As a kid in the 1960's, I was shaped considerably by the numerous television shows of Irwin Allen, where much excitement, spectacle and out of this world adventure was to be had on a weekly basis. I, like many of my readers I'm sure, grew up on things like VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, LOST IN SPACE, LAND OF THE GIANTS and THE TIME TUNNEL - 100% kid friendly escapism one and all with LOST IN SPACE being my favourite of the bunch. Perhaps the only other television film maker of the day able to capture the mind and imagination of a young NZPete to the same extent would have been the great Gerry Anderson who's THUNDERBIRDS, STINGRAY, CAPTAIN SCARLET and UFO were the equivalent of an obsessive compulsion in viewing enjoyment.
|T.I's Action Unit cinematographer Joe Biroc with Irwin Allen.|
Irwin's shows were always a guarantee of grand spectacle (even though those vividly saturated colour schemes were only ever broadcast here in New Zealand in good ole' b&w until the mid 1970's when colour and a second channel came in!). Irwin loved special effects and his programs were ample showcases for all manner of trick photography. Miniatures, matte paintings, optical effects, split screens, crazy assed monsters and always those gratuitous explosions, often for no apparent reason other than to thrill kids like me to bits. Those wacky, over the top electrical explosions with sparks and flashes showering all over the actors just blew my mind, especially when Allen introduced his crazy 'rock n' roll' camera with the cast swaying this way and that as the camera sways in tandem, suggesting the whole set of the Seaview or the Jupiter II was about to flip over! Insane, but essential, as were those dramatically scored cliffhanger endings where we had to wait a whole god damned week to see what happened to the Space Family Robinson in LOST IN SPACE or David Hedison and pals onboard that wonderful VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA submarine.... Entertaining like nothing else of the era. Great days!!
|Effects wizard Bill Abbott at left with Irwin and Mrs Allen.|
These shows were the first that drew my attention to 'special photographic effects', with the name L.B Abbott (and sometimes Howard Lydecker) always up on the screen during those end credits. Abbott's name stuck with me as it was pretty rare to even see an effects credit back then on screen, especially on TV. I'd often see John P. Fulton's name on re-runs of older Paramount and Universal pictures, which made Fulton a "name" trick shot star to me as well. These gentlemen certainly managed to gain my attention back in the day.
As a producer and occasional director, Irwin turned out many feature films over the years, often with a bent toward grandiose spectacle such as THE STORY OF MANKIND, THE LOST WORLD, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE SWARM and the dire WHEN TIME RAN OUT (aka THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED). Allen was the last of the 'showmen', from an era where flamboyantly shameless promotion and mass media gimmicks were the norm to sell one of these 'event' pictures.
|FX chief Lenwood Ballard Abbott|
THE TOWERING INFERNO, the tale of a disastrous fire on opening night in the world's tallest (fictional) building in San Francisco, - the 138 story Glass Tower - was indeed a box office smash and I vividly remember seeing it on the huge screen at Auckland's Cinerama theatre back on it's initial run. The mighty Cinerama (long gone to sadly be replaced with an awful, characterless, 'modern' and ultimately failed muliplex, which has also been mothballed, and not a moment too soon) was the gig for all of the big films, usually at Christmas Holiday period which is our peak movie release time in this part of the world in which only the most worthwhile movies in terms of guaranteed seat filling-queue around the block cinematic events.
Not one but two separate novels - The Glass Inferno and The Tower - provided the basis for THE TOWERING INFERNO screenplay. If that weren't enough, not one but two major studios joined forces to produce the film - 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros, each of whom were racing to get their own burning skyscraper epic off the drawing board - with the former providing studio space and soundstage facilities and the latter handling worldwide distribution. I don't know if Warners provided any studio production space. Some $15 million was spent on this film (double that of competitor Universal's modestly budgeted EARTHQUAKE that same year). THE TOWERING INFERNO certainly had the look of a hefty price tag affair when viewed up on the big screen. Kudos belong to Production Designer William Creber and co-Directors of Photography Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc for the great look and texture of the film.
I was, and remain, a sucker for 70's disaster movies. I saw 'em all back in the day and eagerly awaited the next one. Some were good and some were pretty bad. I loved TOWERING INFERNO then and have seen it countless times since and I'd still regard it as one of, if not the best from the genre. Tight helmsmanship from director John Guillermin maintained a good pace and surprisingly fast clip for a two and a half hour plus feature. Producer Irwin Allen co-directed, handling all of the action set pieces, with the finished result not for a moment suggestive of alternate directors. The disaster genre was generally prone to stock characters, sugary sub-plots and 'oh give me a break' back stories, though to it's credit this film generally manages to keep that flotsam and jetsam to a relative minimum with any extraneous fluff quickly overtaken with scenes of frighteningly intense peril, fire fighting and rescue. I loved the fact that the fire fighting stuff was totally real and closely guided by actual fire rescue people, much as another disaster film a few years later, AIRPORT 77 did with a knuckle biting ocean rescue carried out on screen largely by the actual Coast Guard and US Navy utilising real procedures and personnel.
|Who gets top billing? - Paper, Scissors, Rock.|
|William Holden faces off with a questionable Richard Chamberlain|
Many other name stars also feature such as Fred Astaire and Robert Wagner. Supporting cast are also good with even a certain now notorious O.J Simpson carrying his thespian weight rather well. He ain't no Orson Welles but he did okay. Established character actor Don Gordon - long time pal and costar of Steve McQueen is on board as are Dabney Coleman and one of my fave 70's support players Felton Perry (great in Clint Eastwood's MAGNUM FORCE as well as a particular guilty favourite of mine, the ass kicking, jive talking, revenge blaxploitation cheapie SUDDEN DEATH with Robert Conrad... a real hoot and then some! ... there I go digressing yet again)
|L.B Abbott & A.D Flowers at the TORA Oscar ceremony.|
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|Matte painter Matthew Yuricich|
So, let us take a look at one of most successful and memorable event films from the 1970's.
|Under Bill Abbott's supervision, technicians and craftsmen built a very large miniature - some 70 feet in height - representing the 138 floor Glass Tower in the Sersen Lake at the 20th Century Fox Ranch, in Malibu, California.|
|The 'open' reverse side of the Glass Tower highlights the network of gas piping supplying flame jets as well as water pipework for the spectacular climax sequence.|
|Another Joe Musso photograph taken of the finished miniatures at the Fox Ranch.|
|One of Bill Abbott's camera crew adjusts the mirror set up utilised in photographing the skyscraper model from as low a vantage point as possible, as viewed by Fred Astaire in an early scene.|
|Bill Abbott operates the camera for the mirror up view.|
|Some of Production Illustrator Joe Musso's storyboards. Joe would pursue a long career in motion picture illustration, occasionally branching out into matte painting on projects such as FLESH GORDON and others.|
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Special Photographic Effects: L. B Abbott, ASC
Mechanical Effects: A. D Flowers & Logan Frazee
Optical Cinematography: Frank Van der Veer
Matte Artist: Matthew Yuricich
Special Effects Men: Fred Kramer, Johnny Borgese, Gerald Endler,
Gary King, Jay King, Paul Wurtzel
|...and rightly so ... a special breed.|
|The big reveal ... building architect Paul Newman flies over San Francisco and there she is. John Williams' stirring score sells the shot superbly too.|
|If there is one thing that all of Irwin Allen's shows have in common it's this ... endless boards of flashing lights.|
|Fred Astaire arrives for the grand party and looks up in astonishment at the glass and steel marvel before him.|
|Party time... let's light her up. The Glass Tower comes to life.|
|The lights come on as seen from afar. Probably the large scale miniatures matted in.|
|A beautiful effects shot with miniature elevator ascending the tower.|
|The protective suit, hood, mask and gloves worn by Norman Burton's stunt double are evident in this frame, but not visible in the actual sequence.|
|Miniature destruction, half inch scale.|
|An out take from the above shot showing effects crew quickly extinguishing the flames for a re-take.|
|Full scale on set physical effects by A.D Flowers and Logan Frazee|
|Fire chief Steve McQueen gives it his all.|
|Out take from Bill Abbott's fx camera.|
|Most of the closer in shots of pyrotechnic carnage were photographed by remote control using the Snorkel Camera Crane, largely for reasons of safety.|
|Seeing the conflagration enveloping the crowded elevator, McQueen attempts in vain to extinguish the inferno, but to no avail.|
|The elevator eventually arrives at the lobby where the one survivor staggers out. Another in your face shock moment that left quite an impression on me and others back in the day. Paul Stader was Irwin Allen's long time stunt coordinator.|
|Generally, the fx scenes were photographed at 72 fps.|
|The rather lovely Susan Flannery is doubled here in a fire gag, again with the protective attire clearly visible (and a most curious hand covering the face to conceal stunt person).|
|The small flare you can see is the miniature puppet of Susan Flannery falling to her untimely death. Photographed with the Snorkel Camera Crane.|
|Steve McQueen ... died far too young. Steve's friend and frequent co-star Dan Gordon just passed away the other day aged around 90. Great character actor of many a film.|
|Another death defying view courtesy of Matthew Yuricich's paint brush as Paul Newman clambers across the abyss that is the Glass Tower's ventilation shaft.|
|Our hero has again been matted into the shot via blue screen with excellent results.|
|A curious one this. This birds eye view looks to me like a painted matte?|
|An excellent piece of in camera miniature visual effects cinematography that still convinces all these decades on. Computers be damned.|
|Stunt players roast marshmallows.|
|McQueen and crew tackle a very deep lift shaft... Not sure how this shot was set up?|
|... and a burning fireman suddenly plunges past to his death.|
|The Navy send in helicopters to try something new. Miniature chopper here.|
|A close look at the miniature helicopter.|
|Elaborate full miniature set up where a 'breeches buoy' cable and rescue chair are strung between the two skyscrapers as a means to hoist people down one at a time.|
|Foreground set of the Peerless roof with actors; background is the burning miniature doubled in via the blue screen travelling matte method.|
|One of my favourite shots in the show - a dizzying downview with a somewhat reluctant survivor fastened into the breeches buoy and cabled across to the adjacent building. The actor and buoy are blue screened into the miniature plate.|
|Success - but it'll take all night at this rate. We'll need a better plan.|
|After a grave mishap with the outdoor scenic elevator, Fire Chief McQueen will be suspended on the chopper cable to attempt a rescue... Blue screen shot here.|
|Steve McQueen atop the damaged elevator holds on desperately to fellow fire fighter Ernie Orsati as the entire rig is slowly lowered by chopper cable. Miniature background with live action foreground blue screened as one.|
|Keep holding on mate ... just 200 feet more.|
|Dramatic downview with McQueen and Orsati blue screened into background plate, with Orsati dropping into a fire service airbag - successfully.|
|Irwin just loved explosions! The guy was a frustrated pyromaniac in an earlier life me thinks.|
|Ahhhh, yes - the best visual effects shot in the picture. I love this one! All miniature of course.|
|Miniature roof tanks explode...|
|The cast are securely strapped in as the tanks on the floor above rupture and unleash a massive deluge.|
|Part of the floor caves in and causes havoc to the Promenade Room beneath...|
|And so endeth the inferno|
|The fantastic one sheet poster. I had one of these on my bedroom wall in the mid 70's, along with various others such as EARTHQUAKE, GRIZZLY, POSEIDON ADVENTURE, ENTER THE DRAGON, JAWS etc etc.|