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A ‘Close Encounters’ Example of Forced Perspective

by Glenn Erickson Sep 04, 2017

 

 

‘Close Encounters’ awareness is up this week, what with a national mini-release of the 1977 Steven Spielberg hit, so I reached into the bottomless Savant archives for something to show-and-tell. This might be educational for fans of old-school visual effects, in this case, the miniature-making genius of Gregory Jein.

The miniature shop at the Marina Del Rey effects facility for Close Encounters of the Third Kind was full of surprises. Miniature specialist propmaker Gregory Jein had help at times from several modelmakers, mainly Ken Swenson and Michael McMillen. But a great many of the tabletop miniatures for the flying saucer epic were built primarily by Greg alone. He carved the Devil’s Tower mountain and constructed several other landscapes on plywood tables about ten feet in length.

The most complex miniature was not a full model, but a ‘reflections’ model of an auto toll booth, in which Director of Photography of Special Effects Richard Yuricich was tasked with adding the effects of a glowing saucer flying through. On a shoot in San Pedro, Steven Spielberg suddenly decided he wanted a new shot, and had Yuricich line up his 65mm camera at a bridge toll booth to film the action of the cop cars racing left to right. The shot wasn’t in the schedule or the budget, which didn’t please Columbia production head John Veitch. Yuricich had to brainstorm to figure a way to do the shot for next to nothing, and the solution came to him on his drive home.

All Gregory Jein had to work with was a clip of a 65mm shot of the booths. He painstakingly constructed little panes of glass in depth, aligned so that when double-exposed onto the existing shot, reflections would be added of the passing flying saucer (the glowing red ‘Tinkerbell’ dot) as it chased the highway patrolmen: “Hey, that’s Ohio. It costs a quarter.”

Richard Yuricich lined up the shot, and I assisted Greg in plotting it out – mainly, I held up little pieces of plastic while he directed me through the viewfinder, as if I were a surveyor’s assistant. The ‘model’ ended up being this little set of boxes and windows. It worked amazingly well.

Storyboards called out for a wide shots of the crossroads where Power Company employee Roy Neary runs into his first saucers, glowing hot-rods that are apparently in love with our road system. Spielberg wanted a night-for night look where one could see to the horizon, which meant that the shot couldn’t be made in a real location. Bright lights from the saucers were meant to blast down on the road, throw shadows, etc.

As only one angle was needed, Greg Jein was able to solve the problem with a Forced-Perspective tabletop miniature. Quietly, on his own and using photos from the location, Greg built this oddly shaped intersection. The first photo, with editor Larry Robinson checking out the tabletop model, was taken from above, to show the extreme compression in the ‘vanishing point,’ with the supposedly one-hundred-foot section of road distorted to a broad triangle. The sideways-running road is a ribbon, and the fields and additional roads beyond are foreshortened and crammed into less than 1/5 the width of the table.

Note that the camera is on the left, shooting at the funnel-shaped roadway. You can just see the round 65mm film magazine. That camera’s view is the angle shown in the second photo, below.

 

Photo © Copyright 1977 Glenn Erickson

 

In the second image, note the decreasing size of the telephone poles, the detail in the asphalt surface, the ditch, the furrowed crop on the left, and the tiny farm implements and trees in the background. Note the two ‘stop’ signs: they look distant from each other in the photo below, but in the top photo they are revealed to be only inches apart. One is only 1/3 as big as the other.

I believe that in the movie there are no moving shots on this miniature; one could move the camera a little bit, but not much. The tabletop model was much wider than what we see in this second view, which gave the cameramen more latitude for framing in 65mm widescreen.

It seemed to take almost a year to get the Close Encounters visual effects factory up and running, to churn out flying saucer shots. But this miniature and several more were always in the back room as an inspiration for what was to come. In the photo below, the background ‘sky’ is just the brick wall of the former egg factory that was the effects facility.

Photo © Copyright 1977 Glenn Erickson

 

I would later help Gregory Jein get a much larger miniatures effort going for 1941, based in an airport hangar in North Hollywood and shared with A.D. Flowers’ physical effects crew. On Close Encounters things went much more slowly, as Greg completed his impressive artwork piece by piece, before he turned his attention to the mothership.

The effects shop was union/nonunion in an odd way, which mainly meant that they could be sneaky and let a non-union clerk/runner/fetchit person (me) work the editing library, project 70mm dailies, and do a lot of assisting work for Gregory. I also took some of the only photos of the special effects work, and was able to keep a few pictures — any black & white photos you see of flying saucers being filmed in smoke rooms, etc., are probably mine.

It was the most fun of any job I ever had; Doug Trumbull’s shop was closely associated with the facility out in The Valley inventing the wild Star Wars effects, so I had the illusion of being ‘in’ on that historical production as well. Had I wanted to be a cameraman like Hoyt Yeatman, project supervisor Richard Yuricich would have helped me. My interest was in editorial, and the editor in charge of effects wasn’t as generous. So it was a full twelve years before I was able to apply to the Editor’s Guild. The situation for newcomers is much better now.

Glenn Erickson, 9/04/2017

 

Richard Yuricich and Robert Hollister lining up the ‘crossroads’ miniature.
Gregory Jein is just visible on the lower left.

Photo © Copyright 1977 Glenn Erickson

 

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.