MOVIES : Reality Bites Back : It’s just about all make-believe for Robert Zemeckis, one of Hollywood’s biggest special-effects directors. But ‘Forrest Gump’ is a whole new techno-game

<i> David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Robert Zemeckis didn’t set out to become a techno-wonk filmmaker. But once he became one, he became one of Hollywood’s most accomplished.

“I don’t love ‘em,” he says of effects-driven movies. “I got associated with them in the first ‘Back to the Future.’ It’s interesting--people say, ‘That was a big effects movie.’ But there were only 30 shots (employing effects), and those were mostly lightning. They weren’t that complicated. But the story was science fiction, so people assumed it had all these special effects.”

Before “Back to the Future,” Zemeckis had directed the nostalgic “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the gleefully black comedy “Used Cars” and the charming adventure yarn “Romancing the Stone.” Since then, his films have been ground-breaking entertainments that have redefined the potentials of movie technology.


“In films that Bob Zemeckis makes, 20% of everything he wants to do is impossible up to that point,” says Ken Ralston, who at Industrial Light & Magic routinely makes the impossible possible. Ralston has served as special effects supervisor for six Zemeckis films, including his latest, “Forrest Gump,” and has won two of his four Oscars for Zemeckis films: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Death Becomes Her.”

“I don’t enjoy the actual drudgery of working on effects at times; it’s like watching paint dry,” Zemeckis says. “But I do enjoy the spectacle of movie illusion. It’s always been one and the same for me. I always chuckle when I hear actors talk about the reality of a scene--they’re making a movie. How can you talk about the reality of a scene when you have 70 technicians standing around and lights and cameras? It’s all fake. You’re using all sorts of illusion to create a story. So visual effects are just an extension to that, in my mind.”


Illusion jumps a light year or two in “Forrest Gump.” The movie serves as something of a quirky, collective-memory history of the past four decades, as seen through the eyes of a simpleton who somehow inadvertently manages to influence and profoundly affect history (he teaches Elvis Presley some impressive gyrations, subverts racism in Alabama and, moreover, alerts security guards at the Watergate Hotel of certain suspect activities).

Tom Hanks stars as the Gump in question, a young man whose vacuous innocence unwittingly propels him to ever greater fates. Forrest manages, through minimal intellectual involvement of his own, to become a football hero at the University of Alabama, a war hero in Vietnam, a Ping-Pong hero in China and a quintessentially dumb-luck American entrepreneur.

With deep emotional underpinnings, it’s not the sort of frenetic comedy that one would expect from Zemeckis. “One of the first conversations we had about this movie,” Hanks recalls, “was that this movie broke all his rules drilled into him to work on basic storytelling levels. There’s no jeopardy. There’s no clock running. Bob is a master at explaining the illogical, as in the ‘Back to the Future’ movies, and having them make sense. But this is the opposite. He had to take this emotional story and put it in the trappings of a special effects epic in a way that was so natural, it served the human elements of the story, instead of how he usually works, where it serves the fantastic elements of the story.”

“It’s not a special effects film at all,” Ralston says. “It’s an interesting way to use them, to blend them in, in subtle ways.”


At the same time, it advances in some profound and potentially controversial ways the cause of movie special effects.

“There are bodies lying everywhere at ILM,” Ralston jokes. “I don’t know why we do it. This came awfully close to impossible but we knew it could be solved.”

Surmounting the insurmountable is nothing new for Zemeckis. “On ‘Roger Rabbit,’ we designed a new camera,” Ralston recalls. “It was a huge gamble, we were building these cameras before the show, and there was no time for testing them out. We weren’t sure how they would be operating. It was a tremendous leap of faith, a frightening time.”

Zemeckis shrugs off the gamble of plunging into a movie unsure of whether crucial effects upon which the success of the movie hinge can actually be executed. “You’re hanging out there, the whole film rests on whether this illusion works or not, but the whole film also rests upon whether I make the correct casting choice for this actor,” he says. “And the whole film also rests on the fact of whether the screenplay works. If there’s something wrong in the screenplay, and I can’t see what the flaw is, then the film won’t work. You’re always in this state of second-guessing yourself. You’re very nervous making movies. Movies are completely finished before you know if it works or not.”

Many of the effects in the movie will easily go unnoticed, as they merely augmented existing visuals--adding helicopters to the sky in Vietnam scenes, circling the Reflecting Pool in Washington with thousands of war protesters, removing unwanted minutiae from the backgrounds of shots.

But the effect that will have audiences talking this summer is one in which Hanks’ character is inserted seamlessly into old newsreel footage, and is seen conversing and physically interacting with such luminaries as John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, even Dick Cavett and John Lennon. Primitive versions of this effect have been seen in movies like “Zelig” and even last summer’s “In the Line of Fire,” but the work in Gump is genuinely persuasive.


It wasn’t always so. “They always had this rough matte-box version, and it always looked like hell,” Hanks recalls. “Bob was saying, ‘It’s gonna look great, it’s gonna be wonderful!’ And I saw passes at what they were doing when I did some looping, but it was still rough, or ‘puppety,’ as Bob called it. Then, when the piece was redone, and everything was in place, I was amazed. Johnson puts the medal around Forrest Gump’s head--I was astonished. I was there, and I have no idea how they did that.”

Here’s how:

For scenes in which Hanks meets with presidents, researchers pored through hundreds of hours of newsreel footage, looking for something that approximated what was described in Eric Roth’s script. (Winston Groom’s novel, upon which the film is based, had his hero visit Mars at one point; the filmmakers opted for a more earthbound, realistic Gump.)

For example, Roth originally had Gump meet Kennedy in the Rose Garden. No workable clip was located, so the action was moved to the Oval Office, where in the original footage, Kennedy was greeting Peace Corps volunteers. Roth rewrote the scene to the length specifications of the available footage.

“We looked at the footage and tried to estimate how high the camera was off the ground, and (how) far it was from the subject,” Ralston says. “That was all guesswork, and then we tried to duplicate the same situation. The problem was a lot of this footage was hand-held, and the camera would bob and weave, and there was a lot of amateurish zooming in and out--duplicating that was murder. We also had to duplicate the lighting, copying daylight with interior lighting.”

“Tom studied the raw footage, and I told him, ‘We’re putting you right here,’ ” Zemeckis explains. “He has a picture in his mind of what it will look like and we have him hit very specific marks, like choreographing a dance number.”

“All the scenes were shot a great many ways,” Hanks recalls. For blue screen shots, which are taken against a blue background that is later replaced by the desired image, he says, “I had to shift my gaze from different pieces of tape hanging from wires. There were different angles and a lot of repetition, but it wasn’t hard, not even particularly boring. We worked at such a whip-crack pace. I’d be doing different scenes on one stage, then change costumes and run to the blue screen with the ILM guys.”

Not only was Hanks placed into Kennedy’s realm, but Kennedy was moved into the filmmaker’s world.


“They built sets and cast the parts of the people in the newsreel footage,” Hanks says. “Then they had a look-alike act out the entire scene with a multi-camera setup.” Kennedy was digitally placed in the Oval Office set.

“Then we took the footage to ILM and scanned it into the computer, frame by single, horrible frame,” Ralston recalls, almost groaning at the memory. “We matched the camera movement and the placement of Tom. We would move him a few pixels left or right in the picture, which would make or break the shot--he had to genuinely be in Kennedy’s eye-line. We grafted out another person. In the original footage, Kennedy was shaking hands with a woman.”

The mouths of the presidents were also digitally altered so that they could recite the lines Roth had written for them and that were spoken by imitators. “These figures are so familiar--if you put in a different mouth, of a look-alike, they weren’t the same characters. It was painstaking work; we’d have to take mouths from other shots and other pictures of them, and put them in.” Kennedy was also digitally reconstructed for the parts of shots in which Hanks passes before him.

Finally, another team would go in to make the new footage look as aged and scratchy and grainy as the newsreel footage, and add the appropriate shadows. One such sequence would take approximately eight or nine months to complete.

As fancifully as this technology is used in “Forrest Gump,” the filmmakers are aware that it can be used in devastating and unethical ways in the future. For example, a politician running a smear campaign could doctor footage to make his opponent espousing unpopular or flat-out crazy viewpoints.

“We’ve opened up a whole new can of worms,” Ralston admits. “My feeling is that this is a gentle nudge, pointing out the possibilities of a potentially horrific problem. We got the rights to the footage we used, but what’s legal and what’s moral doesn’t necessarily mix.”


Distorting previous works of film art is also something that artists’ rights groups fear--with this technology, a movie starring Tom Cruise and Humphrey Bogart is not an impossibility. But is it right?

“If you truly believe that film is art, then you may have problems,” Ralston says. “I wonder what Martin Scorsese will think when he sees Tom Hanks in footage from ‘Birth of a Nation’ (an ancestor of Forrest’s is depicted donning the garb of a Klansman). I hope this does open up a discussion.”

“When I saw James Cagney in the Diet Coke commercial, I thought, ‘This is not right, I don’t want to see it,’ ” Hanks says. “I don’t want to see Cary Grant making goo-goo eyes at Paula Abdul. But who in their right mind would have ever imagined that this technology would ever exist? That you could create an image of a person saying something they had never said before?

“You can use it in an entertaining way, but politically, as well. People believe what they see. What a computer is to a typewriter, this process is to celluloid. It’s a monster, and the lawyers are gonna have a field day.”

Says Zemeckis: “I think it’s like, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, there was a lot of discussion: ‘You mean we’ll be able to mass-produce these words, and that everyone will be able to read them? You can also mass-produce lies with this thing.’ It’s one thing to write false statements by hand, because it takes forever to do it, and the information won’t get out that quickly, but now we have this printing press, and when you write something that isn’t true, that lie can be spread very quickly.

“These techniques are gonna be used to do wonderful things, and they’ll probably be used to do abusive things. I think you just have to be a smart enough person to not take everything at face value. We don’t take everything in the newspaper at face value, and now you can’t look at television images and think that they’re absolutely true, either.”


Despite this controversy, Zemeckis’ eye is on developing even more sophisticated technology in the future.

“Technology’s gonna save us,” he says. “We’ll be able to move faster, once you get this digital imaging system built into your post-production. You can move quicker, you’ll be able to fix images. You won’t spend so many hours trying to get perfect image. I’ll give you a bad example: If, by accident, you didn’t notice the microphone dipped into the frame--now, we have to do another take and take more time--soon, you’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ll graft it out later. Let’s move on.’ Or, ‘Geez, the sun doesn’t look as dramatic as I imagined.’ ‘That’s OK, we’ll put some clouds in later. Let’s move on.’

“Technology will make movies cheaper. I hope it will. The most expensive thing in making movies is manpower--what it costs for man hours, people standing around between shots. In ‘Roger Rabbit,’ we built new cameras which now everyone uses, and motion-control camera systems, and we wrote a lot of digital programming for ‘Death Becomes Her.’ It costs a lot initially, but all filmmakers benefit from these films.”

Ralston says of Zemeckis: “He’s a director with imagination, and he’s also a director with clout. He can do things others don’t have the money or power to do.”

“What’s going to happen in the very near future is that visual effects will be as common as the microphone on a set,” Zemeckis declares. “You’re not going to sit here and ask me about microphone boom technique, but 50 years ago, that’s what your interview would’ve been about: ‘How did you record those three voices at the same time?’ Then, it was a big deal; now, you don’t even think about it. This is new stuff now that will be very commonplace soon.”