International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Madmen 1980
The Red Sea in 1980
we were a Hollywood Special Effects house. Yes, we produced the
wonderfully successful puppet sales-folk including the Pillsbury
Doughboy, Chuck Wagon, Mrs. Butterworth and Speedy Alka-Seltzer.
We had even extended our reach to producing effects for the TV Series
"Fantasy Island". But when NBC asked us to provide the
effects for their upcoming "Bible Series", that became
a serious consideration.
we could create the "burning bush". Yes, we could recreate
"walking on water". But, could we, with a limited budget and
an 8 week schedule, match the million some dollars Cecil B. DeMille
spent when he "Parted the Red Sea"?. Remember, this was long
before computers made that kind of special effect a button push. Each
step would demand real time, total hand work involvement combined with
traditional optical merging of each excruciatingly difficult scene;
every frame breaking new ground.
Before we agreed to take on the project, we had serious internal conversations.
What we were about to embark on was a process never done before with
such a limited "commercial" budget and time constraint.
Further, we would be adding terrible stress and financial burden to
the company, by abandoning all other work during the 2-month period
which meant saying "No" to long-standing clients. And, there
was every possibility it would be all for naught, with as much chance
we would not successfully deliver, as there was that we could. Worse,
the potential bottom line result of all our effort could be a total
loss. If we didnt deliver on time with a perfectly rendered piece,
wed never get paid. What would you do?
Well, we were young and perhaps a bit foolish. None of us rich, but
none of us had mortgaged the house on the project. YET! So with crossed
fingers we agreed to take on the assignment, IF ... we could find a
Hollywood optical company also willing to take the risk and the gamble
with us. Fortunately, at the time we had a wonderful working relationship
with one house with whom we regularly partnered successfully. They realized,
as did we, that if we pulled this off, industry headlines would follow.
With that motivating our decision, we told NBC, "Yes", with
only a minimal glimmer of the eight week, seven-day around the clock
grueling task awaiting us.
On paper, initially, it looked controllable. Do-able. But the more we
watched the DeMille version, on a big screen in real time and then frame
by frame on small screen editing machines, the more daunting the challenge
Having neither the time nor budget to copy DeMille, we could only adapt
a few of the "tricks" his special effect geniuss accomplished.
Here, in broad terms, was our plan to proceed and, hopefully, succeed.
1. Our production supervisor would accompany the NBC live production
crew to the California desert to work with the director and camera people
making certain they provided us with top quality, well spaced and well
lighted camera "plates" to allow for the water inserts we
would later add. That key scenes contained the dramatic urgency of the
"Hebrews" racing across the sea bed dove-tailed perfectly
with Pharaohs armies racing to the far bank precipice, each arriving
in their positions at the exact moment that the wall of water was to
(2) The easiest step was to build a trough through which water would
pour directly away from our effects camera to portray the river receding
and opening a path for the "Hebrews". And, having our prop
artists manufacture mini "tree branches" and other "debris"
to be part of the flood all of which on screen would look huge and menacing.
(3) Then, we needed to schedule time to perform tests which would determine
the best angle to tip the trough to produce the most spectacular explosion
(4) Later, in the lab, if necessary, we could still slow down or speed
up the water movement, so we didnt "drown" the fleeing
(5) Next, after much search, we located an over-sized fish tank which
required three diligent cleanings before we were able to eliminate all
the m inute dirt specks. Filled with water and dramatically back lit,
it would help accentuate the roiling waters "anger at being
arrested"; the script actual had that written description.
(6) The water wall sequences would be filmed with a "splitter",
which was a double lens, each angled 90 degrees to the other. The A
lens would film the water wall, while the B lens exposed a bare background
into which, with a later optical pass, we would add the people. The
resulting scene would be an frightened, fleeing group of "Hebrews"
running towards and past the camera, while a wall of water churned alongside
and just behind them. Then, by reversing the process, our footage would
position the water wall on the other side of the frame, giving the editors
a number of cut-away variations to help create continuity and interest.
(7) The trough water sequence would be used a second time, printed in
reverse, with the water now coming directly at the camera for the final
sequence as the Red Sea was "refilled". The home viewer would
see the Egyptians stalled in the foreground watching the "Hebrews"
now safe on the far bank. Gradually, the sea between them would end
its churning and calm to a flat, placid surface. The "Red Sea"
would have been parted and returned back to normal.
But the execution of it all was anything but normal. Working with that
time periods limited capacity machinery, equipment and knowledge
demanded that the most intricate, complicated effects were done in part
by hand, frame by frame. There was a lot of that. In fact, whenever
two elements were merged or overlapped, that scene required both hand
labor and optical involvement, which often was repeated time and again
until all extraneous join lines had been removed; the nature of the
beast at that time. We later estimated, on average, each effects scene
had required four optical passes, which meant each scene required four
nights of work.
Soon the airdate reared as our budget disappeared. In Hollywood parlance
that often meant "compromise", "settling for almost perfect".
But, NBC wouldnt, nor at that point would we. That was also the
decision of the optical house. In for a dime, in for a dollar.
Days before the air date, NBC needed to send show print copies to stations
not taking the feed from the network, so the printing process continued
night and day, with print after print slowly becoming available; each
one viewed by a team from the network and our production group. Three
out of four passed inspection, with the rejection bugaboo being watermark
stains added during by the printing process. Eventually, all required
prints were shipped and in a week the big night was upon us, the night
when the world watched as we "Parted the Red Sea".
Personally, my hope was that we wouldnt come off a too poor second
to the DeMille large screen epic.
What would work in our favor was that most home viewers would be watching
the program on the small TV screens of that day, not a cinema size screen.
However, not us, not the one we were watching along with the NBC brass.
It was the largest television screen Id ever seen, the biggest
one NBC had.
A sign on the room door read, "Do Not Disturb". Pulses quickened
as "the sequence" neared. Cigarettes were squashed into ashtrays.
Not a sound in the room, except for those of screaming Hebrews, charging
Egyptians on their loud snorting horses and racing chariots, plus the
effect sounds of raging, exploding water.
Glancing round, I could see every eye unblinkingly glued to the screen.
In what seemed seconds, but actually lasted about 3 minutes of total
TV time, it was all over. Again, the Lord has saved the fleeing Jews
from oppression and slavery at the hands of the cruel Pharaoh and his
legions. On which we had logged a total of almost 1200 hours.
On TV it looked perfect, even to my prejudiced eye. Strange, but when
the scene ended, without watching the remainder of the program, the
NBC people rose as one, not a word nor a smile, just a head nod from
the head honcho and they were gone. At that moment, in a sudden flash,
I had the thought that they had expected us to fail and may have been
disappointed that we had not. Sometimes now, almost 30 years later,
I try to figure that one out. What motivated their silent reaction?
Was it "disappointment" over our success? Envy we did what
they could not? Having to pay the bill? Or, was that just the way things
happened at the network level? I still have no answer, but Im
willing to hear anyones theory?
© David Russell June 2009
Kid could sure eat
We were headed from Los Angeles to Islamabad, Pakistan, with a planned
stop in Manchester...
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