Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ancient History of Visual Effects: R2D2 in CE3K in Fall 1977

For the betterment of my colleagues in the VFX industry and other people interested in the history of this screwed up field of visual effects, I plan to write some snapshots of the industry at various times in the past.   The hope is that this will help document how the industry has wildly changed, why the issues facing us today are both new and old, and why some of those issues are nearly impossible for us to address by ourselves.

It will also be an excuse to discuss trivia from ancient visual effects films so that, as Herodotus says in his famous introduction, the great deeds of the past are not forgotten. (1)

The first period we are going to address are a series of events that occurred in the time frame from about 1976 - 1980, the very dawn of the modern visual effects industry. But specifically, I want to begin our story with a very specific time, a golden time if you will, which would be in roughly August - October 1977.

The following sequence would have been created about that time. It is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (aka CE3K) and it confirms a story that has been floating around since the release of the film, that if you looked, you would find that there was an R2D2 somewhere on the mothership in CE3K.

I was showing this sequence to someone who should know better who said how much he had wanted to be part of the visual effects industry at that time because it was so glamourous and so very lucrative.

Lucrative?  Are you kidding me?   But first, lets examine the issues involving R2D2.

This picture is from an approximately 2 second shot as the mothership is first revealing itself to our protagonists, but the scientists haven't noticed it yet. They think they have already had their close encounter, not realizing that all that has happened is that they have met the scout ships. The real event is about to begin. The reveal of the mothership is dramatic and exciting, it is one of the best sequences in the history of visual effects.

The sequence on Youtube is below.  The shot with R2D2 is at approximately 1:30

The way model shops used to work, in part, was to fabricate new models out of parts that they either created from molds, or carved, or repurposed plastic model parts that were commercially available. Thus they might buy a Revell model of a B29 and use elements from it, suitably painted, as part of a spaceship, or an alien city. This shot with R2D2, was a homage to Star Wars, their competitor, which had come out just a few months before, and probably was from a model that had been released with the film. It could have been sculpted especially for this purpose, these guys would do stuff like that, and I am checking to see if anyone knows.

But consider: the EEG (Entertainment Effects Group) was in full production on finishing CE3K, they were presumably also ramping up on the Star Trek: The Motion Picture disaster. ILM was dead, they had finished their movie, it was a success, everyone was laid off, and George was negotiating with people about coming up to Marin County and creating a new ILM for the 2nd (now the 5th) Star Wars movie. Apogee might have been formed but if so, it had just started. Robert Abel was doing 7UP commericials during one of their most creative periods having survived the Star Trek disaster. Bladerunner was in the distant future. Tron was in the future.

So, how many people were working, and where, for what companies and what were they being paid?

Unless you were there, I think you will be very surprised.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind on IMDB


1 comment:

  1. Mother Ship Model (with R2D2) on display at Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy