An artillery of American cavalry on horseback led by Gen. John J. Pershing is seen chasing the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his bandits across the dusty desert in one climactic scene of Wednesday's two-hour opening installment of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" on ABC. The raffish 16-year-old Indy, swept up with the idealistic notion of fighting for justice, has joined Villa's cause in the Mexican Revolution while on summer school break.
The episode was filmed near Almeria, Spain, where a frontier border town was erected in a desolate desert. At one point, more than 500 mounted cavalry soldiers fill up the screen.
The problem for producer George Lucas, however, was that he did not have the budget for 500 paid extras. What he did have was a dozen or so costumed riders on horseback.
So he replicated them, digitally speaking.
Using a visual effects system he is developing, Lucas multiplied digital images of the soldiers into a battle-equipped army, turned one firing cannon into a row of 20 and buzzed the Mexican bandits overhead with a biplane dropping bombs.
The cost-cutting sleight of hand is just one of the unorthodox methods Lucas is employing to bring 17 hours worth of Indiana Jones to television on a budget of $27 million, $5 million less than his last two-hour film, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." As a matter of fact, Lucas has tossed out most established rules of television production to pull off "Young Indiana," which will have shot for 50 weeks in 15 countries around the world when first-season production wraps next month.
Lucas and producer Rick McCallum, whose credits include the critically acclaimed BBC series "The Singing Detective," have cut out all the high-priced producers, writers and union crews that are normally associated with a network TV series.
"There are no other Americans involved other than George and me and the two kids who play Indy," McCallum said recently by phone from Prague. "It's all Europeans and Third World crews. So they have a different attitude toward the work. Money is not their primary reason for working. Most of the crew members actually read the scripts and won't do something unless they really like what they're doing and think it's socially responsible."
Writing the scripts was a collection of offbeat writers, including a mystery novelist and a Wall Street lawyer, who all met at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch retreat for a series of story conferences based on Lucas' ideas. An entire season's worth of scripts was generated before the first day of shooting began.
"The creative advantage is you get to take all the scripts, and you get to interweave them," Lucas said. "So you can take ideas and characters and move them from one script to another as they're developed."
Another reason the scripts were prepared ahead was to plan the complicated shoots. "This is an idea that comes from feature films," explained Lucas, who has directed some second-unit photography but sticks mostly to writing stories and editing the film. "Feature films have the advantage of a lot of prep work, and as a result you're usually able to save a significant amount of money."
The series' directors, in fact, are mostly international filmmakers, ranging from England's Terry Jones ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail") to Sweden's Billie August (1988's Oscar-winning best foreign film, "Pelle the Conqueror") to Australia's Simon Wincer (TV's "Lonesome Dove"). As a result of planning ahead, each director had an average of 15 days to shoot an episode, compared to the eight most TV directors are given.
"The advantage is I can have directors prep for much longer than you can in American television," said McCallum, who was working on an episode with August where young Indy is in Vienna for the first psychoanalytical conference with Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, played by Max von Sydow. "Billie's been a part of this episode for almost a year, and he's worked on the script. We've gone through casting for months. Each director has a chance to prepare a little film."
"Young Indiana" is a period piece on a worldwide scale that takes place at numerous historical landmarks during the turn of the century. Writing ahead helped the producers determine at the scripting stage what to shoot and what images had to be created digitally in post-production, from soft-hued sunsets to brilliant explosions.
"The stories take place in 1908 and 1917," McCallum said. "So we had to redo Paris, Vienna and London to make them look the way they did then. That takes a lot of matte painting, which we combined with real locations and live actors. We have big wide shots of train stations and huge crowded avenues that just don't exist, or they exist but they have a McDonald's or a modern 40-story building behind them.