Archive for January 9, 2019

War & Peace, brought to you by Wrigley’s

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on January 9, 2019 by dcairns

There’s a great bit in King Vidor on Film Making where he talks about running out of money on WAR AND PEACE. They had a scene where Audrey Hepburn exchanges saucy glances with Vittorio Gassman at the opera. They built several opera boxes so they could film Audrey’s shots in the studio, with enough surrounding context to make it look like she was really there, but their plan for an opera house fell through.

The producers were sending Vidor to every opera house in Italy in hopes he could wrangle a venue for free, and somehow fill it with extras in period dress also for free.

Finally, King decided he wasn’t going to find an opera house, and mobilised his mighty brain. As they say in the military, If you know what your objective is, you’ll know what to do.

KV needed a reverse angle of Gassman in the stalls at the front of the opera house. And he needed a wide shot of the interior to establish it.

Elsewhere in his book, Vidor talks about his strong visual memory. He made a mental picture of what the front of an opera house looks like. What could you actually see from Audrey’s box? The orchestra would be hidden in the pit, save for the head and shoulders of the conductor, and the neck of a bass fiddle.

Vidor wasn’t entirely without resources: he had the use of a studio. They strung the only bit of red velvet they had to make part of the curtain. The audience believes it’s looking at half the curtain, because we know what size a theatre curtain must be. In fact, what we see in shot is all there was.

A row of camera platforms formed that part of the stage front not covered by the curtain. A row of lamps were strung along here to suggest footlights. A red velvet barrier masked the non-existent “orchestra pit” and the conductor was a man in a low chair peeping out over the top, dressed in the top half of a costume, while the broken neck of a bass fiddle was held in view a short distance away. Adding the sound of an orchestra tuning up completed the illusion.

Some rows of chairs were arranged, and Vidor could just barely afford twenty extras in costume. Now for the establishing shot.

Vidor had obtained a large photograph of La Scala. He wondered how much movement he would need to get into it for us to believe it was a live action shot. He sent it to Technicolor in London who were known for doing good special effects and asked them to turn it into a large painting. Then he asked them to affix little pieces of light silver foil to the images of figures in the audience, and position an electric fan where it would cause the foil to move. He advised them that they could obtain suitable foil from Selfridges in Oxford Street, who sold Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum.

The effect Vidor was hoping for was a suggestion of a dozen or so fans flickering in the audience. I don’t quite read it that way — probably the foil should have been tissue paper — but the trick is nevertheless a complete success — we read the opera house as a live action shot populated with real, full-sized three-dimensional people.

The establishing shot is at 1:27:27 in the Youtube video above, and Gassman’s reverse angle starts at 1:28:53.

WAR AND PEACE stars Eliza Dolittle (2) and her real-life husband, Stephen Orlac; with Tom Joad; Brancaleone da Norcia; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Colonel Stok; Amanda Beatrice Cross; The Stranger (from Venus); Mr. Lundle; Fräulein Schneider; Alfred Dolittle (1); Lola-Lola (2); Sherlock Holmes (1984-94) and his best friend, Sherlock Homes (1970); William Mossop; and the voice of Colossus.