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July 14, 2011

‘Forbidden Planet’ artists talk sci-fi classic and the sounds of space

Posted in: It's Alive,Movies

MGM’s 1956 sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” was an anomaly for the Hollywood dream factory that was known for its lush Technicolor musicals, adaptations of literary works and star-driven dramas and comedies. It represented the studio’s first foray into the sci-fi genre.

“It was rare enough that any of the major studios made sci-fi,” said Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (“Star Wars,” “Wall-E”), who saw the film as a boy in 1956.

Burtt and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) are hosting a sold-out digital screening of “Forbidden Planet” Saturday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Linwood Dunn Theater. Before the movie, the two will discuss the secrets behind its production.

The event also kicks off a free exhibition in the lobby of the Linwood Dunn, “Forbidden Planet: Artifacts from the Krell,” which features concept art, miniatures, a hand blaster and the film’s endearing and enduring Robby the Robot. Barron and Burtt will offer a gallery talk on the exhibition at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Robby the Robot and Anne Francis in "Forbidden Planet" (Los Angeles Times archives)

Directed by Fred M. Wilcox from a script by Cyril Hume, “Forbidden Planet” has been described as Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” set in outer space. It revolves around a United Planets mission in the 23rd century to a mysterious planet called Altair-4. The crew, lead by a pre-comedy clown Leslie Nielsen, discovers Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), the lone survivors of an earlier space mission. During his years on the planet, Morbius has uncovered the secrets of an extinct race, the Krells. Meanwhile, the crew is being picked off by the silent and invisible “id monster.”

“One of the things that Craig and I found out [during research] was that it started out as a lower-budget film with some real restrictions on it,” Burtt said. “But the departments got very excited because this was something fresh and new — a fresh way to express themselves artistically. They got more passionate thinking through how to do things that hadn’t been done. So it got a little bit more expensive.”

Bebe Barron, composer whose score for "Forbidden Planet" was the first use of electronic music in feature films. (Family handout)

Bebe Barron, composer whose score for "Forbidden Planet" was the first use of electronic music in feature films.

Burtt will be discussing the innovative electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron. “Certainly the most unique thing looking back at the film is the sound in the movie,” he said.

Though there had been experimental electronic scores using a theremin — most notably by Miklos Rozsa for 1945’s “Spellbound” and Bernard Herrmann for 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — there had never been anything like the Barrons’ score for “Forbidden Planet,” described by Burtt as “weird electronic sounds” that function both as sound effects and music.

The film earned an Academy Award nomination for special effects, losing to “The Ten Commandments.”

Besides Robby the Robot, who was created by several craftsman at MGM, the most impressive aspect of the special effects was the “id monster,” which is slowly revealed — first by its footsteps, then roaring to life in the force field.

“They were very careful to suggest the monster,” Barron said. “The cliche in movies at the time was the bug-eyed monster with a big eyeball, played by a guy in the suit. That is not the kind of thing they wanted. They wanted it to be something more you felt. That is what makes it more exciting and frightening.”

The monster was created by visual effects artist Joshua Meador, whom the studio borrowed from Disney. “This is a time when artists had very specific skills,” said Barron. “What Josh specialized in was creating visual phenomena like crackling electricity or blowing leaves or icicles forming, which he would draw by hand. He was well-versed in the understanding of crackling energy and performance.”

– Susan King


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