“Time Bandits” Retrospective

Released 40 years ago, Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi adventure Time Bandits remains a supremely imaginative film, defying conventions of plot and never talking down to its target audience of children. Let’s take a time portal back to 1981 and find out how it was made.

“I was broke. I had to write something fast,” Gilliam once said of the film’s origins. By other accounts he conceived Time Bandits when Brazil’s development stalled due to financier Denis O’Brien “not getting it”. (O’Brien was George Harrison’s partner at Handmade Films, which had originally been set up to fund the Monty Python feature Life of Brian.)

After dreaming up the idea of a knight on horseback bursting out of a child’s wardrobe, Gilliam jotted down a mere two sides of notes under the characteristically whimsical heading, “The film that dares not speak its name: a treatment… not a cure”. After describing the opening sequence, in which ten-year-old Kevin is whisked through a time portal by a rabble of robber dwarves while pursued by God, the treatment brazenly states: “And so starts this terrific attempt to get the movie moneybags to part with a few million bucks.”

The moneybags were not convinced, however. O’Brien took Gilliam’s script, co-written with Michael Palin, around LA and returned empty-handed. It was then that O’Brien and Harrison decided to put up the film’s $5 million budget themselves, with the ex-Beatle even mortgaging his office building to do so.

The script was ambitious, featuring as it did a tour of historical settings from the Napoleonic Wars, through Sherwood Forest and ancient Greece, to the deck of the Titanic, and from there into the “Time of Legends”. This last sequence finds the protagonists aboard a boat which turns out to be a hat worn by a giant. Although this might seem a classic product of a Python’s imagination, Gilliam in fact admits to stealing the idea from a book by fantasy artist Brian Froud, who would go on to be a conceptual designer on Time Bandits’ nearest thematic neighbour, the Terry Jones-scripted Labyrinth (1986).

Palin wrote the part of Robin Hood for himself, but O’Brien insisted on casting John Cleese to improve the film’s box office prospects. Palin instead took the role of Vincent, hapless lover of Shelley Duvall’s Pansy. It was Duvall who was hapless, however, when Gilliam climbed some scaffolding to demonstrate to his cast how to fall correctly and ended up landing on her.

Amongst the actors playing the eponymous Time Bandits were Kenny Baker, best known as R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, Jack Purvis, who played a number of Jawas and Ewoks in the same franchise, and David Rappaport, whose extensive credits include episodes of The Young Ones, The Goodies and Not the Nine O’Clock News. A seventh bandit, Horseflesh, was cut over fears that Disney might perceive a Snow White rip-off and sue.

“I always thought of it like the mini Pythons,” said Gilliam of the bandit gang. “There was the leader, then there was the second one who really thought he could do it better…”

Meanwhile, the screenplay specifically called for the Greek king Agamemnon to be “none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature”. O’Brien, who played golf with Connery, simply offered the part to the man himself. The cheeky Pythons accordingly updated the stage direction to read: “none other than Sean Connery, who it turns out we can afford”.

Nonetheless, creativity was in much greater supply than money, and Gilliam employed clever editing, reverse shots and miniatures to capture his vision within the budget. “I don’t think that there was anyone in American who believed that film cost less than 15 if not 20 million dollars,” O’Brien opined in a 1989 documentary.

O’Brien was not always supportive, however. He wanted to cut certain controversial moments like Vermin (Tiny Ross) eating rats, but Gilliam fought him. “There was a point where I threatened to burn the negative,” the director admitted in the same documentary.

O’Brien particularly hated the famously downbeat ending. Kevin wakes up in his own bed during a house fire, and is rescued by none other than Sean Connery. Connery himself suggested this second role after he proved unavailable to film Agamemnon’s scripted reappearance (and death) in the showdown at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

The controversial moment comes after Connery’s firefighter departs; Kevin’s parents touch a piece of concentrated evil and immediately explode. O’Brien was forced to withdraw his objections to this shocking twist, however, when a test-screening audience chose the ending as their favourite part of the movie. While many fans of Time Bandits might agree, Gilliam believed that the test audience were simply trying to say that they were glad the movie was over!

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

It was with great sadness last week that I read the news of Dean Stockwell’s passing. The actor had a long and varied career, but to me he will always be Admiral Al Calavicci, the holographic observer from the cult 80s/90s sci-fi show Quantum Leap. Only the other week I wrote about how I was such a big fan of this series as a teenager that my friend David Abbott and I made our own version of it.

With Scott Bakula’s time-travelling Doctor Sam Beckett very much the protagonist of the show, the intangible Al was often relegated to exposition and comic relief, both of which Stockwell handled expertly. But every now and then Al would come to the fore and really demonstrate the actor’s range and talent. In tribute to him, here are ten of Al’s best episodes across Quantum Leap‘s five seasons.

 

1. “Pilot”

When you’re familiar with Quantum Leap you know that Sam and Al’s friendship is one of the series’ few constants. No matter how “Swiss-cheesed” Sam’s memory gets, he always remembers his best buddy Al. So it’s quite strange when you go back and watch the pilot and Sam’s first leap has scrambled his memory so much that he doesn’t even recognise Al, let alone realise that he’s a holographic projection from the future. The uninitiated viewer is similarly in the dark to begin with, watching Al shouting at an unseen character named Gooshie (Project Quantum Leap’s head programmer) and then disappearing through an invisible door. Al would never be an enigma like this again, and it’s a fun way to start a classic buddy relationship.

 

2. “HoneyMoon Express”

Al and the team at Project Quantum Leap constantly monitor Sam’s time-travelling adventures from their top-secret Stallion Springs, New Mexico base in the future. For the most part this all happens off screen, but the Season Two opener “Honeymoon Express” is one of the few occasions when we get a glimpse behind the curtain. The US Senate is threatening to withdraw the Project’s funding, so Al must attend a hearing to justify the continued expense of staying in touch with Sam. Resplendent in his dress uniform, Admiral Calavicci argues passionately on behalf of his friend, though the funding is ultimately secured when Sam changes history and a new senator is suddenly in charge.

 

3. “Jimmy”

Prejudice versus tolerance is a recurring theme in Quantum Leap, appropriately enough for a show about walking a mile in another man’s shoes. The classic episode “Jimmy” tackles this theme head-on as Sam leaps into the body of a man with learning difficulties. Al pressures Sam not to screw up his mission, which is to ensure that Jimmy holds down a job so that he doesn’t die in a state home. Eventually it comes out that Al’s beloved younger sister Trudy had Down’s Syndrome and died in an institution at the age of 16, hence the hologram’s desperation to stop the same happening to Jimmy.

 

4. “M.I.A.”

Al’s most heart-wrenching episode is the Season Two finale. His first wife, Beth, remarried while Al was a missing, presumed dead POW in Vietnam. Al never got over losing the love of his life, and a string of failed marriages followed. In “M.I.A.” Sam meets Beth during the Vietnam War and has the chance to tell her that her husband is still alive – a chance he refuses to take, on the grounds that time travel should not be used for personal gain. Al is understandably upset with Sam, a rare case of serious friction between the two friends. The episode ends with an incredibly moving scene – very reminiscent of the movie Ghost, although Quantum Leap did it first – as the holographic Al dances to Ray Charles’ “Georgia” with the unknowing Beth.

 

5. “The Leap Home, Part II: Vietnam”

The hypocritical Sam spends the opening two-parter of Season Three trying to change his own family’s past for the better, first at his childhood home in Indiana, then in the jungles of Vietnam alongside his older brother Tom. Out of respect for his fellow soldiers, Al spends the episode in his dress uniform again, spotlessly white amidst the mud and greenery. At one point in the story, a war photographer snaps a band of American POWs being led away by the Viet Cong. The episode’s final scene shows us that photo, revealing that one of the prisoners is none other than a young Al. Stockwell was nominated for an Emmy for this episode (having won a Golden Globe for the series the previous year).

 

6. “The Leap Back”

This is my all-time favourite episode of Quantum Leap, because after three years we finally got to visit the Project in the future and meet Al’s colleagues who have been helping Sam behind the scenes all this time, including the supercomputer Ziggy. The reason is that Sam has been catapulted into the holographic imaging chamber in place of Al, who has quantum-leaped. The story is really about Sam and how he deals with being reunited with his wife Donna (whose existence Al has been keeping from his Swiss-cheesed friend), but that’s intercut with hilarious scenes in which Al gets to experience for himself how difficult it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – including having his own memory Swiss-cheesed. Perhaps a little cruelly, Sam revels in being a hologram and giving unhelpful advice while his buddy is floundering, but Dr Beckett soon sees the serious side of the Observer’s job when he must helplessly watch his friend in danger.

 

7. “Running for Honor”

Another episode that confronts prejudice, “Running for Honnor” was extremely controversial for American television at the time (1992) as it portrayed homosexuality in the military. In fact, some advertisers threatened to pull out when they learnt of the content. Their narrow-mindedness was shared by Al, who is openly homophobic until the ever-tolerant Sam teaches him the error of his ways. Quantum Leap‘s regulars rarely got to have their own character arcs, so it’s nice to see Al go through a process of change in this episode.

 

8. “A Leap for Lisa”

After dancing close to Al’s past life in both “M.I.A.” and “The Leap Home, Part II”, the Season Four finale goes all out and has Sam actually leap into his buddy in 1957. At this time, Al is a young ensign falsely accused of murder by a naval court, an accusation Al easily refuted before Sam accidentally changes history. Now the odds of Al being executed for the crime are rising, finally reaching 100%, at which point old Al is spontaneously replaced by a different hologram. Stuffy and English, Edward St John V couldn’t be more different from his cigar-chomping, womanising, wise-cracking counterpart. Needless to say, Sam saves the day and Al is restored. Elsewhere in the episode, Admiral Calavicci is forced to emotionally relive the death of his girlfriend Lisa Sherman.

 

9. “Killin’ Time”

By Season Five, scenes taking place in the future at Project Quantum Leap were more common, and this episode has them in spades. Sam has leapt into a serial killer, and like all of Sam’s “leapees”, the criminal is temporarily displaced into the Project’s Waiting Room. When he get holds of a gun and escapes to a nearby city, Al must track him down and bring him back. Apart from his brief experience as a leaper in “The Leap Back”, this is the only time we get to see Al in the role of action hero.

 

10. “Dr. Ruth”

The Waiting Room again plays a key role as it hosts Sam’s latest leapee, celebrity sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer. While Sam works to fix the tumultuous relationship of two of Ruth’s colleagues, Al takes advantage of the therapist’s presence in the future to get some advice on his own romantic woes. In fact, this turns out to be the real purpose of Sam’s leap. A highlight of Al’s therapy is when Ruth gets him to use the word “breasts”, but only after he’s hilariously avoided it with every euphemism under the sun.

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Retrospective

With the recent releases of Tom and Jerry and Space Jam: A New Legacy, it’s clear that there’s an appetite for traditional cartoon characters in live-action movies. While this mash-up of techniques goes back at least as far as 1964’s Mary Poppins, perhaps no film has done it quite as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The 1988 movie was loosely based on a Gary K. Wolf novel published seven years earlier, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? However, most of the plot was jettisoned, keeping only the central characters: Eddie Valiant, a private detective; his client, the titular Roger Rabbit; Roger’s wife and femme fatale Jessica; and Roger’s colleague, the libidinous, cigar-smoking Baby Herman. The original villain, a genie of the lamp, was replaced in early script drafts by the hunter who killed Bambi’s mother in the 1942 Disney classic, and finally by Christopher Lloyd’s pop-eyed Judge Doom.

Ditching the contemporary setting of its source material, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? takes place in Hollywood, 1947, where cartoon characters (“toons”) co-exist with humans. Bob Hoskins plays the toon-hating Valiant, who reluctantly teams up with Roger after the latter is implicated in the murder of Marvin Acme. The unlikely pair’s investigations lead them to Toontown, where they uncover a conspiracy to demolish this animated region and build a freeway in its place. Screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman found inspiration for this plot in Roman Polanski’s 1974 thriller Chinatown. Several film noirs of the 1940s were also referenced, with Hoskins modelling his character on Humphrey Bogart.

Numerous famous cartoon characters make cameos, including Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Tweetie Pie and Betty Boop, with executive producer Steven Spielberg pulling his weight behind the scenes to accomplish the historic meeting of competing studios’ properties.

Robert Zemeckis pitched to direct Roger Rabbit in 1982, but his films’ poor box office up to that point put him out of the running. Terry Gilliam was in the frame for a time, while the likes of Harrison Ford, Chevvy Chase and Bill Murray were considered for the lead. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment joined the project in 1985, but the projected budget of $50 million was deemed too big to green-light. Meanwhile, Zemeckis’s Back to the Future made him far more bankable with the result that he signed on to direct Roger Rabbit that same year, albeit with a reduced budget of $30 million. Ironically, the film would go over schedule and wind up costing just over its original price tag.

The animation was directed by Richard Williams, otherwise best known for his title sequences for the Pink Panther films. Williams refused to work in LA, forcing the production to shoot primarily in England. While Williams and his 326-strong team set up in Camden Town, Zemeckis and company filmed the interiors at Elstree, with warehouses and bus depots in Shepherd’s Bush standing in for exteriors of Hollywood studios and backlots.

Some of the sets, including the Ink & Paint Club where Jessica is memorably introduced, were raised 10ft off the floor to accommodate puppeteers. Although no puppets are seen in the finished film, whenever a toon had to hold a real object it was either mounted on a rod coming up through the floor, marionetted on wires from above, or manipulated by a robotic arm.

Rehearsals were conducted using a dummy of Roger, or with voice artist Charles Fleischer bedecked in a rabbit suit – standing in. Hoskins even studied his three-year-old daughter’s antics with an imaginary friend to prepare for the challenge of acting to nothing.

Creating the film’s 55 minutes of animation took two years. The live-action footage was printed as a series of enlarged black-and-white frames over which a cel (sheet of transparent acetate) could be placed for the animator to draw on. 82,080 frames were generated in this way, every single one by hand.

To better blend the animated characters with the live backgrounds, Industrial Light and Magic composited layers of shading and shadows. The sparkling sequins on Jessica’s dress were achieved by shining a light through a plastic bag which had holes scratched in it.

The finished film attracted a degree of controversy, not least from the top brass at Disney. It’s easy to see why the family-friendly company would object to the over-sexualisation of Jessica, or to Valiant’s constant drinking and even bumming a cigarette off children at one point. But Zemeckis’s deal gave him final cut, so the compromise was to release the unaltered film under Disney’s Touchstone label.

The result was the second highest grossing film of 1988 and critical acclaim, with an impressive 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and four Academy Awards.

Like many articles on my blog, this one first appeared on RedShark News.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Retrospective

“Mission: Impossible” and the Dawn of Virtual Sets

The seventh instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise was originally scheduled for release this July. It’s since been pushed back to next September, which is a minor shame because it means there will be no release in 2021 to mark the quarter of a century since Tom Cruise first chose to accept the mission of bringing super-spy Ethan Hunt to the big screen.

Today, 1996’s Mission: Impossible is best remembered for two stand-out sequences. The first, fairly simple but incredibly tense, sees Cruise descend on a cable into a high-security vault where even a single bead of sweat will trigger pressure sensors in the floor.

The second, developing from the unlikely to the downright ludicrous, finds Cruise battling Jon Voight atop a speeding Channel Tunnel train, a fight which continues on the skids of a helicopter dragged along behind the Eurostar, ending in an explosion which propels Cruise (somehow unscathed) onto the rear of the train.

It is the second of those sequences which is a landmark in visual effects, described by Cinefex magazine at the time as “the dawn of virtual sets”.

“In Mission: Impossible, we took blue-screen elements of actors and put them into believable CG backgrounds,” said VFX supervisor John Knoll of Industrial Light and Magic. Building on his work on The Abyss and Terminator 2, Knoll’s virtual tunnel sets would one day lead to the likes of The Mandalorian – films and TV shows shot against LED screens displaying CG environments.

Which is ironic, given that if Tom Cruise was remaking that first film today, he would probably insist on less trickery, not more, and demand to be strapped to the top of a genuine speeding Eurostar.

The Channel Tunnel had only been open for two years when Mission: Impossible came out, and the filmmakers clearly felt that audiences – or at least American audiences – were so unfamiliar with the service that they could take a number of liberties in portraying it. The film’s tunnel has only a single bore for both directions of travel, and the approaching railway line was shot near Glasgow.

That Scottish countryside is one of the few real elements in the sequence. Another is the 100ft of full-size train that was constructed against a blue-screen to capture the lead actors on the roof. To portray extreme speed, the crew buffeted the stars with 140mph wind from a parachute-training fan.

Many of the Glasgow plates were shot at 12fps to double the apparent speed of the camera helicopter, which generally flew at 80mph. But when the plate crew tried to incorporate the picture helicopter with which Jean Reno’s character chases the train, the under-cranking just looked fake, so the decision was taken to computer-generate the aircraft in the vast majority of the shots.

The train is also CGI, as are the tunnel entrance and some of its surroundings, and of course the English Channel is composited into the Glaswegian landscape. Once the action moves inside the tunnel, nothing is real except the actors and the set-pieces they’re clinging to.

“We cheated the scale to keep it tight and claustrophobic,” said VFX artist George Hull, admitting that the helicopter could not have fitted in such a tunnel in reality. “The size still didn’t feel right, so we went back and added recognisable, human-scale things such as service utility sheds and ladders.”

Overhead lights spaced at regular intervals were simulated for the blue-screen work. “When compositing the scenes into the CG tunnel months later, we could marry the environment by timing those interactive lights to the live-action plates,” explained Hull.

Employing Alias for modelling, Softimage for animation, RenderMan for rendering, plus custom software like ishade and icomp, ILM produced a sequence which, although it wasn’t completely convincing even in 1996, is still exciting.

Perhaps the best-looking part is the climactic explosion, which was achieved with a 1/8th scale miniature propelled at 55mph through a 120ft tunnel model. (The runaway CGI which followed Jurassic Park’s 1993 success wisely stayed away from explosions for many years, as their dynamics and randomness made them extremely hard to simulate on computers of the time.)

Knoll went on to supervise the Star Wars prequels’ virtual sets (actually miniatures populated with CG aliens), and later Avatar and The Mandalorian. Meanwhile, Cruise pushed for more and more reality in his stunt sequences as the franchise went on, climbing the Burj Khalifa for Ghost Protocol, hanging off the side of a plane for Rogue Nation, skydiving and flying a helicopter for Fallout, and yelling at the crew for Mission: Impossible 7.

At least, I think that last one was real.

“Mission: Impossible” and the Dawn of Virtual Sets

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Retrospective

Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first instalment in the blockbusting Indiana Jones franchise, burst onto our screens a scarcely-believable 40 years ago. But of course, it’s not the years, it’s the mileage…

The origin story of this legendary character is itself the stuff of Hollywood legend. Fleeing LA to escape the dreaded box office results of Star Wars (spoiler: he needn’t have worried), George Lucas and his friend Steven Spielberg were building a sandcastle on a Hawaiian beach when Lucas first floated the idea.

Like Star Wars, the tale of adventuring archaeologist Indiana Smith was inspired by adventure serials of the 1950s. Although Spielberg liked the first name (which came from Lucas’s dog, a reference that the third film would twist back on itself), he wasn’t so keen on Smith, and so Indiana Jones was born.

Rather than auditions, actors under consideration were invited to join Spielberg in baking bread. Tom Selleck was famously the first choice for the lead, but his contract with the TV series Magnum, P.I. precluded his involvement, and Spielberg instead suggested to a reluctant Lucas that they cast his regular collaborator Harrison Ford.

DP Douglas Slocombe, OBE, BSC, BSC

Raiders was shot at a breakneck pace, with Spielberg determined to reverse his reputation for going over schedule and over budget. Beginning in summer 1980, the animated red line of the film crew travelled across a map of the world from La Rochelle, France to England’s Elstree Studios (where Lucas had shot Star Wars) to Tunisia (ditto) to Hawaii, where it had all begun.

The film, and indeed the whole of the original trilogy, was photographed in glorious Panavision anamorphic by the late, great Douglas Slocombe, OBE, BSC, ASC. “Dougie is one of the few cinematographers I’ve worked with who lights with hard and soft light,” Spielberg commented. “Just the contrast between those styles within the framework of also using warm light and cool light and mixing the two can be exquisite.”

Location challenges included the removal of 350 TV aerials in the Tunisian town of Kairouan, so that views from Sallah’s balcony would look period-accurate, this being before the days of digital tinkering.

Digital tinkering was applied to the DVD release many years later, however, to remove a tell-tale reflection in a glass screen protecting Harrison Ford from a real cobra. Besides this featured reptile – which proved the value of the screen by spitting venom all over it – the production team initially sourced 2,000 snakes for the scene in which Indy and friends locate the Ark of the Covenant. But Spielberg found that “they hardly covered the set, so I couldn’t get wide shots.” 7,000 more snakes were shipped in to complete the sequence.

While the classic truck chase was largely captured by second unit director Michael Moore working to pre-agreed storyboards, Spielberg liked to improvise in the first unit. The fight on the Flying Wing, during which Ford tore a ligament after the plane’s wheel rolled over his leg, was made up as the filmmakers went along. When Indy uses the plane to gun down a troop of bad guys, the director requested a last-minute change from graphic blood sprays to more of a dusty look. Mechanical effects supervisor Kit West resorted to putting cayenne pepper in the squibs, which had the entire crew in sneezing fits.

“I would hear complaints,” said Kathleen Kennedy, who worked her way up the producer ranks during the trilogy, beginning as “associate to Mr. Spielberg”. “‘Well, Steven’s not shooting the sketches.’ But once you get into a scene and it’s suddenly right there in front of you, I only think that it can be better if changes are made then.”

Spielberg’s most famous improvisation, when a four-day sword-fight was thrown out and replaced with Indy simply shooting the swordsman dead, was prompted by the uncomfortable Tunisian heat and the waves of sickness that were sapping morale. “We couldn’t understand why the crew was getting ill, because we were all drinking bottled Evian water,” recalled Ford’s stunt double Vic Armstrong. “Until one day somebody followed the guy that collected the empties and saw him filling these Evian bottles straight out of the water truck.”

Production wrapped in early October, and effects house ILM, sound designer Ben Burtt and composer John Williams worked their world-class magic on the film. For the opening of the Ark, ILM shot ghost puppets underwater, while the demise of the Nazi Toht was accomplished with a likeness of actor Ronald Lacey sculpted out of dental alginate, which melted gorily when heated.

Amongst the sounds Burtt recorded were a free-wheeling Honda station wagon (the giant boulder), hands squelching in a cheese casserole (slithering snakes) and the cistern cover of his own toilet (the lid of the Ark). Williams initially composed two potential themes, both of which Spielberg loved, so one became the main theme and the other the bridge.

Although still great fun, and delivering a verisimilitude which only practical effects and real stunts can, some aspects of Raiders are problematic to the modern eye. The Welsh John Rhys Davies playing the Egyptian Sallah, and a female lead who is continually shoved around by both villains and heroes alike, make the film a little less of a harmless romp today than it was intended at the time.

Raiders was a box office hit, spawning two excellent sequels (and a third of which we shall not speak) plus a spin-off TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and even a shot-for-shot amateur remake filmed by a group of Mississippi teenagers over many years. It also won five Oscars in technical categories, and firmly established Steven Spielberg as the biggest filmmaker in Hollywood.

A fifth Indiana Jones film recently entered production, helmed by Logan director James Mangold with Spielberg producing. It is scheduled for release in July 2022.

See also: “Learning from the Masters: Raiders of the Lost Ark

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Retrospective

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Next month, Terminator 2: Judgment Day turns 30. Made by a director and star at the peaks of their powers, T2 was the most expensive film ever at the time, and remains both the highest-grossing movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and the sequel which furthest out-performed its progenitor. It is also one of a handful of films that changed the world of visual effects forever, signalling as it did – to borrow the subtitle from its woeful follow-up – the rise of the machines.

No fate but what we make: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

The original Terminator, a low-budget surprise hit in 1984, launched director James Cameron’s career and cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the sequel was green-lit, mainly due to rights issues. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, Cameron handed executive producer Mario Kassar his script.

Today it’s easy to forget how risky it was to turn the Terminator, an iconic villain, an unstoppable, merciless death machine from an apocalyptic future, into a good guy who doesn’t kill anyone, stands on one leg when ordered, and looks like a horse when he attempts to smile. But Kassar didn’t balk, granting Cameron a budget ten times what he had had for the original, while stipulating that the film had to be in cinemas just 14 months later.

Even with some expensive sequences cut – including John Connor sending Kyle Reese back through time in the heart of Skynet HQ, a scene that would ultimately materialise in Terminator Genisys – the script was lengthy and extremely ambitious. Beginning on October 8th, 1990, the shooting schedule was front-loaded with effects shots to give the maximum time for CGI pioneers Industrial Light and Magic to realise the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick).

Rather than CGI, the T-1000’s head in this shot is a chrome model lifted into frame by a crew member.

To further ease ILM’s burden, every trick in the book was employed to get T-1000 shots in camera wherever possible: quick shots of the villain’s fight with the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in the steel mill finale were done with a stuntman in a foil suit; a chrome bust of Patrick was hand-raised into frame for a helicopter pilot’s reaction shot; the reforming of the shattered T-1000 was achieved by blowing mercury around with a hair dryer; bullet hits on the character’s torso were represented by spring-loaded silver “flowers” that burst out of a pre-scored shirt on cue.

One of the chilling full-size T-800 endoskeleton puppets created by Stan Winston Studio for the Future War sequence

Stan Winston Studio also constructed a number of cable-controlled puppets to show more extensive damage to the morphing menace. These included “Splash Head”, a bust of Patrick with the head split in two by a shotgun blast, and “Pretzel Man”, the nightmarish result of a grenade hit moments before the T-1000 falls to its doom in the molten steel.

Traditional models and rear projection are used throughout the film. A few instances are all too obvious to a modern audience, but most still look great and some are virtually undetectable. Did you know that the roll-over and crash of the cryo-tanker were shot with miniatures? Or that the T-800 plucking John off his bike in the drainage channel was filmed against a rear projection screen?

Plenty of the action was accomplished without such trickery. The production added a third storey to a disused office building near Silicon Valley, then blew it up with 100 gallons of petrol, to show the demise of Cyberdyne Systems. DP Adam Greenberg lit 5.5 miles of freeway for the car chase, and pilot Chuck Tamburro really did fly the T-1000’s police helicopter under a 20ft underpass.

Chaotic, confusing action scenes are the norm today, but it is notable that T2’s action is thrilling yet never unclear. The film sends somewhat mixed messages though, with its horrific images of nuclear annihilation and the T-800’s morality lessons from John juxtaposed with indulgent violence and a reverence for firearms. “I think of T2 as a violent movie about world peace,” Cameron paradoxically stated. “It’s an action movie about the value of human life.”

More Stan Winston puppets were used to depict Sarah’s death by nuclear blast in her nightmare.

Meanwhile, 25 person-years of human life were being devoted by ILM to the T-1000’s metallic morphing abilities. Assistant VFX supervisor Mark Dippé noted: “We were pushing the limits of everything – the amount of disc space we had, the amount of memory we had in the computers, the amount of CPUs we had. Each shot, even though it only lasted about five seconds on the screen, typically would take about eight weeks to complete.”

Robert Patrick shooting reference footage for ILM’s animators

The team began by painting a 2×2” grid on a near-naked Patrick and shooting reference footage of him walking, before laser-scanning his head at the appropriately-named Cyberware Laboratory. Four separate computer models of the T-1000 were built on Silicon Graphics Iris 4Ds, from an amorphous blob to a fully-detailed chrome replica of Patrick, each with corresponding points in 3D space so that the custom software Model Interp could morph between them.

Other custom applications included Body Sock, a solution to gaps that initially appeared when the models flexed their joints, Polyalloy Shader, which gave the T-1000 its chrome appearance, and Make Sticky, with which images of Patrick were texture-mapped onto the distorting 3D model, as when he melts through a barred gate at the mental hospital.

The film’s legacy in visual effects – for which it won the 1992 Oscar – cannot be understated. A straight line can be drawn from the water tendril in Cameron’s The Abyss, through T2 to Jurassic Park and all the way on to Avatar, with which Cameron again broke the record for the highest-grossing film of all time. The Avatar sequels will undoubtedly push the technology even further, but for many Cameron fans his greatest achievement will always be Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with its perfect blend of huge stunts, traditional effects and groundbreaking CGI.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

“Superman II” Retrospective

At Christmas 1978, when Superman: The Movie opened to enthusiastic reviews and record-breaking box office, it was no surprise that a sequel was in the works. What was unusual was that the majority of that sequel had already been filmed, and stranger still, much of it would be re-filmed before Superman II hit cinemas two years later.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic-book icon had made several superhuman leaps to the screen by the 1970s, but Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget feature film. Producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer father/son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind purchased the rights from DC Comics in 1974 and made a deal to finance not one but two Superman movies on the understanding that Warner Bros. would buy the finished products. Salkind senior had unintentionally pioneered back-to-back shooting the previous year when he decided to split The Three Musketeers – originally intended as a three-hour epic – into two shorter films.

After packaging Superman I and II with A-listers Marlon Brando (as Kryptonian patriarch Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (as the villainous Lex Luthor), the producers hired The Omen director Richard Donner to helm the massive production. Donner cast the unknown Christopher Reeve in the title role, while John Williams was signed to compose what would prove to be one of the most famous soundtracks in cinematic history. Like many big genre productions of the time – Star Wars and Alien to name but two – Superman set up camp in England, with cameras rolling for the first time on March 24th, 1977.

Tom Mankeiwicz (creative consultant), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Richard Donner (director), Pierre Spengler (producer). Brando is dressed in black to isolate his head for the Fortress of Solitude hologram effects.

“We were shooting scenes from the two films simultaneously, according to production conveniences,” explained creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz in a 2001 documentary. “So when we had Gene Hackman we were shooting scenes from II and scenes from I, or when we were in the Daily Planet we were shooting scenes from both pictures in the Daily Planet, while you were in that set.”

Today – largely thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – we are used to enormous, multi-year productions with crew numbers in four figures, but the scale of the dual Superman shoot was unprecedented at the time, eventually reaching nineteen months in duration. It was originally scheduled for eight.

“Dick [Donner] never in the course of the picture got a budget; he never got a schedule,” claimed Mankiewicz. “He was constantly told that he was over schedule, way over budget, but nobody told him what that budget was or how much he was over that budget.”

Given that overspends were funded by Warner Bros. in return for more distribution rights, Spengler and the Salkinds were watching the value of their huge investment trickle away. So despite Donner’s popularity with the rest of the cast and crew, his relationship with the producers became ever more strained, to the point where they weren’t even on speaking terms.

Richard Lester directed iconic Swinging Sixties films like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Knack… and How to Get It”.

Ilya Salkind suggested bringing in The Three Musketeers director Richard Lester, who agreed on condition that he would be paid monies still owed to him from that earlier film. By some accounts his role on Superman was that of a mediator between the director and the producers, by others he was a co-producer, second unit director or even a back-up director in case Donner cracked under the pressure of the endless shoot. “Where does this leave… Donner?” asked a newspaper report of the time. “‘Nervous,’ a cast member says.”

Eventually, with the first movie’s release date looming, the filmmakers decided on a change of plan. Superman II would be placed on the back burner in order to prioritise finishing Superman: The Movie – and get it earning money as quickly as possible. At this point, three quarters of the sequel was already in the can, including all scenes featuring Brando and Hackman, both of whom had had contractual wrap dates to meet.

Superman: The Movie was a hit, but Donner would not direct the remainder of its sequel. “They have to want me to do it,” he said of the producers at the time. “It has to be on my terms and I don’t mean financially, I mean control.” Of Spengler specifically, Donner was reported to bluntly state, “If he’s on it – I’m not.”

And indeed Donner was not. The Salkinds had no intention of acceding to his demands. Instead, the former mediator Richard Lester was hired to complete Superman II, and Donner received a telegram telling him that his services were no longer required. “I was ready to get on an airplane and kill,” he recalled years later, “because they were taking my baby away from me.”

Master of miniatures Derek Meddings wets down the New York street. Many miniature effects were reshot simply so Lester could claim directorship of them.

Meanwhile Brando was trying (unsuccessfully) to sue the producers over royalties, and demanded a significant cut of the box office gross from the sequel. Rather than pay this, the producers elected to re-film his scenes, replacing Jor-El with Superman’s mother Lara, as played by Susannah York.

It was far from the only reshooting of Superman II footage that took place. Ironically, given the earlier budget concerns, Lester was permitted to redo large chunks of Donner’s material with a rewritten script in order to earn a credit as director under guild rules. Major changes included a new opening sequence on the Eiffel Tower, Lois Lane’s realisation of Clark Kent’s true identity after he trips and falls into a fireplace, and a different ending in which a magic kiss from Clark erases that realisation from her memory.

Some of the reshoots included Lex Luthor material, but Hackman declined to return out of loyalty to Donner; the result is the fairly obvious use of a double in the climactic Fortress of Solitude scene. The deaths of Geoffrey Unsworth and John Barry, plus creative differences between Lester and John Williams, meant that the sequel team also featured a new DP (Robert Paynter), production designer (Peter Murton) and composer (Ken Thorne) respectively, although significant contributions from all of the original HODs remain in the finished film.

Comparing his own directing style with Donner’s, Lester told interviewers, “I think that Donner was emphasising a kind of grandiose myth… There was a type of epic quality which isn’t in my nature… I’m more quirky and I play around with slightly more unexpected silliness.” Indeed his material is characterised by visual gags and a generally less serious approach, which he would continue into Superman III (1983).

Although some of the unused Donner scenes were incorporated into TV screenings over the years, it was not until the 2001 DVD restoration of the first movie that interest began to build in a release for the full, unseen version of the sequel. When Brando’s footage was rediscovered a few years later, it could finally become a reality.

Footage from Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen test was incorporated into the Donner Cut to show Lois Lane discovering Clark Kent’s true identity. Although causing some minor continuity errors, the scene is far more intelligent than Lester’s rug-tripping revelation.

“I don’t think there is [another] film that had so much footage shot and not used,” remarked editor Michael Thau. A vast cataloguing and restoration effort was undertaken to make useable the footage which had been sitting in Technicolor’s London vault for a quarter of a century. Donner and Mankiewicz returned to oversee and approve the process, which used only the minimum of Lester material necessary to tell a complete story, plus footage from Reeve’s and Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen tests.

Released on DVD in 2006, the Donner Cut suffers from the odd cheap visual effect used to plug plot holes, and a familiar turning-back-time ending which was originally scripted for the sequel but moved to the first film at the last minute. However, for fans of Superman: The Movie, this version of Superman II is much closer in tone and ties in much better in story terms too. The Donner Cut is also less silly than the theatrical version, though it must be said that Lester’s humour contributed in no small part to the sequel’s original success.

Whichever version you prefer, 40 years on from its first release, Superman II is still a fun and thrilling adventure with impressive visuals and an utterly believable central performance from the late, great Christopher Reeve.

“Superman II” Retrospective

“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

With the temporary closure of Cineworlds around the UK, the future of theatrical exhibition once more hangs in the balance. But just a couple of months ago cinemas were reopening and people were positive that the industry would recover. One of the classic blockbusters that was re-released to plug the gaps in the release schedule ahead of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a certain quite popular film about dinosaurs. I described my trip to see it recently, but let’s put that hideous experience behind us and concentrate on the film itself.

Thanks in no small part to the excellent “making of” book by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Jurassic Park was a formative experience for the 13-year-old Neil Oseman, setting me irrevocably on the path to filmmaking as a career. So let me take you back in time and behind the scenes of an iconic piece of popcorn fodder.

 

Man creates dinosaurs

Even before author Michael Crichton delivered the manuscript of his new novel in May 1990, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in adapting it. A brief bidding war between studios saw Joe Dante (Gremlins), Tim Burton (Batman) and Richard Donner (Superman) in the frame to direct, but Spielberg and Universal Pictures were the victors.

Storyboards by David Lowery. Lots of the film’s storyboards are reproduced in “The Making of Jurassic Park” by Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

The screenplay went through several drafts, first by Crichton himself, then by Malio Scotch Marmo and finally by David Koepp, who would go on to script Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Panic Room. Pre-production began long before Koepp finished writing, with Spielberg generating storyboards based directly on scenes from the book so that his team could figure out how they were going to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Inspired by a life-size theme park animatronic of King Kong, Spielberg initially wanted all the dinsoaurs to be full-scale physical creatures throughout. This was quickly recognised as impractical, and instead Stan Winston Studio, creators of the Terminator endoskeleton, the Predator make-up and the fifteen-foot-tall Alien queen, focused on building full-scale hydraulically-actuated dinosaurs that would serve primarily for close-ups and mids.

Stan Winston’s crew with their hydraulic behemoth

Meanwhile, to accomplish the wider shots, Spielberg hired veteran stop-motion animator Phil Tippett, whose prior work included ED-209 in RoboCop, the tauntaun and AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and perhaps most relevantly, the titular creature from Dragonslayer. After producing some beautiful animatics – to give the crew a clearer previsualisation of the action than storyboards could provide – Tippett shot test footage of the “go-motion” process he intended to employ for the real scenes. Whilst this footage greatly improved on traditional stop-motion by incorporating motion blur, it failed to convince Spielberg.

At this point, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic stepped in. Muren was the visual effects supervisor behind the most significant milestones in computer-generated imagery up to that point: the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), the water tendril in The Abyss (1989) and the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). When Spielberg saw his test footage – initially just skeletons running in a black void – the fluidity of the movement immediately grabbed the director’s attention. Further tests, culminating in a fully-skinned tyrannosaur stalking a herd of gallimimuses, had Spielberg completely convinced. On seeing the tests himself, Tippett famously quipped: “I think I’m extinct.”

The first CGI test

Tippett continued to work on Jurassic Park, however, ultimately earning a credit as dinosaur supervisor. Manipulating a custom-built armature named the Dinosaur Input Device, Tippett and his team were able to have their hands-on techniques recorded by computer and used to drive the CG models.

Building on his experiences working with the E.T. puppet, Spielberg pushed for realistic animal behaviours, visible breathing, and bird-like movements reflecting the latest paleontological theories, all of which would lend credibility to the dinosaurs. Effects co-supervisor Mark Dippe stated: “We used to go outdoors and run around and pretend we were gallimisuses or T-Rexes hunting each other, and shoot [reference] film.”

 

Dinosaurs eat man

Stan Winston’s triceratops was the first dinosaur to go before the cameras, and the only one to be filmed on location.

Production began in August 1992 with three weeks on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Filming progressed smoothly until the final day on location, which had to be scrubbed due to Hurrican Iniki (although shots of the storm made it into the finished film). After a brief stint in the Mojave Desert, the crew settled into the stages at Universal Studios and Warner Brothers to record the bulk of the picture.

The most challenging sequence to film would also prove to be the movie’s most memorable: the T-Rex attack on the jeeps containing Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, lawyer Gennaro and the children, Lex and Tim. It was the ultimate test for Stan Winston’s full-scale dinosaurs.

The T-Rex mounted on its motion simulator base on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers

The main T-Rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally pre-programmed, the animal was mostly puppeteered live using something similar to the Dinosaur Input Device.

But the torrential rain in which the scene takes place was anathema to the finely tuned mechanics and electronics of the tyrannosaur. “As [the T-Rex] would get rained on,” Winston explained, “his skin would soak up water, his weight would change, and in the middle of the day he would start having the shakes and we would have to dry him down.”

Although hints of this shaking can be detected by an eagle-eyed viewer, the thrilling impact of the overall sequence was clear to Spielberg, who recognised that the T-Rex was the star of his picture. He hastily rewrote the ending to bring the mighty creature back, relying entirely on CGI for the new climax in which it battles raptors in the visitor centre’s rotunda.

The CGI T-Rex in the rewritten finale

 

Woman inherits the earth

After wrapping 12 days ahead of schedule, Jurassic Park hit US cinemas on June 11th, 1993. It became the highest-grossing film of all time, a title which it would hold until Titanic’s release four years later. 1994’s Oscar ceremony saw the prehistoric blockbuster awarded not only Best Visual Effects but also Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Indeed, Gary Rydstrom’s contribution to the film – using everything from a dolphin/walrus combination for the raptors’ calls, to the sound of his own dog playing with a rope toy for the T-Rex – cannot be overstated.

Jurassic Park has spawned four sequels to date (with a fifth on the way), and its impact on visual effects was enormous. For many years afterwards, blockbusters were filled with CGI that was unable to equal, let alone surpass, the quality of Jurassic Park’s. Watching it today, the CGI is still impressive if a little plasticky in texture, but I believe that the full-size animatronics which form the lion’s share of the dinosaurs’ screen time are what truly give the creatures their memorable verisimilitude. The film may be 27 years old, but it’s still every bit as entertaining as it was in 1993.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

Director of photography Dean Cundey, ASC with the brachiosaur head puppet
“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

10 Clever Camera Tricks in “Aliens”

In 1983, up-and-coming director James Cameron was hired to script a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. He had to pause halfway through to shoot The Terminator, but the subsequent success of that movie, along with the eventually completed Aliens screenplay, so impressed the powers that be at Fox that they greenlit the film with the relatively inexperienced 31-year-old at the helm.

Although the sequel was awarded a budget of $18.5 million – $7.5 million more than Scott’s original – that was still tight given the much more expansive and ambitious nature of Cameron’s script. Consequently, the director and his team had to come up with some clever tricks to put their vision on celluloid.

 

1. Mirror Image

When contact is lost with the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is hired as a sort of alien-consultant to a team of crack marines. The hypersleep capsules from which the team emerge on reaching the planet were expensive to build. Production designer Peter Lamont’s solution was to make just half of them, and place a mirror at the end of the set to double them up.

 

2. Small Screens

Wide shots of Hadley’s Hope were accomplished with fifth-scale miniatures by Robert and Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions. Although impressive, sprawling across two Pinewood stages, the models didn’t always convince. To help, the crew often downgraded the images by showing them on TV monitors, complete with analogue glitching, or by shooting through practical smoke and rain.

 

3. Big Screens

The filmmakers opted for rear projection to show views out of cockpit windscreens and colony windows. This worked out cheaper than blue-screen composites, and allowed for dirt and condensation on the glass, which would have been impossible to key optically. Rear projection was also employed for the crash of the dropship – the marines’ getaway vehicle – permitting camera dynamics that again were not possible with compositing technology of the time.

 

4. Back to Front

A highlight of Aliens is the terrifying scene in which Ripley and her young charge Newt (Carrie Henn) are trapped in a room with two facehuggers, deliberately set loose by sinister Company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). These nightmarish spider-hands were primarily puppets trailing cables to their operators. To portray them leaping onto a chair and then towards camera, a floppy facehugger was placed in its final position and then tugged to the floor with a fishing wire. The film was reversed to create the illusion of a jump.

 

5. Upside Down

Like Scott before him, Cameron was careful to obfuscate the man-in-a-suit nature of the alien drones wherever possible. One technique he used was to film the creatures crawling on the floor, with the camera upside-down so that they appeared to be hanging from the ceiling. This is seen when Michael Biehn’s Hicks peeks through the false ceiling to find out how the motion-tracked aliens can be “inside the room”.

 

6. Flash Frames

All hell (represented by stark red emergency lighting) breaks loose when the aliens drop through the false ceiling. To punch up the visual impact of the movie’s futuristic weapons, strobelights were aimed at the trigger-happy marines. Taking this effect even further, editor Ray Lovejoy spliced individual frames of white leader film into the shots. As a result, the negative cutter remarked that Aliens‘ 12th reel had more cuts than any complete movie he’d ever worked on.

 

7. Cotton Cloud

With most of the marines slaughtered, Ripley heads to the atmospheric processing plant to rescue Newt from the alien nest. Aided by the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) they escape just before the plant’s nuclear reactor explodes. The ensuing mushroom cloud is a miniature sculpture made of cotton wool and fibreglass, illuminated by an internal lightbulb!

 

8. Hole in the floor

Returning to the orbiting Sulaco, Ripley and friends are ambushed by the stowaway queen, who rips Bishop in half. A pre-split, spring-loaded dummy of Henriksen was constructed for that moment, and was followed by the simple trick of concealing the actor’s legs beneath a hole in the floor. As in the first movie, android blood was represented by milk. This gradually soured as the filming progressed, much to Henriksen’s chagrin as the script required him to be coated in the stuff and even to spit it out of his mouth.

 

9. Big Battle

The alien queen was constructed and operated by Stan Winston Studios as a full-scale puppet. Two puppeteers were concealed inside, while others moved the legs with rods or controlled the crane from which the body hung. The iconic power loader was similar, with a body builder concealed inside and a counter-weighted support rig. This being before the advent of digital wire removal, all the cables and rods had to be obfuscated with smoke and shifting shadows, though they can still be seen on frame grabs like this one. (The queen is one of my Ten Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time.)

 

10. Little Battle

For wide shots of the final fight, both the queen and the power loader were duplicated as quarter scale puppets. Controlled from beneath the miniature set via rods and cables, the puppets could perform big movements, like falling into the airlock, which would have been very difficult with the full-size props. (When the airlock door opens, the starfield beyond is a black sheet with Christmas lights on it!) The two scales cut seamlessly together and produce a thrilling finale to this classic film.

For more on the visual effects of James Cameron movies, see my rundown of the top five low-tech effects in Hollywood films (featuring Titanic) and a breakdown of the submarine chase in The Abyss.

10 Clever Camera Tricks in “Aliens”

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.

Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.

Practical effects in action on “Twister”

There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.

One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.

As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens looked had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.

I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:

I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.

I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.

“Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers)

And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?

A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.

Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.

The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.

Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.

I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.

 

Outbreak

DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC

 

Twister

DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

 

Daylight

DP: David Eggby, ACS

 

Dante’s Peak

DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC

 

Backdraft

DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC

For more on this topic, see my article about “The Normal Lens”.

The Long Lenses of the 90s