Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Not-So-Mini Essay | Magic Lanterns, by Nicolas Pillai | Part 3: The Automobile

In his later films, Hitchcock shot car interiors in front of such alarmingly fake rear projection that it seemed to be his new cinematic signature.
John Waters.

You’re driving through the night. Through the blur of your windshield, the headlights pick out signs for long-forgotten towns. You don’t know where you’re going, but you know what you’re leaving behind.

What’s that up ahead? Palookaville, 5 miles.

Rear projection is one of Hollywood’s most familiar special effects, and one of its most ignored. Confronted with a back projected shot in an old movie, modern audiences usually react in two ways. Some will ignore it, passing it off as a technical limitation of the time. Others will laugh at it, their chuckles hovering somewhere between affection and derision.

Filming car scenes in the studio was largely down to camera size. The bulky equipment needed to film on location was complicated immeasurably in driving scenes. You just couldn’t fit a camera on the front of a moving car. Very occasionally set-ups were used that filmed from trailer platforms, but this was an expensive and time-consuming process. Far better to have the scene shot in the studio, where you could remove variables like weather, wind and the dubious driving ability of your hungover leading man.

What’s rarely mentioned with regard to rear projection is the level of meaning it can bring to a scene. In County Hospital, Stan Laurel is driving Oliver Hardy home in an open-topped car. Through a series of misadventures too complicated to detail, Stan is feeling the effects of a tranquilizer and Ollie’s leg is in plaster. As the sleepy Stan veers their car from lane to lane and Ollie flails around in the back seat, we see the oncoming traffic as back (and front) projection. What’s interesting here is the problem of scale – the surrounding traffic is much larger than in life, dwarfing the hapless twosome. The grotesquely enhanced surroundings make the scene more terrifying than funny. The sequence takes on the imagery of nightmare.

A less dramatic, but equally disconcerting, effect is felt in Vertigo. As James Stewart tracks Kim Novak through San Francisco, his delusional state seems to be reflected by the hazy scenery passing by. Later, in one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated shots, Stewart seems to know this when he kisses Novak, as the camera circles them, transporting him back to the stables of the Mission San Juan Bautista.

For drive-in audiences, back projected scenes must have offered an eerie mirror image. Sitting stationary in their cars, slurping at their shakes, looking up at Hollywood faces clutching steering wheels as they moved through virtual scenery.

Drive careful, now.


  1. I'm enjoying these immensely Nic. The effect of several loosely connected mini-essays in a row - particularly written as these are, eruditely stream-of-consciousy - is somewhat reminiscent of W. G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn.

    Who incidentally had the following to say about SILKWORMS and their relation to, of all people, good old Al Swinburne:

    ...One of the visitors to Putney at the turn of the century wrote that Algernon Charles Swinburne put him in mind of a strange insect in a Leiden jar. Time and time again, looking at Swinburne, this visitor continued, he was reminded of the ashy grey silkworm, Bombyx mori, be it because of how he munched his way through his food bit by bit or be it because, out of the snooze he had slipped into after lunch, he abruptly awoke to new life, convulsed with electric energy, and, flapping his hands, flitted about his library, like a startled moth, clambering up and down the stands and ladders to fetch the one or other treasures from the shelves...

  2. Thanks Sam! I really enjoyed writing these. It was nice to make freer connections between thoughts than I might do in my other writing.