Saturday, November 22, 2008

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 13: Jurassic Park (1993)


In the summer of 1993, Steven Spielberg's big-screen adaptation of Michael Crichton's best-selling novel, Jurassic Park, dominated the box office (rendering competition like the Governator's Last Action Hero virtually extinct).

The blockbuster movie, which concerned an island of genetically-engineered dinosaurs, was one of the earliest to feature good CGI effects, but more than that, it was a "summer event."

Which meant -- basically -- that you could acquire Jurassic Park bling everywhere you went. There were "super sized" dinosaur drinking cups at McDonalds, or you could get your fill of JP toys at toy stores. And yest, you could even collect trading cards related to the film.

On the last front, Topps offered a Jurassic Park set which included "movie cards," "stickers" and "holograms." Each pack sold for a mere 69 cents, and there were over 150 cards to collect in all.

Some cards re-told the plot of the film. For instance, on the back of the card entitled "The Sick Triceratops" ( #28), there was a paragraph related to that event in the film, which read:

"Grant, Ellie and the kids abandon the Jurassic Park Explorer cars when Grant spots something curious in the field. Soon joined by Malcolm and Gennaro, they stumble upon a large Triceratops, lying on its side, obviously ill."

Other Jurassic Park cards featured fun-filled facts about the scarifying dinosaurs featured in the film. For instance, the Dilophosaurus card (#4 in the set), reported:

"The Dilophosaurus is about forty feet tall [sic], spotted like an owl with a brilliantly colored crest that fans out around its neck when aroused. Seemingly playful and friendly, it kills by spitting on its victim from as far as twenty feet away - with a lethal paralyzing venom which blinds and paralyzes its prey."

Additional cards in the set formed to create a complete puzzle. Other cards focused on the creative personnel behind the film's creation. This grouping was called "The Stan Winston Studio sub-set," and an example was card #76, "The Art of Crash," which concerned the biography of dinosaur designer and illustrator Mark "Crash" McCreery.

By 1993 I was pretty much out of trading card collecting (Alien 3 was the last new set I spent my hard-earned money on...), and working hard at the Supreme Court of Virginia to pay the rent for our first apartment. But somewhere along the line (a flea market in NC, I guess...), I acquired a Jurassic Park set and have enjoyed looking at the cards from time to time.

Remember, as a kid I was something of a dinosaur nut, so it was a dream come to true to see the dinosaurs rendered so beautifully in Jurassic Park (film and cards).

I can watch any of those Jurassic Park movies any time and still get a kick out of them. But they bore Kathryn to tears, so I have to pick my moments very carefully.

Friday, November 21, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 64: Land of the Lost (1974-1976)

The year was 1974 B.C. (Before Cable). The place: NBC. The time: Saturday mornings.

Long before director Steven Spielberg and the late Michael Crichton ushered moviegoers through the gates of Jurassic Park, American children of the disco decade knew exactly where to get their fill of prehistoric action.

For three seasons -- from 1974 to 1976 -- every Saturday morning was reserved for the fantastic world of Sid and Marty Krofft's live action dinosaur romp, Land of the Lost.

Linda Laurie's series theme music has become part and parcel of the American pop culture landscape, and it acquaints viewers with the story of Land of the Lost better than any synopsis. To paraphrase, Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan), Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly (Kathy Coleman), -- on a routine expedition -- experience the"greatest earthquake ever known." They plunge down a waterfall in the Grand Canyon and find themselves lost in a closed, prehistoric, pocket universe known to its bizarre denizens as -- yep, you guessed it -- The Land of the Lost.

In this brave new world, the Marshalls encounter friends such as Cha-Ka, a brave little Pakuni ape-boy, and a baby brontosaur, Dopey. However, even as they attempt to return to their twentieth century home utilizing the Land of the Lost's strange crystal technology (housed in pyramidal stations termed "pylons"), the family grapples with a T-Rex named Grumpy, his distaff opponent, Big Alice, and the nefarious Sleestak.

Hissing lizard people, the Sleestak are actually the devolved remnants of the once-advanced Altrusian culture and the inhabitants of a mysterious lost city hewn out of stone. On more than one occasion, the Sleestak seek to feed the Marshalls to their (off-screen...) God, a bellowing monstrosity inhabiting a smoky pit.

Though three Jurassic Park movies have deposited adults and kids in the path of rampaging dinosaurs, this was a revolutionary approach in 1973 when this TV initiative was formulated; "We were trying to find a habitat that could feature dinosaurs and a family...and those two entities together worked out to be a really good combination," Marty Krofft told me an interview conducted by telephone on January 11, 2001.

Krofft was also quick to credit his creative team. "Great things happen when you have imaginative people aboard, and we had Allan Foshko, who had worked with us on other things, and it was a very collaborative effort. You have a few nightmares and you come up with these wild characters and places."

Pilot

According to the late Allan Foshko, the series co-creator and then-vice-president in charge of new programming for the Kroffts, all of the dino-mite excitement commenced with Sid Krofft's long-standing affection for dinosaurs and dinosaur movies.

After that notion, however, it was up to Foshko to create the specifics. "You can't go back in time as easily as you can create something new, so I thought about the possibility of how we could transport a team back into the prehistoric era," Foshko told me.

"After some research, I discovered the Grand Canyon had been underwater at some time in history, and it is the most awesome of our natural monuments. There are so many things about the Grand Canyon we don't know, and one of which was that there could have been another land underneath it, because a stream had eaten its way down through all those layers of sediment for millions of years. And so it seemed to me a perfect setting."

From that notion, Foshko turned his attention to the characters who would visit this world. "I created the template for the characters: a family," Foshko reported. "Rick Marshall was a ranger who took care of the Grand Canyon, who watched out for forest fires and things like that. He and his son went on an outing one day and plunged into a waterfall that suddenly appeared, and they went crashing down in to the Land of the Lost...which I named. It seemed the perfect title."

Only after the pilot presentation was Holly Marshall added to the family. "They put in the little girl to appeal to a female audience," Foshko explained. "The network felt we needed that female aspect. Originally it was a father and son."

With the concept and characters created, the opportunity arose for Foshko to take his ideas from paper to stage. "I started to storyboard," he reported. "As it developed, I evolved a style of glass paintings from blue screens. I then shot actors separately, and put them into these painted settings. Someone once said that it was the cutting edge of special effects."

At this point, the series' actors were not yet cast, but the pilot featured unknown performers playing the father and son. "Once they were up against a matte, I could put anything around them," Foshko noted. The performers' voices were dubbed, and this presentation featured a voice-over narration.

"We started with a blank screen," Foshko sets the scene, "and then this voice came on [and said ]: 'More than a million years ago, there was a land of the lost...a land now uncovered.' After that, it all just fell into place."

"We did it for practically nothing," Foshko reported of the pilot's cost. "We did the storyboards and we shot it privately, with the company that would get the job if it became a series. But it was that pilot that sold the show...[T]he network brought in people for preview screenings and the response was so strong that we proceeded with the series."

"The pilot had the feel of Alice in Wonderland or Journey to the Center of the Earth, with these people falling into another world," Foshko remembered with enthusiasm. "The story just flowed, and with these hand-painted storyboards and collages, it was an unusual approach to doing this presentation. We had music and special effects and all kinds of magic. For TV, it was revolutionary."

For Foshko, the pilot represented the apex of his work on Land of the Lost. "David Gerrold came in thereafter [as story editor] and I was not involved in certain things, such as the creation of the Sleestaks," he notes. "I had some input as the series continued, but I wanted to do the show with miniatures and rear projection and save a whole kaboodle of money, but the Kroffts preferred to use the time-honored sound stage [approach] and build the whole sets. I moved on, and started to work on other projects."

Despite the parting of the ways, Foshko remembered his collaboration with the Kroffts in purely positive terms. "They were instrumental in creating Land of the Lost and working with them was a pleasure. I believe the shows which take you out of the present and put you into a magical land will always be successful. You know, special effects movies are more popular today than ever, but this was done at a time when no one had really conceived of such thing [on a continuing basis]. I'm very proud to have had a hand in creating the concept of Land of the Lost."

Pre-Production

After the Land of the Lost pilot was created, it was a job for the Kroffts (veterans of The Bugaloos, Liddsville, H.R. Pufnstuf) to prepare the weekly Saturday morning series for NBC.

Linda Laurie, musician and composer, recalled for me that fertile period with enthusiasm: "The Kroffts had done these amazing puppet shows that kept going and going, and were known world-wide. They were branching deeper into television. That's when Foskho brought Sid Krofft to meet me. We all liked each other very much and giggled and scratched and laughed...I just thought they were all magical people."

"Then they explained the series to me. I watched them sit there and act out this crazy story about Marshall, Will and Holly, and then I whipped out my guitar and started singing about this hole that leads to a place called the Land of the Lost. I repeated the word "lost" because you must have an echo if you're tumbling into the middle of the Earth. That's a requirement," she laughs.

When Laurie visited the Krofft Studios in the Buena Vista area of Burbank, she was amazed at the level of imagination going into the creation of the props and creatures of Land of the Lost.

"With that series, you could not imagine a more exciting team around you, right down to every guy who painted fake rocks and made masks. Every single person was like a munchkin. And if you ever met Sid, you'd be sure he was a munchkin too. I think the Kroffts were moving to a level of experience where they were on the cutting edge of where children were going. They knew it was time to do a live-action adventure on Saturday morning."

"There was so much enthusiasm. I got to work with Jimmie Haskell, the arranger on the show...and he's probably one of the most extraordinary men in the business. Our team was wonderful, and every one of those people I worked with was magic. They aren't angels, mind you. They're nutcases...but wonderful nutcases. We call came out of the 60s nuts...but creative ones. Nobody was mean-spirited, everybody was giving, and people like the Kroffts lived off of fantasies and made fantasies come true. My song just recreates the experience of watching that fun show."

Albert Tenzer served as executive producer on Land of the Lost, and it was his job, as he recalled it, to deal with life and death financial decisions. "And, as you may know," he quipped, "every TV series was a life-and-death situation....I was basically the chief administrative officer, responsible for the relationship with NBC, the contract negotiations, the budget, and the organization of the production. I also oversaw interaction with the production group that was responsible for the special effects."

By Tenzer's estimation, the budget for Land of the Lost was approximately $400,000 to 500,000 dollars an episode. "My objective was to make sure that we didn't go over budget, but I don't recall the exact number. I do know it was our job to live within whatever amount we were given."

Tenzer was also involved in the creative end of the show. "I knew the creative people and I sat in on creative meetings. I knew what was going on. It was a much simpler kind of life than it is now. Today, there are layers of bureaucracy..."

Sets

With memorable music describing the series' central premise, and Tenzer keeping an eye on the bottom line, it was up to young art director Herman Zimmerman, now a veteran of several Star Trek film and television series, to visualize it. "I was hired to work on a new series Land of the Lost, because I had been working for NBC and a place called Hollywood Video Center," he told me.

"There, I met a gentleman who was hired by Sid and Marty Krofft to be a unit production manager and producer. That fellow recommended me to the Kroffts. They had already hired a sketch artist named Mentor Hubner to do some illustrations, and the Kroffts showed me some of those illustrations and asked me if I'd be interested in turning an existing set into the jungle landscape for Land of the Lost. I went over to Stage 5 at Sam Goldwyn Studios to look at the existing sets for Sigmund and the Sea Monster. In any case, that set was made entirely out of foam on wooden substructures and the foam was flame resistant till about three months old. The day I went to the studio to look at the set, it burned down."

"It was one of the worst stage fires in Hollywood, right there at Stage 5 on the Goldwyn Lot," Zimmerman recalls. "It was quite an experience because the assistant director went to the cast and crew and said "the effect you see on the back of the set is not an effect. Please leave the stage as fast as possible." A minute or so later, the ceiling of the studio collapsed. It spread that quickly. I had never seen a major fire, and this was a major fire, believe me. The ceiling caved in, [and] the floors with all the sets and TV cameras fell through the floor into the basement. It was incredible. I went home and figured that my job with the Kroffts was probably not going to happen since this was the set I was assigned to revamp for Land of the Lost, and it hadn't survived the fire."

The setback, however, proved temporary according to Zimmerman. "The Kroffts called me up the next week and I went to their offices for a meeting. They showed me pictures of the set and asked me to reproduce it in four weeks...which was almost impossible to do. I wanted the job, so I said, of course, I could do it. So first I re-designed Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, which had those undersea caves, and the idea was to turn those sets into those for Land of the Lost."

"We went over to another studio, called Hollywood General. We took two sound stages that had an adjoining door and built Land of the Lost from one stage to the other," Zimmerman explains. "It was a huge set. Then I went to MGM and bought jungle backings and hung them up, and then used a company called Walter Allen Plant Rentals for the tropical flora. I bought a number of these little islands to put foliage on. And we used them to make different jungle pathways. It was a constant re-vamping of the same space to create different locales, and different kinds of science fiction objects to go with it."

Land of the Lost's stone caves were made out of "the same stuff you use to build a swimming pool," Zimmerman reveals. "We put steel mesh over wooden frames, and over that was solid plaster. They did Land of the Lost for three seasons, and at the end of that time, the plaster had hardened. When we went to strike the sets at the end of the show's run, we had to get a wrecking ball to destroy the caves, and take out the sets in a few very heavy pieces."

Zimmerman's other contributions have become sort of Land of the Lost trademarks. "I built the opening miniature of the series: the rapids," he notes. "The show began with a group of young people, their father, and their raft, in Colorado, and I created this a large miniature, probably 25 to 35 feet long. I shot it on videotape with miniature figures and a life raft. And the letters that arose out of the mist and announced the title Land of the Lost? I carved those personally."

Make-up and Monsters

Another young talent (and graduate of the Star Trek saga in recent years ), is make-up artist Michael Westmore, whom I also interviewed in early 2001. He landed an equally difficult assignment during the protean stages of Land of the Lost.

"I inherited a conceptual sketch of the Sleestaks. It was my job to translate it into three dimensions and color," Westmore told me. "The Sleestak were to be a prehistoric species. Since we were putting men into these costumes, the Sleestaks had to have two arms and two legs. And we wanted to make them fast and inexpensively, but also look like something you wouldn't be familiar with. And they didn't have to talk...which was a great advantage."

And though this strange pocket universe was to feature a whole race of the nefarious creatures, the series budget could only accommodate the creation of three costumes.

To produce the Sleestak, Westmore went to extraordinary lengths. "I had three wet suits made with a zipper up the back. The actors would stand inside them and I had to attach this yellow stomach plate and a big cookie-sheet of scales that would be applied one at a time."

As the late Walker Edmiston, who played the recurring role of the friendly Sleestak, Enik, told me, the Westmore-created suits were not very comfortable.

"As soon as I was in costume, those big eyes would start to fog up, so I couldn't read any cue sheets or prompters," said Edmiston. "Also, they hung this tiny microphone on the bridge of my nose, and if I spoke too loudly, the sound men would experience this deafening feedback. After wearing the costume for hours, I could pull open the sleeve and sweat would just pour out."

On one hair-raising occasion, the production team believed Edmiston was pulling a prank by pretending to be asleep on the set, when in fact he had passed out from the heat.

Third season producer, Jon Kubichan, recalled the Sleestak and the problems they generated. The creatures were all portrayed by over sized, future NBA stars such as William Laimbeer, and were difficult to manage in costume. "It was really funny, because these giant basketball players were wearing six-inch platform shoes inside their wet suits. After a short time under the hot stage lights, their feet would sweat and they would slip and stumble like crazy. It was hard to make the Sleestak menacing because they were so clumsy."

"They were all basically All-American caliber basketball players," Westmore told me. "USC was trying to get them to go there, and one of them, David Greenwood, ended up going to UCLA and the pros. William Laimbeer went to the Detroit Pistons."

Outfitting giant creatures like the Sleestak was a difficult -- and daily -- job. "We had a wardrobe mistress, and there was this guy -- the male wardrobe person. It wasn't my job to help get the performers into the costumes, but since I made the darned things, they needed an extra hand. If I wasn't having to put the Pakuni together, I'd help the wardrobe people. Since there were three suits, each one of us would take on to help out."

Enik, the friendly Altrusian, posed his own set of difficulties for Westmore. Unlike the other Sleestak, he had to speak. "His mouth didn't move much," Westmore explains. "It wasn't articulated with machinery like it would be today. If it moved, what I would have done is added a piece of rubber in the chin area so when Walker Edmiston opened his mouth, it would move the lips. It wouldn't be the upper lip that would move, if you look real closely, it was just the lower lip."

Enik also was a different color from his Sleestak cousins. "The whole idea was that Enik was more intelligent than the other Sleestak, and Walter Edmiston was much shorter than the basketball players, so instead of making it look like we had a midget version of the green guys, it was a productin decision to paint him a different color. We went with beige and red eyes as opposed to green with black eyes. His hands were also smaller and tighter, so that Walter could actually grasp things. The other Sleestaks had these giant claws. I still have one of those molds left."

The other resident species living in the Land of the Lost was the aforementioned Pakuni, small "missing link"-type ape-man creature. As Westmore told me, Cha-Ka and his brethren came from an unusual source.

"Well, I had done a movie called Skullduggery (1970) starring Burt Reynolds and these furry little people. I was involved in going to Hong Kong to get the suits manufactured. After the film was finished, Universal had a whole bunch of these suits left over, so the Kroffts were able to buy three of them for Land of the Lost. Then I took and made the rubber head -- which looked like a neanderthal brow -- and glued hair all over it to match the suits. So when the actors came in play the Pakuni, all I had to do was make-up the lower-half of their faces, from underneath their eyes down, and then their hands. Then I would slip their head appliances on, tack it down to their eyes, and then comb it so it would match the suit. Then it was over. It was very quick make-up."

Today, Westmore still has the last Sleestak head in his possession. "It's tucked away here somewhere," he told me. "I took one and filled it with urethane so the rubber has kind of rotten off outside of it, and given it this interesting texture. But I still have a solid chunk of Sleestak tucked away in a box somewhere..."

Series Bible and Stories

Visualizing two "alien" races wasn't Land of the Lost's only challenge. "The amount of effort going into creating the series was incredible," affirms Robert Lally, who directed a dozen episodes of the season during its first and second season.

"A PhD in linguistics, Victoria Fromkin, invented the Pakuini language, and there was a very specific Bible of how the Land of the Lost operated...and you couldn't violate those rules." In this case, that Bible was written by the legendary creator of Star Trek's tribbles, award-winning science fiction author David Gerrold.

Writer Joyce Perry, who penned two episodes of Land of the Lost in its freshman and sophomore seasons ("Stone Soup" and "The Longest Day"), was impressed with story editor David Gerrold and his attempts to keep the prehistoric world of the series consistent from episode to episode.

"I'd seen the show and had some ideas,' Perry remembers of her introduction to the series. "So they saw me, we talked, I got to see the Bible, and I sold them my first story ("Stone Soup"). I worked everything out with David. He's the kind of person that you can bring ideas to, you start kicking them around, and by the time you're finished - you've discussed a hundred things. He's very, very creative and very smart. It was a pleasure working with a story editor like David because he not only writes science fiction, he loves science fiction. That's a little different than working with your typical story editor."

When asked specifically about the Land of the Lost series bible, Perry recalls only that it was a 'synopsis of episodes, the general ideas of the series, that kind of thing. "I remember that I loved the concept of the show and thought it was fun."

On both of her episodes, Perry recalls that her scripts went through a series of permutations. "David was very particular and I believe Dick Morgan [second season story editor] was too. I did a second draft for both of them, and they insisted things were done right."

Linda Laurie adds that the Kroffts had an edict to be obeyed at all times. "Don't patronize children. We were to take them on a ride, but never talk down to them."

That mantra was part of the reason why episodes were written by the likes of TV and science fiction veterans such as Dorothy Fontana, Walter Koenig, Larry Niven, Norman Spinrad and Theodore Sturgeon. The series may have aired on Saturday mornings, but each adventure was designed to be provocative, illuminating entertainment. Episodes featured time paradoxes ("Circle," "Elsewhen," "The Stranger"), dopplegangers ("Split Personality"), possession ("The Possession") and other solid, adult genre concepts.

More than that even, various episodes featured what today's audience would recognize as a distinct environmental bent. In other words, some episodes involved the Marshalls hammering out an environmental balance in the land of the lost between themselves, the Sleestak and the Pakuni. Often, the Marshalls were tasked with setting right environmental problems in their new home ("Skylons," "One of Our Pylons is Missing.")

Dorothy Fontana, one of science fiction television's finest and most legendary writers, also contributed a story in Land of the Lost's first season, titled "Elsewhen." It depicted young Holly Marshall being visited by a grown-up future self.

"The idea had been on my mind that it would be nice to know things as children that we do as adults," Fontana told me. "They [the producers] wanted to do a Holly story because they didn't have too many. So Holly's adult self came back to give her young self a warning, which was kind of like ''if I knew then what I know now...'

Keeping with the adult tenor of the show, and the Krofft's mantra never to talk down to children, the episode seemed pretty heavy, especially because the older Holly implied that young Holly would some day "lose" both her father and brother in the Land of the Lost, and be forced to cope with life there by herself.

"I have two brothers, and my mother was alive when I wrote that show," Fontana remembers. "But I was exploring the idea of what could happen if you lost those people in your life that you care about. In many ways, you're out in the world alone, and you have to be prepared for that."

Director Bob Lally remembers that there was "a fair amount of latitude" shooting the scripts. "A script is a wonderful thing on a piece of paper, but when you try to put it on its legs and take up three dimensional space, some things change. I don't mean that you change the story, but you might be changing lines, or you might find out that the actors aren't comfortable with the construction of certain sentences. We had a fair amount of latitude making those changes on the spot. If it was a major story point, we'd have to go back to the story editor and say 'hey, this isn't consistent with what we did yesterday.'"

In those cases, Lally recalled working with Dick Morgan more than David Gerrold. "Whenever I had a problem with a specific story point, I went to Dick. I'll say this: I thought the stories were good. There were some brilliant people writing for that series. One of them was Walter Koenig, Chekov from Star Trek."

Koenig's episode was "The Stranger," the very episode that introduced Enik to the program. "I remember we gave it ["The Stranger"] a bit more attention," Lally explained. "When you're working on a series and you have a guest coming in who is going to be a recurring character, you've got to develop that character. You have to take time to make him seem more three dimensional."

Spencer Milligan, who played the Marshall patriach, also had praise for the story editors. "Well, David Gerrold and Dick Morgan were the story editors and they were very efficient hard workers. In general, I did like the scripts when I was on the show. There's always room to do a little bit more, and always a desire to improve. We were shooting two shows a week, and I think that everybody worked hard to bring the highest quality possible in terms of those circumstances."


Acting & Shooting

In addition to its solid, thoughtful stories, Zimmerman speculates that Land of the Lost might have been so popular for another reason. "On Land of the Lost, it may be the actors as much as the writing that gave it such charm. They were great."

"It was a good group," director Lally told me. "Spencer Milligan is a very competent, very serious actor. You can't approach a show like that unless you take it seriously. You can't go in and do some kind of campy thing. Spencer looked at the show very studiously and he read the scripts with a serious eye. We had many discussions on the set about how things were going to play out, and what the relationships were."

Spencer Milligan became so identified with his role as Rick Marshall that he was still being recognized as patriarch Rick Marshall when I interviewed him by phone early in 2001, a fact he found both amazing and rewarding. "Though Marshall was a stoic character, he was capable of a full range of emotions and audiences connected with that," Milligan told me. "He was a father-figure who cared about his children and their behavior...and that's something we don't often see today."

Director Lally also enjoyed working with Edmiston. "Oh, he was a voice man of long experience. His credits could probably fill an encylopedia. He could do anything you wanted him to, and he brought a lot to the table on his own. You could just give him the script and he would come up with something more than acceptable. He was very receptive to direction and put a lot of character into his readings."

Edmiston liked his character, Enik, but felt that the Altrusion intellectual was not as well-rounded as he might have been. "I thought Enik was kind of funny. He was such an emotional dead-head.; You know, Will would run into a cave and shout at Enik, 'Dad is hanging by his thumbs over the pit and you've got to save him!!!' Well, Enik would reply, deadpan, 'Do not disturb me, Will Marshall, I'm searching for the vortex back to my time.' He wasn't a big help. He didn't have much humor, that's why they literally wrote the script "Downstream" for me."

In that episode, Edmiston was permitted to shed his cumbersome Sleestak costume and portray a century-old Civil War veteran trapped in the Land of the Lost. "Now that old codger was really wild...he drank fermented fish juice." Edmiston remembers with glee. "They [the set designers] did a great job with the caves and building the stream, where we would actually get in the water. They took a large pool and planted it with grass mats all around, and it looked just like we were going down a river at night. And there wasn't a tremendous budget. We were limited."

Director Lally has high regards not only for Edmiston and Milligan but for the young stars of Land of the Lost as well, Wesley Eure and Kathy Coleman.

In particular, he highlights his experience with them on one particularly difficult episode. "We were doing a show ("Album") that involved Will and Holly walking into a grotto and seeing their dead mother. They were supposed to have gone to this strange world and they miss her mother, and since they're children, they're supposed to be very emotional."

"We shot it once and it wasn't working. So we decided to play a little game with them. We worked really fast in those days, and I didn't have time to do a lot of fancy internalizing and so forth, but I took the two of them aside, behind the set, and we talked for quite a while.; What I said to Kathy, who was really having trouble with it, was 'you have to think of something in your past that was a very sad thing. Ever have a dog or a cat?' She said she did, so I asked her to visualize the animal being struck by a car. As you can imagine, Kathy was quite upset, but I assured her the pet was fine. Then I said I wanted her to understand how she felt when I told her about her cat dying. Then I told her that when she walked into that room, that was the emotion I wanted to see on her face. Well, we went back inside, everyone was quiet, and I called action. The take was absolutely brilliant, on both of their parts. When we finished shooting, we went behind the set and hugged each other."

Despite such bonding moments, acting in a TV series that featured so many complex special effects was no picnic. Specifically, Land of the Lost utilized a now-archaic (but then new-fangled...) time-consuming technology called chroma-key that blended the live action footage of the actors with the stop motion photography of the show's lumbering dinosaurs.

"We worked on a completely empty stage." Edmiston reveals of the process. "When we had to walk down the path, the crew laid down little poker chips that were the same color as the background, so we could feel through our shoes where we were supposed to walk."

Milligan found the chroma-key frustrating. "There was nothing to look at. The crew would say, 'look over there - that's where Grumpy is' - but it was difficult to visualize. We all hated the chroma-key. When we knew it was coming, we'd say, uh oh, it's a blue day."

Lally had extensive experience with chroma-key before directing the series and knew it was a problematic technique. "It required a great deal of preparation and a skilled crew. The scenes had to be properly lit, colors had to be adjusted and wardrobe had to be coordinated so certain colors would not fade into the background. It was a lot of technical detail work. And in addition you have to work with actors who are capable of looking up at a blank wall and appearing terrified because there's an imaginary dinosaur there."

But even the blue days had a lighter side, as Edmiston remembered.

"Once Spencer threw this spear at a T-Rex and it stuck in the blue backdrop. When you combined the footage, the spear lanced the dinosaur's shoulder. We looked at the monitor and the crew said we couldn't have planned it that way in a million years.But then these two women from the network came on the set and said 'oh no, you can't show that! It's injuring the animal!' Spencer and I were stunned. It was a dinosaur for goodness sake!"

Land of the Lost's budgetary limitations also raised problems. Though the series' standing sets stretched across two studio buildings and included much of the Marshalls' cave shelter, the production could not afford more than one make-up artist. Westmore, the man on the spot, had a very busy tenure. "I went to work in the morning, made-up Holly, Will and Marshall, put together three Pakuni and then got three Sleestak into suits!"

Zimmerman likewise feels the low budget resulted in a hectic pace and some corner-cutting. "Saturday morning TV was not blessed with much money, so we built all the Sleestak caves out of heavy-duty tin foil. A good bit of my time was spent repairing holes in the foil when someone leaned against it and tore it open."

The Third Season

Not long after its premiere, Land of the Lost became a monster hit, the most popular show on NBC's Saturday schedule. Nonetheless, a series of changes were to come in the third season. Spencer Milligan departed from the show over a salary dispute, and was consequently replaced by Ron Harper (of TV's short-lived 1974 Planet of the Apes series) as Rick Marshall's brother Jack, who happened to fall into the Land of the Lost just as Marshall was falling out.

"That all came down to -- as everything does -- not being able to work out a financial arrangment that was acceptable to everyone," Mr. Milligan told me. "I had other opportunities awaiting me, so I opted to leave."

It was a difficult decision, and Milligan still remembered breaking the news to his young cast-mates. "I talked to them on the phone, but I didn't tell them any of the details about why I left. I think they were quite upset."

The late Sam Roeca, veteran of the animated series Valley of the Dinosaurs, signed on as the Land of the Lost third season story editor, and producer Jon Kubichan became the series' new producer.

"The first thing that Sam and I did was watch all the episodes," Kubichan explains. "I wanted the series to be more fun and do something in every episode that was instructive in terms of science."

Roeca was on the same page and shared a mutual enthusiasm for mythology with Kubichan. Together, the new team sought to present in each installment "something from the past, from some literature or children's narrative." This shift in focus resulted in a third season that saw the Marshalls grapple with mythological creatures such as Medusa, The Flying Dutchman, a unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon and the yeti.

A primary concern for Kubichan in the third season was the series' look. "When I came aboard, some incredible footage had not been used. I wanted to use it, so every show didn't look so much alike. There was this wild panorama of the Land of the Lost with all three of its moons, panning left to right, and I don't think it had ever been seen."

Unfortunately, the third season revamp proved controversial with long time fans who felt that new episodes contradicted material presented during Gerrold's tenure.

In particular, the first two seasons had defined the land of the lost as a closed pocket unverse from which escape was not possible unless balance was maintained ("Circle"). For every person who came in, another had to leave. In the third year, this concept was dropped and a balloonist, a Civil War soldier and other guests came and went, sometimes merely by flying away or by navigating a river (which in earlier years had been depicted as circular, and thus a dead end, in episodes such as "Downstream").

Ron Harper did well as Uncle Jack, but his character never quite fit in. "Well, Ron Harper came in under very dire circumstances, to replace someone who had been on the show for two seasons," noted Spencer Milligan. "Any time you do that, it's a tough job. At best it's a tough gig; we've all had to replace people at times because of illness or whatever, and the audience is waiting for the other person to be there and you show up. You're under scrutiny. Ron did a terrific job, considering the situation he had to deal with."

Though the ratings remained high during the third season, Land of the Lost was cancelled in 1976. Executive Producer Albert Tenzer explains what happened. "Saturday morning was an important revenue source for NBC, and they were happy with the show.; But right around that time, they began airing sports on Saturdays and so the morning became far less critical. Also, it was expensive to broadcast Land of the Lost reruns, unlike cartoons, because you had to pay royalties to the live-action performers.Simply put, there were less expensive alternatives."

Of Land of the Lost's untimely cancellation, Roeca noted that "there is an algebraic factor determining the life and death of a series: how much will the build-up of residuals affect the profit margin?" In the case of Land of the Lost, that equation was more fatal than Grumpy, the T-Rex.

Legacy


A thoughtful Tenzer understands why the series endures, even in the age of CGI. "People who love the show remember that time in their lives. That's the attraction of nostalgia. Seeing Land of the Lost again today is like reviewing a film reel of your life."

"We had believable characters and good stories," Lally told me. "That always makes for popularity. The nice thing too is that there is a new crop of children every three or four years. So you can show these episodes because they're not history dependent. They're not pinned down to a time. There are always new audiences."

"In the show, there were a variety of morality issues, and there was a variety of truth that came out in different ways," suggests Spencer Milligan. "In dealing with each other on an emotional level, we dealt with family issues. It was a much more simplistic show than some. Even though it was science fiction -- going back in time and living in that kind of circusmtance -- we still had to deal with everyday problems."

Laurie continues to credit the Kroffts for the series' longevity. "We were part of an innovative approach to Saturday morning TV; we were taking kids' minds out for a walk."

"Let me say this. I knew Gene Roddenberry. He was a man of great passion...he was passionate about space and the potential of other worlds. When people like Gene Roddenberry or the Kroffts think in terms of big picture, they get outside of ego and into these wonderful philosophies. That's why probjects like Land of the Lost work. That's why they become legendary."

A gracious Marty Krofft countered that any program's success results from a collaboration, a synthesis of many talents. "We had some incredibly imaginative people help us do that show. If we took credit, we'd be lying. We had great writers, great music, the whole nine yards...."

[Editor's note: For more of my writing on Land of the Lost, here's an abbreviated version of this article that I wrote for Cinescape. Also, I remembered the episode "Follow That Dinosaur" here, and blogged the first season, starting with a series primer here.]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Arrogant, impatient and insensitive..."

I was reading Andrew Sullivan (my favorite blogger) this morning, and he directed readers to a site called Typealyzer that reads and analyzes blogs. I ran mine through the old type-o-lizer and here's what I got:

"The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about."

So clearly, I am the definition of a TRUE ass, just as my insult archive attests. Hah!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Galloping Around the Cosmos is a Game for the Young..."

"If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it."

- Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Okay. So by now, you've seen the new trailer for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movie (premiering May 8, 2009). If you haven't seen the bloomin' thing, check it out here and then come back.

Still here? Good. So what do you think?

Here some of my thoughts on the trailer, the film, and this new iteration of the franchise.

Call me an optimist all you like, but to me Chris Pine looks and sounds right as a young Captain Kirk. He has that "eye of the tiger," or something; that peculiar brand of sparkle behind the eyes that Shatner always flashed so easily and with so much charm. You can see it in the trailer when Pine (as Kirk) slides by Spock on the bridge and says -- kind of sideways -- "buckle up." Reminded me of a few moments in Star Trek VI, actually.

I'm having a wee bit more trouble with Simon Pegg as Scotty. Unlike some people, I don't think everything the man's ever done is mad genius. I was even sort of 'meh' on Hot Fuzz. For me, it became the very thing (the very mechanical, empty thing) it tried so hard to parody. Scotty can't be just comic relief here...he has to be smart too. I hope Pegg can pull it off.

I'm not entirely confident with Zachary Quinto as Spock either. Not yet.

I like Quinto very much as Sylar on Heroes, and think he's a good actor...I just haven't really "seen" him as Spock yet in these particular clips. Oh, sure, he's physically perfect for the role. But Klinton Spilsbury was also physically perfect for the role of the Lone Ranger.

Specifically, these clips don't reveal the cool iciness of Spock; the curious intellect; the finely-formed sense of irony. The sense of gentleness. The respect for life. All life...no matter the shape or form. I sure hope all of that is present in the movie.

Getting to the hardware: the "new" U.S.S. Enterprise looks damn fine in motion; not so damn good in still photograph. In other words, she looks like a beauty in the trailer, when she's in action warping about and firing weapons. She's not as sleek as the NCC-1701 model in The Motion Picture, but I would say this Abrams Enterprise is far more beautiful than the dreadful Enterprise E design featured in First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis. Or, for that matter, the NX model from Enterprise.

In total, I dug the trailer (though I could have really, really, really done without the kid doing gymnastics while leaping out of a speeding car, going off a cliff...).

Random thoughts about the film, vis-a-vis the trailer:

1. This has to be a Star Trek for 2009, not a Star Trek for 1966 or 1979 or 1987, whathaveyou. Otherwise it fails.

2. The visual changes in the Trek universe seen in the trailer don't seem any more drastic or radical than the visual changes we saw between the original series and The Motion Picture. The bridge, the Enterprise, the corridors, the costumes -- they are all still immediately identifiable as "Star Trek." So far, so good.

3. Next Gen, Voyager, DS9 (to an extent) and Enterprise all proved that the "new crew"/"new ship" approach is washed up. Not one of the new character ensembles ever matched the mythic nature or chemistry of the original crew. Example: when Data said "the hell with our orders" in First Contact it didn't seem organic, much less real...it seemed like a rip-off of Spock saying "go to hell" to Star Fleet Command at the end of the Undiscovered Country. My point? The best the other crews could ever muster was an imitation of the Kirk crew. So, instead of doing the same thing again -- giving us another new crew -- and expecting a different result (the very definition of insanity) Abrams did something different here. He may well fail (and fail big time...), but we already know what's down that other road (Insurrection, Nemesis, etc.). So if it's between this or another Next Gen movie, count me in, J.J.


4. It looks to me like Abrams is not so much re-defining Kirk; but trying to actually define Kirk. Which is a good thing. Kirk's history has always been somewhat contradictory. He cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test...but in "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Gary Mitchell said young Kirk was positively "grim" in the Academy (a stack of books with legs, or some such thing). Tell me: how do those two images of Kirk jibe? Was he a positively grim cadet, hassled by Finnegan ("Shore Leave") or the brillant, improvisational rebel who cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test?

I suspect Abrams and his people looked back at the TV show and decided that they had to pick one Kirk or the other; either the "grim," "studious" Kirk...or the Koyabashi Maru/"I don't believe in the no-win scenario" Kirk. They picked the latter. We might quibble with their selection, but I respect that they had to choose. I do hope the new movie remembers that Kirk is an intelligent guy too...well-educated and knowledgeable. He was a student of history...

5. With a huge budget, plus recent advances in special effects, this movie provides the opportunity to visualize Star Trek on a Star Wars scale...and I'm thilled about that possibility. The values of Star Trek (optimism, brotherhood, etc.) coupled with the visuals and pace of Star Wars? Should be awesome...

6. Finally, it looks to me from the trailer that Uhura, Sulu and Chekov are no longer window dressing, but valuable characters and important movers in the stories. This is actually an improvement over old Trek.

7. Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy. How bad can the movie be if Leonard Nimoy signed on? I mean, this is the guy who worked so hard to improve the scripts for The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier. The guy who turned down Generations. But he chose to do this movie. Let's have faith in Leonard.

I understand why there's considerable trepidation about this new Star Trek. I do. This is the true "passing of the torch" moment for the franchise. Oh sure, Kirk passed the torch to the Next Generation at the end of The Undiscovered Country, but that happend in Star Trek's universe, not ours. This moment is the passing of the torch in reality: moving Star Trek beyond what it has been to Boomers and Generation X, and transforming it into something new. Starting over with a new sensibility; with a new generation -- not me! -- as the intended audience.

Accordingly, even if the new Star Trek is a great movie, my generation is going to have a tough time living with it. Personally, I'm trying to stay optimistic. My mission is to boldly go into that movie theater on May 8, 2009...with an open mind and open heart. I want Star Trek to continue. I want it to live long and prosper. I want Joel to have a Star Trek in his life, and I want it to speak to him the way my Star Trek speaks to me. If the movie achieves that, I should be happy, right? Right? IDIC and all?

Monday, November 17, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Children (1980)


"Expendable as it is, The Children may serve as a useful audition film...Every so often, an inventive, eerie shot betrays the presence of a fitfully effective visual imagination..."

-Gary Arnold, The Washington Post: "Have You Hugged Your Ghoul Today?" (July 9, 1980, page B6)


The China Syndrome (1979) -- an A-budget Hollywood thriller starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas -- premiered in U.S. theaters on March 16, 1979. The film involved a meltdown at a nuclear power installation. A scientist in the film ominously warned that such a disaster would render an area "the size of Pennsylvania" uninhabitable for centuries.

A mere twelve days later, life imitated art...

On March 28, 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (Unit 2)...in Pennsylvania.

The entire country -- perhaps the world -- was transfixed for days as the nightmarish, fictional scenario presented in the film became a very real threat. Fortunately, disaster was averted and there were no casualties (save for the future of the nuclear power industry). The prescient China Syndrome became a blockbuster film, a generational touchstone, and the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1979.

As a result of the accident and the film's popularity, the anti-nuclear movement in the United States...err...mushroomed. In May of 1979 (just a month-and-a-half after the incident and the film), over 70,000 dedicated Americans marched on Washington D.C. to protest "unsafe" nuclear power.

Since horror films often deliberately mirror the fears and anxieties of their real life epochs, it was only a matter of time before a canny genre filmmaker picked up the gauntlet and crafted a nuclear-power themed horror movie. One of the earliest of the bunch was a low-budget effort entitled The Children (1980).

If you were a kid when this relatively-obscure film was released (as I was...), the TV commercials likely have resonated in your psyche ever since. The film's horror imagery seemed...indelible (at least in short bursts). The advertisements for The Children were so terrifying that I didn't actual see the film itself for years...until I was an adult.

Regarding specifics, The Children opens with a Three-Mile-Island-like crisis. An accident (caused by employee negligence...) occurs at the Yankee Power Company's nuclear generating facility located near the quiet town of Ravensback, Mass. The reactor leaks a poisonous black substance, and in no time, a school bus filled with innocent children drives through a thick radiation cloud.

Because of this horrible exposure, the children are transformed into black-finger nailed zombie-like monsters. Their very touch causes the immediate incineration of human flesh. After disembarking from their bus, the affected children return home...exchanging hugs from their parents for - as I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s - "crispy, acrid death."
Ravensback's Sheriff Hart (Gil Rogers) teams with a local parent, John Freemont (Martin Shakar), to battle the monstrous children. The only way to stop the radioactive ghouls is to...chop off their hands, the source of their ungodly energy. The children lay siege to the Freemont home, and Mr. Freemont worries about his pregnant wife's impending birth. Could the same contamination that changed the children, change the fetus in her belly?

In horror movies, children always represent tomorrow; the future. Sacrifice the children and you are killing hope, innocence and the potential for a better day, a happier future. That's one reason why the demonic possession of Regan in The Exorcist remains so terrifying. If we cannot prevent our sacred children from becoming obscenity-spewing, crucifix-masturbating monsters, what's to live for, right? The Children works some of the same territory. Here, the sins of the father (unsafe nuclear power plants) are visited upon the children, and the entire future is compromised. As you might guess from my synopsis above, the film concludes with a "sting" that imperils not just a few kids, but the next generation itself, and by extension, the very existence of the human race.

In my aforementioned book, I commended The Children for the gung-ho attitude it consistently evidences; for the courage to remain dedicated to its wacky and admittedly-insane convictions. In other words, the cast and crew really commits to the transgressive nature of the material, even if the first half of the film is undeniably rambling, goofy, dull and virtually incoherent.

Yet by the time of the film's climax -- wherein our "heroes" utilize broad swords and shotguns to chop-up and blow away primary-school-age tykes -- such reservations about quality are likely rendered moot. In some important sense, The Children achieves that rarefied horror movie goal: it shatters accepted movie decorum. Audiences just don't walk into the average horror movie expecting to see children dismembered, or taking shotgun blasts to the gut at point-blank range. So this horror film is not merely idiosyncratic, but deliciously freakish.

Again, you're not going to see great make-up or special effects in The Children. The acting is pretty terrible. Ditto the editing. The movie lacks the veneer of professionalism you might expect; what you might term "polish." But that's all okay, because the movie's ruggedly haphazard nature permits it to unfold like an unnatural dream; a bizarre nightmare. Harry Manfredini's score aids in forging a pervasive atmosphere of dread, and there are some good "shaky camera" shots on display as the infected children creep behind tombstones in a local cemetery.

The Children's finest moment, however, is one of surprising power, delicacy and subtlety. It occurs near the film's denouement, when the sheriff and Mr. Freemont have the offending children (off-screen...) trapped in a barn. A tire-swing (hanging from a tree) is visible in the frame...and it is still swaying ever so gently. The fact that tire-swing was just recently in use indicates some important fact here: that the monstrous children, for all their destructive power....are still children.

Even as zombified, murderous monsters, the ghoulish children were engaged in the act of play and still obsessed with childish things (like swinging on a swing). It's a moment of sentiment and realization; a grace note in an otherwise violent horror film. Night of the Living Dead (1968) shocked audiences by shattering many a movie convention (a lead character lapses into catatonia and stays there for the duration of the picture; the hero is not rewarded for his intelligence and resourcefulness...but rather shot in the head; and an innocent child cuts up her mother with a garden trowel). The Children is nowhere close to being in the same class as Romero's seminal film, but it occasionally rises to that same plateau of hysteria: shocking viewers with not merely the violence the children cause, but the violence carried out against the children in the name of survival.

A superior person may be able to hold in his head two contradictory thoughts simultaneously and still continue to function. The Children holds two contradictory thoughts in its head and continues to scare...thus proving itself superior. Specifically, in The Children, the audience must countenance the idea of the contaminated children both as innocents and as rampaging monsters. That's a pretty nifty accomplishment for a low-budget, drecky, semi-incompetent movie.

The Children
gives the term "nuclear family" a whole new meaning.