Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal

The 1985 documentary, Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, provides an overview of the career of the famed animator, producer, director, writer and stop-motion pioneer as simply as it possibly can: It shows archival interviews with Pal, brief snippets of praise from both peers and acolytes and loads of scenes from his movies. In other words, it goals are modest, it's subject straightforward and it has no concerns with breaking new ground in documentary film making. Simply put, it's object is to show a lot of clips while giving the viewer the understanding that much of fantasy and science fiction of the sixties onward was heavily influenced by Mr. Pal. This isn't a documentary for fans of Ken Burns or Errol Morris. Fans of Barbara Kopple, don't bother. This documentary isn't about finding profound meanings hidden in the nooks or exploring the central core of Pal's being. It's about how cool the movies were that he made and how much they changed the landscape of fantasy/science fiction.

The point is made early, as in right in the opening scene, which isn't from a Pal movie at all, but Gremlins. This is followed by shots of E.T.,the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters and the message is immediately clear: Pal paved the way for the fantasy/sci-fi of today. But in watching the documentary one also gets the impression that his legacy may also be that a kind, gentle and generous person can actually succeed in Hollywood.

It's expected in a documentary of this sort that no one interviewed will have anything bad to say ("I hated that bastard!") but the sheer volume of praise from the wide variety of actors (Russ Tamblyn, Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis, Rod Taylor, Janet Leigh, etc) and the sincerity with which they give it makes one feel an immediate affection for Pal. All of them talk about the confidence he had in them, the exuberance, the sheer unswerving optimism, all from a man who fled Nazi Germany (unlike Veit Harlan) and then, seven years later, had to flee again (he had fled to Holland then left for the United States just before Germany invaded). He saw how bad the world could get but always knew it could be better.

And hard working? They don't make 'em as hard working as George Pal anymore. He built his career around the success of his stop-motion animation, later to become his famous Puppetoons, only it wasn't claymation, it was replacement animation! That means every time a character changed expression, or walked, or waved their hand or freaking blinked(!), a new puppet figure had to be inserted. His charts and storyboards for this were so detailed it made the operation schematics for the construction of the atomic bomb look like a recipe for boiling water. This fascination with detail and the nuts and bolts of things is what contributed to his greatest successes in live action when the time came.

Ray Bradbury comments, correctly, that Destination Moon was the first sci-fi film all about the science. It's all about how the rocket works and the journey there that matters, not actually being on the moon. And it was Pal's interest in solving problems that led him to provide efficient ways to communicate the science to the audience, like having the scientists show a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to potential investors to explain how the process of getting to the moon works. This technique was used again years later by Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park when John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) shows everyone a cartoon to explain how the dinosaurs have been created.

It's true, his movies are not masterpieces. The acting and writing seem unrefined at times and the budgets ran on the low side but, as stated again by Ray Bradbury, he did something very important for science fiction film: He made it respectable. Before Destination Moon, science fiction seemed entirely silly to most of Hollywood and most adult moviegoers but after Destination Moon, it proved it could take itself seriously and rake in the big bucks. It also helped that he hired the best artists and designers in the game, from the great matte artist Chesley Bonestell to model designer Albert Nozaki who created the iconic Martian spaceships for War of the Worlds.


George Pal continued to have success in film, most notably The Time Machine, with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux in 1960, but it's his fifties sci-fi work that is most remembered today and clearly the most influential to future generations of sci-fi film makers. The pacing, style and action of today's sci-fi comes a variety of influences and directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron but the idea that it could be something more than cheap serial fare came from Pal, and it's an idea I'm glad he didn't keep to himself.

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This has been a contribution post to the Steven Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie.