Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Land Before CGI
San Francisco


One of the best parts of blogging is starting new features that are invariably forgotten, scuffed up, stepped on and finally, mercifully, left for dead. "I'm starting a new feature..." is bloggerspeak for "I'm bored and have an idea that I will stick with for one or two posts, maybe three, and then move on. Hope you're not expecting too much!" I've done it and most other film bloggers have done it too. Whether or not they want to own up to the whole sordid affair is their business. But here's the thing:

I'm starting a new feature!

And like a gambler convinced he's finally figured out a way to beat the system I am here to assure you it will not be forgotten. Why? Because in my feverish obsession with editing together images and effects and music I have already created enough clips for this feature to last well into 2011. I purposely held off starting it until I was absolutely positive I had enough clips to carry me through the lean years, as it were. And what is this new feature (hold for maximum reader letdown)? A celebration of miniature and effects work from before 1993, the year Jurassic Park all but effectively killed the miniature business in Hollywood. There are still great examples of miniature work done post 1993, like Independence Day, but not many. My feature will focus on the craftsmanship behind the work that went into creating these little worlds on the silver screen.

One very important point: The quality of the film is of no concern as evidenced by my mention of Independence Day. My concern is to celebrate great hands-on effects work from a bygone era, even if it is the only thing worth seeing in the whole movie. Also, if making fun of how "fake" miniatures and models look is your bag these posts will hold little appeal for you. I'm not here to poke fun at the amazing work done by craftspeople and artisans that the average person couldn't duplicate with a million dollars and all the time in the world if their life depended on it. I'm here to celebrate it. Each clip will start with the title and director but will end with the names of all involved in the production of the effects sequence, often uncredited on the movie itself but recognized today thanks to the complete credit listings for most movies found on IMDB. On the flip side I am also not here to deride CGI which I recognize is enormously important in the effects world today and has changed the industry immeasurably. It's just that celebrating the lost art of miniature and model work is the primary concern.

We start with San Francisco, a 1936 W.S. Van Dyke production with Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. Its story of romance and business rivalry is well told but ends on a much too sentimental note to really embrace all that came before. Nonetheless, it is worth a viewing and the effects sequences for the earthquake are terrific.

Two of the most difficult things to deal with in miniature work are fire and water. Getting them "to scale" is impossible. A drop of water instantly betrays the size of the model ship it graces just as the size of a flame gives away the game for a model building. In San Francisco, effects photographer Loyal Griggs got around the problem as best he could by optically printing flames from a larger fire behind the models and making the models themselves as big as they could but still manipulative as miniatures.

Another problem faced with miniatures is the speed at which debris falls. On a larger scale it appears to fall more slowly and so high-speed cameras are employed to shoot the footage at many more frames per second than is custom so that it will play back at a slower but graceful speed. This sometimes but not always works. Note the dynamiting of the Victorian house in the clip. It is shown twice being dynamited. The first time looks like a model, the second time it appears much more natural. Why? The fault lies not with the high-speed photography but with the fact that the house was designed as a breakaway house rather than letting the explosives blow it apart. Thus, after the first explosion, we see whole sections of the house suddenly make clean breaks from the rest of the house betraying its model status. But the second explosion deals only with debris and as we see it fly into the air and slowly cascade down it has the look of the real thing.

Unfortunately, even on IMDB, the model makers are not listed, only members of the special effects crew. I hope that means the model makers as well because I would hate to not credit them for their extraordinary work. Also, as with any special effects sequence, sound is very important but the only credit is for the famed Douglas Shearer, head of the sound department. While he was certainly involved in many films of the era it was also common practice to simply put the head of the department on the credits (like Cedric Gibbons or Edith Head) giving short shrift to the many technicians working beneath them that often did most of the heavy lifting. I'd like to list the technicians who did such great Foley work on these scenes but sadly their names are lost to the ages.

Finally, let's remember that all the special effects members listed did some amazing full-scale work as well as seen when the street splits in two or the opera house starts breaking apart with hundreds of people inside. Enjoy.