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The Making Of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind


A few years ago, director Steve Spielberg and producers Julia and Michael Phillips met with the top executives of Columbia Pictures to outline the project that $19 million dollars and countless man-hours later would be the enormously successful CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Spielberg described his original story of ordinary Mid-Westerners whose lives are turned topsy-turvy by sighting several UFO’s (close encounters of the first kind), who can’t deny the physical evidence left by the mysterious ships (close encounters of the second kind) and their struggles— by turns desperate, hilarious, and touching—to make sense of what has happened. Meanwhile, an international scientific team (headed by Francois Truf- faut in a rare acting appearance in another director’s movie) makes radio contact with what seem to be extraterrestrial beings and prepares a secret landing strip to welcome them (a close en counter of the third kind). Despite the official cover-ups and stringent security, a widow (Melinda Dillon) who’s seen her little boy disappear into a UFO and a utility lineman (Richard Dreyfuss) who’s let his marriage and job disintegrate while trying to puzzle out the music and visions resulting from his “close encounter,” manage to sneak into the wilderness landing site. According to one Columbia executive, at this point in the meeting Spielberg brought out a scale model of the massive set he envisioned for the extraordinary installation, then held the studio brass spellbound while he described the special effects for the film’s climax: roiling clouds, smaller ships buzzing the site, making formations, hovering, passing overhead, the monolithic, glowing “mother ship” coming closer and closer, the landing, the first communication between earthlings and the luminous ship in waves of music and sound and finally— who and what would emerge from the ship for a “close encounter of the third kind.” Afterwards the Columbia people privately decided it was “great, but he’d never pull it off completely. It just couldn’t happen.” But even if Spielberg fell short of his own exceedingly high standards, he’d still end up with enough audience-grabbing excitement to more than justify the studio’s hefty investment. But on the morning after the worldwide press premiere, the Columbia spokesman conceded with a grin that “Spielberg real ly made it all happen. Everything he promised—and more!” The subject was a natural for the 29- year-old wunderkind, an admitted “gadget freak” and UFO enthusiast. His fascination with the possibilities of con tact with extraterrestrial beings dates back to his high school years when he turned out a2’/j hour, 8mm film on the subject for $500. “But it was all very hard- edged and sci-fi,” he said. “Things with jaws came out of the ships to gobble up everything in sight.” A much more optimistic and benevolent vision informs CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, which Spielberg prefers to call “science speculation” rather than science fiction. According to Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer, astrophysicist, and UFO authority who served as technical consultant on the film, the director did his homework very thoroughly. The wizardry of the special effects department, headed Douglas Trumbull of 2001 fame, is actually based on verified UFO sightings, or is simply a logical extension of documented reports. No one, Dr. Hynek explained, has ever claimed to see anything as enormous as the vibrating, pulsating, luminous “mother ship” that draws gasps and applause from the audience. But reports of objects resembling “little mother ships” come in from around the world at the rate of 100 a day. Dr. Hynek was an avowed skeptic when he began to investigate the controversial subject for the Air Force in the 1940’s. In 20 years, he looked into some 12,600 reported sightings. Not surprisingly, some 95% of the “UFO’s” turned out to be weather balloons, satellites—even the planet Venus. But the remaining 5% couldn’t be neatly dismissed. Hynek parted company with the military when he “could no longer, in good conscience, keep calling everything ‘swamp gas.’ Moreover, the fact that reports from South America and Asia tallied with reports from this country wasn’t easily explained away.” And UFO’s aren’t sighted only by people who consult their Ouija boards twice daily: commercial pilots, radar technicians, and a host of solid citizens including President Carter have gone on record about their “close en counters.” But Spielberg took the next imagination-stretching step beyond reality to put a stellar fleet of UFO’s, and their occupants, plus a dazzling array of celestial storms, power blackouts, and electronics-gone-wild on the 70mm screen. To do it, he and special effects supervisor Doug Trumbull put together a crew of more than 40 model makers, animators, optical effects people, matte artists, electronics engineers, camera operators, and assistants. For CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, Trumbull and his company converted an entire 13,500 square foot building into a complete movie studio with a film processing lab, optical printing and editing departments, special effects “stages” with built-in horizontal and vertical dolly tracks and electronically-operated control booths, wood shop, metal shop, paint shop, and a special shop for miniature construction. There were even in-house facilities for equipment maintenance and an R&D department for Trumbull’s endless experiments.

As elaborate as the special effects set  up was, it was rivaled by some of the actual locations. While outdoor backdrops  for the climactic sequences were shot at  the stark "Devil's Tower" in a desolate  area of Wyoming, Spielberg wanted the  control only possible on a soundstage for  the critical closer shots. Hollywood simply couldn't provide a stage big enough for  the spectacular UFO landing site, so the  company took over a World War II dirigible hangar on the outskirts of Mobile,  Alabama, and converted it into a  soundstage 6 times larger than anything  available in Los Angeles.  The set measured 450' long, 250' wide,  and 90' high; its construction required  54,000 board feet (about 10 miles!) of  lumber, 19,000' of steel scaffolding,  29,500' of nylon canopy, 16,800' of  fiberglass, 2 miles of steel cable, 5000  yards of cloth backing, 150 tons of air conditioning, 26,000 square yards of concrete  slabs, 7000 yards of sand and clay fill, and  enough concrete fill to re-build the  Washington Monument. The electronic gear on the set drew  more than 4 million kilowatts when all the  equipment was running simultaneously  (the equivalent of 35,000 amperes). To  put that figure in perspective, keep in  mind that the average home pulls around  70 amps on the rare occasions when all  appliances are on simultaneously.  Life imitated art during the shooting in  that the security surrounding the actual  hangar set was as stringent in reality as  the fictional government cover-up that  plays so prominent a part in the story  line. (Just by the way, Spielberg used  2000 extras plus whole herds of sheep and  cattle to film the evacuation of the landing site area.) A heavy private security  force surrounded the set 24 hours a day;  cast and crew were forbidden to discuss  details of the plot; and Columbia clamped  a tight lid on pre-release details and  visuals. In a beautifully orchestrated  publicity campaign, an ample supply of  "teasers" were available months before  the press premiere: background material  on UFO's, bios, beautiful graphics of star-  filled skies. But production stills or  storylines? Nope—not even a hint!  blackout primarily to preserve the  wonder, surprise, and sheer delight that  comes from seeing all the startling effects  in dramatic context. And, he admitted,  he didn't want his concepts "borrowed"  by, say, a TV movie-of-the-week. "If word  really got around," he said, "I was afraid  we'd see something quite similar to our  story on all three networks while we were  still in post-production."  Such fears were well-grounded, since  editor Michael Kahn and two assistants  worked with Spielberg for over a year on  cutting. Mixing composer John Williams's  elaborate score, using a special Dolby  system, was another massive task. And, of  course, fine-tuning all the intricate effects  was, according to Doug Trumbull, "the  biggest challenge I've ever undertaken."  Spielberg frankly admits he was a  perfectionist about every one of the  thousands of big and small details. The  otherwordly special effects had to mesh  perfectly with the prosaic reality of suburban kitchens, highways, and battered  pickup trucks. Not surprisingly, the director enlisted Vilmos Zsigmond, A.S.C., as  Director of Photography, Douglas  Slocombe, B.S.C., to direct the sequences  in India, as well as William Fraker,  A.S.C., John Alonzo, A.S.C., and Frank  Stanley, A.S.C.  Spielberg explained that he had so  many brilliant D.P.'s mainly because "I  couldn't decide when to stop shooting.  Vilmos did the original principal  photography with me, but then during  editing my ideas on the story changed and  I decided I needed additional scenes. By  that time Vilmos was on another project  so I called on Bill Fraker. After Bill did  the wonderful desert sequences with me, I  thought I was finished—but then further  down the road I needed more and Bill  wasn't available. So I called on John  Alonzo—and so it went."  Spielberg was still adding and subtracting from the final cut until very shortly  before the first press screening. He gained  a reputation as a master orchestrator of  audience response with JAWS, but claims  he can only do his final honing and tinkering after previewing the film for a real  audience. So Spielberg scheduled sneak  previews in Texas 2 weeks before the official press opening. Audience feedback  was overwhelmingly positive, but the  director still felt compelled to snip a few  minutes there and add a bit here to fix  what he felt were less than perfect  moments.  The final product has been hailed by  critics as "more affecting than STAR  WARS," "spectacular," "profound,"  even "mystical"—adjectives that sound  overblown only if you haven't seen the  film. Glorious special effects mesh  seamlessly with a suspenseful, touching  story and the result is both thoroughly  entertaining and highly thought- provoking. It's not hard to understand  why pre-release rumors brought Columbia's stock to new highs, why the studio  has sunk nearly $10 million into the  advertising campaign, and why exhibitors  put up $20 million in guarantees sight un  seen. Even if Spielberg's track record with  JAWS weren't enough to start a box- office stampede, Spielberg and company  have given us in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS  a dazzlingly optimistic vision of extra  terrestrial contact that could, he says,  "happen next week, or today, or even last  week."  To bring CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to  the screen, Spielberg stretched the limits  of the possible in terms of concept,  technology, equipment, and techniques.  And in the aftermath, the director says  he's mainly "glad it's over, because now I  can look at the sky again without worrying about whether it's black enough, or if  the ship's bright enough, or positioned  right, or whether we need another generation. I can just go out and look at the sky  and see stare." Stars—and maybe, some  day, something else?

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