The Antics of Robin Hood, as Presented by Oscar Winners

April 25, 2014

For 2013's TCM Classic Film Festival, the network brought in a pair of Oscar winners, sound editor Ben Burtt (Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), for a behind the scenes look at the technology used in MGM's Tarzan series. The presentation must have been well-received (I know I enjoyed it; I wrote about it here), because the men were welcomed back for a similar discussion at this year's festival on The Adventures of Robin Hood.

 

Barron and Burtt brought a highly appreciated enthusiasm and excitement to the early Sunday morning screening, slipping on swashbuckling caps before delving into the story behind some of the looks and sounds found in the classic, complete with complementary rare still photos and home movie footage that must have taken them a while to round up!

Ben Burtt (left) and Craig Barron (right) kicking things off with their Robin Hood felt hats. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Included in the plethora of behind the scenes images and footage shared with the audience, by far the most interesting and amusing were the home videos from Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy), which featured colored (!) shots of Olivia de Havilland posing with the actor and Patric Knowles (Will Scarlett) clowning around with Errol Flynn (Robin Hood) in a hilarious bit that may or may not have featured the actors flirting for the camera. (Spoiler alert: It did).

Basil Rathbone (left) getting some behind the scenes footage of Olivia de Havilland (right).

The men kicked the morning off with a bit of trivia, revealing that James Cagney was originally up for the role of Robin Hood, and the film was initially set as a comedy. Picture evidence of Cagney donning a bow alongside a group of men and women who belonged to a local archery club, if nothing else, proved the actor was qualified in the physical arena, but can you imagine anyone other than Errol Flynn in those green tights? (No).

I seriously don't think James Cagney could have rocked this look.

Interestingly, two different directors are credited with working on The Adventures of Robin Hood, William Keighley and Michael Curtiz. The short story behind this has to do partly with - what else? - money (and some issues with the footage that was being shot on location). When Keighley began going heavily over budget, Curtiz, who had a reputation for filming quickly and cheaply, was brought in; by that time though, it was too late to salvage the money spent, and the film turned out to be Warner Brothers' most expensive movie up until that time, costing over $2 million. The directors certainly had their differences: Keighley was more easy going and had a habit of standing or sitting right by his actors as they performed so he could hear and see them clearly, and by contrast, Curtiz was more demanding, volatile, and known for yelling at his actors. Whatever methods the two separately employed, the performances and final product luckily turned out splendidly.

 

Visually, there was a lot going on behind the scenes and outside the camera frame that Barron expanded upon for the audience. Several sequences were shot on location in a park near Chino, California and nearby Sherwood Lake and Forest areas, but even so, sets and props still had to be incorporated into the environment to suit the script, partly because the surrounding foliage began turning to fall colors by the time filming started. As an example of this practice, Barron pointed to an amusing photo he found of a fake tree being built into a real tree on set, which would become one of Robin Hood's perching grounds in the movie.

 

As with the Tarzan series, The Adventures of Robin Hood required matte paintings for many sequences, particularly exteriors that featured landscapes and the castle. Barron presented several different examples of scenes, both through still images and computer stimulation, that showcased how many of these shots were achieved: for the most part, stencils were cut out and put over the camera to black out the parts of the frame that would be filled in with the matte paintings later. In today's world, that sounds quite primitive (this was 1938, after all), but the result is surprisingly seamless; I, for one, was shocked at how flawless the final product looked.

An example of one of the matte paintings used in the film. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

A matte with a cut out for where the live action would go. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Another difference between the Tarzan film at the center of last year's presentation and this movie was the fact that The Adventures of Robin Hood was shot in three strip Technicolor using a dye transfer process, whereas Tarzan was photographed and presented in black and white. While this doesn't alter the execution of the visual effects much, it does impact the way audiences today see the film, especially on the big screen.

 

Though shown in a digital format at the TCM Classic Film Festival (from a recent digital restoration), the movie looked surprisingly vibrant considering it's 76 years old. Barron revealed that the movie itself was shot on three separate black and white negatives through filters, and afterwards, the film was dyed the color complimentary to the individual filter used for each negative: cyan for red, magenta for green, and yellow for blue. These negatives were utilized to make separate printing matrices, which were in turn used to superimpose the dyed images on a single strip of film to create the effervescent colors seen on screen.

 

Barron explained the archival advantages of this process: with proper handling and storage, these black and white negatives stay relatively unaltered over time. Thus, if a print of one of these movies is made today, the colors don't appear faded because the original negatives are in black and white. The new print has to be re-dyed, hence the vivid colors - they just have to get the dye right!

 

Speaking of color, those action sequences certainly benefited from the lively burst of Technicolor. Though the audience was shown behind the scenes footage of Errol Flynn tirelessly and precisely rehearsing his sword fighting choreography with fencing master Fred Cavens, Barron revealed that some of the other seemingly daring stunts were actually easier than they appear. For instance, he shared a photo from the set taken during one battle scene in which a character jumps over the side of a wall...onto a mattress not far below.

Don't fall! (Or do...it'll be OK, you'll survive).

On the daring side, though, Burtt added that the arrows shot in the movie were in fact real. Stunt men on the receiving end of the arrows were paid extra and wore a layer of balsa wood on top of a steel plate, which was situated under their costume to catch the tip of the arrow and (partly) absorb the shock. Luckily, no tragic stories ever resulted, or least surfaced, from this practice.

 

Before getting into Burtt's holy grail sound quest for this film, the duo shouted out some of the unsung heroes of the production, particularly the editor, Ralph Dawson, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who composed the music, both of whom won Oscars for their work (a 3rd Oscar was won by Carl Jules Weyl for Art Direction). Dawson apparently received tons of raw footage that he had to wade through; as a result, many of the iconic scenes partly come from the tough decisions he had to make regarding which takes to use and where to place them. As for Korngold, he was actually a composer of operas before moving from Austria to Hollywood to write music for movies. Though excited to work on The Adventures of Robin Hood at first, Korngold was not happy with the final product and tried to get out of his contract. However, before starting work on the film the composer was in Europe, and it quickly became apparent that he and his family members needed to get out of Austria before the Nazis invaded. California, and the job on The Adventures of Robin Hood, provided just the escape he required at the time, and Korngold went on to create a memorably moving score that netted him an Oscar.

 

Burtt then took over to analyze one key sound component of the film, as he did last year when he investigated the chorus of audio bits that made up Tarzan's infamous yell. This year he tackled a smaller yet still very pertinent audio element found in The Adventures of Robin Hood: the resonance of the arrows, one of Burtt's favorite sounds in all of cinema. Burtt noted that the sound the arrows make as they wiz by is amplified in the film, much louder than a regular shot would make. Over the years, the sound designer has thoroughly dedicated himself to figuring out what exactly made up the unique noise, testing everything from violin strings to whistles, all placed on arrows. Though his trials were time consuming, ultimately Burtt uncovered and listened to the original sound from the film, which revealed the noise comes from....an actual arrow.

Those weren't just normal arrows...well, they kind of were.

You'd think his hunt would be over, right? Not exactly. Burtt made it his mission to figure out precisely what type of arrow was used, as the sound was so distinctive. To do this, he rounded up a number of materials that were available in 1938, built special arrows, took them into a studio, and recorded the sound each prototype made - all captured in an amusing demo he played for the audience.

 

The big reveal? Turkey feathers (cut into shapes different from normal arrows) were the culprit, along with a slightly thicker arrow!

Yet again, Burtt and Barron managed to make old school visual and audio tech stand out in an enjoyable way. After their discussion wrapped, those present were treated to an equally entertaining show - the swashbuckling antics of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The film is a perfect picture to watch on the big screen with a packed house, because no one felt shy about enthusiastically cheering along Robin Hood's heroics! (Me included).

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood is available on a variety of (new) technology for home viewing: Blu Ray, DVD, and streaming. (If you can't see the film in a theater, these are all semi-suitable substitutions for your Errol Flynn-in-tights fix, ladies).

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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