Sunday, August 1, 2010

Movie Magic #1: How to Fake a Crowd

I watched the restored "Metropolis" recently, and the giant crowd scenes were marvelous on the big screen. I have a soft spot for huge amounts of people running around on screen (see: Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances," Cagney's "American Madness," et al.), but Lang takes it a step further and has these masses of people run around both normal and miniature sized sets. I was struck by how seamless the effect was. Apparently,

"According to Magill's Survey of Cinema, [Shuffan's] photographic system “allowed people and miniature sets to be combined in a single shot, through the use of mirrors, rather than laboratory work.'' Other effects were created in the camera by cinematographer Karl Freund"

It got me thinking: How can you fake a good crowd scene with strictly in camera techniques? If, say, I wanted to make a big location like the stands at a rodeo arena look jam packed, how could we do it on the cheap? How many people would we really need?

Method #1: Pack the Frame

Lang had the luxury of over 1,000 extras. Faking this kind of scope in a wide shot is extremely difficult. I'm still trying to figure out how to achieve this kind of feeling with very few people:

Impossible? Probably not, but I haven't figured it out yet.

Medium shots, on the other hand, are easier to fake. Hitchcock packs his frames in "The Manxman" to make it seem like there's 1. a bar full of sailors or 2. a whole neighborhood of onlookers, but really he gets away with 12-15 extras. The close up shot has even fewer: only 6. 

Too many dicks on the dance floor, indeed

Assembly of heads.
12-15 people seems to be the magic number in this situation. Again Lang goes way further: in the photo at the top of this post I count about 52 hands, which means about 26 kids lunging after Bridgette Helm. The wider you go, the more people you need I suppose ...

Method #2: Cardboard Cutouts 


This sounds silly, but Tati uses cardboard cutouts to brilliant effect. In "Parade" he plays around with it by staging an audience -- of course it's a sight gag and you're supposed to notice it. In "Playtime," though, there are a number of shots with cardboard bystanders. Whenever public transportation is involved, there are very few real people on the bus, the rest are flat stand-ups. You can also see a lot of them in the background on the streets. 8 seconds into the following clip, take a look at the background. 

A modern example of this, and a good example of filling stands, is "Seabiscuit." Cheering crowds were actually a mix of people and "pneumatic dolls;" basically mannequins with clothes on.

The mix is obviously the best way to fake a wide shot, especially when we're talking about audience / stands situations. But having people move around in the frame in a dynamic area? I'm going to poke around and see what I can find. Hopefully my findings will be Part II ... rear projection anyone?

1 comment:

homegrown said...

This is really interesting. I love seeing how effects were created in old, film movies.