Saturday, 4 December 2010

The green menace

There are some things in life you don't expect. Some are nice. Some are nasty. Some take the form of giant Egyptian temples buried below the surface of California desert. The latter is not some bonkers Chariot of the Gods lark, but actually the set built by Cecil B. DeMille for his 1923 epic The Ten Commandments. In those days film sets were built to last, so much so that when shooting finished it was easier to bury the structures rather than carry out dilapidations.

I was watching the DVD extras to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and came to the sections showing the actors on set. The "set" consisted of a few items of furniture on an enormous green-screen stage. This will be no surprise to anyone who has seen the film as pretty much every shot has some serious digital enhancement. However, it struck me that film making has moved so far that the day-to-day life on set would be wholly unrecognisable to DeMille. Think of the utter mind-bending joy Julia Faye must have felt when she walked onto that 1:1 scale replica of Egypt in 1923 and how she must have relished playing the Pharaoh's wife amidst those exquisitely carved plaster columns. And now think of how difficult and disappointing it must be for Johnny Depp to walk onto a green-screen set today and be greeted by a bloke in a green gimp suit.

Perversely, directors and set designers are less fettered by budget and logistics than they ever were before. Yet I don't think this makes for better films, as the lacklustre CGI-fest finale to AiW (and, indeed, most other blockbusters) shows. You want a winged unicorn to burst out of an cave lit by glowing, animated urinals? Fine. Oh, you want the urinals to change colour? Fine, that'll be $5,000 extra, and we'll throw in some talking rabbits. No one will expect those! Least of all in the California desert...

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