Rewind to “Back to the Future”

by Graham Edwards

"Back to the Future" bluescreen stage photography and final composite by Industrial Light & Magic

Great Scott! It’s nearly October! That means our lives are about to intersect with a monumental moment on one of cinema’s trickiest timelines – the day when Marty McFly arrives in the Hill Valley of the future, in Robert Zemeckis’s 1989 sequel Back to the Future Part II.

Yes folks, 21 October 2015 is “Back to the Future Day”.

Across the world, fans of the classic time-travel trilogy are looking forward to a whole slew of events dedicated to celebrating this fantasy watershed moment. Your local theatre may be running a double or triple feature of the films. Some of the big venues are showing Back to the Future with live orchestra playing Alan Silvestri’s memorable score. There are panels and charity galas galore. I’ll bet there are even a few high schools putting on their very own “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance.

ILM modelshop supervisor Steve Gawley checks the internal lighting systems of the one-fifth scale replica DeLorean constructed for "Back to the Future".

ILM modelshop supervisor Steve Gawley checks the internal lighting systems of the one-fifth scale replica DeLorean constructed for “Back to the Future”.

But I’m not here to look forward. I’m here to look back – to 1985, when Back to the Future was first released.

In those halcyon days, I was an impoverished art student living in London. Like my fellow Brits, I frequently had to wait for what felt like a lifetime to see films that had been released the States months earlier – films like Back to the Future, which hit North American screens in July but didn’t reach good old Blighty until just before Christmas.

The incredible thing is that, despite my film-geek credentials and voracious appetite for movie news, when the film finally landed I knew almost nothing about it. I’d seen a trailer, but it hadn’t stuck in my mind. Spielberg’s producer credit was a good sign, but who was this Zemeckis fellow? Oh yeah, the Romancing the Stone guy. Well, that was an okay film, I suppose …

It’s hard to imagine such ignorance now. Everywhere we look we’re bombarded by film publicity. To go into a film cold, you have to consciously engage in a total media blackout because, let’s face it, your average 21st century movie trailer does more than just tease – it lays out all three acts, and spoils at least six big action scenes and a dozen key reveals.

Sometimes I really do wish I had a time machine.

Michael Lantieri and his physical effects team created specialised rigging for the hoverboard chase in "Back to the Future Part II", including this crane-suspended camera platform and wire-rigged hoverboard.

Michael Lantieri and his physical effects team created specialised rigging for the hoverboard chase in “Back to the Future Part II”, including this crane-suspended camera platform and wire-rigged hoverboard.

Another benefit of watching Back to the Future in 1985 was the venue. For those of you who remember the Empire, Leicester Square, the way it used to be, you’ll know exactly what I mean. No heartless multiplex this. The main auditorium was roughly the size of Texas. The screen, curved to geometric perfection, was concealed behind acres of ruched and ruffled curtains. Just walking in was like ascending to heaven.

When you’d taken you seat, the pre-show began.

If memory serves, the pre-show for Back to the Future involved a scanning laser being fired at those gorgeously draped curtains, creating a kaleidoscope of fire that gyrated in perfect synchrony with a presentation of Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygène loud enough to make your whole body break out in gooseflesh. Once that was over, the curtains unpeeled and the dazzled audience was granted a brief recovery time courtesy of a few short reels of adverts and previews, during which they were able to recover their proper senses.

Then the movie began.

I’ll be honest – at first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Back to the Future. I didn’t recognise any of the actors, and I wasn’t at all sure where the story was going. The scenes in Marty’s house seemed oddly paced, dwelling curiously on the offbeat reminiscences of his dorky parents. Maybe they’d become relevant later in the movie … Still, the whole thing had a fun feel, just right for the holiday season. Maybe it would warm up.

Of course, it did. The instant Marty arrived at Twin Pines Mall and met Doc Brown, it started to win me over. The chemistry between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd made their every exchange a delight. I felt the smile growing on my face with each new turn of that pivotal scene – the DeLorean reveal, Einstein’s first trip through time (those iconic trails of fire!), the appearance of the terrorists, their shocking revenge on Doc Brown and the breakneck pursuit of Marty around the shopping mall car park leading ultimately to his escape into the past, all to the accompaniment of the most exuberant musical score I’d heard for years.

By the time Marty had been catapulted back to the year 1955, I realised that the Empire, Leicester Square, had indeed become its own little pocket of heaven. And heaven was where I remained for the rest of the film. It became an instant favourite, and is a favourite still – one of those rare films that captured lightning in a bottle, a film made with such confidence, such chutzpah, that you just knew its director must have been driven by a kind of visionary white heat. Zemeckis stated recently that he’ll resist any attempt to remake it. I hope he sticks to his guns. How can you improve on perfection?

ILM camera assistant Kate O'Neill programmes one of the computer-controlled functions on the miniature locomotive created for "Back to the Future Part III". Seven feet long, the model boasted twenty-four mechanical gags and was controlled by two motion-control systems simultaneously.

ILM camera assistant Kate O’Neill programmes one of the computer-controlled functions on the miniature locomotive created for “Back to the Future Part III”. Seven feet long, the model boasted twenty-four mechanical gags and was controlled by two motion-control systems simultaneously.

Some time after seeing the movie for the first time (and second, and third …) I picked up a copy of Cinefex issue 24. To my delight, it included a feature on Back to the Future – quite an extensive one, considering the film contains fewer than thirty visual effects shots. I learned that Industrial Light & Magic turned those shots around in roughly eight weeks, an incredible accomplishment. The detailed article, written by Janine Pourroy, also confirmed my suspicions about Zemeckis: it seemed he was all over the visual effects, ensuring at all times that ILM’s wizardry was as true to his vision as the rest of his film.

Small though the number of effects shots may be, they still threw plenty of challenges at VFX supervisor Ken Ralston and his team. The “time-slice” effect was an incredibly complicated blend of practical lighting and optical trickery. The climactic lightning strike – described in Zemeckis’s and Bob Gale’s script as “the largest bolt of lighting in cinema history” – was created frame by frame using meticulously hand-drawn animation by Wes Takahashi.

Miniature composite shot by Industrial Light & MagicAnd the film’s crowd-pleasing closing shot, in which the time-travelling DeLorean reveals its new flight mode shortly before bursting out of the movie screen, was a state-of-the-art optical composite boasting a manually-tracked match-move of a live-action plate, a meticulously-constructed miniature vehicle photographed under motion control, and some tricky hand-drawn rotoscoping to mask the airborne speedster as it swoops behind those distant trees.

Gazing back across the thirty years that lie between now and then, I’m filled with a fuzzy nostalgia. They say you can’t turn back the clock but, hey, this is Back to the Future we’re talking about.

So what should I do when “Back to the Future Day” finally comes around? Keep it simple and re-watch all three films in the comfort of my own home? Dress up in a life-preserver and gatecrash my local theatrical event? Rent a DeLorean and see if I can coax that sucker up to 88mph?

Never mind. I have a few weeks left to decide. If I run out of time, I can always fire up the flux capacitor and buy myself some extra breathing space. In the meantime, only one question remains:

What are you doing on “Back to the Future Day”?


Watch the trailer for the upcoming documentary Back in Time – due for release on 21 October 2015 – in which cast, crew, and fans explore the classic time-travel trilogy’s resonance throughout our culture:

Photographs copyright © 1985, 1989 and 1990 by Universal Studios Inc. and Industrial Light & Magic.

3 thoughts on “Rewind to “Back to the Future”

  1. On of the proudest moments of my career was when the T-Rex from Back to the Future The Ride that I glued together and painted appeared on the cover of Cinefex Issue #46. What an incredible experience working on that job was. To be working under the direction of Douglas Trumbull on a Spielberg production was a dream come true for me!

    I was hired to work on the miniature Ice Crevasse landscape which was a 50 foot by 50 foot ‘miniature’. I got bumped over onto the T-Rex after the Ice Crevasse had been shot… which was the part of the job I actually wanted to be on in the first place so, working on BTTF The Ride for me went from being Great to being FREAKING AWESOME! :)

  2. I love the Back to the Future trilogy. However, having recently rewatched it, I still cringe when that signature shot appears because the flames left by the wheels of the returning DeLorean should also appear in front (and all around) the feet of Doc Brown and Marty, not just behind them. But to me, that’s the only nitpick I have, and I could go for all the possible plot holes…

  3. Loved the movie and its sequels. My only nitpick is that the miniature team for some reason left the keyholes off the doors of the model DeLorean. Noticed it in ’89.

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