Article – Blue screen acting

[This article originally appeared in Premiere magazine.]

Movie Magic: Do You See What I See?

The way we see it in the movies, the cast of Close Encounters of the Third Kind stares awestruck at a landing spaceship; the family in Poltergeistscreams at the malevolent spirits inhabiting its house; and Superman takes Lois Lane for a romantic spin over Manhattan’s skyline.  But the fact is, as these scenes were being filmed, the actors had nothing more than a flashlight to stare at, a stick to scream at, and a bare floor to admire while in flight.

The technique is called blue-screen acting, and according to those who have done it, it is incredibly difficult.  JoBeth Williams recalls askingPoltergeist director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg, “what are we screaming at?”  Their answer: “We don’t really know, but it is really scary.”

The reason it’s called blue-screen acting is that the actors perform in front of a luminous blue screen, which in the final film will be replaced by images that either don’t exist or are too expensive to reproduce.  For instance, to create the zero-gravity environment of the spirit world, the embattled family of Poltergeist II was dangled on wires in front of the blue screen.

The shot is then rephotographed through filters that make anything blue appear black, so the actors appear to be in space.  This is called the master shot, which lastly is exposed onto the appropriate background, a process similar to making a double exposure.

During the filing of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, says actor Henry Thomas, director Spielberg him through his blue-screen scenes, coaching him on the emotions he should be feeling.  Thomas describes his flying-bicycle sequence: “The thing I found hardest while doing that was laughing, because they’re just moving you up and down on a bike on a dolly, and you’re just looking down a few feet to the ground.  If anyone saw it, they would think it was so ridiculous — the bike bobbing up and down and me screaming for joy, saying, ‘Wow! Yeah!’  It was weird.”

For a showdown with William Shatner in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Ricardo Montalban has only an empty screen to shout at.  “Here was this passionate scene of vengeance and repartee,” says Montalban, “and I’m getting my lines from the script girl.”  Shatner filmed his responses from the bridge of the Enterprise some ten days later.

Sticks are often used in blue-screen acting to ensure the actors’ sight lines are consistent.  It wouldn’t do, for instance, to have the 300-plus cast members of Close Encounters staring at different points in the sky.

Bob Balaban, who played a scientist’s assistant in the movie, remembers “months and months of walking from the left to the right and looking up and seeing things when there was absolutely nothing there.  It is rather easy to forget what’s happening, and it all seems kind of silly.”  What actually went through his head during those moments?  “Are we going to eat lunch,” says Balaban, “or are we going to get Popsicles today?”

But sometimes sticks don’t produce the desired effect.  For the scene in Close Encounters in which actress Melinda Dillon’s young son is supposed to stare in wonderment at the alien, he was actually staring in wonderment at a makeup man dressed in a bunny suit.

— Don Lipper