Reflective Value

I got a second-hand copy of King Vidor on Film-Making for Christmas. Really, the only two helpful books by filmmakers are the Lumet and Mackendrick ones, though Roger Corman has invaluable insights too. Vidor’s volume is quirky and entertaining, but its value is more anecdotal than educative, and though there are some really good nuggets and first principles, it doesn’t really give you the overview of the whole process it aims for.

But it does have Vidor explaining the process of front-projection, which was introduced years after his retirement and this shows he was keeping up with developments. In light of my discussion of 2001’s opening scenes, I thought it might be worth reproducing here. Of course, I can’t swear that all the details Vidor gives are correct because I’m less technical than him. Footnotes are mine.

“A recent development of the process background shot is done with front projection instead of the usual rear projection. It seems strange that a picture could be projected onto a background screen with actors in front of it and yet not have the background projection scene show on the performers’ faces or bodies. Interestingly enough the discovery of this possibility grew out of the development of an automobile bumper-sticker and a material that would deflect heat from fire-engines.

“The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (the 3-M people responsible for much sound-recording tape development and a wide variety of cellophane sticker tapes) had developed a material with such a high reflective value that it seemed to increase the intensity of light projected onto it. Hence it was put to use, as an attention getter on the rear bumpers of automobiles. Then Sherman Fairchild, who developed and built the first automatic camera for the United States Signal Corps, became interested in the material. He collaborated with a Hollywood technician named William Hansard, who had been experimenting with the material because of its adaptability for use in background motion picture photography.

“In the Fairchild-Hansard technique, the lens of the projection machine is placed as near the lens of the camera as possible. Because the extremely high reflective quality of the background screen, the intensity of the projection lamp can be very weak, so weak in fact that the projected image is not perceptible upon the faces or clothes* of the actors. To the eye, the background image seems too faint to photograph and yet when one looks through the camera lens the image appears with startling brilliancy.

“The screen material is made up of one million beads to the square inch and is fifteen hundred times more reflective than the actors**, or objects in the set which absorb the projected image rather than returning it to be recorded by the camera. This extremely high reflective value of the background screen makes possible a sharp focus and rich color registration on the negative film.

“The process was first used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Mike Nichols’ CATCH 22.”

*or ape costumes.

**unless you have a very sweaty Rod Steiger.

8 Responses to “Reflective Value”

  1. Interesting. I presume those beads work on the same principal as cats eyes on roads, refelecting light back only in the rough direction of where it was shone from.

  2. Hans-Juergen Syberberg also used it in his “Hitler — A Film From Germany” and “Parsifal”

  3. That sounds right, Stuart. It would explain why you need camera and projector very close together.

    David E, yes! And it seems to have allowed HJS to work very rapidly and cheaply. We used rear-pro on Natan and found we could move very fast. A new set just meant putting on a fresh background image.

  4. I believe the leopard’s eyes glow* in that one shot as a reflection of the front projection.

    *The leopard in 2001. Not Burt Lancaster. He has a different kind of glow.

  5. Yes! It all makes sense.

  6. Thanks for sharing and illustrating his notes on the technique!

    Wajda on Film: A Master’s Notes seemed very practical overall when I was reading it, but I haven’t had a chance to apply any of his suggestions to actual work.

  7. I think I read that years ago and it was good and commonsensical. Things like trying to schedule your final shot for the middle of a shoot so you’ve hit your stride and not yet gotten exhausted…

  8. […] REFLECTIVE VALUE with King Vidor […]

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