|Cinefantastique, Volume 6, Number 1 (c)1977, pg. 46 - Land of the Lost by S.S. Wilson|
The clay model and the interior armature for Junior, a baby allosaurus.
Video registration is better than film registration, so registration of composite elements is better. There were several problems on Land of the Lost (the background sometimes jiggles and the live actors don't, betraying the composite), but these came from the original film element, not the video compositing system.
A major problem in creating film composites is matching colors in background and foreground elements. Film does not record exactly what the eye sees, so color matching requires days of photographic testing and much seat-of-the-pants experience. A color match in a video composite can be checked literally before the paint is dry. Furthermore, within limits, the video engineer can balance foreground and background colors electronically with the twist of a dial.
Also, providing a shadow for a matted subject in film nearly always calls for color matching of the area on which the shadow falls to correspond with an area in the background plate (this is true whether the composite means is traveling matte or rear or front projection). As I've said, chroma key can pick up a shadow straight from the chroma stage with no need for any color matching.
For Land of the Lost, an interesting attempt was made to maximize the user of animation footage. Some of the animation was shot in sets with partial blue backgrounds (from slides, film, paintings, or anything else) behind the same animation footage, helping to disguise that footage when it was reused in later episodes. Technical problems forced the abandonment of the process after the first season, but its implications for saving on animation make it appealing.
Finally, the use of extensive miniature sets is rare in conventional dimensional animation/live action films. Mighty Joe Young was the last feature to depend heavily on them. Master effects man Willis O'Brien used miniature rear projection to place live actors and animals into the sets with the animation models. This was time consuming and expensive because the actors had to be filmed in full scale partial sets which precisely matched sections of the miniatures. It was somewhat limited, too, (though it never seemed so in O'Brien's hands) in that the actor's movements were were restricted to the small rear projected areas. Chroma key offers interesting possibilities because it allows the actors complete freedom of movement "in" miniature sets, requires no full scale set construction, and makes line up much faster and more reliable. Therefore, the use of miniature sets becomes somewhat less feasible. It must be admitted, however, that the cost of the Land of the Lost sets could be amortized over many episodes; sets for feature films are used only once.
Before we dash out to remake King Kong again, let us now consider some of the drawbacks of video and chroma key. First of all, the output is a standard television image, an image with far less resolution that 35mm film. Video can be transferred to film, but almost everyone agrees that the resultant film image isn't adequate for theatrical projection (it is being done, however-- see Norman, It That You? and Give 'Em Hell, Harry). Ray Harryhausen and Gene Warren have both indicated that they keep an eye on advances in video technology, but have seen nothing yet which they consider good enough for their feature film work.
It must also be said that newer chroma key systems have grown finicky with sophistication. Land of the Lost's production crew found it necessary to keep a stand-by, old style chroma key system available for use when the Imagematte malfunctioned-- no time could be wasted waiting for engineers to tinker it back to life. Hence, the actors do not always have shadows and composites vary in quality.
The most serious problem with the whole procedure, though, it the fact that the live actors have to match pre-existing animation, rather than the other way around. This means that the stunning physical interaction we have come to expect from the likes of Harryhausen is almost impossible to achieve. When the animator can match his animation to rear projected live action, models and actors can have sword fights, or a tug of war, or hit each other on the chin, or play catch-- you name it. The process is time consuming and difficult, but accurate and dependable.
Chroma key requires the live actor to match his actions to those of animated models he can't even see (because he's on the blue stage). It's a process of trial and error. The more precise the interaction, the more takes necessary, on the average, to get it right. Hence, interaction on Land of the Lost is usually very general; we see dinosaurs and people in the same shot, but that's it (for some reason, no model humans were built to be animated in long shots with the dinosaurs-- a common practice in feature film work).
In order to do animation after the live action had been taped, and still make use of chroma key, it would have been necessary to do the animation on videotape (tremendously expensive) or to develop a system allowing the animator to work with film using videotaped live action background plates as a reference (also tremendously expensive).
This is not to say that there were no impressive composites in the show. In "Hurricane" we see Will swipe at Spot, the coelophysis, with a stick. Spot backs away snarling, snapping and dodging the blows. (Will never actually hits Spot, the appearance of actual contact is much harder to achieve than a near miss.) In "Stone Soup," Emily, the mother brontosaurus, pursues Will and Holly into a pylon (pylons are small, pyramidal structures which dot the Land) and peers in the doorway after them in a very convincing composite. And once the crew went all out for a shot used in the closing credits of all the first season episodes. It shows Holly actually riding on the back of Dopey. She really rode on a blue, tombstone-shaped cutting piece being pulled along by a couple of stage hands. Through laborious trial and error, this action was matched to a shot of Dopey walking.
Shots that called for interaction with animation were dubbed "combination animation" shots. Those which just required combining the actors with a miniature set were called "animation plates." The two-day production schedule made the latter economically preferable to the former. Fans who stuck with the show through its third season (no easy trick, since it bounced by half hour steps from 9:30 to 11:00 AM and was preempted often en route-- many must have thought it cancelled) saw a steady deterioration in the amount of quality of "combination animation."
In the third season, there appears to be almost no new animation with the older characters. Shots of them are used over and over like stock footage in old jungle pictures: actors look offscreen, cut to shot of dinosaur, actors go their way. Gene Warren points out that such overuse is highly criticized by kids; they can tell you what episode a shot first appeared in and how it was used, he warns.