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Old 03-19-2010, 01:08 PM
Broomstick Broomstick is offline
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Wire Flying in Theater and Movies

I recently waxed extremely nostalgic over an old movie with a scene where an actor portrays a marionette which starts around 2:18 in this video clip. This has led me to wonder about the use of "wires" in movies, TV, and theater. So, a few questions:

1) These days I know there are all sorts of sophisticated computer tricks and editing software that, presumably, deals with hiding the wires on the finished product, but how was this handled pre-1970? I know they had green/blue screens which probably worked for some situations, but probably not all. I suppose in some instances background scenery or costumes might minimize the look of wires, but I recall in the past where sometimes you'd see the wires supporting the actor. I'm curious how this was handled over time.

2) How dangerous is this sort of stunt? Clearly, that depends somewhat on how high you go - in the scene in the movie that prompted this question the actor doesn't travel very high off the ground, it's used more to support him at times he overbalances and would have fallen without the wire. In other productions I've seen actors "flying" quite high, certainly high enough to be a serious injury or worse if they fell.

3) I assume some version of these are still used - presumably today's version is better than the originals.

4) Didn't Liberace used to do this sort of flying about the stage in the later part of his career? (I guess after awhile extravagant costumes alone weren't cutting it - actually, he was a damn fine piano player, too)
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Old 03-19-2010, 01:38 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
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On stage, there was (and still is) Flying by Foy. Their web page gives samples of their work. They've been doing theatrical flying on Broadway for over 50 years as well as many film flying effects.

Because of the distance between the audience and the "flying" performer (and most flying effect have the performer toward the back of the stage), the audience doesn't see the wire. I saw Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan about a decade ago, and you generally couldn't see the wires. I doubt the technique has changed much, other than maybe they've come up with thinner wires.

(Of course, there were other potential problems. I remember seeing It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman on Broadway. The wires were hard to see, but we did notice that in one scene a hand came out from behind the scenery to attach a hook onto Superman's back and watching him position himself so they could reach.)

The wires could be hidden on film by lighting and camera angles. No one messed with them post-production.

Dangerous? Sure, they could be. But generally the crew tested the equipment rigorously before each performance to prevent problems. One of the reasons why Flying by Foy is used is that their equipment is known to be very dependable.
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Last edited by RealityChuck; 03-19-2010 at 01:39 PM..
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Old 03-19-2010, 02:08 PM
aceplace57 aceplace57 is offline
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The fly system is generally used for backdrops, curtains, and set pieces.
The college I attended had a theater built in the 1970's. The theater dept had to spend a lot getting all the rotten ropes replaced. The stage hand operating the ropes has to have good training. Someone could get hurt if it's not used properly.

I was on the lighting crew. We'd lower the pipe batten to the floor and attach our lights. Sure beat climbing. One time, our director didn't like one of the gel colors. We had to work until 1am replacing them
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fly_system

Last edited by aceplace57; 03-19-2010 at 02:10 PM..
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Old 03-19-2010, 02:35 PM
blondebear blondebear is online now
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Originally Posted by aceplace57 View Post
The stage hand operating the ropes has to have good training. Someone could get hurt if it's not used properly.
This issue comes into play in the hilarious This American Life story, "Opening Night". Link to the episode Fiasco!

Last edited by blondebear; 03-19-2010 at 02:37 PM..
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Old 03-19-2010, 02:50 PM
Zsofia Zsofia is offline
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Originally Posted by blondebear View Post
This issue comes into play in the hilarious This American Life story, "Opening Night". Link to the episode Fiasco!
Damn it, that's what I came in here to tell you! It's one of the funniest things I've ever heard. "As if a miracle had occurred!"
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Old 03-19-2010, 03:58 PM
Broomstick Broomstick is offline
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Funny, that link does not work for me....
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Old 03-19-2010, 04:31 PM
misling misling is offline
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On several of the commentary "extras" on recent Doctor Who episodes, the actors and techs or various types describe wire work used in the show. The actors mostly comment that 1. it's fun at first, and 2. it's painful rather soon, because of the harnesses used. The techs mention mostly that it wrecks the costumes. Often the wire work is done against a green screen in order to put, say, sky behind it, but they made no mention of having to edit out the wires. I think they would have mentioned it. There're a lot of tech geeks working on that show.
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Old 03-19-2010, 04:44 PM
blondebear blondebear is online now
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Originally Posted by Broomstick View Post
Funny, that link does not work for me....
That's strange. It doesn't seem to work as a link for some reason. I guess you can try to cut and paste it instead:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/61/Fiasco%21

Last edited by blondebear; 03-19-2010 at 04:46 PM..
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Old 03-19-2010, 04:57 PM
Apex Rogers Apex Rogers is offline
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Originally Posted by blondebear View Post
That's strange. It doesn't seem to work as a link for some reason. I guess you can try to cut and paste it instead:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radi...e/61/Fiasco%21
Here's a clickable link.
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Old 03-19-2010, 05:07 PM
blondebear blondebear is online now
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Now that we've got my broken link problem cleared up...

The music video for The Eels' Novocaine for the Soul (find your own link! ) features Mark and Co. doing a lot of flying around in an alleyway. He said it was both very expensive and, as noted, very painful to have to hang in those harnesses for hours on end.

Last edited by blondebear; 03-19-2010 at 05:08 PM..
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  #11  
Old 03-20-2010, 11:52 AM
rfinkels rfinkels is offline
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Answers to the original question

Hi. I work from time to time with Flying by Foy, (as mentioned in the posts below), and I can shed some light on the original questions:

Quoting

1) These days I know there are all sorts of sophisticated computer tricks and editing software that, presumably, deals with hiding the wires on the finished product, but how was this handled pre-1970? I know they had green/blue screens which probably worked for some situations, but probably not all. I suppose in some instances background scenery or costumes might minimize the look of wires, but I recall in the past where sometimes you'd see the wires supporting the actor. I'm curious how this was handled over time.

Answer:

You are very perceptive and right in your guesses. Besides Green and Blue screens, one of the great innovations was the Yellow, Sodium light screen system. This was used in the film "Mary Poppins". An advantage of the Yellow screen system is that yellow, being in the middle of the visual spectrum, allowed for images with far less fringing than when other colors were used. While yellow is used in costumes and there is lots of yellow in skin, the Sodium process got around this as sodium light is not just yellow, but a single dominant wavelength of yellow, with a dimmer secondary wavelength, while most colors we perceive as yellow have a large range of yellow-like wavelengths.

As to hiding the wires, you are correct, until rather recently there was no easy way to fully hide wires until digital processes. However the lighting makes all the difference in the world. I designed a show with the Foys that went to Russia. The wires were absolutely invisible even while on the stage with the flying actor. Meanwhile the very same equipment and wires were used in a Broadway production and they were terribly visible. The variable is not the wires but the lighting.

Background too can be a mitigating factor and the best designers know how to use this fact. It's not an accident that so many magicians use "glame" type shimmering curtains behind their act.

Indeed as you perceived, on film, some times these techniques could hide wires entirely, but usually not. Perception gets clouded though when these films were transferred to lower resolution VHS tape and much lower web video. I didn't see wires in the Chitty Babg Bang Music box doll sequence as shown on Youtube but I likely COULD have seen wires fleetingly in the real film as shown in a theatre on a big screen.

By the way, though, editing and cropping is used creatively in the clip too. The wires would have only been used for the exact moment of the little suspension actions and the sequence would have been shot again without the wires, so the wires would only be in the shot at all for a few fractions of seconds.

The Foy's did not do the film but did the magnificent flying car flights for the Broadway production. Same with Mary Poppins. The Foys did not do the film but do provide the flight sequences on Broadway.

As to Mary Poppins, if you look carefully at the actual film on the big screen you can see the wires but all sorts of tricks are deployed to throw you off guard. My favorite such sequence is the teaparty on the ceiling sequence. When they first raise up, it looks like the liftt is from below and there is also close cropping. When they spin around this is clearly a sodium composite....the give away is that the performers are not casting shadows on the walls....but the cool one is when they are bouncing on the ceiling. Where could the wires be? Simple, these shots are upside down. Once you know this you can see the wires but they are thus BELOW the performers! One last caveat. I know that Mary Poppins has been "restored" so it may be that they did some later work digitally but it was fun when I discovered the wires below the performers.

Quoting:

2) How dangerous is this sort of stunt? Clearly, that depends somewhat on how high you go - in the scene in the movie that prompted this question the actor doesn't travel very high off the ground, it's used more to support him at times he overbalances and would have fallen without the wire. In other productions I've seen actors "flying" quite high, certainly high enough to be a serious injury or worse if they fell.

Answer:

In competent trained hands, and by "trained" I mean the very few companies that regularly SPECIALIZE in flying humans, flying is VERY safe though accidents have hapenned. The problem is that the physics is somewhat simple and many people with general rigging training try to fly performers themselves and this is where people have been hurt or killed. You may remember the story a few years back of a church "angel" falling onto cement and being killed. The flight then seemed to be by a local university theatre rigger and the gear seems to have been climbing gear. Flying on stage safely requires specific advanced understanding of that art form which is not the same as rigging used for climbing, or rescues. There are also differences between the rigging used in film from that used on stage.

Height has less to do with safety as even a rather low fall could kill, so safety comes from other aspects such as true knowledge of this specialized type of flying, proper rated and tested equipment and components, redundant systems, training of the flyers and the performers, specific flight sequence choreography, etc.

Quoting:

3) I assume some version of these are still used - presumably today's version is better than the originals.

Answer:

Indeed much is the very same....sometime the old effects actually LOOK better as they were often less safe than what would be tolerated today. There is more automation today but this process began with Foy flying for the Ice Papades back in the 1960s. Modern automation allows for all sorts of fun sequences, but as is the case with other computer systems it takes a LOT of work to keep the computer effects from looking like computer effects!

Question:

4) Didn't Liberace used to do this sort of flying about the stage in the later part of his career? (I guess after awhile extravagant costumes alone weren't cutting it - actually, he was a damn fine piano player, too)

Answer:

Indeed that was a Foy job, and Liberace handled it so wonderfully. He would often wait till the curtain call to take the flight. So as extravagant as his costumes were this was the last surprise in the production as if to tell the audience "you ain't seen nothing yet". There was also some humor in his flight line. He would come out on stage to take his bow, but then take off, flying over the piano. I've heard two lines reported: "Peter Pan eat your heart out" and a similar line substituting "Mary Poppins"

I hope that this answers your questions
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Old 03-20-2010, 12:40 PM
Broomstick Broomstick is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rfinkels View Post
Indeed as you perceived, on film, some times these techniques could hide wires entirely, but usually not. Perception gets clouded though when these films were transferred to lower resolution VHS tape and much lower web video. I didn't see wires in the Chitty Babg Bang Music box doll sequence as shown on Youtube but I likely COULD have seen wires fleetingly in the real film as shown in a theatre on a big screen.
Do remember that a clip on YouTube may have come from a digitally retouched copy of the movie, too, that might have had all trace of the wires edited out. The VHS copy I got from my parents has definitely been redone - no unretouched movie from that long ago looks that good. I couldn't see any sign of the wires on that tape, though as you point out that could be in part an artifact of lower resolution VHS. I don't know for sure if DVD copies have the wires edited out but it wouldn't surprise me a bit.

IMDB reports that wires could be seen in the theatrical release if you were looking for them. Of course, the filmmaker is relying in part on willing suspension of disbelief, and keeping the focus on the actor rather than the background. People tend to see what they're expecting to see, and ignore everything else. No doubt that was also used in the past (and still sometimes in the present.)

Quote:
By the way, though, editing and cropping is used creatively in the clip too. The wires would have only been used for the exact moment of the little suspension actions and the sequence would have been shot again without the wires, so the wires would only be in the shot at all for a few fractions of seconds.
Yes, I noticed that as well - at certain points it would be easy to cut away. Then, on the close ups that don't require a wire, he can spin to show "look! no wires!"

Of course, after watching it a few times looking for wires I noticed a major continuity error - through much of the marionette dance the music box dancer should have been visible, and she isn't. Again, though, it's not likely to be noted on the first viewing with the focus on the male actor. It's easy to miss that the background changed in that manner.

Quote:
Height has less to do with safety as even a rather low fall could kill, so safety comes from other aspects such as true knowledge of this specialized type of flying, proper rated and tested equipment and components, redundant systems, training of the flyers and the performers, specific flight sequence choreography, etc.
Yes - it's not so much the height or speed but the force of impact. You get a performer swinging out of control and it can take surprisingly little force or height to result in a bad occurrence.

I would expect that improper harness could also result in injury, either an abrupt one, or one caused by chafing or blood flow restriction over time.

Quote:
I hope that this answers your questions
Mostly
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  #13  
Old 03-20-2010, 01:48 PM
Hello Again Hello Again is offline
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Originally Posted by Apex Rogers View Post
I've listen to that piece about 5-6 times and every time it makes me weep with laughter. It should be required listening for anyone involved with the theatre.

The use of hoists goes back to the Greek theatre, the phrase "deus ex machina" means "the gods by machine" because some Greek plays ended with the Gods descending from the heavens and fixing everything. The "machine" refers to the block & tackle counterweight system that was use to lower them from the sky, which is not terribly different in concept from "fly" systems used today.

Of course you could see the ropes etc. back then, people just ignored them -- suspension of disbelief was a part of the Greek theater as well as the modern one.
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Old 03-20-2010, 03:12 PM
DooWahDiddy DooWahDiddy is offline
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Some illustrations of what can happen when that stuff goes wrong:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osA40cgUX4c

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_kx3...layer_embedded

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQya_JZpsFw
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Old 03-20-2010, 04:19 PM
Broomstick Broomstick is offline
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Is it something about Peter Pan that makes it prone to disaster? Other than requiring lots of flying? (I suppose that's enough)
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Old 03-20-2010, 05:49 PM
DooWahDiddy DooWahDiddy is offline
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Yeah, I think because of the nature of the show, you get a lot of community theatres interested in doing it, but they get in over their heads with the flying.
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Old 03-20-2010, 06:00 PM
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All I can say is I saw a professional touring company of Peter Pan in a professional theater when I was a kid, and the wires were glaringly obvious even from the back of the theater. I could tell which scenes would include flying (wires showed before they left the ground) and which would not (the actors wouldn't be hooked up). Besides, it's not flying, it's just swinging back and forth from a pivot point, just what I used to do on the playground swings. Flying, my ass; I want my money back.

Yes, I was a tough 5 year old to deal with. And Santa Claus made no sense, either.
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Old 03-20-2010, 06:56 PM
rfinkels rfinkels is offline
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Quote: All I can say is I saw a professional touring company of Peter Pan in a professional theater when I was a kid, and the wires were glaringly obvious even from the back of the theater. I could tell which scenes would include flying (wires showed before they left the ground) and which would not (the actors wouldn't be hooked up). Besides, it's not flying, it's just swinging back and forth from a pivot point, just what I used to do on the playground swings. Flying, my ass; I want my money back.
=============

ANSWER: Alas, such productions do great damage to the art. I'll repeat, when we did Peter Pan in Russia in 1989, the wires were 100% totally invisible....and this very same equipment was used in the next Broadway production, the one you likely saw! The visibility issue was 100% in the lighting and yet it was easy to blame the flying. In theatre and film alike any one artist can destroy the work of another. The fact that the very same flying equipment was used in these two productions with totally different results shows that the actual problem comes from elsewhere.

As to flying just being a pendulum swing, this hasn't really been true since Jean Arthur and then Mary Martin's 1954 Broadway Peter Pan, and today some very exciting automated systems are brought to bear. Did you see Foy's flying at the opening of the 2004 Athens Olympics? I don't know who did the flying at this winter's Vancouver games (it was NOT Foy) but that flying too shows how far the art has come.

Indeed though, in the restrictive Petr Pan nursery set, it would be tough to work in the "impressive" type of flying effects we have come used to from the likes of Cirque shows. Catch American Idiot on Broadway when it opens. There's a lot of automation in the flying there and I bet most of you will love it.
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Old 03-20-2010, 09:55 PM
Musicat Musicat is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rfinkels View Post
As to flying just being a pendulum swing, this hasn't really been true since Jean Arthur and then Mary Martin's 1954 Broadway Peter Pan...
Which is most likely the show I saw (I kid you not). So things have improved?
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Old 03-21-2010, 10:36 AM
rfinkels rfinkels is offline
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Which is most likely the show I saw (I kid you not). So things have improved?
This is a great thread, straight forward and honest (rare on such forums) so I'll be honest too.... "So things have improved?"......Yes and no. The technology has vastly improved but even here, the most complex of the technology you would see only at the high end productions like in a Cirque du Soleil show or Radio City or in some of the Broadway shows.

Artistic levels are also mixed. In SOME productions (like in life) the state of the art too is much improved, while in other productions, especially in schools, not so much,

We have more athleticism and training in the performers though and when this is the case this too is a huge advance. There was Cathy Rigby's entrance into the ranks of great Peters, but also recently the amazing man who flew at the Vancouver Olympics opening games. Black Eyed Peas too fly around on air-surf boards and that too is magnificent.

So the art has indeed moved forward but individual examples do not always demonstrate this.

In the case of Peter Pan on stage, the initial "limitation" comes from the work itself. The play and musicals are rather delicate sensitive stories for which tradition holds value. Peter Pan on stage is NOT Cirque du Soleil. Film adaptations have much more latitude in what can be done interpretatively.

If someone goes to Peter Pan to be "impressed by flying" I would think they have gone to the wrong show. That's not what Peter Pan is about.

However we are in the era of Pulp Fiction and MTV where audiences have shorter attention spans made shorter every day by the .1sec edits of modern pop movies. Audiences cry out "Impress me". It's like an arms race; a catch 22 and I don't personally know where the special effects arms race will lead.

So yes the tools at hand are improved, the artistry level is mixed, some shows are more limited by tradition, others are "flashy" but the standards of what constitutes "flashy" keep moving farther away.
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Old 03-21-2010, 02:41 PM
Broomstick Broomstick is offline
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It occurred to me, getting back to the marionette sequence that started this whole thread, that it is, ironically, followed up by a scene in which an Evil Baron is very, very deliberately hoisted into the air with a very, very obvious hook and cable system - which, probably, was attached to a harness identical to the one used by the actor where they did their best to minimize the wires. A rare case where thy didn't want to hide the hoisting mechanism.
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Old 03-21-2010, 03:00 PM
gaffa gaffa is offline
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I'm a big fan of the "wire work" done in Chinese wu xia films including Tsui Hark's work with Tony Ching Siu-tung and especially Yuen Wo-ping's brilliant team who were responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
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