Monster Kid Online Magazine #7
Although monster battles were officially Ray Harryhausen’s department, the other makers of The 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD faced their own monster-sized challenges while filming the live-action footage for the famous fantasy film. Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper and director Nathan Juran recall the difficulties of shooting the movie on a low budget, a tight schedule and on location in Spain.
Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer screened several films in their search for a suitable director of photography…
After they screened The Admirable Crichton, Ray and Charles knew they had found their man. [cinematographer] Wilkie Cooper continues: “Columbia said, ‘We have a nice little story for you to do. A producer called Charles Schneer is coming over, it’s going to be shot in Spain, you've got three weeks and here’s the script.’ So I read it, and I was thinking that this was a major film like The Thief of Bagdad that I had worked on at Denham.”
To introduce the type of work he and Ray were doing, Charles Schneer ran 20 Million Miles to Earth for Cooper. From this, Cooper could see what was required of him and some of the problems he would face. But not all. Cooper flew out to Spain with Schneer and was to learn quickly the cold reality of working on a tightly-budgeted film.
“I met Charles Schneer at London Airport and when we took our seats on the plane I told him that the three week location schedule for all the great castles, the Alhambra and all the different Arabic settings would be no problem. He then told me we were shooting the whole film in three weeks! I told him it took about six months to shoot The Thief of Bagdad! When we arrived in Barcelona, Ray was waiting for us. There was this lovely, lanky bloke who I could see at once was a very kindly person. The first issue was how we were going to do everything in three weeks. We met production supervisor Luis Roberts and his first words were none too encouraging. [The Spanish at the time were not yet equipped to deal with foreign film crews.] He said that there wasn’t any equipment, no lights, no electricals, nothing. I asked about the cameras, and they said they had two coming over from Los Angeles. We only had about three weeks before we were due to begin shooting so we had plenty to sort out. They sent us two production cameras but when they arrived we found they had been damaged. We sent them off to Technicolor® in London and they told us that one was a complete write-off but they would patch the other up for us to work with. So I said, how can we do this film? We’ve got no lamps, no generators and we’re going to be working with a mostly foreign crew. This is probably why Ray and I got on so well as we seemed to be the only two that understood anything about this, because I had worked on special effects as well as photographing dozens of films.”
With the problems mounting, Wilkie Cooper and the crew had probably their only stroke of luck. “Luis Roberts told me that a Paramount film had been shooting there, but the company had gone into liquidation, leaving all their equipment in storage. We went to this warehouse in Barcelona and, looking down the list, we saw they had everything we needed and it would all cost about £20,000. Roberts told us that they didn’t manufacture any of these things in Spain so all this material was worth a fortune. Charles, who ordinarily doesn't like to spend a penny, suddenly said, ‘You can have all this’ because he realized that this stuff would be good for two or three more pictures. He was going to sell them off to the Spanish at the end of shooting to cover the cost of our studio rental and everything else. This film was going to be made for farthings.”
Shooting on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad commenced in the beautiful Palace of Alhambra in Granada, a setting straight out of a fairy tale. The production was permitted to use the palace grounds in the daylight hours and the volume of tourists meant all interior shots had to be filmed at night [filming is no longer allowed there because of damage caused by subsequent film crews]. The pool, entrance porch and noble hall of the house-palace called “The Tower of Prince Ismail” (or “Tower of the Ladies” since the 19th century) was first seen in the romantic scene between Sinbad and Parisa, soon joined by Sokurah who presents his plans for the giant crossbow. This location was redressed and shot at night for the crowded palace scenes in which Parisa and her father arrive to join the Caliph. The courtyard backed by the Towers of Alcazaba served as the prison yard in which Sinbad recruits his crew (the panoramic view of Bagdad that opens that section of the film is a stock matte painting optical, but with a new title overlay in order to be consistent with the lettering style seen in the opening and end titles).
The wonderful Moorish architecture instilled the feeling of being in another time, and director Nathan Juran eloquently expressed what others must have felt: “In the late afternoon, while we were waiting for the last of the tourists to leave, we would sit out on the great terrace of the Alhambra Palace with the city of Granada spread out below us and watch the lights blink on in the fading twilight. We listened to the peal of distant church bells and the sounds of braying donkeys and barking dogs, all blended into a distant musical melange that whispered of Moorish mysticism.”
However, the start of the live action filming proved to be a frustrating and incident-ridden time for the crew. Wilkie Cooper found he had to use the new Kodak stock and his ability and expertise would be put to the test. “Fortunately, I did the first single-strip Technicolor® picture, Our Girl Friday (1953) with George Minter, and we had a lot of trouble with this stock. Luckily, I was hitting it pretty well, although we weren’t seeing any rushes since the negative was being sent back to Technicolor® in London. They were a good laboratory and were used to the single strip. We had been working with the three-strip Technicolor® for years and that was a wonderful process and you couldn’t go wrong with it. I had to shoot 7th Voyage like a pantomime because I never had enough light, even with the generators. So I put a patch of color on some people, and that would register. That was the only way I could see it visually being done. But it became serious in the end, quite a lot of drama.”
But the stock wasn’t the only problem. After the first day of shooting at the Alhambra, it was discovered that through a fault in one of the cameras all the shots were out of focus. On top of that, inside the Alhambra there were no electric lights, necessitating the use of generators and only ten minutes into night filming the lights failed. Wilkie Cooper recalled that “on our first night at the Alhambra Palace, the Spanish were rushing about like mad, they were trying very hard, but they forgot everything including the fuel for the generators. We were already a day behind and we hadn’t even started. I had read the script and so I looked around the place and suggested areas to shoot various scenes, and so we worked all day and all night. It was like being on a giant commando raid. We were gradually developing Spain into a picture company, and all the people were very keen, but they had no experience. Within five or six pictures, they were the top men in Spain.
“Eventually, I had to sit down with a secretary and write down everything we needed to get us through, to bring us up to even a second class unit. I rang Jack Fear in Los Angeles. He was the production manager at Columbia on Gower Street. I said, ‘I’m in a bit of a spot here– for God’s sake, send me an English gaffer [chief lighting technician working directly under the cinematographer] and one electrician! He asked who was my gaffer in England, and I told him Maurice Gillette, who had done five pictures with me and was a first-class man. Maurice’s command of Spanish was as good as mine, a few odd words. He would shout at the blokes, ‘Plug in that cable and don’t blow yourself up!’
Well, we were due to start on Monday and I went back to Madrid. On Sunday night, I was due to fly down to Granada with Kerwin Mathews, Katie Grant and Torin Thatcher when I got word that Maurice was in Madrid and that they’d got a sound man in. The sound man was Terry Cotter. Now, his equipment never worked and he was always in a panic. I was in a worse panic because we were going to work night and day, night and day”.
When the unit moved on to Majorca, a net broke while unloading equipment from the ship and a number of lights were damaged. Cooper also vividly remembered, “Another disastrous thing that happened in Majorca. We left our hotel very early, about three or four in the morning, and it was raining quite heavily. We had to shoot to keep on schedule and on budget. We set off with the camera crew and actors in one direction, but because of the language problem, the prop truck went to the other end of the island. We arrived at the location at Torrente de Pareis and realized what had happened. Charles was losing his temper and said, ‘We've gotta shoot something!’ Jerry Juran and I told him we had no props– how could we shoot without props? He said, ‘Make them!’ Jerry, Ray and I went off and found a wood pile and began cutting swords, daggers and other objects out of wood. Thankfully, they were all long shots. We managed to shoot five or six scenes in the rain so the day wasn’t totally wasted.”
Even the crew did not escape the misfortune dogging the production and, although everyone became ill at some stage, they all had to continue through their discomfort due to the exacting schedule.
Because of the tight schedule, they would often shoot throughout the night and Wilkie Cooper frequently required more lights than were available to him. Luckily, Stanley Kramer’s film The Pride and the Passion (1957) occupied the adjacent sound stage and, blessed with a decidedly higher budget, boasted better equipment. Cooper and his crew would often sneak onto the Kramer set during the night and “borrow” some lights, carefully replacing them before Kramer’s crew began work the next day.
An astute piece of negotiation gave the crew the use of the replica of Columbus’ ship, The Santa Maria, moored in Barcelona harbor. Although not authentic to Sinbad’s vessel, using it resulted in a substantial cost saving. The plan was to take the ship onto the open sea for several sequences, but it proved rather unstable. Nathan Juran explained that, “although it looked realistic, the ship was only meant for sight-seeing tours by tourists and had no keel. On our first trip out, we were hit by the wake of an incoming craft and nearly capsized. The Spanish Commodore in charge of the sailing ordered us back to port and bellowed, ‘This ship will never go to sea again,’ which meant all of the seagoing footage had to be shot with the ship securely moored in the harbor.”
One particularly uncomfortable episode was the shipboard storm sequence. An old aircraft propeller engine used for wind effects had no protective guard-cage and the unlucky operator was hit by one of the blades. Nathan Juran remembered how “the man backed into the machine and we all heard the blades hit him. He was flung forward and we feared the worst, but although it sliced up the back of his leather jacket, he was only in shock and otherwise unharmed. Even so, we sent him off to the hospital as a precaution.”
The Barcelona fire department, meanwhile, doused the ship with a constant stream of water. Unfortunately, instead of tapping into the city mains they pumped unfiltered water directly from the harbor and every bit of waste from ships was thrown fiercely onto the deck and into the actors’ faces. A crew stood by armed with buckets of clean water to throw over the actors during closeups. Nathan Juran described how “we mounted the camera on a gimbal to enable us to rock the camera in any direction. I had a white flag mounted on a stick and entrusted it to [stunt supervisor] Enzo Musumeci-Greco. His movement of the white flag was the key to the movement of the ship for the actors and the camera assistant charged with rocking the camera on its gimbal. The fire department also used the flag as their guide for timing the ‘spume’ and waves of water breaking over the deck as the ship’s bow plunged through the stormy seas. We rehearsed Sinbad and his sailors rolling and staggering across the deck as they followed the movement of Enzo’s flag. The prop men learned when to roll ‘loose objects’ across the deck in sync with the flag as well. When everyone knew his part and the camera had rehearsed its gimbal movements, we turned on the hoses and wind machine and shot what turned out to be a most convincing scene, better than we could have had out on the ocean.”
However, being moored also caused other problems, such as keeping the surrounding dock out of shot. Nathan Juran said that “the grips kept busy moving sails to hide adjacent vessels and overhead cables, yet to let the camera see every patch of blue sky possible. With the long shots out of the way, we concentrated on Sinbad’s torturous movements in his struggle to regain the helm in the wild and open sea, driven back by furious winds and waves, all on an unmoving deck tied to a hemmed-in dock.” It’s hard to believe that the ship is docked. During the mutiny, Kerwin Mathews plays the swashbuckling role to the fullest, climbing rope ladders and swinging down from the mast, and there’s nary a glimpse of anything to suggest that they are not in open sea.
Kerwin Mathews had been ill for a few days (he had swallowed some of the dirty sea water during the storm sequence) but left his sickbed to shoot the scene, and probably wished he hadn’t. He later brushed the episode aside: “Ray, Wilkie, Jerry, Charles and all their families were so incredibly kind to me in every way that I would have done anything for them. Truly, my memories are only of the good things that happened. After 35 years that is right, I think.”
The extras were recruited from surrounding dock workers, eager to appear in a film and not too worried with how much they were paid. Even the interpreter was dressed in a costume and told to hold the boom microphone high above his head to keep it out of shot.
The ship sequences were the last live action to be shot in Spain and Wilkie Cooper “will always remember at the end of production Maurice Gillette said to Charles Schneer, ‘There are two things in my life that I wouldn't have missed,’ he said. ‘One was Dunkirk [in World War II] –you know what happened to the British there– and the other was working on this film.’”
Even then the problems were not over. The sound recorded on location was not only unusable, but the notes taken by the script girl were written in Spanish shorthand and no one could read them. The quickest solution was to hire lip readers to transcribe the silent footage, then bring the cast into the recording studio and “loop” [re-record to picture] all the dialogue. The resulting dialogue tracks are acceptable for the most part, although a few sequences, such as the group scrambling back aboard ship after the first Cyclops encounter (with Sokurah exclaiming, “My lamp...! My lamp...!”) or the sailors forcing Golar to test the “poison” river, are a bit dodgy with regard to the post-sync looping. (Golar’s single line, “That’s right...!” is repeated three times in the film, amusing trivia oft-quoted by animation fans; it’s interesting to see that the line is handwritten into Nathan Juran’s script in all three places, a running gag apparently created by the director during filming.)
Most of the studio work was shot in the Seville Studios, Madrid. Insert shots of the swing across the chasm in Sokurah’s cave and the interior of the lamp were filmed in Hollywood, as well as all footage of Richard Eyer (the genie) in which his face is seen. Before returning to America, three days were spent at MGM at Elstree to shoot the traveling matte elements. This required building a few partial sets, such as the spit on which Harufa (Alfred Brown) is roasted by the Cyclops. The completed film would return to England for printing by Technicolor®/London. Thankfully, their lab work was more accurate than their advertising: In a full-page advertisement in the November, 1958, Kinematograph Weekly they proclaimed how proud they were to be entrusted with the processing and printing of “Sinbad the Sailor.”
While in England, Ray visited George Pal who was also at MGM filming tom thumb (1958). Ray later said, “George and I had always wanted to make a film together, but our busy working schedules meant that it just never happened.” We can only dream about the images these two masters of cinema fantasy might have brought to the screen.
Copyright © 2008 by Archive Editions LLC
Cover | Contents | Harryhausen | Filming 7th Voyage of Sinbad | Bama | The Cyclops
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