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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Madmen 1980

Parting The Red Sea – in 1980
David Russell

Yes, 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.

Yes, 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 didn’t deliver on time with a perfectly rendered piece, we’d 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 became.
Having neither the time nor budget to copy DeMille, we could only adapt a few of the "tricks" his special effect genius’s 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 Pharaoh’s armies racing to the far bank precipice, each arriving in their positions at the exact moment that the wall of water was to be introduced.
(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 of water.
(4) Later, in the lab, if necessary, we could still slow down or speed up the water movement, so we didn’t "drown" the fleeing Hebrews.
(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 water’s "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.

On paper!

But the execution of it all was anything but normal. Working with that time period’s 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 wouldn’t, 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 wouldn’t 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 I’d 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 I’m willing to hear anyone’s theory?

© David Russell June 2009

That Kid could sure eat
David Russell
We were headed from Los Angeles to Islamabad, Pakistan, with a planned stop in Manchester...

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