Thirty years ago today, movie history was made with the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here's a look back from the November 1981 issue of American Cinematographer.
Creating the Special Visual Effects For Raiders
by Richard Edlund
Photographic Effects Supervisor
When I assigned to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, I has been doing a couple of space movies, and even though The Empire Strikes Back is a kind of fantasy, we had to deal with white, snowy backgrounds in terrain where people had actually been. Therefore, the material that we had to provide for the film had to look real and at least be stylistically integral with the rest of the picture.
Raiders, on the other hand, was set back in the 1930s, and everyone has been in situations that resembled, to a degree, some of the situations in Raiders. We had stormy skies and we had matte shots in which we had to fly airplanes that were no longer in existence, as well as shots in which the environment was familiar.
In the climactic sequence of Raiders there is a real on-the-earth situation in which men are walking up to the Ark, looking in and experiencing the Wrath of God. We had to portray that in a fitting way to follow the inspired act of Steven Spielberg, who is a virtuosos director (I feel that some of his best work is in this picture). We also had to follow the spectacular work of Glenn Randall, who coordinated the stunts. All of a sudden, at the end of the picture, after the unbelievably break-neck pace these people had established, we had to come up with a final sequence that topped off the rest.
That final sequence also involved ghosts, which are a touchy subject. I felt that a lot of people have their private fantasies about what a ghost may or may not look like. Looking back through the films that had been done involving ghosts, I found that had not been many which had portrayed hosts in a memorable sort of way. I hoped that our ghosts would be somewhat memorable, but the problem is that you can't show too much or you will start revealing your tricks. On the other hand, you can't show too little or the audience will feel cheated. That was one of the real difficulties: to come up with something that looked like a ghost, that looked like it had sped and maneuverability and could wreak damage of one sort or another - and still look kind of beautiful and "angelic," in a sense. George Lucas came by and kept an eye on these effects in progress and also had a good hand in cutting that final sequence.
In that sequence we also had a lot of difficulty in controlling the pyrotechnic material involved. We had to portray fire in a controlled way, so that it looked like it might have some sort of mind of its own. We had to build a miniature of the entire set (about four feet wide and five feet deep) and run fire through it in order to sweep up the Nazis, who had expired as a result of looking when they shouldn't have looked. There were also a number of matte paintings, most of which were done by Michael Pangrazio. To top it all off, we had to create a special makeup for the monster-type work dealing with Toht's melting head, Belloq's exploding head and Dietrich's shrinking head - as well as producing the myriad of ghosts.
When we started the picture and evaluated what would have to be done in the final sequence, we assumed that, with the ghosts and all, a lot of the work would involve animation. In the meantime I came up with a couple of ideas for filming certain materials during the course of principal photography that would give us something to tie in to when we got to the effects studio. One idea involved a special filter that we shot the sequence with, and the other was a sort of harness arrangement that all of the various Nazis wore in the set. This harness had a very bright little projector bulb in the front, sticking out on a little bendable wire apparatus. Then around behind, inside their shirts, was an enormous flashbulb that produced a flash lasting about two seconds. The flashbulb was bright enough to light up the entire inside of their shirts to look like they were being struck by the Wrath of God. It would not be an effect that we would have to animate on top of each person; it would be something that would actually be part of the original photography, causing flares to bounce from one actor to the other and onto the ground, as though the effect were actually happening in the scene.
Many times, when you try to animate that sort of thing on top of live action, the subtleties of the light that is bouncing around from one object or person to another, plus the subtleties of cloth texture and other elements like that, turn out to be details that you can't quite get without more testing and more work than you can afford.
We did some tests at Industrial Light and Magic in Marin County that involved casting high school students and dressing them up in Nazi uniforms. We got some interesting dry ice pumps arranged and placed a big anamorphic mirror inside the Ark that would reflect light back into the camera through this filter which I had built on a machine. I didn't want the filter to produce the effect of a star filter, and yet I wanted it to be something unique. I had come up with this filter idea a couple of years before and had been looking for something to use it on. It produces a "crowned" flare from a source, so that the effect is that of a sort of winged flare, instead of a straight one across the screen. It is a somewhat subtle element, but I think it was helpful in making real that destruction scene, when all the Nazis get hit. We shot the tests at I.L.M. and even cut a little sequence together. At this time, Steven was shooting in London and I went over there and worked with Dougie Slocombe on the lighting and the "look" of the sequence.
We had built our own Ark at I.L.M. and had put in quite a bit of work to get a certain look worked out. Then we communicated transatlantically with Norman Reynolds, who was doing the production design, as well as supervising construction of the major props, in order to get some of these effects elements lined up. When we got to London I found out that all of the shirts these guys were wearing were a bit small for them , so we had to be very careful about putting those big flash-bulbs inside their clothes. The actual sequence was filmed mainly in long shots and all of this was done in London. We had only three days to shoot the entire end sequence, including all of the production material leading up to the devastation.
After shooting everything in long shots in London, I went around the set after it was all finished and marked off sections that I wanted. We shipped them back to Marin County in a sea container, where we rebuilt part of the set and shot all of the closeups - using similar materials, using our friends in the old harnesses again, using air cannons to affect the Nazis like a big blast of wind hitting them.
Then we tackled the problem of creating the ghosts. We had originally planned to "materialize" the ghosts by using an animating technique, but when we finally started getting into it, we discovered that we weren't achieving the look that we needed - to say nothing of the time that would be needed to produce as many ghosts as finally became necessary.
Also, the storyboards changed a little bit as we moved along, so we came up with a method of using our big tank, building armatures and flying the "ghosts" around in water, using forward and backward motions. Steve Gawley, one of our model shop experts, did the flying of the ghosts, while I watched through our Empire camera. I would have a clip of the scene in the camera, so that I could watch the motion of the ghosts in relation to the scene. We shot enough footage to be sure that we had as much as we needed and the final ghost effects were put together optically by Conrad Buff. We would select and edit all of the ghosts separately. We had one shot in which we did about 50 passes through the camera in order to get a swirling vortex of ghosts.
To refer back to what I said earlier about not giving the audience too much to see, and yet not cheating them - some of these shots were cut to go by very, very fast, on the screen and the amount of work that would go into each of these shots would seem out of proportion to the amount of time that it would be on the screen. However, if the impression is there, then you have succeeded and there is no point in leaving the scene on the screen any longer because, as I say, if you leave it on too long and your edges start showing, you begin to give yourself away.
We had a girl who was featured in only one of the shots. We made her up and flew her around on a wire rig. I shot the plates of her in sharp focus and then rear-projected them through an inversion layer in a tank in order to achieve confusion and to break up the image, taking the sharpness away without losing the entire image. That was, again, the case of a great deal of work being devoted to a small bit of screen time.
At any rate, once I had her image, I shot a skeleton to match, lining it up by projection to get the effect of a "live" ghost turning into the face of Death. We then did a white-in optical and rear-projected that element through a tank that would distort the image and reduce it to just the right amount of information that we wanted to show. This was done using our motion-control camera and high-speed track, with a rear-projector in synchronization. It was all pre-programmed so that we could do a number of takes to get confusion at various levels, and then we would pick the best one at dailies.
I feel that the most successful of the grisly ends of the three lead "Bad Guys" was on the screen for maybe 30 frames - a little over a second.
The shrinking head - which was not my favorite shot in the picture - involved an awful lot of work, but it was one of those shots that we didn't have enough time to do again and again in order to get it right. However, George cut in just the right amount of that shot in just the right place and it worked.
Incidentally, the shrinking head effect involved a vacuum and various exotic materials. It took eight or nine people to control the effect, manipulating different levers inside the head, all of which had to be done by hand
During the pyrotechnics in the final sequence, when fire sweeps the Nazis, there are a couple of shots which I feel turned out quite well. One was the scene in which the fire from the Ark shot up off the island. It was a long shot with the fire shooting from the top of the island into a hole in the clouds (which was filmed in our cloud tank). The island was actually Marin Island, just a few miles from I.L.M. in San Francisco Bay. Michael Pangrazlo painted in added detail for the island itself. We then shot the fire on a separate piece of film and controlled it through a tube. The clouds were also done as a separate item. All of this was then matted in with a reflection of the water.
We see the peak of the fire changing direction. It starts coming back down onto the island, then sweeps down through the altar set, over the Nazis, who are all lying dead on the ground. All of that was shot in miniature. The Nazis were only about 4 1/2 inches long.
We shot it upside-down, so that the fire would actually rise toward the floor. We cut away to Indiana and Marion tied to the stake and then we cut back to a shot of the fire going around them. The original plate was done blue screen and I shot the fire in two pieces - a foreground fire and a background fire - to actually put them into the fire and show them in a situation of peril. Then we cut to the fire sweeping back in the other direction, revealing an empty set with all the Nazis swept away. One of them you see flying through the air burning up. We used a lot of gunpowder for that.
Before the crew went off for location shooting in Tunisia, I had discussed certain of the matte shots very carefully with Michael (Mickey) Moore, the second unit director, and he got pretty much the shots that we needed - for instance, for the truck-off-the-cliff shot. There was a matte painting involved, of course, and we built a miniature truck and used a few stop-motion puppet Nazis who flailed their arms around in the air when the truck went off the cliff.
When the time came to shoot the Pan American "China Clipper" sequence we knew that there was apparently only one similar seaplane in the world that still files. But that was in Puerto Rico and we didn't have the budget to go there and film it. We did discover, fortunately, that only about five miles from I.L.M. there was a flying boat of the required type in drydock. So we made a miniature of this flying boat that we found across the bay and did a helicopter plate to show it flying in front of the Golden Gate bridge. Then we matted that in to create the illusion of having the plane take off from San Francisco.
The actual full-size flying boat was not in the water. It was on dry land and could not float, so Jim Veilleux went over and made a helicopter shot of a pier I had found which would match the angle. We shot the flying boat being boarded by some people going up a ramp. The flying boat, which was a British-made four-engine seaplane, had one engine that worked, so we showed them getting aboard and then started up the engine. For added realism, we put down some pans of water to reflect light under the wings. We then shot the plate of the flying boat. We next went over to Treasure Island, which is a nearby Naval base, where we found a pier that looked pretty good and which we could then matte under the plate of the flying boat to put it into the water. With the addition of a matte painting to fill in the top part of the frame, we had ourselves a shot of people getting aboard the China Clipper.
We shot blue screen in London for the Well of the Souls sequence. The cameras were up on high rostrums against blue screens and we shot only the area where they were digging to find the entrance to the Well of the Souls. Later on, in our cloud tank, we put in a cloudy sky background. One of the shots had a big circular vortex appearing in the center of it and there were shots of Sallah commanding the Arabs to dig harder and faster. There were five or six shots like that. Then we animated in the lightning and the rest of the distance was taken care of by matte paintings.
The sets we had to work with in London were wonderful sets. They have great master plasterers in England. For example, in the Well of the Souls sequence, they used 60 tons of plaster - an incredible amount of material. The big altar set for the final sequence of the picture was all built on one stage. It was very carefully painted and detailed so that the rocks really looked like rocks, even though they were a combination of Styrofoam and plaster and pipe rigging. All of the shooting on that huge set was completed in 3 1/2 days. Then it was torn down and sections of it were shipped to I.L.M. to be rebuilt for us to film the closer shots.
We did a lot of inserts and pick-up shots - such as cuts of Marion in the cave with the skulls and skeletons, and Indiana under the truck during the chase - so we fulfilled not only the special effects requirements but certain second unit functions as well.
In terms of special effects, The Empire Strikes Back was more of a controlled situation. We were concerned mainly with stop-motion and a lot of matte shots. Raiders was more of a shoot-from-the-hip type of effects picture. It was a different sort of challenge. It's fun to work on different projects, where one is a certain way and another is altogether different.
We expanded our techniques, picking up from Close Encounters of the Third Kind the cloud tank technique that Doug Trumbull and his associates developed and brought into our grammar. We used that technique and came up with others that could be executed in water. Our big tank, the Close Encounters tank, is 7 feet by 7 feet by 4 feet deep, and it is in use all the time now. It opened up some different avenues for us. In Raiders there were a lot of very tricky animated mattes involved in making the material we shot in the tank actually work. Sam Comstock and his crew did a great job in coordinating all that.
We used rotoscope mattes principally in what we called the altar sequence, the final devastation sequence where all the ghosts are flying around the people and you have closeups of the ghosts in pretty close proximity to the Nazis. It required a lot of very deft animation work, especially where something would be crossing in front of something else at one point, but not at another. Not to forget the fact that a number of the ghosts in that sequence were animated.
Our Optical Photography Supervisor, Bruce Nicholson. deserves considerable praise for his contribution to Raiders. We didn't have our usual fancy rear-lighted blue screen in England. We had to make do with a painted blue background, the best blue that we could find. Bruce had to deal with the results when the film was sent back to I. L.M. He had to come up with very, very complex density mattes in order to put 20 or 30 ghost elements into one shot - all separately photographed, because every ghost that appeared in Raiders was on a separate piece of film. We never shot two or three at a time, with the exception of the ghost vortex scene, which required 50 passes through the camera. All of that was extremely tedious and there was some very expert optical work involved.
It was fun to work on Raiders, because there was a certain verve that was established early in production. The picture was regarded, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way, as being a sort of "B" movie. It was not the kind of project that allowed you to make 10 or 12 takes on a scene in order to get it perfect. You had two or three takes on a scene and then move on to the next shot. That was the pacing of the production, which came inn under schedule and under budget. It lent a feeling of spontaneity to the set which I believe shows on the screen.
English crews have ways of working that are different from ours, but they are definitely wonderful and very talented.
I especially appreciated the opportunity of working with Steven Speilberg who, in my opinion, is one of the best directors around. He is never at a loss for an idea. He listens to advice and takes the best advice. He knows how use a situation so that it flows incredibly and can work on schedule. It was a pleasure to work with him.