Revisiting Cinefex (34): Beetlejuice, Batteries Not Included

Cinefex 34The cover of Cinefex #34 presents me with a problem. How do I describe the front cover without saying the name of the character out loud? What’s that? It doesn’t count if I write it down? Well, sorry, I just can’t take that chance. Let’s just say the scary animated snake-man comes from one of Tim Burton’s earliest films and move swiftly on to the back cover which features the pint-sized flying saucers from Matthew Robbins’s 1987 fantasy Batteries Not Included.

Phew – made it! With a bit of luck, I’ll get all the way through this issue’s 68 pages without saying Beetlejuice. Oh … rats!

  • Cheap and Cheesy and Off-the-Cuff (article by Jody Duncan Shannon)
  • Visit from a Small Planet (article by Richard Linton)

Beetlejuice & Batteries Not Included

While Beetlejuice (I’ve said it once so I might as well go for broke) is a shoot-from-the-hip cult classic described by its maverick director Tim Burton as ‘crazy and abstract’, Batteries Not Included is a slick assemblage of familiar Spielbergian themes, with a family of cute flying saucers doing their level best to warm the cockles of your heart. In all departments – not least their visual effects – the two films are poles apart, right?

rc34bjOn the face of it, yes. Batteries Not Included features cutting-edge miniature and optical work from VFX giant Industrial Light & Magic. For Beetlejuice, Burton handed the reins to Alan Munro, a storyboard artist who’d never worked in visual effects before. However, a quick flick through this issue of Cinefex shows that, behind the scenes, the movies were more similar than you might think.

Take the age-old question of whether to capture effects on-set or put them together in post. For Beetlejuice, Munro devised a forced-perspective sand planet set for actors Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin to perform in front of, as well as a number of visual gags that allowed Burton to shoot in-camera everything from decapitations to a bannister that transforms into a snake. For Batteries Not Included, model mechanical supervisor Tad Krzanowski designed a clever marionette rig that enabled director Matthew Robbins to shoot his slimline saucers live alongside his actors.

ILM visual effects supervisor Bruce Nicholson elaborates on what led them to work in this way. ‘It was Steven Spielberg who had encouraged us to try and do some of the saucer work on the set,’ he says. ‘When the picture was finished [Spielberg said], “I can’t tell the wire work from the motion control work.'”  Thanks to this approach, by the end of principal photography around 50 of the film’s 175 effects shots were in the can.

Richard Linton’s article explores the many ways Nicholson and his team adapted their well-honed motion control techniques to match the footage shot on location, the main one of which was repurposing the Krzanowski wire rig to function in front of the ILM bluescreen. ‘The mechanism actually presented tremendous advantages,’ Nicholson says, ‘because we could program these compound movements … that would have been very difficult to get otherwise.’

Meanwhile, Alan Munro was using every trick in the book to get the maximum bang for Burton’s bucks. Jody Duncan Shannon’s article speeds us through a truly dizzying collection of cartoonish prosthetics, stop-motion animation, bluescreen bodges and miniature mash-ups. Nowhere is Munro’s ingenuity more apparent than in his use of replacement animation to achieve some of the film’s ambitious transformation effects.

Replacement animation was pioneered during the 1930s and 1940s by George Pal in his Puppetoons series of shorts. It involves creating a separate three-dimensional sculpture for every frame of film – an exacting and time-consuming technique, but one that can produce some remarkable effects. For a scene in which the faces of both Davis and Baldwin elongate into bizarre beaks, Tim Lawrence sculpted between twenty-five and thirty heads for each character.

The replacement animation process was not without its problems. ‘[The animation] had been pencil-tested on twos,’ Lawrence explains (meaning two frames of film were shot for each sculpture, resulting in an effective frame rate of 12fps). ‘There was no persistence of vision – and as a result, there were all kinds of jerks and ticks between increments.’ After some resculpting to iron out the wrinkles, Lawrence eventually shot the sequences on ‘ones’, halving the length of the shots but vastly improving their smoothness.

rc34bniStop-motion was also used in Batteries Not Included, for a scene where the saucer known as ‘Pa’ uses a tiny laser to chop up a Pepsi can. With the help of equipment George Pal would have loved to get his hands on, Dave Allen combined his traditional hands-on skills with ILM’s computerised systems. ‘We mounted the Pa saucers on a couple of vertical lifters,’ he says, ‘which enabled us to program a slight drifting movement that we were able to play back a frame at a time during the stop-motion.’

All this notwithstanding, these two films are of course very different. Beetlejuice – as the article’s title points out – is cheap and cheesy, whereas Batteries Not Included is crisp and shiny with all the effects looking photo-real. While Tim Burton’s stylistic choice was a conscious one – ‘We didn’t even approach the bigger effects houses like ILM – partly because our budget was so small, but also because we wanted to take a simple, matter-of-fact approach’ – nevertheless he came out of the project feeling rather different. ‘The experience has changed my mind as to how I would approach [effects] in the future,’ he concludes. ‘It is easy to say “we’ll take the simple approach,” but it is never a simple procedure … Effects are difficult.’

Bruce Nicholson, in contrast, ends on an upbeat note. ‘Achieving a perfect blend [between stage effects and opticals] was the bottom line,’ he says. ‘Could we really pull it off? … I think we did.’

Ultimately, both these articles deliver exactly what you’d expect from a vintage issue of Cinefex, from Robert Short describing how he created an afterlife full of accident victims (devising gags and illusions so that actors appeared to be cut in half, eaten by sharks or flattened by trucks) to Dave Allen talking about the rod-puppet techniques used to turn miniature flying saucers into swordfighters. Peter Kuran breaks down the bluescreen and split-screen composites by which full-sized actors Davis and Baldwin were able to interact with a miniature Michael Keaton, and Chris Evans reveals all about a shot of Manhattan that pushed the ILM matte painting department to the limit.

The pictures

Thanks in part to the film’s plethora of outlandish images, the Beetlejuice article is crammed with memorable shots, many of them showcasing the movie’s many puppets and prosthetics. My favourite picture shows the miniature Geena Davis busts sculpted by Tim Lawrence for those labour-intensive replacement animation shots. The little sculptures are lined up in sequence like three-dimensional freeze-frames, the ultimate expression of that fundamental illusion that makes cinema work: persistence of vision.

From the Batteries Not Included article, I’m picking the shot on page 56 showing a flying saucer suspended beneath the Krzanowski wire rig in front of an ILM bluescreen. Not only does it showcase the film’s key innovation (the rig won an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement), but it also represents much of what the 1980s was about in terms of visual effects. It’s old meets new, simple meets sophisticated, metal meets magic.

Take the bluescreen. By the end of the 1970s, the antiquated bluescreen had been all but abandoned by the film industry. It was ILM in its early Star Wars incarnation that resurrected it and married it with the bleeding-edge technology that was the motion control camera. Despite continuing competition from front and rear projection, frontlit mattes and the ‘branded’ processes like Introvision and Zoptic, it remained the technique of choice for generating the elements needed for reliable optical composites.

Then there’s the rig. It’s a finely-engineered device with nine radial arms, stepper motors and supporting wires tensioned within critical tolerances. It’s also, when all’s said and done, just a high-tech version of a marionette’s paddle. In short, a simple, traditional mechanical system refined and put under computer control.

Finally there’s the saucer itself. It’s a full-size prop (although it could just as easily be a miniature spacecraft or flying vehicle), the product of a model shop, hand-built and rigged with internal lights and motors to bring it to life.

All these things were the staple of visual effects during this period. The only real difference between Batteries Not Included and Beetlejuice is the computer control on which the former – to a great degree – relied. As far as the wires and widgets are concerned, it’s hard to peel the two movies apart.

Every craftsman, in every age, has his toolbox. By 1988 the toolbox of the eighties was nearly full. With the benefit of hindsight – and just five Cinefex issues away from discussing The Abyss, the feature film that really kicked the digital revolution into gear – we can see that the time was ripe for a whole box of new tools that would change the business of visual effects forever.

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

Comments

  1. Peter Kuran and Dave Allen – both huge talents. I missed seeing Batteries Not Included back in the day and should probably go take a look. And Beetlejui … I mean – that early Tim Burton movie also deserves a revisit. Nice write-up as always Graham. 🙂

    • Thanks, Greg. I’d describe Batteries Not Included as charming but forgettable, a Spielberg production line job. The VFX are excellent though. As for the one-that-must-not-be-named … what’s not to like?

  2. I would do ANYTHING to have any or ALL of the robots from *batteries not included. Greg Jein has at least 1 robot left. ILM has a set of the robots on display at their SF Presidio location. Where have all the rest gone?

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