Sunday 5 February 2012

Krakatoa east of Java 1969

Nominated Oscar Special Effects (1970)

Batavia Queen in the tank with the model Krakatoa.

Eugene Lourie, famous for directing a number of classic B-movie monster movies in the fifties, was also an accomplished art director and special effects director. He art directed and directed the special effects miniature work on Crack in the world (1965) and then was asked to do the same tasks for this film for the same producers. The odd part about this movie was that he shot the special effect sequences first, before there was even a finished script. The script was then completed and the movie structured to incorporate the many excellent miniature sequences that were already in the can.

In his fascinating autobiography, "My work in Films" - Eugene Lourie ( Harcourt Brace Jovanovich - 1985)  he talks about finding the ship for the movie and constructing a scale model;

"Practically, one of the most urgent tasks was to find a suitable steamship that we could alter into a combination steam and sailing ship, now required by the current version of the script. No shipping companies in Madrid had anything that approached our requirements. I would have to investigate seaports around Spain for a ship. So one of my assistants and our production manager left with me, driving first to Bilbao in northern Spain and then south to explore some ports along the Atlantic coast. We reached Bilbao in misty rain. The busy port stretched for miles on both sides of the river. We followed the wharf and the succession of loading and unloading ships. Almost at the end of the line, we saw a steamer unloading coal on the rainy wharf. It had the shape of a former passenger ship and seemed of the right vintage and size for our picture. We learned from the friendly skipper that she had been built in England around 1880 and was formerly a mixed passenger and cargo ship. Now she was a tramp steamer carrying occasional loads of potatoes or coal between Spain and Morocco. We visited some other ships but none was as suitable as the first. I don't remember the name of this ship, but for us she was to become the Batavia Queen.
In Malaga we also lined up the shipyard where we would later remodel our ship. By this time the ship was contracted and thoroughly photographed and measured by Fernando Gonzales my assistant. I decided on the scale of the miniature replica of the ship. As a rule, the larger scale of a miniature ship, the more natural her movements will appear on the water in relationship to the sizes of the waves we can create in a studio tank. However, the very large miniature ships are difficult to maneuver and more expensive to build. I decided that the Batavia Queen would be built in a one-to-ten ratio, the scale that I had used most often for miniatures in my previous films. Since I needed some very long shots of the ship when she approached the island of Krakatoa, I also built one miniature ship in a one-to-twenty scale. But after I shot a test with this very small miniature ship, I decided not to use it. The small Batavia Queen looked like a toy duck in a bathtub, her movements too jerky. Designing proceeded quickly for the remodeling of the actual freighter and the eighteen-foot miniature ship. For the real ship we had to build a new bowsprit and a wood­carved figurehead, make the smokestack higher, and provide taller masts with new yards and a set of practical sails. All these alterations would have to pass strict maritime inspection, a complicated and laborious procedure. Madrid we started to build the miniature replica of the Queen. The construction of a miniature ship is a complex affair and has to be done as exactly as the building of a real ship, from keel up, the profiles of each rib calculated perfectly."

The Batavia Queen in the tank at Cinecitta Rome.
 He then goes on to discuss the tank and equipment required for filming and the shooting of the ship sequences;

"The question of the water tank was not yet resolved. Our next scouting trip was to Malta and Rome. Malta was oppressively hot and the tank there impressively large. The horizon line of the tank blended well with the horizon line of the open sea. Powerful pumps filled the tank with unusual speed. Later on I learned that they also pumped in the contents of the Maltese sewers. As our picture required a continual smoke-filled horizon, I was dubious that we would be able to cover the vast expanse of the sea and sky with smoke. The tests conducted with the English navy's camouflage smokes could not achieve it, and the wind blew the smoke away. Other doubts concerning the Maltese tank were the necessity of importing lights and technicians from England or Italy and building new dump tanks and wave machines. I am speaking of conditions as they were in 1965. I heard all this was changed for the shooting of Raise the Titanic.
I had used the tanks at Cinecitta in Rome for Flight from Ashiya and planned to use them again for this project. I stopped there to ascertain the state of the sky backing, the tank facilities and the studio availability.
The big tank at Cinecitta was roughly 300 by 400 feet. The sky backing was seventy feet high.

Since we were shooting miniatures, we were cranking the cameras at higher speeds to reduce the jerkiness so harmful in many miniature shots. But we were shooting with three Panavision 70mm Cameras, not the usual production cameras on which rapid acceleration of shooting speed is mechanically possible. Owing to the width of the film, we could not crank faster than three times the normal speed (72 frames per second), and long-lasting takes were impossible because the cameras became too hot to handle. Nightly one or two of our cameras had to be repaired.
For me, there is a strange fascination in shooting at night on location. The strong lights were reflected a thousandfold in the turbulent waters of the tank. Grotesquely lit, special effects men moved on their platforms, readying the rocks that would be thrown. Each puff of smoke was etched against the black sky. We shot the sequence where the Batavia Queen carefully threads her way through the dangerous narrow passage, pelted by flaming rocks. As our miniature ship visibly lacked any live crew, I tried to envelop her in gusts of smoke to camouflage this absence. Smoke and fire. And so the night passed.
The only important sequence left was the final storm. All our dump tanks were in place. A sturdy platform for the cameras was ready, cantilevered above the water. Seeing how our miniature ship would withstand the battering of the powerful dump tanks( 2,600 gallon capacity 35 feet high) would be a severe test.
To achieve the proper buoyancy we loaded her with additional ballast. In earlier sequences we had pulled her with a submerged rope, but now it was impossible to move her against the strong waves. We improvised a crew of strong, dedicated frogmen to guide the ship. They were hidden from the camera on the other side of the ship. For each take we unleashed all our dump tanks. The power of the water was unbelievable, and after each take we anxiously checked to make sure that none of the frogmen had drowned. Wave machines, wind machines, dump tanks, powerful fire hoses, shooting from the shaky camera platform, we withstood this onslaught for three days of shooting."

Two sturdy technicians to move the model.

As a kid I discovered this film late at night on TV and was amazed at the quality and quantity of miniature effects. There are miniature ship effects, tidal waves, volcano eruptions, balloon flights, for the most part effectively done and excitingly shot. It remains one of my all time favourite miniature effects films. Incidentally I believe it is one of the movies that has slipped into the public domain. Consequently there are shoddy transfers onto DVD from budget distributors, and there are reasonable releases available from more reputable distributors.

Oh and as anybody who knows their geography will note, that in fact Krakatoa was west of Java.

 Alex Weldon's incredible pyrotechnics make this one of the best miniature volcano eruptions in any movie ever.

Miniature village background, travelling matte foreground.

Krakatoa about to go off with a bang... real ocean, miniature volcano split screened in with a flopped volcano miniature reflection added in the optical printer.

Eugene Lourie cameo as the light house keeper.

More miniature backgrounds and travelling matte foregrounds.

Krakatoa detonates...tidal wave to follow.

Source; "My work in Films" - Eugene Lourie ( Harcourt Brace Jovanovich - 1985)

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