With an Eye on the Past, Present, and Future
Filmmakers are magicians. Their job is to use light, smoke, and misdirection to convince your brain you saw something you know can't possibly be true. And yet you believe it all the same.
If you're like us, you can't help peeking behind the curtain to see how it's all done. After taking the Close Encounters backstage tour, we learned that its production was a pivot point in the history of Hollywood magic. The film uses the practical effects of its predecessors while its production crew devised new methods to enhance those techniques.
Those effects still look darn good today. The filmmakers also had their eyes on the future and experimented with filmmaking techniques that would eventually become commonplace but that were unheard of at the time.
Like classic Hollywood films, CE3K didn't use computers to achieve its otherworldly imagery. Instead, the filmmakers had to rely on using physical objects, like model spaceships and Christmas lights, and manipulate them convincingly with a camera. These are called practical effects.
A good example of practical effects is when Roy first encounters a UFO. In this scene, the objects in his truck begin to lift as though affected by an anti-gravity device. To achieve this, the filmmakers simply attached the truck to a pivoted support device and flipped it while keeping the camera locked down. All the loose objects were really falling downward, but our eyes believe the truck is still right-side up, making the objects appear to fly upward. (Source)
Our favorite practical effect is the eerie, supernatural cloud cover hiding the mother ship as it descends on Jillian's house and Devils Tower. To achieve the effect, Visual Effects guy Scott Squires filled a clear tank with water, salt water on the bottom half and fresh water on the top.
He then poured paint into the tank, which billowed like moving clouds. But since salt water is denser than fresh water, the paint didn't spread throughout the tank and stayed on the top half. When this shot was composited later, it ensured the "clouds" stayed at the top of the frame where they belonged. Science. (Source)
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gave the aliens their fuzzy, otherworldly appearance by deliberately overexposing the shots. The producer thought he'd made a mistake, and sent the film back for reprocessing, which gave the viewer a very clear picture of the children in obviously fake rubber alien suits. Zsigmond sent the film back again, and problem solved. (Source)
Go Big or Go Home
Close Encounters also used a sound stage, which is totally classic Hollywood. The alien landing site, despite how vast it looks, is actually a sound stage. Since inclement weather would have made filming impossible, the filmmakers had to find an indoor location they could convincingly dress up as a Wyoming state park. Hard-pressed to find a Hollywood sound stage large enough, they had to make their own.
They found an old hangar in Mobile, Alabama, that was used to make WWII dirigibles back in the day. The arc lights necessary for the effects Spielberg wanted made the hangar unbearably hot. When even the hangar wasn't large enough, they had to open the doors and build the rest of the set outside. By the end of construction, it was the largest set ever built at that time. (Source)
Days of Future Past
Perhaps not too surprising for a science fiction film, the filmmakers of CE3K were also looking toward the future of movie techniques. One cutting-edge technique, which was also used in Star Wars, was electronic motion control. In this process, a computer controls the motion of a camera, so that the precise camera motion could be duplicated in another scene. This allowed the effects team to make composite shots where the live action and the filming of superimposed effects (like miniature models of spacecraft) meshed perfectly. (Source)
The effects team also created some of the first computer graphic imagery (CGI) for a major motion picture. But don't strain your eyes looking for CGI UFOs in the film; they aren't there. Visual effects guy Colin Cantwell tried using computers to illustrate UFOs over a stadium, but the shot took three weeks and proved so expensive that the idea was scratched. (Source) Columbia was already in a meltdown about the mounting cost of the film and the filmmakers didn't want to push it.
Still, the film showed Spielberg the potential of using CGI in film. More than a decade later, he'd return to and revolutionize computer graphics with Jurassic Park. Close Encounters' early experiments prove an interesting footnote in the history of cinematic magic.