Friday, 7 March 2014

The Joy of FX

Long before digital effects, a Wizard once created real magic with ancient knowledge and some help from his friends.

The Wonderful World of Disney possibly formed a part of everyone’s early Sunday  evening childhood's: the anticipation of a good cartoon being dashed most weeks by another voice-overed ‘wandering dog’ saga.
But one instalment, screened in 1980, delivered something entirely different: a funny, exciting almost post-modern ‘promotion’ for Disney’s big budget hat-throw into the Star Wars ring: The Black Hole. That movie itself seems to have disappeared over its own event horizon (perhaps deservedly) but this promotional WWoD episode, called Major Effects, was so brilliantly weird that I wondered if I had dreamt half of it until I found an entry on Wikipedia recently.

Hosted by the unfortunately-named Joseph Bottoms as ‘Major Effects’ an inept caped wonder who anticipated the Greatest American Hero series by at least a year, the following hour revelled in the magic of movie special effects. Interspersed with clips from The Black Hole (which Bottoms also starred in), the absolute stand-out in all this mayhem was a somewhat ‘trippy’ sequence called The Wizard of Speed and Time.
I strongly suspect words will fail me in trying to describe it, so please take a look for yourself.

OK, it has dated, and the stop motion (‘Time’) at the end is a little creaky, but isn’t that high-velocity opening (‘Speed’) entertaining in a delirious sort of way?
An interviewer exclaimed that the ‘locomotive race’ was far more convincing than a similar scene in Superman the Movie (well, it couldn’t have been worse) which Star/director/animator/vocalist/ effects designer and possible co-creator of the ‘smiley’ Mike Jittlov modestly brushed off.
“The train was going 100mph”, he explained helpfully, “I was running 200.”

But what he’s actually doing is running along side a slow-moving freight train, and the sequence was then speeded up.  Sounds simple? Not at all – in this and all other running sequences Jittlov (and his ‘hitch-hiker’) is actually turning himself into a human stop-motion puppet – moving his body incrementally and performing at a massively slowed-down rate.  An hour of gestures, expressions and head and eye movements all translated into a single second of screen time.
Jittlov described his co-star Toni Handcock as a ‘bundle of joy’ – still can’t be easy holding this pose, though…
The ‘creaky’ stop motion sequence with the film equipment suddenly becomes an incredible achievement when you consider that Jittlov is also present - performing at the same fractional rate as the ‘inanimate’ objects.  With a handful of extremely talented friends he is making new breakthroughs in techniques which date back to the very dawn of motion pictures.

To have created this short, which even features him briefly running up and along a wall (you’ll never guess how they did that*), on a microscopic budget begins to look like real magic.
When asked why he didn’t employ the expensive, computer-controlled camera systems pioneered by the then-titans of visual effects, John Star Wars Dykstra and Douglas Close Encounters Trumbull, Jittlov replied: “Ah, but can John or Doug act and sing?”

Mike Jittlov went on to expand The Wizard of Speed and Time into a full length film in 1989 – so far unreleased on DVD, and I’ve never seen it. Legendary pulp artist Kelly Freas painted the poster though, so that’s one thing in its favour already.

The ‘Speed’ and ‘Time’ sequences were completely re-filmed (He actually went through all that again!) and reversed in order, to form the climax of the film.  Although more polished and technically proficient (see link below) to me the original short from ten years earlier has an endearing, spontaneous lunacy which can’t be equalled.

I must confess, Major Effects and especially the ‘sprinting sorcerer’ contributed hugely to my early interest in the film industry, leading to my first-ever job being with a production company.  Thanks Uncle Walt: see what happens when you don’t just palm us off with another gabby dog story?

Mike Jittlov – a real Wizard?
* Jittlov claims he jumped up against the wall multiple times while his friend photographed him at just the right split-second, and then cut the resulting frames together.   Beat that Matrix!

No comments:

Post a Comment