Friday, April 2, 2010

No Digital Safety Net

As a wonderful April Fool's Day event, the MGM HD channel screened Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the first time in pristine HD.

This was, for it's time (1963), a gloriously excessive concept: a big-budget, stunt-heavy ensemble comedy, made in the thick of the Epic Film era. It has more in common with mega-widescreen event films like The Longest Day (1962) and King of Kings (1961), big Cinerama releases jammed with big-star roles and cameos. And It's a Mad4 World had pretty much every comedic actor in that era in it-- right down to esoteric cameos by the likes of Buster Keaton, Jessie White, Stan Freberg and Leo Gorcey.

It did the biggest box office of any movie that year, clearing $46.3 million on a budget of $9.4 million. Adjust that for inflation, and the profit ratio becomes even more impressive: In January 2010 dollars, It's a Mad4 World scored the equivalent of $279 million on a $56 million budget. That's $5 in BO for every dollar spent: Avatar has, so far, made just over $3 for every dollar spent.

The story involves a group of random travelers who learn of a fortune ($350,000, or $2,100,000 in 2010 money) and race from the desert to a shoreline park to dig it up. On the way cars, trucks and planes are stolen and crashed, a gas station and a hardware store are demolished, and other general property damage is done all across California.

The stunt work in the film, which I'm sure was hair-raising at the time, has become more impressive with time. Why? No digital sweetening. There are some miniature tricks here and there and some opticals and rear-screen work, but the driving and flying stunts are real. Stuntmen jump out of the way of speeding Dodge Darts with inches to spare. Another one dangles from a tower as a twin-engine airplane veers mere yards away (and later plows through a billboard, a stunt that nearly killed the pilot). People drive at high speed on the wrong side of the road and cars spill, collide and crash everywhere-- all in Ultra Panavision 65 and real time (alright, maybe slightly undercranked).

(another factor that has changed significantly since 1963 is the evolution of automotive construction. All the cars in the film were American lead sleds composed of 100% metal on solid I-beam frames with 8-gauge steel bumpers. You could bash them together all day. If this film was remade now, with bumperless plastic Priuses and Saturns and Camrys duking it out, the race is basically over before it begins.)

It's stuntwork without a digital safety net, gags where you can tell someone is going to get killed if they don't do it right. And not just the stunt doubles: Sid Caesar hurt his back in a fall and Phil Silvers almost drowned in a car sinking in a river. The sense of danger, in knowing the impossibility of convincingly faking it in the pre-digital era, is what gives It's a Mad4 World an enduring (and kind of sickening) authenticity. It's a sort of veracity that, for practical and safety reasons, is seldom seen in new films. Sure, Bruce Willis and Justin Long crouch down to narrowly avoid a flying car in Live Free or Die Hard, but a split second after the gag is over the subconscious processes it as an impressive digital effect, not a death-defying stunt.

I'm looking at that profit ratio above again: It's probably a combination of things, (like the overall decline of moviegoing) but I can't help but wonder if the cost of employing an army of compositors and digital artists is a big factor in the narrower margins of new films. The new Clash of the Titans has a $70m budget, and it has been rumored to be as high as $180 million: With the blistering reviews I've read, It's going to be an uphill climb to get it in the black. All for the spectacle of watching Sam Worthington swat at tennis balls on a green-screen stage.

1 comment:

  1. I need to Netflix this - the last time I saw it was at the Cinerama Dome. I was looking forward to finally seeing a widescreen print instead of the the pan 'n' scan TV version I had known since birth, but the Dome mangement had not been able to obtain one, and they showed a TV print. Not only was it pan 'n' scan, but the top of an bottom of the frame was chopped off.