Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future turns 30 in 2015, which sounds impossible, but even at the three decade mark it’s aged incredibly well and totally holds up to repeat viewings, while still serving as an artifact of the time. Part of why is maintains its integrity is because it’s just a sound, fundamentally strong film, all the way down to the bare mechanics. A short new documentary takes part of this, the opening shot, and breaks it down into its parts.
Jamie Benning has made his short, making-of “filmumentaries” for a while, and has covered the likes of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars, and he recently turned his attention to BttF. In this video, he talks to special effects supervisor Kevin Pike, and listens to him tell the story of how this one, single, long take came into existence.
On the surface, when you watch it, the shot seems like a relatively simple affair, right? But it’s definitely not, not at all. There are a ton of moving parts, both literally as well as figuratively, and in order to make this work, there needed to be a great many hands in play. The shot begins by panning over dozens of clocks, all of which needed to work, or at least appear to work, in unison. Not always easy take after take. After that, the frame moves across newspaper headlines, toast burning in the toaster, the TV news report talking about the stolen plutonium, and the Rube Goldberg-esque dog food opening machine (they actually built one, which is my worst nightmare because then my dogs wouldn’t need me to feed them anymore and would probably “send me to the farm”), and eventually Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) comes in.
It’s a fantastic way to open a film, and this one shot that only lasts a couple of minutes does an incredible amount of heavy lifting, setting the stage for the entire movie. It looks easy, and odds are you don’t even notice what it’s doing as it is happening, but Zemeckis and company get so much narrative work out of this introduction, what with the foreshadowing and introducing numerous threads that unspool throughout the remainder of the film.
There are a ton of things planned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future, but one of the coolest has to be Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future Experience, which is coming to Los Angeles next year. Not only will they show the film itself, but when they set this up in England, it included an extensive recreation of the fictional town of Hill Valley from the film, complete with hundreds of extras and dozens of working shops. Experience is definitely the right word.