The year was 1992, and digital effects were on the rise, with Jurassic Park and the aforementioned Terminator 2 changing the game forever. Francis Ford Coppola was in the process of making the gothic masterpiece Bram Stoker's Dracula while Keanu Reeves was simultaneously working on ruining the very same masterpiece.
Come on, act! At least move an eyebrow!
The big-budget project was to have a stylized, surreal look in every frame. The studio, going through a CG craze, dropped its top visual effects artists in the director's lap so they could paint everything in pixels and Phantom Menace that shit.
In response, Coppola fired every one of them and replaced them with his 29-year-old son, Roman. The result is a movie with effects that were 100 percent done "in camera." That is, what you see is what they shot. It doesn't sound that impressive at first, but then you start looking at the kind of shots they needed to get. What on the page was to be as simple as Reeves taking a train ride, wound up looking like this in the movie:
That's a shot out the window of the train where we see Gary Oldman's stare, hovering in the clouds for some reason. To get that, they actually filmed a model landscape moving with the eyes projected on it, then projected the whole thing in back of Reeves sitting in the train. It's a projection of a projection on a projection. And that was a piece of cake compared with this:
Normally, this book-train montage shot would be a cinch: You shoot your train, shoot your book and put it all together in the computer.
Fuck that! To get that shot, they actually built a model train and a gigantic book. Then they filmed it. What you see is what was actually there.
For those who haven't seen this film, all you need to know is that a large portion of it takes place inside Jim Carrey's deteriorating psyche as he is reliving old memories that are being simultaneously erased. The result is that as he goes through his own degrading memories, they skip around like a scratched CD, creating an extremely disjointed and surreal world where characters and settings rapidly pop in and out with no rhyme or reason.
In some ways, its the most accurate portrayal of therapy we've ever seen.
For example, at one point Carrey's character, Joel, is having a fight with his girlfriend (Kate Winslet), who walks angrily into the bathroom only to completely disappear and transport into the kitchen, then transport to the front door before leaving -- all within the same shot.
Later, Joel walks in on ... himself, talking with the doctor who is later responsible for the memory wipe.
In a blink, the shot then turns from Joel to the doctor ...
... and then to another Joel, the Joel who is in the memory itself.
This keeps happening, back and forth, as the scene unfolds.
Once more, this doesn't seem like a big deal if you can just make a real Jim Carrey interact with a CGI Jim Carrey. This method is probably how the shots would have been done for this scene if Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had been directed by someone less insane than Michel Gondry.
Instead, Gondry relied on his theater background and insisted on pulling off the illusion using a technique known as "making his actors run and change costume really, really fast."
Above: Michel Gondry, quirking out with Jim Carrey.
No, really. For that scene where Kate Winslet seems to inexplicably appear in two separate rooms, they put a trap door in the bathroom and had her book it over to the kitchen before the camera got there -- then used a double as she left through the door.
The double Jim Carrey shot was actually much more excruciating. To create two Joels, Carrey would change his wardrobe and demeanor whenever the camera panned away from him and run to the other side of the set to play the other part as quickly as possible. It took so many takes to accomplish that Gondry and Carrey actually had an on-set argument about it because the actor didn't think it could be physically done. The strange thing is, we're pretty sure we still agree with Carrey there.
Making an actor fly or float or do Matrix-style kung fu is the oldest Hollywood trick in the book. Step 1, hang the actor from cables. Step 2, remove the cables from the finished shot, which these days can be done digitally.
So when they needed the actors to float around in the zero gravity of space in Apollo 13, it seemed pretty simple. Either do the wire trick, or hell, just composite in the actors with CGI entirely.
But NASA stepped in and said, "Look, we put dudes on the moon. Did you read about that? We can do anything. And what you need is to just get rid of this whole gravity thing."
Enter a special craft they affectionately call "The Vomit Comet." It's NASA's own KC-135 airplane designed to do one thing and one thing alone: Create a zero-G environment right here on Earth.
To accomplish this, the plane does a series of parabolic arcs, which is a fancy way of saying that it goes up and down really fast.
This action causes a brief window of complete weightlessness for anybody lucky enough to be on board. It's used as a training program for astronauts, but for Apollo 13, it was turned into the soundstage.
It took a mind-numbing 600 or so arcs to complete all the shooting. So when you watch that film again, concentrate on the faces of the actors during those shots of weightlessness and note that their looks of pants-shitting excitement are completely genuine.
Just another shot of Bill Paxton not acting.
But before you go envying them too much, remember the plane's "Vomit Comet" nickname. Look at the high-speed dives and climbs of the aircraft and imagine you're inside it, and three or four burritos are inside you. It ain't pretty.
You're probably wondering how anything from a film made in 1981 could possibly be confused as CGI. Well, they did have computer-generated images back then; they just looked terrible. Like this shot, which is supposed to be from Snake's glider's computer as he is descending on the futuristic apocalyptic cityscape that is 1997 New York City:
See? 80s graphics, man.
Believe it or not, what you see there was extremely cutting-edge for the time. In fact, it was so cutting-edge that it was completely out of the question given the film's budget. But John Carpenter wanted this high-tech graphic to appear in the film -- after all, it's supposed to be 1997! So they had to find a way to do that shot of computer graphics without using computer graphics.
For the sequel, they had to find a way to do the whole film without using a plot.
So they grabbed their model of New York, which had been used for various other shots, and bought a roll of green tape and a black light. That's it -- this cutting-edge effect was done with five bucks and a trip to the hardware store.
Also, we think there was a tiny guy with a tiny roll of tape inside every Virtual Boy.
David Bell is a freelance writer and video editor. You can read some of his work here.
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