down, and I had learned a little about nuclear energy.  I said, "In a nuclear reactor, there is a term called 'neutron flux'. It could be..."  I got that far, and Robert and I both said at the same time, "flux capacitor."  Robert said, “That's it... flux capacitor!"  So that is how it got its name — Robert blending neutron flux and temporal field capacitor into 'Flux Capacitor'.  It got named through that conversation about that device in the art department.

I was going to ask if your background with movies was more art department or were you more technically minded? 

I think my answer is “yes.”  I have always been a nerd, but I never went to engineering school.  The chronology goes something like this:  Degree in Accounting, 1966; U.S. Army 1966 to 1968; BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, 1973; and MFA from California Institute of the Arts, 1975.  Then my first film job, The China Syndrome, in 1978.  I started learning coding when I was 19 in 1963.  My coding skills never went much farther than figuring out simple things like payroll.  I was always intrigued by cameras, and started taking photographs when I was quite young.  That stayed with me through my years as a fine artist, and I was showing work that was entirely photographs by the time I started on The China Syndrome.

My dad was a technical guy, but also untrained.   He worked in the aircraft industry during WWII, and developed new techniques to build aircraft more efficiently.  He was the guy who figured out how to put the phonograph record on the side of the Wheaties box back in the ‘50s.  In the late 50’s, I “helped" him (I was 14…  How helpful could I have been, really?) build the first machine to make phonograph record jackets automatically.  It’s where I learned how to run a milling machine and a lathe.

My first movie was The China Syndrome, and I had the good luck to be hired by a very good friend of mine, Stuart Ziff.  Stuart went on to win a Technical Achievement Award with Phil Tippet for developing “Go-Motion” — a stop motion/motion control technique that allowed the recording of motion blur while shooting stop motion.   On this first movie, I essentially wired light bulbs.  I wound up doing a lot more — doing a tiny bit of coding, and wound up designing a few circuits and doing many things I had never done before.  But to me it was, “Yeah sure I can do that."  After China Syndrome, I worked on Star Trek - The Motion Picture, then Buck Rogers, and the original Battlestar Galactica, and of course, many more projects afterwards.

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So after the meeting in the art department where the flux capacitor was named, how did you design the flux capacitor?  Did you make drawings?  Look for components to build it out of? 

I don't remember if I did any sketches, but I must have. A lot of times when I worked, I would literally build it.  On Buckaroo Banzai they needed a little video device that Clancy Brown can be monitoring while Buckaroo is doing surgery. Clancy’s character Rawhide watches the preparation of the jet car to go into the eighth dimension.  I went back to my shop and put it together over a weekend.  I brought it in unfinished and showed it to the director, and that was it.  On Blade Runner, we did a TON of that.

How did you come to put the flux capacitor together?  I've seen the original 1984 purchase order for the Torr High Voltage Relays that were bought, and you signed for them.  

I knew pretty much what it had to be.  The day we met in the art department where it got its name really  brought that together in my mind.  Then I went and shopped for parts.  I got those vacuum relays you referred to, not because they were relays — I got them because they looked really cool.  I thought about back-lighting them and how the light would refract through the glass.  The purpose of those relays was actually in oil refineries and chemical plants where the atmosphere could get pretty explosive.   If you had to switch electricity, you wouldn’t want a spark in that atmosphere.  The vacuum relays were encapsulated in a glass envelope filled with inert gas, so no spark could create havoc.

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The box with that holds the flux capacitor is a NEMA box.  The National Electrical Manufacturers Association creates specifications on different types of electrical enclosures for electrical components.  You can see these NEMA boxes in factories and a lot of them have a window in them.  I went out and got a NEMA box of the right size, and I started with that.  The brief from Larry and Robert was, “It's not like he's got a sophisticated lab. He's building this stuff in his garage laboratory, so it has to look like he can make it.  So it can be a little a rough around the edges place."   Then there was also this 1980's technical aesthetic with lots of found objects that was brewing. The vacuum relays would stand out and look kind of other worldly but they also look like something you could make or have made in your garage workshop.   So I got those relays and the NEMA box, and other parts, then I talked to Mike Scheffe about how we would light it and configure it, but I never did the final lighting of the flux capacitor.   We had discussions about it, and I think I found some lights to use for some of that stuff, but I am not sure what Scheffe used in there.  I never saw the inside lighting once it was completed, other than what you can see in the film.

So outside of the flux capacitor, how did you approach building the DeLorean with Filmtrix?

I started to put everything together using those little LMB boxes for the time display, and I would sit in the car with Kevin and the special effects guys and say "These go right here, and this goes right here, and this goes over here."  I would find, and use, some pretty cool stuff.  There is an automobile battery terminal cleaner that is on the tunnel between the two seats and it's a T-shaped handle connected to a multi-stage rotary switch of indeterminate origin, as I remember.

Well, that is another iconic prop everyone knows — the time circuit switch. Plus, the handle — the way it works makes it difficult to drive and shift the DeLorean.  That switch actually works with the story of Marty accidentally hitting it to go back in time.  

Yes.  A lot of that kind of idea I learned on Blade Runner.  Ridley Scott was brilliant at re-purposing everyday objects and making them look like something else.  If you look at shots of Harrison Ford and Edward Olmos in the Spinner, there's a Braun alarm clock on the panel between the two seats and a Polaroid SX70 camera that we glued up there.  Nobody sees it as what it is because it is seen from a different point of view and purpose.  I loved that idea and incorporated that into the design of the DeLorean.

Sort of like the 'Mr. Fusion' was a Krups coffee grinder.  Did you work on the 'Mr. Fusion'?

The 'Mr. Fusion' part was not done yet, and Mike Scheffe handled that.  I didn't have anything to with 'Mr. Fusion'.  I think we had a pretty good idea what it might be, but Mike made it what it is.

Michael Scheffe, who took over for you after your left the project said most of the exterior was already done when he started.  What do you remember about the exterior?

The outside is pretty much as Ron Cobb designed it.  I added a couple of details to make it more constructable/achievable, but it’s Ron’s design. The exterior was funny, as Ron would sketch this stuff, but he would never make working drawings.  He did concept sketches and illustrations — not fully spec’d out drawings, so nobody knew what the stuff was.  Like that big junction box block by the front fender where the special power cables plug in — I built that around standard stage plugs.  I went to Mole Richardson and bought some stage plugs and sockets that fit the scale of what we needed.  I believe the large junction boxes were made out of shaped wood by Kevin Pike’s folks.  The stage plugs were put into those blocks of wood.  It was finished "as metal," the note the art director puts on the drawing to tell the painter it has to look like metal.  It could be really be knotty pine, but it had to look like metal.

Do you remember what color they were painted? Some photos during construction have a metallic blue look to them but as filming went on they turned more of a grey color.

I would have to look at the movie, but I remember they were dark.

So what happened to your involvement with the production?  Why did you have to leave? 

The schedules kept stretching out a little bit, and I was starting to worry because I would have to leave to go to this other show.  They kept giving me other things to think about and work on, and I still had work with Kevin on getting the DeLorean ready, and we were still doing design.  I was running out of time.  Larry Paull would rely on me for other tasks, and they were always interesting, compelling things to do.  It was fun, but it did give me some stress about my remaining time on the show.  But, I had to go.  I wasn’t worried because I had brought in Mike Scheffe, who I told the folks on the show was “better than I am.”  And he was, and is.  I remember with the DeLorean, we were just about at the show-and-tell point with Robert where we mocked up everything the way it was going to be to show him, and I had to leave the production.  But Mike was there, and the production never missed a beat.

It is interesting you say that.  When I interviewed Larry Paull, I got the sense that he would let everyone do their own thing while providing the general over all, such as for the reactor providing a hub cap catalog. 

Larry was like that.  Larry surrounded himself with people he trusted.  The people on the show from Robert Zemeckis on down were wonderful, and they were supportive and left us to do our thing.  Larry let Kevin alone, and let me and Mike Scheffe alone.   Larry just let us come up with stuff, and back in those days, that's what we did.

How did Michael Scheffe get pointed as your replacement?

I went to Larry Paull, Neil Canton and Dennis Jones, and said "I am going to have to leave for the other show obligation I have."  I said "I'm going to get you somebody better than me and you're going to be really happy."  I  brought in Mike Scheffe.  He was a natural replacement.  I brought Mike in and Larry was really worried and I said to Larry "I am telling you, the guy is brilliant — he's going to go a great job.  He's better than me, trust me, he's going to be fine."   It was, and he was, and Mike did a brilliant job.

Did you work with Scheffe on the building the time machine?

I did some basic sketches that I left with Mike Scheffe.  Mike and I spent a week together transitioning so he could see what I was doing on the inside of the car.   I was really pleased when I saw the movie.  I never saw the car finished.  I had never seen it finished until I saw it here on display or one of them on display, but it was after sufficient time had had passed.  There are all these little modifications that can happen over time, as things break, and folks say,  “Oh this will do.  Put this back over here.”  And suddenly the car isn't what it once was.

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So you were pleased with the final design of the DeLorean time machine? 

When I saw the movie, I was just delighted because the interior really looked like I had imagined it would look. Mike hadn't played around with it much at all.  It had to look like something put together in someone’s garage laboratory, with available tech, and was great fun.  It is a really great film.  In retrospect, the movie I went off to work on was seen by very few people, and nobody cared about it.  The movie I left is an icon.  The story of my career. (laughing)

Earlier you mentioned how the film industry has changed, films are made by studio or corporate committees, I feel that Back to the Future the way we love it couldn't be made today.  What do you think or feel?

Back to the Future was Robert Zemeckis’ movie.  The script he wrote with Bob Gale was terrific, and it was very clear it was his movie.  It has his sense of humor, and everything about him shows up there.  His best films are always the ones in which you watch it feeling like you are looking at Zemeckis through this story.  This is true of all the great directors.  Francis Coppola once told me, “You know, when I finish a film, I sit in the screening room and I watch the movie all by myself — and you know what I see?"  I  said, "No."  He answered," I see myself." That's really the point of it all, I think.

Thanks for all this time for the interview.  Hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane!