Filming the Recent Past: Images

 

Many years ago, I was watching a taxicab scene in It’s Always Fair Weather, a great 1955 film, when I noticed something strange, almost Twilight Zone-ish going on: the traffic seen out of the back window of the cab, which rolls on for minutes, is something I’ve seen before. Where? I realized that it was an extended driving scene of a not exactly obscure 1972 film, The Godfather. How did they do that?

That scene in Godfather takes place in 1945-’46 when mafia lieutenant Peter Clemenza and his “boys” take a ride into Manhattan to buy deloused mattresses for an extended stay in a hideout during a gang war. They get into a shiny dark Lincoln on a suburban street in south Queens and drive into the busy streets of the city, all beautifully filmed in nostalgic color, before having to abandon that great car because a traitor’s blood (“Paulie sold out the Old Man!”) gets all over the windshield. The car is so authentic to the period that we briefly notice it still has a war rationing sticker.

The scene of the car driving around the city could have been “real”, that is, made by the Godfather crew, but after about a half-mile of New York rolls by, you know that even Paramount Pictures didn’t have enough money to “dress” ten city blocks with cars, pedestrians, and street signs. Realistically it has to be a stock shot, actually filmed in the Forties. But why does it look so good, and match the look of the “modern” filming perfectly?

Because Francis Coppola and his crew worked backwards. First, they found the very best Technicolor film of New York City driving they could find—steady, scratch-free film with vivid, unfaded colors. Then they identified the year and model of the Lincoln in the chosen shots and bought the best survivor they could find in 1971, repainting it to match the one in the clip, even duplicating its ration sticker. The transitions between the ’46 and the ’71 shots were all but invisible. Nowadays, for any kind of good quality film set in an earlier time period, this kind of detail is routine. But at the time it was almost revolutionary, setting higher standards that would last.

There are films that use these editing and special visual effects techniques to connect fictional characters filmed today with the real-life past. Having skilled actors play historical figures the way you’d like to imagine them has to be one of the greatest political privileges available to artists. And even better when you can enlist the borrowed authority of actual film of the era.

In the Line of Fire (1993) combined historical footage with flashbacks of the Secret Service agent (Clint Eastwood) in Dallas in 1963. The filmmakers sought out a special kind of “stock footage”; any high-quality unused color shots of Eastwood from movies made in or just after the Sixties. They found some, and were careful not to overdo it.

The Right Stuff (1983) used real footage of John F. Kennedy presenting astronaut Alan Shepard with a medal, and replaced Shepard’s image with the actor who portrayed him in the film, Scott Glenn. It’s cleverly done; since it was news footage, with its occasional spectator partly blocking a shot with the blurred backs of their heads, Phil Kaufman’s team inserted one partly in front of Kennedy so the main object of the shot is JFK and the actor.

Forrest Gump (1994) did the same thing with a doctored ceremonial shot of Richard Nixon, his voice dubbed so he seems to be making an ill-fated suggestion to Gump that the newly decorated veteran ought to stay at the Watergate Hotel. As big a Nixon fan as I am, I don’t have any trouble with that, because there’s no special satirical barb there; it’s a satirical comedy that no serious person would take as real history. For that matter, I doubt JFK’s fans were upset by tampering with historical footage to insert a modern-day actor; again, there’s nothing truly manipulative there, and it reinforces Kennedy’s longtime image, whether it’s totally fair or not, of being the patron saint of the space program.

It’s usually all too easy to tell when a movie or TV show is using “stock”, a generic shot of, say, the New York skyline or an Iowa farmhouse, used to introduce a scene with live actors filmed in a studio. It’s such a timesaving cliché of storytelling that we don’t even pay attention to it unless it’s too obvious—like if the stock clip is scratched and jittery, too contrasty or bright, or the colors and costumes look too different when you make the jump.

But when it’s done right, this kind of movie magic has the potential to be misused. In 1985, Ted Koppel began a Nightline segment while standing on a doorstep in Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity movement, then a major force rocking Communist Europe. When he spoke the words “But I’ve never been to Gdansk”, the background disappeared and he was standing in front of a green screen. That was his point: today, we know the difference. In decades to come, he asked 36 years ago, as technical methods improve and memory of real events fades, will we know the difference then? Well, future, we’re here.

The films I’ve cited here were all made on photographic film, before the era of digital visual effects. Those new techniques are remarkable, beyond anything that Hollywood had before. But no matter what anyone tells you, no, you still can’t fake absolutely anything, even today. The smartest, most likely to be believed way of manipulating history is not to create visual lies from the ground up, but to repurpose high-quality existing footage in a misleading way. Over time, that’ll be easier and easier.

Of course, this whole topic ignores the distant, pre-cinema past that is beyond our powers to employ as part of today’s images. My concern is the recent past, recent enough to leave us dramatically convincing, high-quality film or videotape of the times.

It’s a somewhat grim prospect, having to expect to spend some effort in perpetuity, guarding the actual truth, but that’s the eternal struggle of history, long before we had fleeting visual cues of past reality, stored in moving picture archives.

I’ll close on a lighter, if still sardonic note about the misuse of existing film footage to rewrite history. When Bruce Lee, star of Enter the Dragon, died unexpectedly at age 32 in 1973, a Hong Kong film producer put together a cheapie called Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, starring a hitherto unknown young actor named Bruce “Li”. Under his real name, Ho Chung-Tao, he’d played extras and tiny, two-line bit parts in HK films, including Bruce Lee’s. The Exit producers took the handful of shots, mostly brief crowd scenes, that had the dead star, Lee, and the nobody they groomed as his successor, “Li”, and used discarded footage and extensive line redubbing to create a master-and-student relationship between them that never existed. “If I am killed, I need you to avenge me”, says the fake voice of Bruce Lee.

Fake history! But in truth, probably not the most consequential we’ll ever live to see.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The time-traveling plots of the Austin Powers films made frequent fun of moviemaking tricks, or more accurately, moviemaking shortcuts; when there’s a scene of two people talking in a car, if it takes place in 1967, the city streets going by are old film, back projected on a screen behind the car. If the scene is modern day, it’s done the way we’d usually do it now, with the car on a flatbed truck or towed behind the camera car, and real streets are seen out the windows.

     

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    If we’re talking the use of visual effects tricks to put actors into historic settings, some honorable mentions should go to:

    Inside the Third Reich, which allowed British actor Derek Jacobi, their Hitler, to seem to walk around inside carefully restored, colorized still photos of his chancellery.

    Zelig, a clever catalog of simple, convincing Eighties era effects inserting fiction into newsreels and other films.

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    And how could we ever leave out Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid? Much of the crafty cleverness here is in the writing, which used dialog from ‘30s-‘40s films to stitch together a made up plot about Nazi smuggling in South America. Combining the classic Hollywood characters with Carl Reiner’s 1983 actors was mostly done with simple intercutting between them, not elaborate effects combining them in one shot, although there are a handful of such shots in the film.

    • #3
  4. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    An excellent, informative article. Thanks!

    • #4
  5. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I have always hated bad traffic-in-the-back-window shots in old movies.  As a kid, I recall noticing that the background in one B&W movie was almost a loop–same cars in the same sequence, a sudden disappearance of the car right behind then starting over.

    (I don’t hate that as much as hearing eastern woodland birds on the soundtrack of a western taking place in the Sonoran desert…but I digress)

    I enjoyed re-watching A Touch of Evil (1958) (a great flick–directed by and also starring Orson Welles–although it requires a bit of adjustment to see Charlton Heston as a Mexican) after I found out that it may have been the first movie in which the scenes inside the moving car were actually filmed while the car was moving with a camera mounted on the hood instead of actors sitting in a stationary car with bogus movement in the background added later.

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    That’s nothing. You ought to see how my eyeballs and memory can fake the history I’ve seen.

    Excellent and informative article, btw. Thank you.  

    • #6
  7. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Just last night I started watching “The Next Three Days” for the second time mainly because it’s a made-in-Pittsburgh movie that is about springing a woman out of the Allegheny County jail. I enjoy trying to figure out which scenes were on-location and which were done elsewhere. The travel times between town, the airport and a suburb on the opposite side of town seemed to be about right. Besides that, it’s a pretty good movie with a lot of twists and turns. 

    • #7
  8. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey:

    Fake history! But in truth, probably not the most consequential we’ll ever live to see.

    I’m reminded of Rising Sun, the early 90s Wesley Snipes/Sean Connery actioner.  In that, the evil Japanese bad guys fake a piece of security camera footage to hide a murder.  They are only discovered because having only three hours to do the work, they left behind a ghost image in the video.

    We used to say seeing is believing, but we’ve reached a point where that has to be with your own eyes rather than any medium, and even then, you can’t be sure.

    Excellent, as always Gary.

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    The Phantom Crash in The Hunt for Red October is so damn jarring to me, and I love the scene overall. 

     

     

    • #9
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Gary McVey:

    Fake history! But in truth, probably not the most consequential we’ll ever live to see.

    I’m reminded of Rising Sun, the early 90s Wesley Snipes/Sean Connery actioner. In that, the evil Japanese bad guys fake a piece of security camera footage to hide a murder. They are only discovered because having only three hours to do the work, they left behind a ghost image in the video.

    We used to say seeing is believing, but we’ve reached a point where that has to be with your own eyes rather than any medium, and even then, you can’t be sure.

    Excellent, as always Gary.

    As always, many thanks, Judge. And happy birthday!

    • #10
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The Phantom Crash in The Hunt for Red October is so damn jarring to me, and I love the scene overall.

     

     

    This is an illustration of another way to integrate real film into a fictional one: put it on television. There are a couple of examples of this in JFK and Apollo 13

    Apollo 13, BTW, is notable for an unusual choice of Ron Howard’s: other than the TV bulletins of the news, he used no stock shots of Apollo launches, making the decision to not mix reality and fiction. Everything you see of the launch is digitally recreated. 

    By contrast, Marooned uses lots of stock shots, many of them of obviously different rockets for the same take-off. 

    • #11
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis’ first feature film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, made a funny and shrewd choice. You never see the Beatles directly, face to face–from under a bed, you see their legs enter a room and you hear them talking to each other. When they’re playing on stage at the Ed Sullivan show, you see them from the perspective of the TV cameramen. The actors standing in for the Beatles are seen, way out of focus in the background playing their instruments, but the images we see in the camera viewfinders and on a nearby TV monitor are sharp and in-focus: they’re tapes of the real thing. 

    • #12
  13. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    I love the film stock used in The Godfather. Aside from the story, the whole look and feel makes it so much more authentic. Of course that’s the art.

    • #13
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    I love the film stock used in The Godfather. Aside from the story, the whole look and feel makes it so much more authentic. Of course that’s the art.

    Eastman Color Negative 5254, a great looking stock, no question about it. Most of the great-looking films of the late sixties and early seventies used it. (Though the Japanese used Fuji, and the Communist countries used Orwo, an East German film, all of them, even the Russians, used Eastman the moment that hard currency restrictions allowed it). 

    Two especially great looking foreign films that used 5254: France’s Stavisky and Italy’s The Conformist

    • #14
  15. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I enjoyed re-watching A Touch of Evil (1958) (a great flick–directed by and also starring Orson Welles–although it requires a bit of adjustment to see Charlton Heston as a Mexican) after I found out that it may have been the first movie in which the scenes inside the moving car were actually filmed while the car was moving with a camera mounted on the hood instead of actors sitting in a stationary car with bogus movement in the background added later.

    Didn’t Gun Crazy do that in 1950?

    I always watch the inadvertent documentary in the back window. The cities seem so impossibly busy and interesting.

    • #15
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    TV shows use a lot of library stock footage, but ones that are set in other cities than L.A. usually do some stock filming of their own. The producers of Kojak would fly Savalas out to New York in May, before main photography of the upcoming season’s shows, and film nothing but shots of Telly driving up to the curb and getting out of the car, getting into the car, from the left side of the car, repeating it all with summer clothes and winter clothes, in daytime and at night. Kojak‘s studio, Universal, was one of the cheapest outfits in Hollywood, so if they made a stock shot, they generally did use it later. Waste not, want not. 

    • #16
  17. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    A great example of a piece of stock footage totally taking control of a movie is The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms.  They had their fake dinosaur, body like a Brachiosaur, head like a T-Rex.  Totally unsuited to the water, but it lives at the bottom of the ocean?  Turns out they had a great piece of underwater footage of a shark and an octopus in a death match.  So, we get a scene in a diving bell while they look for it, and while they’re waiting around?  Death fight.

    • #17
  18. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    A great example of a piece of stock footage totally taking control of a movie is The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms. They had their fake dinosaur, body like a Brachiosaur, head like a T-Rex. Totally unsuited to the water, but it lives at the bottom of the ocean? Turns out they had a great piece of underwater footage of a shark and an octopus in a death match. So, we get a scene in a diving bell while they look for it, and while they’re waiting around? Death fight.

    BTW, that’s the one where they kill the beast by shooting it with an isotope.  You know, one of those isotopes.  Those things are deadly.

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    One of my brothers is a pilot. About a dozen years ago he took me up over New York harbor in a Eurocopter and we flew into and over Manhattan at sunset. He pointed out another helicopter, evidently owned by a partnership that makes nearly its entire living from filming stock that they’d sell to Sex in the City, CSI:NY or later, Blue Bloods, for a rate of roughly $1,000 per second

    • #19
  20. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    BTW, that’s the one where they kill the beast by shooting it with an isotope.  You know, one of those isotopes.  Those things are deadly.

    • #20
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    BTW, that’s the one where they kill the beast by shooting it with an isotope. You know, one of those isotopes. Those things are deadly.

    Speaking of isotopes, atom bomb explosions were one of the most used of stock clips, in dozens of films like 1953’s Split Second. But nowadays, or at least since digital visual effects came in, nearly 30 years ago, they’ll almost always create their own “explosion”.  Without giving too much away about the climax of Split Second, it sure seems to me that Spielberg’s team saw that scene and duplicated it for the blast in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull

    Terminator 2 and The Sum of All Fears set the digital mark high early on. They get the look spot on, though they generally cheat the delay before the sound hits you. 

    One (very) minor irony is the soundtrack on most authentic archival clips has been altered, faked! to make the sound and sight of the blast line up. In Sum of All Fears, there is no delay; a hospital scene is blown to pieces the moment the flash is seen. Unless the Baltimore stadium where the bomb went off is right next to the hospital, it wouldn’t happen like that. But it’s plenty effective anyway.  

    • #21
  22. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Speaking of isotopes, atom bomb explosions were one of the most used of stock clips, in dozens of films like 1953’s Split Second. But nowadays, or at least since digital visual effects came in, nearly 30 years ago, they’ll almost always create their own “explosion”. 

    On the one hand, I’ve seen enough atom bomb film clips that I can recognize them. The switch to animations is relieving. On the other hand, I’ve seen enough atom bomb film clips that when they screw up the physics it’s blatantly noticeable. “That’s now how mushroom clouds work!”.

    Such a shame; Hollywood maintains an extremely high regard for physics accuracy otherwise.

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Speaking of isotopes, atom bomb explosions were one of the most used of stock clips, in dozens of films like 1953’s Split Second. But nowadays, or at least since digital visual effects came in, nearly 30 years ago, they’ll almost always create their own “explosion”.

    On the one hand, I’ve seen enough atom bomb film clips that I can recognize them. The switch to animations is relieving. On the other hand, I’ve seen enough atom bomb film clips that when they screw up the physics it’s blatantly noticeable. “That’s now how mushroom clouds work!”.

    Such a shame; Hollywood maintains an extremely high regard for physics accuracy otherwise.

    Absolutely! You can count on our experts for lucid, authoritative science advice. One honorable mention should go to a little-known independent film that Jon Voight was in, Desert Bloom. They set off a large enough gasoline explosion to form a mushroom cloud, then superimposed a flash and a blindingly white fireball over the first moments of the fire. It looked pretty good for a low budget movie. But in the final version, they lost their nerve about putting it over with the public, and retreated to merely seeing a distant flash and pre-dawn brightness in the sky that fades. 

    • #23
  24. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    BTW, that’s the one where they kill the beast by shooting it with an isotope. You know, one of those isotopes. Those things are deadly.

    Speaking of isotopes, atom bomb explosions were one of the most used of stock clips, in dozens of films like 1953’s Split Second. But nowadays, or at least since digital visual effects came in, nearly 30 years ago, they’ll almost always create their own “explosion”. Without giving too much away about the climax of Split Second, it sure seems to me that Spielberg’s team saw that scene and duplicated it for the blast in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

    Terminator 2 and The Sum of All Fears set the digital mark high early on. They get the look spot on, though they generally cheat the delay before the sound hits you.

    One (very) minor irony is the soundtrack on most authentic archival clips has been altered, faked! to make the sound and sight of the blast line up. In Sum of All Fears, there is no delay; a hospital scene is blown to pieces the moment the flash is seen. Unless the Baltimore stadium where the bomb went off is right next to the hospital, it wouldn’t happen like that. But it’s plenty effective anyway.

    Two things they often get wrong on movies/TV shows about rocket launches.

     

    1:  The sound hits right away.

    2:  They show the engines first firing up at 0 instead of seconds in advance, with zero being the point of liftoff.

    • #24
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Old news clips of mission control centers usually have visual defects caused by a 24 frame per second film camera photographing a control room full of monitors. It’s hard to film a TV screen well. Because of the fps difference, there’s often a thick stripe of darkness in the middle of the screen, and strong flickering. Only a handful of films bothered to use the special cameras that allowed real video to be put on the screen for a look of authenticity, like Marooned, whose special effects are otherwise pretty unremarkable. 

    So a lot of older fictional films set in control rooms, whether they belong to NASA or to Doctor No, fake it by matting in film in the small monitor screens. They give themselves away by being in color (pretty rare for a NASA control room before the Shuttle era) and being much sharper at a distance than a real screen would be. When you see it now, it all but shouts “phony!”

    Films below the budget level of Apollo 13 or Hidden Figures often had to mock up a control center with rented props. In the Sixties, the same computer consoles and refrigerator-sized tape drives showed their blinking lights in many different TV shows, including Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E

     

    • #25
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    My wife used to work for the Samuel Goldwyn Company, which had an eye for young actors on the way up who would still “work cheap” because they hadn’t made it quite yet. So they cast Jim Carrey in Once Bitten, ten years before he’d make $20 million a film, and Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza, ten years before she’d make $20 million a film. At the time, IIRC, they each got a trifling 100 grand each. When they each reached the height of their fame and box office success, I always thought Goldwyn should have come up with an ingenious way of using the footage to create a new film with both of them, called Bitten Pizza. Carrey and Roberts’ agents wouldn’t have been too pleased, but hey, they signed the contracts. 

    My own “dream” of re-purposing content would have been creating The Richard Nixon Story using clips of Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny, The Apartment, The Absent Minded Professor and Kisses for My President

    • #26
  27. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    And how could we ever leave out Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid? Much of the crafty cleverness here is in the writing, which used dialog from ‘30s-‘40s films to stitch together a made up plot about Nazi smuggling in South America. Combining the classic Hollywood characters with Carl Reiner’s 1983 actors was mostly done with simple intercutting between them, not elaborate effects combining them in one shot, although there are a handful of such shots in the film.

    I’m sure it was a treat for people who were very familiar with all those old films it took pieces from.  But the writing and acting were so good that it made for a very enjoyable movie for people who were totally unfamiliar with the cannibalized movies.  I’m sure I’ve watched it ten times, and now I feel like watching it again.

    • #27
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    In my student film days, about a half century ago, I edited another student’s 20 minute film, about a Gatsby-like rich guy throwing a summer party at his estate. The girl who directed it (I can say that; she was 19) was herself kinda rich, which is how she had the connections to get the big country house for a week of filming, but she was also sheltered and a little clueless. As in, the actor who played the lead, the mysterious wealthy estate owner, was gay–really, really gay–and sounded it, but she had no idea. How is this possible? Well, it was 1971, and I think she’d just never been exposed to this side of city life. Unfortunately, the actor’s voice made preview audiences laugh. She slowly understood the problem, but it was too late to re-cast; the whole thing had already been filmed. 

    So here’s what I did: we dropped all of his dialog recording. Then I recut the film so a young couple attending the party became the main characters. We couldn’t get rid of the star altogether, but in the recut he was less like Gatsby, more like Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, a bystander to what was going on at his elaborate garden party. We redubbed all his remaining lines. It worked better than you’d expect. Of course, the dubbing didn’t match the lip movements very well, so we avoided close ups. 

     

    • #28
  29. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    And how could we ever leave out Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid? Much of the crafty cleverness here is in the writing, which used dialog from ‘30s-‘40s films to stitch together a made up plot about Nazi smuggling in South America. Combining the classic Hollywood characters with Carl Reiner’s 1983 actors was mostly done with simple intercutting between them, not elaborate effects combining them in one shot, although there are a handful of such shots in the film.

    I’m sure it was a treat for people who were very familiar with all those old films it took pieces from. But the writing and acting were so good that it made for a very enjoyable movie for people who were totally unfamiliar with the cannibalized movies. I’m sure I’ve watched it ten times, and now I feel like watching it again.

    I did watch Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid again.  The writers must have had a ball planning on what pieces to take from the various movies and figuring out how to build around them.  Someone should have made a documentary feature on the making of that movie.

    • #29