9. Creating The Special Visual Effects
A corp of dedicated technicians whops up a whole bag
of tricks to thrill audiences and make incredible situations
look quite believeable.
When I was assigned to work on Raiders of the Lost
Ark, I had 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 had, was set back in the 1930's,
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 environments 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 virtuoso
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
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 there had not been
many which had protrayed ghosts 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 beel
cheated. That was one of the real dificulties: to come
up with something that looked like a ghost, that looked
like it had speed 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 arrangment
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 subleties of the light that
is bouncing around from one object or person to another,
plus the subleties 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
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
sutle 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
leadingup 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 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 leving 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
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 da number 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 the melting head of
Toht. I liked that one the best (if "like" is the right
word). That was actually done as a time-lapse shot and
Special Make-up Effects artist Chris Walas did most
of the work on that, preparing the sculpture from a
life mold that was done on the lot in London while I
was there. The time-lapse for the melting head was shot
at a little less than a frame a second and a certain
amount of optical work was done on the shot, which included
matting fire in on one side of the frame. We did some
other rather messy things to the face to get it the
way we wanted it. We built the face and head out of
gelatin and used heat to make it melt. Chris constructed
it in layers, so that it would melt down in a certain
way. A lot of people turn their heads when they see
that shot, so I guess it was successful.
We took life molds of the characters in the screaming
positions they would ultimately reach. We had them hold
their positions while we took castings of their faces
and then Chris Walas had to rebuild their faces from
In the case of Belloq, the Frenchman, we blew his head
up by using a sort of plaster skull with a pliable substance
over it to build the sculpture up. Then we took a little
bit of primer cord, quite a bit of compressed air, two
shotguns and a few blood bags - and it all got pretty
grisly. The stage was an absolute mess after we got
that shot. We had to blow his head up three times before
we got what we wanted. Then, since he was standing behind
the fire, we had to matte in the fire (shot separately)
over his face. That cut 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
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
Pangrazio 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 41/2 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 orginal 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 flies.
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
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 abount 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. The 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
be 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 coordinateing
We used rotoscope mattes principally in what we called
the altar sequence, the final devastations 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 wehre 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 due 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
matte 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, in that 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 would
do two or three takes on a scene and then move on to
the next shot. That kind of pacing of the production,
which came in underschedule and under budget, lent a
feeling of spontaneity to the picture which I believe
shows on the screen.
The English crews have ways of working that are different
from ours in the States, but they are definitely a wonderful
work force, and very talented.
On Raiders I especially appreciated the opportunity
of working with Steven Spielberg 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 chooses
the best advice. He knows how to set up a situation
so that it flows incredibly well and can work on schedule.
It was a great pleasure to work with him.