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Films' Inflatable Extras Create Cast of Thousands

August 14, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

From the most powerful producer to the lowliest technician, Hollywood is teeming with people with an inflated sense of themselves. Yet few show business types are as full of hot air as the 7,000 extras who jammed the grandstands during the making of "Seabiscuit."

That's because these background players were actually pneumatic dolls -- several thousand puffed-up plastic people manufactured to mimic the massive crowds that cheered the legendary thoroughbred whenever he raced. But even if you look for these inflatable extras as Seabiscuit sprints toward the finish line, odds are you'll never spot one.

"If you notice them, I have- n't done my job," said Joe Biggins, who works in DreamWorks' development department, created the dolls and is charged with solving problems for various movie productions.

Other filmmakers couldn't spot them, either, which is why Biggins' phone hasn't stopped ringing since the July 25 release of "Seabiscuit," the first film to use Biggins' inflatable extras.

His extras are quickly gaining popularity among filmmakers. Thousands of them are now filling Centre Court to watch Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany play tennis in the upcoming drama "Wimbledon." The pumped-up extras are auditioning to play Depression-era boxing fans in "Cinderella Man." And they may fill out the movie premiere multitudes for a scene in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." Biggins is even developing a doll that looks like a corpse for movies with battlefield casualties.

At a time when filmmakers are increasingly relying on digital imaging and special effects, the blowup extras represent something of a low-tech throwback. It recalls an earlier Hollywood era when production problems were solved through old-fashioned ingenuity, not high-tech trickery.

Like so many interesting innovations in movie history, the inflatable dolls were born out of filmmaking necessity. A monumental "Seabiscuit" challenge was its sheer numbers of background bodies -- 7,000 seat fillers were needed for scenes filmed at Santa Anita, and 4,500 were required at Keeneland, Ky., where other racing scenes were filmed. "It had to feel like there were 100,000 people in these stands," producer Frank Marshall said. "Seabiscuit packed them in like the Super Bowl today."

Furthermore, writer-director Gary Ross "wanted a three-dimensional solution to add mass to the real extras," said Biggins. But none of the earlier movie solutions was perfectly suited to the task.

A producer can hire thousands of real extras to cheer on the champion boxer in "Ali," or use "free" extras by filming at real sporting events like Laker games (the opening sequence in "Grand Canyon") or fill one section of an otherwise empty stadium with live extras and digitally duplicate them to fill the rest of the venue (the football throngs applauding the title character in "Forrest Gump"). The producer can use cardboard cutouts (the hundreds of baseball spectators in "The Fan") or simply stick real extras in a few rows and hide all the empty seats with blinding lights pointed straight into the camera (any number of movies).

All these solutions have drawbacks.

One real extra can cost $200 a day, especially when you factor in meals and transportation, making any large crowd financially prohibitive. If you film at a real sporting event, you may have only a few minutes to grab a scripted scene amid actual game time. Digital crowd duplication often looks fake; the eye notices the repetition of color patterns, and computer attempts to make some digital characters move often looks artificial. Any camera movement reveals a cardboard extra's two-dimensional flatness. As for those blinding lights -- well, everybody knows you're just cheating.

The appeal of inflatable extras is understandable -- so much so that Biggins, a former camera technician for special effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic, can't believe no one thought of them before.

Like digital extras and cardboard cutouts, they don't require lunch and bathroom breaks, and they won't snap secret photos of, say, Brad Pitt for Us Weekly. They similarly refuse to complain about paltry pay, long hours or cold weather (although scores of inflatable extras were nearly sent into the stratosphere by tornado-strength winds during one day of "Seabiscuit" filming in Kentucky and then by fierce Santa Ana gusts at Santa Anita). What's more, each comes with a free patch kit.

Other benefits are less obvious. Unlike department store mannequins, these blowups can be deflated and crumpled into a package smaller than a loaf of bread, meaning a crowd of 10,000 can fit into just one 50-foot truck. Where cardboard extras allow only one angle for filming, inflatables can look realistic from any number of perspectives, an especially important characteristic in a movie like "Seabiscuit," where the camera is racing alongside the racehorses -- though they can't be used for a close-up because they can't move, and certainly can't act.

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