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Category Archives: Feature Film Production

The skills and crafts involved in feature film production

DYNAMATION … from a lecture by Ray Harryhausen in 1984

Dynamation is a term which was coined by producer Charles Schneer when we started making black and white films together in the 1950s. We specialised in combining live actors with animated models and, since nobody knew quite what stop motion photography was, they would call it an animated film. We were trying to establish a new division between cartoon and three-dimensional animation, so we came up with the word ‘Dynamation’ for that process. As the years went by, the publicity department felt that they had to enhance the word, so we got ‘Super Dynamation’!

Georges Meliés experimented with stop motion photography in France before 1900 with his unique short film Trip to the Moon but it was Wilis O’Brien in America who first found a commercial use for stop motion. His greatest triumph was King Kong which set me off and I have never been the same since!

It left such an impression on me that I felt it was the type of career I wanted, so I made it my business to find out how it was done – hence Dynamation sprang out of the basic O’Brien technique.

The principle behind the technique is that we project a small picture of the live action. Unlike many companies who build 50ft models, we build small models and shrink the actors down to size in order to have control. The larger you go with complicated hydraulically controlled mechanisms, the less control you have – particularly in dramatic situations – so we use a small rear-projected image of the live action behind the animated model, sometimes adding matting process.

When we were presented with the story of Gulliver’s Travels’ we wanted to make it as inexpensively as possible. We had heard of the yellow backing travelling matte process used in England at that time (1959) making its own matte instantaneously using a bi-pack camera. We thought that would simplify combining big people with little people. Since we had planned 150 travelling matte shots, we came to the UK to investigate and we have been here ever since. We used the yellow backing system on three pictures, then it suddenly went out of fashion. That was the darkest day I can remember. Now, of course, we use the blue backing system.

We had just perfected the miniature projection duping process for Twenty Million Miles to Earth where you could hardly distinguish between the original negative and the Dynamation shots – and I would have liked to do the next picture that way – but Charles Spooner said you could not shoot an ‘Arabian Nights’ type picture in black and white, so we made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in colour. This took some experimenting as we did not have a choice of colour film which we could use for back projection plates. However, we took the plunge and it worked out quite well commercially. Not too many people found it objectionable to see rather grainy Dynamation shots intercut with the original negative. People who are technically minded are far more aware of that than the average cinema audience, although audiences today are very astute and certainly do not accept things that they would have done twenty years ago.

One of the biggest problems with colour film is contrast and change of colour and we found that the new low contrast print film, designed mainly for television, was very useful. It is much easier to control the colour balance today than it was back in 1958, when you could not leave an unfinished shot in the camera overnight. If you did, it was quite evident the next day to see a colour change jump due to the California temperature drop during the night.

Many times I set my own challenges and I find that my goal is always a little too high for the assets we have. I think that one of my greatest challenges was in Jason and the Argonauts where three men fight seven skeletons. That sequence presented a lot of problems and there were times when I averaged about thirteen frames per nine-hour day – which is less than one foot of film. The accountants got very uptight because they expected me to grind out the footage very much faster than that!

Some of the animated figures used in Jason and the Argonauts

It was necessary for me to handle all the skeletons myself as they had to be synchronised very intimately with the three miniature-projected swordsmen. The skeleton’s feet had to be fastened to the floor and, the minute they left the ground, I had to suspend them on wires for accurate control over the animation. Being keen to make the skeletons look professional, I studied fencing myself but unfortunately, I threw my hip out of joint and had to give it up!

The whole fencing sequence had to be choreographed like a ballet and broken down into numbers. We had to pre-plan the cuts ahead of time through the storyboard – and I cannot stress enough how important that it. When you get on the set you do no want to have a lot of arguments and discussions on how shots should be set up. I always make a number of pre-production drawings which aid everyone concerned in visualising just what the final effect will look like on the screen.

The famous Skeleton Fight from Jason and the Argonauts

I always prefer to animate models of animals for exotic settings and situations instead of using real animals. It is so difficult to find a talented crab who will perform just the way you want, or a baboon who can play chess! You do not want to be at the whim and mercy of a lizard, hoping he will go from point A to point B in so many seconds. I find that real lizards become lethargic under the hot studio lights and barely blink or yawn for the benefit of the camera. The animated ones will perform exactly as directed.

For the bulk of the shots in our films I prefer to use miniature rear projection instead of travelling mattes because it’s easier to execute intimate interplay between actor and model. You have the projected image right there in front of you, rather than wait for weeks to see the combined effect from an optical printer. However, we do resort to many travelling matte shots which, in themselves, are very time consuming to put together.

Dynamation is a word which really means using every trick in the trade – but there comes a point in the economics of doing stop motion animation where you cannot do as much as you would like to do in the way of retakes and careful matching. The time factor is quite considerable. The ideal situation in the future is the Chroma Key method as used in television. When this method has the same resolution as film, you will be able to make instantaneous travelling mattes. I believe that some companies are working on this at the moment.

In recent years there has been a great exposé of the ‘behind the scenes’ details of making complicated special effects. It is my belief that it rather spoils the illusion when the audience is told how it is achieved. It is like a stage magician who tells everyone how he achieves his illusions of magic – soon the audience loses interest in the show!

 

 

 

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The Art of Illusion … by Wendy Laybourn

THE BOOK!

I’ve been really busy for the past couple of years helping my Art Director friend, Terry Ackland-Snow, to write a book about working in the film Art Department. We decided to call it The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film & Television because that’s what making a film or a television programme is all about – sorry to dis-illusion you but what you and the rest of the audience sees on the screen isn’t altogether real!

Like all good things, this project was started over a glass of wine. Maybe I should think twice next time – but I’ve really enjoyed working with Terry and helping him to pull this whole thing together.

Essentially, the book is aimed at anyone wanting to make a career in film production and it will take you through the processes involved in creating a film set step by step. Film sets have been constantly developing from the simple canvas backcloths used on theatre stages, right through to the present day where computer generated effects augment the highly sophisticated art of designing, building and dressing sets.

All of the tips, tricks and techniques described in the book have been used and refined over many decades and, although the technology might have changed, the essence of film making is still the same as it was in those early days.

The Production Designer and Art Director are artists who can adapt their style to any number of different types of production. They integrate themselves and their team into the mood and feeling of any project, comedy, musical, costume drama or science fiction. The range of materials used and the scope of the design evolve as the development of technology and visual processes year by year.

In film and television production the learning process never ends and so even the most experienced film maker will find each new project a challenge!

The book is due to be published by The Crowood Press in September, provisionally priced at £18.99 and with ISBN number 978 1 78500 343 1. It will be available to buy from all good bookshops and from the Crowood website, www.crowood.com.

 

 

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The Army Film & Photographic Unit (1942-46) and its Association with Pinewood Studios … by Wendy Laybourn

Poppy Every 11th November Pinewood Studios hosts a Remembrance Service, not only in memory of the fallen in every conflict – but specifically to honour of the members of the Army Film & Photographic Unit (AFPU) which also embraces the RAF Film Production Unit (RAFFPU). This year the service was conducted by the Reverend Nick Todd CF, Chaplain to the Irish Guards and the two minutes silence at 11 o’clock was marked by Colour Sergeant Shaun Held, Senior Bugle Major, The Rifles – with the Colours presented by the Royal British Legion, Iver Heath.

Formed during WWII, the AFPU and RAFFPU had their headquarters in Pinewood Studios where a permanent reminder in the form of a Memorial Plaque, which records losses proportionately as high as any Unit in the war, is displayed in the corridor leading to the cutting rooms where so much of the film footage, which is still frequently seen on television, was edited.

The AFPU & FAFFPU Roll of Honour

The AFPU & FAFFPU Roll of Honour

Paul Clark is the person who is currently looking after the AFPU Veterans Association, and organises the attendance of the remaining members and the friends and families of those who are no longer with us – as well as the reunions over the years (which were inspired originally by Captain Alan del Strother, a one-time Adjutant at Pinewood). He took over the reins from Harry Thompson, who in turn had taken over from George Reeves. Because PR and war correspondents were attendees at the reunions they are also listed on the roll of honour – and let us not forget the darkroom technicians, camera mechanics, clerical and transport staff who all  played a vital part in running the Unit and are deserving of equal listing. As Paul mentioned in his introduction at the service, the membership is reducing each year but I think that he can rest assured that this wonderful piece of history will continue to be honoured by Pinewood Studios and the friends and families of the AFPU and RAFFPU members.

History

Before the start of the Second World War the Central Office of Information controlled publicity related to all military and civil actions with the Director of Public Relations in the War Office being responsible for the affairs of the British Armed Forces. When the War broke out in September 1939, just one Army photographer, Geoffrey Keating and one film cameraman, Harry Rignold, accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France.

It was quickly realised that the front line would be a dangerous place for untrained photographers as well as the possibility of them endangering not only themselves but the people in the battles they would have to photograph. On 24th October 1941, the Army agreed to form a corps of trained photographers and cameramen. The unit was called the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) and, under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Hugh St. Claire Stewart, Pinewood Studios was selected as their headquarters – as well as the RAF Film Unit and the Crown Film Unit, who produced propaganda films for the Ministry of Information.

There were many professional film and press photographers who had already been called up for service so they were quickly located and brought together in Pinewood Studios, which served both as a headquarters and training centre for the Units. Number 1 Unit was based in Cairo, which was to come into its own when retreat changed to offensive at Alamein, opening with the launching of the barrage skilfully and uniquely filmed by Sgt Billy Jordan, MM – who continued as a cinematographer, working in news, features and shorts for Associated-British Pathé, Alfred Hitchcock and The Children’s Film Foundation.

D-Day Landings

D-Day Landings

On D-Day, 6th June 1944, ten men from the newly-formed AFPU went with the first wave of troops ashore, whilst others landed with the airborne troops – continuing to accompany the Armed Forces as they fought through Europe.

Two experienced pressmen, Ted Malindine and Len Puttnam were among the photographers called up to record the British Expeditionary force in 1939 & 1940.

They both recorded the Dunkirk evacuation and were themselves evacuated twice from the French beaches.

The AFPU was deployed in all theatres of Allied action, often alongside special forces such as the Commandos, the Chindits, the Airborne, the SAS, the Special Boat Squadron and the Long Range Desert Group. All the major  campaigns were filmed and photographed – and the footage from the Desert and North Africa Campaigns was used to produce ‘Desert Victory’ which won an Oscar for the best war documentary. In later years footage from D-Day provided background information for the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

The Italian campaign and Western Europe embraced the action at Monte Casino, Arnhem, the Rhine Crossing and the relief of the Belsen Concentration Camp. The Far East campaign was covered by Number 9 Unit under the umbrella of Admiral Louis Mountbatten and footage was used to produce ‘Burma Victory’.

As an example of the breadth of work of the members of the AFPU, the following passage is part of the memories of photographer Frank Covey:

… ‘Having returned from North Africa and completed my parachute training in January 1944, we were waiting for assignment to units. There I saw a notice which read … “Volunteers needed for a course on Photography” … when we got to Pinewood we were met by a gentleman in civvies, who introduced himself as Major David MacDonald, our new CO. We were told that all regular army bullshit was out and that there would be no time for parades or suchlike – but that we should keep ourselves correctly dressed, behave and put all our efforts into the task ahead.

The commanding staff were all well known people from the film industry. The Boulting brothers with Richard Glendinning and David MacDonald formed the nucleus. There was also the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood making war films such as ‘Target Tonight’, ‘Western Approaches’ and ‘Journey Together’ with Edward G Robinson. A young actor starred in some of these films, who we got to know as Dickie Attenborough! All in all we were a mixed bunch of film, newspaper and magazine photographers from across the country … 

… ‘We broke out of Normandy and followed the German retreat, at times entering villages in forests and finding that we were the first British troops they had seen. We joined the Guards Armoured Division for their dash to Brussels. With the infantry (Welsh Guards) led by armoured cars of the Household Cavalry and Cromwell tanks – we dashed 100 miles and got to the city in the late afternoon of 3rd September 1944. It was crazy, we were covered with flowers, given bottles of Brandy etc …

… ‘We went to the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen and Neugamme near Hamburg, where we saw the terrible carnage. At Neugamme the ovens were still there and all over the camp white discs were scattered on the ground, which we discovered later were the compressed ashes of those burned’ …

After the War

Many of the former members of the AFPU became established in the film and photographic industries after the war and several became exceptional figures in their chosen professions – here are three examples:

John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred joined the film industry in 1937, served with the AFPU working on ‘Desert Victory’, ‘Tunisian Victory’ and ‘Burma Victory’ with Roy Boulting.

After the war he went on to, work at Shepperton Studios as music and dubbing mixer on notable films including ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’. From 1972 he was Head of Sound at Rank Film Laboratories until his retirement.

During his illustrious career he had many film credits as sound recordist and mixer, including ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (Oscar nominated), ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ (Oscar nominated), ‘The Italian Job’, ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, ‘Half a Sixpence’, ‘The Quiller Memorandum’, ‘Doctor Strangelove’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and ‘In Which We Serve’. 

Gillie Potter

Gillie Potter

   Gillie Potter joined the AFPU, already having started his career with the National Screen Service as a Title Artist, and was posted to Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, where he stayed after the war ended to assist in setting up the Malaysian Government Film Unit. After a few years working in Malaysia he returned to the UK just in time for the start-up of ITV.

He was one of the world’s leading special effects animators and became known as the man who could ‘do the impossible’. His revolutionary work in British commercials advanced the use of specialist ‘in-camera’ effects. He elevated the boring ‘pack-shot’ to an art form and invented the device of having live action sequences taking place on a moving product pack. His work earned him more than 40 international awards including a Golden Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival – and he was involved in the production of more than 2,000 advertisements. His special effects work can also be seen in feature films including ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

Harry Waxman

Harry Waxman

    Harry Waxman started with International Pictures as a camera assistant and worked in a number of studios during the 1930s, including Ealing, Welwyn and Worton Hall.

During the war he served with the RAF Film Unit making his first feature, ‘Journey Together’, directed by John Boulting in 1945. His work on that film led to a contract with Two Cities Films after the war leading to him working at Denham Studios and becoming involved with the Boulting brothers as cameraman on ‘Fame Is the Spur’ and then as cinematographer on ‘Brighton Rock’ both in 1947.

Harry Waxman was a founder-member of the BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) and served as President from 1966-69 – and in 1959 he won an award from the British Society of Cinematographers for ‘Sapphire’. He is credited with more than 60 other films included ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’,Crooks in Cloisters’,The Nanny’, ‘The Anniversary’,The Wicker Man’.

The dedicated and outstanding work of the members of the AFPU and the RAFFPU is carried on by the photographers and cameramen of the Royal Logistics Corps, 77th Brigade who are the current British Armed Forces members working wherever the Army, Navy and RAF are deployed. Perhaps one day we’ll see one or two of  their names credited in award-winning dramas or documentaries, like their predecessors!

 

AFPUbadge2

Pinewood copy

 

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Experimental Film Making … Break the Machine by Kathryn Ramey, a review by the Editor

When I first saw this book I thought that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, I’m not really into ‘experimental’ – that was until I started reading it! What an excellent way this is to teach young people the creative qualities of film. So many training facilities deal only in ‘digital’ and treat actual ‘film’ as an almost extinct poor relation.

I’m a bit old-fashioned in that I love film, real film – and, although I very much appreciate the boundless options which ‘digital’ offers, both in production and post-production, I worry that young people entering the business today haven’t been tutored in the fine art of using actual film stock. Not only does film require a creative mind, it needs the user to have an understanding of light, how it affects colour and how it can be used to best advantage, how chemicals react and inter-react and, even more important, how versatile the whole process is once you get the hang of how to use it. Film is a tactile, physical element – and the techniques you can learn from using film will carry through and make you a much better and more creative film and programme maker whatever medium you choose to work in. The author takes the reader through all the stages – from using footage which has already been shot and discarded to show how to create your own ‘collage’ film by deconstructing methods like cutting, scratching, colouring and then gluing back together. The clever thing is that each chapter is almost a stand-alone tutorial. If you know nothing about film processing or optical printing, you will by the time you read the appropriate sections. I love the diversity of this book. Have you ever thought about making your own microphone, speaker or headphones? You will once you’ve read Chapter 4! All in all, every educator of young people in the media business and every creative person, young or old, should have this book – hugely informative and, for any student hoping to make a career in production, great fun to read and put into practice – enjoy!

By the way, I’m not on commission from the Author!! 

Experimental Film Making … Break the Machine by Kathryn Ramey

 

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CREATIVITY, ORIGINALITY AND A TOUCH OF HUMOR …. LONELY ESKIMO PRODUCTIONS!

Lonely Eskimo Productions, based in New Orleans, is a student-run company that aims to show people the artistic, visually enticing and emotional side of filmmaking.

The Lonely Eskimo Team

The Lonely Eskimo Team

L.E.P was formerly known as J.M.K.M., which stood for ‘Jorge’s Machine, Kevin’s Mind’. The group was formed when Jorge and Kevin discovered their shared passion for filmmaking. The duo, with the help of some good friends, made a couple of short films – ‘Separation’, a psychological thriller and ‘Unknown’, a  horror film – which are among the highlights of the group. J.M.K.M. also worked with local artists in the New Orleans area for promotional and music videos.

                After some minor projects, Jorge and Kevin decided to expand the group and added Alejandra Menendez to the team. Alejandra, who has directed a couple of films on her own, helps with management, creative ideas, screen writing and directing. The team continued its expansion by inviting Xavier Lacayo, who was the lead actor for ‘Separation’,  to help the team with public relations and social media. Finally, Khoi Nguyen, who had helped with the making of ‘Separation’ and other short projects, was asked to join the team as a financial advisor.

                J.M.K.M. then changed its name to Lonely Eskimo Productions, a name suggested by a mutual friend.  Alejandra devised the logo and Jorge is currently working with a lawyer to obtain a limited liability corporation status for Lonely Eskimo Productions.

                The Lonely Eskimo Team has released a couple of short skits called ‘Brainfreeze’, which are comedic shorts designed to show the audience a more playful side of the company. They also recently released their first short film, ‘Pieces’, written and directed by Kevin Mah. The team is currently working on their next short film, which is written by Alejandra Menendez.

Website: www.lonelyeskimofilms.com Lonely Eskimo Logo

E-mail: lonelyeskimofilms@gmail.com

 
 

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The Stuntman’s World by Jim Dowdall

Fom the perspective of one who has been ‘at it’ for rather a long time and should know better by now!

Jim Dowdall

Jim Dowdall

When I came into the industry in the 1960’s as an armourer with Bapty’s, my first film was ‘The Dirty Dozen’ – and what a picture that was to cut your teeth on!

Surrounded by the legendary luminaries of both the acting and technical departments, I began to realise that, despite my mother’s exhortations that I would be destitute for life without the obligatory 5 ‘O’ levels and 2 ‘A’ levels, it might be possible to make a living in an industry that neither required nor asked for bits of paper – and that my single English ‘O’ level was not required on the voyage!

A prior spell working with big cats as a beastman for Bertram Mills Circus, with a bit of trapeze thrown in and a number of other odd jobs, had infected me with the ‘adventure bug’ and, having left the armoury business some time after finishing on ‘Where Eagles Dare’, I joined the Parachute Regiment, got the Champion Recruit’s Cup and thought that the army was going to be my career – but a parachuting accident left me unfit and I was invalided out 18 months later.

It was now the early 1970’s and the film business was booming, so I enrolled with the ‘Ugly’ agency and a couple of others to get some walk-on work and thus acquire the very desirable (and hard to come by in those days) Equity card.

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ - 1989

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ – 1989

 

The Stunt Register was just being formed as a professional stunt body within the remit of Equity and I squeezed in with a few of the stunt contracts I had acquired working for an agency called ‘Havoc…Specialists in Hazards’.Since then, life seems to have been a fantastic whirl of various films, TV shows, commercials and occasionally, live shows (which are always unnerving for their very real inability to ‘go again’)

The normal course of events runs like most productions with a script being offered, various meetings to ‘get the job’ and then the business of breaking down the ‘gag’ to work out the best way of translating the director’s wishes into the camera – and always within the limitations of the producers depth of pocket. Of course, just occasionally, one gets the chance to work on various productions (like the earlier Bonds) where you just said what bits of kit and personnel were required and it was so.

 

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

The early days of Bond were a real eye opener for me as everything (as on all productions in those days) was shot in-camera and we would sometimes have weeks of rehearsals either on location or in the Band Room at Pinewood Studios – which would be fully kitted out with mats, trampolines and all the other bits of equipment which might be required, usually for the ‘end sequence’ in the villains lair, which then had to be blown up over a number of days. When we did the submarine sequence for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (for which the famous Pinewood 007 stage was constructed) filming began shortly after Christmas in a very cold January on a vast stage with a requirement for a number of us to do ‘falls’ into the water. Although we would be paid a stunt ‘adjustment’ for these falls, there was a certain ‘hanging back’ as we knew that it would be unlikely that we would have time to change into a dry costume before take two – and few of us owned such a sophisticated piece of kit as a wet suit!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

Wire work on pictures like ‘Superman’ 1 & 2 was pushing the envelope at the time and Geoffrey Unsworth’s capacity to ‘light out’ the wires was masterful – in those days it was without the benefit of ‘Paintbox’ or such sophisticated bits of kit which would come on stream in the 80s. I remember being on wires wearing a space suit with the helmet sealed on which gave me a limited amount of oxygen before I began to get a bit woozy. I would then see Geoffrey up and down a tall ladder spraying the wires with a black paint aerosol just before we shot. I had to be revived twice with a whiff of oxygen after a couple of …‘sorry, just need a second on the wire spraying’… occasions.

For ‘Flash Gordon’ doubling for Timothy Dalton, we spent weeks rehearsing the fight on the disc floating in space with knives coming up out of the floor. We also all had to learn how to use a bullwhip from one of the stunt boys, Reg Harding, who had been a ‘jackaroo’ in Australia and was a master with that very dangerous (mostly to the user) bit of kit

Hours spent in the chair having prosthetics put on to double the monster on wires

With Michael Caine  on 'The Eagle has Landed' in 1976
With Michael Caine on ‘The Eagle has Landed’ in 1976

 

for Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’ meant a 6am start and sometimes a 10pm finish 6 days a week with all the penalty payments and overtime one could imagine – luckily all before Christmas – and the car park at Shepperton Studios, stuffed with a variety of our newly acquired BMWs and Range Rovers after the holidays, became known as the ‘thank you Michael Mann’ car park!

As the 1980s progressed and the sophistication in filmmaking began galloping forward, commercials became a great laboratory for new devices and gimmicks as the repetition on TV, combined with bulky production budgets, meant that the directors wanted to use every new device that was either coming on stream or was just nudging its way through a crack in the door.

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

For me, this was an opportunity to be introduced to the cutting edge of every new gizmo whether it was the ‘Hothead’ or ‘Paintbox’ – and I was fortunate enough to be involved in some of the early experimental work on Libra with Nick Phillips and Harvey Harrison by driving various vehicles either on racetracks or bolted to the side of Land Rovers going over really rough territory.

‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’, ‘Batman’, ‘Bond’, ‘Indy’, ‘Private Ryan’, ‘English Patient’, ‘Enemy at the Gates’, ‘Corelli’, ‘The Pianist’ etc etc, all have their interesting facets and learning curves which require a certain thought process and how we can make it look good safely (within reason….) and the challenge continues!

The main differences between then and now is that we all have mobiles and email and GPS and CGI … but when it comes down to it, the business still requires a good script, good direction, good actors and good action where required. We are just a part of the jigsaw puzzle, the big difference is that the successful ones can put the linament on the bruises with a £50 note!

Stunt people have, by definition, to be jacks of all trades and sometimes master of one or two – tomorrow might be a stair fall on fire, Tuesday falling off a horse, Wednesday turning a car over, Thursday a high fall and Friday a fight sequence.

I did have a week like that a couple of times. Exciting it is, boring it ain’t!

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins ‘inspecting the meat’

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins
‘inspecting the meat’

Jim Dowdall’s film credits include: Skyfall – 2012, Safe House – 2012, Blitz 2011, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – 2010, The Descent 1&2 – 2009 & 2005, RocknRolla – 2008, Death Defying Acts – 2007, The Flood – 2007, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – 2005,  Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 2005, Sahara – 2005, Finding Neverland – 2004, The Bourne Supremacy – 2004, Die Another Day – 2002, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – 2001, The World is Not Enough – 1999, Entrapment – 1999, Little Voice – 1998, Saving Private Ryan – 1998, Tomorrow Never Dies – 1997, The English Patient – 1996, Batman – 1989, Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade – 1989, Whoops Apocalypse – 1986, Brazil – 1985, Octopussy – 1983, For Your Eyes Only – 1981, Star Wars V – 1980, Force 10 from Navarone – 1978, The Spy Who Loved Me – 1977, A Bridge Too Far – 1977, Star Wars IV – 1977, The Eagle Has Landed – 1976, Where Eagles Dare – 1968, The Dirty Dozen – 1967.

Television credits include: Eastenders 2012, Call the Midwife – 2012, Richard hammond’s Invisible Worlds – 2010, Rock & Chips – 2010, The Bill – 2004 to 2009, Top Gear – 2008, Dalziel & Pascoe – 2006 to 2007, The Gathering Storm – 2002, Prime Suspect – 1995, Minder – 1991, The Professionals – 1982, Doctor Who – 1975.

 

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Saul Bass 1920-1966 – The Master of Film Title & Poster Design

Saul Bass

Saul Bass

Saul Bass was not only one of the great graphic designers of the mid-20th century but the undisputed master of film title design thanks to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese.

Bass was one of the first to seize on the potential storytelling power of the opening and closing credits of a film. He used a number of styles (animation, live action, type treatments) to create credits for a diverse range of films. What he created were opening credit sequences that did not simply announce the credits and open the film but were a logical extension of the film. Each sequence was, in itself, a short film that prepared the viewer for what was to come.

He was a celebrated graphic designer before he ventured into the film world. Born in the Bronx district of New York in 1920 to an emigré family, Bass studied at the Art Students League in New York and Brooklyn College under Gyorgy Kepes, a Hungarian graphic designer who had worked in 1930s Berlin before coming to the USA. Kepes introduced Bass to Moholy’s Bauhaus style and to Russian Constructivism.

After apprenticeships with Manhattan design firms, Bass worked as a freelance graphic designer or ‘commercial artist’ as they were then called. Chafing at the creative constraints imposed on him in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in 1946. After freelancing, he opened his own studio in 1950 working mostly in advertising until Preminger invited him to design the poster for his 1954 film, ‘Carmen Jones’. Impressed by the result, Preminger asked Bass to also create the film’s title sequence.Bass 3

After ‘Carmen Jones’ he got commissions for two 1955 films: Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Big Knife’ and Billy Wilder’s ‘The Seven Year Itch’ but it was his second project for Preminger, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ which established Bass as the doyen of film title design.

When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs film, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ arrived at US film theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans ….. ‘Projectionists, pull curtain before titles’…… until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for film titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished but Preminger wanted his audience to see this film’s titles as an integral part of the programme.

The film’s theme was the struggle of its hero – a jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra – to overcome his heroin addiction. The titles featured an animated black paper cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm. Knowing that the arm was a powerful image of addiction Bass had chosen it – rather than Frank Sinatra’s famous face – as the symbol of both the film’s title and its promotional poster. That cut-out arm caused a sensation and Saul Bass reinvented the film title as an art form. By the end of his life, he had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Frankenheimer and Scorsese. Although he later claimed that he found the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’ sequence …. ‘a little disappointing now, because it was so imitated’….

Bass 5Over the next decade he honed his skill by creating an animated mini-film for Mike Todd’s 1956 ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ and a tearful eye for Preminger’s 1958 ‘Bonjour Tristesse’. Blessed with the gift of identifying the one image which symbolised the essence of a film, Bass then recreated it in a strikingly modern style. Martin Scorsese once described his approach as creating ….‘an emblematic image, instantly recognisable and immediately tied to the film’…….

In 1958’s ‘Vertigo’, his first title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock, Bass shot an extreme close-up of a woman’s face and then her eye before spinning it into a sinister spiral as a bloody red soaks the screen. For his next Hitchcock commission, 1959’s ‘North by Northwest’, the credits swoop up and down a grid of vertical and diagonal lines like passengers stepping off elevators. It is only a few minutes after the film has begun – with Cary Grant stepping out of an elevator – that we realise the grid is actually the façade of a skyscraper.

Equally haunting are the vertical bars sweeping across the screen in a manic, mirrored helter-skelter motif at the beginning of Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’. This staccato sequence is an inspired symbol of Norman Bates’ fractured mental state. Hitchcock also allowed Bass to work on the film itself, notably on its dramatic highpoint, the famous shower scene with Janet Leigh.

Assisted by his second wife, Elaine, Bass created brilliant titles for other directors – from the animated alley cat in 1961 ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, to the adrenalin-laced motor racing sequence in the 1966 film ‘Grand Prix’. He then directed a series of shorts culminating in 1968 Oscar-winning ‘Why Man Creates’ and finally realised his ambition to direct a feature in 1974 with ‘Phase IV’.

When the film unfortunately flopped, Bass returned to commercial graphic design. His corporate work included devising highly successful corporate identities for United Airlines, AT&T, Minolta, Bell Telephone Systems and Warner Communications. He also designed the poster for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

To younger film directors, Saul Bass was a cinema legend with whom they longed to work. In 1987, he was persuaded to create the titles for James Brooks’ ‘Broadcast News’ and then for Penny Marshall’s ‘Big’ in 1988. In 1990, Bass found a new long term collaborator in Martin Scorsese who had grown up with his 1950’s and 1960’s titles. After ‘Goodfellas’ in 1990 and ‘Cape Fear’ in 1991, Bass created a sequence of blossoming rose petals for ‘The Age of Innocence’ in 1993 and a hauntingly macabre one of Robert De Niro falling through the sinister neon lighting of the Las Vegas Strip for the director’s 1995 film ‘Casino’ to symbolise his character’s descent into hell.

Saul Bass died the next year. His New York Times obituary hailed him as …‘the minimalist auteur who put a jagged arm in motion in 1955 and created an entire film genre … elevating it into an art’….

Saul Bass’s film credits include: Casino – 1995, Mr Saturday Night – 1992, Cape Fear – 1991, Goodfellas – 1990, War of the Rose – 1989, Big – 1988, Broadcast News – 1987, The Human Factor – 1979, Rosebud – 1975, Grand Prix – 1966, Bunny Lake is Missing – 1965, The Victors – 1963, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World – 1963, Walk on the Wild Side – 1962, West Side Story – 1961, Exodus – 1960, Spartacus – 1960, Ocean’s Eleven – 1960, North by Northwest – 1959, The Big Country – 1958, Bonjour Tristesse – 1958, Around the World in Eighty Days – 1956, The Man with the Golden Arm – 1955, The Seven Year Itch – 1955, Carmen Jones – 1954.

 
 

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