A Burtt and Barron Special: When Worlds Collide at TCMFF
November 13, 2023
What is TCMFF without a Ben Burtt and Craig Barron presentation? The Oscar winners have been delivering entertaining special effects events at the fest for about a decade now, and their popularity grows with each passing year.
This year, they shined a spotlight on When Worlds Collide (1951). Though I’m not a big sci-fi fan, I’ve actually seen this film before—at the fest! TCM programmed When Worlds Collide in 2019, and I attended that screening because it featured a conversation with star Barbara Rush. This year, I skipped the flick but stayed for the Burtt and Barron discussion. Here are some highlights from their illuminating presentation.
A still from Ben Burtt and Craig Barron's When Worlds Collide presentation. (Photo courtesy Warner Media)
When Worlds Collide was almost a pre-Code directed by Cecil B. DeMille?!
Obviously the phrase “pre-Code” piqued my interest. This is actually a true, albeit random, story. The original novel When Worlds Collide came out in 1933, and at that time, DeMille expressed interested in the story. Rights were secured that year, and Paramount’s writing department held a production meeting to discuss marketability.
Burtt and Barron shared a document that revealed the team was already running through gigantic spectacle ideas. Burtt joked that since it was still the pre-Code era, DeMille could have snuck in some lust, murder, and even orgies. (Seeing DeMille’s other pre-Codes, he probably would have.) Geological events such as earthquakes and tides were mentioned, as were collapsing cities and… smashing kitchens?! That cacophony sure sounded like a DeMille pre-Code. Ultimately, the project was abandoned, which is unfortunate, because I want to see ALL of this, especially the smashing kitchens.
The 1951 version
Almost 20 years later, When Worlds Collide rose once again. George Pal purchased the rights from Paramount in 1949. He was producing Destination Moon (1950) and wanted to take on another sci-fi story. In an ironic turn, Paramount actually bought the script back and brought Pal in as a producer.
The cast, which included the aforementioned Rush, Richard Derr, Peter Hansen, and John Hoyty, was lesser known—for a reason. Pal spent more money on special effects; he aimed to craft the film in a more documentarian manner, and he didn’t want huge movie stars stealing the spotlight.
To that effect, Pal employed several technical heavy hitters behind the scenes. Director Rudolph Maté, a well-known cinematographer, directed the film; in fact, When Worlds Collide was the only sci-fi flick he helmed. On the special effects side, Gordon Jennings and Henry Barndollar are the only people credited. (IMDb also lists Tim Baar, Dick Webb, and Barney Wolff, though I assume many lent their talents.) Burtt and Barron pointed out that Jennings was Paramount’s best visual effects man at the time. His award resume alone was impressive: nine Oscar nominations (two wins in 1942 and 1943), an Honorary Award in 1939, and a Technical Achievement Award in 1945. Chesley Bonestell, a visionary of 1950s space flight, received a Technical Advisor credit for designing the rocketship in the film. Bonestell was well known for his futuristic space paintings and designs for planes that would become a forerunner to the space shuttle.
Presenting: the rocket!
The Rockets Operation Group + the rocket launch
The model makers who worked on When Worlds Collide dubbed themselves the Rockets Operation Group. The team utilized several elements, including metal, plastic, and wood, to craft the surrounding environment for the launch. Pal and the film’s visual designers modeled the rocket after the German V-1 flying bomb. They thought that would make the launch look different than the one in Destination Moon and more visually stunning with the addition of flames.
The sequence seen in the film was a composite shot made up of two separately filmed scenes married together via the optical printer, “a device that was built to make illusions in cinema,” Barron remarked. The rocket was shot with an alcohol torch that was activated by a prompt, and it was engineered and wired to appear as it was picking up speed and taking off. (The wires, which had to be hidden, helped move it along.)
The crew married sound to the visuals to complete the illusion. The sound designers visited Lockheed Martin to record sounds from a secret engine; in fact, it was so secret that they had to stand behind a curtain while they recorded without seeing it! Burtt concluded that they most likely acquired effects from the X7, an early cruise missile that also used a ramp for launch.
The hard work from the entire crew made for a groundbreaking, astonishing trick—and it was all done without CGI! “For an editor, this is kind of a dream situation because it’s the editing of the film which will string these shots together and create a flow of action,” Burtt said.
How they created the impressive effects
When Worlds Collide wasn’t just about the rockets. Burtt and Barron walked us through many of the effects that would come with, well, worlds colliding. Speaking of the title, the collision effect was rather mind-blowing to me, because it was part matte painting by the aforementioned Chesley Bonestell and part planet melting. Well, not exactly. The earth seen in this sequence was crafted out of wax, and the crew slowly melted it with an electric salamander tool while the cameras rolled. From there, they rotated the frame to make it appear as if they planet was being pulled by gravity into the matte painting.
That ‘collide’ in the title would produce some seismic activity, too. Sets for the film’s earthquake sequence were structured on rollers to allow for everything to move on a cue—without, apparently, the actors knowing. This was a pioneering method; usually the camera jerked about to indicate an earthquake.
Burtt commented that Paramount possessed the strongest explosion, crash, and earthquake effects, pushing the envelope as to what could be captured on optical film. The rumbling sound emanated from the rotation of a giant roller filled with rocks and gravel. The sound of rocks turning was a little more intricate: Pal reported that rocks were plunged underwater in a huge tank and subsequently rolled over each other while an underwater mic captured the resulting noise. Wow!
The worlds colliding also caused major flooding in the movie. The destruction sequence was a mashup of action scenes from other Paramount films, and the scene where New York floods was a complex one. A tank was constructed with wooden walls to represent positions of the building in the scene. When released, the water intermingled with the surfaces. Combined with a background stock shot and matte paintings, the resulting composite made it seem that the city was actually under water.
Craig Barron and Ben Burtt on stage during the presentation. (Photo courtesy Warner Media)
Ben Burtt’s memories of the movie
Burtt saw When Worlds Collide as a child when it was re-released in theaters. It certainly had a big effect on him. In particular, he remembers being terrified by some scenes, especially the earthquake sequence, after which he hid under the bathroom sink and remained there until the film ended! He said he was glad when his sister rescued him after the film was over.
A new effect made just for this audience
Apparently, George Pal bragged that they captured effects so mighty that audiences could feel the sound, but as Burtt explained, that just wasn’t possible back in the 1950s due to the frequencies. It is in 2023, though. “Today, right here in this theater, we’re going to fulfill George Pal’s dream,” he proclaimed. With assistance from Boston Light and Sound, 14 subwoofers, and 2000 watts of energy, Burtt promised to revive Sensurround, an audio process built specifically for the movie Earthquake (1974). Bringing the comedy, as always, Burtt changed just one letter and made it: Bensurround! “There will be moments that are loud,” he warned, to which Barron replied: “You can’t go to 11… Because otherwise we’ll all going to be in the bathroom under the sink.” “That’s where I’ll be actually,” Burtt joked.
With that ending, it made it really hard for me to leave, but I have places to be! I was still very glad, as always, to catch another entertaining Burtt and Barron special presentation.
thanks for stopping by!
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