Superman 1.98: That Dam Scene

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

Movie list

— Danny Horn

24 thoughts on “Superman 1.98: That Dam Scene

  1. I have to say that last shot of the town looks like Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
    I really didn’t notice when I watched it on tv a few months ago, though.
    Watching a movie for entertainment is different from dissecting it scene by scene. When I originally saw it in 1978, I mostly liked it, though I thought the ending was silly. Now I see all the problems but I also have an understanding of the challenges they faced. So I guess I still like it but I’m less satisfied with it. I want to re-edit it and fix the problems!
    I completely understand how Richard Donner felt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. King Kong.
      The cyclone in The Wizard of Oz.
      The burning depot in Gone With the Wind.

      There’s more, but I promised to curb my OCD… 😁

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oscar Wilde: I wish I had said that, Whistler.

        J. M. Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will.

        Oscar Wilde Sketch, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1973)

        Liked by 2 people

    2. All the Godzilla movies. The early ones in black and white look really great, and even later, when they got cartoony, there’s something adorable about them.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This reminds me of a story many years ago in “National Lampoon.” Hollywood clears its schedule to make the ultimate summer blockbuster, “Saxon Violence,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s got everything. John Houseman even agrees to let himself be blown up.

    Then the money runs out. The director tries to lower expectations. They’ve rewritten part of the film to use simpler special effects: Arnold forces toothpaste back into the tube, spectacular!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It isn’t convincing and they’re obviously model train houses because water isn’t fractal. Surface tension limits how small the droplets get (you also have to film in slow motion to compensate for water flow speed differences due to model scale). This is why _The Poseidon Adventure_ and _Raise the Titanic_ had to invest in ginormous ship models, and the capsizing/surfacing shots still require a degree of squinting to believe. Some cursory web searching says the dam used in _Earthquake_ was “a 50 foot model”, whatever dimension that refers to; couldn’t find a number for _Superman_. God bless CGI (there’s a notoriously titled SIGGRAPH paper on the FX for _Poseidon_ called “So real it will make you wet”).

    Liked by 5 people

    1. The only moment I remember from “Earthquake” (aside from Sensurround™️) is a toy cattle truck plunging off an overpass and dumping its load of statue-stiff livestock. 🐄🐄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s also Victoria Principal and her tank top.
        And Walter Matthau as a DELIBERATELY stereotyped mid-‘ 70s character staring at her.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. I wonder if there is a liquid other than water that would scale better. Would it need to be thicker or thinner? Lighting and the right kind of camera lens make an enormous difference too. Also, as we all know from Jaws, not lingering on a shot. Keep it moving. 8 seconds max for the shark.


      2. If there is an alternative liquid they can use, it’s going to be a lot more expensive than water.


  4. I can see why Donner wanted the Hoover Dam sequence–the Golden Gate scene, while well done and thrilling, doesn’t contain enough chaotic terror for us to believe that Superman couldn’t save Lois. He saves the school bus, props up the bridge proper and he should be done, right?

    Whereas the collapse of the dam and the panicking town seem like enough that even Superman would be occupied for so long that he simply couldn’t get to Lois in time–all that water, all those rocks, that freaking, running populace–that’s a big bunch of cats to herd.

    So Donner probably wanted it for “believability” and so we’d feel sympathy for Superman, not turn against him. But chaos isn’t a servant to a director, it just shows up and looks like a bunch of train models when it wants to.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s it, I’m sure. I also think that Donner and the other creatives must have been thinking about the other blockbuster spectacular films of the 70s. In Star Wars, the Irwin Allen movies Karl references above, etc, an event doesn’t count unless it’s more spectacular than anything that came before. So this scene would have to have a boffo mega-disaster, much bigger than the sequence on the bridge.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It does beg the question of what was going on at less famous structures across the region… lucky thing the Millennium Tower hadn’t been built yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ‘here, waste time fixing littleton while the love of your life is being buried alive in a series of really brutal crosscuts!’

    that moment where he’s smiling and thinking ‘hey, i did okay here, saving the miniature peeps of littleton.’ and then he hears her choking and crying. bad, bad feels.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great comedy writing, Danny! Lots of laughs from your snark about Tinytown’s cute li’l disaster.

    Goddess, right on about the purpose of the dam burst sequence.

    The other thing that made those shots look fake, is that comparatively giant-sized water drops make any miniatures around them look fake. Karl explained it better.

    I read that the Wachoskis are among directors who don’t start production until they have the hundreds of pages long, comic book like storyboard drawings. These show exactly every shot for the film.

    You never get the feeling that they ran out of money, surprised that there were more effects to do.

    They also now get the music score recorded first, before they edit. All the crescendos are motivated in a way that would make Paulene Kael proud.

    Looks like Donnor’s improvisational approach, once everyone is on the big set, resulted in a lot of great shots. We see its weakness here when he has to trade in the big set for the second unit in Tinytown.

    There is a town that got flooded when Hoover Dam started operation. Its ruins are still at the bottom of Lake Mead. With another year, maybe Donnor could have sent down a scuba diving camera team.

    The model work in Star Wars was superb.

    Earthquake ran out of money for what was supposed to be the horrific elevator drop scene, with the cartoon blood drops painted in.

    Lois’s suffocation was the only moment I felt was too intense, when I saw Superman in the theater.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “The model work in Star Wars was superb”
      Oh I love to tell this story. Back in the early 1980s I watched the first Star Wars movie on a 4 inch, black & white TV (don’t ask why!). I already knew that they had a heck of a lot of trouble with R2D2 falling over in the sand scene with C-3PO. When I saw this on the tiny B&W screen I saw EVERY cut! 40 years later and I remember it like it was yesterday! Of course, on a really big screen with scale and all that the cuts were invisible. But little 4 inch box was unforgiving!


  8. Thank you, Karl and A Fan Not on Krypton, for making it so beautifully clear why flood scenes can look fake! Then you can go back to the picture where Danny says it starts to go wrong and see water not being fractal in action!

    This inspired me to lift up my current favourite failed miniature disaster effect, which I just rewatched the other day: the burning down of Worthington Hall on Dark Shadows. Flames are another thing that refuse to be miniaturized just in order to be convincing behind a little cardboard cutout of a supposedly burning house. I rushed to check out the post on Episode 736 in darkshadowseveryday, but found to my disappointment that Danny had something else on his mind that day and didn’t give this shot the attention it deserved, even in the blooper section, where it surely earned a place as an honorary blooper, Oh, well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of my favorite 80’s movies that doesn’t get enough recognition, Waxwork, had some great practical special effects, but when the ***spoiler**** is burning down in the final scene, it’s obvious it’s a model because the flames are so big in comparison. I remember when I saw it I said to myself, “Oh this is bad. This is ‘Dark Shadows’ bad.”

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Wow, I had totally forgotten about how Godzilla-esque this part of the movie appeared!
    I do recall feeling a bit underwhelmed by the scale of the disaster after only seeing Hoover Dam and The Golden Gate Bridge being affected.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. You can’t call any miniature bad until you’ve seen the toy tank used in the 1975 Doctor Who story “Robot” (Tom Baker’s first story). It’s at the end of part 3 and the reprise at the beginning of part 4.

    Liked by 3 people

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