A great article at Blu-Ray.com, by Robert Siegel, features an in-depth look at “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – a Steven Spielberg classic.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was recognized as a motion picture phenomenon. From its first openings, critics were awed. Audiences responded in record numbers. There was vital renewed interest in UFO phenomena, and even that phrase, Close Encounters of the Third Kind became part of our language. A Columbia Presentation in Association with EMI, it came to the screen with impeccable credentials. The writer and director was Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws, among the all-time worldwide boxoffice champions.
Versions of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind laserdiscs, DVDs and Blu-ray contain many extras about the making of the film. When compiling this column, I tried to find other information that may not have been part of some of those extras but that certainly pertain to the film. Enjoy!
UFO’S, The Controversial Phenomenon
“It was shortly after dark and ten or twelve men all watched it. It seemed to move toward us, then partially away, then return, then depart, It was bluish…then reddish…luminous, not solid.” — Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, from his official UFO report submitted when he was Governor of Georgia.
“No direct evidence whatever of a convincing nature now exists for the claim that any UFOs represent spacecraft visiting Earth from another civilization…” — From “The Condon Report,” submitted to the United States Air Force by the scientific team headed by Dr. Edward Condon of the University of Colorado.
The film eschews the sci-fi trappings moviemakers had relied on since Georges Melies fired a plywood rocket at a cardboard moon in the early silent era. Instead, Spielberg rooted his imagery in an awesome body of scientific data, which has been growing daily, ever since “mystery airships”‘ were first “sighted” in the skies over Europe during the late nineteenth century. (These “sightings” were first dismissed as hallucinatory hysteria. But as one investigator later pointed out, “scientific knowledge of powered flight in 1896 and 1897 could not have led to the invention of airships with the characteristics the witnesses described.”)
Spielberg’s guide, as he immersed himself in three decades of UFO detection, was the distinguished astronomer, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, former director of Ohio State University’s MacMillin Observatory. In 1948, Hynek became the nation’s leading UFO sleuth when he was retained by the Air Force to head Project Blue Book, a continuing study of UFO phenomena. Hynek admitted he began the project as a skeptic. Twenty years later, after investigating 12,600 reported sightings, he felt that only the outer shell of a scientific breakthrough had been probed. “About 95% of UFOs turn out to be IFOs — Identified Flying Objects such as advertising planes, Venus, or weather balloons,” he later stated. It was the official attempts to dismiss the remaining 5% as hoaxes and hallucinations which disturbed him.
Most professional UFOlogists refuse to accept either theory, on the grounds that there is insufficient data to support a positive conclusion. But when the answer does come, Hynek predicted, it may shatter some of our most cherished scientific tenets. “Remember that for 99% of his cherished existence, man believed that the earth was the center of the universe,” he points out. “What makes us so certain that our present belief structure is any more sacrosanct?” The sensationalism surrounding close encounters and the risk of public ridicule makes investigating UFO reports — and Close Encounters of the Third Kind particularly — extremely difficult. “A person may not be reluctant to report to friends, or even to the police, that he has seen a strangely behaving light,” says Hynek. “But he has quite a different attitude when it comes to revealing a close encounter with a UFO, particularly if humanoids were involved.”
The concept of extraterrestrial visitors is not as improbable to many scientists as it is to the general public. They reason that since there are billions of suns in the universe, apparently capable of supporting planetary systems, it would be miraculous if we didn’t share the cosmos with other life forms. In Hynek’s view, there is one significant obstacle to accepting a concept of cosmic travel. “As an astronomer,” he points out, “I know what distances are involved and I don’t think people appreciate how vast the universe is.” For an alien civilization; from another solar system to reach us, he continues, it would require technological skills so advanced that our science cannot envision them. Meanwhile, the documentation grows, as more than 100 UFO sightings are reported daily, throughout the world, some 5-10% of which defy identification or rational explanation. A Newsweek story on the subject of contacting other worlds, summed up the speculation this way: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
Taking a step beyond the visions of the past
In an obscure building near the boat basin at Marina del Rey. California, a series of remarkable experiments continued for more than a year. They had nothing to do with the pleasure boats and luxury yachts docked a few hundred yards away. Instead, they were devoted to a different kind of craft which millions of people have imagined and only a few have claimed to have seen. Thirty-four-year-old inventor and filmmaker Douglas Trumbull and a staff of 35 skilled technicians were at work — in well guarded secrecy — envisioning the extraterrestrial vehicles which would fill the sky (and the screen) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This creative imagery is on view when the movie, which probes the mystery of UFO phenomena, is viewed.
These are the picture’s human stars. But following its initial New York and Los Angeles openings, equal credit for what one critic called its “stunning impact” went to Trumbull’s photographic effects, including a climactic 30-minute “visual feast.” An acknowledged leader in his field for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, Trumbull admitted that in Close Encounters of the Third Kind… “we have attempted to take a step beyond the imagery of the past.” The challenge was straightforward — to draw upon documented reports of UFO sightings throughout the world, to create lights, shapes and vehicles which might represent the technology of an advanced society, somewhere in space. His imagination; he admits, was fired by the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who served as the film’s technical adviser. Trumbull is something of a space specialist himself, a reputation he picked up when doing backgrounds for animated films made for NASA and the Apollo 17 program. One of his short subjects, “To the Moon and Beyond,” was a hit of the 1964 World’s Fair. Seen by Kubrick, it led to his assignment on 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Trumbull next created the special effects for “The Andromeda Strain,” then wrote, directed and produced the space drama, “Silent Running.” At first, Spielberg who conceived the visual effect concepts, doubted that Trumbull would agree to design the effects for another director’s film. But there was no one else, he felt, who could cope with the challenge. Spielberg admits he breathed a sigh of relief when he received Trumbull’s rapid response to the draft screenplay: “I feel this is the movie I’ve waited all my life to do. When do we start?” A native of Los Angeles, Trumbull had come a long way since he started as a free-lance technical illustrator, then joined Graphic Arts (a Los Angeles animation house) to do background drawings. The he became vice-president of Future General Corporation, formed in 1973 and was considered one of the world’s leading developers of new motion picture processes and entertainment concepts.
He was not without pure imagination and ideas. These included a new audiovisual ride system for amusement parks, using motion picture film and effects and Shows-can, a revolutionary process for movies to be shown on a mammoth screen larger than any utilized to date. Future General’s expansion had seen it take over four buildings in Marina del Rey, of which the newest structure was acquired solely for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Under Trumbull’s direction, it was transformed into a 13,000-square foot miniature studio, crammed with sophisticated optical and electronic equipment. Included was a unique sound stage completely shrouded in black, it had dolly tracks running both horizontally and vertically, linked to delicate electronic controls. Another advancement which contributed to Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Trumbull’s invention of what is known as a “motion control system.” “Without going into much technical detail,” he explained, “it’s a means of controlling every camera movement — panning, tilting, dollying — to achieve an illusion of reality, while focusing on fantasy, in a way that was impossible before.” Would Trumbull care to describe the process — and his work — in greater detail? “It’s so mind-blowingly complicated,” he admits with a grin, “that sometimes even I don’t fully comprehend it.” In film, he later went on to doing special photographic effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and worked on the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios Orlando. He has recently narrated and appeared in a series of documentaries including Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, made last year.
Dreyfuss and Spielberg reunite
Richard Dreyfuss had been described as a “sought after” young actor. But what pleased him most was that the seekers invariably rank among the industry’s most brilliant and respected directors. His first starring vehicle was “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” for Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. In “American Graffiti,” he worked for George Lucas who went on to make Star Wars. The pounding adventure of Jaws allied him with Steven Spielberg, while “The Goodbye Girl” linked him with Herbert Ross of “Funny Lady” and “The Turning Point.” Dreyfuss was then reunited with Spielberg in what the actor called the most “demanding” and “emotional” effort of his career, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“There are certain people you grow up to regard as sources of wisdom and talent. I used to stay up all night watching television for Fonda’s best work. He has given three or four performances that I think can’t be beaten. For me, Fail Safe’ and The Grapes of Wrath’ were particularly remarkable films,” Dreyfuss stated. He regards Brando as the greatest actor, with a genius for imagination and attention to detail. “He excels in those areas more than any other screen personality,” the young actor said in the interview. De Niro, he believes, is “the best young actor of the generation.” Bogart, Tracy, Cagney and Garfield were earlier stars he worshiped. Some of his other favorites at the time included Jack Nicholson, George C. Scott and Al Pacino. “Watching a great actor at work is always a thrilling experience,” he said. “It teaches you a great deal — including how much there’s still left to learn.”
In an interview with People Magazine in the late 1970’s, he claimed, Jaws, was, I felt, really my first huge challenge, and most of it was physical. The amount of work we did, and the terrible time we had with the shark and filming was at times disheartening, but I took it one day at a time, showed up for work, and we worked it all out. I was absolutely thrilled with the results of Jaws. After the music score was added and the editing was completed, we had a private screening and I just sat there in amazement at what this new director was capable of. That is why I didn’t even hesitate when I was asked to play in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My role in this film is much more emotional, the complete opposite of Jaws. After all, I have to really go bonkers but in a realistic way because it is not the fault of my brain but something that has been put there.” His last few films includedPiranha 3D in which he played a short part in the opening, a take-off of his character Matt Hooper from Jaws, even wearing the famed ocean costume.
Spielberg’s fascination with life in the Galaxy
Close Encounters of the Third Kind follows nearly four years of speculation, curiosity and intrigue. Much of the interest focused on the film’s 30-year-old director, Steven Spielberg, working for the first time from his own screenplay. His first feature, “The Sugarland Express,” had prompted high praise from critics such as the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who called it “…one of the most phenomenal directorial debut films in the history of movies.” Spielberg’s second picture was Jaws of course among the industry’s all-time worldwide box-office champions. WithClose Encounters of the Third Kind Spielberg probed the mystery of UFO phenomena, a subject which has held a lifelong fascination for him. Otherwise, relatively little was revealed about the project. Principal locations were protected by round-the-clock security guards. Those involved were sworn to secrecy. Spielberg insists that while the air of mystery heightened interest in Close Encounters of the Third Kind… that wasn’t its purpose. He and special effects designer Douglas Trumbull were experimenting with new forms of visual imagery. To reveal them prematurely, he believed, would diminish their impact and “spoil the fun.”
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