The (Oscar Winning) Boys are Back in Town: Craig Barron and Ben Burtt Present Gunga Din at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival
April 10, 2015
(To be honest, I don't think they live too far out of town...)
During our final Social Producers meeting on Sunday morning, we were all asked to name our personal highlight of the festival thus far. To my surprise, almost everyone mentioned a different movie or presentation, which reminded me of the sheer variety and immense quantity of movies included in this year's festival. When my turn came, I had two answers; so far, a highlight from the first three days for me was the Saturday evening presentation of Return of the Dream Machine. However, my guess was that my favorite event would be one taking place hours later when Oscar winning duo Craig Barron (visual effects) and Ben Burtt (sound effects) would take the stage at the Egyptian Theater for an "Academy Conversations" presentation on 1939's Gunga Din.
From the start, Ben Burtt (left) and Craig Barron (right) set this discussion up to be pretty epic, just like the film. (Photo credit TCM)
I went on to say that if anyone hadn’t yet experienced one of Burtt and Barron’s presentations, they were seriously missing out and should consider attending. When discussing TCMFF and the two Oscar winners in particular, I sometimes refer to myself as a Burtt and Barron groupie; I’m always on the lookout for any events they put on in or around LA and make sure their presentations are on my calendar...sometimes months in advance.
The first time I attended one of their informative, yet very entertaining lectures was at the 2013 festival, where they took a look behind the scenes of the making of Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). Generally, I’m not a big fan/I know nothing about technology, and I really only went to say hi to Burtt, who is a graduate of my tiny, tiny PA college. However, I found their lecture fascinating, and, most astonishing to me, understandable! Since then, I’ve made it a point to make it to their events, which has included their presentation of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) at TCMFF in 2014, and their special event at the Academy, also in 2014, called “Hollywood Takes to the Air," an exploration of the history of aviation in the movies.
Burtt and Barron discuss some behind the scenes footage from Tarzan Finds a Son! at TCMFF 2013. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
The line for Gunga Din on Sunday afternoon was pleasantly long. Since their first TCM festival appearance in 2013, I feel like Burtt and Barron’s discussions have skyrocketed in attendance and popularity; in fact, the theater was quite packed for this one. Afterwards, I heard from no fewer than seven first timers who greatly enjoyed Burtt and Barron’s presentation, and a few of those people weren't really expecting to! Those statements put a smile on my face. I’m so glad that they are getting the recognition and turnout they deserve.
As is now a trademark of their presentations, Burtt and Barron began their discussion by taking off their 'politically correct hats' (this is a 76 year old action/adventure film about British Imperialism, after all) and donning their Pith hats to dive into the behind the scenes technical history of Gunga Din.
Gunga Din, released in 1939, is a story about three chummy British soldiers (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Victor McLaglen) who, along with native water bearer Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), fight off a murderous cult before they take over the land in British-held India. Months before, in 1938, the Gunga Din cast and crew, including director George Stevens, set out a few hours north of Los Angeles to their main location, Lone Pine, which sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas. There, the crew set up camp for roughly ten weeks and went to work. Though they used a lot of the surrounding land as it stood with only a handful of embellishments (which Burtt and Barron would explain in more detail later), the crew also built a few large sets, including the gold temple and the village, the latter of which was erected in the plains and served as the site for a major battle scene.
It's hard to believe, but no, that temple wasn't there originally.
In addition to their research, Burtt and Barron were also allowed to share home movie footage taken on set by director George Stevens and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., thanks to the kindness of The Academy (Cary Grant was in some of the film with his own 16mm camera, but I'm not sure if we saw any of his footage). As usual, the cast and crew goofed for the camera - which included Cary Grant hilariously/suggestively eyeing a gold painting on the temple - but that wasn't the only thing we took away from the home movie footage. Interestingly, Stevens' 16mm camera was a color one, and that combined with the fact that it was handheld and not heavy and relatively stationary like the studio cameras, gave his behind the scenes footage a contemporary feel.
In contrast, that modern touch revealed just how rough and tumble the many stunts in the film were, particularly in the scenes we saw during the battle in the village. The footage revealed that the stuntmen took a beating, and many were shown falling off rooftops to a padded (and sometimes not) surface below, throwing items that looked like they were most likely dangerous, and in general being pushed around...a lot. Burtt and Barron intercut Stevens' color film with examples from the finished picture to compare and contrast takes and demonstrate just how much effort went into those fight scenes that look so seamless in the finished product.
As I now expect of Burtt and Barron's presentations, the duo headed out to the locations to do some investigating to compare locations in the film with the modern day environment for both visual and sound purposes. Naturally, they captured their hijinks on camera and shared them with us, which is always a highlight for the audience.
One sequence the men revisited featured Grant, Jaffe, an elephant named Anna Mae (called Annie in the movie)...and a rickety suspension bridge. The men used a drone, the "latest technology for finding locations for TCM," Barron joked, to pinpoint the correct two anchor rocks that faced each other at the appropriate distance (which seemed like it would be difficult cause there were a lot of rocks in that area that looked pretty similar). Besides rigging up a suspension bridge, the crew also built a small platform on one of the rocks that Anna Mae could stand on (and how they got her up there must have been another story!). Using home movie footage taken during production, it's easy to tell that there's only about a 10 foot drop to the ground, but of course, it doesn't appear that way in the film.
In another astonishing reveal, this scene wasn't actually filmed over a rushing river. Shocking, I know.
So how was the sense of danger added? Well, a matte painting, created by an artist on a piece of glass that probably measured about three feet across, was used for the bottom half of the image to create the illusion of a deep valley, which we saw in various images the men shared. To create even more peril, the decision was made to add a flowing river in the base of the valley, and the various elements of the shot were put together on an optical printer to create the final illusion. Barron added that they know how these effects were created because the Academy holds the workbooks of Linwood Dunn, the head of RKO's Optical Effects Department. Dunn's papers, along with books such as RKO Pictures Trick Camera (trick camera being the term for visual effects back then), break down all the elements used for sequences such as this.
The second scene that required matte painting involved a cliff and another body of water - a real lake this time. In this brief battle scene, men plummet over the cliff's edge into the water below. In this case, the water was real, but the cliff was not, and a miniature cliff six feet high was placed close to the camera so it would appear much larger against the rest of the background. As for the bodies, well, since the rock wasn't real, they weren't either: dummies attached to wires were tossed into the lagoon. This sequence apparently was filmed at Lake Sherwood, just outside of Los Angeles. Funnily enough, when Burtt and Barron ventured north to scout the location, they found out the scene was filmed in what is now someone's backyard. Whoops!
I hope they wore these pith hats while scouting the locations! (Photo credit TCM)
From there, Burtt turned the program's focus to the sound elements of the film. He began by sharing a few behind the scenes photos of the production recordist on his sound cart, which featured a bell to signal when he was ready to record.
Similar to the Visual Effects book Barron discovered, Burtt also uncovered a work that outlined the sounds RKO recorded and what specific effect each was to be used for. For example, a page of entries he showed us detailed specific gun shots and what type each was paired with. Naturally, to compare with the film, the duo ventured out into the Canyons of Lone Pine - specifically Movie Road, a smooth access road the camera would run along to capture chases, running sequences, etc - to record some gun shots there. Ironically, they greatly differed from the film: the modern day test shots echoed very loudly compared to the gunshot in the film, which sounded more like slingshot.
The funniest part of the presentation, to me, was when Burtt and Barron tried to recreate Gunga Din's famous bugle call. They warned the audience - it was a hot, dry day, so of course that made it so much harder - but the outcome was quite hilarious. To make it even better, they cross cut their bugle attempts with Gunga Din's in the film, which served to woefully underplay their humorous attempts.
If I could photoshop, I would swap Burtt and Barron's head for Sam Jaffe's, pictured here.
Interestingly, Burtt and Barron also came across 16mm footage from the set featuring explosions, but the explosions weren't special effects used in the film, so they weren't sure why they were set up in the first place. A thought was that RKO may have filmed their stock explosion there, since it was an ideal location with the rocks and canyons to capture the sound with an appropriate reverberation.
Burtt and Barron closed the presentation with a compilation of home video footage from the set which captured the spirit of friendship and loyalty among the cast and crew. This camaraderie mirrored Gunga Din's plot and served as a great lead in for the film we were about to see.
Though this discussion was less tech heavy than their previous ones (and it didn't turn out to be my favorite event of the festival), the pair did an excellent job, as usual, and it was still a rollicking good time!