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January 23, 2012


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" I do recall, in an interview with Premiere pegged to his 2000 film What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis waxing enthusiastic about how Hitchcock would have loved new-fangled tools like CGI."

Damn straight.

I think of a couple of directors as "our modern hitchcock", and Jim Cameron is one of them.


One point I've always thought about:

Today, we see lots of Hitchcock's effects as looking fake, be it The Birds, or be it some of his rear projection in cars.

But if we had seen those movies when they were released, would they have looked as fake to us? In many ways, I think not. Those movies were shot in an era before the public was inundated by very much "reality" motion pictures. And so, I'm not sure the public really understood what "reality" looked like.

(I know we still had eyes, but in the era before color TV, I think folks didn't have nearly as much idea of what looked "real" through a camera.)


I like to think that Fincher's films, whether the ostentatious coffee-cup close encounter in 'Panic Room' (whose title sequence evokes that of 'North by Northwest') or the seamless process/bluescreen shots of the Washington and Cherry scene in 'Zodiac' (which uses different actors to play the same killer, a la 'Psycho'), provide a good indication of what Hitchcock's approach to CGI would've been.

Scott Nye

Petey - I've thought about this quite a lot, and I tend to think they probably did know the difference, but didn't much care. I figure it's not too different from how most people can spot CGI now, but if it's used to great effect - most of Fincher, the opening shot of HUGO, etc. - you kind of say...eh, who cares. It's damned handsome work.

Of course, it's all speculation, but I think the comparison is apt.


RE: the depth of field question - it'd be possible today, owing more to faster film stocks (or the range of digital) than to lens advancements. But you'd still have to pump a ton of light in, it would still be easier to do it as a comp or with a split diopter.

I think you're right about the use of CG and I'd go one further - if Hitchcock were directing today he would be doing his movies with motion capture. This'll sound grumpy, but I thank god he was born at the right time.

Gordon Cameron

I don't know from lenses; you could do it with a diopter, I think, though the composition would maybe have to be altered to accommodate a straight line between the two areas of focus.

Given the compositions Welles and Toland were able to achieve a decade earlier in Kane, I'm surprised Hitchcock couldn't pull this one off in-camera. There's enormous depth of field in some of the Kane shots yet in terms of lens distortion they don't seem particularly fish-eyed to me. Oh well, who am I to question Hitch?

Glenn Kenny

Gordon, I think the reason Hitchcock didn't try to pull it off in camera might be related to the lighting issue that Mr. J. brings up in the comment directly above your own (I think the two of you might have weighed in practically simultaneously). The shadowy foreground on Walker likely would have not been possible had Hitchcock been obliged to light the shot more brightly. This is all extremely interesting, hope to continue hearing more on it.


My mind went straight to the Kane stuff too, but the length of the lens in the above shot is actually a pretty big deal. I may be wrong but I think in Kane there are shots similar to this where W&T used the same trick. Every time I see Treasure of the Sierra Madre there's a shot in the Oso Negro I always swear is rear projection for the same purpose.

Anyway, bigger point is Hitch was never shy about using tricks....


@rcjohnso, at least one of the composite shots in "Citizen Kane" may have been done for the same purpose. This shot for example: http://movieimages.tripod.com/citizenkane/kane27.jpg

The give away is some of the architecture directly behind Kane - it's soft and out-of-focus but Leland remains in sharp focus as he walks from behind that 'plane' to the mark seen in this still. (Also, notice Bernstein in sharp detail way in the background.)


I'm going to take a slightly contrarian position here. I think that a lot of Hitchcock's inventiveness was a result of him being genuinely intrigued about solving the physics of how to make this bulky camera do this-or-that, or use the camera to fool the audience into thinking it was seeing one thing when it was seeing another. So I don't see him being especially interested in turning a shot over to to the tech guys to spit something out for him with CGI. Which is to say, to keep with the Fincher comparisons above, I'd imagine that his CG use would be more Zodiac than Panic Room.


Am I remembering this incorrectly or did Cronenberg use quite a few process shots in 'A Dangerous Method'?


I do wonder about Hitchcock and CGI, though. In that Dick Cavett interview he did, and no doubt many other places as well, Hitchcock said the real joy of directing for him was in the solving of problems. Wouldn't CGI make it a little too easy for his tastes? Obviously, no one can answer that, but I suspect he might regard it as removing all the challenge he loved so much.


Somebody needs to write a Hitchcock-finds-CGI fanfic.

Gordon Cameron

>Am I remembering this incorrectly or did Cronenberg use quite a few process shots in 'A Dangerous Method'?

I caught a fair amount of greenscreen/bluescreen/whatever.

Stephen Winer

I'm old enough to have caught the last few Hitchcocks in their original runs and I can vouch for the fact that the rear projection shots looked pretty fake at the time -- I'm thinking especially of the car shots in "Family Plot", which, put in special effects context, came out eight years after 2001. There often seems to be an odd distinction between some of his visual ideas and their execution which can range from excellent to just barely passable. Is it possible that he didn't much care if the effects looked fake as long as they looked the way he envisioned them?

Tom Block

I think audiences have always had a bifocal view of SFX and process shots: on the one hand, forgiving the lack of exact-looking reality because they understand technology can only do so much while remaining able to be wowed by what they *are* seeing. I don't think anyone in '33 would've claimed that King Kong looked any more real than we'd claim the Hobbit movies or Pearl Harbor do; if the brain is happily engaged, it has a way of overlooking things it doesn't want to take notice of. (Rear-projection hits me as something different--just a functional device we aren't supposed to notice either way. That's why it means so much to me that Siegel actually used it in an inventive, involving way in The Lineup.)

Gordon Cameron

One of the most interesting things I noticed in the North By Northwest blu-ray is that there's a "shot" of James Mason's mountain house receding, as seen (if memory serves) by the POV of Eva Marie Saint. The shot is quite obviously a painting. My only conjecture as to why this was done, is that they forgot to get the shot they wanted while on location, and had to come up with something quick in post production. I was pretty tickled when I saw that. Anyone else know of this, or the story behind it?

warren oates

Killer dinosaurs and liquid metal Terminators aside, the first really stunning invisible CGI effect I can remember is the bus crash shot in Atom Egoyan's THE SWEET HEREAFTER. There's no way he could have afforded to do that "for real" and yet almost no way he could deny some image of that moment to his audience.

As for the idea above that CGI eliminates directorial problem-solving, all you have to do is look at the vast differences in quality and impact among the different films and filmmakers who use these tools now. If anything, I'd argue that CGI probably makes everything harder, because of the vast amount of time and coordination needed and because everyone -- from audiences and critics to producers and studios falsely imagines the CGI automatically equals better, faster and more realistic (whatever that means). Mo' Effects, Mo' Problems.

Glenn Kenny

@ warren oates: I do hear you there. My wife and I were channel surfing the other day and stopped for a few minutes of ZODIAC and caught the CGI elapsed-time construction of the Transamerica Pyramid, and we were trying to imagine what a nightmare that must have been.

As for whether Hitchcock would have gone whole-hog motion camera or stuck to his guns in trying to solve real-world-and-camera physics problems is something we'll never know, but looking at his ambitions and seeing how current effects technology can help achieve them, and given that he WASN'T opposed to using miniatures and such, I think it's safe to extrapolate that, as I said, he would have been at least INTERESTED in any means necessary. AND that his first concern would be that the viewer's brain was happily engaged.

I think the occasional clumsiness of the effects in THE BIRDS is a result of Hitchcock pushing the possible to its utmost limits. In MARNIE it has to do with anti-realism as an expressive device. And in FAMILY PLOT, alas, I think it's sadly clear that he just wasn't at the top of his game.

Tom Block

>the first really stunning invisible CGI effect I can remember

The one that impressed me was the car wreck at the beginning of Erin Brockovich. I didn't even question what I was seeing until I read about it.

>the occasional clumsiness of the effects in THE BIRDS is a result of Hitchcock pushing the possible to its utmost limits

That's what I've always suspected.

Brian Dauth

A kind word for FAMILY PLOT: Hitchcock's last five films are very different from all the movies that came before them. I think it can be said with some certainty that Hitchcock produced definitive works of Romantic Modernism in Classical Hollywood. And yet in these works, he often critiques the tradition he is giving such beautiful expression to. I think that after NORTH BY NORTHWEST, he just went in another direction -- he could have repeated himself, but he did something much more interesting -- he found a new way to succeed which (by the aesthetic standards of his previous films) could be considered a path to failure.

Other filmmakers followed a similar path: Visconti re-envisions/queers IL GATTOPARDO as THE DAMNED and Hawks keeps telling the same story from RIO BRAVO through EL DORADO to RIO LOBO -- each time fracturing the mise en scene more and more, reaching an emotional high point with RIO LOBO. FAMILY PLOT and TORN CURTAIN are fractured films that provide many pleasures, but pleasures that are markedly different from those afforded by a successful modernist work. In their own way they are visionary and special movies.

Just recently, I have been reading Jack Halbertam's "The Queer Art of Failure" (written when he used the name Judith Halberstam. He writes:

"Rather than just arguing for a reevaluation of these standards of passing and failing, The Queer Art of Failure dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. Failing is something that queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can be stand in contrast to the grim scenarious of success that depend upon 'trying and trying again.' In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offeres different rewards."

Hitchcock's apparent failures in his late films are nothing of the sort -- he has just discovered new and surprising ways to practice art in the world, and we are still trying to catch up with him.

warren oates

I guess even more than Hitch the one I'd want to see play with CGI is Kubrick. Because his taste in the final look of the thing is unparalleled. Sure it has to do with his genius (visual and otherwise) and famous perfectionism, but I think Kubrick also had an incredible ineffable feel for the whole of each of his films, for the rightness of each tiny piece as it related to all of the others. How else to explain how great the effects still look in 2001. Or just as impressive to me last time I caught it channel flipping is the total aptness of the model plane effects in DR. STRANGELOVE, the precise quality of deliberately crappy fakeness -- not just because it's a comedy, but something about the way it looks and feels in the context of the whole thing. A "better" model, one that was cutting edge for the time, would seem more dated now, less correct and timeless.

Pete Apruzzese

The weak process shots (not rear projections) in Family Plot's car chase are simply poor work by Universal's optical department, who kept promising - but never delivered - a corrected final composite to Hitchcock. (source - The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto)

Glenn Kenny

Spoto did his research, that's for sure. Too bad he had to add his oft-eccentric theories—isn't that the same book in which he speculates that the "NFB" on Marion's license plates stands for "Norman Francis Bates" even though Norman's never given a middle name in the actual film OR the script?

Pete Apruzzese

Yep, that's the one. Page 375 of the paperback: "The license...is NFB-418. Could that stand for Norman Francis (the saint frequently associated with birds) Bates? He is like a watching bird of prey throughout."

Glenn Kenny

Hoo-boy. As one of the Knights of the Round Table said of Tim the Enchanter, "What a strange person."


No, no. The NFB on Marion's license plate were my mother's initials. Before you scoff, think about it. What's more appropriate for Psycho than a reference to the viewer's mother?


No, the letters on Marion's plate are a cautionary acronym for "Never Filch Bucks." Or possibly "Never Fleece Boss." "No Freaky Bird-men?"


Is there any truth the Spoto's theory that Hitchcock was obsessed with bowel movements, and so included the initials "BM" in several, well, some, of his films?

My initial instinct with this comment was to say "Spoto sure is weird, what about that whole bowel movement thing?" but I'm afraid someone would reply that no, Hitchcock loved poop, this is well known.

Tom Block

It would help explain "The Paradine Case".


The working title for Hitchcock's NUMBER 17 was NUMBER 2. Other rejected working titles:


The only one that didn't get changed was REAR WINDOW.

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