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A New Smile, but the Same Charm, From 'E.T.'

Movies* Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic is being re-released with digital upgrades and new scenes, so what seemed cool 20 years ago doesn't appear clunky today.

March 16, 2002|MICHAEL MALLORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When E.T. finally comes home to movie theaters next week, moviegoers will encounter a more active, more expressive and far more limber little alien than they first saw 20 years ago.

Steven Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" is perhaps the most notable of the modern classics to be made during the transitional period of the mid-1970s and '80s, when special effects were still pupating in a pre-digital cocoon. Now it joins the likes of "Star Wars" and "The Exorcist" in receiving a digital face-lift for contemporary audiences.

Considering that the film is the fourth-highest-grossing picture in history, having taken in $400 million domestically in its initial release, it would be reasonable to question why something so unbroken needed to be fixed. But producer Kathleen Kennedy says updating the effects was not the initial concern.

"It was really an evolutionary process," she says. "Once the decision was made [to re-release the film], the thought came up that we could put some scenes back in, which is a fairly typical discussion when you're talking about a reissue. There was a scene in the bathroom that we loved [but that was cut because it didn't quite work], and this was an opportunity to actually do it the way Steven had originally intended it to be done, and that led to discussions of how other shots could be enhanced."

Although they were state-of-the-art at the time, there is no question that some of the film's original effects have simply aged less than gracefully over 20 years.

"What worked in 1982 doesn't quite hold up," says Industrial Light & Magic's Bill George, who supervised the visual effects for more than 140 shots that were reworked for the re-release. "We remember it a certain way, but when I went back and looked at the film, I was a bit shocked at how some of the stuff looked."

The challenge for George (whose first assignment for Industrial Light & Magic was working on the spaceship for "E.T.'s" initial release) was to live up to everyone's memory of the film while satisfying today's more effects-savvy moviegoers.

Even more daunting was that to produce the highest-quality image, the original negative had to be obtained from Universal and scanned into a computer. "There was a tremendous amount of trust coming from the studio, and also of us convincing them that we'd be very careful with it, in order to get that original negative to scan in," George says.

Work on the project began in summer 2000. Because the re-release had not been announced by Universal, the project was kept quiet, even at the effects house, where the film was referred to by its original working title, "A Boy's Life."

Original director of photography Allen Daviau was consulted on the project, although Spielberg was the key force driving the new work. "[Spielberg] went through the film and pointed out shots that he wasn't happy with or wanted to change," George says. "As we worked on it, other shots [that needed work] became clear."

Many of the new effects are simply enhancements of the background plates through the addition of smoke, cloud or elements such as moving grass. Smoke was also added to the effects shots, which in the original were so free of atmosphere, George says, that they stood out from the rest of the film.

Other shots, such as the one in which E.T. causes the bicycle belonging to Elliot (the lead youngster, played by Henry Thomas) to fly, had been filmed on miniature sets with a motion-control camera, which precluded any kind of movement in the trees. George's team added gently wafting branches, swirling mist and a shower of rocks tumbling down the face of the cliff as the bicycle goes over the edge.

The most noticeable work was done on E.T. himself. Originally the character was brought to life through a combination of sophisticated hydraulically controlled puppets created by Italian effects master Carlo Rambaldi (who shared that year's special-effects Oscar with Industrial Light & Magic's Dennis Muren and Kenneth F. Smith), a crew of very small actors who donned body suits for long shots and the expressive hands of a mime named Caprice Rothe, who performed the character's close-up hand action in an arm-length glove.

The hydraulic E.T., no matter how advanced it was for the time, still suffered from what Kennedy calls "bad days," when the proper performance could not be pulled out of it. That was why the bathroom scene, in which E.T. playfully submerges himself into the filled tub at Elliot's house, had to be cut out of the original release.

There were other days when the problems were smaller but telling. "When we looked at the movie again after so many years, Steven and I were laughing because we could remember, 'Oh, yeah, that's where his lips got caught and we had to accept a funky smile,'" Kennedy says. "Now we can go in and adjust the area where his lip got caught."

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