Although slightly more expensive than his first four films – Shadows (1959), Too Late Blues (1961), A Child is Waiting (1963) and Faces (1968) – it is a fascinating insight into how independent films were made before the Sundance revolution.
A video showing how visual effects were used to create the period world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begs the question as to why wasn’t nominated for a BAFTA or Oscar.
Mention the phrase ‘visual effects’ and I suspect images of science fiction or fantasy movies leap to mind.
After all, films like Star Wars (1977) and Avatar (2009) are most associated with the field.
Tomas Alfredson’s masterful John Le Carre adaptation is not the kind of film you would associate with modern visual effects, as it is a realistic tale of corruption and intrigue in MI6 during the 1970s.
But this video shows how modern technology was used to skilfully augment Maria Djurkovic‘s amazing production design:
They were done by Swedish company The Chimney Pot they highlight just how sophisticated the digital augmentation of photographic reality has become.
So sophisticated in fact that it may have worked against them in the awards season as the film has missed out on both BAFTA and Academy nominations.
It isn’t easy to blend old school techniques with cutting edge digital tools, but when they are combined successfully the results can be magical.
There is the (possibly apocryphal) story that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) lost the Best Makeup Academy Award to John Chambers for Planet of the Apes (1968) because the judges didn’t realize Kubrick’s apes were really people (perhaps that was actually a greater compliment than the Oscar).
It was a strong field this year but it begs the question, did The Chimney Pot lose out on visual effects recognition because they were too good?
The Cost of the Visual Effects: Star Wars was effectively the birth of the modern visual effects industry and this can be seen by the unusually high budget for the ‘special effects and models of spaceships and robots’.
The Transport and Tunisia Location Costs: The $700,000 it took to take the film to the North African desert paid off as early on in the film it gave it a sense of real world scope.
World Wide Box Office Receipts: When this statement was published the figure of $510m was pretty spectacular, overtaking Jaws (1975) which ushered in the blockbuster era with $470m. Spielberg would regain the all-time box office crown with E.T. (1982) record-breaking $792m.
The Negative Cost: When budgets are often quoted in the mainstream press, the figure usually being discussed its what’s called a ‘negative cost’ – the price it took to produce the finished negative of the movie. Here it was $11m, which actually tallies with the Wikipedia figure.
Prints and Advertsing: This is the combined cost of producing the film prints, shipping them to cinemas around the world and then marketing the fact that the film is showing (outdoor posters, television spots etc). Traditionally the global profits are split 50/50 between studio and exhibitor, although it can vary. The typical exhibitor’s share in the US is split 45 to 55% and in the Rest of the World 55 to 65%. UK exhibitors often keep an unusually high amount, averaging around 65 to 70%. In the case of Star Wars the $510m was carved up between exhibitors ($260m) and the studio ($250m).
Percentage Points: Fox, Lucasfilm and various actors accepted percentage points of the final profits. Fox took %60 ($88.5m) and the producers took %40 ($59m). Of that producer share several actors got unexpected bonuses. Chief among them was Alec Guinness (%2.75 or $3.3m), Mark Hamill (%0.25 or $368,750), Carrie Fisher (%0.25 or $368,750) and Harrison Ford (%0.33 or $1m), set workers (%0.5 or $73,750) and office workers (%0.02 or $$7,375)
As of 2008, the overall box office revenue generated by the six Star Wars films is around $4.41 billion.
Only the Harry Potter and James Bond franchises have grossed more.
Aside from making George Lucas a lot of money, their other creative legacy is the creation of ILM, the company founded to create the visual effects for the movies.
For example, the opening shot of Star Wars took eight months and Lucas wanted people who could use the power of computers to help make the process easier.
Lucas hired Ed Catmull, who was in charge of the computer division at Lucasfilm and Alvy Ray Smith, who became head of the graphics project there.
When Lucas sold this computer graphics division to Steve Jobs in 1986, the former Apple boss (who would eventually return in 1997) renamed the company Pixar.
It would eventually go on to make animation history with a series of pioneering short films, Toy Story (1995) and a series of Oscar-winning and box office triumphs.
Almost every film we see now is in widescreen, but how did this look come about?
With the proliferation of widescreen television over the last decade, it is sometimes easy to forget that until relatively recently films were cropped for home viewing.
This meant that for a lot of movies, a large percentage of the rectangular image (in the aspect ratios of 2:35 and 1:85) was removed so it could fit the squarer aspect of television (the 1:33 or 4:3 ratio).
The roots of this are historical, as the advent of television in the 1950s forced Hollywood to come up with newer ways of enticing audiences back to cinemas.
Thus modern widescreen processes were invented to put an image on screen that couldn’t be replicated in the homes of the time.
This shifted the fundamental look of films from the traditional academy ratio of 1:33 to the more rectangular widescreen look we now take for granted.
But when it came to screening those movies on television (ironically the very medium that triggered widescreen developments) there was the obvious problem of converting that wide image on to a square TV screen.
Here Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese (and others) explain for TCM the whole business of ‘pan and scanning’ and why it was bad for certain movies (by the way, Curtis Hanson’s example of The Last Supper painting is pure genius):
Back in 1992, there was a TV programme where several directors discussed why they shot certain films in widescreen, including Michael Mann (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans), Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm), John Boorman (Point Blank) and John Carpenter (Halloween).
They discuss how the advent of a wider screen affected their visual approach to making films, but also how it influenced such things as editing, dialogue and even running time.
What’s interesting is that Mann’s comment about widescreen televisions in Japan is now the reality.
Certain films such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) and The Artist (2011) actually used the squarer visual format (a.k.a. 1:33 or academy ratio) for effect.
Going back to the 1970s and 80s, directors like Stanley Kubrick (e.g. The Shining and Barry Lyndon) and William Friedkin (e.g. Sorcerer) were careful to frame some of their films so they couldn’t be awkwardly pan and scanned, although this created subsequent problems for DVD and Blu-ray releases.
Having grown up in the era of VHS and ‘squarer films’ on television, I instinctively prefer the look of widescreen, possibly because it reminds me of the cinema experience, where you could see the full image and got much better sound.
There’s also the crucial matter of actually seeing the film the way the director intended it to look.