Revisiting Cinefex (11): ET and Robert Swarthe

Cinefex 11The character on the front of Cinefex #11 owns one of the most famous faces of the 1980s – that’s remarkable, considering he’s a special effect. He’s so famous I don’t even need to tell you his name. His spaceship features on #11’s inside cover, sitting on a full-scale woodland clearing set, and you can read all about him in the first of this issue’s two articles, which span 72 pages:

  • Turn On Your Heartlight – Inside E.T. (article by Paul M. Sammon)
  • Special Visual Effects – Robert Swarthe (article by Don Shay)

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

The first thing I recalled on picking up this old issue of Cinefex was how incredibly long we had to wait for Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra Terrestrial to be released here in the UK. In the US it was a huge summer hit – still one of the biggest of all time – but we poor Brits had to wait until Christmas. Of course, some folk couldn’t wait that long. Back in 1982, the VHS home video market was just taking off. So was film piracy.

Stories of ET bootleggers made the headlines on a regular basis. For the patiently-waiting UK fans, the delay was exacerbated by the fact that ET was everywhere: the shops were flooded with merchandise and those news reports about pirate videos were invariably followed by news reports about the phenomenal length of the queue lines at American theatres. ET’s face became as recognisable in the media as Einstein’s or Che’s or Marilyn Monroe’s. Spielberg’s ‘little film’ was big, big news.

Rumours abounded about how ET‘s title character was brought to life. Was he a robot? Some kind of super-Muppet? A little person in a suit? Speculation was rife, fuelled further by Spielberg’s steadfast refusal to say how it was done. Many people claimed they knew the secret: Paul Sammon’s article notes that one of the movie’s performers ‘garnered national notoriety … by claiming to the press that it was she who “brought ET to life”‘, despite the fact she appears in only one shot in the film. Spielberg’s official party line, as I recall from contemporary interviews, was that the less the audience knew about the mechanics inside ET, the more they’d engage with him as a character.

Given this ongoing embargo, how successful was that well-known VFX journal Cinefex in lifting the lid? Did it, as the first article in issue #11 promises, get inside ET? Let’s find out.

rc11etSammon’s analysis of ET features an extensive interview with Steven Spielberg conducted at some point after the film’s first US release in the then-brand-new Amblin’ Productions headquarters. In Spielberg’s preamble, he explains how he told the story of an alien abandoned on Earth – an old idea of his – to Harrison Ford and his then-girlfriend Melissa Matheson while shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia. ‘I was pretty lonely,’ he says. ‘So I opened up to them a lot.’ The story that was to become ET eventually replaced Night Skies, an alien horror film Spielberg had originally planned as his next project after Raiders. There’s some tantalising trivia here about this abandoned project, which would have featured animatronic aliens courtesy of Rick Baker.

Spielberg, along with Frank Marshall, explains the various means used to keep the budget of ET low, including new efficiencies learned by the young director on the Raiders shoot. ‘He discovered that he really likes to work fast,’ says Marshall, who had been under strict instructions to forbid Spielberg from doing more than five takes of a scene. The article moves on to cover various aspects of the film’s pre-production, including Matheson’s development of the script and, critically, the hiring of Carlo Rambaldi to create ET himself.

Rambaldi talks extensively about ET’s design, including the idea to elongate the head so he would ‘seem to project himself forwards towards whoever he was with.’ The decision to give him a ‘Donald Duck rump’ came from Spielberg himself. As far as animating the character was concerned, Yoda-style Muppet techniques were first considered and discarded, largely because ET ‘had to work in conjunction with the real world.’

As Rambaldi’s descriptions go on, it becomes clear – not surprisingly – that ET was brought to life using a range of different techniques. There was the ‘electro-mechanical’ ET – a cable-controlled version ‘capable of thirty points of movement in the face.’ The ‘auto-electronic’ version, even more complicated, was used for close-ups. Then there was the cable-free suit worn by little people for the walking scenes.

Much as Sammon’s article does indeed reveal some of the reality behind the fantasy of ET, there’s still a lot of hand-waving going on here. Rambaldi tells us exactly what each mechanical head could do, but not precisely how it did it. Oh, he’s happy to talk about cables and servos and specially-prepared latex skin and dilating eyes and how difficult it was to get the tongue to lick the potato salad, but when you really start analysing the text, it’s clear he’s keeping the real secrets well-guarded. It’s that old ET mystique at work.

That said, Sammon does an admirable job of reading between the lines and piecing things together. And not everyone is as cagey as Carlo Rambaldi. Robert Short, for example, talks in loving detail about how he devised and built the heartlight effect (which Spielberg called ‘terrific’) and Mitch Suskin elaborates on the operation of ET’s fiendishly elaborate cable controls. We hear from mime artist Caprice Rothe, who was brought in to wear latex gloves and perform ET’s hand movements when Rambaldi’s hand mechanisms proved inadequate. I love Rothe’s anecdote about how, after a long wait on set, she drank coffee to wake herself up. Unused to caffeine, she got the shakes. ‘Steven liked the tremor and asked me to keep it in,’ she says. ‘From that point forward, I put a shake into my nervous system through muscle control.’

More human intervention was needed to make ET walk, an effect achieved by little people wearing Rambaldi’s suits. Adding humans into the mix always seems to increase the anecdote quotient, and Sammon treats us to stories about the day they smeared baby food on one of the ET suits to attract the dog, not to mention the day another of the suits caught fire with performer Pat Bilon still inside.

The last words on the character of ET, however, must go to Rambaldi and Spielberg. ‘He was on the set almost every day,’ says Rambaldi proudly. ‘He went on for three months and never broke down. Never!’ Spielberg agrees, calling Rambaldi ‘the biggest hero of the film.’

As the article segues from mechanical effects into opticals and miniatures, Sammon’s interview with Spielberg yields up a fascinating aside – a kind of snapshot of both the director’s attitude to visual effects and the state of the industry at the time. Spielberg describes himself as ‘very familiar’ with the working processes of special effects, citing many of the great names he’s worked with and learned from. At the same time he talks about the ‘sleepless nights’ he endures about such VFX nightmares as ‘the fear of matte lines.’ He comments, ‘I really don’t enjoy special effects in themselves … They’ve been used simply to implement my imagination.’

Having positioned himself firmly as being in the business of using effects purely in the service of a story (I’m with you there, Steven), Spielberg gets a little wistful. ‘We all have such a love for the way things used to be done,’ he says, ‘when special effects departments were commonplace. I don’t know of any motion picture studio [except Disney] that now has a special effects department … which is sort of sad.’

Spielberg’s reflections from 1982 remind us about the various changes that were sweeping through the whole film industry at the time. ET is a product of its time: according to Sammon’s article, it was financed not by the studio but ‘independently through a major bonding company.’ The field of special effects was changing too. True, the studios no longer had, as Spielberg puts it, ‘a little door with the sign SPFX on it.’ But brave new companies dedicated to the craft (such as ILM, responsible for ET’s optical and miniature effects) were on the up. Now, nearly thirty years on, the VFX industry has expanded and matured to the point where it stands squarely on its own two feet. Spielberg has more to say on this subject in the rest of Sammon’s interview, which for me is the heart of this rather special issue of Cinefex and the best possible reason for finding yourself a copy.

It seems a shame to skimp on ILM’s work on ET, as outlined by Sammon with traditional Cinefex attention-to-detail, but I’ve got to keep things moving here. Suffice it to say, we hear from all the usual suspects, including Dennis Muren and Mike McAlister, about ILM’s brand new VistaCruiser camera and Automatte systems, how to build a go-motion bicycle, the filming of the classic moon shot, the problems of putting shiny spaceships in front of bluescreens and the careful use of prisms and ripple glass to paint rainbows in the night sky. The ILM presented here is a slick operation, confident in its use of the technology it has already developed yet continuing to invest in new equipment … while at the same time opening a whole new box of tricks.

It’s amusing to note that the article closes with the exciting news that ET II ‘is already tentatively scheduled for a summer of 1985 release.’

Or possibly not.

Robert Swarthe

The second, shorter article in issue #11 is a piece by Don Shay on effects innovator Robert Swarthe. Known at the time for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Swarthe began his career on various animated film projects. Several of these employed the extraordinary technique of drawing directly on to clear motion picture film with black india ink or, in the case of the Oscar-nominated Kick Me, using a scribe to scratch clear lines on to black film.

Swarthe outlines the meticulous work involved not only in drawing such animation in the first place, but also using optical techniques to print the resulting film through filters, adding colour to the finished scenes. ‘I would register things by drawing little layouts on tracing paper and scotch-taping them underneath the film,’ he explains. ‘That way, I could make tiny registration dots on the paper where the feet should land, and then draw in the little stick figure on the film.’

As someone who, as a foolish youth, experimented with drawing directly on to 8mm film with scalpel blades and bleach-soaked cotton buds, I can only begin to imagine the back-breaking work it must have taken to complete a project like Kick Me, which Shay describes as ‘a virtuoso production from start to finish.’

rc05jSwarthe was called in by Doug Trumbull to help with animation effects on Close Encounters (the two men had worked together at Graphic Films some years previously) – in particular the film’s many starfields. Shay describes this task as ‘a prodigious workload’. I can believe it. Close Encounters is the first film I can remember that showcased truly beautiful nightscapes rather than dodgy blue-filtered day-for-night. Most people remember that film for the UFOs. Call me a geek if you like, but I remember it for the stars.

Creating starfields sounds simple, but Swarthe’s descriptions assure us it isn’t. It’s all about filming airbrushed artwork under cripplingly hot conditions using incredibly long exposure times. Then there was all the rotoscoping required to place the resulting starfield imagery behind moving foreground objects like the film’s star, Richard Dreyfuss.

More complex still was Swarthe’s work on the alien mothership, for which he created layers of overlapping artwork that rotated against each other, producing shimmering moire patterns. Gaining a reputation as something of a ‘Mr Fixit’, Swarthe was later engaged to create the ‘warp smear’ effects for Star Trek. Shay ably describes Swarthe’s clever solution, which involved rephotographing original stage photography of actors on the Enterprise bridge set using a camera moving under motion control. Because the camera could be programmed to move in three dimensions, the resulting motion-blurred imagery added startling dimension to the shots.

Streaking the whole frame, however, was not acceptable. Swarthe decided to isolate certain areas – ‘highlighted portions of the actors’ faces and uniforms, as well as any small, bright light sources’ – using hand-drawn roto mattes. According to Shay, this entailed ‘a monumental amount of additional work.’ No kidding! Still, for a guy who grew up scratching out stories on individual frames of movie film, it was probably a walk in the park.

Swarthe revisited Close Encounters when he was called back to work on the mothership interior sequence for the Special Edition. (Cinefex has discussed this project before, in the Greg Jein interview from issue #2.) Arriving late to the party, Swarthe was charged with pulling together all the disparate elements that had already been put in motion, deciding ‘how things should move … when things should happen … the whole dramatic feeling of it.’

Shay’s article concludes with a discussion of Swarthe’s contribution to two Francis Coppola films: One From The Heart and The Outsiders. Swarthe’s versatility is apparent as he talks about reimagining the former’s opening title sequence by incorporating the credits into miniature neon signs, and devising an optically-enhanced breakaway prop for use in a critical firestorm scene in which one of the actors is ‘apparently knocked through the floor by a heavy burning beam.’

One final note: it seems that on one critical subject Robert Swarthe agrees with Steven Spielberg. ‘I’m just not interested in doing a lot of flashy effects for their own sake,’ he says. ‘I’d rather take a project that interests me, and then get the right people together and do it.’ Amen to that.

The pictures

Leafing back through the ET article, I see plenty of stills from the film, and quite a few pictures of ET on set … but absolutely none showing his internal workings. If any such pictures do exist, even Cinefex didn’t get to publish them. My favourite picture is a hard-to-resist shot on page 19. It shows makeup artist Robert Sidell spritzing ET’s face with a water spray. He’s considerately covering ET’s eye, while ET himself is pulling away from the spray bottle and looks like he’s about to sneeze. The Robert Swarthe article has a nice mix of stills and behind-the-scenes images. The one I like is a portrait of Swarthe himself bent over a worktable preparing cut-out artwork: a simple shot of a meticulous craftsman lost in his work.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

5 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (11): ET and Robert Swarthe

  1. Great Article. It really seems like a different time back then. I wish I could have been a part of it.

    Here is a great picture that gives a little glimpse at what’s going on inside E.T.’s head.

    Unfortunately I don’t own a copy of Carlo Rambaldi’s book, but if you look at this blog, you can see a few examples of E.T.’s inner workings. I’m sure there are a lot of treasures revealed within it’s pages.

  2. Thank you for the Article. This is the first one I had come across. I’m very excited that there are 10 previous articles I now get to enjoy.

    Keep up the great work and I can’t wait to see more. I’ll be following along for sure.

    All the Best

  3. Well written piece. I can’t believe I’m only just discovering Cinefex magazines now, when I’ve been interested and intruiged for so many years. I’m in the process of finding certain issues which have all the movies I grew up with. So far that’s 34 issues to track down!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I guarantee you’ll find lots of treasures on your Cinefex voyage of discovery. Some of the back issues are still available from the Cinefex website; others take a little more tracking down. Early in 2014, every single issue will be available for the iPad. Thanks for reading 🙂

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s