Friday, June 5, 2015

Arch Oboler’s Restored 3D Classic The Bubble, by Kim Luperi

Bob Furmanek, Michael Schlesinger, Michael Cole, and Igo Kantor. Photo by Lee Christian 

Note: The Bubble will be showing again - for free! - at the Aero on Thursday, June 11, 2015 as part of our series The Golden Age of 3-D.

On January 22, 2015, the Aero hosted the West Coast re-premiere of Arch Oboler's 1966 3D sci-fi classic The Bubble. Before the screening began, 3D historian Bob Furmanek, who supervised the restoration of the film, gave a little background on the picture, director Arch Oboler, and the restoration process.

The Bubble premiered in 1966, and a few people in attendance at the Aero had actually seen it in its original run almost 50 years ago, but most were viewing the movie for the first time. Director Arch Oboler was a legend in the radio era; his show Lights Out was a landmark presentation of horror over the airwaves. Oboler is generally credited with starting the short-lived 3D craze of the 1950s with his 1952 film Bwana Devil. The picture was a huge success, and every studio jumped on the bandwagon; in fact, there were nearly 50 domestic 3D films released in the two years following.

The primary reason the technology fell out of favor with audiences during that period was mostly due to the projection of 3D films. At that time, 3D movies were projected on two 35mm prints, one for the left eye and one for the right, and they had to be run through two separate projectors in precise synchronization. If the prints were off just a frame, the audiences could easily detect the difference and even suffer headaches. After a few bad experiences with these films, audiences tended to stay away, no matter how good the reviews were. 

Though The Bubble was produced a decade after the first wave of 3D films, the movie holds a special distinction in the 3D world: it was the first 3D feature to be photographed and exhibited on a single strip of 35mm in a process called Space-Vision. The images were stacked in a standard 4 perf frame, which left no chance for the synchronization errors that killed 3D the first time around.

When the 3D Film Archive acquired the rights to The Bubble and tracked down the original 35mm negative, they found it basically baking in an outdoor storage unit in California. The cans were also rusty and moisture had crept inside, leaving the film in poor condition. Luckily, with the care and expertise of the archive's staff and those who worked on the restoration, the film was cleaned, scanned, and examined frame by frame and any minor alignment issues were fixed. The original negative was severely faded, but fortunately, the restoration process brought most of the color back. After the screening, moderator Michael Schlesinger took the stage to moderate a Q&A with Furmanek, star Michael Cole, and editor and music supervisor Igo Kantor (who has also worked on such cult favorites as Head and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).

Before the discussion began, Furmanek offered up some clarification for what we had just seen - not story-wise, but visually. He explained that some odd gaps in continuity are present because the version we saw wasn't the originally released cut of the film. In fact, the road show version that Oboler took around the country in 1967-68 had a run time of 112 minutes. The reviews back then for this version were generally positive, but the one chief piece of criticism was that the picture ran too long. Taking this to heart, sometime in late 1968 Oboler cut 21 minutes from the film. The 3D Film Archive tried to locate the parts that were deleted, but they don't appear to have survived. Consequently, any odd jump cuts or music cues are the result of the way Oboler re-cut the film.

Schlesinger’s first question was directed at star Cole: how was he cast in the film? Cole replied that The Bubble was actually his first picture. At the time, he was attending the Actors Studio, and he knew one of the women who would go on to play a nurse in the movie. She liked some of the stuff he was doing and talked to Oboler about him. After Cole heard the movie would be shot in 3D, he balked and put on his "James Dean act" - he didn't want anything to do with 3D - but after meeting with Oboler (or Mr. O, as he affectionately referred to him), it was a whole different situation. 

Michael Schlesinger, Igo Kantor, and Michael Cole. Photo by Lee Christian. 

Oboler was a small man who came out to greet Cole in a powder blue jumpsuit and thick glasses (on set, he wore a construction helmet!). The actor had heard he was a genius, and after being around Oboler for only a few minutes, he could sense that himself. In particular, Cole admired how much Oboler cared about space and what was really out there. In fact, one day Oboler jiggled something in his pocket, and Cole asked him what he had in there. Oboler showed him the object; it was a rock, but not just any rock - this was a piece of a meteor! "Anyone who walks around with a meteor in his pocket is kind of an interesting guy," Cole recalled. Oboler was a true visionary, and after working with him for a few days, Cole realized the film was really a marriage between art and technology, and he remarked how rare it is to get a chance like that as an actor. It was easy to tell how thankful Cole was for the opportunity to work with Oboler on the film.

When asked whether he was daunted by the fact that The Bubble was told from the point of view of Cole's character and he was in all the scenes, Cole answered in the negative. He knew what he had gotten himself into after a while; in fact, the more he immersed himself in the experience, the more interesting it became for him. He started pondering some of the profound lines his character delivered and asked the audience "how much better off are we today?" That kind of thinking on the set got him more involved, and the routine became a "way of life" for him. Once he got locked into the character, it was hard for him to get out of it. He recalled that some nights he couldn't sleep, and only after hearing noise from the bar next door did he realize that he wasn't actually in the bubble! 

The next few questions were directed at Igo Kantor, who wore many different hats throughout his career, including editor, music supervisor, producer, and composer. When asked which position he preferred, he said that editing has been the greatest experience for him, both in music and film. He also enjoyed producing because that role allowed him to have a hand in several different parts of the process.

Kantor worked as the editor and music supervisor on The Bubble. When he first visited with Oboler in Studio City, he thought the director sort of an oddball, but he holds fond memories of working on the picture. When Oboler asked if Kantor would sign on to edit The Bubble, which would be shot in 3D, Kantor told him that he was available but he had never worked in 3D before. Kantor asked if Oboler would be using the old two strip method, but the director informed him that he would actually be working with a brand new system that used only one strip of film. So, for Kantor, the editing process was actually the same as cutting any other film - he had no issue with the editing. The only time he ran into a problem with Oboler was when the director insisted that he put everything he shot on the screen, which is where the concern about length came into play. Kantor didn't fight with him, but he personally felt the movie ran too long. 

Igo Kantor. Photo by Lee Christian 

Though Kantor recalls that sometimes Oboler would call him up at 2am with an idea for the film, he didn't find this to be too unusual; he's worked with some weird directors, and a few late night phone calls were nothing. On that note, Schlesinger had to ask Kantor about working with Ed Wood. Kantor bowed his head and after a few seconds of silence, he chuckled: "That's a good one!" To him, Wood was not a director (especially when you are comparing him to a genius like Oboler), but rather someone who kept looking for money every other day just to finish shooting a movie. In fact, Kantor remembers that Wood would stop filming for a few days and head to a bar to raise money for the next scene in his film! Kantor did have fights with him, though, because Wood never shot enough coverage; in fact, he seemingly didn't know the meaning of the word. Kantor argued that he couldn't shoot just one take of a scene, but the habit was hard to kill since Wood was really only concerned about the money. Schlesinger then turned to questions from the audience, the first of which touched upon the bubble itself: how specific was Oboler in telling the actors what exactly was going on in the story?

Cole replied that Oboler kept them in the dark, and that move was deliberate. To him, it was best that you didn’t know; that was the whole point, and it was a lot scarier that way. Oboler teased audiences with shadows here and there to indicate something bad was happening, but if he were to show anything, it would have simply turned into a monster movie. The scarier part for Cole - and for the audience - was that all assumptions were left to the viewer's mind. What could be conjured in there was probably way more terrifying than anything that could have been shown on screen.

The next audience member asked if The Bubble was intended to re-invigorate 3D. Furmanek took this question, answering that the movie did not have a large effect on the 3D community. In actuality, since Oboler wanted to have total control over the film's exhibition, he "four walled" (paid for theaters to show the movie for the week) it from city to city with the road show, and consequently, the film did not have a wide release. Four years later, Oboler sold the picture to a group of people who were responsible for 1969's 3D X-rated film The Stewardesses, which is credited with jump-starting the interest in 3D again. The group re-titled The Bubble: Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth, and they created new marketing materials and an ad campaign which featured a spaceship hovering over an alien planet. The new posters misrepresented the film, and reviews of the movie's re-release were not very good compared to the positive ones that Oboler’s original received.

Another question touched upon the filming locations. Several times in the film, Cole’s character suggests that they’ve stumbled onto a movie set. Well, that’s partly correct: the film was shot on the old Republic lot in Studio City. In fact, the saloon was the same one featured in Gunsmoke, which was on hiatus at the time. Other scenes were filmed in Malibu Canyon, including sequences by a pond, which is where Gilligan’s Island lensed. Several of the 3D sequences in the film expertly utilized the technology, including a pretty random shot of a flying drink tray. When asked how the image was staged, Kantor replied that the tray was actually controlled by wires, but it was shot separately and then superimposed over the background image to create the effect. 

Deborah Walley and Michael Cole star as newlyweds in The Bubble. 

One of the audience members complimented Kantor on the 3D and Furmanek on the restoration. Furmanek in turn praised the filmmaker: “If you’re starting with materials that were done well in the first place, it makes your job much easier.” Furmanek said they didn’t have to do much restoring as far as the 3D was concerned; they only corrected a few shots where the vertical alignment was off. In fact, the biggest challenge for Furmanek and his team had to do with something that was out of their hands – the fact that the camera negative had been neglected for 40 years. Furmanek praised 3D restorer Greg Kintz, the man who digitally combed through the film shot by shot and did all the work. Furthermore, Furmanek admitted that the restoration was funded out of pocket with no big studio behind them. Therefore, it was extra gratifying for him to have this opportunity to unveil the new restoration in front of people who actually worked on the original. At this point, Cole chimed in, saying that sometimes not having enough money isn’t a bad thing, because all the energy ends up on the screen. As was clear to everyone in the audience, that was certainly the case here.

Michael Cole and Bob Furmanek. Photo by Lee Christian. 

Another audience member wanted to relay a message to Cole from a woman named Trish. Cole met her when she was seven, playing the girl in the Tilt-A-Whirl (she remembers riding that for days!). Her casting was one of those Hollywood stories; Oboler originally wanted a boy for the role and her mother brought her brother in to audition, but she had to bring Trish along because she couldn’t find a babysitter. When the boy froze up under the pressure, Trish slid in and won the part. Though she couldn’t be at the screening that night, she wanted to thank Cole for being so nice to her and making her and the rest of the child actors on set feel comfortable. Adorably, Cole, who remembered Trish as being a sweetheart, told the man to return her greetings. 

The final two questions of the evening focused on The Bubble’s story. Furmanek replied that Oboler wrote the script in the early 1960s, but none of the studios, including Paramount and Columbia, wanted it. The movie was budgeted at $500,000, which was a relatively low amount for the time. He finally raised money through Capitol Records to make it on his own; Oboler had recorded an album called Drop Dead, based on the radio shows he produced, and had developed a friendship with the president of Capitol Records, Alan Livingston. It turns out that the studios turning it down was a blessing in disguise: shooting it independently gave Oboler the control he wanted over the picture.

One young man asked if any of the events of the day – such as the Cold War and the Korean War – influenced the story or the way the actors portrayed their characters. Cole said it wasn’t on his mind at all, but he knows there was definitely some modern day sentiment in some of those lines (though that more concerned the world outside the bubble). Kantor chimed in to say that Oboler certainly had political thoughts and ideas, and everything he did had a double meaning. The director believed that in order to portray horror, you didn’t have to show it, but talk about it. Furthermore, Oboler truly believed in extraterrestrials and other worlds, and one of his heroes was Orson Welles. He told Kantor that he had always wanted to do a Welles story, a la "The War of the Worlds," without showing any of the creatures. 

It would seem that he achieved that dream with The Bubble. 

Photo by Lee Christian 

Written by Kim Luperi, reported from the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. For more of Kim's writing on film see her blog I See A Dark Theater.