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The Scrivener: What You Think You See

"Nowadays, we know that much of what we see in films has been faked; it did not actually happen in the way we see it,'' writes Brian Barratt, revealing some of the trickery which brought us unforgettable helpings of magical entertainment.

What we see in films and TV series is not always what we think we can see or what film-makers hope we will see.

Some viewers of Roman Polanski's 2005 version of 'Oliver Twist' might have noticed that some of the buildings didn't look as though they were actually in England. Why? The film was made in the Czech Republic. Prague streets do not look like London streets. Similarly, the sets and buildings in a version of the story of Robin Hood serialised on BBC TV in 2006 would have puzzled some viewers. Nottingham and its castle looked particularly foreign. That's because the series was filmed in Hungary.

David Lean's version of the Charles Dickens novel 'Great Expectations' was released in 1946. In the opening sequence, the boy Pip is seen in the distance and almost in silhouette, running across the bleak marshlands while the wind howls around him. He passes a stark gibbet before going into a lonely churchyard to place flowers on his parents' grave. The church looming so eerily in the middle distance was not a church at all. It was actually a model, only about 12 feet tall — the film-maker used a technique known as 'forced perspective' to create the impression that it was a real church.

Watching films in past years, when 'A J Arthur Rank Presentation' appeared on the screen we saw a gleaming, bronzed, muscled gentleman, wearing a Tarzanesque loin-cloth, striking an enormous gong with a huge baton. The sound was akin to the sound of Big Ben. It deceived us all.
The gong we saw was made of papier mâché. The well-built gentleman was miming. The sound was made by someone else striking a Chinese musical instrument called a tam tam, synchronised to the muscle-man's movements.

Carol Reed's 1949 film 'The Third Man', still at the top of the British Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest British films, has many instances of... well, let's not call it faking: it is creative direction. Innovative and unusual camera angles add drama to street views. Lighting and shadows are used to create stunning visual impressions. Some of the scenes in the sewers of Vienna were shot in a studio. The person standing in the darkened door was not Orson Welles in all the shots, but a stand-in, and three kittens were used to create the famous shoe-lace sequence. Harry Lime's fingers pushing up through the grille during the closing sequence were not the fingers of Orson Welles but of someone else, the director himself.

Nowadays, we know that much of what we see in films has been faked; it did not actually happen in the way we see it. And it costs an awful lot of money to make it that way. We have moved a long way from the combination of live action and animation in such films as Walt Disney's 'Song of the South', released in 1946. It cost a bit over two million dollars to make. On the other hand, 'Avatar', released in 2009, cost well nigh 250 million dollars to create. Allowing for the changing value of currency, I think that means that 'Avatar' cost over ten times more than 'Song of the South'. In both cases, the faking was obvious.

When computers were being refined and the use of graphics became more widespread, we heard about WYSIWYG — pronounced 'wizzywig'. Coined in 1982, it stood for What You See Is What You Get. In films, it is more a case of what you think you see is what you get. Whether or not you like what you think you see is a matter of personal opinion.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012

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