Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Strange Case of the Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Blue Screen Photography

[This post should be rewritten, there are two different  topics.  The first topic is how digital has increased the volume of visual effects by increasing the range within which the effects can be used, and a second post about what happens when things dont work and a classic example of using the shot anyway.]

[As an addendum to this little note, I want to remind my readers that we are talking about 1963 here, or more likely, 1962.   When I talk about blonde hair and moving cameras and pulling mattes, please recall that there is no tracking technology at the time (that I am aware of) and none of the work that has been done since then to electronically or digitally pull a matte from blonde hair.  I will do a later post on this topic,]

The coming of digital visual effects and the use of computer animation at the expense of the traditional arts may not have eliminated poverty or improved society dramatically, but has had a notable impact on the filmmaking production process. It has done so in a number of ways, but mostly by greatly increasing the volume of work that can be done with these techniques by lowering the skill level required to execute them. Ironically, using computers has not reduced the cost of these techniques, using computers always increases costs, but it did dramatically increase the volume of shots that could use these techniques and in many cases eased the restrictions with which these techniques had to be used.

When First Secretary Joseph Stalin spoke at SIGGRAPH he said, "Quantity has a quality all its own" referring not to tank production, as some believe, but to volume production of digital visual effects. 

In the bad old days, a film was greatly restricted in its use of special optical technologies and other techniques in their production process. All films would use optical techniques for opening titles, end credits, and fades and dissolves. It used to be that the film editor acted as the visual effects supervisor, in a certain way, for a film, or most films. On top of these seemingly mundane but actually extremely important uses, a few films would make use of exotic technologies such as optical compositing, rear screen projection, and paintings on glass and other such special processes if the story and the studio permitted. A very few films and even fewer filmmakers would make these technologies part of their oeuvre, and then we might have a Hitchcock or a Disney, and films like North by Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Forbidden Planet or Mary Poppins.

Just wanted to say goodbye !

If you examine these films I suspect you will be surprised by the very small number of visual effects shots that are actually in those films. You may also be surprised by the way the limitations of the art and craft of visual effects informed some of the creative decisions. We will showcase some of these brilliant uses of this technology back in the day when you had to know something to use them successfully and couldn't just do whatever the fuck all you wanted and expect someone to fix it later.

Here are two examples of the kinds of restrictions that I am referring to: (a) the camera should not move during certain kinds of shots, or should move only in a very constrained way, because you are going to have to create other elements and those elements will also have to track with the camera and that will be both annoying, difficult and expensive and (b) do not put someone with blonde or red hair in front of a blue screen because it is extremely hard, and often impossible, to pull a good, partial density (e.g. the matte is semi transparent) matte for it using the chemical blue screen process.

But whatever you do, do not put a blonde or red head in front of a blue screen while moving the camera. That would be a really crazy thing to do.

So what happened when someone ignored these guidelines and the shot didn't work?

There are three approaches and only three as far as I know: (1) cut the shot from the movie, (2) spend a lot of money trying to fix it and edit as best you can around it, or (3) use it anyway and pretend you always meant to do that.

It was in reference to this third approach that Georges Danton advised the Assemblee Legislative in 1792 saying "Il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!", which means something like "What we need is audacity, then more audacity, always audacity!"

Consider by way of example of this third approach the fascinating and not completely understood case of the opening of Bye Bye Birdie (1963).

This film is an early 60s repurposing of a Broadway musical that fictionally transforms the real-life draft of Elvis Presley into the US Army into a parable about how one can spin any adversity into a cheap publicity stunt. The film has a number of entertaining songs and a spectacular performance by the 22 year old Ann-Margret as the teenage love interest and ingenue.

The film opens with Ann-Margret in classic 1950s High School drag attacking the camera and belting out the title song with all the energy and enthusiasm you could ask for.  She sings those immortal words:

         Bye bye Birdie! I'm gonna miss you so.
         Bye bye Birdie. Why'd you have to go?
         No more sunshine! Its followed you away.
         I'll cry, Birdie, till you're home to stay!

        I'll miss the way you smile, as always just for me
        And each and every night, I'll write you faithfully!
        Bye bye Birdie, its awful hard to bear,
        Bye bye Birdie! Guess I'll always care!

        Guess I'll always care !
        Guess I'll always care !

(See the sequence on youtube.  You want the first 1:15 seconds only.   The rest is from the end of the movie.

It may not be Shakespeare but Ann-Margret is so completely drop dead gorgeous and talented and wonderful and I think the sequence is very entertaining.  I can just imagine the director filled with enthusiasm saying: "Oh I have an idea, while we are doing this shot, how about adding a fan offstage to blow her hair around a little, and lets make sure she turns around facing away from the camera to show her hair off, oh yes, and Ann?  Could you shake your head around a lot so we can see your fabulous hair?  Thanks thats great!"

Just try to pull a matte for this hair, you idiots!

Do you notice something odd about this shot?  Something about the background color?  Its rather blue, don't you think?

The story that is reported is that the director, George Sidney, was so taken by Ann-Margret, who was not at the time a well-known star, that he proposed to the studio that they write a song for her and use it at the front and end of the movie. The studio declined so Sidney paid for the shoot himself, spending a reported 60,000 $US. When the movie opened and Ann-Margret was famous, the studio reimbursed Sidney. The song used the music of another song from the play that was not used in the movie version, with new lyrics written for the purpose of opening and closing the movie. 

The unconfirmed story is that Sidney planned to composite her against more newspaper / news footage of Birdie going into the army so he shot against blue screen.  But, so the story goes,  he gave up the idea of compositing the sequence since it would have been too expensive (and I doubt he would have been very happy with the results).   I have a vision in my mind of the effects people called in to review the scene and looking at it on the movieola and smiling grimly every time Ms. Margret shakes her head at the camera and her hair flies around, thinking to themselves, who is going to tell the director the bad news?

So I am guessing that the director said something like: "Fuck it, no one will be looking at the background anyway, they will be looking at Ann-Margret.   Just cut it in and no one will notice."

And I think that was the right decision. 

As far as I know, this is the only major bluescreen sequence in a movie that just uses the bluescreen photography as is as if they meant to shoot it that way.

Revised 1-15-2013

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