History in the remaking

Published July 28, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks' latest hit, is raising one big question: How'd they do it?

The it is the technical breakthrough that enabled director Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future) to incorporate archival footage filmed three decades ago so that _ surprise! _ isn't that Tom Hanks up there on the screen as Forrest Gump? And he's chatting with historical figures who died long before Forrest Gump was a lump in the throat of anyone who has shed a tear at the story of the sweet man of modest intelligence who becomes a football star, a war hero, a Ping-Pong champion and, along the way, a millionaire.

Like Woody Allen's character in Zelig, only more effectively, Forrest Gump shows up in newsreel and television footage. There he is showing President Johnson a wound on his derriere, and standing next to George Wallace the day blacks were barred from the University of Alabama, and laughing with John Lennon and asking John Kennedy in the Oval Office for directions to the men's room, and accepting Richard Nixon's advice that the best hotel in Washington is _ what else? _ the Watergate.

Humor aside, the appearance of Hanks in historical footage gives Forrest Gump an eerie psychological realism.

The voice of President Kennedy, for example, sounds flawless. Movements of his lips match lines written for him in the script of Forrest Gump, and the scene is woven so deftly that Kennedy and Hanks appear to be not only in precisely the same film, but also in precisely the same frames.

What's going on in this latest example of hyper-cyber-cinema?

For technical wizardry, credit Zemeckis, whom Hanks describes as a "techno-weenie;" special-effects supervisor Ken Ralston; and Industrial Light & Magic, whose high jinks are not limited, by the way, to inserting Gump into archival footage.

Gump's razzle-dazzle at Ping-Pong is the result of computer-generated illusion. So is the image of his commanding officer from Vietnam (Gary Sinise), whose appearance as a beggar is made agonizingly realistic through computer manipulation that makes him seem legless. What stuns audiences is the zigzag between reality and image.

Take the scene in which Kennedy meets Gump and fellow football players in the Oval Office.

The challenge was to match footage of Gump and the football players to each cut in the archival sequence _ not each scene, each cut.

The goal, as Ralston says, was to blend Gump's image to every shadow, every scratch, every moment of the corresponding cuts in the archival sequence. The choreography and lighting had to match perfectly.

Editing was further complicated by the fact that much of the 16mm archival footage shot during the 1960s was the work of amateurs with hand-held cameras and, as a result, it is unsteady. The film of Gump, therefore, had to be shot with hand-held cameras on the same type of film.

The editing was painstaking.

Archival film that showed Kennedy shaking hands with Peace Corps volunteers in the Oval Office was edited by computer so as to eliminate the Peace Corps volunteers and isolate Kennedy's image. Hanks and other actors, including the voice-double for Kennedy, were meticulously choreographed through each move that had been made by the Peace Corps volunteers in the original archival sequence. The scene was then shot by a camera called Vista Vision, which produces oversized negatives that permit technicians to maintain a high-quality product while manipulating elements of a scene by computer. In postproduction, by means of computer digitizing, the image of Kennedy was blended with fresh film of Forrest Gump. An actor speaking for Kennedy was filmed with dialogue later broken down and computer-digitized into syllables, with JFK's mouth altered so that the actor's voice matched movements of the lips in the image.

What about blurring reality and image? What about technology that not only enhances reality, but creates it, or at least the illusion? And is truth endangered when directors can manipulate images even in so-called documentaries so that historical characters say and do things they never said or did?

"Good questions," said George Murphy, supervisor of computer graphics at Industrial Light & Magic.

"In the past, with photographs, you could retouch in a way that was difficult to tell. With moving pictures, it's been more difficult, and that has made people more comfortable. But even that can be manipulated so that you can no longer trust it.

"In Forrest Gump, our manipulation of history was gentle and innocent. We didn't change political views or do anything malicious. What it does show, however, is the potential to do extreme things.

"In films, people have always assumed images are created. On the other hand, when it comes to documentaries and archival footage, people have a presumed trust. Now, we can no longer presume truth, and to a greater extent now, you have to trust the integrity of the photographer.

"Now we can no longer take any images for granted, and in a way, that's good, because images for a long time have had the potential to mislead."

Although the process takes months of work and requires computers with more memory and speed than are now common, says Murphy, at some point, the technology will be available to amateurs and who knows? Home movies of the future may incorporate hard-to-resist footage of Dad dancing with Natalie Wood, Mom sipping wine with Clark Gable and the kids shaking hands with, say, Woodrow Wilson.