Sunday 31 July 2011

THE HINDENBURG - Whitlock retraces history

I miss the disaster genre as it made such an impact upon me during the 70's - as I'm sure it did for thousands of visual effects fans and no doubt some VFX practitioners as well.  In that decade I'd live for these things and loved 'em all - at least until they turned utterly dire with mind numbingly shoddy FX showcases as METEOR (1979).  I read in an interview that future ILM'er Dennis Muren was keen to get on board the photographic effects teams of EARTHQUAKE and some others in the mid seventies but couldn't get his foot in the door, though in his words, these big effects shows were largely "in house" affairs with "tried and true" veterans controlling the visuals, so it was always more or less, a closed shop.  Well, Dennis finally got his "go" with another little effects film a year later, and would unquestionably be all the better for it.

Well, I rather liked THE HINDENBURG.  Having taken another look at this 1975 epic yesterday I still think it holds up well as an intelligently written, very well edited and directed espionage thriller with a heck of a good pace with not too many wasted moments, and even without the Whitlock effects would still make a great movie.  The film benefits enormously from Nelson Giddings' excellent screenplay which offers a genuinely fascinating take on what may or may not have occurred on that fateful day May 6th 1937.  The Robert Wise helmed show as much a detective thriller as a disaster picture, with the always outstanding George C.Scott perfectly cast opposite the under rated William Atherton and the wonderful Charles Durning, with each of these three key characters being unusually well drawn beyond the normal disaster cliched characters we generally get.

Bill Taylor
Albert Whitlock
As a special effects film THE HINDENBURG, is a treat to behold.  Being a Universal production it came fully loaded with resident movie magician Albert Whitlock and his dedicated team - several of whom were to mark this film as their first film in Whitlock's esteemed workshop.  
Matte cinematographer Bill Taylor (who is credited as William Taylor here) had known Whitlock personally for many years since the mid sixties and was seen by Al as the ideal replacement for career Universal matte cameraman Roswell Hoffman who retired after EARTHQUAKE.  
Syd Dutton also came on board for HINDENBURG - his first film - as Whitlock's assistant and apprentice matte painter.  Dennis Glouner would also join the team shortly afterward as matte and optical cameraman.

THE HINDENBURG would be Whitlock's biggest film. with over 70 mattes and complex blue screen composites required to realistically present the true events as credibly as possible.  Aside from the many matte paintings were several classic Whitlock gags such as moving painted skies, animated shadow overlays across the zeppelin, lightning effects and even a rainbow gag.  I'll outline these as they crop up as best I can below.  The special mechanical effects also played a major part in the film.  MGM veteran Glen Robinson who had just won an Oscar for his excellent miniature work in EARTHQUAKE was in charge of the model construction, with fellow EQ Oscar winner Frank Brendel on physical effects with Andrew Beck.  Veteran visual effects cinematographer Clifford Stine who worked as far back as on the Willis O'Brien KING KONG in the thirties, would take charge of the miniature shoot, as he had done so brilliantly the previous year on EARTHQUAKE (1974).  Both Robinson and Whitlock would be honoured at Oscar time (along with sound editor Peter Berkos) for the effects work on HINDENBURG, and the work was deserving on all counts.

Whitlock wrote of his utmost admiration for director Robert Wise on this (and other projects) as being "the kindest, most appreciative man I've worked for in the whole history of my very long career.  He was understanding of our problems, patient about the delays and tremendously appreciative when we finally - if ever - did come up with something which he felt was good for him."

A note on the imagery here:  my disc is an NTSC region 1 import edition - and an utterly appalling transfer it is at that! Abysmal, grainy, scratches, dirt, colour fluctuations and artifacts galore.  The PAL region 2 Universal edition from Europe is much cleaner and anamorphic, BUT, as with several similar region 2 pressings on this label, the film is severely cropped down from 2.35:1 to 1.77:1 - thus losing alot of the (scope composition in the process.  The John Badham DRACULA (1979) suffered under similar circumstances, and I can't understand why the same company releases different aspect ratio editions of the same film in different territories??  Most of these frames are the 'manky' 2.35:1 American transfer just for the sake of including the full cinemascope frame as intended.

*Many thanks is due to Bill Taylor for answering numerous questions I had on the matte effects.

Albert Whitlock's matte department at Universal.  The top left is either a photo cut-out or a Whitlock oil rendering mounted on glass which would be moved multi-plane style in front of a rear glass painting of sky etc.  Whitlock would resort often to photo cut outs of the miniature Hindenburg as a time saving measure as, in his own words, "repeatedly painting the damned thing from scratch would have been just so tedious".  Just out of interest, on the bottom left picture, Bill Taylor told me recently that the majestic MAN WHO WOULD BE KING painting has vanished and nobody seems to know what happened to it!

The vast internal metal skeleton of the airship - a large glass painting with live action insert in foreground and a second small insert further back with guy climbing ladder.

An example of one of Whitlock's new three dimensional cloud gags, created as I understand it primarily during the making of this film.  Bill Taylor would integrate elements of light coloured smoke shot against black velvet and doubled into composite painting vistas.  Shadow gag effects as clouds passed by the airship cemented the realism of the shots.

A before and after Whitlock composite of the airship on the ground at Frankfurt.

A tremendous effects shot.  Substantial painting with moving truck rotoscoped as it moves across frame.  Bravo!

Another wonderful example of the multi-layered cloud effects and such a beautiful painted sky to boot.

Two early shots - one of Milwaukee 1937 and the other Washington DC - which may (or may not) be Whitlock enhanced shots.  The shot at right was re-used by Spielberg I think in the third INDIANA JONES picture.  Bill has since told me that no, these were not effects shots.

Real hanger with painted airship, sky, people in distance.

Whitlock with original painting before and afters.  The painting itself is incredibly loose and freehand, with no detail whatsoever.  The actual Hindenburg is in fact a photo cut out glued onto the glass.

Another before and after - and not one the audience would ever suspect either.

Liftoff time from Frankfurt, Germany.

Classic Whitlock skies, with foreground laterally drifting cloud element added.

Miniature probably doubled into Whitlock sky.

Syd Dutton's brilliant idea, realised on film.  Whitlock was mulling over just how to represent the lights of Amsterdam as seen through through the clouds from The Hindenburg when new assistant Dutton proposed they try using sugar!  Large granules of confectioners sugar were then laid out on black velvet, carefully arranged in straight lines with a metal ruler and then illuminated.  Albert was overjoyed with this bright idea and the end result is superb with the cloud layer and windows.

Thunderstorm - something that Albert did so well in so many old films, with my favourites being in many westerns such as THE TRAIN ROBBERS, CAHILL U.S MARSHALL, BIG JAKE, THE WAY WEST and many more.

Gorgeous, temperamental skies which show much influence from Peter Ellenshaw to me.

Exquisite multi-layered clouds.
Utterly convincing multi element composite.
Airship and icebergs:  nice shots except that the sea passes under the bergs and doesn't break on the ice.

Zeppelin making good time.  It wasn't all 'peaches and cream' at the effects camera side of things as I found out from Bill Taylor on the subject:  "I was determined to shoot the miniature airship in sunlight; no phoney stage lighting for me!  I experimented with an odd scheme for matting the miniature that I thought would work in daylight that in retrospect sounds 'Fultonesque'.  (In those days a day-lit blue screen was not saturated enough to give a good result.)  I shot the model airship against black velvet, with the sun as the key light.  I filled in the with a row of arc lights with deep blue filters, balanced so that viewed through a blue filter the ship appeared to be flat lit. Black detail like the swastica was painted blue.

My intent was to print a silhouette matte from a  blue positive separation,  which I hoped would have uniform density throughout. Then the foreground detail would go on with the green separation used twice, through blue and green filters, and with the red separation. This of course was a sort of simplified Vlahos color-difference dupe. The highlights and shadows and the red patch around the swastica reproduced normally on the green and red seps.  Don't think anything like this had been tried in color.

Clever scheme, eh?  In practice, a disaster!   The grey airship just soaked up the blue light, and even with arc lamps cheek by jowl, it proved to be impossible to light the shadow side uniformly enough so there were not translucent areas in the matte.  To try to get the sun intensity in balance with the arcs. I had the grips hang a net over the airship.  If there was more than one layer of net, there were beautiful moire patterns cast on the ship.  There was a little wind on the back lot on one day, which ripped the net, and down it came, where the arc lights burned holes in it.

 It was thanks to Al Whitlock's enormous clout at the studio that I got to try this in the first place, and did not get fired as a result!

I began to re-think shooting the miniature against blue screen on the sound stage, which we finally did.  On Universal's biggest stage,stage 12, which was right outside our door, I could back the single key light 200 feet away to get really hard, parallel shadows.  (I loved those old arc lights, which were close to being point sources of light.)   A great big wrap-around diffuser produced shadowless fill and a ground cloth produced the appropriate bounce from land, water or lower clouds.  We dollied the camera on rails which rested on a carefully screeded sand bed, so the camera move was dead smooth"

I'm not entirely sure here, but I suspect the NYC Police Dept was augmented with an upper painting maybe?  So, I asked Bill Taylor on this:  "Only the  building has been worked on (think it's somewhere in DC), to eliminate non-period signage, streetlights, etc. The patches are badly mis-matched, one of several shots I would have given good money to go back on.  Another is the iceberg shot with the giant matte line!  We must have been in a great hurry".
A fine frame by frame example of Whitlock's drifting cloud layers, done with white smoke against black, and then bi-packed (and sometimes tri-packed) using 35mm colour wedges to maintain an opaqueness of certain clouds over zeppelin matte footage for great effect.

"Iceberg...dead ahead"... oops, wrong disaster movie quote. Some of the water is real plate footage while some is fabricated 'painted' water manipulated with a ripple device - an old Whitlock trick used in dozens of films such as SHIP OF FOOLS, MAME and HISTORY OF THE WORLD to name three.

The rescue of Atherton atop zeppelin accomplished with small set and  many mattes.  Skies moving by Whitlock's tried and true soft split screen technique where successive bands of sky are exposed being moved at different speeds according to distance from camera to give illusion of great distance.

The actual set at left, with the Whitlock composite at right.

Note the shadow animation passing over The Hindenburg
The best trick shot in the movie... note how the sun 'wraps' around the tail of the zeppelin as it moves across frame.

A strange one this one - a tilt down rainbow matte shot with what looks almost like the top of the painting/easel visible at top of the frame.

More clouds and atmosphere...

Lakehurst, New Jersey: preparing for the grand arrival.  The Whitlock skies have more than a hint of foreboding.

The mooring mast at Lakehurst - almost all painted.

Hindenburg cruises above New York City, 1937.  Actually a large photo blowup of the city with substantial repainting and touching up by Whitlock.  The airship is a separate rendering on a foreground glass and is moved frame by frame right to left.  Cloud elements also added by bi-pack to compliment the effect.
Subsequent blue screen shot as seen through the windows, with more cloud movement shown.
She appears...with grace and beauty from the Whitlock sky.
Full painting with small live action crowd insert and classic Whitlock sun coming out across the airfield overlay.

A quartet of matte shots which effectively add amazing production value to the impending climax.

A slightly tighter Whitlock shot with more claustrophobic skies setting the scene.

A good quality, though inaccurate aspect ratio frame of one of the previous matte shots.  The region 1 NTSC disc has astonishingly bad colour grading whereas this frame from region 2 PAL disc is crisp and well balanced.

"Welcome to Lakehurst....we're nothing could possibly go   w o r n g " (sic)

Coming in to dock..... the tension rises.  These scenes when intercut with the dramatic narrative going on inside the ship are brilliantly realised by director Robert Wise.

Blue screen shots by Bill Taylor.
The big bang!  George C.Scott's bomb disabling technique wasn't as good as he thought.  A superb sequence with nail biting build up - the actual detonation shot is an amazing optical combination which neatly diffuses colour from the film, leading us into the original black and white newsreel footage climactic set piece.  I was most intrigued by this great effect and asked visual effects cinematographer Bill Taylor about just that:  "George Scott did not want to be hung from wires against a blue screen, and I can't say I blamed him.  So we put him on a bicycle seat, leaning against a tilting rig covered in black velvet.  He  could lean back in some comfort, move his arms and legs freely, and so on.  We lit his highlight side with a white key light, the shadow side with blue light, gave him a blue necktie, blue socks and painted his black shoes blue.  He found this all exceedingly mysterious.  "I don't know what they're doing," he told a visitor, "but it's got something to do with the blue tie and the blue shoes." We zoomed him back with a 20-1 zoom lens.  The background consisted of artwork, pyro elements and a fire extinguisher discharged at the camera.   I knew there would be holes in the matte in the shadows of his jacket and so on, but the thought was to fill in the holes with roto. Everyone liked the quick pre-roto test where the holes in the matte gave more definition to the silhouette.  So we declared victory and moved on to the next shot".
Universal's explosion, which according to Whitlock's article in American Cinematographer: "The explosion was shot in the high reaches of the Universal backlot against a night sky, which served the same purpose as a black velvet backing.  The special effects man made up a bag of explosives which had everything in it, including gasoline.  The problem lay in the fact that you were trying to reproduce an effect on an enormous scale from an explosion that was not more than ten feet across". Whitlock went on to say:.."The scene was shot at five times the normal speed, which is about as far as you can push a camera without risk of a camera jam that would ruin the whole thing [...] so it was necessary to put the scene into an optical printer afterwards and make a three times extension, in other words, each frame printed three times in order to extend the scene and slow down the action by a factor of three".  I asked matte cameraman Bill Taylor about the shot which had perplexed me for decades, and here is what he said;  "The  miniature explosion was shot at 120 FPS, then the highest rate that could be had from a reliably pin-registered camera owned by Universal. Photosonics 4E cameras were available for outside rental that could have gone 360 FPS,  but they were very expensive to rent and somewhat temperamental.  The explosion that Glen and Frank created for us was gigantic, and we were convinced that 120 would be fastenough.  It wasn't.   The slow-down was created by a primitive form of frame blending, a staggered triple exposed series of dissolves from one frame to the next.  There was no need for a roto matte; a luminance mask was easy to get off the explosion.  Of course these days we could interpolate the extra frames digitally.  We also shot a big black cloud explosion in daylight to back up the night explosion, but I don't think the shot ever got far enough for the black smoke to show.

The other elements are: live action foreground with the actors shot on marks in overcast and in backlight to give the illusion that they are lit by the explosion, painted sky and upper portion of the mooring mast, and a retouched still of the miniature mounted on an oversize foreground glass.  The oversize glass was eccentrically pivoted so that the airship would seem to fall from a point within its own mass.  The pivoting action was driven by a lead screw maybe 24" long, which had a pointer attached to the traveller and a scale on the body.  The lead screw was driven in stop motion by a hand crank from a calculated move on a count sheet, a certain number of turns per frame.  By counting turns accurately to reset the pointer, we could repeat the move perfectly.

Attached to the pivoting glass was an animation peg bar.  I can't now remember whether the peg bar was simply out of frame or behind the mattes on the matte camera that were used to make the sky move (also in stop motion).  There were cell overlays on the peg bar (I think there were three overlays) on which Al painted the progressive damage to the envelope.  As the airship fell, we dissolved on the overlays one after another (thus the importance of a repeat move)".

Combination miniatures, matte art, live action, blue screen conflagration effects. The falling man in flames was rotoscoped frame by frame.

Shooting the full scale physical effects for later intercutting with the newsreel footage.

I feel it's essential to include some frame blowups from the original on the spot newsreel account as used in the film, to demonstrate the sheer ferocity and speed of the hydrogen fed inferno....images which are truly heart stopping, even 80 years later.  It's easy to appreciate why Wise decided to forego a visual effects interpretation of the moment and to go with the actual eyewitness account.
The aftermath - invisible matte additions.

Art director Edward Carfagno, director Robert Wise  and George C.Scott with the miniature airship.
Miniature shoot on the Universal stage.
Effects cinematographer Clifford Stine preparing a miniature shot on stage.

The original 25 foot miniature, now on display I believe at the Smithsonian.

A selection of Whitlock before and after frames.

For those interested in disaster movies, I heartily recommend Jim's amazing site dedicated to these great (and sometimes not so great) epics.... well worth the visit.