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'Indiana Jones' Revisited

Henry Turner takes a look at the visual effects legacy of the Indiana Jones movie trilogy and how the new DVD box set has enhanced the spectacle.


Additional footage, interviews and behind-the-scenes secrets make the Oct. 21 release of the Indiana Jones trilogy on DVD special. Steven Spielberg (right) couldnt get enough snakes, insects and creepy critters in the first installment. All images © Lucasfilm & TM. All rights reserved.

The long-awaited Oct. 21 debut of the Indiana Jones trilogy on DVD (Paramount Home Entertainment, $49.95), complete with a value-added fourth disc featuring a full-length documentary on the making of each film, and featurettes on the effects, sound, stunts and music, is a milestone for the format and a reminder of the pre-digital glory days. The documentary features in-depth interviews with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, along with all of the primary cast and technical supervisors. Early screen tests from Raiders show Tom Selleck and Sean Young reading the roles of Indy and Marion; paintings and storyboards show the transition from concept to finished scene; test sequences, such as a video ride through the Temple of Doom mining caverns and the original animatics cartoons of the finale from Raiders, show the attention given to detail of many memorable scenes.

Behind-the-scenes footage makes it clear that some of the fun in the films came from the lively atmosphere of the location shoots. We see Spielberg always plagued by never having enough snakes, rats and bugs, and having to fly in more creepy stars at the last minute. For Harrison Ford, who endured many injuries over the making of the trilogy, its all just another day at the office. Its well known that the name Indiana was taken from Lucas Malamute dog, but by the time Temple of Doom came around, both Kate Capshaws character Willie, and Indys sidekick Short Round, were named respectively from Spielbergs and screenwriter Willard Huycks dogs.

Unlike the Star Wars re-release, no additional scenes or CGI-enhancements have been added to the trilogy. Additions simply were not necessary in the case of the Indy films, the originals are the directors cuts!

Dusting Off Indy

John Lowery, founder of Lowery Digital Images, had the job of digitally cleaning up the films. The films were, in our opinion, in quite good shape compared to most. Raiders, though, had a very serious scratch on about 30-some-odd-thousand frames, and a blue line that was right across all the faces and eyes of the actors. That proved to be an interesting challenge. Technicians scanned and converted the motion-picture imagery into digital information at high-resolution, and examined it frame-by-frame for imperfections. Flaws were corrected using proprietary software. We will do a number of things with the granularity, sharpness, and the stability of the images, dirt, scratches, flicker the whole range of things that really come about from the film being used over and over through the years. He did a great job; the films look perfect. The images are consistently clean, the colors beautiful.


Peterson used aluminum foil, miniature railroad tracks and a still Nikon camera to create the famous mine car chase (left) in Temple of Doom. Many of the visual effects that were painstakingly created for the Indiana Jones trilogy would be done with CGI these days.

Miniature Effects On Raiders And Temple of Doom

Lorne Peterson, of Industrial Light & Magic, made models for the trilogy. Certain highlights of Raiders stay in his mind. For what we called the burning Nazis scene, when all of a sudden they open the ark, the model shop created the ghosts swirling around the Nazis by running a miniature silk and plastic ghost through a tank of water. We also took one of the receptionists, put her on a big trapeze, and dressed her in silk and white make up. When the ghost comes really close to the camera, its her face that turns into a skeleton. The Nazis writhe as the light shoots through them, and we added little light panels to their eyes. We did a miniature set piece that was 18 by 12 feet, shot flames into it, and ran the film backwards. And when the room clears and the Nazis descend towards hell, those were GI Joes in little Nazi outfits we threw up in the air over the camera.

Peterson speaks of how each sequel had to up the effects ante. Every director has the problem of doing sequels, with the audience expecting the rung to go higher each time. In Temple of Doom, the model shop did a lot more; it was quantum leaps. There were all the shots with water, water out the miniature rock face wall, water down the tunnel, all of those things. The model shop did the expendable slave who is dropped into the volcano, and then there were also the guards that fell from the bridge, which was a real bridge erected across a 300-foot deep gorge in Sri Lanka. The guards were big balloons, and they each had a string on their cork air-stopper. They would fall for five or 10 feet, and then the cork would pull out, and the guards writhed just like a balloon when you let the air out of it and it flies around the room.

About the famous mine car chase, Peterson adds, Imagine a large warehouse room, with the underground cave set made out of very thick aluminum foil, and all kinds of little railroad tracks, and there was a 35mm Nikon still camera that was rigged up, with a bigger magazine. If you look very carefully between the tracks, you can see the little thin cable that would draw along both the cart and the camera. They were on spindles, I think we used fly fishing reels, motorized. Lorne agrees that nowadays CGI would probably be used to do the scene. Somebody said that the more camera work and movement, you can more easily use CG for instance, if you have horses running over a hill through smoke and fog, it s certainly easier to use CG than stop-motion. Still, as effects supervisor Dennis Muren adds in the bonus effects featurette, For a dollar ninety-eight, we got some great sets.

Other Bonus Features

Sound designer Ben Burtt explains the origin of many of the sound effects, everything from Indys gun having the sound of a Remington 30'30', to the sound of the boulder from the famous opening Raiders scene being a treated recording of a Honda Civic coasting down a gravel path. John Williams tells of his process of musical composition, his intense focus on creating the main themes of the score, and how traditional practices were intermixed with atonal styles to create supernatural and terrifying moods.

Origins Of A Classic Trilogy

Made in the days when Spielberg was considered the king of popcorn entertainment the days before his directing Oscar for Schindlers List and also for Saving Private Ryan the Indy films seemed to be simple action adventure thrillers at original viewing. Yet in retrospect, the films have a depth and downright religiosity that comes through better over time. The use of the Ark of the Covenant and Nazis is an incredible idea Hitler himself wanting to steal the power of the Jews! Certainly no adventure epic, not even the novels of H. Ryder Haggard, had used such serious themes on which to base its life and death struggles of good versus evil. Indeed, as a London Daily Telegraph critic said when The Last Crusade came out, The wit, the action and the pounding pace that account for their prodigious box office success are underpinned by a surprisingly consistent and forceful morality.


Lucas and Spielberg confirm on the DVD that they developed the idea of an adventurous archeologist while vacationing in Hawaii.


Indiana Jones was inspired by Saturday afternoon serials from the past.


No CGI enhancements were used in the making of this DVD.

Famed in movie lore is how Spielberg joined Lucas in Hawaii, while Lucas tensely waited to hear the box office returns from Star Wars. When Lucas learned that the intake was staggering, his mood became light, and he turned his attention to new projects that he and Spielberg might work on together. Spielberg had always wanted to direct a James Bond film, yet had been refused the chance. (One can only think the Bond producers wanted to resist the distinctive stamp he would have put on the material.) But Lucas said he had something better than Bond: the tale of an archeologist who gets inveigled in supernatural adventures. Spielberg was fascinated, and the joint venture commenced.

But as Lucas points out in the bonus documentary, his idea to make a film influenced by Saturday afternoon serials had interested him for years. In the early 70s hed had two ideas for the setting of such a story: outer space and the jungle. He chose the outer space concept for himself, and went ahead with Star Wars, but the jungle adventure continued to intrigue him. So he worked on the script with filmmaker Philip Kaufman, who was fascinated by the possibilities of the story. Kaufman, an intellectual who would go on to direct The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June and Quills, suggested that the Ark of the Covenant should be the object of Indys quest. Penetrating interviews with Lawrence Kasdan reveal how he took Spielbergs, Lucas and Kaufmans ideas and molded them into the final script.

The Growing Impact Of The Trilogy

The style of the trilogy remains fiercely contemporary and will certainly gain a new generation of young fans, while causing fans of the original release to wonder where the time has gone. Lorne Peterson adds, Raiders is like the first Star Wars, it has a certain purity to it. One of the ways I describe both of those films is that you could almost see them blocked out on the screen; theyre simpler shapes, almost like a comic book in a way, and its not this layer after layer of things. Michael McAlister, effects cameraman on the trilogy, sums up the appeal of the films, noting that the trilogy is not a time dependent story. Its an adventure that captures peoples imagination no matter what generation theyre from, and the visual effects fit into that story and support it.

Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.