Tarzan Finds a Son! (and Technology)
April 3, 2014
Everybody knows Tarzan - there's been a swinging Ape man for every decade and generation. Whether you grew up with cinema's earliest Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, in 1918's Tarzan of the Apes (in which case you are either at least 100 years old or watched on DVD or TV), Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe in the 1933 serial, Gordon Scott in the 50s and 60s, the Disney animated version of the late 90s, or if you're looking forward to Kellan Lutz's turn as the King of the Jungle in 2014's Tarzan (voice only, ladies), it's clear the character holds a special place in film history. I mean, the franchise stretches back almost 100 years, which is quite epic for a character that debuted in writing in 1912. Despite the myriad of reincarnations throughout the years, the Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan films that date back to 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man count for some of the most popular of the Tarzan outings.
Turner Classic Movie's 4th Annual Film Festival in 2013 programmed 1939's Tarzan Finds a Son!, which I attended. Though I'm sure some people went solely to see the movie, that wasn't the case for me. Being TCM, the network brought in not one, but TWO Oscar winners, sound designer Ben Burtt (ET and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) to give a presentation on the technology used in the MGM Tarzan movies. The men paired up in the past to demonstrate the visual and audio techniques behind other classic films, and a similar presentation entitled “Me Tarzan, You Technology” was put on at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2010.
In the interest of full disclosure, the event initially caught my eye solely because Ben Burtt is an alum of my tiny alma mater, Allegheny College; thus, I felt the need to be in his presence and befriend him. To be honest, I am generally confused by technology (getting this blog just to work was...something), especially when it comes to movies. However, I felt as if Burtt and Baron somehow magically knew this, and though both men deal with complex technology on a daily basis, the intriguing glimpse they provided into the Jungle King's world was both informative and incredibly easy to understand.
Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), Boy (John Sheffield), and elephants
Now let's get down to brass tacks. We all know Tarzan lives in the African jungle, but MGM in the 1930s sure as heck wasn't going to send the whole cast and crew down there. Consequently, a soundstage on the MGM lot in Culver City, California stood in for Africa, and most movie goers in the 1930s probably didn't notice the hints of southern California underneath the brush.
Barron started off by explaining that several individual pieces were put together to create just one shot of the movie. Armed with examples of original matte paintings, he demonstrated how the MGM art department skillfully developed several parts of the set through incredibly meticulous pieces of artwork. To enhance the illusion, rear projection was added into the mix for action that simply couldn't be done live; obviously, lions, apes, and other animals weren't running amuck on the MGM lot - only Leo the Lion could do that, naturally.
After walking the audience through these two steps, Barron used a computer simulation to show how the moving parts - projection and actors - and the stationeries - matte printing and props - all fit together. Of course, the pros at MGM worked hard to deliver this coup in a visually stunning way. Talk about organization and precision!
Ben Burtt, left, and Craig Barron, right, showing how rear projection played a large role in the making of the movie. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Barron's demonstrations could easily fill up an entire lecture on their own, but once he wrapped up the visual portion of the afternoon, Burtt swept in and took it away. As a sound designer with famous credits (R2D2 and WALL-E, anyone?), Burtt is understandably amazed by the symphony of sounds that makes up the Tarzan series, including the "holy grail" of them all, the infamous Tarzan call. What exactly is that noise, anyway?
Well, it's not as easy an answer as one may think. Though in later years, actor Johnny Weissmuller claimed full stake in the bellow-shout-scream combo, Burtt was quick to point out the clear differences between Weissmuller's later yell, which was a shorter version heard on a 1958 episode of You Bet Your Life, and the noise that came out of Weissmuller's mouth during Tarzan's MGM years. From there, Burtt amazingly deconstructed the famous sound to figure out what made up the reverberation. Some of the ideas he came up with included a Hyena laugh played backwards, a Yodeler, a Violin G-string, and a cow not milked for days, among others (how you pin point the sound of a cow that hasn't been milked for days is beyond me).
What do all of these have in common?. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
While demonstrating how each of these COMPLETELY SEPARATE noises could have played a role in that infamous yell, it was clear that Burtt put a lot of effort and research into decoding the elements of the sound that so many attempt but few can recreate. Well, add him to that list, as Burtt topped his demonstration with a reconstruction that sounded incredibly authentic. The final verdict: a symphony of a human voice, yodel, and a Clarinet played forward and then backwards.
PS. After the screening, I summoned the courage to approach Burtt. 'This man has an Academy Award. Be cool,' I thought. To my knowledge, I've never spoken to an Oscar winner before, and Burtt was quite surprised that someone from Allegheny was in the audience. He was incredibly nice and took the time to reminisce about the good ol' snowbelt that is northwestern Pennsylvania and his presentation. He even wanted to know what I was up to in Los Angeles! (It was pretty great).