Were you in the audience when The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980? If so – and if you lived in the UK, Scandinavia or Australia – you may remember the short fantasy film that supported it. The film was called Black Angel, and it was directed by Roger Christian, the Academy Award-winning set decorator of Star Wars, and Oscar-nominated art director of Alien.
After its run with Empire, Black Angel was forgotten. In time, all known negatives and prints were lost. Christian’s film entered the very realm of myth it had sought to conjure up.
Then, in 2012, a copy of Black Angel was found by an archivist from Universal Studios. It had been in storage in a WWII bunker in the UK and gone missing. In October 2013, after painstaking restoration by David Tanaka and Brice Parker with Athena Studios, it was shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, California.
“I stood up in front of the audience,” said Christian. “The cinema was full and they were very expectant. Black Angel was the closing film and I said, ‘Please set your clocks back 33 years.’ You see it’s not fast-paced like today’s films. But a lot of young people really liked it. I grilled them afterwards and they told me the pacing still works, that it really gets into your mind.”
On February 25th 2014, Black Angel continues its journey back into the light at the Glasgow Film Festival, after which it will embark on a short tour of Scotland, where it was originally made. Christian also plans to make it available to a wider audience. “I’m determined to get the film out as fast as I can after Glasgow. Everyone’s telling me I should make Blu-rays and DVDs, and take them to the sci-fi conventions. We’re arranging to do that in Toronto – they have a huge fan expo there through the summer. But the main thing is to get it online.”
Black Angel tells the story of a mediaeval knight returning from an overseas war. Finding his homeland destroyed and his family dead, he decides to return to the war. On the way, he falls into a river and is transported to a mystical realm where he has to fight the Black Angel – a figure representing death itself – to save a maiden in distress.
Christian first started thinking about Black Angel while at film school, in which he enrolled following his work on Star Wars and Alien. Despite more offers of design work, he dreamed of become a film director. “I remember sitting at home – I was eating a bowl of brown rice and I was absolutely broke – when I was offered the design on Conan the Barbarian,” he recalled. “I turned it down because I was trying to get Black Angel made – but I couldn’t afford to get it made at film school.”
Fate stepped in while Christian was sitting in on a sound mixing session for Alien. “Sandy Lieberson, the head of Fox, came in. I told him the story of Black Angel and he said, ‘Fax it to me tonight.’ The next day he called me and said, ‘Do you mind if I send this to George Lucas? He got really upset with us at Fox about the short film we put out with Star Wars.’”
Liking the story – in particular its mythological themes – Lucas gave the go ahead to produce the film using money from the Eady Fund. “Typical of George, he told Fox nobody was to touch the movie. I was to finish it completely, and then he would be the first person to see the finished product. So we went and made this film, as an act of faith and with no money.”
Inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, Christian scouted dramatic locations in Scotland. “I always had Eilean Donan castle in mind. There’s a certain pre-Raphaelite romantic fantasy idea about the mediaeval world, which I love, and I knew that this had to be the location.”
Black Angel was shot in seven days on a budget of £25,000, with Christian’s tiny crew of eight driving frantically between various Scottish locations including Dornie, the Kyle of Lochalsh and Dunoon. “I gambled on going right at the end of the fall,” said Christian, “because the skies up there are amazing at that time of year. When we’d finished – literally as we were driving back to the airport in Glasgow – the snow came with a vengeance. So I lucked out.”
Luck remained with Christian throughout the intense, guerrilla-style shoot. For example, in the fight scene in which the knight Sir Maddox first encounters the Black Angel, Christian wanted specifically to re-create the atmosphere of a Frank Frazetta painting called The Death Dealer. “I found this arena in the pine trees,” he explained, “ and we put in smoke with a little hand-held smoke machine. It looked pretty nice but it wasn’t quite there. And then God struck. The sun burst through the clouds for one minute and made veins of light around this black knight. We just panicked and shot it, and it was exactly what I’d imagined. Things like that just kept happening, and they made a huge difference to the film.”
To help create the right mythical ambience, Christian hit on the idea of spraying cobwebs into the air. “As we started shooting, the fights weren’t working for me, but I had so little film that I couldn’t experiment. I’d brought cobweb spray for the armour, so I had my costume designer Charles Knode spray it in the air and it came down like gossamer. When it was slowed down it gave a great, weird look.”
The decision to slow down the fight scenes was borne out of necessity: “I didn’t have enough footage to meet my contract of 25 minutes.” After some experimenting, Christian and editor Alan Strachan decided to use step-printing to extend the fights, bringing the film up to the required length. “We duplicated each frame three times, and it looked amazing. It’s different than slow motion. They used the same technique on the fight in the cave in Empire.”
The low budget nature of Black Angel also impacted on the special effects. “I really wanted a dragon, but I couldn’t afford one. So we made a bat instead! An animatronics company made it out of rubber, and we strung it on a fishing wire and had it fly off the Black Angel’s shield. We even got it to spin and flap its wings. It was down and dirty but it worked.”
Black Angel was shot in 35mm Cinemascope, using short ends left over from The Empire Strikes Back. “We had all these tins of film, and Roger Pratt, the director of photography, was just trying to mix and match.” When it came to the lighting, Pratt decided early to go with his gut. “I saw him staring and staring at his light meter. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, ‘This thing’s saying there’s not enough light, but it looks stunning through the camera.’ So he threw the light meter over his shoulder and said, ‘I’m going on instinct.’ And that’s how we did the whole film.”
Those present at the first screening of Black Angel included George Lucas, Gary Kurtz and Irwin Kershner. To Christian’s great relief, the film was warmly received. “It was kind of terrifying when I shot it. I went out on this limb, and I made this thing, with no idea where it was going really. But they loved it.”
Christian tells the complete story of the making of Black Angel in a new book called Cinema Alchemist. He also reveals all about his experiences working on Star Wars and Alien. Edited by JW Rinzler, the book is poised to secure a publishing deal in the near future.
Tune in again next week when, in the second part of this article, Roger Christian talks Star Wars and Alien.
Special thanks to Phil Guest for putting Black Angel back on my radar