I tell you what, today is not a good day to be living in Tinytown.
First, somebody dropped a midget missile on Li’l San Andreas Fault, which made a mess of the Golden Gate Microbridge. Then the model train set fell apart, endangering dozens of itty-bitty passengers.
And worst of all, the model of Hoover Dam has burst, and now the floodwaters are threatening to overwhelm an innocent community of dollhouses, ending playtime as we know it.
So this, I think, is the moment when Richard Donner’s reach officially exceeds his grasp. There are so many great miniatures in this movie, and you don’t even know that they’re miniatures unless you’re specifically looking for them. But this sequence is clearly an episode of Gumby, and it’s no use pretending that it’s anything else.
And it’s especially tragic because it comes after the Golden Gate Bridge sequence, which is terrific. To make this sequence, they built a huge model of the Bridge outside at Pinewood Studios, 20 feet tall and 70 feet across.
Now, one advantage that the Bridge sequence has, as a model shot, is that the shapes are all straight lines and angles. The Tinytown rockslide is all irregular natural shapes, which are easier to spot as fakes. The Bridge just looks like the Bridge.
So they can run some fake traffic across it, make the wires snap, and it looks great.
They do a nice job of mixing actual stunt car crashes…
… with a cute little model schoolbus, going over the side…
and you end up with a clever sequence that’s exactly as convincing as it needs to be.
Then they try to do the same thing with the dam, and it goes wrong. This part is fine, with the dam bursting.
And they mix it with shots of people running around.
Then there’s the sequence with Lois getting crushed in her car, which is entirely convincing and horrifying.
Then the water from the dam rushes out into the canyon, which is fine.
And people running…
And the flood is getting worse…
And then the illusion breaks, right here. This is the first bad shot. It’s hard to say exactly why, but those are obviously model train houses.
And this is even worse. None of the rockslide shots work.
And by this point, we need to stop and reconsider whether this sequence can even be in the movie.
I think it stands out especially because this is the thing that Superman is doing, while he isn’t rescuing Lois from being suffocated and crushed in a rental car. Someone that we care about is in pain, while Superman is messing around with his model train set.
Now, something that I’ve learned while watching the same movie for five months is that it’s always the lighting. That is the difference between successful special effects and not-successful special effects. If you don’t get the lighting right, then all of your process shots fail — flying fails, spaceships fail, and destroying suburban developments fails.
There is an explanation for why this sequence went wrong, which is that dumb ol’ Pierre Spengler allowed the models guy to leave early. Here’s Richard Donner, complaining about it later in Cinefantastique:
A lot of things still make me cringe. Some of the miniatures I hate with a passion! Those are the ones that were not done by the maestro. That was Derek Meddings, and I lost Derek because the producer did not tie him up properly and had no idea what the duration of the film was going to be. And so I lost him to James Bond. He did give me his input, but he had to be there, looking through that camera every second and changing things, and he wasn’t.
Which of the miniatures was he responsible for?
Well, he was responsible for Boulder Dam, but not the reverse end of Boulder Dam, where the little town gets wiped out. He was responsible for the destruction of the Krypton models, Air Force One, and a lot in picture two.
The backside of Boulder Dam is one of the things you’re unhappy with?
Yes, very. No fault of anybody, except it’s just that the people who were doing it were rushed. I had to have it, and it just wasn’t their selling point. Derek should have been doing it. And I didn’t have him. That was a tremendous compromise for me.
So I understand his frustration at not having the best miniatures guy on hand, but I think this points to a larger flaw with Donner’s approach: he never gave up. His method was to just keep shooting, and if it didn’t look right, then you shoot it again and again until it finally looks right.
But at a certain point, you run out of money and time, and that’s when you say, y’know what, how about we just do the school bus on the bridge? There are a dozen different mini-disasters in this part of the film, and it would be fine if the last thing that Superman did was save the kids in the school bus.
This movie was a labor of love for Donner, which is why so much of it is so good. But that comes at a cost, which I think was not being able to let go of a sequence that wasn’t working.
I will say that right up until the time we had to turn it over for printing, we were still out in optical houses for re-dos. I wish I had another six months; I would have perfected a lot of things. But at some point you’ve got to turn the picture over.
So, yeah, this is the time. Donner managed to keep the producers at bay for a year, thanks to the Warner Bros. execs who were willing to keep funding his vision. But now it’s time to put the toys away, and finish the goddamn film.
We take a step back in
1.98: Turn the World Around
— Danny Horn