From Lilliput to Brobdingnag, via Soho: Gulliver's new travels
Ivan Waterman hears how hi-tech solved the problem of adapting Swift's classic for television
Sunday 17 March 1996
You can judge the results on television this Easter when Jonathan Swift's classic satire is screened by Channel 4, in a pounds 13m production directed by Charles Sturridge (of Brideshead Revisited) and produced by Duncan Kenworthy (of Four Weddings and a Funeral).
Although the film has a cast of famous names, the true stars may well turn out to be Henry and Inferno, two computers housed in the offices of the digital facilities company FrameStore in Soho, London. Both machines are responsible for the film's "matting" or "keying", the process by which figures can be superimposed onto pre-filmed material.
Over a period of 40 weeks, Henry, made by the British company Quantel, and the Canadian import Inferno were put to the test reducing and enlarging the image of the American actor Ted Danson, who played the barman in Cheers and who is now playing Dr Lemuel Gulliver among the the giants of Brobdingnag and the tiny people of Lilliput.
Danson spent almost all of his time perched in different positions in front of a blue backdrop in Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, acting his scenes out to invisible partners, before the sequences were inserted into the main body of the action.
Close to pounds lm was spent on the visual effects, and supervisor Tim Webber, a 31-year-old Oxford physics graduate and a director of FrameStore, feels jubilant. Working with a team of four, he was responsible for making Danson appear 50ft tall in Lilliput before shrinking him to 5in for his later escapades with the giants of Brobdingnag.
There were more than 450 effects shots in total. Bob Hoskins claimed he almost suffered a breakdown from stress after months starring with invisible Walt Disney cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Tim Webber said: "The actors are acting to nothing, and that is hard. Some actors do have a lot of trouble wlth this, but Ted Danson did a very good job working in this vacuum following commands from us. The trick is getting it perfect, down to the very last shadow blending in and matching colours."
Producer Duncan Kenworthy and writer Simon Moore have taken substantial licence with Swift's classic. Gulliver is locked in an asylum while a wicked Dr Bates attempts to have his way with Gulliver's wife, Mary, played by Danson's real-life spouse, Mary Steenburgen. Arizona-born Danson retains his natural accent, as does Steenburgen, and the hero of the tale is incarcerated throughout in Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) with his travels told in flashback to sceptical doctors. (Research showed Swift visited Bedlam.)
But Kenworthy, 46, believes they have stayed true to the spirit of the book, although heavy American funding and the lack of an appropriate British starforced them to search across the Atlantic for their Gulliver.
"I was hoping to get a British actor but there wasn't one, aside from maybe Patrick Stewart who is known to the Americans through Star Trek. Over there, if you are a television actor you are a television actor. So even if I'd got Daniel Day Lewis it wouldn't have mattered."
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